Category Archives: merchant navy

Falklands 30 – Atlantic Conveyor

English: Atlantic Conveyor. Approaching the Fa...

English: Atlantic Conveyor. Approaching the Falklands. About 19 May 1982. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Atlantic Conveyor was a twelve year old merchant container and vehicle transporter. Requisitioned on 14 April 1982, she was hurriedly refitted at Devonport Dockyard for service with the South Atlantic task force. She sailed from Plymouth on 25 April after undergoing trials, and was carrying 5 Chinook and 6 Wessex Helicopters.

Merchant vessels taken up by trade during the Falklands War present an interesting scenario.  Although most of their civilian crew stayed onboard and came under the naval discipline act, vessels also had a Naval party of officers and ratings onboard. Obviously, a merchant vessels master will know how to sail the ship better than a naval captain might, but would not necessarily know as much about naval warfare. Hence evidence suggests that the relationship between a ships master and senior naval officer, and indeed her civilian and naval crew, could be critical. The Atlantic Conveyor sailed with 31 merchant Seamen onboard, but 126 military personnel. Of these 36 officers and men formed the ships naval party, the rest were working on the aircraft carried.

She arrived at Ascension on 5 May, where she embarked 8 Sea Harriers as reinforcement for the Squadrons already in the South Atlantic, and 6 RAF Harrier GR3. Along with the amphibious group she left Ascension and arrived in the TEZ on 19 May, carrying a total of 25 aircraft. While entering the TEZ one Harrier was actually kept on deck alert, armed with Sidewinder missiles.

Although the Harriers were disembarked to Aircraft Carriers, the Altantic Conveyor retained her Helicopters onboard and remained with the Carrier Battle Group to the East while the landings at San Carlos began. She was due to sail into San Carlos Water on the night of 25 May to deliver her cargo. At 1940 that evening an air raid warning was received. Captain Ian North ordered an immediate turn to port by 40 degrees, to present th Conveyor’s strong stern doors to the direction of the threat. Emergency stations were piped, and the ships siren was sounded as an extra warning. HMS Invincible launched a Sea Harrier Combat Air Patrol. At 1942 an approaching missile was sighted by several ships, including HMS Brilliant. All of the naval ships in the vicinity fired off chaff decoys, but the Conveyor had not been given chaff. She was hit by two exocet missiles at

The missiles penetrated her main cargo deck, and a fireball spread through the ship. As a merchant ship she was not equipped with the kind of damage control that naval warships are, such as bulkheads or sealable sections. Fires spread through her vast, cavernous hold. Firefighting was therefore impossible, and she was abandoned in an orderly manner thirty minutes after being hit – even though cluster bombs were beginning to be ignited by the fires. After burning for another day, she sank whilst under tow on 28 May. Only one of her Chinook helicopters had left – and that only for a test flight.

One of the sad statistics about the loss of the Atlantic Conveyor is that of the 12 men who lost their lives, 9 of them had actually managed to escape the ship but died whilst awaiting rescue in the water. Among them was the ships civilian Master, Captain Ian North. North had made it into the sea, but slipped between the waves before boarding a lifeboat. The Senior Naval Officer survived but was deeply moved by the loss of his friend. That 139 of her crew of 149 – 92% – were rescued is testament to the great efforts made by ships and helicopters in the area. One of the helicopters assisting in the rescue was reportedly co-piloted by Prince Andrew.

The loss of the Atlantic Conveyors considerable troop-carrying helicopters meant that the land forces would, in the main, have to tab or yomp across East Falkland towards Stanley. This no doubt made executing the war a much harder porposition, than if six Chinooks had been available to lift the Paras, Marines, Guardsmen and Gurkhas right from Stanley to the Mountains. The Argentines might have prefered to have sunk one of the Aircraft Carriers, but sinking the Atlantic Conveyor was a remarkable piece of luck which probably prolonged the war for days if not weeks.

