Archive for the ‘Other stories’ Category
David Morris called himself a journalist, a writer. He’d been on the lookout for a job on a square rigger for months before he heard of Monkbarns in Sydney in June 1925. He wanted “atmosphere” for some historical sea stories he was preparing to publish, he told the Newcastle Sun as the ship loaded Australian coal for South America. He wanted thrills, he wanted to “see the Pacific at its worst”.
Around him on deck, eyes slid away. “Some of the crew, with that superstition born in seamen, are inclined to regard him us a hoodoo,” the reporter noted.
Three weeks earlier Morris had shot across to Walsh Bay, Sydney, where the ship was discharging nitrate, and buttonholed the mate, offering himself in any capacity at a nominal wage. The mate had said “Nothing doing”, but as he trudged off down the gangway, they’d had a rethink. If he really wanted the experience, said the master, he could come along as a general helper at £2 a month (about £1,000 per annum today.)
Was it a cheap shot they’d expected him to refuse? Morris called himself the Captain’s steward, though he appears on the crew list as Cabin Boy, but pay for a seaman was £10 a month, not £2. Then again, as steward or “boy” he didn’t have to go aloft in all weathers or stand his trick at the wheel. He was a housekeeper, minding stores and dispensing first aid.
“Yesterday Morris was caught sewing his shirt, with stitches that would disgust a housewife, on the steps leading to the poop deck. He is a well-built man of 25, but he looks more like 30. The small moustache on his upper lip, and the tan shoes and the tweed suit already soiled by work in the galley, looked strangely out of place there,” said page 6 of the Newcastle Sun.
London-born Morris had visited most ports in the world as a passenger, and had slept in some of Australia’s best hotels and its least inviting parks in his quest for “atmosphere”, readers learned. He had been inspired to join Monkbarns by the runaway success of a sea thriller published the previous year by another young Australian journalist, Dale Collins. Ordeal is based on a round-the-world trip Collins made aboard the motor yacht Speejacks as historian to the US cement magnate Albert Younglove Gowen, who happened to be on his (second) honeymoon. The novel – about seamen turning on their idle rich passengers – was filmed in 1930 as The Ship from Shanghai, with Louis Wolheim as the ship’s crazed steward who holds them all hostage.
Morris was quite frank about what he was up to; there were men on Monkbarns who had had remarkable experiences, he told the newspaper, and he wanted to “chase up” some of those real-life stories. But he seems to have fallen short on listening. This may have been a world of horny-handed hard cases risking life and limb in all weathers aloft, but they still wouldn’t set sail on a Friday, or whistle for fear of challenging the wind, or even say “pig” out loud.
Of the 28 men and boys who had left Liverpool in March 1923, two were dead – including a 19-year-old apprentice lost lashing down an escaping sail during a hurricane – and two more would die before they dropped anchor back in the Thames in 1926.
By June 1925, only the captain, the mate, “Sails” and the older apprentices remained of the original company. It was they who had faced down disaster on the passage out, when a hurricane south-west of Good Hope knocked them so badly that the cargo shifted. With the lee side of the ship 12ft under and green seas raking the deck, it was they who had risked their lives deep in the hold, shovelling rock salt uphill for three days to try to right her. Young Cyril Sebun was lost off the upper topgallant yardarm while they laboured. But nothing could have been done to save him. The boats were all smashed.
Eventually, they put into Cape Town in distress – a first for Captain William Davies. “During my forty years of service in sailing ships I have never had an experience that can in any way compare with this recent one, and to be quite frank, I should not like to pass through a similar ordeal again.”
On arrival in Australia, three seamen deserted – abandoning their pay – and Morris’s predecessor killed himself with an overdose of chloroform. He had been drinking heavily, the inquest noted. He was buried in Stockton NSW, where some of his former shipmates from the SS Argyllshire called the following spring. They sang Welsh hymns at his grave, and laid artificial flowers. They knew.
So, it was not surprising that Morris’ taste for ill winds made his shipmates uncomfortable and by the time Monkbarns had been at sea for two months, things had turned nasty.
Three entries from the diary kept by one of the apprentices, Eugene Bainbridge, offer a snapshot: 23.8.25. Sunday. Played Bridge all day and was 600 up to finish. It has been quite parky lately and it was anything but warm at the wheel from 12-2 tonight. Course ENE, on starboard tack. Shaved David Morris’s beard in half deck after putting him forcibly on the floor. He seemed a bit peevish and didn’t play ‘Vingt et un’ very well afterwards. The job we made of his beard wasn’t very good.
24.8.25. Monday. Clear, calm, sunny, fresh. Doing about 2-3 knots. Course ENE. ‘Maurice’ came in for about two minutes tonight. He seemed to know that there was something in the air and beat it.
25.8.25. Tuesday. A night of revelry of a peculiar sort. The subject was ‘Maurice Moscovich’. Notices were posted on the half deck doors inviting you to a singsong to be held in the fo’c’sle at 6.30pm. The Mate was particularly asked to refrain from blowing 2 whistles and when told why, was quite sympathetic. At 6.30 sharp, we met and the subject [Morris] had wandered into the gay party.
It was a bluff. He was to be seized in the middle of its proceedings and tried by the chief Pelican and his confederates. All passed off as planned and the victim was found guilty of not supplying the fo’c’sle with molasses and duly sentenced to have his port beard and starboard ‘tache shaved off. Cold water was used to emphasise the gravity of the act, and Bill Hughes, the Court Hairdresser, operated.
But worse was to come, because Morris evidently put up resistance to the assault, verbally if not physically. Bainbridge, a 21-year-old ex-boarding school boy from Maida Vale, London, records that the victim was deemed to have been “unduly insolent” to his tormentors – and a vote for death by dropping over the after part of the poop was passed.
It is possible that there was more than a little anti-Semitism in this “hazing” as Maurice Moscovitch was a well known Russian Jewish stage actor that summer wowing Australian audiences with his Merchant of Venice and Morris’s middle name was inscribed on the crew list as Isidor. Bainbridge had been to see Moscovitch at the Criterion theatre while Monkbarns was in Sydney.
More worrying still, the punishment meted out – for poor stewardship of the few treats that made the ship’s diet of salt meat and pulses bearable – apparently had the backing of the Master and the Mate. Bainbridge writes: We next trussed him up in a sack etc and took him aft for the mate’s inspection.
The procession marched solemnly back singing ‘For it’s a Lie’. Prisoner was next trussed up again (more securely) and taken forth to his execution. Maurice was marched up on to the fo’c’sle head and lowered away over the break. The wash tub was underneath and someone was making a noise like water. The stunt worked so far and when about a foot off the deck, the word was given and Maurice was dropped!!! He arrived in a heap at the side of the ‘donkey’ [steam winch] amid cheers and benedictions from the High Priest.
