WORLD WAR TWO - NAVAL FATALITIES

PART 1 - THE MERCHANT SHIPS

The Tower Hill Memorial for Merchant Seamen lost in World War 2.
The Tower Hill Memorial for Merchant Seamen lost in World War 2.
By The wub (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Introduction

A surprising number of Navy (including, of course, the Merchant Navy) casualties had connections with the Borough of Epsom and Ewell and a large proportion of them were the victims of German U-boats and, to a lesser extent, mines. What follows in these two articles is intended as a broad picture of various ships, what they were doing, and local, or locally connected, people who died in them. Many of the casualties are recorded in the Epsom WW2 Book of Remembrance, but some are not and have been picked up off the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) website. We do not have the resources to research and compile individual biographies of WW2 fatalities at present, but here I am attempting to pay tribute to some of those who died and to provide a little information about what happened to them: this is not by any means an exhaustive account of all naval fatalities associated with the Borough. At this stage I have not specifically included Royal Marines and the Fleet Air Arm in the articles since, although falling under the umbrella of the Royal Navy, they are usually more appropriately dealt with as fliers and soldiers. A list of the naval fatalities identified to date appears in the Appendix.

Under the 'Red Duster'
Ministry of Information Poster
Under the 'Red Duster'
via Wikimedia Commons

The Merchant Ships

Merchant ships were wholly indispensable to the war effort as supply chains. Some of these ships sailed 'solo' but many were in convoys, and they were a crucial lifeline to Britain and its allies, not only in terms of goods and vital war materials, but also for transportation of troops and other personnel. They were very vulnerable to attack by U-boats and/or aircraft and for that reason they were often escorted by ships of various Allied navies, according to the theatre of operations. Initially the U-boats operated singly as lone raiders and had little success against convoys surrounded by escorts. However, Germany very soon developed the wolf pack system, whereby a group of submarines would attack, overwhelming or diverting the escorts and picking off the merchantmen.

Convoy Scene by Frank Wootton
Convoy Scene by Frank Wootton
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Usually, merchant ships carrying vital cargo were equipped with guns of some kind and both the Royal Navy and the Royal Artillery Maritime Regiment deployed DEMS (Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships) gunners to man them. The quality of the guns and sometimes of the gunners themselves was variable but they did a great job within the limitations of the armament provided and the sometimes overwhelming opposition they faced. Technically DEMS gunners were under the command of the Merchant Navy for the duration of their stay aboard a particular ship. In naval records they are normally recorded as being based at a shore establishment, but casualty records (not the CWGC website) will often reveal the name of the relevant vessel.

Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships
DEMS (Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships) ratings manning a six inch gun,
the main defensive armament of a merchant ship at Liverpool.
IWM (A 16232)

There are at least three examples of local men who were DEMS gunners and who died in WW2. These are Able Seaman Robert Lawrence Meatyard RNVR, Able Seaman John Frederick Simons RN and Gunner Alfred George Newbery of the Royal Artillery, 5/3 Maritime Regiment. Robert Meatyard lived in Bexhill-on-Sea immediately before his death but he had been an employee of Epsom & Ewell Council and is commemorated on their plaque (scroll down to the bottom of our World War Two - Book of Remembrance page to see the plaque). He and another RNVR man were assigned as DEMS gunners to the SS Whitford Point, which was part of Convoy HX-79, homebound from Halifax, Nova Scotia (HX stands for Halifax and the HX convoys plied between there and Liverpool). The convoy was escorted but, nevertheless, in the early hours of 20 October 1940 the Whitford Point was torpedoed by U-47, commanded by the legendary German submariner Gunther Prien, and sank 90 miles south- west of Rockall in the North Atlantic. There were just three survivors. U-47 was the boat that caused one of the worst disasters in British naval history, when Prien penetrated the base at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys shortly after the outbreak of WW2 and sank HMS Royal Oak, causing over 800 fatalities.

