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The story of the Vivania - a trawler's tale

by Allan Taylor - June 2007

Click image for enlargement.
Pic courtesy Alan Taylor.

Some years ago I inherited a ship's crest that had been owned by a great-uncle who had worked as a maritime engineer at Durban harbour during WW2. The badge bore the name "VIVIANA" and the design was unlike that of any in the Royal Navy. Research however revealed the story of one of Britain's "little ships" and it's connection with South Africa.

Built in June 1936, the Viviana was the second of three essentially similar trawlers constructed by Cochrane's Shipyard of Selby in Yorkshire, England for the Atlas Steam Fishing Co of Grimsby. She was requisitioned by the Royal Navy in October 1939, converted for use as an anti-submarine and convoy escort vessel and assigned to the 11th Anti-submarine Group based at Harwich.

She was one of the some 860 British and Allied vessels which took part in "Operation Dynamo", the rescue of 340 000 British, French and Belgian troops off the 25 miles of beaches around the port of Dunkirk in Belgium between 26 May and 4 June 1940. Having served most of 1940 to 1942 in the Irish Sea, she left in that December for the South Atlantic.

Click image for enlargement.
Pic courtesy Alan Taylor.

In the book "War in the Southern Oceans" by Turner, Gordon-Cumming and Betzler the following events are recorded:

At 14h00 on 3 March 1943 Lt-Cdr Lassen, captain of the U-boat U-160, spotted a southbound convoy while on patrol off Port Shepstone. This was convoy DN.21, comprising eleven ships escorted by the corvette Nigella and three anti-submarine trawlers Sondra, Norwich City and Viviana, Running along a parallel course he lost contact at dusk but pursued on the surface and easily overtook the convoy pinpointed by escorting aircraft showing their navigation lights.

The night was dark and cloudy with a slight swell running and Lassen was able to come in on the surface, escaping the asdic search of the escorts. At 23h22, having penetrated between the two lines of ships he fired three torpedoes in succession, sinking the Harvey W. Scott and the Nirpura and damaging the tanker Tibia. A lack of convoy discipline was to make matters worse; no convoy conference had been held before leaving Durban and no Standing Orders had been issued through lack of copies, as a result no-one knew what actions to take in the event of an attack.

No radio communication had been established between the convoy and its escorts and the Convoy Commodore, Master of one of the cargo ships, had to rely on siren and light signals. Had the departure been delayed by one day, the only Catalina flying boat of 262 Squadron, which had become operational the previous week, would have been available for long range nighttime cover.

The Harvey W. Scott made two "SSSS" signals and switched on her upper deck lights - apparently an American procedure, but one that provided the U-boat with a clear target for further attack. The Viviana switched on a searchlight and began to pick up survivors which left the convoy open on her side, Nigella fired star-shells and the Carolinian fired tracer indiscriminately to the discomfort of all.

The Convoy Commodore ordered two turns to port but not all the ships saw or understood the signals, the escort Norwich City mislaying the convoy altogether. After some order had been restored, Lassen made another attack and at 01h10 fired two more torpedoes, hitting the Empire Mahseer ,which sank in less than two minutes. Maintaining contact he fired two more torpedoes two hours later, missing his targets but half an hour later sank the Marietta E. and damaged the Sheaf Crown. After missing another target he abandoned the attack and moved north to St Lucia.

Confusion reigned at Durban where a crash boat tasked to rescue survivors could not get through the harbour boom until 04h45 and an Anson, Catalina and Walrus only took off to investigate at 05h20, 06h00 and 08h30 respectively. Nigella reported that the convoy had been reduced to five ships, with herself as the only escort and that afternoon C-in-C South Atlantic ordered the convoy to be dispersed. The Tibia reached Durban under her own steam while the Sheaf Crown was towed to East London.

Returning to the UK in late 1943 Viviana served in the North Sea and in May 1944 sailed for Gibraltar. After being based at Malta for the next year she served in the Indian Ocean before returning to the UK in November 1945 and being placed in reserve at Holy Loch. She was returned to her original owners in May 1946 and resumed fishing around Iceland, Greenland, Bear Island and the White Sea. The 1961 skippers' and mates' strike spelled the end for many of the old coal-burners, many never to return to the sea. Viviana was sold to the shipbreakers Van Heyghen Freres and scrapped at Antwerp in Belgium in December 1962.

Quite how my uncle came to possess this crest remains a mystery but the Viviana would have definitely spent significant time at Durban, including probably a refit.


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