Had Morris believed his hostile playmates were actually dropping him gagged and bound into the Pacific? It seems more than possible, but he showed his mettle by joining them in the fo’c’sle, where proceedings continued as a “sing song”, and reciting a chunk of Kipling for the company. Whereupon everyone joined in a hearty chorus of “For he’s a jolly good fellow” and peace descended. Bainbridge wrote: The Old Man and Mate were both observed to be enjoying it uncommonly.
Many years later, “Bill the Court Hairdresser” – by then Captain William Hughes, sir – remembered David Morriss [sic] and his quest for atmosphere. “He got it all right, and I’m sure that what he went through before reaching London would fill two or three books,” he told AG Course, chronicling the history of the John Stewart ships for his book The Wheel’s Kick and The Wind’s Song.
Two months later, just outside Valparaiso, he was still annoying the apprentices (Dave joins us, and we are bored to a standstill with his platitudes!) but he’d graduated from ‘Maurice’ to Dave. And in port, Dave showed a pleasing openhandedness with the ship’s stores as the apprentices rowed around visiting and being visited by boys from neighbouring ships. (Dave got us some stores and there was plenty of scoff. He unfortunately spoilt this good turn by telling some of his tall yarns.)
However, as soon they put out to sea again and rationing restarted, the moans resume. 9.3.26. Dave wants to substitute sugar for molasses instead of substituting jam. This is not a fair exchange as sugar doesn’t go well with bread and butter! 5.5.26. Dave has been making mistakes with the weighing out of the butter and the tins containing so painfully small a quantity we complained and found we were getting less than our whack!
Happily, nine months after Morris’s sentencing by the Pelican Club, the horseplay had become rather more inclusive, if no less rough. By then, Captain William Davies was dead in Rio de Janeiro, the Mate was the new Old Man and the ceremony as Monkbarns passed Lat 0° 00’ 00” was a more or less welcome letting off steam after a very trying few months fighting their way round the Horn with the dying man refusing to put into port.
Young Bainbridge had a ringside seat. 9.5.26. Sunday. Crossed the Line last night. We all ‘felt the bump and noticed that the ship was going faster downhill!!’ At 1.30, I was let into the secret by Bill that we ‘offenders’ had to ‘go through it’. The Old Man had made some pills of ginger, glycerine and several other ingredients and covered them with sugar (of which there is a very large quantity aboard from Rio.) Jim had made some very ‘choice’ mixture of tar, tallow, soap, Melado (molasses) and red lead.
In time honoured tradition, Neptune appeared over the side clad in oakum and bearing a huge trident made from the mast of the for’rard boat, accompanied by his Wife, his Barber, his Parson – in a lead foil cassock and paper collar – and his Doctor carrying the bag of pills. They set up court on the main hatch.
Bainbridge and Morris were among six “first trippers” the god of the sea wanted to inspect for fitness.
I was first blindfolded and then marched to the main hatch, falling over several ‘lines’ drawn across the deck. We had made the washhouse door fast and they had to break the handle off to get in. I was first asked by Neptune why I had done this and if I had crossed the Line before and why I hadn’t been ‘put through it’!
I then kissed his wife’s foot, which was covered with tar and was then shaved using the mixture, getting plenty of it in the mouth. I received the pills and spat them out. At a second shot, I managed to conceal one behind my tongue but before I could remove it my mouth was sore! I finished up being tipped backwards into a tub of water and then liberated. After I had seen two or three others done I went onto the boom and caught a 24lb bonito, which we had for tea. The proceedings broke up with all hands ‘splicing the main brace’.
They were back in the northern hemisphere after three years away, and “home” suddenly seemed closer. But Monkbarns’ adventures were not over. Progress was slow. Supplies ran out. By 450 miles off the Lizard they were down to rice and ersatz bread, but once into the shipping lanes an obliging German steamer provided relief.
They brought the boat alongside and the provisions pulled aboard: three sides of bacon, two hams, two cases of spuds, three sacks of flour and about 16 tins of Argentine boiled beef (we had some for tea and it was excellent), a certain amount of margarine and butter for the cabin, also lard and Dutch evaporated milk. Then the Cook gave us curry and rice for breakfast!!!!!!!! It was nearly the last of him.
But two weeks later they were still 12 miles off Portland Bill, and “reduced to rice, tea and a little jam and bread”, according to another unpublished diary of that voyage, by able seaman Dudley Turner. “Not had a smoke for weeks, which makes matters a lot worse.” And the Old Man was refusing to flag down any more ships.
When they picked up the pilot off Dungeness and it was discovered he handed out cigarettes for good steering – the first tobacco seen aboard for weeks – there was a rush to relieve the wheel frequently. “Never had such good steering been seen before by the old ship,” wrote Course. But they were so undernourished that the tug crew had to help them haul the hawser aboard.
At 6pm on 10 July 1926, Monkbarns dropped anchor off Tilbury. The pilot presented them with a sack of potatoes and Bainbridge records a “memorable feed of sausages and boiled spuds!!! Never was a meal so appreciated”.
The following day they were towed up to Charlton Buoys, a vessel from a bygone age gathering crowds on the banks, and there the crew were paid off.
And there the story ends. Monkbarns was sold “foreign”, and towed to Corcubion in northern Spain to end her days as a whalers’ coal hulk. Eugene Bainbridge abandoned the apprenticeship for which his father had shelled out £42 and never went to sea again. What became of David Morris I cannot tell. Bill Hughes thought he’d gone in to radio in Melbourne. If he ever wrote up his historical sea stories, neither AG Course nor I could find a trace.
Bizarrely, the real thrill-seeker aboard Monkbarns that trip turned out to be the youngest apprentice, 17-year-old Len Marsland of Brisbane. After rounding the Horn in sail, in 1929 he pops up as a member of Sir Douglas Mawson’s Australian Antarctic expedition. He worked as a prison guard in Canada, chased the explorer Sir Hubert Wilkins across the Atlantic in an attempt to sign up for his submarine expedition under the polar ice, reappeared in Reykjavik, erecting a signal station, and then back at sea as an officer on an icebound freighter in the Baltic and facing down machineguns in a Russian Black Sea port. Tragically, Marsland’s adventurous career was short. While working as a stuntman for Sir Alan Cobham’s famous flying circus in 1935 his parachute failed to open. He fell 1,000 feet and died in Esher, Surrey, aged just 27.
Previously: A doctor aboard 1913
Much of what we know about the dying days of sail was recorded after the First World War, when most of Britain’s last old sailers had been sunk or ‘sold foreign‘.
