Tag Archives: India

SS Gairsoppa

tower hill memorial taken 27/11/03 by a brady

Tower Hill Memorial (Image via Wikipedia)

Interesting news item yesterday, when it was reported that the wreck of the wartime merchant vessel the SS Gairsoppa had been located and positively identified in the Atlantic, at depths of over 6,000 feet.

The Gairsoppa was built in 1919, originally named War Roebuck. She was taken over by the British India Steam Navigation Company and renamed the SS Gairsoppa. Weighing in at 5,237 tons, she operated out of Glasgow. Her crew numbered 86, made up of British Seamen and Indian Lascars.

In 1941 she was returning from Calcutta in India to Britain, via the Cape of Good Hope, carrying a mixed cargo, but more interestingly, hundreds of tons of silver bullion. Off Sierra Leone she joined Convoy SL-64. Slowed down by poor weather and running low on coal, on 15 February the Gairsoppa detached from the convoy and headed for Galway in southern Ireland. At 1800 on 16 February she was spotted by U-101. After trouble keeping up with the Gairsoppa in the deteriorating weather, at 2328 that evening the Commander Ernst Mengersen fired three torpedoes.  The freighter was heavily damaged, and settled in the water burning. The survivors abandoned ship, and she sank within 20 minutes, 300 miles south west of Galway.

Out of three lifeboats, two were lost without trace. One, containing the second officer and 31 men, survived. After seven days most had died of exposure. On 1 March only the second officer, four british sailors and two lascars were alive when the boat reached the Lizard in Cornwall, after two weeks at sea. Tragically, all but the second officer perished when the lifeboat was swamped in the surf. The Master, Gerald Hyland, 82 crew members and 2 gunners were lost.

The Third Master was a Portsmouth man – Campbell Morrison, aged 24, an old boy of St Johns College in Southsea. He is remembered on the Tower Hill Memorial in London to Merchant Seaman with no grave other than the sea.

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The 2nd Norfolk Regiment from Le Paradis to Kohima by Peter Hart

This is yet another book in Pen and Sword‘s ‘Voices from the Front Series’, and this one again is authored by the Imperial War Museum‘s Oral History expert Peter Hart. The 2nd Norfolks began the war as a regular Battalion, and went to Northern France in 1939. During a tour on the Maginot Line the Norfolks won some of the British Army’s first gallantry medals of the war. Back with the BEF in May 1940, the Norfolks found themselves in the thick of the fighting back towards Dunkirk.

As interesting as Dunkirk was, it’s the chapters about the British Army in Britain in late 1940 and 1941 that really interested me. How a shattered Army rebuilt itself, and how regular Battalions found themselves diluted with territorials and conscripts, and how county regiments found themselves taking in recruits from all over the country and the Army abandoned its local recruiting policy. The Army – and its officers and men – had a lot of learning to do in a very short space of time, and the memories of ordinary soldiers during this period that I find fascinating. Much of this period was spent firstly guarding the coast against invasion, and secondly exercising and familiarising with new equipment.

After the threat of invasion subsided with Hitler’s invasion of Russia, Britain found herself facing a second theatre of war in the Far East. Accordingly the 2nd Norfolks were sent to the Far East. They landed first in India, and there are some fascinating stories about the passage East and the period spent acclimatising in the sub-continent. The Norfolks spent some time quelling civil distubance in India too, with the rise of Gandhi’s national congress beginning to pose problems for the Raj.

After acclimatising to the Far East – a difficult process for western constitutions – the Norfolks went up to Kohima, in time for the pivotal battles around the Indian-Burmese Border there and at Imphal. What follows is a most insightful account of a Battalion fighting in extremely trying circumstances, at a critical point of the war. One account tells of how a Norfolk soldier hid with his section in the jungle and observed hundreds of Japanese pass by, only yards away – such was the intensity of the war in Burma.

I am a great fan of these Oral Histories, and particularly those that focus on the experiences of ordinary soldiers and junior officers – so often the people at the point of the sword, but for so long the people we have heard the least from. Thank god for projects like this that finally give them a voice. And the experiences of this ‘ordinary’ Battalion, from the BEF to Burma, encapsulates the British Army’s journey from 1939 to 1945 perfectly.

The 2nd Norfolk Regiment – from Le Paradis to Kohima is published by Pen and Sword

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