Lost at sea

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

Posts Tagged ‘Chama

A Sailor’s Life – 78. Flowers in Hong Kong (Medals in the post III)

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A Cypriot-registered container ship with German master and Philippino crew, and a Belgian florist's biodegradable wreath, with inscription for the 38 Chinese men lost with my grandfather, then master of the Shell oil tanker Chama, but not commemorated on the Tower Hill memorial

Wreath to the men of the Shell oil tanker Chama, lost in the Atlantic on 23 March 1941, including the 38 Chinese crew

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.

CWGC cemetary Hong Kong

The CWGC memorial in Hong Kong, opened in 2006 and inscribed with the names of the 941 Chinese casualties of the First World War and 1,493 from the Second World War, whose graves are not known.

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.

The memorial arch at the entrance to the botanical gardens in Hong Kong.

The memorial arch at the entrance to the Botanical Gardens in Hong Kong, commemorating Chinese lost serving ‘the Allied cause in two 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.

Flowers commemorating the Chinese crew of the Shell oil tanker Chama, lost with all hands March 1941

Flowers laid by the family of Captain Sivell, commemorating the Chinese crew of the Shell oil tanker Chama, who shared his fate in the Atlantic in March 1941

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.”

It is a start.

*

 

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

Message in Chinese on the memorial in Hong Kong

Message in Chinese on the memorial in Hong Kong

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.

Previously – The Medals in the Post ii/ Medals in the Post

Next – A doctor aboard (1913)

Read from the start:
A sailor’s life – beginning, middle and end

A Sailor’s Life – 77. The medals in the post II

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Flowers commemorating the Chinese crew of the Shell oil tanker Chama, lost with all hands in the Atlantic at 11pm on 23rd March 1941.

Flowers commemorating the Chinese crew of the Shell oil tanker Chama, lost with all hands in the Atlantic on 23 March 1941. Placed at the memorial arch in Hong Kong by Captain Sivell’s great granddaughter, March 2015

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.

Tower Hill memorial: two minutes silence, September 2009

Tower Hill memorial, two minutes’ silence for those with no grave but the sea, September 2009

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.

Vivien Foster, president of the Merchant Navy Association (centre) with daughters and granddaughters of seafarers, Horse Guards Parade 2003

Vivien Foster, president of the Merchant Navy Association (centre) with daughters and granddaughters of seafarers, Horse Guards Parade 2003 (author in brown coat)

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.

Merchant navy veterans line up on Whitehall, November 2002

Merchant navy veterans line up on Whitehall, November 2003

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

A Sailor’s Life – 76. Medals in the post

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Ships gather in the Clyde, Scotland, in the 1940s. Photograph: rememberingscotlandatwar.org.uk

Ships gather in the Clyde, Scotland, in the 1940s. Photograph: rememberingscotlandatwar.org.uk

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 Atlantic Star, the 1939-1945 medal and the King George VI medal - sent to a widow

The Atlantic Star, the 1939-1945 Star and the King George VI war medal – as sent to Bert Sivell’s widow

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.

Letter from Anglo-Saxon Petroleum to an anxious merchant navy widow, Ena Sivell, in 1945

Letter from Anglo-Saxon Petroleum to an anxious merchant navy widow, Ena Sivell, in 1945

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

A sailor’s life – 73. In Remembrance: Save our Ships

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Trees and plaques - young oaks in the merchant navy convoy at the NM Arboretum, Alrewas

Trees and plaques – young oaks in the merchant navy convoy at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, in August 2013

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.

merchant navy convoy, national arboretum 1998

Then … the merchant navy convoy ‘forest’ in Staffordshire, as it was in 1998

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.

merchant navy convoy 2013

… and now, the merchant navy convoy all grown up – and facing the chop – at the National Memorial Arboretum, Staffordshire

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.

Plaque to the oil tanker Chama, lost 23rd March 1941

Plaque to the Shell oil tanker Chama, lost 23rd March 1941

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.

 

 

Dedication of the merchant navy convoy, 1998

Dedication of the merchant navy convoy, 1998

Read on – Monkbarns: Britain’s last Cape Horner?

Previously – Death of a master

A sailor’s life – 60. Ships that pass in the night: Stanley Algar

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Stanley Algar, merchant ship apprentice 1916

Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing;
Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness;
So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another,
Only a look and a voice; then darkness again and a silence.”
– from The Theologian’s Tale: Elizabeth,
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 1863

In July 1921, after five months out of work, Stanley Algar of Middlesbrough got a job as 3rd mate on an elderly coal-burning steamer ferrying oil from the US to Europe and found himself in Port Arthur, Texas, gazing at a Shell tanker moored nearby. His own ship was covered in coal dust and ashes, but the Mytilus – for it was she – was spotless. “She was a picture,” he recalled, years later when he was a Shell man himself.

“All the brass work was gleaming, the paintwork was fantastically clean, the woodwork on the bridge sparkled with good quality varnish, there was no rust to be seen, not even over the side, and the wooden bridge deck and poops were as clean as a hound’s tooth. The crew were Chinese and the British officers were in clean uniforms, not shabby old lounge suits as on our ship.