Eric Newby’s The Last Grain Race and Elis Karlsson’s excellent Pully-haul were published as late as the 1950s and ‘60s, both about what were by then Finnish-owned vessels – the Moshulu, now a restaurant (!) in Philadelphia, and the Herzogin Cecilie, a wreck off Salcombe, Devon.
But in the summer of 1913, when the Liverpool-registered square rigger Monkbarns arrived off Australia from South America with a state-of-the-art Cinematograph movie camera provided by the Kineto film company of Wardour Street, London, “Everything that could be filmed about life aboard had been filmed,” the resident amateur cameraman noted.
Dr Dudley Stone was a keen yachtsman and junior doctor at St Bart’s hospital London who had joined Monkbarns in Gravesend that February determined to chronicle what was even then obviously the end of an era, from “swinging the ship” for correcting the compass before they sailed to the shanties round the capstan as they weighed anchor. His commission was to “obtain pictures of the ocean in its angry moods”. It was Kineto’s second attempt, after the chap it sent out the previous year had found himself vilely incapacitated by seasickness.
Over the months that followed, as Monkbarns crossed the Atlantic to Buenos Aires with a cargo of cement and then headed back eastwards in ballast round the Cape of Good Hope to Sydney, he shot 9,000 feet of film: of the men hauling and chipping, of the view from the yards, of big seas and the master in his oilskins. He developed it in his cabin and dried it all in strips festooned around a lazarette under the fo’c’sle head.
“I have cinematographed with no gloves and with oilskins and top boots on from aloft from almost everywhere.” Dating and developing it all had taken up to five hours a day, he wrote from Newcastle NSW.
Sadly, this nearly two miles of film seems to have disappeared. It is mentioned in the Australian newspapers of the time and was picked up years later by Captain “Algie” Course during the fireside yarns with fellow Cape Horners that formed the basis of his account of Monkbarns in The Wheel’s Kick and The Wind’s Song, but of the actual film there is no trace, not in the National Maritime Museum collection, nor the British Film Institute, nor the Australian Maritime Museum in Sydney. Shot from a heaving deck over 100 years ago, washed in saltwater, dried in a dusty locker and exposed to sulphur fumes when the ship was fumigated in Newcastle, it is unlikely any of it has survived.
Dr Stone’s unfinished diary, however, did survive – in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich – and even without moving images it provides a rare glimpse of working life aboard one of the last British full-rigged ships a full 16 years before Alan Villiers and his ill-fated colleague Ronald Walker immortalised Grace Harwar, the last full rigger in the Australian trade.
Stone and his friend and patient, the Honourable John Gilbert Eveleigh-de Moleyns, aged 34, fifth son of the 4th Baron Ventry, were an odd couple aboard a working ship; de M’s condition is not identified but he lay down every afternoon, and usually played Euchre with the Mate for matches in the evenings or made quoits, which he played on deck when the weather permitted. Meanwhile, Stone was out along the yards or down the holds in all weathers with his Cinematograph, filming, or learning to take a noon sight and wrestling with calculations of the ship’s position and progress.
Neither did any actual work aboard, apart from “tailing on” occasionally.
But they roamed at will armed with a Videx Reflex and a Brownie, and Stone’s eye was keen. He noted the pilfering of stores by the ever-hungry apprentices, rough justice for a suspected thief who was given a hiding by his shipmates and booted ashore in Buenos Aires, and the stowaway “discovered” drinking tea in the fo’c’sle after they sailed. The Mate hadn’t known he was aboard, but the master did. Desertions had left him shorthanded. Two “stowaways” appeared after the ship had sailed, and both were entered on the articles at £1 per month.
Patrick Haggerty was an Irishman from Queenstown, Cork, red haired, blue eyed and popular. A fine shantyman, said Stone. He claimed to be off an Italian barque that had gone ashore near Buenos Aires and had only the dungarees, socks, cap and shoes he stood up in. After he was found half frozen at the wheel one night, the ship had a whip-round for him: the Mate gave him a shirt and an old oilskin, de M donated pants and socks, Stone rooted out an ancient spare jersey.
Stone’s surviving diary begins as they leave Buenos Aires.
A doctor was a familiar sight on passenger steamers, schmoozing the saloon crowd and keeping at bay any unpleasantness from steerage. Naval vessels too usually had a surgeon, to patch up battle injuries. But merchant ships knocking about the world with cargoes of nitrate or guano rarely enjoyed the luxury of trained medical assistance.
In the days of sail, physicking the crew was the responsibility of the “Old Man”, supported by a dog-eared copy of the Ship Captain’s Medical Guide and a case of pre-mixed bottles and papers labelled Solution No. 5 and Powder No. 3. Far from land, way off the steamer tracks and with no wireless to call for help or seek advice, the master had to rely on common sense and caution. Any ailment that didn’t involve actual blood loss was potentially malingering, and logs show intervention was rarely rushed. It is hardly surprising then that the presence of a bona fide doctor aboard Monkbarns was greeted with enthusiasm by her crew.
They set off from BA with all seven apprentices and three of the fo’c’sle down with diarrhoea, due to “the change of water”, the master diagnosed, and throughout what was to prove a very rough passage Dr Stone was kept busy.
Within a week storms were raking the ship. It was hard to sleep, wrote Stone. The main royal broke loose and tore both sheets out. The foresail ripped the starboard reefing jackstay clean off the yard, and the fore topmast staysail chafed most of the way through its bolt rope. In the store room all the pickles and a case of kerosene were lost. The following morning Stone watched the steward and two of the apprentices leaping about among the stores trying to catch tumbling tins. “Some had burst (I only hope they are the ‘blown’ ones I saw and that we will be saved from Ptomaine poisoning)”.
The fore hold was a jumble. There was rope everywhere, hanging over the edge of the ‘tween decks and tumbled below. The ship had acquired a list to starboard, and was rolling badly. The skipper had told him the squalls had been hurricane force 11 to 12, and that they might not have survived the night if the ship had been loaded. The boys’ half-deck had flooded.
Stone, who did not have to get up in the night to clamber aloft replacing blown-out sails, or sleep on a wet bunk in wet clothes, was amused to note that all the master’s drawers had shot out and his rug had spontaneously rolled itself up, but he was less pleased that the loss of the oil meant lights out at 9pm. There were only four candles aboard (his and de M.’s) and the ship was “badly found for matches”.
As paying passengers Stone and de M. occupied separate cabins in the saloon aft, with a porthole and two bunks each for all their gear. This left Leslie Beaver, the out-of-time apprentice acting 3rd mate, relegated to the lower bunk in the 2nd mate’s cabin.
