Empire Macalpine
On the 7th May 1943 Lt. R.W.Slater made the first deck landing on the first of a new type of ship, the Merchant Aircraft Carrier. M.V.Macalpine was the forerunner of nineteen such ships which came into service between 1943 and 1945. She was a merchant ship in that she carried cargo, grain (some carried oil), and it was an aircraft carrier with its own aircraft and flight deck (as opposed to the catapult and single aircraft carried by the CAM ships with which the Macalpine was often confused). Macalpine was built from its keel to carry aircraft, while the oil carriers were usually tankers with a flat top fitted on.

The logbook of P.O.Robertson including the first landing on a MAC ship

It is noticeable that P.O.Robertson was left on MV Empire Macalpine for a period  having flown in Swordfish V.4570 and left in Swordfish HS 380- his more normal aircraft. Lt Slater was making a number of landings from Machrihanish in different aircraft. Robertson, being Scottish was probably left as an ambassador with the Merchant Navy personnel.-MJA
Maintenance crew brought the Royal Navy complement to 30. Lt.Cdr. 'Tug' Wilson was the Air Staff Officer and Senior Naval Officer aboard, while Surgeon Lt, Kearney was i/c Sick Bay and also i/c anemometer (therefore i/c enemas and anemoms, it was said) at the time for take-She flew the Red Duster; her Captain and crew were men of the Ben line and they operated the ship. Her flight deck measured 412' by 62' and she had a hangar for four aircraft, a lift to take the aircraft to and from the flight deck and she had workshops and stores for repair and maintenance. The Swordfish aircrew and a spare pilot/batsman (Reg Singleton) plus 17 maoff.

836 Squadron after first trip- photo from Phil Blakey

Photo taken during the period 7 May to 3 September  1943

Aircrew at front: Blakey, Johnstone, Robertson,Wilson, Slater, Piercey, Barratt, Palmer, Taylor

[Phil Blakey thinks TAG Robertson was on extreme right standing]

14 May All four squadron aircraft arrived on board, with the Aces of Spades, Clubs, Diamonds and Hearts as insignia. The next move was to alter "Royal Navy" to "Merchant Navy". . Even further, each aircraft was named after a former ship of the Ben Line - "Bencruachan, Benlawere, Benwyvis, and Benalbanach". A finishing touch was to make the ship's R/T call-sign "Bearsden" (the Captain's home)  and the aircrafts' "Riddle" (the Captain himself).
20 May

The following signal was received -

"Empire Macalpine from Ballykelly. One Swordfish HS3'75 Squadron Leader Johnstone left 1453 T.0.0. "2015003 "

21 May During the R/T tests between aircraft and the ship in the Clyde , the air-gunner of "H for How" called the ship with a request "If you cannot hear me, please say so"
28 May Much interest was taken in the ship's wind instrument. The C.O., holding the instrument like a torch and striking a graceful attitude, "Don't you think I look like the god of……. ?" His speech was interrupted by an accurate attack on his Adam's Apple by a dive-bombing seagull.
1 June A shortage of bottle-openers led to the First Mate's (Mr Caws') implement being in great demand. He christened it the F.A.A. Spanner.