The Board of Inquiry into the Atlantic Conveyor found no fault with anyone involved in the loss of the ship, only raising minor points that could not possibly have been foreseen, especially given the speed with which merchant vessels had been co-opted into the war effort. It had been nigh-impossible, in the time available, to give much thought to the loading of explosive cargoes, as would have been the case in peacetime. Obviously she didn’t have the same kind of Magazine arrangements that a military ship might have.

It’s an interesting thought, that with a lack of platforms for flying helicopters, and an uncertain world, might it be possible to use ships such as the Atlantic Conveyor in an emergency once again? Her use was very similar to some of the Merchant Navy ships in the Second World War that were fitted to operate a small number of aircraft. Of course, the Harriers were ideal for this as vertical take off aircraft. And do we have enough spare naval personnel nowadays to provide naval party’s in a hurry? Being able to fit merchant vessels with Chaff in an emergency would also seem to be a lesson learn from the loss of the Atlantic Conveyor.

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Portsmouth’s WW1 Merchant Seamen

Memorial to the Merchant Seamen in Tower Hill

Memorial to the Merchant Seamen in Tower Hill (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the chapters in my recent book ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’ concerned Merchant Seamen who were killed in the Second World War. Whilst I did argue that the fate of merchant seamen had been overlooked compared to their counterparts in the three ‘main’ armed forces, merchant seamen in the Second World War have had a relatively high profile compared to their predecessors of the First World War.

Whilst we all know about the U-Boat wolf packs of the Second World War, it is less well known that Germany first attempted what it called ‘unrestricted submarine warfare’ in the First World War, in an attempt to bring Britain to her knees by choking her maritime links with the rest of the world. Just to give some kind of comparison, in the Second World War the British Merchant Navy lost 11.7 million tons of shipping – around 2,828 ships, with the los of around 30,000 men. In the First World War, the total was 7.7 million tons – 14,661 Merchant Seamen were lost. Less than in the Second World War, but clearly not insignificant either.

26 Merchant Seamen from Portsmouth died between 1914 and 1919. The interesting thing is, that three were killed in 1915, then two in 1916, before 8 were killed in 1917 and then 6 in 1918. It was in 1917 that Germany really ramped up it’s U-Boat offensive, and it really shows in the statistics of casualties.

Henry Kinshott, aged 33, was a waiter onboard the liner RMS Lusitania. A Cunard Liner, on 7 May 1915 the Lusitania was torpedoed by U-20, 13miles off of Kinsale in Ireland. She sank in just 18 minutes, with the loss of 1,198 of her complement of 1,959. 128 of those lost were American, and the disaster arguably played a part in encouraging the US to come into the war on the side of Britain and France. Kinshott is remembered on the Tower Hill Memorial in London. Born in Fareham, Kinshott lived at 3 Hampshire Street, Landport. Although thousands of people were killed, the Lusitania is relatively unknown compared to the Titanic.

A number of Hospital Ships were also lost at sea. On board the 12,000 ton HMHS Asturias was Greaser Stanley Cross, aged 2. On 21 March 1917, the Asutrias – formerly a Royal Mail ship – was damaged by U-66, 6 miles off Start Point in Devon. She was running between Avonmouth and Southampton, presumably carrying war casualties. The ship was beached and salvaged, but 35 men were lost, among them Stanley Cross. He is buried in Southampton Cemetery. Although Born in Landport in Portsmouth, he lived in Southampton.

One merchant ship actually had two Portsmouth men onboar. On the  SS Joshua were Master Thomas Jarrett, 48, and from 47 Derby Road in North End; and Mate Arthur Puddick, 40, from 27 Fourth Street in Kingston. The Joshua, a 60 ton coaster carrying china clay between Fowey in Cornwall and Dieppe in France, was stopped on 11 October 1917 by UB-57 west of the Isle of Wight. 3 of her crew were lost. Jarrett is remembered on the Tower Hill Memorial, while Puddick’s body was recovered and buried in Kingston Cemetery in Portsmouth.