“I looked at our vessel, with the ashes from the stokehold and the galley refuse stoked up on deck, and was filled with disgust.”

Stan was 23. He had joined his first ship at 15 in 1915, during the first world war. Small for his age –  just 4ft 10 – the Shipping Federation office had deemed him too puny for an apprenticeship in any of the big shipping companies, so his dad found a local firm that was not so fussy and he had been packed off to sea on a dirty old coal-fired tanker to fuel the navy at Scapa Flow for £7 a year. The master drank, the mates were very old and those of the crew who had sailing ship experience were contemptuous of those who had not.

Stan’s war was in many respects more exciting than his contemporary Bert Sivell’s. He’d had to jump for his life after a collision off the Orkneys, had been mined in Swansea bay and torpedoed off Le Havre after discharging aviation fuel, all for £1 5s a month plus the apprentice rate war bonus of £1 a month.

After the armistice, they both came home to sit exams, hoping for promotion. But while Bert passed his master’s ticket and joined Shell as 3rd officer in 1919, by 1920 jobs were not so easily come by. Stan passed his 2nd mate’s ticket at first attempt and in September joined the Royal Mail – as temporary third mate on a German vessel impounded as part of the allies’ heavy-handed war reparations settlement. Stan was present when the ship was handed over to the British in Leith. “A curt naval commander, representing the UK government, made the Germans open their cases as they left, depriving them of anything that belonged to the ship,” he wrote in the copious diaries he kept all his long life. But in January 1921 that vessel too joined the hundreds being laid up along the Tyne.

Fishing fleet laid up Milford Haven 1921

Fishing fleet laid up in Milford Haven during the coal strike 1921 – from Milford Haven in Old Postcards, J Warburton

By then the pits had been on strike for three months. Unemployment everywhere was rising, and Stan was competing for ships against men with many more years at sea than he had. But his father’s pay was low and his younger brother was earning only a few shillings a week as an apprentice engineer, so the family needed his wages.

“I called at the offices of all the local shipowners and was received with scant courtesy by junior clerks and office boys. More and more ships were being laid up,” he wrote. Men with master’s tickets were accepting work as able seamen.

By the time Stan got his first job with Shell in 1922, he had again been unemployed for some time. He was offered a berth “out East” as 3rd officer on the Adna – familiar to Bert as the converted War Patriot. “I borrowed £20 from a friend, gave my mother half, bought myself a new suit for £5 and joined the P&O ship SS Kalyan as a passenger for Singapore with £5 in my pocket and a smile on my face.”

Hilfskreuzer Kormoran - Bundesarchiv

Hilfskreuzer Kormoran – Bundesarchiv photo circa 1940-1941

Stanley Algar and Bert Sivell both went on to careers as masters in Shell. Perhaps they even knew each other; but in March 1941, in the middle of the Atlantic, in the middle of a second world war, their stories diverge.

Twenty-four hours apart, on March 22nd and 23rd, both came under enemy attack, but while the Shell tanker Agnita encountered the auxiliary cruiser Kormoran commanded by Kapitän zur See Theodor Detmers, the Shell tanker Chama was hit by torpedoes from U97, commanded by Oberleutnant zur See Udo Heilmann. One man and his crew lived; one ship went down with all hands.

Stanley Algar lived.

For the further adventures of Gefangene 100040 in Milag Nord read Goodbye Old Chap, by Stan’s son, the journalist Philip Algar, from which the above is an extract.

Read on: Hurricane at sea
Previously: In sickness and health – Mytilus 1921

 

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)

A sailor’s life – 46. Through a glass, darkly

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Model of the full-rigged ship Monkbarns

Scale model of the full-rigged ship Monkbarns

It was an undated newspaper cutting among my grandmother’s papers, clipped out and saved long after Bert Sivell’s death. A bit of yellowing ephemera laid by for the oil tanker husband who never came back: “On show in the Master Mariners’ Club for the next week or so – a magnificent scale model of the full rigged ship Monkbarns.”

The 21-inch model, “hand carved with authentic teak rail and working blocks”, had been made by a Trinity House pilot for a colleague who had served his apprenticeship in the old windjammer in the final years, by then one of a big crowd of teenage boys in the half deck. I could imagine the two old salts with their heads together, jealously overseeing and lovingly recreating every last detail: the tiny extended boys’ house abaft the main hatch, the little flying horse under the bowsprit, the wheel house on the poop that would have been welcome too in the stormy watches when Bert was minding the sails.

The little ship is perfect. Dustless and frozen in time, all sail spread and a bone in her teeth – tantalisingly beyond touch in her glass case in the sunny room in a private house when I finally traced her. Sea Breezes had again provided the answers. A letter dropped casually on the mat: “We’ve got her, come and see.”

This is no museum piece. She belongs to a real seafaring family, to sons and grandsons themselves once deep-sea sailors. Part of their lives. A hand-carved homage to a world now hull down over the horizon.

Read on: In remembrance
Previously: Boy’s own story

Work in progress: the book I never wrote about the sailor grandfather I never knew, from his apprenticeship on the square-rigger Monkbarns to his death by U97, presumed lost with all hands aboard the Shell oil tanker Chama in 1941 Blogroll