Tag Archives: Battle of the Atlantic

The Real Enigma Heroes by Phil Shanahan

We’ve all heard about the film U-571. Or, more importantly, how its a travesty of a film. Supposedly a fictional film based on true events, it is nothing more than a plagiarism of heroism, twisted to maximise profits with scant regard for any kind of integrity.

The men who were the REAL heroes were Able Seaman Colin Grazier, Lieutenant Tony Fasson and NAAFI Canteen Assistant Tommy Brown. Serving onboard the Destroyer HMS Petard, in October 1942 they volunteered to join a boarding party for the sinking U-559. Although the U-Boat was rapidly sinking, Grazier and Fasson went down below and retrieved vital documents, passing them up the conning tower to Brown. They remained below searching, and were onboard when the ship went down. Colin Grieve and Tony Fasson were both awarded a posthumous George Cross, and Tommy Brown the George Medal.

The capture of vital Enigma code books enabled codebreakers at Bletchley Park to finally crack the Enigma riddle, and continue to read German communications until the end of the war. In particular, the capture helped the Allies to win the crucial Battle of the Atlantic. Without that victory, D-Day might not have been possible, and the war may have lasted much longer – raising the disturbing possibility of the Russians reaching the Rhine or the Channel.

Yet surprisingly, it has taken decades for Grazier, Fasson and Brown to receive any recognition. The official secrets act precluded any publicity being given to the incident. The British Government were also keen to ensure that the Germans – and Russians – did not find out that the Enigma code had been broken. And thus the situation remained. Even the men onboard HMS Petard on that fateful night were not aware of how important Grive and Fasson’s actions were.

Phil Shanahan, of the Tamworth Herald, has ensured that the mens names will be remembered for evermore. Starting with a chance discovery – that Grieve came from Tamworth, he was astounded that the winner of the George Cross was unknown in his home town. A series of articles in the Herald followed. A Committee was formed, and set about raising funds for a fitting tribute in Tamworth town centre. Along the way he had some interesting encounters, with the Producer of U-571, and the Imperial War Museum. The U-571 debacle in particular raised much publicity for the Colin Grive Project. As Shanahan states, not many English provincial journalists have been interviewed in a Dallas daily newspaper!

There are some emotive episodes. In particular, I felt a personal connection with the dilemma Phil Shanahan found when confronting the Imperial War Museum. It is simply impossible to cover absolutely everything in any museum or book. The sad fact is that many people have their cause that is close to them, but there is never enough room to give each of them the credit that they deserve. It is a dilemma that many a poor Curator has faced, and I feel that the people who have to choose what to leave out deserve more sympathy. Similarly, it is easy to understand the sentiment that Grieve and Fasson should have been awarded the Victoria Cross. It’s something that I have written about at the time – that bravery is bravery, regardless of enemy action. Yet they were awarded the George Cross under the standards set, and it would have been unprecedented to upgrade them to the VC.

This is a very interesting and rather unique book. It is, in many ways, two books in one – firstly the story of HMS Petard, and then secondly the long fight to earn Grazier, Fasson and Brown recognition. They are complementary stories, and are intwerwoven in the order of which Shanahan and his team uncovered the stories and embarked on their campaign. There are some small errors of accuracy, but you can feel Shanahan’s passion. Something that many historians would do well to take note of, and not those involved in the making of U-571.

A fine statue was commissioned and erected in Tamworth town square, and a nearby Hotel was named the Colin Grazier Hotel. A Tamworth Housing Estate has had its roads named after men involved in the incident. And every year, the people of Tamworth celebrate Colin Grazier Day, with a small ceremony at the memorial, and a tot of rum in the evening.

This is a book and a campaign that is gripping and most inspiring. If only more local newspapers and local councils would be more diligent in recognising our communities heroes. It has certainly motivated me to ensure that Portsmouth’s heroes of the two world wars should never be forgotten.

The Real Engima Heroes is published by The History Press

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Filed under Book of the Week, Navy, Uncategorized, World War Two

Portsmouth’s WW2 Dead – the Merchant Navy

Over 30,000 British Merchant Seamen were killed during the Second World War alone. U-Boats alone sank 11.7 million tons of shipping, 54% of the Merchant Navy’s fleet at the start of the war. More than 2,400 British Merchant ships were sunk.

42 Portsmouth men were killed serving with the Merchant Navy during the Second World War. Although men were killed in the Atlantic, the South Seas, the North Sea and the Mediterranean, the biggest losses were suffered in local waters. On 20 September 1941 the Isle of Wight paddle steamer SS Portsdown hit a mine in the Solent with the loss of seven Portsmouth crewmen. And on 8 May 1941 the tug SS Irishman hit a mine in Langstone Harbour. Two Portsmouth sailors were killed.

Years

1 – 1939 (2.38%)
3 – 1940 (7.14%)
16 – 1941 (38.1%)
12 – 1942 (28.57%)
3 – 1943 (7.14%)
4 – 1944 (9.52%)
3 – 1945 (7.14%)

Most seamen were killed during 1941 and 1942 – particularly during the Battle of the Atlantic. However, 9 of the men killed during 1941 were lost on the SS Irishman and the SS Portsdown in local waters. Its noticeable though that there was a marked decline in merchant seamen deaths after 1942. Given that most merchant seamen were killed by U-Boats, this backs up the conclusion that from 1943 onwards the allies had largely defeated the U-Boat menace. The Luftwaffe was also in less of a position to attack allied shipping, either directly or by minelaying.