John Simons lived at 37a Upper High Street, Epsom and was assigned as a DEMS gunner to the Yugoslavian steam merchantman Vojvoda Putnik. In March 1943 this British-built ship was part of convoy SC-121 (SC means Slow Convoy), comprising nearly 60 merchants, and was carrying wheat and tanks to London when it suffered steering difficulties and got left behind; it was then attacked by U-591 and sank with all hands about 600 miles east-southeast of Cape Farewell, Greenland. This tragedy graphically illustrates the plight of both slow ships and convoy stragglers. In just five days SC-121 lost twelve freighters and 270 men.

The SS Nailsea Court, on which Alfred Newbery served, was also part of convoy SC-121, carrying mainly metal ore. On 10 March 1943 she was torpedoed by U-229 south of Reykjavik. Four people were rescued but Alfred was not one of them. Very shortly afterwards Alfred's widowed father, George Dunster Newbery, died and is listed as a civilian casualty in the WW2 Book of Remembrance: they both lived at 111 Church Side, Epsom.

The three men mentioned above were essentially Royal Navy personnel on assignment, but some locals were regular crew in the Merchant Navy. Trevor Marsh Atkinson, aged 20, was an apprentice on the SS Berwickshire, which was carrying general cargo and high octane motor spirit from Liverpool to Madagascar, when torpedoed by U-861 off Durban on 20 August 1944. Incredibly most of the crew survived but Trevor was one of the eight who died. Albert Keith Winslow Brown, a 17 year old cadet, was on the SS San Gerardo, travelling from Curacao in the Caribbean to Halifax with a cargo of fuel oil, when it was sunk by U-71 south-east of New York on 20 August 1944. Victor James Clark of Pound Lane, Epsom was a steward on the SS Penolver: she was transporting iron ore to Sydney and sank off St John's, Newfoundland on 19 October 1943 after striking a mine laid some days earlier by U-220. Victor was not among the survivors but some of the crew were rescued by an American merchantman, Delisle, which almost immediately hit another mine laid by the U-boat. Delisle was lifted into the air, bow first, bounced and landed on an even keel, but then went down. The crew were rescued by a Canadian Navy trawler.

19 year old Geoffrey Reginald Clifford Cox was a cadet aboard the SS Harpalyce, with a cargo of metal ore for Hull, when it was torpedoed by U-124 in the Outer Hebrides on 25 August 1940. Harpalyce was also part of a convoy, but the escorts proved inadequate protection; U-124 fired just four torpedoes at four merchantmen, sinking two of them and badly damaging another. The situation was made worse than it might have been because bad weather had hampered air cover from Coastal Command. Clement Templeton Edwards of 22 Woodcote Green Road, Epsom worked as a Radio Officer on the SS Barrwhin, part of convoy HX- 212, which was being shadowed by the wolf pack Puma, consisting of 13 boats. Puma had been pursuing a different convoy and then ran into HX-212, torpedoing and sinking several ships, only retreating when attacked by Liberator (B-24) bombers from Iceland. Then, on 29 October 1942, U-436 sank the Barrwhin, before being driven off by aircraft. Most of the crew were rescued but Clement was sadly one of the fatalities.

	
Rare color photograph of an LB-30A (YB-24) in RAF service.
Rare color photograph of an LB-30A (YB-24) in RAF service.
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

S.S. Barrwhin
S.S. Barrwhin
Photograph by Walter E. Frost
Source City of Vancouver Archives

Charles Harris (8 Grafton Road, Worcester Park), a Quartermaster, had been awarded the British Empire Medal in 1941 and was on board the MV Dumana, a passenger ship which had been chartered by the Air Ministry and converted to overhaul aircraft and transport aircraft, RAF and Fleet Air Arm Personnel. In 1941 Dumana had helped to evacuate personnel from Crete and I would guess that this was the reason for the BEM. In December 1943 she was torpedoed by U-515 west of Sassandra, Ivory Coast whilst transporting RAF stores to Ghana. Most of the people on board were rescued, but not Charles.

