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J W Stanworth Memoirs part 7

by Rob Stanworth

Contributed by 
Rob Stanworth
People in story: 
James William Stanworth
Location of story: 
at sea
Background to story: 
Civilian Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
04 October 2005

These are my Grandfathers memoirs part 7

After landing at Inchinnan an ambulance picked us up and we sat waiting for permission to leave. It took about 40 minutes as we had no proof of who we were and every minute details had to be given as we were entering the country with no papers whatsoever. We were frozen as there was a cold wind blowing on the tarmac and we thought it was an unnecessary delay, as they could have sent someone with us to the hospital to check us out. I gave lots of details as I was a company man and knew all the details of the company, including the telegraphic address. They wished to know the firm’s London address, the date we sailed, where we joined the convoy, the Master’s name, the date we were torpedoed, whether anyone could remember his Seaman’s Discharge Book no., or Health Insurance No., and so on.

At long last we were allowed to leave and eventually arrived at the Western Infirmary in Glasgow. We were wheeled in and left sitting on a large table in the room, while a small ward was prepared for us. We sat on this wooden table for over an hour and our bones were absolutely aching from the lifeboat. We sat this way and that and just couldn’t get comfortable, so after reaching the ward we were missing the friendly people of Barra.

Smoking was absolutely taboo in this Hospital but as we were in a ward for only us six seamen, sister said that we could smoke after meals, but if any big wigs such as Matron, Assistant Matron, any doctors or officials came in the wards we had to extinguish our cigarettes and put them and the ash trays out of sight in the lockers. Fair enough really, but Sister hadn’t reckoned with one of our men when a bunch of officials came in, including Matron, the awkward one reached in his locker, brought out his packet of cigarettes, calmly selected one and lit it, puffing away in front of all and sundry. Nothing was send by the officials but shortly after Sister came in, eyes full of tears, she has been told off by Matron and she couldn’t believe one of us could let her down like that. I really felt sorry for Sister and we told the awkward one what we thought, but the damage was already done.

Some ladies visited us, general do-gooders really, and we could hear them asking the same questions at each bed — “How long were you in the lifeboat, how many died, how may survived and were you one of them?” They went to the awkward ones bed and when they asked him “Are you one of the survivors” he exploded, replying “No madam, I died in the lifeboat a fortnight ago and I was buried at sea”. He slid down the bed and turned his back on the visitors. Needless to say they didn’t come to see us again.

Within 10 days we were transferred to another hospital 15 miles outside Glasgow. It was a Mental Institution but the hospital part was made into an Emergency War Hospital.

The shipping firm again sent my wife a rail voucher to visit me while I was in the Western Infirmary and as she was coming from the station to the hospital on the tram she asked the conductor to tell her when they arrived at the Western Infirmary. A man sitting opposite her said “Don’t worry, I’m getting off there, get off when I do”. They walked up the drive together and he asked, “Will you be able to visit at this time of day?” she replied, “I hope so, I’m visiting my husband, who has been transferred here after his ship was torpedoed”. He said, “Was he one of those lads brought from the Hebrides yesterday?” she replied “Yes, but how do you know about them?” He said “Oh, the pilot is a friend of mine and he was telling me about their experiences”. Small world isn’t it?

While I was in the Western Infirmary I wrote to a Glasgow friend I had made in 1936, while I was on the “Pakeha”, he had been the ship’s watchman and invited three of us to his house on several occasions. He and his son came to visit me and told me my old friend Charlie the Chief Cook on the “Pakeha” was now on a ship of the same company, the M/V “Zealandic ” at present in Glasgow. Charlie had gone home for a few days but on his return they would tell him about me and no doubt he would visit me. He duly arrived and it was very nice to see him again. He gave me a piece of good advice “Get out of these slow ships - they are sitting ducks, too slow to get out of their own way. Now look at my ship the “Zealandic”, she’s fast, she doesn’t even go in convoy, get in something fast Jim”. My friend visited me at the next hospital at Lennox Castle and told me the sad news that the “Zealandic” had been lost with all hands, so fast ships had little advantage on slow ones, but as long as one believes it can happen to others but not to oneself, you will still men who go to sea.

I had been quite convinced that during the whole time in the lifeboat, no mater how many men died, it couldn’t happen to me. I would survive.

While we were on the Isle of Barra the lady at the house where I was billeted asked if we wanted our oil soaked clothing. We said “No” so they were burnt, she brought a pair of scissors and a little horseshoe found in my tunic pocket. I was given the horseshoe by my wife for Christmas 1938, it was on a Christmas card and had white heather and a tartan ribbon bow on it. I had it when I was on the “Harcalo” and after our experiences in the lifeboat after the “Oakcrest” was lost I must believe it has brought me good luck. I still have it and treasure it. The heather and tartan ribbon has rotted away but I would not like to lose it.

We lost our home in Wallasey in May 1941 and my wife and son stayed near the hospitals till I was discharged from hospital in July 1942.

The man who could not walk and had double pneumonia did not come to Lennox Castle hospital with us as he was still too ill to be moved but we heard later that he was transferred to a hospital near his home. He was the only Scot among the survivors and lived at Larbert, near Falkirk. His feet had been badly frost bitten and he had both legs amputated below the knee. I visited him after the war and he was a changed man. He refused to use a walking stick and would not talk to any neighbours and definitely would not speak to anybody about his disability. He had a good job as an accountant at the Ministry of Pensions.

