HMS Fidelity

Truth is often stranger than fiction according to Marcel Jullian in his book HMS Fidelity (Souvenir Press, 1957). After the fail of France In May 1940, Lieutenant Claude Andre Michel Costa, a Corsican of the French merchant ship Le Rhin (British-built in 1920). persuaded the crew to leave their planned trading route in the Mediterranean. On leaving La Palmas, Costa set charges under a German merchant tramp which disabled it. He then took Le Rhin to Gibraltar offering it and its cargo to the British. All but six of the crew accepted the British offer of repatriation to France.  This book relies on fiction a little too much, and the author got away with it.

Those remaining with Costa included a French female agent, bringing with her the secret of plastic explosive, a French discovery. The crew was augmented by volunteers another French ship, escaping Belgian officers, Polish sailors, French aviators and other refugees travelling from France and Spain. Costa persuaded the Admiralty to take on the ship and the crew were assimilated into the Royal Navy, with Costa becoming Lieutenant Commander Langlais and the agent, Madeleine Guesclin became First Officer Barclay WRNS. Le Rhin herself became the Special Service Vessel HMS Fidelity. The ship was based at Barry and the crew received formal training.

Up to the end of 1941. the ship carried out two covert operations in the Mediterranean and a series of complicated landings of agents. On these occasions, the ship would be modified to look like foreign or neutral shipping. In 1942, Fidelity was rearmed with four 4in guns, four 21in torpedo tubes, two aircraft from the French giant submarine Surcouf, a launch and some small landing craft. This was to fit her out as a commando carrier for covert operations in south-east Asia.

In December 1942. Fidelity took on board 150 commandos and joined a convoy (0NS154) A disparate action with U-boats began on the morning of December 27th off the Azores, Several ships were sunk, and Fidelity was designated as a rescue ship. The launch was dispatched to attack a U-boat. Both the launch and Fidelity then suffered engine problems and were left behind by the convoy. The launch crew (later rescued) lost sight of Fidelity, and she was never seen again. The missing are recorded by their English pseudonyms.

Kapltanieutnant Strelow of U 435 reports sinking Fidelity on Dec 30, 1942. He said that 300 to 400 survivors were drifting on over crowded rafts and that, in the bad weather, few would survive. He was right. No one was rescued. U435 herself was sunk 9th July 1943 west of Figueira, Portugal, in position 39.48N, 14.22W, by 4 depth charges from a British Wellington aircraft (179 Sqn.). 48 dead (all hands lost).

The following is an extract from this  site:

December 29: Fidelity - Convoy ONS 154 (Extract From):

The St. Laurent and Kenogami had made an A/S (anti-submarine) sweep about midnight (December 28/29) that extended ten miles astern of the convoy. Some time after that, the SOE signalled the Shediac and the Fidelity, some twenty miles further astern. Equipped with nets and well-armed, Fidelity was better equipped than most merchant ships for survival. Shediac was ordered to rejoin the convoy and search for survivors on her way back. The Admiralty then dispatched their tug Eminent from Gibraltar, but Fidelity later signalled that she no longer required the tug's assistance. About 0300 Shediac sighted an empty raft. Ten minutes later, they found a boat with survivors from the Ville de Rouen. At 0330, they sighted four more boats with survivors from the Melmore Head and the Ville de Rouen. They now had 35 survivors from Melmore Head and 71 from Ville de Rouen. About 0530 a raft was picked up with seven men from the Shackleton. Sometime later, they found another lifeboat containing another seventeen men. Shediac was already short of fuel and was now about thirty-five to forty miles behind the convoy. With the large number of survivors aboard, provisions would soon be a problem. After contacting the St. Laurent at 0600, Shediac was ordered to stop searching and return. She regained the convoy at 1300 hours. When Milne and Meteor were steaming toward the convoy, they picked up a radar contact about 0530 hours on December 29. It proved to be the Fidelity. About 0650, the two destroyers reached the estimated search area, and, reducing their speed, commenced the search for survivors. At 0700 they picked up 42 survivors from a raft and lifeboat belonging to the Baron Cochrane. At 0720 hours, they found 52 survivors from the Grange, while at 0815 hours, they found 49 survivors from Zarian. A great number of signals relating to ONS 154 were now being received in London (Admiralty Operational Intelligence Centre), in Liverpool (Western Approaches Tracking Room), and at Gibraltar. Reports also suggested that more attacks on the convoy were imminent. At 0520 hours, Gibraltar ordered the destroyers HMS Viceroy and St. Francis to leave convoy KMS-4, and proceed some 450 miles to aid in the search for survivors, refuelling at Azores if necessary.

