No other freighter was as famous

At a time when Americans were seeing the horrors of the First World War in their newsreels and newspapers, many cities decided that one way to help bring the war to a speedy end was to raise money to build ships for America. U-boats had been ravaging merchant shipping in the Atlantic, yet the more materiel the US could send across to the war in France, the faster the German Kaiser would surely give up.

One of the cities to really show their generosity and determination to help foster peace was the Michigan City of Flint. So effective was their fundraising, that the keel laid down for hull no. 1510, was renamed in their honour. What should have been the Collingdale, was now launched on the 27 of December 1919 as the City of Flint. A great moment for the citizens of Flint and she did them proud. So much so that when she was torpedoed and sunk early in 1943, US newspapers broke with tradition and actually published her demise; a real acknowledgement of her fame.

During the interwar years, the City of Flint was one of several ships plying the North Atlantic between North European ports and the eastern seaboard of the United States. She was a regular visitor in ports like Glasgow, Liverpool, Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Belfast, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston and New York. Fruit, chemicals, oil, metal, fire tenders even, were part of her regular cargo.

August 1939, when all of Europe seemed to know that a new war was imminent, Americans holidaying in Europe wanted to get home quick. The US Embassies were involved in organising passage on all available ships. In London, Ambassador Joseph Kenney was no exception. Kennedy had earlier been involved with the US Maritime Commission; he seems to have known the Captain on the City of Flint, Joseph Gainard. The City of Flint was berthed in Glasgow at the end of August, and Kennedy asked Gainard, as a personal favour, to take some passengers. Hog Islanders were ships with generous space for accommodation, so with not too much of a problem, space could be made available.

About one day’s sailing out of Glasgow, the City of Flint, was one of the first ships to help rescue passengers from the sinking liner Athenia.

On her next trip in October 1939, she was spotted by the German warship Deutschland, stopped and inspected. The Nazi inspection crew found what they classed as contraband, illegal cargo, on board (See the article on Prize War). Instead of sinking the freighter, the Germans decided to take the ship at gun point. They placed a small crew on board and ordered the ship to sail to Germany. The names of the members of the Prize Crew and of the City of Flint’s crew will be included in the Crew Section of this web site.

The City of Flint could not sail directly to a German port due to the British navy’s patrols, so headed for northern Norway, hoping to sneak down the coast in Norwegian territorial waters. They ended in Murmansk in Russia. Having a secret pact with Germany, Stalin treated the German crew very well and eventually released the ship. It had been a very tense few days for the American crew.

As they came back to Norway and followed the coast south, the British Navy spotted them and gave chase. As did the German spies in Norway!

Photo Courtesy of the Mariners' Museum, Newport News

Oh, and Churchill wanted the ship; Hitler knew about the surrender and Russian Foreign Affairs boss Molotov played the Americans in Murmansk. Roosevelt was not pleased!

Having been headline news in the media both sides of the Atlantic, the City of Flint returned to Baltimore, engine overhaul and a couple of years of freight runs to Brazil and around to the west coast of the US.

After Pearl Harbour, she was one of the first ships to be armed and sent to Britain, en route to Murmansk. By now the Russians were on the side of the Allies, and needed supplies to keep as many German troops as possible tied down on the Eastern Front. Earlier than the devastating fate of PQ17, the City of Flint had a lucky voyage. It was tense, dangerous and cold in the winter storms. Murmansk was terrifying. As one of the most bombed cities in Europe, it was nothing short of a miracle that they could sail away unscathed. The account of the days in Murmansk is full of near misses, sticks of bombs and bravery. The crew list for the trip will be included in the Crew Section of this site.

Photo courtesy of The Mariners' Museum, Newport News

They were hardly back in the US before the next trip was planned; this time to ports in Kuwait and Iran. At a time when the American convoy system was in its infancy, tracking the journey is an illustration in how it all was joined up that spring of 1942. The heat whilst in the Persian Gulf really took its toll on the crew, but it was the return journey that was the most interesting part of the mission. Again the City of Flint’s luck held, she was not the ship to be torpedoed in the Caribbean as the convoy returned to one of the U-boats’ hunting grounds.

The final voyage, in January 1943 saw them loaded for the African campaign when their luck finally ran out. Straggling from their convoy in a very bad storm, an alert U-boat look-out spotted them. The real account of it all covers the next part of the story from both the perspective of the hunter and of the hunted…. I just need that publisher to put the real account out!

There is nothing as powerful as eyewitness accounts, and this story draws on two, one from the U-Boat and one from the City of Flint's crew. It was a dramatic time for those involved.

Imagine standing on the deck, totally numbed by the explosion of the torpedo as the ship slowly continues towards a huge cloud of burning petrol, and you can do nothing. Do you go over the side, never to be seen again as the ship glides past you? Or do you reamain onboard?

The crew list for the final convoy will be included in the Crew Section.