Two men, who I might add had worn ordinary shoes while in the boat, only stayed at Lennox Castle for about six weeks and were allowed home.

The Assistant Matron, Miss Baird, at Lennox Castle was the sister of Mr Logie Baird, one of the pioneers of television. She was a very nice person and had many chats with us. Miss McBrayne of “McBrayne Steamers” well known on Clydeside and Oban and Miss Marigold Stirling, daughter of Lady Stirling, were Red Cross Voluntary Nurses at the hospital.

While at Lennox Castle there were two nights blitz on Clydeside and a German aircraft was brought down in the hospital grounds. The crew were captured and brought into the hospital, slightly injured but none seriously. They were put into bed and their uniforms put outside the ward door. Everybody who passed removed something from the uniforms as a souvenir including an Iron Cross. When the army came to escort them to a P.O.W camp they were given their uniforms and they had to fasten their pants up with string. Everyone was amused, except the Germans. They were most indignant about it. After an appeal from the doctor in charge, most of the souvenirs were returned, so they must have been busy with needles and thread at the P.O.W. camp for a couple of days.

One fireman, 19 years old, lost both legs below the knee, he was from Liverpool. The awkward man, also 19 years old, an A.D. from Bournemouth, had one leg amputated and had no toes left on his other foot. The heel had no flesh on it and the bone was visible. They cut a sort of horseshoe shaped flap of flesh on his other thigh and buried his heel in it, stitching the flap around his heel. They then put a plaster cast around the thigh, holding his heel in position for thirty days then it was removed, at first it seemed successful, but a small area stayed open at the base of the heel. For a laugh he used to show off his heel as the only heel with hairs growing out of it. He suffered greatly during the thirty days in plaster, almost unable to move but although I was with him for a year and a half he was still in hospital when I went home. I heard he eventually had to lose the other leg, but cannot confirm that statement.

Now comes my turn, I have accounted for everyone else. I had several skin grafts on the top of my feet, which were red raw, both big toes were completely gone and parts of other toes had rotted away. The grafts were partly successful, but I was later transferred from Lennox Castle to a special skin grafting unit at Ballochmyle hospital in Ayrshire. They tried another graft and decided it was a waste of time and arranged for me to have the foot amputated the following Thursday. I was glad really, and looked forward to it. The doctor convinced me I would be in and out of hospital for the rest of my life and who wants that? The ministry of pensions had been informed and back came the reply “Transfer patient to Ministry of Pensions Hospital at Erskine on the banks of the Clyde”. The doctor examined my foot and said, “I don’t think you need to lose the foot Laddie, I think I’ll try a skin graft”. Here we go again thought I, back to square one. I said, “I would rather have the foot off than be troubled with it all my life”. “We’ll see Laddie” was all he said. Three months later my foot was healed and I was out of hospital.

He had tried a different type of graft. Seedlings of skin were removed from my other leg and planted on the raw foot. He said, “I will be happy if a third of the seedlings take, as they will grow till they cover the affected area”. He was quite right, they did. Every time he looked at my foot he would smile and say, “Do you still want that foot off, Laddie?”

I was accepted as the senior person among the survivors and I had written to the company giving all details of the names of men who went down with the ship, who died in the lifeboat and were buried at sea and the eight names of the men buried on the Isle of Barra. I signed statements, swearing on oath, about the loss of the ship, and details of that nature and was very surprised to be informed that I had been awarded the British Empire Medal and “Oak Leaves”. Each survivor received a certificate to say his name had been published in the London Gazette, but I regret to say that the award of the B.E.M. went down very badly. There was a distinct coolness between us and while they admitted that I had done as much as anybody else, they couldn’t see that I had done any more than they had. I said, “Look lads, I did not ask for this award and in fact I would rather have not been recommended for it”. The subject came up on many occasions but I steered clear of any involvement.

In 1950 my wife, my son, Geoff and my daughter, Barbara and I visited the Isle of Barra and stayed for a week. Father McQueen had gone to the mainland and the doctor had also left the island. Mr and Mrs McNeil had left their clachan and lived in a modern house close by. Mr Mac and I went down to where we had landed nearly ten years earlier. The remains of the old lifeboat were still there and my son broke a piece of wood from the stern, which I still have. Mr McNeil told me the islanders still refer to the inlet as “Survivors Bay” and the men on the island still wonder how on earth we got a boat into the bay with rocks all across the entrance. I replied “It’s easy if you don’t know the rocks are there”. He laughed. We visited the graves of the eight men and it was a sad occasion. We said goodbye to we had met during our stay and I found it a bit too sad to wish to visit the island again.

The film “Whisky Galore” was filmed on the Island of Barra, based on a true story. The original ship, the “Politician” of T & J Harrison of Liverpool, was lost off the Island of Eriskay just north of Barra.

I would like to finish the story by saying it was an unforgettable moment when my wife and I visited Buckingham Palace to be presented with the B.E.M. and I will always remember the warm handshake and chat with King George VI. Never was the playing of the National Anthem so stirring. I felt my blood tingling to see His Majesty standing there and the orchestra sounded out of this world, absolutely beautiful.

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