Robert Thompson & SS Empire Spring

SS Empire Spring torpedoed and sunk in the Atlantic near Sable Island 14th Feb 1942. All hands lost.

Leading Signalman Robert Thompson, aged 24, served as one of six Royal Navy staff aboard the CAM Ship, SS Empire Spring. Robert had completed naval training in London, met his wife on weekend leave in Southend on Sea, married in her hometown of Sunderland, and started a family. They were going to settle down in his hometown of York.

The SS Empire Spring, ship of the convoy commodore, departed Liverpool February 2, 1942 and convened with Convoy ON-63 north of Londonderry, Northern Ireland. 34 merchant vessels were to be protected by 11 escorts across the North Atlantic.

Unfortunately a wolf pack of German U-boats were further east, watching for an Allied invasion of Norway, when it stumbled into the west bound convoy on February 4. Three U-boats, U-136, U-213, and U-591, pursued the convoy.

SS Empire Spring was a Ministry of War Transport CAM (Catapult Armed Merchant) ship. These were British merchant ships used in convoys as an emergency stop-gap until sufficient escort carriers became available. They were equipped with a rocket-propelled catapult launching a single Hawker Hurricane to destroy or drive away an attacking bomber. Normally the Hurricane fighter would be lost when the pilot then bailed out or ditched in the ocean near the convoy.

U-136 sent a sighting report and commenced shadowing, but the transmission was triangulated by convoy escorts destroyer, HMS Chelsea, and corvette, HMS Arbutus.Arbutusran down the bearing to attack. The U-boat commander, responded aggressively, counter-attacking and torpedoingArbutusas she approached. The corvette broke in half and sank, with the loss of half her crew. 43 men, including her commander, were lost. U-136 was subsequently depth-charged byChelsea, damaged and forced to abandon her pursuit, saving ON-63 from further harm.

The destroyers, Upshur (DD-144), Gleaves (DD-423), Dallas (DD-199), Roper (DD-147), and the Coast Guard cutterIngham, left Londonderry February 4. They joined up with Convoy ON-63 on February 7 and immediately Upshur’s lookouts spotted a U-boat running on the surface two miles away and gave chase, but the German lookouts were alert, and the submarine submerged before Upshur could attack.

For two hours,UpshurandInghamscoured the area, dropping 15 depth charges before they returned to their stations.Upshurhad no sooner returned to station when she again spotted the U-boat, 8,000 yards away. Accelerating to flank speed, the flush-decker headed towards the enemy, only to have the U-boat submerge out of sight once more.Upshurfired two rounds from her forward 3-inch gun, both shells splashing around the enemy’s disappearing conning tower.Gleavessoon arrived on the scene and assistedUpshurin searching for the U-boat. Neither ship was able to make contact with the enemy that day nor the next, but they succeeded in preventing the German submersible from making contact with the convoy…

Upshur I (Destroyer No. 144), 1918-1945, Naval History and Heritage Command

The convoy, having lost only one vessel in the Atlantic crossing, HMS Arbutus, dispersed ~500 miles off the coast of Nova Scotia and the Empire Spring turned for the port of Halifax. Unfortunately the ship crossed paths with U-576 patrolling the eastern seaboard of the the USA and Canada.

At 03.37 hours on February 14 the unescorted Empire Spring was hit on the starboard side by one of two torpedoes from U-576 about 50 miles southeast of Sable Island. The Germans observed a small fire aboard and the vessel sagged in the middle after two boiler explosions. However, the ship only broke in two and sank after being hit on the starboard side by a torpedo fired from the stern torpedo tube at 03.53 hours. The master, the commodore (Capt A.D.H. Dibben, OBE, RNR), 42 crew members, five gunners and six naval staff members were lost.