“The Mate’s and 2nd mate’s cabins were like store rooms for nick-nacks and old rubbish. Their doors being opposite each other the contents of both cabins were well mixed. I just missed being hit by a camp stool paying a flying visit from 1st to 2nd’s quarters. Beaver had the much used water in their basin, the contents of a water jug and a tin of Swizo milk spilt into his bunk. He borrowed rug etc from de M. for night ”
More seriously, one of the ABs was injured. “Whole gale, hurricane squalls. Tremendous big NW Sea,” recorded the mate. “W Chapman knocked down and hurt.”
On June 7, Stone saw six “patients”, including Chapman, whose leg was skinned from knee to ankle. My own grandfather, then an apprentice of 18, sidled into the narrative with a tap at the doctor’s cabin door that evening. Stone noted an inflamed ligament, painful to the touch and prescribed iodine.
Captain James Donaldson was not pleased, though whether it was the molly-coddling or the lèse majesté is unclear. On June 11, Stone noted: “9.30 Went the rounds of the fo’c’sle at skipper’s invitation – a gentle hint that he does not like my going there on my own.”
Chapman’s raw leg was much better, a swollen knee was down and young Sivell was back at work again, against medical advice – (fed up with doing nothing, noted Stone.) Meanwhile, there was a strained shoulder to inspect (“nil to be seen. I’m safe…”), and the 3rd Mate had been shot into the scuppers on his stomach during a particularly heavy roll, resulting in appalling bruises but fortunately no internal injuries.
And still the glass continued to fall, down to 28.58. The fore lower topsail carried away.
At 3.30am, on a page labelled Hurricane, Stone recorded: “Broached to on port tack – my top row of bookshelf showered its contents on my head and then continued across cabin. Got up and collected them. 4 Very heavy squall carried away fore topmast staysails and new No 1 canvas sail. 7 de M came over to me and I produced LGCL book on meteorology and we tried to make out what position we were in with not much success. 7.30 Hot coffee went the rounds. 8 Broached to on port – more things going to leeward – thank goodness the ballast remains a fixture. This is as heavy a blow as any of ship’s officers have been in. I certainly cannot imagine more wind or a bigger sea. I heard that at 3.30am the 2nd mate and a hand went aloft to see to upper fore topsail and that on coming down he stepped into lee scuppers, which were full up with water. He is a short fellow and was up to his neck. That I think gives me some idea of the sea shipped on broaching to, and we in ballast.”
The Old Man – who was 64 and had been up all night – was laid up with cramp in the chart house, and the foremast staysail was a rag.
The hurricane squalls and strong gales continued for three weeks, almost without let up. Stone and de M. would tell the newspaper reporters waiting in Newcastle that they were both “ardent lovers of the sea” but neither of them ever wished to undergo such an experience again.
Monkbarns was one of five sailing vessels that arrived at Newcastle on the weekend of 5th July 1913, including the full-rigged Ben Lee, which had sailed from Buenos Aires two weeks before her. All had suffered. Ben Lee’s lower topsail had carried away and the foresail was blown to pieces. Kilmallie, from Santos, lost a lifeboat and her ballast shifted. The barque Lysglimt, from Natal, was knocked onto her beam ends when her ballast shifted, and the crew spent three death-defying days in the hold trying to right her, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.
Despite or possibly thanks to the hurricane, Monkbarns had made the passage in 52 days, to Ben Lee’s 67. Our man on the docks reported that two of Monkbarns’ crew had been injured and had been “attended by Dr M Stone, a passenger”.
Up in Newcastle, (where they went because there was smallpox in Sydney and the city was about to be quarantined), the Newcastle Morning Herald & Miners’ Advocate produced a much juicier report, headlined “An interesting visitor”.
Dr Stone, it said, had been imprisoned by Germany for spying the previous year (shades of Erskine Childers‘ The Riddle of the Sands). Dr Stone did not deny it. He had been one of a party of five well-to-do British yachtsmen – including the marine artist Gregory Robinson and the engineer William Richard Macdonald, who happened to have patented a nifty bit of submarine technology. They had attracted unwelcome attention from the German military authorities by happily photographing naval installations along the Kiel canal. It had taken them five days to talk themselves out of jail.
During the war that broke out less than a year after Monkbarns’ arrival in Newcastle, Stone would serve in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He became an eminent radiographer, with an obituary in the British Medical Journal in 1941.
The Kineto company, however, folded in 1923 and de M died in New Zealand in 1928, the year after Monkbarns was hulked off Corcubion, in northern Spain.
Stone carried on yachting all this life. Perhaps he even shot more films. But what became of his footage of working life aboard a British ship in the last days of sail remains a mystery.
An edited version of this article appeared first in The Cape Horner magazine, the journal of the International Association of Cape Horners. August 2015.
Photographs by Eugene Bainbridge, who was Monkbarns’ last apprentice during her final voyage, 1924-26. He joined her in Newcastle NSW, having steamed out from the UK third class aboard the P&O passenger ship Barrabool. He was then 19, the privately educated only son of a maritime insurance broker from Surrey. He had a Leica camera and for two years he kept a diary and took pictures of life aboard. Neither the diary nor the photographs were ever published and Eugene never went back to sea. These previously unseen views are made available by kind permission of his family.
Previously – Flowers in Hong Kong, Medals in the Post iii
Read from the start:
A sailor’s life – beginning, middle and end
It is cold in the Atlantic in March at 2am and 57 names take a long time to scatter one by one. The wind whipped round my oilskins, snatching at the slips of paper that filled both pockets as I read each name before releasing it to the sea. “Hubert Sivell”, who left a wife who liked to sing and two bright children he hardly knew, and a row of winter cabbages where his lawn had been.
Did Chong Fai the pumpman, 44, have a wife? Did Tiew Khek Guon the carpenter, 41, leave a child far away who would never know what became of him? Did the parents of Foo Yee Yain, 23, the pantry boy, ever know their son had not willingly abandoned them?
Even now, 70 years after the end of the second world war, no one can tell me precisely how many merchant seamen were killed. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission commemorates 36,507, but it admits records in occupied countries were lost or destroyed and that some figures may overlap.
Canada commemorates 1,437 Canadian merchant men lost at sea. Occupied Norway, Denmark and Belgium account for approximately 6,513, not including those who died in captivity. The Netherlands records, on top of the 1,914 Dutch casualties, 1,396 “lascars, Chinese, Indonesians and other foreigners” lost from its ships. America honours 5,302, including its merchant navy gunners. And so forth.
Counting those who died of injuries ashore or in prisoner of war camps, the total is 47,000 at the very lowest estimate*, or roughly 10 men for each and every allied ship lost, commemorated in cemeteries or memorials from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to the Pacific.
It had taken me a long time to realise the 15 names on the brass panel I had been taken to see on Tower Hill in London as a child could not be the whole crew of my unknown grandfather’s last ship, the Shell oil tanker Chama. And longer still to realise the missing ones were almost all Chinese.
