Lost at sea

Tales my grandfather would have told me. A sailor's life 1910-1941

Archive for the ‘3. Shell years – 1919-1939’ Category

A sailor’s life – 48. Oil tanker apprentice, 1919

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Tilbury docks, 1920s

Tilbury docks, 1920s. Collection: National Education Network

Most of Britain’s sailing ships had been sunk or sold by the time Bill Jefferies was old enough to go to sea in 1919. So he signed on with the British Tanker company and became devoted to oil tankers instead. (“Remarkable ships, in many ways” he murmured, half to himself, as he committed his memories to a tape recorder at the end of his life.)

He remembered the “lovely women” who had brazenly boarded his ship during the month he as a “first tripper” had spent in Trinidad in 1919 waiting for cargo. The crew had dropped lines over the side to haul the girls up, and sold the shirts off their backs when their money ran out. By the time the ship got to Port Arthur, Texas, where the Americans inspected every man jack of them, there were less than a dozen men aboard who had not got VD, he recalled.

Oil tanker in channel outside Port Arthur, Texas, undated

Oil tanker in channel outside Port Arthur, Texas, undated

The captain had forcibly seen to it that the three apprentices kept their noses, and everything else, clean. “He put his big fist under each of our chins and shoved our heads back. And he said, ‘If I catch any of you boys going with any of these women, I’ll smash your faces in so your mothers never recognise you…” Then he took them to the hospital and made them look under the dressings at the ulcerated, seeping genitals of a seaman he knew who was dying there. Bill said: “I told my mother seven months later, when I got home, and she said Thank God for that captain.”

Bill’s mother was a doughty woman who had signed her younger son’s indentures and paid the bond as soon as shipping firms began to recruit apprentices again after the war. Bill’s brother Alf had been an apprentice on John Stewart’s barque Lorton with Algie Course and was one of the crowd of boys in Newcastle NSW with Bert Sivell in September 1913, revelling in the tennis, tea dances and charabanc trips organised by the mission while their ships lay along the Dyke. Bill recalled the excitement he had felt as a ten-year-old being rowed out to his brother’s ship at Tilbury when a wave splashed over him, and the burly seamen nodded sagely and said “that means you’ll go to sea too, lad”.

Apprentices from sailing ship Lorton, Sydney 1911

Apprentices from the sailing ship Lorton, Sydney 1911 - including AG Course, second right, front. From The Wheel's Kick and The Wind's Song, by AG Course

When Lorton was “sold foreign” in 1914, Alf  transferred to the barque Edinburgh. But in 1916 she was captured by the raider Möwe. The Germans had hauled out the crew and two live pigs and sent the old barque to the bottom of the sea with all sails set. The tropical night had been so clear, Alf Jefferies used to claim, that they could see her canvas shimmering whitely under the water after she’d vanished. Even the enemy commander was supposed to have sighed “Beautiful even in death”. Among the prisoners below decks, the squeals of the pigs being hoisted aboard the raider were reported to have given rise to the rumour that the Edinburgh’s captain had his wife with him, and that she was hysterical.

By the time Bill Jefferies went to sea, it was a much lonelier life than Alf had sketched. The old square-riggers’ crowd of apprentices had dwindled to just three on Bill’s oil tanker, and even before these greenhorns reached their ship a plausible bloke posing as the shipping agent managed to relieve them of their luggage so they had to be kitted out from the slop chest. Once underway they got seasick and the mate, an old sailing ship man, sent them down the hold to scrape paint pots while the tanker heaved and plunged in a south-westerly gale. After they’d been sick, to windward — another mistake they did not make twice, he ordered them to shift stores. For two days they were kept constantly on the move. But it worked. Bill never suffered sea sickness again.

“They really were a motley crowd, seamen of all nations except our enemies,” said Bill aged 90, remembering that first ship in 1919. “We had a British bosun, a Belgian carpenter – a tall man with fierce whiskers who used to cause a lot of trouble when he was drunk. We had Latvians and Estonians, two Chinese cooks, and a Dutch chief steward. The average seaman in those days was either very old or a foreigner.” The fierce Welsh captain who kept his apprentices out of trouble had been torpedoed five times, or so he claimed.

