Defence Equipped Merchant Ship

Arming a merchantman. From the outset of war, all Merchant ships were defensively armed as soon as possible
with an all purpose gun mounted in the stern. 150.000 civilian seamen were trained on the guns, Calum, below, was one of them.

Calum McLean Seaman Gunner SS Laurelwood'sstory.php

Remains of a German Aircraft shot down by a DEMS Gunner, crashing on the deck of the coastal steamer Highlander.
Note the armed guard to the right hand side, presumably to stop souvenir hunters?

Friday 2nd August 1940. British pluck combined with readiness for instant action has never been better illustrated than by the stirring narrative of the coastal steamer Highlander, of 1,220 tons. Incidentally, it set up two records, one of which is likely to stand unchallenged, for her master, bringing his vessel safely into port, brought with him all that remained of a German aircraft (Heinkel He-115) which was still lying where it fell on the ship’s stern. Captain William Giflord was the particular hero of the exploit. The Highlander was passing along the East Coast, about three and a half miles from land, just before mid night, when the sound of a ‘plane flying low was heard. This might have been British, as at first was thought, but the master was taking no chances. The ship’s two light guns were manned and speed increased. In a few minutes the ‘plane disclosed its nationality. Machine-gun bullets swept the steamer’s superstructure, riddling the funnel and deck fittings and piercing the side. There were no casualties. The ‘plane passed astern, circled, and then returned for a second attack, at still closer range. The Highlander opened fire upon the attacker as he came on, and probably a shot reached the pilot, for the ‘plane collided with the ship’s port lifeboat, twisted round after the contact, and crashed over her stern. A couple of cranes were demolished, a light gun smashed flat on to the deck, and the two seamen who manned it knocked out—neither, it happened, were seriously hurt. Shedding its port wing, most of which remained on the ship’s deck, the rest of the ‘plane went on for one hundred yards or so, then at great speed hit the water and disappeared. It was a good night’s work, but unfinished. The Highlander had started zig-zagging. Within ten minutes there came a second plane, (another He-115) burning her side lights and flying low. Again the Highlander was the target for machine-gun fire, which he returned with interest with her remaining gun. Her bullets were seen to hit the plane. A few moments later it dived into the North Sea with a great splash, a little distance astern. The bag was two enemy planes in ten minutes, a great feat for a small, lightly-armed coasting vessel. The Highlander, battered and scarred, duly landed her trophy seen above. Taken from the book - The Battle of the Seas by Sir Archibald Hurd published in 1941. Also referred to here. - this site reports them as 2 x He 111's

An email from Maggie Bousfield July 2006:

My father was in the DEMS during WW2 he was in the RN and assigned to defensively equipped merchant ships (he could man a gun or read radar) to escort them safely through death infested Baltic and Arctic seas to maintain the support of Russia by ensuring food and supplies got through. Needless to say it was very scary to an 18yr old or 58 yr old and he lost many friends both RN and Merchant Navy. These men never get mentioned on the poppy day parades or in any speeches made by dignitaries and to be frank it gets up my and my dads noses! Of course he feels forgotten and when we heard that the campaign for a medal has only resulted in an emblem or badge it was doubly devastating. I emailed my MP Frank Cook only on Monday and it is Wednesday today and have received a 6 page reply. Frank feels aggrieved that the New Labour who I think he has fallen out with along with many of us Labour voters, is getting the blame. He has explained that the reason no medal has been sanctioned is because nobody wished to offend the Queen who idolised her father and it would seem to be a reversal of his wishes. I also idolise my dad and he is in his 82nd year it would be nice for her to acknowledge the part these men played in the war and reverse her own fathers decision or did he have something against the Arctic convoys not to have mentioned them in the first place? I have emailed The Royal Household asking for an explanation but feel that the country is not aware of this stalemate and they should.

Feb 07: I am looking for an image of the DEM Ship SS Dalhanna??