December 29: Fidelity

had fallen behind the convoy on December 28 because her main engine had broken down. She was now between the convoy and the Azores. The small ship was cramped, and overcrowded with both men and equipment. At first, she was accompanied by Shediac, but now that ship had been recalled. While they were working on the engine, the torpedo nets were lowered to protect the ship. Fidelity got underway again about 0500 hours on December 29, and made radio contact with the Meteor and Milne. Despite repairs, they could only do two knots because they were hindered by the torpedo nets. About 1015 hours, the main engine broke down again, and Fidelity signalled her position to the SOE on the St Laurent. At 1100 hours, she signalled again to report that she was sailing for the Azores. It was about this time that Fidelity was observed by the U-615, but Kapitzky suspected a trap because the ship looked suspiciously like a Q-ship. Aboard the Fidelity, it was decided to launch the MTB and use it to do an anti-submarine patrol at night. The remaining Kingfisher made a reconnaissance flight and reported that two submarines, one on fire, were sixteen miles to the southwest, as well as two crowded lifeboats. Fidelity again signalled St. Laurent and the Western Approaches. She launched two landing craft which made contact with the lifeboats, which proved to be from the Shackleton, and towed them back to the Fidelity. The landing craft and the Kingfisher aircraft were lifted back into place, while the MTB followed behind the ship. Both the MTB and the ship were still experiencing engine problems. At 1950 hours, Fidelity signalled the SOE to report that they had picked up the survivors, including the Commodore, from the Empire Shackleton. This was the last recorded signal received from the Fidelity. After observing all the unusual activities on the Fidelity, U-615 decided to attack at night. Although Kapitzky fired four torpedoes, there were no explosions because the nets were in place, and the torpedoes had no effect.   About 2010 hours, Fidelity became aware of the U-boat, but lost contact. The night was very dark and overcast. The men on the MTB were also experiencing engine problems, and lost sight of the Fidelity about 2300 hours.

December 30: The MTB
About 0900 on December 30, the men in the MTB heard a faint routine signal from the Fidelity, but they were unable to make contact because their batteries were extremely weak. They had to repeatedly stop their engine to let it cool off. About 1130 hours they started the engine and proceeded south-west as previously instructed by the Fidelity, but, with the wind against them, they shut down the engine at 1330 hours. The possibility of the MTB making contact with anyone was now very unlikely. Their batteries were flat, and they had little fuel left. The Azores were about 250 miles away, but, because of the wind direction, they decided to try to sail to the UK, about 900 miles away. Through the day and into the night, they stitched blankets and canvas together for sails, and improvised a mast.

December 29 & 30 The Convoy

At 0900 hours on December, the SS Fort Lamy took over as Commodore because Empire Shackleton was no longer in the convoy, Admiralty messages were arriving constantly with warnings of enemy concentrations in the area. About 1400 hours, the escort observed the HMS Milne and HMS Meteor approaching from the east. When they were within four miles of the convoy, however, the two destroyers diverged to pursue an asdic contact. After driving off several U-boats, they joined the convoy at 1700 hours. Shortly after that, Napanee was ordered to refuel from the E.G. Suebert. Just after midnight on December 30, Battleford and Shediac, both short of fuel, left the convoy for the Azores. Because Milne and Meteor were also short of fuel, they had to depart noon. The escort was now reduced to four ships. Fearful of another U-boat attack, the SOE advised two of the faster ships, the SS Calgary and the SS Advastun, to proceed alone if they had the opportunity. In late afternoon, however, the escort was reinforced when two destroyers, HMS Viceroy and HMCS St. Francis, arrived.  The escort received various signals regarding reinforcements. HMS Fame had been ordered to leave convoy ON 155, and proceed to ONS 154. The USS Dallas and USS Cole were on the way, while a message from Newfoundland indicated that HMCS Arrowhead, Chicoutini and Digby would also join the convoy. The U-boats had also received reports that more ships were being deployed to assist ONS 154, and on December 30, they received orders to withdraw.