Areas

15 – Southsea (35.71%)
4 – North End (9.52%)
3 – Buckland (7.14%)
3 – Eastney (7.14%)
2 – Cosham (4.76%)
2 – Fratton (4.76%)
2 – Stamshaw (4.76%)
1 – Landport (2.38%)
1 – Milton (2.38%)

The origins of 3 men are unknown, and 6 men are listed as ‘from Portsmouth’. Its noticeable that most of the Masters and Chief Officers came from Southsea, and most of the junior seamen came from the working class areas such as North End and Buckland.

Ages

The age of Portsmouth’s WW2 Merchant Seamen is starkly different to the other services:

6 – Teenagers (inc one 16 and one 17 year old) (14.29%)
10 – 20′s (23.81%)
11 – 30′s (26.19%)
7 – 40′s (16.66%)
6 – 50′s (14.29%)
2 – 60′s (4.76%)

Its interesting to note both the relatively high number of men who were either teenagers – 14.29% – or 40 or older – over 30%. There are several explanations for this. Traditionally boys would go to sea young to learn their trade. The large number of older seamen may have been former naval servicemen who had left the Royal Navy for the Merchant Navy. Although most merchant seamen were in their 20′s or 30′s, the merchant fleet’s manpower took far less men from this age group compared to the Army, Navy or RAF.

Ships

Portsmouth’s Merchant Navy sailors who were killed during the war were lost on a variety of different vessels:

15 – General Cargo (35.71%)
7 – Isle of Wight Paddle Steamer (16.66%)
4 – Tanker (9.52%)
4 – Troopship (9.52%)
2 – Tug (4.76%)
1 – Auxilliary Anti-Aircraft Cruiser (2.38%)
1 – Cable Ship (2.38%)
1 – Fleet Auxilliary (2.38%)
1 – Hospital Ship (2.38%)
1 – Motor Launch (2.38%)
1 – Whale Factory Ship (2.38%)

The wonderful Uboat.net tells us much about Merchant Navy vessels lost in the war. The majority of men were killed onboard General Cargo ships, and mostly in the Atlantic by U-Boats. All of the men killed on General Cargo ships were killed on separate ships. Seven men were killed on SS Portsdown. Four men were killed on Tankers carrying fuel. The number of other different ships sunk during the war show the extent to which the Merchant Navy was mobilised by the war effort. Ships were sunk mainly by U-Boats, but several were sunk by air attack or by mines dropped by aircraft in coastal waters. One ship was sunk by German Motor Torpedo Boats in the English Channel. The Hospital Ship SS Amsterdam was sunk by a mine off the D-Day beaches in 1944.

The largest ship was the SS Queen Elizabeth, an 80,000 ton cross-Atlantic liner pressed into service as a troopship. She was not sunk during the war, but one of her crew members from Portsmouth died whilst serving in the Royal Navy. The smallest ship was the 99 ton Tug SS Irishman, mined in Langstone Harbour. These statistics again suggest the huge diversity of the Merchant Navy.

Cemeteries and Memorials

One Seaman is buried in Morrocco. Apart from that, all Portsmouth merchant seamen are either buried in the UK, or were lost at sea and are commemorated on the various memorials – mainly the Merchant Navy Memorial at Tower Hill in London, where 31 men are remembered. One man is remembered on the Naval Auxiliary Service Memorial in Liverpool.

Four men were buried in Kingston Cemetery, and three in Milton Cemetery. One man was buried in Highland Road Cemetery. Most men who were buried ashore either died of illness or injuries while their ship was either in port or close to shore. One man was buried in Falmouth, after his ship was attacked in harbour there by aircraft.

Roles

One of the most characteristic things about the Merchant Navy is the wide range of different roles men performed. Unlike in the regular armed forces, there was no formal rank structure, and seamen’s titles seem to have been based more on the function that they performed than seniority of command:

2 – Able Seamen
1 – Apprentice
1 – Baker
1 – Barkeeper
1 – Boilermaker
1 – Cadet
1 – Chief Engine Room Artificer
1 – Chief Engineer Officer
4 – Chief Officer
1 – Coxswain
2 – Deckhand
1 – Donkeyman
1 – Engine Officer
4 – Fireman
1 – First Radio Officer
1 – Fourth Engineer Officer
1 – Greaser
3 – Master
1 – Mate
2 – Ordinary Seamen
1 – Plateman
1 – Purser
1 – Second Engineer
2 – Second Radio Officer
1 – Stoker
2 – Third Engineer Officer
1 – Third Officer

Some of the interesting ranks include Baker, Barkeeper, Donkeyman, Greaser and Plateman.

3 men were serving as Masters. Elias Barnett, 58 and from Southsea, was the Master of RFA Moorfield. Benjamin Bannister, 48 and from Southsea, was the Master of the Tanker MV Arinia sunk by a mine of Southend in December 1940. And John McCreadie, 42 and from Southsea, was the Master of the SS Denmark, a troopship.

Decorations

Officer of the British Empire (OBE)
Chief Engine Room Artificer William Skinner (SS Southern Empress)

William Skinner’s OBE was announced in the London Gazette on 9 July 1941.

Royal Naval Reserve Decoration (RD)
Chief Officer Sidney Allen (SS Beaver Dale)

Sidney Allen was a former member of the Royal Naval Reserve. The Reserve Decoration was awarded to officers who had served over 15 years with the Royal Naval Reserve.

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Filed under merchant navy, portsmouth heroes, Uncategorized, World War Two