The men who died with Bert Sivell that murky night in March 1941 are commemorated separately on at least six different memorials to men with “no grave but the sea”: in London, Liverpool, Plymouth, Chatham, the military cemetery at Brookwood, Surrey, and Hong Kong, where an arch erected in 1928 was amended to include the Chinese who died “loyal to the Allied cause” in both world wars.
In 2006, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission set up a new memorial in the Stanley Military Cemetery, Hong Kong, inscribed with the names of 941 Chinese casualties of the First World War and 1,493 from the Second World War whose graves are not known. Yet Shell alone lost 1,008 Chinese merchant sailors between 1939 and 1945, according to WE Stanton Hope’s Tanker Fleet, published in 1948. Two of Shell’s Chinese seamen were awarded Distinguished Service Medals, 17 merited British Empire Medals, nine were officially commended or mentioned in dispatches, a pumpman called Chan Chou was awarded the Lloyd’s War Medal for Bravery at Sea, three were given the Lloyd’s Bronze Medal for Meritorious Service, and three were awarded Bronzen Leeuwen by the Dutch government in exile.
Memorials maintained by the CWGC in Bombay and Chittagong commemorate in Hindi and Bengali respectively some 6,000 Indian, Adenese and East African merchant seamen with no known grave. Many of them too served on the oil tankers that kept RAF planes in the air, and on cargo vessels bringing in food and passenger liners transporting troops. Only a very few are included under the name of the ship they went down with at Tower Hill. Yet they were – as the Queen put it, opening the sunken garden in 1955 – part of the “splendid company of brave men and women from many nations… who served in fellowship under the red ensign”.
Their exclusion is administrative, apparently. After the war everyone wanted their own memorial, according to the CWGC, which records the particulars of some 1,767,000 commonwealth country casualties of both world wars.
Tower Hill was extended to commemorate the men and women of all nationalities who were lost serving on ships registered to or chartered by Britain and the Commonwealth and were registered living in Britain. The panels include Asian and Arabic names, Dutch, Norwegians and Greeks, as well as Trinidadians, South Africans and New Zealanders.
Chama’s men, though, cut off from their families in Hainan and Xiamen after the Japanese invasion in 1935, were registered to boarding houses in Singapore and not technically domiciled in Britain. Like lost souls they ploughed to and fro across the Atlantic, unable to go home.
“It wasn’t their war,” one old merchant sailor told me when I asked about the Chinese shipmates who had shared his lifeboat.
In 1952 my grandmother reluctantly had Bert Sivell declared dead. She still did not know what had happened to him, and the convoy records revealing the ship’s final distress message and position did not open until 1971. She had been dead herself for nearly 20 years when fiddling on the internet one evening I found a Cyprus-registered container freighter that crossed the Atlantic almost exactly where Chama was lost. That it was a German-owned vessel with a German master seemed only poignantly appropriate.
Research often takes on a life of its own. Belated curiosity about my grandfather’s life, and his death, and his ship, and the men he sailed with opened unexpected cans of worms: segregation, racism and discriminatory pay and conditions for Chinese crews being just the start. They were paid half the rate of white crews and in the US armed “Bogarts” prevented them even going ashore. In the UK, they faced union hostility as cheap labour for “under-cutting” pay, but when they unionised and struck back they often found themselves blacklisted by the shipowners. Back home, civil war raged between the Kuomintang and the Communists, cutting families off from the breadwinners far away. The seamen stayed put, trapped. Some found consolation and set up new families in Limehouse and Liverpool, but in 1946 as Britain’s troops demobbed, the extra foreign labour was deemed surplus and the Chinese seamen were “repatriated”, by force. There’s a group of half-Chinese children in Liverpool who never knew what happened to their fathers. One day the men simply vanished, rounded up in the street and put on waiting ships, surplus seamen sent “home” to Singapore. Union activists (or “undesirable elements”) were prevented from returning, although some made it back in the 1950s – to a mixed welcome from the women who thought they’d been abandoned.
Interviewing an old British seaman one afternoon, I learned that in the late 1930s my grandfather had ordered his junior officer to remove and destroy any red letters in the Chinese crew mail. He didn’t want “communist” propaganda coming aboard, but I was aghast wondering how many lonely men had been ruthlessly denied messages in lucky red envelopes from the loved-ones far away. Curiosity about the families led me to the group in Liverpool and their bitter-sweet tales of tracing – or not – their missing Chinese dads.
And that’s partly why, 60 years after the battle of the Atlantic was won I went to sea aboard a container freighter, with a biodegradable wreath of twigs and flowers, and a full list of the names of my grandfather’s men.
My local vicar and the Seamen’s Mission in Liverpool suggested suitable psalms which I murmured into the wind and spray. A friend had phoned Hong Kong for advice from funeral directors on appropriate words or prayers for the Chinese crew, but they could suggest none. So, reluctant to let me go out empty-handed, one of the fathers in my daughter’s primary school class wrote a poem in Mandarin which he delicately inked on to paper ribbon and they taught me how to say “We shall remember” in Cantonese. It was not much of a funeral service, and it was 62 years late, but it was the first time all my grandfather’s men had been commemorated together.
So far I have not made it to Hainan or Xiamen or even Singapore, but in March 2015, one of Bert’s great granddaughters – passing through Hong Kong on her gap year travels – sought out the ancient arch at the entrance to the Botanical Gardens and placed fresh flowers and a message in English and Chinese that the florist kindly translated for her: “In memory of the Chinese crew of the oil tanker Chama, lost with all hands on March 23rd 1941. From Captain Sivell’s family.”