A number of Navy Yachts were also lost during the war. The Royal Navy requisitioned a large number of smaller vessels, particuarly for Patrolling coastal waters. In most cases their civilian crews served onboard throughout hostilities. At least seven Portsmouth men were lost crewing Yachts.

The WW1 U-Boat offensive seems to have been a lot more indiscriminate than that of 1939-1945. As an illustration of this, even a Trinity House Pilot vessel was sunk. On 26 September 1915 the Vigilant, a 69 ton wooden ketch built in 1879, was sunk by UC-7 off the South Shipwash Buoy off Harwich. 14 of her crew were lost, uncluding Steward William Barley, 41, who lived at 42 Darlington Road in Southsea. He is remembered on the Tower Hill Memorial.

 

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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 Sinking of the Laconia: the verdict

Well now we’ve finally seen the two-part Drama ‘The Sinking of the Laconia‘. If you haven’t already seen it, you can catch it on BBC iplayer here.

My impressions? I found it very gripping and very moving. I don’t mind admitting that I was choked in a few places. Historically, it seems to have captured the essence of the story and with no major embellishments or historical licence. From what I can tell, the writers used real events quite well, albeit changing some names and circumstances slightly. Perhaps there was a little too much time given to romance and flirting, but hey that’s just TV I guess. I’m not althogether sure that the character of Hilda Smith existed, perhaps someone can enlighten me.

I have a feeling that the actions of the American B-24 Liberator crew may come in for criticism now. The drama’s portrayal of them was as hapless, inexperienced trigger-happy young men. I have to say that from what I know, their actions were irresponsible and sadly added to the loss of life and suffering from the sinking. But on the other hand, they were by no means the only men in wartime to make a bad call in a difficult situation. It would be nice to think that it was simply a mistake.

Overall I’m glad that such a heart-rendering story of humanity amongst war has finally got the recognition that it deserved. For too long the Laconia has been virtually forgotten in the annals of history, quite why is hard to explain. Hopefully that will change now.

Thank you to everyone who has visited here in the past few days, visits to my blog have gone through the roof. My record for daily visits was smashed by three times the old record, and today’s total will be even more too.

Finally, to anyone who was on the Laconia, or has a family story connected with it, please keep in touch, I will try and write about the story from time to time here. I’ve really enjoyed all of your contributions. There is also a Laconia group on Facebook that is a great way to keep in touch and exchange news and stories. Let’s make sure that the story of the Laconia is remembered.

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The Sinking of the Laconia: Tommy’s Story

Apologies to those of you who don’t know what happened to the Laconia and are looking forward to the programme – this article might be a bit of a spoiler! But I wanted to share with you all why its of such interest to me and my family.

Leading Stoker Thomas Daly

Leading Stoker Thomas Daly

As you probably guess from my surname, the male line of my family came from Ireland. We believe that my great-great-grandfather came over from Ireland some time in the late 19th Century, no doubt due to lack of work and famines that blighted Ireland throughout the century. Unfortunately due to a lack of records (burnt during the Easter rising in 1916) we have no idea where Daniel Daly came from, but the surname itself is very populous in Country Cork.

My Great-Grandfather, Thomas Daly, was born in Birkenhead near Liverpool in 1895. In June 1914- at the age of 19 – he joined the Royal Navy (he had previously worked as an electro-plater). He served as a Stoker, onboard Battleships and then onboard the early ubmarines. He settled in Portsmouth, and married my great-grandmother Lillian Maud Ross at St Agathas Church in Portsmouth in 1917.

Their eldest Children – Janet and Thomas (known as Tommy) – were born in 1919, followed by Iris in 1923, Pat in 1927, Ken (My Grandad) in 1928 and Terry in 1934. Notice the long gaps in between some of their births – this was almost certainly down to my Great-Grandad being away at sea for years at a time.

