A Sacrifice of Three

Judas was paid, Going Postal
Robert Ryan

Robert Ryan was my great uncle. This fading photograph is the only one we have of him. He gave his life for King and Country when he died on 7th November 1942. He was 20  years old.

I imagine it is a universal experience that when we are children we hear tales of days long past and of the people who used to inhabit them. This was so with me. I recall how the ‘tale of the three brothers’ would be told in hushed and softened tones, their names almost whispered like prayers by family members much older than I. There were sometimes tears.

Ronald was one of those three brothers. He came from a large family. His parents May and John were my great-grandparents on my mother’s side. Grandad John was a cabinet maker by trade. A man of diminutive stature with a kindly face upon which was draped a most imposing white moustache. I understand there was a time when it was somewhat darker but I never knew him then. John and May lived in a modest terraced house (since demolished) in the downtown area of Birkenhead. John’s father had been a master mariner and worked as a pilot on the River Mersey.

Judas was paid, Going Postal
Keightley Street, Birkenhead – Home of Heroes

I would guess that Grandad was, like so many fathers of that time, immensely proud that two of his sons were serving at sea. Robert’s war record shows that he served with HMS President III which I am told was the shore-based HQ for Royal Navy personnel on Defensively Armed Merchant Ships. His brother Ronald served with the Merchant Navy. He too would lay down his life and did so on 29th February 1944 aged 24.

I cannot think that Grandad John was any less proud of his third son, Joseph who served as a Gunner with the 31st Field Regiment, Royal Artillery. Joseph died in Sudan on 30th March 1941, aged 20. He did not die in battle but as a consequence of a burst appendix. Unlike his kinsmen, Joseph is buried in the warm earth and his name is inscribed on the memorial at Khartoum.

Judas was paid, Going Postal
Joseph Ryan

I find it impossible to gauge the grief that was felt around that small kitchen table in the modest house at Keightley Street. Not once, not twice but three times the news broke across the threshold of a once happy and bustling home. It would leave a scar that ran deep into the flesh of both family and individual life for many decades thereafter.

In a strange twist of fate the advent of the internet has made it possible for me to look into the eyes of the man who killed my great uncle. I have spent some time researching the service records of my forbears. The conjoined pathways of pride and sorrow led me one evening to this account of the sinking of the MV Palma:

About 15.30 hours on 29 Feb 1944 the unescorted Palma (Master Arthur Robert Osburn) was hit by two of four torpedoes from U-183 and sank about 400 miles south of Ceylon. Four crew members and three gunners were lost. The master, 41 crew members and four gunners were picked up by and the British armed whaler HMS Semla and landed at Colombo on 2 March.

My uncle Ronald (Senior Ordinary Seaman) was among the lost.

U183 was under the command of Kapitänleutnant Fritz Schneewind. This is he:

Judas was paid, Going Postal
Kapitänleutnant Fritz Schneewind

Schneewind would go down with his craft when it was sunk by the Americans:

On 20 Nov 1943 Kptlt. Fritz Schneewind took command of U-183 (another type IXC) at Singapore. The boat operated in the Indian Ocean as part of the Monsun groupSchneewind successfully completed four patrols in her, sinking three ships of almost 18,000 tons.

On the fifth patrol the boat was ambushed by the American submarine USS Besugo in the Java Sea and sunk, leaving only one survivor from a crew of 55. Kptlt. Fritz Schneewind went down with the boat.

I am also able to chart the last hours of young Robert who, although RN was manning a gun on the SS Roxby:

Roxby was a British cargo vessel of 4,252 tons built in 1923. On the 7th November 1942 she was torpedoed and sunk by German submarine U-613 in North Atlantic on voyage from Cardiff & Greenock to Halifax with a cargo of coal.

Judas was paid, Going Postal
SS Roxby

At 15.40 hours on 7 November 1942 the unescorted Roxby (Master George Robison), a straggler from convoy ON-142, was hit by one of two torpedoes from U-613 about 670 miles north of the Azores and sank at 16.05 hours. 28 crew members and five gunners were lost and the first radio officer died of exposure in the lifeboat and was buried at sea on 11 November. The master, ten crew members and two gunners were picked up after five days by the Irish merchant Irish Beech and on 21 November landed at St. John’s, Newfoundland.

U613 was under the command of Kapitänleutnant Helmut Koppe. This is he:

Judas was paid, Going Postal
Kapitänleutnant Helmut Koppe

Koppe would later lose his life when U613 was Sunk on 23 July 1943 in the North Atlantic south of the Azores, in position 35.32N, 28.36W, by depth charges from the US destroyer USS George E. Badger. 48 dead (all hands lost).

I find it quite chilling that after a space of 75 years I am able to do something that my Great Grandparents could never do and look at the faces of the men who took the lives of two of their precious children. How marvellous and how terrible.

My mother was a small child at the outbreak of WWII. One of her earliest memories is of two young men walking up the street on their way to sea. Those boys were Ronald and Robert. Carrying their packs they embraced their family, marched off along the pavement where they had played as children, halted at the end of the street, turned and waved to those who loved them and disappeared never to be seen again.

I have a deep and abiding pride in the sacrifice of those young men. It thrills me to think that we sprang from the same stock, albeit at such distant times and in such different circumstances. Yet, I am content to say that had our fortunes been reversed and had they each died peacefully in their beds, the call to arms coming in my time rather than theirs, I would like them have gone forth to serve and to protect the land of my birth.

Judas was paid, Going Postal
Khartoum War Cemetery, Sudan

In affectionate memory of:


Service Number 886542

Died 30/03/1941

Aged 20

31 Field Regt.
Royal Artillery

Son of John Rowland and May Ryan, of Birkenhead.

Senior Ordinary Seaman RYAN, RONALD

Died 29/02/1944

Aged 20

M.V. Palma (London)
Merchant Navy

Son of John Rowland Ryan and May Ryan, of Birkenhead.

Able Seaman RYAN, ROBERT

Service Number D/JX 198434

Died 07/11/1942

H.M.S. President III
Royal Navy

Son of John Rowland Ryan and May Ryan, of Birkenhead.

© Judas was Paid 2018

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