Full list** of the officers and men of the Shell oil tanker Chama, lost 23 March 1941:
HS Sivell, Master, 45
Alfred Gray, Chief Officer, 26
William Howard Hume, 2nd Mate, 23
Ian Cyril Cunningham, 3rd Mate, 22
Alfred Leonard Francis Williams, Chief Engineer, 40
Joseph Emmerson Black, 2nd Engineer, 41
Andrew Hughes McKnight, 3rd Engineer, 28
Frank Cameron Miller, 4th Engineer, 25
Peter Hammill Manderville, 5th Engineer, 20
John Walker, 5th Engineer, 20
Frank Wellings, 5th Engineer, 19
Richard James Hilhouse, apprentice, 18
Rothes Gerald Novak, apprentice, 18
Cornelius William McCarthy, W/O, 42
Michael Timothy Murphy, 2nd W/O, 24
Tow Siong Kong, 42, Bosun
Ngai Ah Sai, 44, Storekeeper
Ah Tee, 33, Quartermaster
Wong Ah Chong, 36, Quartermaster
Leng Ah Moy, 35, Quartermaster
Lee Ah Chay, 29, Quartermaster
Juan Seng, 35, Chief steward
Joe Tin Fatt, 28, 2nd steward
Wong Ah Tay, 33, sailor
Tang Siew Luk, 24, sailor
Lin Loon, 31, sailor
Ee Ong Fatt, 30, sailor
Lim Sin Keng, 41, sailor
Kin Kwang, 24, sailor
Chao Ah King, 30, sailor
Ting Meng, 28, sailor
Teong Ah Tay, 32, sailor
Chan Sun Sang, 23, sailor
Tan Tian Teck, 40, Chief cook
Mew Po Heng, 33, 2nd cook
Ling Ah Chaw, 34, Sailors’ cook
Wong Choo, 30, Firemen’s cook
Wong Tung Kuam, 21, Sailors’ Boy
Tiew Khek Guon, 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
Lan Kan, 37, fireman
Siong Wah, 40, fireman
Chong Wo Fook, 31, fireman
Fung Kim, 27, fireman
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) – Chatham Naval Memorial
Bertram Smith, RN, 20, Able Seaman (DEMS gunner) – Plymouth Naval Memorial
James Kennedy, 22, British Army, Fusilier (DEMS gunner) – Brookwood Memorial
Daniel Holmes, 21, British Army, Fusilier (DEMS gunner) – Brookwood Memorial
*Re national figures for merchant navy losses – all information gratefully received.
**Including two not on the Registry of Shipping and Seamen list.
Next – A doctor aboard (1913)
Read from the start:
A sailor’s life – beginning, middle and end
It is 74 years tonight since Captain Hubert Sivell of the oil tanker Chama and all his 52 British officers and Chinese crew vanished into the cold mid-Atlantic. On the “winter garden” of U97 the lookout watched the tanker sink, burning, stern first into the sea and the commander, Udo Heilmann, noted “Laufe mit sudlichen, dann westlichen Kurs ab…” (depart on southerly, then westerly course).
Three months later an empty life boat was picked up west of Ireland and brought into Cork. It had “Chama” on its transom.
There were no survivors.
For more than half a century after the end of the second world war, merchant seamen were not included in Britain’s national commemoration of those who had laid down their lives for their country.
When veterans of the army, navy and air forces marched down Whitehall in London past the Cenotaph taking the royal salute each November, the “civilian” seafarers who had kept the lifelines open were not invited.
They had not been under command, the survivors of Murmansk, Malta and the grey Atlantic “gap” were told.
So, they and the families of their dead shipmates gathered instead for their own dedicated merchant service ceremony every September 3rd in the sunken garden on Tower Hill in east London, among the names of 24,000 British sailors with no grave but the sea, and they commemorated together the first day of the war and the 119 lives lost when the liner SS Athenia was torpedoed within nine hours of Neville Chamberlain’s broadcast. They made a crowd of a few hundreds rather than thousands, singing For Those in Peril on the Sea over the roar of the traffic along the A100 past the Bloody Tower.
When the Cenotaph ceremony was opened up in 2000, I decided to open too the scrappy little cardboard packet stamped On Her Majesty’s Service that my grandmother could not bear to look at.
Under an unheaded and unsigned pre-printed letter from the Minister of Transport expressing his “sorrow” lay three frayed bits of loose ribbon and two bronze stars and a medallion in greaseproof wrappers: the 1939-1945 Star, the Atlantic Star and the King George VI war medal – sent to my widowed grandmother in pieces, like her life. It seemed a cruelly disrespectful token. A shoddy, crass way to honour a man who had given everything.
Finally, sixty years too late, I shook the medals out, stitched them together and pinned them on – me, by then Bert Sivell’s oldest surviving descendant.
At the invitation of the Merchant Navy Association, I arrayed them across the wrong side of my best coat and marched them down Whitehall to the Cenotaph, to take the salute for Bert under the eyes of the television cameras and the world. I was surprised at the time how many other daughters and granddaughters were doing the same.
There is a complex etiquette to wearing medals not one’s own – and it took me an afternoon to work out how to display the two medals awarded to Bert for his service in the first world war with the three he never knew about for the second. Big Ben was striking 9am as I walked up Victoria Embankment feeling slightly embarrassed, muffling the clank of the medals in my scarf.
The year was 2003 and there were crash barriers everywhere, gunmen on the rooftops, and ranks of TV vans, bristling with aerials and crews sipping coffee. A tourist whose hat was blown over the barricade behind the Downing Street gardens as I queued to get onto Horse Guards Parade was firmly dissuaded by serious looking soldiers from shinning over the fence to retrieve it.
The MNA rallying point was E17 and we were allocated stations like the ships in Chama’s final convoy out of Greenock: Sivell was row 2 position 4, right behind the association’s president, Vivien Foster, the wife, daughter and granddaughter of seafarers, and herself wearing her father’s medals over a sequinned black jacket. Around us a sea of sprightly old men heaved and surged. Wheelchairs and walking sticks crunched across the gravel. Lived-in faces lit up at the sight of old chums. A hip flask was doing the rounds, keeping out the nip in the air. Like many convoys, “station-keeping” was a bit wayward.
Many of these men had gone to sea as teenagers, recruited into a reserved occupation from which there was no release. The youngest of the merchant navy dead were 14, too young to vote or have sex or serve in the army. The two oldest had been 74, one of them killed rescuing troops off Dunkirk. We remembered them, our breath hanging in puffs.
It was a long, tiring morning. Hours of waiting followed by a slow, cold shuffle up Whitehall; everyone present remembering someone who wasn’t.
But up at Tower Hill, away from the cameras, bronze plaque 27 still only listed 15 men under MV Chama. It had taken me a long time to realise how many must be missing, and longer still to trace the names. Thirty-eight young Chinese sailors, far from home.
The box of medals was open, but the job wasn’t finished.
Next – Flowers in Hong Kong
Previously: Medals in the Post
Or read from the start: Beginning, Middle and End
For a long time after Bert was lost his letters had continued to straggle home, as if nothing were amiss.
Money for his daughter’s birthday had arrived from the Clyde, where he had kicked his heels while that final convoy gathered, and even after they had sailed, older letters with strange stamps posted in Texas and Curacao the previous trip kept arriving – for a time. When they stopped, my grandmother did not immediately realise it was final.
“My dearest wifey, Here I am again, safe and sound but very tired. I do not know what is going to happen now because I have seen no one from the agents, but the orders will eventually come along. I have been trying to get the mail sent out to us but have been unsuccessful so far. The authorities seem to overlook the fact that we who go to sea are human and would like news of our homes as soon as possible on arrival after a voyage…”
Eventually, at the end of April, a different envelope came; from the shipping company. “… Subjected to enemy attack last March … Missing, presumed drowned …” Did she destroy it in her grief, I wonder, or did it simply fall apart from constant use – presented to one authority after another, as she pleaded for information? It wasn’t among the bundles laid aside in the sea chest.