Tommy worked at a Mattress Maker’s before the war. He tried to join the Navy three times, but was each time rejected. When war broke out in 1939, h0wever, the Navy was desparate for men to crew re-activated ships, so he was accepted in early 1940. After a period of training ashore in Portsmouth he was drafted to the light cruiser HMS Enterprise as a stoker.

HMS Enterprise

HMS Enterprise

The work of a stoker was hard, dirty, smelly, noisy and hot. Originally tasked with shovelling coal into the ships boilers, in oil fuelled ships the stokers job was to maintain and keep the boilers operating. Most ships boilers had spray bars fitted that sprayed fuel oil into them.

 HMS Enterprise was an Emerald class cruiser of 9,435 tons, built at the end of the First World War. There were only two ships in the class, HMS Enterprise and HMS Emerald. They were the fastest ships in the Navy at the time, with a top speed of 33 knots.

 In June 1940, after the fall of France, HMS Enterprise was despatched to the Mediterranean as part of Force H. This naval task force was given the unpleasant but necessary task of ensuring that the French fleet did not fall into the hands of the Germans. HMS Enterprise took part in the destruction of the French ships at Mers-el-kebir in July.

 HMS Enterprise was then sent south to Cape Town, mainly taking part in convoy escorts and interception duties. In December 1940 she unsuccessfully hunted for the German auxiliary cruiser Thor, which had been menacing merchant shipping in the South Atlantic.

 In early 1941, she was sent to the Indian Ocean, where as part of a large fleet she took part in the search for the German cruiser Admiral Scheer. After the search was abandoned she then resumed escort duties, before going to Basra in May to support the suppressing of a pro-German revolt in Iraq.

 In November HMS Enterprise was refitted in Colombo, Sri Lanka. This refit was finished by December, when war broke out with Japan. In April 1942 she rescued some of the survivors from sinking of HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire, which had been sunk by the Japanese on their Easter Sunday raid on Sri Lanka.

 In December 1942, HMS Enterprise finally returned home to the Clyde after almost 18 months away from home. But my great-uncle was not onboard. Sometime before HMS Enterprise returned home, it appears that he had injured his hand onboard ship, and spent some time in the Naval Hospital in Colombo. It was either this, or the fact that he was promoted to Leading Stoker, that led to him being sent home onboard the SS Laconia, a Cunard Liner requisitioned as a troopship.

The Laconia

The Laconia

 The Laconia sailed from Cape Town in August 1942, carrying Italian prisoners of war, serviceman returning home and civilians. Somewhere north of Ascencion Island in the South Atlantic, she was hit by torpedoes fired from U-156 at 8pm on 12 September. By 9.11pm the ship had sank, with many still onboard. Even those who survived faced grim prospects, as sharks were numerous in the tropical waters.

 However, shortly after the Laconia sank, the U-Boat surfaced unexpectedly. Remarkably, the U-boat then attempted to rescue survivors, something that was not official German policy at the time. When Werner Hartenstein, the Commander of U-156, realised that POW’s and civilians were onboard, he broadcast over the radio requesting assistance. Several more U-Boats arrived to assist in the rescue. Unfortunately a flight of US B-24 Liberator bombers was not aware of what was going on, and attacked the U-boats. The U-boats then dived, leading to more loss of life. In total, 3,254 people died. The commander of the German Navy, Admiral Karl Donitz, gave his infamous Laconia order, that in future U-boats were not to rescue survivors. This order was part of the case against Donitz at the Nuremberg war crime trials.

After spending some time in the water, my great-uncle Tommy was rescued, and eventually handed over by the Germans to the Vichy French, along with many other survivors. They were transported to the French territory in Morrocco, and interned at a prison camp at Mediouna. Although conditions in prisoner of war camps are rarely luxurious, this camp in particular seems to have been atrocious – the prisoners were given old foreign legion uniforms, and one cup of wine and a bowl of soup a day. Dysentery and lice were rife. Red Cross reports on conditions were damming.