It is now over 6 months since death was presumed, so is it so absurd to hope for further news now, but if it is allowed for security reasons, can you tell me anything about what happened?…I dared not ask before, I have no wish now to ask questions I shouldn’t, so I shall expect to hear nothing…

Elizabeth Dibben, writing to Naval Control Center about her husband Commodore Arthur Dibben

Robert and the SS Empire Spring were lost in February and his wife, Doris, gave birth to their first child Robert (Bob) the following month in March 1942. As the commodore’s wife had not received news, we must assume that Doris was also waiting on the official confirmation of Robert’s death.

Leading Signalman Robert Thompson RN (1918-1942) is remembered alongside his first cousin Sgt RCAF (Navigator) Harold Robert Thompson (1921-1943) who was lost in a training accident out of Husband Bosworth, Leicestershire. They share a gravestone in Stockton on the Forest, North Yorkshire.

Post Script

Five months later off the coast of North Carolina, U-576 encountered Convoy KS-520, which consisted of 19 merchant ships and 5 escorts steaming to Key West, Florida. She fired four torpedoes; sinking one ship and damaging two others. U-576 unintentionally surfaced in the middle of the convoy, prompting one of the escort ships to open fire on her and launch two Vought OS2U Kingfisher aircraft to successfully attack her with depth charges. U-576 sank, leaving a large pool of oil on the surface. All 45 crewmen on U-576 died; there were no survivors.

Family Tree

Robert Thompson is one of 31 cousins in his generation, born to the 7 children of Robert THOMPSON & Elizabeth SMITH. Robert THOMPSON (1839-1896) & Elizabeth SMITH (1849-1907) are our 2nd Great Grandparents and the common ancestors we share with Robert, their grandson. These are clear examples of large Yorkshire farming families!

  • Robert THOMPSON (1839-1896) & Elizabeth SMITH (1849-1907)
    • Mary Ellen Thompson (1876-1952)
    • George R Thompson (1877-1958) & Jane A Richardson (1874-1950)
      • Herbert R Thompson (1901-1921)
      • Gladys M Thompson (1904-1972)
      • Kathleen E Thompson (1905-1988)
      • Robert Thompson (1907-?)
      • Annie I Thompson (1910-?)
      • Nellie Thompson (1912-1974)
    • Hannah Thompson (1879-1960) & Richard W Gamble (1870-1942)
      • Nellie Thompson (1900-1968)
      • Mary Gamble (1904-1988)
      • Lucy Gamble (1905-?)
      • Hilda Gamble (1907-1988)
      • Annie Gamble (1907-1988)
      • Kathleen Gamble (1911-1981)
      • Elizabeth Gamble (1913-?)
      • Margaret Gamble (1916-1984)
      • Eva Gamble (1917-1999)
      • Dorothy Gamble (1922-1923)
    • James Thompson (1881-?) & Emmie Simnett (1885-1989)
      • Emmie Thompson (1911-1988)
      • William J Thompson (1912-1995)
      • Grace E Thompson (1914-2004)
    • Ann E Thompson (1883-1949) & James R Richardson (1883-1958)
      • Kathleen Richardson (1907-1997)
      • Hazel C Richardson (1922-1997)
    • Harold Thompson (1886-1960) & Myra Edith Thompson (1887-1979)
      • Earl D Thompson (1914-1972)
      • Margaret E Thompson (1915-2001)
      • Mary E Thompson (1919-1998)
      • H Robert Thompson (1921-1943)
    • Herbert Thompson (1887-1960) & Gertrude Scott (1887-1967)
      • Herbert Thompson (1911-1981)
      • Harold Thompson (1913-1995)
      • Robert Thompson (1918-1942)
      • Gertrude Thompson (1920-2002)
    • William THOMPSON (1891-1964) & Clara Eva BAKER (1893-1962)
      • Winifred May THOMPSON (1920-1977) & Charles Reginald BAINBRIDGE (1915-1994)
        • Our direct line…
      • David William Thompson (1930-2015) & Anne J M Golledge (1939-1992)



Family archivist, genealogical researcher, writer, and always open to receive questions, comments, and feedback via


2 Responses

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.