What did you do in the war grandad?

This is the brief story of my grandad and his part in the war. Here is a picture of George with who we think is his grandmother in the early 1900s.

George Gilfoyle was born in Cardiff in June 1900 to Edwin Herbert and Alice (pictured below). Alice died in childbirth so George never knew his mother. Herbert went on to change from the rather dashing man in the photo to a rather fat alcoholic in later life.

In 1923, George married Frances who was his childhood sweetheart (she appears in the diary below). Frances was born in 1903 so would have been 15 at the time of the diary writing. My father (died in 2014) was born in 1927 and then his sister in 1940 (who is very much still with us). George and Frances on their wedding day in 1923:

In June 1914, days after his 14th birthday he left school and started work as an apprentice fitter in the No 1 Power Station Great Western Railway in Queen Alexandria Dock in Cardiff.

In June 1918, days after his 18th birthday, he “volunteered for War” (a quote from the letter of recommendation from the Power Station we have dated 11th August 1927 – when my father would have been 7 months old) and joined the Merchant Navy as a 4th Engineer. His discharge record says he was 5ft 10inches with brown hair and brown eyes with fair complexion and no distinguishing marks.

What follows is a transcription of his diary that has been passed to my dad when he died and then on to me when my father died.

June 12th Wed. On board S.S. Reading at Port Talbot at 9-30am

June 13th Thursday. Left Port Talbot at 9-30am

June 14th Friday. Anchored at Milford Haven at 5am. Waiting for convoy.

June 16th Sunday. Engine ready at 12am. Starts for sea at 12-30am. 30 ships in convoy.

June 18th Tuesday. Convoy separated at 8-30am. Weather rough. Engine racing.

June 22nd Saturday. 1300 miles from England. Engine going full speed. 11 knots per hr.

June 26th Saturday. Bilge pipe burst at 3-30am. Ship stopped for 1hr. Bilge dry at 7-30am.

July 1st Monday. About 100 miles from New York.

July 2nd Tuesday. Arrived New York at 7-30am. Ship at warehouse 10-30am. Cannot land. No passes issued.

July 4th Thursday. Holiday. Independence Day. Received passport at 10-30am. Posted letters at 1-30pm. On board 12pm.

July 5th Friday. Visited Columbia Theatre (Italian Opera). On board 1am.

July 7th Sunday. Ashore at 10-30am. Visited Cathedral. Service not suitable. Aboard at 12-15am.

July 8th Monday. Went to cinema. Posted letters for home. Aboard 1am.

July 9th Tuesday. Went to cinema. Aboard 1am.

July 10th Wednesday. 1am went ashore. On board 4-30pm. Engine started at 6-15pm. Ship anchored near Statue of Liberty at 7-15pm.

July 11th Thursday. Started for sea 5-15pm. Full speed at 7-15pm.

July 15th Monday. Ship lost in fog. Engine going dead slow.

July 16th Tuesday. Arrived 7am about 1 mile from Sidney (Canada) at 7-10am. Waiting for convoy.

July 19th Friday. Started for sea at 8am. SS Reading leading ship on left wing of convoy of 30 ships.

July 22nd Monday. At 8pm, passed an ice-berge (sic). Climate cold. Sea rough.

July 24th Wednesday. Convoy of mail boats passed about 7-30pm. escorted by destroyers & cruisers. Bound for England. Weather rough.

July 27th Saturday. In mid atlantic now. “Mauratania” (sic) passed about 5pm. bound for New York.

July 31st Wednesday. About 5am. six American destroyers came to escort the convoy.

Aug 1st Thursday. Destroyers changed over. Eight British are now in the place of the Americans. At 5pm. Depth charge was dropped from destroyer. Submarine near during day and we passed four upturned lifeboats and wreckage.

Aug 2nd Friday. Convoy separated at 8pm.

Aug 3rd Saturday. Anchored outside Portsmouth at 3am. Arrived in dock at 9-30am. Discharged oil.

Aug 4th Sunday. At 10am received 25 letters from home. We are unable to land. Ship started 6-30pm. Anchored 7-30pm.

Aug 5th Monday. Started for France ay=t 12am.

Aug 6th Tuesday. Arrived at Boulogne at 11pm air raid at 11-30pm.

Aug 7th Wednesday. Went ashore 6-30pm aboard 9-30pm.