 Although they were liberated by the Allied Invasion of North Africa, Operation Torch, many of the men were seriously ill. My great-uncle was evacuated to the Naval Hospital in Gibraltar, and then home to the Military Hospital in Shenley, Hertfordshire. His condition must have been deteriorating, however. On 3 April 1943 a telegram was sent on behalf of the senior officer at the Hospital to my great-grandparents, informing them that their son Thomas Daly was seriously ill, and they were advised to visit him as soon as possible.

 Sadly, however his condition did not improve, and he passed away in Hospital on 27 April 1943. His Death Certificate gave Toxaemia – blood poisoning – and ulceration of the throat as the cause of death, both likely caused by suffering from Dysentery and malnutrition. No doubt this wasn’t helped by the trauma of being torpedoed in the South Atlantic and having to be rescued from the sea.

Tommy's Grave in Kingston Cemetery

Tommy's Grave in Kingston Cemetery

 He was buried at home in Portsmouth’s Kingston Cemetery. Its quite interesting really, we think of war graves as being something that we might see at Ypres, or Normandy. But in terms of the Second World War, more Portsmouth servicemen died in Britain than died abroad in action. If we think about it, the majority of men and also a lot of women were in uniform. For every man on a ship or on the front line, there were probably about the same number serving in the support services at home. And given the privations of the time, sadly its not surprising that many of them died. There were also a lot of older servicemen who were called up to train new recruits or to work in shore bases. 

It’s incredible to think that those dramatic events – that seem like a ‘Second World War Titanic’, happened when my 82-year-old Grandad was 15. And I have to say, it makes you think: how must it feel to lose your older brother when you’re 15? Not just killed in the war, but dying at home of illness after such a traumatic experience.

So if you watch ‘The Sinking of the Laconia’, please remember – these are real events that happened to real people, and some people still live with the effects to this day.

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The Sinking of the Laconia – Links, previews and interviews

In readiness for the Docu-dramaThe Sinking of the Laconia, due to hit our screens later this week, here are a few interesting links I have found about the programme, the ship and the incident.

BBC webpage
Wikipedia entry
Internet Movie Database
Guardian interview with writer Alan Bleasdale
Suite101 page
BBC press pack with interviews and more
Interviews with the main characters
Werner Hartenstein (U-Boat Captain)
U-Boat.net page

Hopefully on Tuesday or Wednesday I will give you some insight into my personal connection with the Laconia, by sharing my Great-Uncle Tommy’s story.

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Portsmouth Second World War Dead – An appeal!

British battleship HMS BARHAM explodes as her ...

HMS Barham exploding in 1941 (Image via Wikipedia)

I’m currently working on a book about people from Portsmouth who were killed during the Second World War.

I would be very interested to hear from anyone who has any information at all about any relatives from Portsmouth who were killed during the Second World War, seving with the Royal Navy, Royal Marines, British Army, Royal Air Force, Merchant Navy, ATS, NAAFI, British Red Cross and the Home Guard.

Any stories, documents, photographs, memories etc would be extremely useful, and I would be very grateful to hear from anyone who may be able to help.

In particular, I am looking for information and photographs about the following:

  • Chief Petty Officer Reg Ellingworth GC, a mine disposal rating from HMS Vernon
  • Seamen who were killed serving on the Portsmouth based battleships HMS Royal Oak, HMS Hood and HMS Barham. In particular Frederick Bealing (Royal Oak),
  • Portsmouth Submariners, particularly HMS Triumph (disappeared in the Med in 1942), and especially Electrical Artificer Arthur Biggleston DSM and Bar and Petty Officer Frank Collison DSM and Bar
  • Any Boy Seamen from Portsmouth who were killed (aged 18 or under)
  • Lieutenant Commander William Hussey DSO DSC, the Commander of HMS Lively when she was sunk off Tobruk in 1942
  • Royal Marines from Portsmouth, in particular Colour Sergeant Frederick Bird, a 62 year old WW1 veteran who died in 1943
  • Major Robert Easton DSO MBE, of the Royal Armoured Corps who was killed in Italy in 1944
  • Portsmouth men who died as Prisoners of War, particularly Private William Starling who died after VE Day in Czechoslovakia, and Sapper Ernest Bailey who was murdered by the Gestapo in Norway in 1942
  • Portsmouth men who were killed fighting with the Hampshire Regiment, particularly Lance Corporal Leslie Webb MM (D-Day) and Corporal Mark Pook MM (Italy)
  • Men killed on D-Day and in Normandy, especially Sergeant Sidney Cornell DCM and Private Bobby Johns (aged 16) 
  • Portsmouth men killed fighting in the Far East – including in Singapore, Burma, and as Prisoners of the Japanese building the Burma Railway
  • Bomber aircrew from Portsmouth, especially Flight Sergeant Patrick McCarthy DFC and Sergeant Francis Compton DFM
  • Flight Lieutenant John Coghlan DFC, a Battle of Britain and Special Operations pilot
  • Wing Commander John Buchanan DSO DFC, a Bomber Squadron commander who fought in the Mediterranean and North Africa
  • Flight Lieutenants Arthur and Ernest Venables, brothers killed when their Dakota crashed in Southern France after VE Day
  • The Merchant Navy – particularly the SS Portsdown, an Isle of Wight Ferry mined in 1941
  • The NAAFI
  • Women at War – the Wrens, ATS, WAAFS, British Red Cross

Or indeed any other stories that I may have missed.

I have a database of 2,549 Portsmouth servicemen and women killed between September 1939 and December 1947; sadly it is impossible to write about all of them, but hopefully I can pay tribute to them all by telling some of their stories.

Any stories at all will be of interest, its these kind of personal stories that really bring home the impact of war on families and communities.

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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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Portsmouth WW2 Dead Project: completed!

This afternoon I finished inputting the last of the 2,548 names of Portsmouth men an women who died whilst serving in the Armed Forces, between 1939 and 1947. Of course, this kind of project is never truly ‘finished’, as you can be sure that new names will crop up from time to time. And now the work shift towards finding out as much about each of the names in my database, in order to be able to tell their stories.

The names primarily come from the Portsmouth City Council list, compiled for the planned Portsmouth WW2 memorial. I am very grateful to Tim Backhouse of memorials for providing me with a list of names that appear on local war memorials but not on te PCC list (126 names). I have also used Geoff’s WW2 search engine to find more names that do not appear on the PCC list (355 names). Some of the names on the PCC list also appear to have come from Portsmouth in Lancashire, and these names have been omitted frm my database.

In the coming weeks I will be looking in detail at the statistics that come from the list. But to begin with, here are a few facts:

  • 1291 Royal Navy (50.67%)
  • 674 Army (26.45%)
  • 410 Royal Air Force (16.09%)
  • 115 Royal Marines (4.51%)
  • 42 Merchant Navy (1.65%)
  • 13 NAAFI (0.51%)
  • 5 ATS (0.19%)
  • 1 Red Cross (0.04%)

They came from all over Portsmouth:

  • 588 from Southsea (23.08%)
  • 242 from North End (9.5%)
  • 231 from Copnor (9.07%)
  • 203 from Cosham (7.97%)
  • 113 from Fratton (4.43%)
  • 105 from Milton (4.12%)
  • 85 from Stamshaw (3.34%)
  • 71 from Buckland (2.79%)
  • 66 from Eastney (2.59%)
  • 44 from Hilsea (1.73%)
  • 36 from Landport (1.41%)
  • 33 from Drayton (1.3%)
  • 33 from Mile End (1.3%)
  • 24 from Farlington (0.94%)
  • 22 from Paulsgrove (0.86%)
  • 21 from Portsea (0.82%)
  • 17 from East Cosham (0.67%)
  • 11 from Wymering (0.43%)
  • 8 from Kingston (0.31%)
  • 2 from East Southsea (0.08%)

318 men – 12.48% – are listed as from simply ‘Portsmouth’, the rest are either unknown or appear to come from somewhere else in the country.  However, unless we know otherwise it is best to assume that they had some kind of Portsmouth connection for their names to be put forward to the memorial.

