Some of you may recall that I have been trying to claim my deceased father’s WW2 medals as a Merchant Navy seaman. It has taken a year and with a great deal of help from a MN researcher, they have finally arrived. There was no covering letter of explanation, let alone any thanks, merely an unsigned complement slip and a form. This in itself was distressing for me.
I have received on his behalf 5 medals and 2 ‘clasps’ (apparently a further 2 medals). These are shown at the end. I understand he went back six times on Liberation of Europe action. He also went twice to the Invasion of North Africa. The researcher thought this was unique and thought that my father was a ‘special man’.
I have never contributed to any articles here before but would like to tell the story of the Merchant Navy boy not just because he was my father but because some stories just need to be told.
He was born to a family of four in a small Thameside village which at the time was almost completely rural -sheep and pigs at the end of the lane and orchards everywhere. He joined the local church as a choirboy, matriculated at the age of 14 and went to work in a factory. Due to an unfortunate (maybe fortunate) accident where he lost a finger joint to an unguarded machine, (he told me when I was small that it had been pecked off by a chicken), he used the small amount of compensation to pay his way in Gravesend Sea School. He obviously liked it so much that he joined the MN at the age of 16.
His first two voyages on the P&O RMS Corfu were incredible: 1935 Gibraltar, Tangiers, Marseilles, Port Said, Suez, Aden, Bombay, Ceylon, Fremantle, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sidney, Brisbane and back to the UK some months later.
The second journey: Gibralter, Marseilles, Port Said, Suez, Aden, Ceylon, Penang, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Yokohama, Kobe and home the same way plus Bombay and Malta. Can you imagine how exotic, how exhilarating this must have been for a young lad: the noise, the sights, he smells of the various ports. He was hooked. He brought home gifts for the family: tea sets and Kimonos from Japan and China, carved Buddhas and other exciting items not to mention the ‘stories’. He’d sailed the Yangtze, had seen dead bodies floating upriver, (results of the Boxer uprisings?), he’d seen food scraps thrown overboard being fought over by starving Chinese families in boats. Was his moral code hardened at this time or did it come later?
For the next few years he travelled the world for example in 1937 on the SS Highland Brigade to Boulogne, Ushant, Lisbon, Las Palmas, Pernambuco, Rio De Janeiro, Santos, Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Mar del Plata and back. He met and courted my mother when he was 17 and she was 15, during this time. He was friends with her brother. Mum told me later she would run to hide when she saw him coming because she took a dislike to him or his looks (not sure which), she must’ve been won around eventually because she became engaged to him and was married to him for over 40 years until his death.
As he continued to sail the world, and I don’t think there was a country with a sea border that he didn’t visit, all the while the drums of war were beating. He was just twenty when WW2 broke out, still a lad but with four valuable years of ‘work experience’ behind him. There is a gap in his records from the end of 1939 to the end of 1940 these may have just been lost or misfiled but there is every likelihood that by then he had signed on to Royal Navy Special Reserve for MN men and was waiting for his ‘training’ before being shipped off somewhere. It is also very likely he was on ‘coastal’ merchant ships at this early time in the war collecting or dropping off coal, timber and supplies all around the UK and to Scandinavia. Because Dunkirk was within this time period it is possible in fact highly likely, that he helped at Dunkirk as part of the flotilla of small ships. The ‘evidence’ is now lost and he never spoke of his wartime exploits to me.
My father sailed at least 16 ships between 1935 and 1945 with more than 23 journeys across the Atlantic and Pacific. These are some of the ships: SS Egba 1940: US gulf, Mobile and New Orleans, (by now working as a trimmer in bunkers and boiler rooms). SS Nariva 1941 for tinned meats for us then back to St Thomas and Halifax; SS Danby 1942 to Portland, Maine and Halifax; SS Ocean Liberty 1943 OHMS chartered for Operation Torch, invasion of North Africa – dad going twice here as again on SS Tamaroa. Then more ships across the Atlantic. SS Sambalt 1944 Special Ops to Seine Bay in support of Normandy landings. He did 6 trips to supply the troops. God knows what sights he saw there. There were a lot of GB sailings during these years too, mainly Wales, Scotland, Liverpool etc and again across the Atlantic to Baltimore, New York, Savannah, Boston etc. All of this time he would have been worried about his wife who was bombed out of her home in 1944 and had to return to her mother’s house. Also during this time his younger brother of 18 died in a terrible accident in a factory where he was working. My dad must have had incredible determination to carry on, but they just did didn’t they?