The SS Orcades (later HM Troopship Orcades) had a particularly epic encounter with a U-boat: she was an ocean liner and Royal Mail ship which had been converted to a troopship. In the autumn of 1942 she was making for Liverpool from Cape Town, carrying over 700 passengers, cargo and mail; she was unescorted and on 10 October, just one day out from Cape Town, she was torpedoed by U-172, but put up a tremendous fight with her guns before being torpedoed repeatedly and eventually going down, having managed to get off most of the passengers by life raft. A massive effort by other ships (including HMS Foxhound, the namesake of the headquarters of the Epsom & Ewell Sea Cadets) saw off the U-boat and rescued almost everyone. William Albert MacDonald of Worcester Park, a butcher by trade, was one of only 45 men who did not make it. The Master, Captain Charles Fox, last man to leave the ship, survived and was awarded the CBE and the Lloyd's War Medal for Bravery at Sea.

	
Australian Troops Line The Rails Aboard The Troop Transport Ship HMT Orcades
Australian Troops Line The Rails Aboard The Troop Transport Ship HMT Orcades
Source Australian War Memorial

Clive Ronald Read of Epsom Downs was just 18 and a galley boy on the SS Christian Michelsen (a brand new ship, formerly the John M T Finney), which was part of Convoy UGS 17. The UG convoys transported military supplies from Hampton Roads, USA, to the US Army in North Africa. The Christian Michelsen, carrying munitions and oil, departed for Port Said, Egypt on 6 September 1943 and was sunk by U-410 off Bona, North Africa; just three people escaped by life raft. (Incidentally, if any reader knows why or how lads such as Clive came to be serving on these merchant ships so far from home, please contact the webmaster.)

The MV Fort Richepanse had an interesting history. When France fell to Germany in 1940 it was divided into two, one part under German occupation and the other under the control of the Vichy regime. Both the Free French (the French government in exile, led by General Charles de Gaulle) and the British Government were very concerned about the French ships being used against the Allies and, therefore, an ultimatum was issued: shorn of the niceties, it demanded that the ships either joined the Allies or sailed to British ports, where they would be detained or loaned out until the cessation of hostilities. If the French did neither they were to scuttle the vessels or be fired on. Vichy France declined to co-operate, so the British bombarded the French Navy at its bases in Algeria and Dakar (in French West Africa, now Senegal), which caused Vichy France to launch air attacks on Gibraltar. All of this was major stuff, with the British deploying, amongst others, the battlecruiser HMS Hood and the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal. It was also horrible, because the French personnel were not our enemies - we killed nearly 1300 French servicemen in the bombardment of French Algeria -, but the Allies felt it was crucial to prevent the French ships falling into German hands and, indeed, in November 1942, the Germans tried to capture the French fleet in Toulon, whereupon the French scuttled their ships.

	
Scuttling of the French Fleet
Scuttling of the French Fleet at Toulon on 27 November 1942
Official U.S. Navy photo NH 42767 from the U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command via Wikimedia Commons

This was not by a very long chalk one of Britain's proudest periods in the annals of WW2, but, anyway, in 1941 the Fort Richepanse, then carrying passengers and innocent bananas, had been captured by HMS Registan (a merchant ship converted into an Ocean Boarding Vessel) and was taken over by the War Ministry. In September 1941 she set off from Montreal to Liverpool, carrying nothing terribly threatening - just passengers, general cargo and mail - and was sunk by U-567, west of Donegal. Radio Officer Dewi Rees, who lived in Haverfordwest but whose mother was latterly a Ewell resident, was one of those lost.

