RFA Empire Gull 1970
The Adventures of a Conway Lad on RFA Empire Gull 1970
Pennant No. L 3513 International Callsign MVRD Registered LONDON
Previous Name L 3523 / HMS ”Trouncer” (47) / “Empire Gull” (56). Lloyds Ident No. 5103704
Builder Davie Shipbuilding & Repair Co Ltd, Levis, Quebec.
Launched 9th July 1945 Completed October 1945
Displacement (Light-ship) 2,140 tons (Loaded) 4,840 tons
Measurement Tonnage N.R.T. 2,303 G.R.T. 4,258 DWT 2,700
Dimensions Length O.A. 347 ft. Beam 55 ft. Draft 12 ft (aft).
Main Machinery 2 x Triple expansion steam reciprocating engines. Built by Canadian Pacific Railway Co. 2 x 3 drum Admiralty boilers. 2 shafts. Speed 10 knots.
Ships Badge She was not granted an official badge, but the ship did display one unofficially. It depicted the end-on silhouette of a gull in flight over water.
Remarks The second ship to bear this name, (the first being the ex “Brave Coeur” (built 1919) of surplus and laid up U.S. tonnage, sold to Britain and renamed in 1941, torpedoed off East Africa Dec. 1942). She was the last remaining Landing Ship Tank, LST(3) type of 2nd World War design and was fitted with large hydraulically operated bow doors for discharging her cargo over a beach. Inside these horizontally opening doors was a large ramp door with a watertight seal and hinged at the bottom. This ramp door was lowered on wires and carried an extending section to reach the beach at a reasonable angle to allow tanks and other vehicles to drive ashore through the shallows. She was originally capable of carrying 15 x 40 ton tanks on her lower (tank) deck, and 14 x 3 ton lorries on her upper (vehicle) deck. Vehicle access to the upper deck was by an internal ramp, which also doubled as a hatch cover. She could also accommodate 168 troops in dormitories located on either side of the tank deck. During the ‘Suez Crisis’ of 1956, twelve LST(3) ships, still cocooned in the Clyde, were recalled to service by the War Office, for use as military transports. They were given the ‘EMPIRE’ nomenclature and operated for the Ministry of Transport, by the ‘Atlantic Steam Navigation Co. Ltd’. Those twelve ships were the EMPIRE’s “CURLEW”, “FULMAR”, “GANNET”, “GREBE”, “GUILLEMOT”, “GULL”, “KITTIWAKE”, “PETREL”, “PUFFIN”, “SHEARWATER”, “SKUA” and “TERN”. This company were already operating seven other LST(3)’s at that time. They were the EMPIRE’s “BALTIC”, “CEDRIC”, “CELTIC”, “CYMRIC”, “DORIC”, “GAELIC” and “NORDIC”. In 1961, ten of the batch of twelve vessels from the Clyde were transferred to the management of the ‘British India Steam Navigation Co. Ltd, leaving ‘Atlantic Steam’ with their original seven vessels plus the “PUFFIN” and “SHEARWATER”.
In February 1970 the “EMPIRE GULL”, as the only remaining LST(3), all the others having been scrapped, was transferred from ‘British India’ management to the RFA. She continued to operate in the Mediterranean until August 1970, when she was brought back to U.K. waters for a major refit. She was then tasked on the Marchwood to Antwerp shuttle service for the British Army operating in Europe, or occasionally used on the Liverpool to Belfast runs for the troops in Northern Ireland.
She was finally laid up at Portsmouth in 1978 and sold to Spanish breakers, leaving on 13th March 1980 and arriving at Santander on 20th March 1980.
7th February 1970 to 9th September 1970
Hong Kong Chinese Crew
This old tub turned out to be one of my most interesting appointments. She was so totally different to all the other ships that I had been on so far. She was operated by, and to the requirements of, the Ministry of Defence (Army). The cargoes were to be all sorts of military and engineering vehicles, as well as munitions and general freight. The RFA had just taken over this last remaining LST (Landing Ship Tank), as well as six recently built LSL’s (Landing Ship Logistic), which were named after ‘Knights of the Round Table’. All these ships had previously been crewed by a commercial shipping company, but I think the tendency now was to integrate these vessels more into naval and military operating procedures. This was a technique that was common practice with the RFA.
I flew from Heathrow to Cyprus, along with a few other RFA officers, to join the “EMPIRE GULL” which was berthed at Famagusta. She looked very different to the normal RFA’s we were all familiar with. This rather squat vessel had a black hull, white superstructure and a buff coloured funnel. The accommodation inside was very basic, painted pale green and the fittings were fabricated in thin steel plate, rather than the wood or Formica type materials that we were used to. She had two engines and propellers, which made her quite manoeuvrable. Her cargo space consisted of a large rectangular shaped tank deck, with doors at the bow, above which was the vehicle deck which had a ramp that could be lowered to the deck below and a cargo hatch served by derricks mounted on a pair of samson posts. Troop dormitories ran along either side of the tank deck. A stern anchor enabled the ship to haul herself off a beach or away from a landing stage after having discharged or loaded her cargo.
