HMS Puncher (D79)
HMS Puncher in April, 1945
|Builder:||Seattle-Tacoma Shipbuilding Corporation|
|Laid down:||21 May 1943|
|Launched:||8 November 1943|
|Fate:||Transferred to the Royal Navy|
|Commissioned:||5 February 1944|
|Decommissioned:||16 February 1946|
|Identification:||pennant number D79|
|Fate:||Returned to US, sold as a merchant ship|
|Out of service:||1973|
|Fate:||Scrapped in 1973|
|Class and type:|
|Length:||492 ft 3 in (150.0 m)|
|Beam:||69 ft 6 in (21.2 m)|
|Draught:||26 ft (7.9 m)|
|Speed:||16.5 knots (30.6 km/h; 19.0 mph)|
USS Willapa (AVG-53/ACV-53/CVE-53) was a Bogue-class escort aircraft carrier (originally an auxiliary aircraft carrier) in the United States Navy built during World War II. The ship was leased to the United Kingdom, renamed HMS Puncher (D79) (British Ruler class) and crewed by the Royal Canadian Navy with aircrew from the Fleet Air Arm. Following the war the ship was converted for mercantile service and renamed Muncaster Castle, Bardic and Ben Nevis, before being broken up in 1973.
Design and description
The Bogue-class ships were larger and had a greater aircraft capacity than all the preceding American built escort carriers. They were also all laid down as escort carriers and not simply converted merchant ships. Each vessel had a complement of 646 men and an overall length of 492 feet 3 inches (150.0 m), a beam of 69 feet 6 inches (21.2 m) and a draught of 25 ft 6 in (7.8 m). Propulsion was provided by two Foster Wheeler boilers and a steam geared turbine driving one shaft, giving 9,350 shaft horsepower (6,970 kW), which could propel the ship at 16.5 knots (30.6 km/h; 19.0 mph).
Puncher's armament comprised two 4-inch (102 mm)/50 caliber dual purpose guns in single mounts, sixteen 40 mm Bofors anti-aircraft guns in twin mounts and twenty 20 mm Oerlikon anti-aircraft cannons in single mounts.[a][b]
Aircraft facilities were a small combined bridge/flight control on the starboard side, two aircraft lifts measuring 43 by 34 feet (13.1 by 10.4 m), one aircraft catapult and nine arrestor wires. Aircraft could be housed in the 260-by-62-foot (79.2 by 18.9 m) hangar below the flight deck. The escort carrier had a maximum aircraft capacity of twenty-four aircraft, usually a mixture of fighter, anti-submarine and torpedo bomber aircraft. Fleet Air Arm squadrons assigned to Puncher included Fairey Barracuda torpedo bombers, Fairey Firefly fighter/bombers, American-built Grumman Hellcat fighters and Grumman Avenger torpedo bombers. The Barracuda was one of the largest carrier-borne aircraft in the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm and required rocket assistance to take flight from the small flight deck.
Construction and career
Willapa was laid down on 21 May 1943 at Seattle, Washington by the Seattle-Tacoma Shipbuilding Corporation and reclassified CVE-53 on 10 June 1943. Willapa was launched on 8 November 1943. The ship was transferred under lend-lease to the Royal Navy on 5 February 1944 and commissioned as HMS Puncher with the pennant number D79. On 15 March 1944, Puncher arrived at Vancouver to undergo conversion to Royal Navy standards.
The British Admiralty had determined that, post-World War II, the Royal Canadian Navy would have its own aircraft carriers. For this reason, Puncher and Nabob were crewed by Royal Canadian Navy personnel to establish the knowledge base for the future carriers. However, the aircrew was from the Fleet Air Arm.
Puncher spent the war in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. In June 1944, the escort carrier transported motor launches from New Orleans to New York. The following month, the ship transported United States Army Air Force aircraft from Norfolk, Virginia to Casablanca in North Africa.
On 1 February 1945, Puncher joined the British Home Fleet at Scapa Flow, embarking 881 Naval Air Squadron in Wildcats and 821 Naval Air Squadron in Barracudas. Initially serving in a training role, within the year, Puncher was re-tasked to both airstrike and convoy air protection (CAP) after her sister ship, Nabob, was decommissioned due to being torpedoed off Norway in August 1944. Puncher's CAP service included protection of six different Arctic convoys on the Murmansk/Arkhangelsk route. Operations also included strikes against German occupied Norway, hitting industrial and shipping targets such as the steel works at Narvik. On 11 February, Puncher's Wildcats formed part of the fighter escort for a minelaying airstrike along the western coast of Norway. The escort carrier's aircraft then provided fighter cover for a British minesweeping mission clearing German-laid mines along the Norwegian coast. On 24 March, Puncher's aircraft took part in an airstrike in the area of Trondheim. A second strike was planned for 3 April but was cancelled due to bad weather. Following the surrender of Germany, Puncher was utilized as a troop transport, carrying Canadian soldiers back to Canada. Her hangar had bunks welded into them and was used in this role until the end of 1945.
Paid off on 16 February 1946 at Norfolk, Virginia and returned to American custody that day, the escort carrier was struck from the Navy Registry on 12 March 1946, having never seen active service with the United States Navy.
Initially sold to William B. St. John, of New York City, on 9 January 1947, the carrier was subsequently resold to the British firm J. Chambers & Co on 4 February 1947 and converted for mercantile service. The ship reappeared as Muncaster Castle in 1949 and was renamed Bardic in 1954. The vessel was sold to Ben Line Steamers in 1959 and renamed Ben Nevis (sometimes spelled as Bennevis). The vessel sailed under that name until she was sold for scrap and broken up at Kaoshiung, Taiwan on 11 June 1973 by Swie Horng Steel Enterprise Co.
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- Schull, p. 401
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