Ronald Toft was another Epsom youngster, just 17 years old and a steward's boy on the inauspiciously-named SS Somme. He had certainly not been lucky up to that point - his father, Francis Henry, had also been a sailor, dying when aged just over 30, and his mother, Daisy Margaret (nee Warwick), having remarried, had died in 1935. On the CWGC website Ronald's next of kin is listed as his grandmother, Mrs Emily Ann Warwick (44 Woodlands Road, Epsom). The Somme was part of Convoy ON-62 (ON means Outbound from Britain to North America), travelling from London to Curacao, via Bermuda, with general cargo. On 18 February 1942, the convoy dispersed and Somme was torpedoed by U-108 off Sable Island, Nova Scotia. The awful thing about this was that the crew were able to take to the lifeboats, the ship was then torpedoed again so that it sank, and the Germans apparently questioned the survivors. None of the crew members were ever seen again.

The SS Winamac was an oil tanker, sunk by U-66 east of Trinidad on 31 August 1942. There were some survivors but not engineer officer Harry Impey, whose family lived in Ewell. U-66 was a hugely successful boat in terms of sinking Allied shipping and was hunted and pursued constantly, but survived until May 1944 when she encountered the escort carrier USS Block Island and the destroyer USS Buckley west of the Cape Verde Islands in the Central Atlantic. Even then she didn't go down without a big fight. Having failed to make much impression with torpedoes and gunfire, Buckley rammed her and the two vessels locked together. U-66 then caused a diversion by boarding Buckley, whilst the rest of the crew tried to disentangle the submarine. U-66 escaped but was chased and fired upon by Buckley, whereupon the submarine turned and rammed the destroyer. The Germans then scuttled U-66 but some survivors were picked up by the Americans.

	
USS Buckley in drydock at the Boston Navy Yard - Her bow bent from ramming U-66Fleet
USS Buckley in drydock at the Boston Navy Yard - Her bow bent from ramming U-66
U-66 was detected by a VC-55 Avenger from USS Block Island and sunk by the destroyer escort USS Buckley on, May 6, 1944
By USN (http://www.history.navy.mil) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Edward Jones, whose widow lived in Stoneleigh, was another Radio Officer, on board the SS Observer, carrying chrome ore from Turkey to New York, via Cape Town and Trinidad. She was unescorted and east of Cabo Sao Roque, Brazil when, on 16 December 1942, she was hit by two torpedoes from U-176, which had been tracking her for hours.

Kenneth Walter Warren was a Royal Navy Coder, listed as serving at HMS Victory, which was a shore establishment during WW2, but at the time of his death he was travelling on the SS Britannia, a passenger ship that was transporting mainly service personnel overseas. On 29 March 1941, she was attacked in convoy by the German cruiser Thor, west of Freetown, Sierra Leone. Britannia had just one gun and soon had to launch the boats. Thor finished off the ship and apparently contemplated picking up some survivors but then decided against it, leaving them to their fate. Around half of the crew and passengers died, but there were two major miracles - a Spanish steamer picked up 63 survivors from one of the boats and 38 others managed to reach Brazil after a journey of 23 days. (I think that the Warrens may actually have lived in Banstead but the CWGC website says Epsom, so we will go with that.)

Conclusion

British submarines were not as successful against German merchant shipping, but the circumstances and areas of operation were very different and, at the end of the day, Germany was not a beleaguered island trying to import and export crucial supplies, materials and personnel. There were several sites in Germany dedicated to the construction of U-boats and they churned out well over 1,000 between 1935 and 1945. The Allies developed all kinds of methods to defeat them and eventually nearly 800 U-boats were destroyed.

Special mention should be made here of people such as the mathematician Alan Turing and many others, who broke codes and planted false information to help our war effort, and they saved many lives. Just one example was the breaking of the 'Dolphin Enigma key', which was used by the wolf packs attacking the convoys, and it all happened in the unassuming Hut 8 at Bletchley Park.

Hut 8, Bletchley Park'
Hut 8, Bletchley Park
Image by M J Richardson © via geograph.org.uk and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

In Part 2 we shall look at local, or locally connected, fatalities in Royal Navy craft.

Linda Jackson © March, 2017

Main sources:
Uboat.net
Naval-History.net
Wrecksite.eu
Wikipedia