Interaction between FAA and Merchant Navy personnel

To comply with the Geneva Convention all the R.N. personnel had to sign on as deck hands or officers in the Ben Line at one shilling a month (nominal) and a bottle of beer a day (which we got).Board of Trade specifications meant that the accommodation was more spacious than on Fleet Carriers, particularly on the Lower Deck where bunks rather than hammocks were the order of the night. But though we were all to sail under the Red Duster as men of the Ben Line, Macalpine was home to two differing seafaring traditions between which there existed not only rivalries but recriminations. The differing traditions very obvious if only in the conditions of work; for while most or the M.N.men worked to Union hours and rules with overtime for evenings and weekends, our Squadron personnel were available all hours in all weathers. But on Macalpine, the keynote was cooperation and both traditions, unified under Ben Line status, joined together to make Macalpine a happy and efficient ship. Getting on with the M.N. was not an end in itself but a means to a larger end: the defence of convoys and those who sailed them against the U-boat menace which had cost the Allies so much in lives and goods in the early years of the war.
836 squadron objectives
It was intended eventually to sail one or two Macships with every convoy. This would provide close cover from the U-boat threat, it would guarantee every convoy air cover across the entire Atlantic,and would give freer rein to shore based aircraft and anti-­submarine Escort Groups to seek out and attack submarines on their way to and from convoys and intensify their attacks on U-boat and Wolf-packs lying in wait to attack convoys. So 836 became, and was for the rest of the war, committed to the battle of the Atlantic and the aircrews who pioneered the first two voyages of Macalpine would become Flight Leaders of the many sub-flights which made up 836. By the end of the war 836, with over 90 aircrew, was the largest squadron in the FAA.
Early landings on MV Macalpine
The first the Squadron saw of Macalpine was on 7 May when Ransford made the first landing with Jim Palmer and P.O. Robertson as crew. By the end of the day he had completed nine landings. At 1530 he flew the 5th Sea Lord (Admiral Boyd) to Machrihanish (having disappeared below the flight deck level on take-off), collected the other pilots who made their first landings (solo), and did 'circuits and bumps' with varying loads of depth charge armament before returning to Machrihanish. On the 8th a howling gale prevented flying, but on the 9th Ransford landed in a 45 knot wind. On the 14th after Ransford had completed another eight deck landings (one when with two depth charges on board and his arrester hook torn out by the edge of the lift - accidentally slightly open - he landed on his brakes) the Squadron landed on.

Landing on M.V.Macalpine- Swordfish going round again-photo from Phil Blakey

First deck landings for Observers
For some Observers Macalpine was the first experience of deck landing. It was a peculiar sensation to be entirely in the pilot's hands, powerless to adjust to the heaving fast-approaching deck and knowing that one was about to go from 40/50 knots to STOP in the space of a second. / recorded at the time that on our approach, attached to the aircraft by my ‘monkey strop’ (some called it a G-string) I braced myself for the inevitable, a marvellous double-entendre line from Sullivan's ‘Crossing the bar’ passed through my mind: ‘I hope to see my Pilot face to face when I have passed the bar’. But these new experiences merely added to the confidence between Observer ‘I'll get us back to base’ and Pilot ‘I'll get us down safely’. There followed days in the Clyde testing equipment, radio, radar, speeds. Sometimes we moored off Rothesay or Gourock after a day's trials and there were frequent trips ashore to Gourock - Greenock for stores or spares or dances. These trips in the duty drifter from Gourock pier sometimes took us no further then the Bay Hotel where beer was 1/3d a pint! Pilots had reported that as they made their landing runs over the round down, they felt their aircraft lifted, spoiling their approaches to the deck. As a result the offending galley chimney which had exuded the upward draught had to be repositioned A wooden extension was constructed at the stern end of the flight deck so as to increase the length available For take-off otherwise the flight deck would effectively have been reduced by the length of the Swordfish; this was another modification. Even with fine-­pitch propellers for extra lift, every inch as valuable especially if there was no wind blowing and the ship at maximum speed was producing a mere 12 knots of wind speed over the deck. To ensure no unnecessary weight was carried the front and rear runs were removed, and it was sometimes necessary to leave parachutes and T/air gunner behind in favour of depth charges .

M.V.Macalpine approaching Halifax, Canada-lift going down. Photo from Phil Blakey