December 2007: My father was the DEMS Gunner on the Scottish Prince. To see the log of U-68 was great. The details of the sinking of the SP are as I recall my fathers account.  His name was Percy William (Bob) Foster, He was the gunner on the SP from the start of the War, including the Battle for Crete.  Where they ran out of ammunition. I need to find out more information for this period. I have a picture of his first Gun Crew, that was taken before the Crete damage & refitting in India. Both Gun & Crew replaced afterward, then the sinking. Three in one day! If only they had been in Convoy. Regards. Arthur W Foster.

May 2009: My father William Wiseman was a DEMS gunner on the SS Dalhana when it was bombed in Bone Harbour, Algeria. He recalled thowing burning ammunition over the side, I believe from another source that one of the gunners was blown over the side, fortunately he did recover. If you were successful in locating a photo of the Dalhana I would appreciate a copy. John Wiseman.

SS Coulmore

This image of the SS Coulmore was taken on May 20th 1943 by

US Coast Guard Cutter Bibb relates this about the SS Coulmore

On 7 March 1943, Bibb got underway from Reykjavik to augment the escort of convoy SC-121.  Next day she intercepted a message from SS Vojvoda Putnik stating that the vessel had been torpedoed and was sinking.  The Bibb joined convoy SC-121 and maneuvered to a position near the cutter Spencer (WPG-36).  An hour later Spencer sighted a submarine dead ahead on the surface at about 2,000 yards and she proceeded to attack.  The next day at 0411 Bibb attacked a doubtful contact which was lost a few minutes later.  Ten hours later word was received from a ship in the convoy that a torpedo had crossed her bow and five hours later Bibb, while sweeping 15 miles astern of the convoy, sighted a submarine fully surfaced about 14 miles away.  The Bibb proceeded to the area and heard faint propeller beats but was unable to obtain a sound contact.  

At 2152 word was received that a vessel in the convoy had been torpedoed.  The Bibb proceeded to the area and screened SS Melrose Abbey, the convoy's appointed rescue ship, as she picked up survivors.  Soon after midnight on the 10th two more vessels in the convoy were torpedoed.  By 0305 the rescue ships had completed operations and were underway to rejoin the convoy.  An hour and a half later Bibb sighted a raft close aboard with survivors, and three hours later dropped two charges on a doubtful sound contact, while HMS Dauphin screened the rescue ship.  Twenty minutes later she sighted a life raft with three men on it end she directed the rescue ship to pick them up.  The rescue ship failed to locate the raft and as the increasingly rough weather and impending snow squall made it imperative that the men not be lost sight of, Bibb rescued the three survivors from SS Coulmore.  A few minutes later another raft was sighted dead ahead and two survivors of SS Bonneville were taken aboard.  The Bibb now maneuvered near Coulmore and found her in good condition and floating on an even keel, even with the torpedo hole in her bow.  There were no persons aboard.



6,644 Steam Freighter  built: 1941 - Bartram & Sons, Sunderland Ministry of War Transport, managed by Joseph Robinson & Sons (Stag Line), North Shields

Voyage: Victoria Bay, Brazil to Loch Ewe for orders via Freetown Cargo: iron ore

Master: Capt. William Thompson Brown, DSC

Casualties: 57 killed, 1 man taken pow, from complement of 58
The name was Frederick Wakeham, the ships Chief Steward. He was taken prisoner and eventually interned in the Merchant Navy PoW camp Milag Nord in August 1944)

Attacked by: U 129 Date of Attack: 11.05.1944 2300 hrs torpedoed German Grid Square: FR 4583 19.S/31.W (19 00S 31W) See also below

Technical: general cargo vessel – steam 6,643 GRT 417'x56' Built for the MoWT and given to Mark Whitwill & Son, 1942 transferred to Joseph Robinson.