Aug 8th. Posted letters home.

Aug 10th Saturday. At 3-30 German aeroplane crossed over us. At 10-30pm air raid bombs dropped on town. Gun firing for this. Raid lasted all night.

Aug 11th Sunday. Ship unloaded at 10-30am. Air raid at 11-30am. Ship started at 12am. Passed Dover at 8-30pm.

Aug 12th Monday. Arrived at Portland at 8-30am for bunkers crew not signing off. Unable to land.

Aug 14th Wednesday. Started out at 5-30am. Arrived outside of Plymouth at 4pm

Aug 17th Saturday. Ship started for sea at 7-30am. Convoy of 20 ships escorted by 5 destroyers, 1 cruiser& 1 observation balloon.

Aug 18th Sunday. A ship on left of convoy rescued six men from rowing boat of the torpedoed ship “Esmic” [editor’s note, there was a torpedoed ship called the SS Escrick on 17th August 1918: https://wrecksite.eu/wreck.aspx?116109 360 miles NWxN of Finisterre by U-90 – 1 person lost] sunk on Friday Aug 16th. Weather rough.

Aug 22nd Thursday. Convoy separated. Weather rough. Stormy.

Aug 28th Wednesday. Weather rough. Heavy sea. Rolling hard.

Sept 1st Sunday. 100 miles from New York.

Sept 2nd Monday. Arrived at New York. No 7 pier at 9-30am. Went to cinema at 7pm. Aboard 11-30pm. Posted letters home.

Sept 3rd Tuesday. Went to Hippodrome (Play called “Everything”). On board 1-30am.

Sept 4th Wednesday. Went to Shubert Theatre (Italian Play). On-board 2-15am. Posted letters and postcards.

Sept 5th Thursday. Went to Coney Island. On board 1-30am.

Sept 6th Friday. Went to Shubert Theatre (“Going up”) On board 1-30am.

Sept 7th Saturday. Went to Coney Island. On board at 3-30am.

Sept 8th Sunday Went to Booth Theatre (Italian Play). Posted letters home. On board 12-30am.

Sept 9th Monday. Went to cinema. On board 1-30am.

Sept 10th Tuesday. Went to cinema. On board 2-30am.

Sept 11th Wednesday. Went to cinema posted post cards for home. On board 11-30pm.

Sept 12th Thursday. Posted view books & post cards for home. Ship started 2-30pm. Anchored outside Liberty Statue at 4pm.

Sept 15th Sunday. Started for sea at 9-15am. SS Reading first of 20 ships in convoy.

Sept 17th Tuesday. British cruiser came to escort convoy at 6-30am.

Sept 19th Thursday. Arrived at Sidney (Canada) at 9-15am. Cold & rough.

Sept 22nd Sunday. Ship started 8-15am. Convoy of 34 ships. Reading in third line. Weather rough.

Oct 4th Friday. Six British destroyers came at 8am. British submarine sighted on horizon at 3-30pm. About 140 miles from England.

Oct 6th Sunday. Arrived at Portsmouth at 7-40pm. discharging oil.

Oct 8th Tuesday. Started for France at 3-30pm.

Oct 9th Wed. Arrived at Calais at 2pm. Went ashore 7-30 – 9pm.

Oct 10th Thursday. Post letters home. Aboard 9-30pm.

Oct 11th Friday. Posted letters. Aboard 9pm.

Oct 12th Sat. Went ashore 3pm. On board 9-30pm.

Oct 13th Sunday. Went ashore 2-30pm. On board 9pm.

Oct 14th Monday. Started for Calais at 6-30am. Anchored 7-30pm until 9-30pm. Ship going full speed.

Oct 15th Tuesday. Arrived at Portland and Weymouth at 11pm. Father came aboard from lighter at 11-30pm. Went ashore at 3-30pm. Stopped all night.

Oct 16th Wednesday. Father left Weymouth for Cardiff at 12-15pm. Sent post cards home. Stopped ashore all night.

Oct 17th Thursday. Wrote letter to Frances. Received three letters. Had row from skipper for leave overdue. (A.I. now.)

Oct 18th Friday. Ship started at 1-30pm. Anchored at 10pm.

Oct 19th Saturday. Ship started at 7am. Arrived at Plymouth Harbour at 11-30am. Anchored at 11-35am.

