Saturday, January 10, 2015

Saga of SS Contessa, from Rick Atkinson's "Army at Dawn"

Operation Torch in WWII was somewhat incredible.  An invasion army boarded ship in Norfolk Virginia, steamed across the submarine invested Atlantic, and landed in North Africa.  To provide air support after landing, an airfield was located, near the sea and on a river bank.  Shallow river.  The call went out for a freighter of less than 17 foot draft to get up the river.  The only ship meeting this requirement was a aging banana boat, SS Contessa.  She was duly ordered to Norfolk.  When the crew discovered that their new cargo was to be avgas and 1000 pound bombs, they all promptly jumped ship.  The skipper took some Navy guards with riot guns and paid a visit to the Norfolk city jail.  After some explanations to the warden, including the fact that anyone volunteering would not be back in Norfolk anytime soon, the skipper recruited 37 experienced seamen who decided that risking torpedoes was a better deal than an extended stay in the Norfolk jail. 
   Meanwhile the Navy drydocked Contessa, repaired the worst of her leaks, and slapped a fresh coat of paint on her bottom.  Then they started loading bombs and avgas.  This took longer than it should have, and Contessa sailed two days after the main Torch fleet sailed.  She managed to cross the Atlantic by her self, all in one piece,  without encountering an enemy sub.  She turned up in North Africa on time, and with a local pilot, made it up the river and was unloading at the airfield before any aircraft arrived. 
  Just one of the cool stories Rick Atkinson tells. 

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