Take off & Landing Training
Most important was the training and practice in flying off and landing on as quickly as possible so as to minimise the time the ship had to sail into wind to operate its aircraft. At sea in convoy it was planned to operate take-off and landing within the perimeter of the convoy and escort, so time would be of the essence especially if the wind were ahead of the convoy. So aircraft B had to be in position to land as soon as A's take-off slip stream had stabilised; deck crew had to look lively to unhook the aircraft, get it down on the lift and have the lift up in time for 'C' to land.‘Bats’ Singleton and the Pilots (three of whom had carrier experience) quickly struck up the necessary rapport and it was here that Owen Johnstone, the new boy with the natural instincts of a fighter pilot, produced his special technique, swishing in from port quarter at sea level and swinging in what some called a 'split arse turn' in position to receive instructions from 'Bats'.Inspite of inexperience there were no accidents landing during the whole of our trials.
Observers Training
The Observers were far from idle, checking the compasses and keeping an eye on the ASV serviceability, and practising weather forecasting. They'd been given a crash coarse in meteorology and weather codes for use at sea and decisions to fly or not would be based on what they forecast So in the quiet of the night the 'Duty boy' would go to the Snarks' office and take down the Morse-coded weather reports, decode the Morse and translate into met. Code, and plot the fronts, troughs and ridges on the north Atlantic map. In convoy the forecast was passed to the Commodore and Senior Officer Escort. There were often red faces for different emotions on the three ships involved.
 Slater's leadership
In these compressed weeks of training aboard Macalpine, Ransford Slater was in his element. Leadership was evident in every aspect. His skill in unlocking the secrets of how to land on so small a deck and passing them on to his pilots, the care he took to see that the ‘troops’ morale was good and to make them feel that their contribution to the success of the enterprise was vital, and generating a real enthusiasm about the work we were doing. Not least important was his insistence that RN/MN barriers be broken down. The 'Royal Navy' logo an the Swordfish was replaced by 'Merchant Navy', the ship’s call sign was 'Dearsden', the home of Captain Riddle, and the aircraft given call signs Riddle Able, Riddle Baker, and so on. Later 'B' Flight aircraft were named after the ships of the Ben Line. The Squadron replaced naval caps with M.N. berets. Phil Blakey was encouraged to follow his engineering bent with the Chief Engineer and his Doxfords and listened to Chiefy's laments about the tension on the arrester wires.
Doc "Hawkeye" Kearns
Doc Kearns made himself master of the anemometer and treated M.N. and R.N.. ‘sick, lame and lazy’ in a fine sick bay which in retrospect had much of the air of Hawkeye's tent in M.A.S.H. John Taylor was encouraged (at first) to learn the ukulele and could soon accompany Ransford in his parody of an old rugby song:
  O we are the fighting Macships
It's at the bar you'll always spot 'em
Our motto is never let up
And to brass hats and bullshit
God rot 'em
Personnel on M.V.Macalpine
The song had all the flavour of Ransford's iconoclasm and irreverence for red tape and ‘bull’ which we had seen particularly at Machrihanish. As a Dartmouth product he never forgot he was R.N., but his approach to achieving the right tone in cooperation was just right. It was highly successful, with Capt. Riddle's enthusiasm and good humour, in blending us into one ship's company. And if we were asked to make cooperation a priority, no-one was asked to unbend beyond his natural bent, so to speak. Lt.Cdr. 'Tug' Wilson as A.S.O. and carrier of the final can while encouraging most if not all that went on had of necessity to keep the 'reserve' proper to the Senior Naval Officer aboard. He had already laid the foundations with Capt. Riddle back in Burntisland one evening, and like the rest of us had signed on with the Ben Line. He would take part in Bridge and Uckers (Ludo) contests and be beaten in the final of the latter by the champion - John Taylor. In truth all contributed to the cooperative enterprise on Empire Macalpine, and in turn the same spirit was conveyed to the succeeding grain and oil tankers which went into service later.
Captain William Riddle
But over all there presided the commanding figure of CaptainWilliam Riddle. He was responsible for the safety of the ship and its cargo. He was responsible for the handling of the ship when operating its aircraft or in convoy position, and he was responsible for both .R N. and H.N.personnel aboard and for the harmonious relations between them; a big man in every way. He set a marvellous example; one can still visualise him leaning over the bridge, a bulky figure with cloth peaked cap, smiling proudly and looking as if he'd been operating aircraft carriers all his life. He had in fact long connections with the R.N.. Born in 1882 the son of a Provost of Galashields, William Riddle joined the R.N. at the age of 15 and trained under sail, rising to full Lieutenant. He left the Navy in 1911 to be near his wife who died from Bright’s disease in1913.In 1914 he enlisted in the army but in view of his naval career was transferred to the R.N. in which he served till 1920. Seeing no immed­iate hope of promotion, he joined the Merchant Service in the Ben Line. He was Master of the Bencruachan from 1928 to 1941, when the ship was mined and sunk off Alexandria . Captain Riddle was in hospital with injuries which included a broken leg, and after a long recuperation was given command of M.V.Macalpine and watched her being built at Burntisland.
So that with his wide experience of ships and the sea in both services and his experience of command in war and peace, he was the ideal choice for this new venture. A brilliant raconteur and bridge player, he was a lively and entertaining visitor to the Mess when time permitted. Tug Wilson recalls the Captain's tale of being accosted on him way back to the ship in Burntisland by a well-­dressed lady offering overnight accommodation - for a price. Captain Riddle, in civilian clothes and hardly able to suppress his amusement, boldly offered 2/6d. "Half a crown" the lady snorted "and me with a hat on". Captain Riddle immediately had the respect of naval personnel, and he in turn had almost a fatherly feeling for his young flyers. He richly deserved the O.B.E. which he was awarded in 1944 for his work in pioneering the Macships.  