But by 1920, US production of gasoline (petrol) alone was 116 million barrels (42 US gallons per barrel) – from less than 7 million barrels in 1901. Across the world the oil industry was booming.

Coming next: Clan line or Shell?
Previously: In Remembrance

A sailor’s life – 47. In remembrance

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Merchant Navy memorial London Chama panel with poppy

Panel for the oil tanker Chama, Tower Hill memorial, London

The last fighting Tommy of the first war is dead, at 111. The last RN is 109, deaf and blind. Now trips to the beaches at Dunkirk too are thinning. Every Christmas another card fails to appear. One by one, the voices who have told me their stories over the past fifteen years fall silent.

On Tower Hill in London every September and November, wreaths appear in the sunken garden that is the merchant navy memorial. Here are commemorated – ship by sunken ship – the thousands of British merchant seamen lost in the second world war who “have no grave but the sea,” as the stone inscription reads.

The brass panels with the names ripple round the walls, punctuated by allegorical figures of the seven seas and frisking dolphins. It is a tranquil and strangely happy memorial, alive and visited. On a sunny day it is like stepping down into a swimming pool. Traffic noises recede overhead. Peace closes around you.

Often there are single poppies, stickytaped beside a name. Or little wooden crosses and stars of David, left by relatives.

statue, merchant navy memorial, tower hill

Statue on the Merchant Navy memorial, Tower Hill

A small skipping girl and a grey-haired woman passed me one afternoon. “Were they pirates, granny?” the little voice wafted back. The woman smiled wryly at me and I grinned. I, too, was first brought here as a child, to read my grandfather’s name on panel 27. This place is not about glorifying war, but acknowledging loss.

It is estimated that more than 32,000 of the 185,000 merchant seamen who served on British ships during the second world war either drowned with their ships, were killed by enemy attack, or died in prisoner of war camps – proportionally more than any of the three armed forces, including the RAF.

Yet until 1999, merchant seamen were not included in the national Armistice Day commemorations at the Cenotaph. They were civilians, not “under command”. So the merchant navy held its own remembrance service, here on Tower Hill. And in true non-conformist spirit, it still holds its own service – on the Sunday nearest September 3rd, marking the day in 1939 when the first merchant ship was sunk, a bare nine hours after Britain declared war. The SS Athenia, of the Donaldson Line, Glasgow, was torpedoed by U30, killing 93 passengers and 19 crew – mainly men trapped deep in the engine rooms. There were no “phoney” first months of the second world war for the men and women at sea.

Merchant Navy memorial Tower Hill London September 2010 - little flags

Merchant Navy memorial Tower Hill, London, September 2010 – little flags

Over the years, events on Tower Hill have swelled not stilled. Nowadays there is a brass band, and big-wigs, and prayers are led by leaders from a range of faiths. There is a crowd. This year all present on September 5th were invited to commemorate an individual or ship, and the lawn beside the compass rose erupted in fluttering paper flags.

By now, the ships on the brass panels have become familiar. I can pick out the Shell and BP tankers, the Liberty ships,  the freighters with the last bananas, the passenger liners carrying troops. I know many of their stories.

I have also learned that the panels, comprehensive though they seem, mislead. Many more names – perhaps thousands – are missing here. Not just the shipmates who survived only to die in captivity as PoWs, but men like my grandfather’s Chinese crew: all 38 of them, from Yow Siong Kong, the bosun, down to 23-year-old Foo Yee Yain, the pantry boy.

It took me years to realise that the fourteen names listed below HS Sivell, master of the Shell tanker Chama, could not be the whole story of what happened that night in March 1941 when the ship disappeared with all hands. After the war Shell estimated it had lost 1,009 Chinese “ratings”. They are commemorated in Hong Kong, separate from the officers they died with and far from their families in Hainan and Fujian who waited. Not British seamen.