The Master, 45 crew and nine gunners were lost, U-129 captured one survivor. Dates/Times are given in German time eg: CET

Second Officer Alan George Held is commemorated in the plaque

The Attacker: U-129 Type IXC Deutsche Schiff- und Maschinenbau AG, (AG Weser) Bremen - Launched: 28th Feb 1941

On the 22nd Mar 1944, U-129 left Lorient under the command of Richard von Harpe and arrived back at Lorient on 19th Jul 1944 after seventeen weeks on patrol.

Empire Heath, steamship - Casualties (RN)

 GRIFFIN, Martin J, Act/Able Seaman (DEMS), D/JX 334408, (President III, O/P), MPK

 BURGESS, Frank, Act/Able Seaman (DEMS), D/JX 391736, (President III, O/P), MPK

The loss of these two Royal Naval personnel suggests to me a surface action in which the U Boat shelled the gun

Another snippet: She was torpedoed & sunk by the German submarine 'U-129' in the south Atlantic, in position 21.31S 29.50W, north west of the small volcanic island of Trinidad whilst sailing independently from Victoria, Brazil to Loch Ewe for orders, via Freetown, with a cargo of iron ore. The Master, William Thompson Brown DSC, 46 crew and 9 gunners and 1 passenger were lost. The chief steward was the only survivor.

George Pearce (DEMS Gunner) served aboard various DEMS Ships in WW2, getting torpedoed the once with SS Yoma (image below). His son Jim tells me that George also served aboard SS City of Lyons, SS Queen of Adelaide, SS Yoma, SS Leopoldville, SS Slemish, SS Empire Highway, SS British Zeal, SS Empress of Scotland. He was torpedoed 17/4/43 in the Mediterranean off Derna whilst on SS Yoma with great loss of life, he survived (died 1990). The U Boat responsible was the U-81 (Which also sank the Ark Royal in 41). The SS Leopoldville was eventually sunk, by torpedo, with great loss of life, in the Channel, in 1944, ferrying American troops across to France on her 25th crossing of the Channel, in a small convoy, with SS Cheshire from Southampton to Cherbourg. There are hints of a cover up regarding this sinking, but isn't there always?  The SS Slemish was sunk on 23rd December 1944. George bore a charmed life, although he was on neither of the latter two when they went down. George passed away in 1990. Jim Pearce would like to hear from anybody connected with these vessels. He can be contacted on pearce.gj - at - - if you replace the -at- with @ you have his email address.

Email from Alan Mycock

My late Father, Harold Mycock, was a Royal Navy Rating who volunteered as a D.E.M.S. gunner in 1940, after completing his training at the Royal Navy Gunnery School, H.M.S. Excellent. The ships he served on were:

S.S. Urbino.  U.K. to India. - S.S. Stanville  U.K. coaster. - M.V. British Purpose,  U.k. to U.S.A.  Then U.K to Algeria, Malta,Port Said, Suez, Aden, Abadan.

At Aberdan they took on 8,000 tons of high octane motor spirit & kerosene, destined for Madras, India. They reached Bombay and formed part of convoy B.M.71. British Purpose’s station in the convoy was#21

On20th October 1943 she was hit in the starboard bow by a torpedo fired by the U-532. She detached herself from the convoy and made it to Cochin.

S.S. Empire Woodlark, U.K. to Durban, Damaged propeller en-route, diverted to Mombasa for repair, then Durban. - .SS. Manela,  Aden – Suez –Port Said. -  M.V. Lloyd Crest,  Port Said – London -  S.S. Ipswich Trader, U.K. coaster - M.V. William Bursley,  U.K. to Norway