Sambalt Liberty ship built by Bethlehem – Fairfield Shipyard, Baltimore. (renamed Speaker in 1948)
I have collected a ‘book’ courtesy of the MN researcher, which records his ships and trips throughout these war years. It is about 2inches (5cm) thick and an amazing read. What I think may be unappreciated even to this day, how he and his wonderful fellow MN seamen kept us safe (fed us), and kept our forces equipped so they could do their jobs and believed in what they were doing.
Because many of his Wartime journeys were to America and Canada (he received the Atlantic Star), and because many of these were Liberty ships and he was billeted with US families waiting for these, he had a real respect for the ‘Yanks’. At this time two of the ships’ crew lists the SS Legato and SS Gitano show him as being height 6ft and weight 170lbs – young and fit then or so they thought. His wartime journeys continued though to South America and the Caribbean (gaining The Pacific Star), with he and his mates keeping us fed with bully beef and warmed with coke and coal, basically keeping us going. He received the France and Germany Star, the Africa Star (North Africa clasp) and the other gongs and whistles that meant he and his mates were heroes. Would he have been pleased about this? I think he might’ve said ‘tell ‘em to stick it up their jacksies’ but think he may have been secretly proud of me that I’d bothered to fight for recognition for him and the other lads, one of whom by the way was a Caribbean guy, so no rubbish about racism then. They were all lads together doing a job.
So much has come to light about his exploits in the research. Apparently he volunteered for the Royal Navy Special Reserve, his later ‘ops.’ being special operations in 1944. He did a bit of training with them including gunnery courses then went off on ‘special trips’ still as a MN man. The courses included aircraft recognition, machine gun maintenance, dismantling, cleaning and repair, followed by practical training instruction in ‘lead and lag’ (done with a camera gun) final part being live firing of weapons for which certified. This was all for DEMs, the Defensively Equipped Merchant ships which had anti -aircraft guns. It was all a bit shady and I still don’t know how some ‘gaps’ were filled. I know he was actually on some US ships during this time. Ever the enigma my dad.
He left the MN at the end of the war being invalided out on health grounds with severe ‘migraines’ and not surprisingly a few years later at the age of 28 he was diagnosed with heart problems (one ventricle only working) following rheumatic fever as a kid which somehow had been overlooked when he signed up. He was given six months to live by the team of medics. He actually lived until he was 70 doing a heavily manual job as a bricklayer and general foreman right to the end. He probably built half the houses and bungalows in Kent. He never claimed a penny from the State and paid all his taxes and dues. He never trusted medics again saying he thought the old Chinese idea of only funding doctors when you were well was a sensible way to go. His life savings when he died 30 years ago were just £11,000 and he and mum had gone without a lot to get that far.
He was a bundle of contradictions, my father, detesting rules and regulations for the sake of it but abiding by the Law. He hated ‘tin pot dictators’. There was a family story told in hushed tones that when he was told in the tax office/council offices to ‘get to the back of the queue’ by some imperious pen pusher, he lost his rag, and pulled said unfortunate across the desk by his lapels saying ‘I’ve come to pay my ******taxes you ****hole not to claim anything’. He taught himself electrical engineering from books and built the first TV in our road which all the neighbours used to come and watch on Saturday nights. I think dad had PTSD in retrospect as he could be angry with me a lot as a child and constantly rowed with my mum. He had a soft side too and always loved animals and rooted for the underdog. He never went to church after the age of 16 except for weddings and funerals etc but believed in God. He started my love of books by spending some of his hard earned money each week paying for Odhams children’s library including ‘Seven Wonders of the World with b/w plates’. We had a few run ins over the years which I now regret as I come to know more about him. For example he wasn’t keen on me going to college as he thought women should marry and have families. Being my father’s daughter of course I had a go at all of it. Dad must’ve got his wanderlust from his dad, my grandfather, as the old man had run away to join a travelling circus in Europe coming back as a qualified electrician and a communist member (!) but who couldn’t find much work in the depression years.
My father died on a beautiful September morning. I’d left the hospital some hours earlier as I couldn’t bear to stay. I knew he’d died even before I had the ‘phone call’. I was in the garden and suddenly the wind rustled in the trees (there had been no wind) and I knew he was saying goodbye.
There is so much more I could write about him from my own memories but I set out to write this as a thank you to him and the other young men of the Merchant Navy. I think these are the forgotten men who were heroes. Thank you MN for all you gave during the war years and beyond. I really hope we can go back to those days of self-belief and moral integrity with our future generations and that no ‘tin pot dictators’ will ever have the final say in our lives.
© Wattylers wife November 2019
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file