HMS Montserrat

Ireland, April 1945

Centre of picture seated is the captain, Lieutenant Commander Francis Downer DSC, RD, RNR (died 1993).

Below is the obituary of Captain Francis Downer from the Telegraph. It mentions HMS Montserrat briefly.

Obituary 5 October 1993 from the Daily Telegraph:

Captain Francis Downer

Captain Francis Downer, who has died aged 79, was one of those professional officers who bore the brunt of the Battle of the Atlantic during the Second World War.

In 1941, Downer was first lieutenant of the Flower-class corvette Nasturtium when she and her sister ships, Gladiolus and Celandine, carried out an unusual attack on a U-boat in defence of homeward-bound convoy HX 133.

Early on June 27 Nasturtium obtained a clear asdic echo of a U-boat. But she had no depth charges left, while the other two corvettes had depth-charges but no asdic content.

Nasturtium steamed over the target, indicating when the other ships should fire by dipping a flag, and marking the target by turning with full rudder over the spot. The corvettes' joint efforts blew U-556 to the surface. Abandoned by the captain and most of the crew, it quickly sank.

Downer was mentioned in despatches.

Francis Arthur John Downer was born on Christmas Eve 1913 and educated at St John's College, Portsmouth, and St Michael's, Hitchen. In 1929, he joined the British India Steam Navigation Co as a cadet.

By 1938 he was a third officer and had joined the Royal Naval Reserve. The next year he was appointed sub-lieutenant in the anti-submarine trawler Northern Pride and then served at HMS Paragon, the minesweepers' base at Hartlepool.

After serving in Nasturtium, Downer travelled to St John's Newfoundland, to assume his first command in the expanding Royal Canadian Navy - the Canadian-manned corvette Chilliwack, which escorted several Atlantic convoys at the most critical point in the battle. In 1942 he returned to Britain to command Northern Spray, a trawler converted into an anti-submarine vessel.

Some of the sailors felt that Downer was disappointed not to be given a corvette or a frigate, but he made the ship a happy and efficient member of the celebrated B7 Escort group under Cdr Gretton. 

Fitted out as a rescue ship, Northern Spray took part in the epic defence of the outward-bound convoy ONS5 in May 1943, a 10-day battle fought in foul weather over 1,000 miles of sea; 12 merchantmen were lost, but eight U-boats were sunk.

At the height of the battle Northern Spray had picked up no fewer than 145 survivors of various nationalities.

ONS5 was the turning point in the Battle of the Atlantic. More than 40 U-boats were lost in May 1943, and Admiral Donitz was forced to withdraw temporarily from the North Atlantic - a tremendous strategic victory for the Allies.

Northern Spray went on to escort many other convoys and to provide seaward anti-submarine defence for the D-Day Normandy landings in June 1944. Downer was awarded the DSC. His last wartime appointment was in command of the frigate Montserrat and as senior officer of the 23rd Escort Group.

At the end of the war Downer considered staying in the Navy, but eventually returned to the BI in 1946 and served in various company ships on the Eastern service.

In 1955 he commanded the steam-tug Arusha, based at Mombasa towing barges and lighters along the East African coast.

After serving as master of several ships, in 1965 he reached the pinnacle of his career as commander of the ex-troopship Nevasa, which had been converted into an educational cruise ship.

Nevasa was a great success. Schools from all over Britain took part in cruises. As many as 1,100 children spent a fortnight at sea, attending classes while visiting such destinations as Leningrad.

A devout Roman Catholic, Downer prayed every night of his life for those sailors - especially from ONS5 - whom Northern Spray had not been able to save from the cruel sea.

He was married, and had a son and a daughter.

When he died, my father was Captain FAJ Downer, DSC, RD, RNR (Rt'd). He was a Captain in the Merchant Navy, (in the British India Line to be precise, which fully integrated with P&O and ceased to exist as a separate entity in the early 1970's), and a Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Naval Reserve.

Richard Downer (son)