 I do hope someone will find something of interest in this tome.The D.E.M.S. lads might not have the charisma of the lads on the “ Big Ships”, but every single one of them was a hero regards Alan Mycock Western Australia


by Harold Mycock
           No, it isn't in the papers, and you didn't always know,
           Where to find the D.E.M.S. you addressed them - G.P.O.
           For today you can't be certain where tomorrow they will be,
           Yesterday they were "somewhere", and the day before "at sea."
           You have seen him on the street, rolling groggy on his feet,
           You have seen him grab the pavement for support,
           You have seen him with a tart, but don't take that to heart,
           She was steering Jolly Jack back into port.
           You shudder with disgust as dead drunk he hits the dust,
           You scorn him when you see him on a spree,
           But, You've never had a trip on a dark and lonely ship,
           Ploughing furrows through a mine infested sea.
           You cheer your Air Force lads, in their well armed ironclads,
           You give a cheer for the boys in Khaki too,
           But you tremble in a "Funk" when you hear a ship's been sunk,
           But you never care a damn about the crew.
           You moan about the cost, of vessels that are lost,
           It puts you in a pessimistic mood,
           You forget to say "Well Done",congratulations to the ones,
           Who brought the wife and kiddies home their food.
           He has brought the old tub home,through the sub infested zones,
           He has braved the Channel to land our boys in France,
           He fights the lurking Hun with a Four point Seven inch gun,
           Yet you don't consider that he takes a chance.
           You'll find him where the "Big Ships" come in from the sea,
           With meat and wheat and fighting men, and sugar for your tea,
           They strive to bring their cargo in, accross the rolling main
           For him a few brief days in port, then off to sea again.
           For him, no flags are flying, for him, no flags you wave,
           And he is never thought of as being one who's brave,
           But he beat the Hun and Japanese at this fighting game,
           And he helped to put the GREAT back into Britains name.  

SS Yoma

The Yoma had left Tripoli on 16th June in Convoy GTX 2, 14 ships including 3 troop ships, bound for Alexandria. The Yoma was the leading ship of the third column, with two ships astern of her. The next morning, 17th June, was fine, clear and sunny with “light airs”. Around 0730 the ship was heading east at 6½ knots when she was struck by a torpedo from a U-boat, causing the after engine room bulkhead to collapse and the boiler room, engine room and number 5 hold to flood immediately. An eye witness on board recalled, “Although the explosion was loud, it was not as loud as I would have expected. The vessel was ‘lifted’ by the explosion, and settled rapidly by the stern. I was in the Wireless Room at the time. I came out onto the bridge, but could see nothing owing to the steam which enveloped the ship…Nos. 3 and 4 hatches were blown away, and clouds of coal dust were thrown high into the air, smothering everything, including myself. I heard the Master order “abandon ship” and hurried to my lifeboat…” After wrestling with the lifeboats, he found that “by this time the Yoma was well down by the stern and the next thing I knew she sank under my feet and I found myself in the water…as the boat rose I saw a lot of men on the foc’sle head: they would not jump into the water,…as the bow lifted a number of them lost their footing and fell onto the bridge, many others being dragged under by the ship.” Although I tend to trust eye witness reports, do not trust them as exact. Time goes on and memory fades .......... another witness to the same event would probably have seen things differently.

Due to it being around breakfast time, most of the men were below decks and, in the scramble for the ladders, the No2 Mess Deck ladders collapsed. The convoy had to steam ahead as it was too dangerous to linger with submarines in the vicinity. So men were in the water for some time before they were picked up by a couple of mine sweepers, one of which was HMAS Lismore. According to its website, this Australian ship had been sent to the Eastern Mediterranean Fleet to take part in “Operation Husky”, the invasion of Sicily. The Lismore, several other Australian ships and some Royal Navy ships were part of the 2nd Escort Group, responsible for escorting large convoys in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. The convoys were attacked constantly both by air and u-boats based in the Italian ports. This is not to be confused with the 2nd Support Group, commanded by Capt Johnnie Walker RN who successfully hunted U Boats in the Bay of Biscay. The U boat involved was the U-81. The same U boat that had sank the Ark Royal, but with different Captains.

DEMS gunner George Pearce RN survived this event and went on to serve on other DEMS ships. He survived the war, to die in 1990.