Deck Hockey - photo from Phil Blakey

On 28th May 1943 we left the Clyde and soon the contingents of ONS 9 from Liverpool, Loch Ewe and the Clyde, joined what we believed would be a perilous and exciting Atlantic crossing. Our role was defensive. Perhaps it was perceived that Atlantic conditions could restrict the possibilities of flying from such a small base or lead to unacceptable levels of accidents which would leave no serviceable aircraft when under attack: or that too frequent manoeuvring of the Macships within the perimeter of the convoy might increase the risk of collision. We would fly dawn and dusk patrols (weather permitting) and fly off in any weather on receipt of a U-boat contact. But the accent was on defence against actual attack. Perhaps Macships were seen merely as an advance on CAM ships in that the aircraft defending the convoy were retrievable and not, as in the case of the Hurricanes from CAM ships, expendable, but it was soon discovered that Macships could provide almost continuous cover when later Owen Johnstone in G Flight, flying from Ancylus did the night flying trials which instigated night ops from Macships.
To our great surprise our maiden voyage was a quiet one. In view of the fierce onslaught by the U-boats in inn winter and spring of 1942/3 we were expecting the Wolf pack attacks which had been the mainspring of U-boat successes of those months. Consequently we had our routines with duty crews at ready in the Ops room and relevant information - weather, identification - kept up to date. But unbeknown to us, in view of the loss of 40 U-boats in May 1943 Admiral Doenitz had ordered all U-boats to leave the Atlantic on the 24th - four days before we sailed. Thus, in view of our defensive role there was much less flying on this trip than in later days but there was work to be done, locating stragglers and increasingly mounting patrols to achieve our objective - the safe arrival in Halifax of the convoy's forty ships. So the daily routines kept us busy - daily inspections of the aircraft, plotting the convoy's progress, forecasting the weather, maintaining equipment, Navexes, and helping the ‘troops’ in preparation for tests for promotion.  
The first operational sortie from Macalpine was flown by Johnstone-Taylor in H for Howe (previously Harry). It almost ended in farce. Expecting U-boat packs to lie in wait, three small vessels were sighted at 0500 hours at the end of a patrol in cloud and rain, so we dodged into cloud to shadow and reported what appeared to be three U-boats in company approaching the convoy. When we came out of the cloud we discovered we were over three escort vessels looking for ONS 9. They asked us for directions, which we gave. Fortunately the 1304 R/T set on which we had reported the ‘enemy’ was not working, so our blushes were spared. But we on  Macalpine had had no warning to expect three escort vessels, so perhaps, in view of the fate of so many convoys our mistake was understandable. These dawn patrols were preceded by large draughts of ‘Pusser’s sludge’ - a naval concoction made from sugar, cocoa and condensed milk, stirred into a sludge with hot water. It certainly kept the cold out in the air on the bridge.