Yet Shell’s Chinese survivors between them garnered 35 awards, ranging from the Distinguished Service Medal and Lloyd’s medal for bravery, to three Bronzen Leeuwen from the restored Dutch government. If anyone happens to be passing the mariners’ memorial in Hong Kong any time, perhaps they could look up young Foo Yee Yain, and the others, and leave a token for me. I’d love a photo.

Sunken garden, Tower Hill merchant navy memorial, with wreaths for Anglo Saxon and Chama

The sunken garden at Tower Hill, with wreaths for Anglo Saxon and Chama

It was business as usual at Tower Hill last Friday when I turned up with a wreath for the steamer Anglo Saxon, on behalf of a donor in America and the then 10-year-old son of the chief engineer. There were two elderly ladies in one corner struggling to stick a poppy beside a name too high on one of the brass panels, a lunchtime jogger doing his stretches against the Portland stone, and tourists hung about with cameras snapping the sculptures – strays from the Tower of London beyond the underpass.

Anglo Saxon was attacked and sunk by the raider Widder on 21st August 1940, and seven men made it into the ship’s jolly boat. In November 1940, just two of them – Bob Tapscott and Roy Widdicombe – crawled ashore on Eleuthera, in the Bahamas, more dead than alive after 70 days adrift, watching their five fellow survivors die one by one of gangrene and thirst.

But their story does not end there. Widdicombe was lost en route back to Europe aboard the Siamese Prince. Tapscott eventually committed suicide. Their 70 days isn’t even a record.  And their experiences never made quite the headlines in wartorn Britain that they had in the neutral US. In 1997 the relatives managed to get the jolly boat brought back to the UK, where it and the 24 notches carved in the port gunwale before the men gave up hope now sit in the Imperial War Museum, as part of its hands-on Explore History exhibition.

Just one story from the thousands on Tower Hill.

Read on: Oil tanker apprentice, 1919
Previously: Through a glass, darkly

Three minutes' silence at the merchant navy memorial, Tower Hill, London

Lest we forget

Full list of the 55 officers and men of the Shell oil tanker Chama, lost with all hands March 1941:

HS Sivell, Master
JE Black, 2nd Engineer
IC Cunningham, 3rd Mate
A Gray,
R Hilhouse,
WH Hume
CW McCarthy, W/O
AH McKnight
PH Manderville, 5th Engineer
JC Miller
MT Murphy, W/O
RG Novak, apprentice
J Walker
F Wellings
ALF Williams, Chief Engineer
Yow Siong Kong, 42, bosun
Ngai Ah Sai, 44, storekeeper
Ah Yee, 33, quartermaster
Leng Ah Moy, 35
Lee Ah Chay, 29
Wong Ah Chong, 36, quartermaster
Wong Ah Tay, 33, sailor
Yang Siew Luk, 24
Lim Loon, 31
Ee Long Tatt, 30
Lim Sin Keng, 41
Kim Kwang, 24
Chao Ah King, 30
Ting Meng, 28
Teong Ah Tay, 32
Chan Sum Sang, 23
Ling Ah Chaw, 34
Wong Tung Kuam, 21, Sailors Boy
Tiew Khek Guan, 41, carpenter
Chong Song, 38, no 1 fireman
Choung Hee, 25, no 2 fireman
Li Kan, 42, no 3 fireman
Thoe Foon, 27, donkeyman
Chong Fai, 44, pumpman
Mik Kia, 37, fireman
Lam Kan, 37, fireman
Siong Wah, 40, fireman
Chong Wo Fook, 31, fireman
Fung Kim, 27, fireman
Wong Choo, 30, firemen’s cook
Juan Seng, 35, chief steward
Joe Jim Fatt, 28, 2nd steward
Tan Tian Teek, 40, chief cook
Mew Po Heng, 33, 2nd cook
Lee John San, 32, mess room boy
Ee Muay, 35, mess room boy
Foo Yee Yain, 23, pantry boy
Sim Tie Jong, 26, saloon boy

Albert Victor Wincup, RN, 44, Chief Petty Officer (DEMS gunner)
Bertram Smith, RN, 20, Able Seaman (DEMS gunner)


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