“Please rest assured that I do sympathise with you in your anxiety more than I can say,” a kindly official at the Mercantile Marine Service Association had written by return of post in the early days, “but I hope and trust that in due course some good news will reach you to the effect that Captain Sivell and his crew were picked up and are prisoners of war. There have been quite a number of such cases of late … I am very sorry that I have no means of obtaining any special information for you …”
The Admiralty or the Ministry of Shipping would let the ship’s owners know as soon as they knew, said Mr Albert Wilson, and he gently suggested she did not write to either authority herself. Wait, he advised.
Ena waited. The blossom on the pear tree in the garden appeared and then fell in great snowy drifts across the cabbages Bert had planted on his last leave, and still no news came. She wrote to the Red Cross. Beyond the gate, sticks of bombs fell, shattering roofs and windows.
Some nights, they could see the glow of London burning 100 miles away. In Liverpool, where Bert should have been, 1,741 people died in a seven-night blitz on the docks. Things were bad, too, in other ports and big industrial cities, they heard in whispers. Grief lapped into many households.
Out in the Atlantic, two ships a night were being sunk every night, faster than Britain’s shipyards could build them, and the U-Boat men saw the sea cloudy with spilled goods.
But at home convoy movements were hush-hush. Every week Bert and Ena’s local newspaper, the Isle of Wight County Press, ran on its front page an In Memoriam column with the names of the armed forces’ latest dead and missing, headed The Island and the War. In May 1941, though rationed to six broadsheet pages, the editor decided to offer inclusion free “for islanders who die on active service or of their wounds”. Soldiers were listed, and airmen, and naval ratings – there was not a land or sea battle that did not touch local families. The loss of the battleship HMS Hood alone lost the island 18 men.
In June, the family opposite Ena at 26 Well Street lost a son in the RAF during the evacuation of Crete. In July, a neighbour from 24 Well Street was reported missing in the Middle East. The column grew and grew, but no mention was made of the mounting losses among the civilian merchant men out in the Atlantic, even as housewives queued for unexpectedly scarce commodities.
In July the Red Cross wrote to 23 Well Street saying that they had cabled Geneva for Ena. “We feel we must warn you, however, that these enquiries take a considerable time, and that you must not be disappointed if there is no news that we can send you for some time to come … our sympathy in your anxious time of waiting …”
Eventually the news of Bert’s disappearance did begin to circulate, but Ena snubbed the well meaning expressions of condolence. “The children and I have not given up hope,” she wrote, in prim little notes. She refused to mourn Bert or let her children mourn him. He was alive somewhere, she was certain.
That July, a young naval stoker from nearby Newchurch lived up to his parents’ faith by turning up on their doorstep months after being reported lost. In August, a merchant seaman sunk by an enemy raider off West Africa that March also resurfaced, and the County Press ran at some length his story of survival for five nights on an upturned table in the sea. He had been picked up by a passing neutral and landed at Tenerife. Ena continued to hope that Bert, too, would be found.
In August, the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Company wrote again, the words strictly confidential underscored at the top of the page. “In accordance with the promise we made to you … the Ministry of War Transport state they have received information that the vessel in question was torpedoed towards the end of March last. It is with the greatest regret that we convey this news to you and we feel sure we may rely upon you to treat it as strictly confidential…” The words blur. “The only information we have been able to glean so far”, bla, bla, “continuing to pursue our enquiries”, bla, bla. And then the punch – “Whilst we have not given up hope that the staff and crew have been taken prisoners-of-war, we feel you will concur that in view of the long time that has elapsed…”
She kept that letter, and the many others. She drew on all her contacts. Her brother in the Canadian forces wrote to the High Commissioner, a retired neighbour with naval connections wrote to the Admiralty. A lifetime later I found traces of their efforts, like messages in invisible ink, in scraps and notes among official records long unopened and fading.
For Ena months stretched into years. Eventually, there was a letter from the King. “The Queen and I offer you our heartfelt sympathy in your great sorrow…” and a scroll that Ena never framed. “… May his sacrifice help to bring the peace and freedom for which he died…” And one day, much later still, a small brown paper package turned up in the post.
Inside, were three medals in twists of greaseproof paper, awarded for war service in the Atlantic to one of the many who had not come back. They were not sewn on to their ribbons, not arranged for display. Just shoved in a box, with a form letter, and three frayed scraps of coloured ribbon.
My grandmother’s pent up anger and pain poured out of that box nearly sixty years later, when my father opened it again and told me the story.
Continued – The Medals in the Post II
Previously – Sniffing Stockholm Tar
Or read from the start – Beginning, Middle and End
In my sailor grandfather’s footsteps I have blagged my way into an oil refinery and onto a Shell tanker, I’ve crossed the Atlantic by container freighter and dropped a wreath into the night black sea at 49° 35’N, 19° 13’W where he and his final crew were lost – I have even traced and befriended the last old man of the U-boot crew that killed him.
For nearly 20 years I have read letters and diaries, rooted through archives, pored over photographs and asked damn fool questions of elderly seafarers who have shared their yarns with gentle amusement. But I remained an armchair sailor, sitting in the warmth, reading about a life beyond my understanding.
It was on a wet day in Liverpool docks that I ran into the Stavros S Niarchos, a dinky, modern sail training brig – square rigged on two masts, a charity venture providing outdoor challenges to young people.
And also, it transpired, to the not so young. Anyone up to 80 could have a go, said a grey-haired woman on the quayside. Was I too old to climb out along the yards, I asked – to try to experience what 16-year-old Bertie Sivell had seen and felt when he first went aloft a hundred years ago? Certainly not, she said, she had.
Anyone who ever read Treasure Island under the bedclothes and fell asleep dreaming of clambering among the spars of a tall ship will understand (and we who read by torchlight in the old days before duvets and Kindles know who we are). To swing up the swaying ratlines and out along the foot-ropes, and see “my” ship splice the waves 120ft below; to roll along a pitching deck, at one with the swell, dodging sheets of spray; and to lie down each night tired but buzzing and be rocked to deepest sleep?
I signed on.
Stavros is not Monkbarns. For a start she is smaller, with two masts not three and fewer yards and sails. She also has two engines, GPS, refrigeration – and heat and light and hot showers and plenty of fresh water and good food. In fact, my grandfather would scoff that my so-called experience in sail bears more resemblance to glamping than the conditions he endured when he began his career at sea as an apprentice in Monkbarns in 1911.