December 30: Fidelity

About noon on December 30, U-615 (Kapitzky) again saw the ship that he had been unable to sink the previous night, but, still fearing a trap, he took no action. About 25 miles to the east, U-435 (Strelow) noticed smoke on the horizon about 1300 hours. Increasing speed, he came within four miles of the Fidelity about 1400 hours. The ship was very slow, and he crept up to within 300 metres by 1630 hours, when he torpedoed her. The velocity of the explosion surprised him, and he dove. When he surfaced some distance away, he was amazed to see literally hundreds of survivors in the sea. Unaware of the identity of the ship, he noted the circumstances in his log. He returned at daylight the following day and surveyed the horrific scene. It was not until after the war ended that the connection was made between the entries in the U-boat logs and the Fidelity. The Fidelity was carrying two landing craft, HMS LCV-752 and HMS LCV-754, which sank with her. In December 1956 there was a newspaper story written by Ted Fisher, one of the men aboard the MTB, purporting to be an eye-witness account of the sinking, but others on that same MTB have denied its authenticity. The story of the Fidelity is still shrouded in mystery, and speculation continues to circulate.

Completed in August 1920 as French steam merchant Le Rhin for Compagnie de Navigation Paquet, Marseilles. In June 1940 taken over by Britain, converted to the special service vessel (SSV) HMS Fidelity (D 57) and commissioned on 24 Sep, 1940. The ship was armed with four 4in guns and four torpedo tubes and equipped with two seaplanes, a motor torpedo boat (MTB), HF/DF and torpedo nets.

In April 2012 I got this message from a member of the forum - One of the crew lost when HMS Fidelity was sunk was Stoker William James Carruthers whose home was at Cleator, Cumberland. This is his CWGC citation:

*Stoker William James Carruthers
(CWGC citation)
*Casualty Details*
Initials: W J
Nationality: United Kingdom
Rank: Stoker 2nd Class
Regiment/Service: Royal Navy
Unit Text: H.M.S. Fidelity.
Age: 21
Date of Death:  01/01/1943
Service No: P/KX. 151500
Additional information:  Son of George and Margaret A. Carruthers, of Cleator, Cumberland.
Casualty Type:  Commonwealth War Dead
Grave/Memorial Reference: Panel 78, Column 2.

In addition to the Portsmouth Naval Memorial, Stoker William J. Carruthers is also commemorated on his local village war memorial (Cleator / Trumpet Terrace).

SS Rhin which became HMS Fidelity. There are two versions of the former name of Fidelity. One, Rhone, was supposedly a fictitious name
dreamed up by an author, the correct name is allegedly Le Rhin, or Rhin.

Jacque Costa aka Jack Langlais RN Fidelity's Captain. apparently this person ruled by the law of the fist! This caused many crew members to change 'badges'. Crew List

Also from

On 28 Dec, 1942, HMS Fidelity (D 57) (Lt C.A.M. Costa) fell behind the convoy ONS-154 due to engine troubles and streamed its torpedo nets, which brought down her speed to 2-3 knots. The next day, the commander decided to head for the Azores and launched her motor torpedo boat HMS MTB-107 and a Kingfisher floatplane for anti-submarine patrol. The aircraft spotted the lifeboats of Empire Shackleton which were towed by the two landing craft to HMS Fidelity. The 44 survivors were picked up and the aircraft and the landing craft were lifted aboard again.

At 21.38 hours on 29 December, U-225 (Leimkühler) fired the stern torpedo at HMS Fidelity, but missed. U-615 (Kapitzky) observed the suspicous vessel during the day and attacked her with five single torpedoes between 22.00 and 23.00 hours, but they either missed or were caught by the torpedo nets. At 16.38 hours on 30 December, the vessel was finally hit by two torpedoes from U-435 and sank immediately after heavy detonations. The U-boat reported a surprising high number of survivors on overcrowded rafts and swimming in the water, none of them were rescued and all drowned in the worsening weather. 274 crew members, 51 Royal Marines and the 44 survivors were lost. The landing craft HMS LCV-752 and HMS LCV-754 on board were lost with the ship. The engines of the MTB broke down and the crew of eight men was later rescued by HMCS Woodstock (K 238) (T/A/Cdr G.H. Griffiths, RCN), which then scuttled the disabled vessel. They were the only survivors apart from two men that had been picked up by HMCS St Laurent (H 83) (A/Cdr G.S. Windeyer, RCN) after the other Kingfisher floatplane from the vessel crashed on take off on 28 December. - photo - Memorial List to ONS 154 - Fidelity Memorial