Oct 20th Sunday. Ship started for sea at 11-30 am. Convoy of 12 ships. Escort of light destroyers. At 2-30pm German submarine seen. Destroyers dropped about 30 depth charges. Weather fine.

Oct 25th Friday. Convoy separated at midnight. Weather rough.

Oct 31st Sunday. Arrived outside New York at 8pm. Anchored at 8-30 pm.

Nov 5th Tuesday. Ship sailed into West Shore New York at 3pm. Went to cinema. On board 11-30pm.

Nov 6th Wednesday. Went to cinema. Bought chocolate for home. Post letters for home.

Nov 7th Thursday. Armistice Signed (unofficial) Went ashore 2-30pm. On board 2-30am.

Nov 8th Friday. Stopped aboard all night. (Armistice announced as roumour).

Nov 9th Saturday. Went to Booth Theatre. (Play. Bing Boys on Broadway). On board 12-30am.

Nov 10th Sunday. Went to Hippodrome. Aboard 1-30am. Posted letters home.

Nov 11th Monday. Armistice signed (officially). Went ashore 10-30am. On board 2-30am. Posted letters home.

Nov 12th Tuesday. Went to cinema. On board 11pm. Wrote to Frances.

Nov 13th Wednesday. Posted letters home. On board 10pm.

Nov 14th Thursday. Stopped aboard. No money.

Nov 15th Friday. Stopped aboard. Same complaint.

Nov 16th. Saturday. Went to cinema. Sent letters and p. cards home. On board 11-30pm.

Nov 17th Sunday. Stopped aboard.

Nov 18th Monday. Stopped aboard.

Nov 19th Tuesday. Ship started for sea at 8-30am.

Nov 24th Sunday. Sea rough.

Nov 27th. Wednesday. Sea rough. Ship taking seas from 11-30am. From 3-30pm. heavy gale. Portside lifeboat swept from stand onto the engine room sky lights. Casings over steam pipes on deck badly damaged. Rooms on portside washed out. Starboard slightly affected. Bilge pumps choked up with coal. Bilges dry and clean at 6pm.

Nov 28th Thursday. “Mauratania” (sic) passed. Bound for New York. Gale eases.

Dec 2nd Monday. 500 miles from Bordeaux.

Dec 5th Thursday. Orders to proceed for Brest.

Dec 7th Saturday. Arrived at Brest. Anchored 1 mile from land. Near the German liner “Vaterland”

Dec 8th Sunday. Received 60 letters at 6-30pm. Weather misty.

Dec 11th Wednesday. Still outside Brest.

Dec 13th Friday. President Wilson came into Brest at 1pm with fleet. Fleet fired salute.

Dec 15th Sunday. Ship started to go into Brest at 9am. By quay wall at 10-30pm. Posted letters.

Dec 18th Wednesday. Posted letters.

Dec 22nd Sunday. Ship started at 7-30am. Anchored outside Brest at 8-30am. To (sic) rough to proceed for sea.

Dec 23rd Monday. Ship started for Barry Roods (??) at 4-30pm. Weather rough. Engines racing.

Dec 24th Tuesday. Passed longships at 1-30pm. Time now 8pm. 96 miles from Cardiff.

Dec 25th Wednesday. Anchored outside Barry Island at 5-30am.

Dec 26th Thursday. Ordered to proceed for Barry at 1pm. In Barry Dock at 3pm. In Cardiff at 6-30pm Dec 26th. GG.

His discharge document:

His letter of recommendation from SS Reading reads:

“This is to certify that the bearer Mr George Gilfoyle has served with me as fourth engineer from June 6th 1918 until December 26th 1918.

During this time, he has been strictly sober and attentive to his duties and has kept a regular watch on engines and boilers. He is a thorough mechanic and at all times willing and I can recommend him to anyone requiring a trustworthy engineer.

D Nicholls. Chief Eng.”

Family in later the early 30’s . Back row is Frances’ dad, Frances, Frances’ mum, George Herbert (told you he went fat alcoholic), George and my dad.

The family in later life (probably late 50’s, early 60’s. L-R, George, Frances, Diana (my mum), Alan (dad), Linda (my aunt and dad’s sister).


George died in April 1965 when I was 18 months old so I never got to know him. We have his probate record here and it states that his estate was valued at £5. His funeral cost £65.

© text & images Bertram Gilfoyle 2022