What a difference 100 years makes. The barrels of pork and beef gristle in brine are gone. The yawning cargo hatches and mountains of coal or guano, or slimy stone ballast, that had to be winched in or out basket by basket are gone. Nowadays safety lines snake up the ratlines and along the yards, where there was once only a boy’s own grip. The old cry of “One hand for the ship and one for yourself,” is not quite so scary when you’re wearing a stout harness and clip-on carabiners. Monkbarns suffered countless injuries, as well as losing two young lives overboard in just three years in the early 1920s – Laurence O’Keeffe off the jib-boom and apprentice Cyril Sibun in a fall from the fore upper t’gallant. They were 18 and 19.
On Stavros clean, dry pipe cots with reading lights and lockers fill the t’ween decks where Monkbarns’ apprentices would have shovelled and sweated to trim (balance) the cargo, and out along her bowsprit net “sailor strainers” prevent accidents. But working a sailing ship is still not for the faint hearted.
I have shuffled out along the yards, muscles cracking as I wrestled to haul up and lash down the heavy clew of the sail high out over the waves. I have swung one-armed under the great steel yards, groping for gaskets blowing in the wind, and tied knots one-handed up and down the jackstays.
I have tailed on and hauled “with a will” among ill-assorted strangers until my shoulders strained in their sockets and the hairy hemp lines blistered my office softy palms, and rolled into my bunk sound asleep at 8pm to rise again fully clothed at midnight, to relieve the watch on the open bridge, donning gloves, scarf and waterproofs against the cold summer night. In a week the motley novice “crew” – paying travellers of all shapes and sizes – find themselves fused into a team. A ship’s crew. (Although our professional merchant navy officers probably think fondly of the days when a sailing ship cargo lay inert in the hold for the duration and didn’t need wetnursing.)
Together we have seen sails silhouetted against the stars – more stars than most of us city dwellers ever imagined, and the milky way arching overhead from horizon to horizon. We have sailed into the sunset and watched for dawn, eyes peeled for the pin prick lights of the fishing fleet. We have learned the ropes, and the buoys and the markers.
So far I have not been out of sight of land for more than a week, much less braved day after relentless day of gale-force winds, or icebergs round the Horn, but I have felt the pitch and roll of a tall ship doing 10 knots under sail and watched the horizon tilt and tip under the solid curl of the mainsail. I know the sound of the seas crashing past the scuppers and have tasted salt in the spray.
I may be just paddling in the shallows of my sailor grandfather’s life, but I have sniffed Stockholm tar.
Suddenly, the dusty records have colour and movement. This winter I shall abandon the archives again and join the paint gang aboard Stavros in Liverpool docks, chipping and cleaning, learning “my” ship from the rivets up, and next spring with a crisp CRB certificate in my pocket I hope to sail as volunteer crew – as cook’s assistant, if that’s what the ship needs.
Somewhere, my grandfather is laughing.
Previously – Monkbarns: Britain’s last Cape Horner?
Next – The medals in the post
Read from the start:
A sailor’s life – beginning, middle and end
People called it the Phoney War – the autumn and winter of 1939, when gas masks were issued and children evacuated but nothing much else happened, apart from injuries in the blackout. Yet there was nothing “phoney” about those first months of the second world war for those at sea.
Less than nine hours after Neville Chamberlain’s radio broadcast to the nation at 11am on September 3rd (“No such undertaking has been received, and consequently this country is at war“), the unarmed passenger liner SS Athenia was attacked at dusk by U-30 and sunk – killing 99 passengers and 19 crew, including four stewardesses.
By May 1940, when Germany invaded Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg, an estimated 177 British merchant ships had been lost. “We shall fight on the beaches … on the landing grounds … in the fields and the streets …” in the air and on the seas and oceans, Winston Churchill told the Commons in June. “We shall never surrender.” But far out at sea, merchant ships risking their all to feed and fuel the “war effort” continued to be quietly lost in ever greater numbers – unreported by the newspapers, to protect morale. In vain, my grandmother searched for crumbs of news. By 1945 the toll of merchant vessels lost to enemy action was well over 2,500.
My grandfather, Bert Sivell, master of the Shell oil tanker Chama, and and all 54 officers and Chinese crew aboard his ship were among the estimated 35,000 merchant men and women who never came home again. Most of them have no grave. Many have not even a known spot far out at sea where they may be remembered.
Which is why the merchant navy “convoy” at the National Memorial Arboretum is so important to their families: 2,535 little oak trees, one for each ship lost, planted in straight lines stretching to the sunlit grasslands beyond. It is a moving, breathing memorial to the men who braved the Atlantic and the Arctic in mismatched convoys to keep the lifelines open – a rare sort-of resting place to visit.
Fifteen years ago, I bought an £80 plaque and travelled into Staffordshire to attend the dedication of this infant forest on behalf of my widowed grandmother, who hoped against hope, my father, who never had a father, and Bert’s great grandchildren – because oak trees take a hundred years.
Nowadays the National Memorial at Alrewas is a slick park, with broad paths, architect-designed monuments and a cafe, coach park and gift shop. There are hundreds of memorials, from the Shot at Dawn to the army dental corps, and thousands of wreaths and visitors.
But in 1998 it was a muddy field, with a few gallant old men hobbling along duck boards to a damp marquee, and all there was to see of their convoy was a knee-high patch of rabbit-proof tubes containing 2,535 twigs none of us would live to see full grown. Old, old men jangling with medals from the Atlantic and Russian convoys.
We were told then that the trees would be spaced out. It seems we misunderstood.
This autumn felling will start, because the little trees, now high over my head, are too close together. Many are already suffering from lack of light. My grandfather’s tree is dead, the plaque for Chama marking a forlorn stump in its row. It seems the symbolic 2,535 oaks will from now on be “thinned” until eventually only about 700 remain. Even the infinity sightlines cannot be maintained.
“Can’t you replant?” I wailed down the phone to the assistant curator of grounds. No. That many mature oaks would require a space “half the size of Yorkshire”, he said. Or at least the whole 150 acres of the arboretum.
So the convoy as it grows must shrink, tree by tree, ship by ship, as indeed convoys were wont to do at dawn and dusk. For the moment the stumps still stand, maintaining their formation, but soon the lines will break.
It was after the dispersal of ships from convoy OG56 that my grandfather, ploughing alone into the Allies’ undefendable “Gap” in mid-Atlantic, bound for Curacao with only an ancient WWI Japanese gun for protection, was overtaken and picked off by U-97.
It was a grand idea, our merchant navy convoy. Maybe not practical. But very precious to the memory of those who have no grave but the sea. I am glad I saw it as it was intended.
I am also glad the old shipmates with the jangling medals will not see what is to come.
Lest we forget.
Read on – Monkbarns: Britain’s last Cape Horner?
Previously – Death of a master