The first men from Portsmouth to die in the Second World War were killed on 10 September 1939 – Able Seaman John Banks and Leading Seaman Percy Farbrace of HM Submarine Oxley, and Able Seaman William Holt of HMS Hyperion.

Private George Rowntree, of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, died on 24 December 1947. Aged 43 and from Wymering, he was the last man from Portsmouth to die during the period regarded as the Second World War for war grave purposes.

The oldest Portsmouth serviceman to die between 1939 and 1947 was Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Keyes GCB KCVO CMG DSO, who died of natural causes on 26 December 1945. He is buried in Dover. Keyes had been commander in chief at Portsmouth and also a local MP, as well as a former First Sea Lord and Chief of combined operations.

The youngest Portsmouth serviceman to die were Private Robert Johns of the Parachute Regiment, Boys 1st Class Gordon Ogden, Robert Spalding and Cecil Edwards of HMS Royal Oak, Ordinary Seaman Colin Duke of SS Irishman, Apprentice Tradesman L.H. Ward of the Army Technical School, Boy 1st Class Jack Lamb of HMS Dunedin, and Apprentice Electrical Artificer Raymond Whitehorn of HMS Raleigh. They were all 16.

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Filed under Army, Family History, Local History, merchant navy, Navy, Royal Air Force, Royal Marines, World War Two

SS Portsdown

SS Portsdown

SS Portsdown

During the Second World War Southern Railways operated a steamship ferry service between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight. Although on first impressions we might think that this was a relatively safe occupation, part of the Luftwaffe’s operations against Britan included dropping mines in coastal waters. An during wartime members of the Merchant Navy were liable to come under naval discipline, and the Merchant Navy was regarded as an arm of service in itself.

One of the Southern Railway steamers was the SS Portsdown. In service from 1928, she plied the route across the Solent. On 20 September 1941 the Portsdown blew up and sank off Southsea Beach. Eight of the crew and an unknown number of passengers were missing. It was believed she hit a mine.

Many of the crew were lost, and a lone civilian Passenger.

Eight crew members died when the Portsdown was sunk. Master Herbert Chandler, 57 and from Bognor Regis. Mate Seth Burgess, 33 and from Southsea. Purser Edward Cottrell, 34 and from Southsea. Ordinary Seaman Edwin Burnett, 19 and from Eastney. Fireman William Harrison, 47 and from North End. Fireman Bertram Rawlins, 25 and from Buckland. Deck Hand John Monk, 27 and from Southsea. And Deck Hand Alfred Farey, 61 and from Fratton. All are remembered on the Tower Hill Memorial in London, apart from Seth Burgess who is buried in Milton Cemetery. That they have no known grave suggests that the ship exploded and that only Burgess’ body was recovered.

Mecifully there seems to have been only one civilian casualty – Kenneth Spanner, 36 and from Sandown on the Isle of Wight. He seems to have no known grave.

How many passengers were onboard when she hit the mine? Did they manage to escape, or did the Portsdown only have one passenger onboard? It does seem strange for a ferry to have been travelling with just one passenger. She sank in around six feet of water, which taking a look at Admiralty chart, would place her around half a mile off Southsea Beach when she sank. Having fished the waters off Southea, I’m not awar of the wreck of a paddlesteamer off Southea. It would seem that the wreck was salvaged, or so destroyed by the explosion that nothing substantial remained.

There is a file on the SS Portsdown in the National Archives in London, so hopefully on my next visit I will be able to find out more. The local Newspaper might also tell me more. And knowing that the Portsdown was a Railway ship, and how enthusiastic Railway enthusiasts are, maybe I can find out more from that angle…

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Filed under merchant navy, portsmouth heroes, World War Two