There is a list of passengers and crew in the National Archives but I cannot access it. tells us that:

Passenger/Cargo liner of 8,131 tons of the British and Burmese Steam Navigation Co., built 1928 in Scotland and now serving in the Mediterranean as an auxiliary transport. She was in convoy GTX-2 with the ships SS Amarapoora, Pegu, Kemmendine and Sagaing en route from Sfax to Alexandria when she was sunk at 7.33 am by two torpedoes from the U-81 near Derna. She was the only ship to be sunk during this convoy. On board were 1,793 troops of which 484 were lost. British Army men included 134 officers and 994 ratings. Free French Army men included 22 officers and 643 ratings. Capt. George Patterson and 32 crew members also perished. Survivors were picked up escort ships including the Australian  minesweepers HMAS Lismore and HMAS Gawler.


SS Leopoldville

24th December 1944

George Pearce (DEMS Gunner) served aboard various DEMS Ships in WW2, getting torpedoed the once with SS Yoma (image above). His son Jim tells me that George also served aboard SS City of Lyons, SS Queen of Adelaide, SS Yoma, SS Leopoldville, SS Slemish, SS Empire Highway, SS British Zeal, SS Empress of Scotland. He was torpedoed 17/4/43 in the Mediterranean off Derna whilst on SS Yoma with great loss of life, he survived (died 1990). The U Boat responsible was the U-81 (Which also sank the Ark Royal in 41).

This page is about the SS Leopoldville, 11509 tons, a DEMS equipped, passenger vessel. On the 24th December 1944, the SS Leopoldville was arriving at Cherbourg (5 miles offshore) with SS Cheshire, carrying American troops from Southampton. The SS Leopoldville was torpedoed at 1754 hrs on 24th December 1944 and eventually sunk, with great loss of life, in the Channel, in 1944, ferrying American troops across to France. It was her 25th crossing of the Channel, in a small convoy, with SS Cheshire from Southampton to Cherbourg. The SS Slemish was sunk on 23rd December 1944. George bore a charmed life, although he was on neither of the latter two when they went down. George passed away in 1990. Jim Pearce would like to hear from anybody connected with these vessels. He can be contacted on pearce.gj - at - - if you replace the -at- with @ you have his email address.

The U Boat involved was the U-486, a schnorkel fitted U Boat, captained by Oblt. Gerhard Meyer. (2 ships sunk for a total of 17,651 GRT. 1 warship sunk for a total of 1,085 tons. 1 warship a total loss for a total of 1,085 tons). U reports that The troopship was transporting 2235 American soldiers from regiments of the 66th Infantry Division. The ship finally sank 2 1/2 hours later. Everything that could went wrong; calls for help were mishandled, rescue craft were slow to the scene and the weather was unfavourable. 763 American soldiers died that night, making this the worst loss an American Infantry Division suffered from a U-boat attack during the war. The nickname of this US Division was the Black Panthers. On the 12th April 1945 the Leopoldville, and the soldiers aboard, were revenged by British Submarine HMS Tapir, who sank the U-486, near Bergen, Norway with all hands.

As with Exercise Tiger, the allied authorities, embarrassed by their failures, decided to cover it all up and listed all the dead as "killed in action". It was not until 1996 that the files were opened to the public. Clive Cusslers book, The Sea Hunters, includes eye witness accounts, and includes the story of the discovery of the wreck, by divers.

Since 1940 the Leopoldville had transported over 120,000 men safely to their destinations, including the captured crew of U-570 and had crossed the English Channel 24 times, never being hit by enemy fire. Her crew had adjusted admirably to the change from more refined passenger service to bare-bones troop transport, and her current captain, Charles Limbor, had been in command since 1942.

Owner: Compagnie Maritime Belge (Lloyd Royal) SA, Antwerp

History: Built: 1929 - John Cockerill SA, Hoboken, Antwerp. Completed in August 1929 as Belgian steam passenger ship Leopoldville.

In 1937 lengthened. In May 1940 converted by the Ministry of War Transport to a troop transport.





Merchant Navy would like invite all families and relatives, friends and companions, to submit the names of their loved ones to the commemoration page for 3rd September in recognition of their contribution to the years 1939-1945.