As soon as we joined her, the ‘Gull’ was pressed into service on a shuttle run between Famagusta and Tobruk, Libya, where Colonel Gaddafi was ’liberating’ his country and kicking out the small contingent of British and American forces. We loaded hundreds of tons of air stores and military vehicles every trip, most of which I believe had come from a recently evacuated, joint British and American air base. On one occasion a few of us were able to get ashore under escort, to go inland by landrover and see the British & Commonwealth military cemeteries out in the desert. It was a very moving sight, of row upon row of white headstones laid out neatly in the reddish brown sand. The surrounding desert was still dotted with the scavenged wrecks of 2nd World War military vehicles. The Tobruk inlet itself was overlooked on the southern side by a large monument to the German war dead. On one occasion at Tobruk we were visited by a Libyan military deputation, who were very upset that we were not flying the Libyan courtesy flag. The poor 3rd Officer had forgotten to hoist it as we were arriving! We also called on one occasion into the port at Benghazi, where the British Embassy was being evacuated. A small and ominous part of the cargo was a number of empty coffins that were kept for any British requirements!
During one of the calls at that small jetty in Tobruk, the Chief Officer had the ship’s new pennant number L 3513 painted on either side of the ship’s hull. This number and visual callsign, allocated by NATO when she was taken over by the RFA, was quite coincidentally just one digit different to her earlier LST(3) number of 3523 given to her when built.
As 2nd Officer, my station when arriving in port or sailing was at the aft end of the ship. When sailing from Tobruk this involved controlling the large stern anchor winch, which hauled in a thick wire attached to the anchor and pulled the ship away from the berth. Once the ship started moving astern, the anchor wire had to be hauled in as quickly as possible to avoid the anchor being over-run by the ship. Whilst operating this stern anchor winch, or what ever else I happened to be doing on the poop, I had to be careful not to trip over or stand on one of the several live chickens that had been tethered on pieces of string outside the Chinese galley. No prizes for guessing where they were going to end up!
Famagusta was an attractive port, located on the eastern coast of Cyprus. The walled city was mainly occupied by the Turkish community, whilst most of the port area and the surrounding suburbs were occupied by the Greeks. We used to enjoy our runs ashore into the city or to the nearby beach and I don’t recall any racial problems at that time between the two communities, although there was a small contingent of blue bereted U.N. troops in the area to help keep the peace. This was of course before Turkey invaded and annexed the northern half of the island.
As well as the calls to Tobruk, we also made several voyages from Cyprus to Malta, shipping an assortment of stores and vehicles as required. When steaming into any rough weather the ship visibly flexed, which was a bit disconcerting at times and we usually eased back on the speed to reduce the stresses on this old lady. At anchor she would slew all over the place, threatening to break the anchor out of its grip. This was probably because the hawse pipes were located a fair distance from the stem. Also because she was so shallow drafted the hull almost skittered across the sea in any wind.
At Malta, we usually berthed alongside in Grand Harbour at the ‘Gun Wharf’, close to Valetta, where there was a small military compound. To load or discharge vehicles through the bow doors we moved further into the natural harbour, into one of the creeks where we could lower our ramp onto a public road skirting the waters edge. In this spot we were surrounded by the hubbub of everyday Maltese life, with their flats and balconies overlooking our activity and buses, cars, lorries and bikes racing past our open bow doors! The ship occasionally had to move around the island to a large sheltered inlet called Marsaxlokk. In these more peaceful waters we would load old and unwanted 1000lb and 500lb bombs from barges, which we then took to sea and dumped in deep water a few miles offshore. It would be unheard of nowadays, but the dumping process involved opening the bow doors and pushing the bombs out along a roller conveyor as the ship slowly cruised around the explosives dump area.
At some time during that summer, we sailed to Sfax in Tunisia where we loaded a whole lot of engineers road-making vehicles, including large dumper-trucks and road graders. There was no one available ashore who knew how to drive this stuff so the Chief Officer and I learned very quickly and got it all aboard through the bow doors.
We also managed a trip from Malta to Porto Ponte Romano, at San Antioco in Sardinia, taking some troops and their vehicles for an exercise in that region. There was no pilot waiting when we arrived, so the Captain just steamed right in to the berth, which upset the local authorities a little bit!
When we first joined this ship there was no ‘bar’ as such in the officers messroom. It was just a lounge area with a couple of long tables where we were served our meals. A bit of RFA ingenuity was brought into play and with the help of the Chinese carpenter we built our ‘bar’ and turned the room into quite a cosy and relaxing area.
One luxury we did inherit was an ageing radiogram with a turntable and a few old L.P’s. We must have played them hundreds of times and a few that stick in my mind were by ‘Sergio Mendez & Brazil 66’, a ‘Manhattan Transfer’ album and also Nancy Sinatra singing ‘These Boots are made for Walking’. Whenever I hear that music, which isn’t often these days, I think of that ship.
Eventually the ship was recalled to the U.K., for a major survey and a lot of refit work. We were all very sad to leave our friends in Cyprus and Malta. As we sailed from Grand Harbour for the last time we were escorted by tugs sending cascading jets of water into the air. I guess that over the years, this insignificant little ship had been invaluable to the Forces out there and they were very sorry to see her go.
On our return to the U.K. we arrived at the Army’s military port at Marchwood After discharge of our cargo we proceeded up the U.K. east coast and went into dry-dock in Sunderland. It was here that I paid off the ship, which was never to return again to the warm waters of the Mediterranean. During that refit her accommodation and funnel were painted Admiralty grey. She retained her black hull because the existing paint coating, which was in good condition, was bitumen based and would have cost too much to completely remove it to repaint the hull grey. Following the refit and for the rest of her active life she shuttled between the U.K. and the near continental ports, in support of the British Army in Europe.