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My Father's Loss on the Rawalpindiicon for Recommended story

by Brighton CSV Media Clubhouse

Contributed by 
Brighton CSV Media Clubhouse
People in story: 
Harold Jackson Cholerton, Norah Capp, Bertie J Dyer, Delia Spink
Location of story: 
Brighton, East Sussex and North Sea
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
27 August 2004

My mother and father, Norah and Harold Cholerton, circa 1932

The following story is about my father's role in World War Two, partly from my own recollections, but also from letters and newspapers that reported the events at the time.

My mother, Norah Capp, was the second nursing sister to be appointed by the P&O, and she met my father, Harold Jackson Cholerton, who was an officer on the P&O Liner Carthage. They married around 1933, and I was born in 1935 in Brighton.

When the war broke out my father was Second Officer on the P&O Liner Rawalpindi. The luxury liner had been requisitioned on 24 August 1939, and the Admiralty began fitting her with eight six-inch guns of World War One vintage, to be converted into an armed merchant cruiser. I remember being carried on board while it was being refitted at Tilbury, when I was about four years old.

Bad news on the radio

In early November 1939 the Rawalpindi set out from Tilbury to Scapa Flow in North Scotland to escort convoys on the North Atlantic route. On 23 November, disaster struck the Rawalpindi as it was patrolling the North Sea to the north of Faeroe. It was intercepted by the German battleships, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. The Rawalpindi didn't stand a chance against these superior battleships and after a brave fight was sunk in the cold grey waters. There were 38 survivors, but sadly 238 went down with the ship. This was only the second naval action in WW2.

Read an excellent online account of the attack on the RawalpindiAbout links.

I remember all of us huddling round the wireless, and hearing of the loss of the ship. They read out the list of those missing, presumed dead, as in those days they did not inform next-of-kin first. It was a great shock to his parents, who were listening to the report with my mother, to hear of his loss.

Newspaper report

The Brighton and Hove Herald gave the following report:

"The sinking of the British armed Merchant Cruiser Rawalpindi, south-east of Iceland, after a gallant fight against the 'pocket battle ship' Deutschland and another enemy craft, which will live long in British naval annals, has brought anxiety and distress to more than one home in Brighton and Hove.

Among the officers reported missing is Lieutenant Harold Jackson Cholerton RNR of Brighton, navigating officer of the Rawalpindi, who is the son of Mr and Mrs TJ Cholerton, and he leaves a wife and four-year-old daughter.

Although he has spent most of his time at sea as an officer of the Merchant Navy, Lieutenant Cholerton has many friends in Brighton. He is a man of likable qualities — popular at sea with every ship's company with which he has served and popular with social circles ashore.

There are some hopes entertained that Lieutenant Cholerton may possibly have been among those picked up by the enemy after the ship had foundered."

The telegram

On 26 November, my mother received a government telegram in a bright red envelope. It read:


A further letter from the General Register and Record Office of Shipping and Seamen on 29 November informed my mother that 'while the Admiralty can hold out very little hope that he is alive, they are not yet in a position officially to presume his death in view of the fact that a small number of prisoners is stated to have been taken by the enemy.'

This uncertainty prompted my grandmother to take my mother to séances to attempt to contact my father. They were probably influenced by the report that the captain of the ship, Captain Kennedy, had contacted his wife through the medium Ronald Strong. I don't think that they were very successful though.

Letter from a PoW

On 12 January 1940, my mother wrote to one of the captured prisoners of war, Engineering Lt Commander Bertie J Dyer, to find out if he had any news of my father, and he replied to her with this letter:

Germany, Jan 22nd

Dear Mrs Cholerton,

I have just received your letter of Jan 12 and very much regret that you have had no definite news of your husband before. As I have sailed on the Rawalpindi with him for some time and was glad to number him amongst my friends, you will understand how sorry I am to have no good news to tell you and the small child. During the action we came in contact several times, and he was all smiles, but later I missed him and he didn't turn up during our efforts to get the remnants of the men off the sinking ship. One of the shells must have got him. Any little satisfaction that can be got from his dying in such a heroic way for his country is all yours and ours. Please use me in any way you can.

Yours very sincerely, BJ Dyer.

The official news

After writing to Bertie Dyer my mother must have received the following letter, dated 11 January, from the General Register and Record Office of Shipping and Seamen.


I have to inform you that My Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty deeply regret that they have now been obliged to conclude definitely that your husband, Temporary Lieutenant Harold Jackson Cholerton RNR, lost his life when HMS RAWALPINDI was sunk in action with a German warship on the 23rd November, last.

My Lords have reached this conclusion and made a formal presumption of his death because his name does not appear among those of the few prisoners taken by the enemy and because they are satisfied that no further names will now be received.

My Lords desire me to express their sorrow that your long period of anxiety should have ended so unhappily and I am to couple this with the deepest sympathy of the Minister of Shipping. After this she also received the following message of condolence from Buckingham Palace.

'The Queen and I offer you our heartfelt sympathy in your great sorrow. We pray that your country's gratitude for a life so nobly given in its service may bring you some measure of consolation. George RI.'

My father was referred to as Temporary Lieutenant, as his commission was due to come through three weeks after his death. This would have been as a Lieutenant Commander, which was actually the job he was doing at the time anyway. This had a negative effect on my mother's war widows pension. This case was brought to the House of Commons, and as a result my mother received a small lump sum payment.

Throughout the war my mother never gave up hope, in the back of her mind, that my father could be alive. As she was never able to find out exactly what happened to him, the uncertainty caused her to be depressed, and although she carried on nursing, life was never quite the same. The shock of losing her son is thought to have brought on Parkinson's disease in my grandmother.

I remember going to many Remembrance services in London, Liverpool and Brighton, at which my mother would get upset.

One of the positive things that happened as a result of my father's death was that the Ministry of Pensions paid for me to attend whatever school my father would have wished me to go to. When I was eight years old, I attended Brighton and Hove High School and the fees were paid for me. My father's parents played a large part in my upbringing and eventually my mother and I went to live with my grandparents when my grandmother's Parkinson's disease progressed.

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