Interior designer and presenter Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen has always loved being close to the sea. He knew that there had been sailors on his mother’s side of the family in recent times, but was keen to trace how far back the family connection with the sea might go. Laurence also hoped that his journey would shed some light on his ancestral and social background. He said that people assume that he's descended from Welsh gentry living in Gothic castles, but he doubted this was the case.
We began our investigation with Laurence's maternal grandfather, Ronald Wilks. Laurence knows that Ronald was in the merchant navy. He remembers his grandfather as a loud, eye-catching character in a gold-buttoned uniform. Laurence was convinced that there would be some interesting stories associated with Ronald, known as 'Pop' within the family.
Laurence travelled to Stratford to visit his uncle Christopher, his mother's youngest brother. Speaking to relatives about older family members is the best way to gain a head start in the family research process. Their personal documents, letters and photographs will also be invaluable in your search and can really bring a story to life.
Christopher showed us some photographs of Ronald in his naval uniform and a document relating to Ronald's service, his seamen's discharge book. This record listed the dates when Ronald joined and left a merchant ship.
If you don’t have your ancestor's discharge book, you can try visiting or contacting the National Archives. It holds pre-1941 merchant seamen's service records, the information in which is similar to an individual seaman's discharge book. The National Maritime Museum, Imperial War Museum and Merseyside Maritime Museum may also have information about seafaring ancestors (see Related Links).
We discovered that the discharge book Laurence was examining was actually a replica of the original. Reading on, we discovered what had happened to the original.
In one entry, written next to the name of the ship Kohistan, it simply read 'vessel sunk' on 22 November 1917. We discovered that Ronald had volunteered to join the merchant navy in 1915, at the age of 17. Two years later, during the First World War, it appeared that his ship had sunk.
To find out more about what had happened to Ronald's first ship, the Kohistan, we went to the National Archives to meet naval historian Captain Christopher Page. The National Archives store official reports into the sinking of merchant navy vessels (see Related Links).
Captain Page explained that the Kohistan was a small steamer with a crew of 30 people. In 1917, the ship was part of a First World War allied convoy from Burma. As we followed the convoy's route on a map, we discovered that the ships had to pass through a narrow point between North Africa and Sicily. This section of water was a notorious hunting ground for German U-boats.
The U-boat was the newest and deadliest threat faced by allied shipping. In 1917, the Germans began a campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare on merchant navy ships in an attempt to cut British supply lines. In response, merchant ships travelled in convoys, protected by the Royal Navy. Yet the Mediterranean remained one of the most dangerous sea passages in the world. U-boats were sinking allied ships at a rate of one every 36 hours.
Minutes of a court of inquiry into the sinking of the Kohistan revealed further details. At five o'clock on 21 November a ship called Moussul radioed that she was under attack. The convoy and escort decided to change course. Despite the detour, only 22 hours later they ran into another German submarine. The Kohistan was sunk at the second location, just west of Sicily.
In the inquiry minutes, Captain Page showed Laurence the formation of the ships at the time of the attack, and the positions of escort ships like Narcissus and Nereid. The inquiry concluded that no blame could be apportioned for the attack. It was seen merely as a misfortune of war.
Laurence wanted to find out whether there were any more personal accounts of the sinking.
Official reports are fantastic for factual evidence, but eyewitness accounts really bring a story to life. Laurence headed to the Imperial War Museum (IWM), one of the world's leading military archives (see Related Links). Amongst the collections held at the IWM are personal papers, diaries and photographs.
Laurence found a war diary written by Herbert Wilde, commander of the Royal Navy escort for his grandfather's convoy. He was shocked to read that the captain of the Narcissus, one of the naval ships supposedly protecting his grandfather's convoy, was believe to have been drunk.
Could the sinking have been avoided? To find out, we headed to the Bundesarchiv (Federal Military Archive) in Freiburg, Germany to look at other eyewitness accounts. This time they were the recollections of those who launched the attack on Ronald's boat.
The Bundesarchiv holds U-boat records. Laurence had arranged to meet Oliver Meise, an expert on the First World War U-boat campaign. The commanders of each German U-boat recorded all observations and events. Oliver translated the war diary of Oberleutnant (First Lieutenant) Korsch, the commander of UC-35, the U-boat that sunk the Kohistan.
Korsch's entry for 22 November 1917 revealed that the U-boat observations were taking place above sea level. UC-35 was pursuing the convoy on the surface of the water, and therefore could have been detected by sight.
Korsch's diary stated that the convoy had been zigzagging, constantly changing formation and distance in order to confuse the chasing U-boat. The pursuit went on for three hours, until Lieutenant Korsch ordered the crew to prepare to attack.
The simple words 'Heckrohr Los' and 'Treffer' told us that the torpedo had been fired and had successfully hit the U-boat’s target, Ronald's ship.
Oliver described the chaos that would follow a torpedo hit, as ships sank extremely quickly after impact. Everyone on board would have scrambled for lifeboats in order to get away from their ship as quickly as possible, to avoid being dragged down with it.
We discovered that Ronald and his shipmates had just managed to clamber onto one of the navy escorts before a second torpedo from UC-35 destroyed the Kohistan.
Laurence still wondered whether the alleged drunken captain of the escort ship, Narcissus, could have prevented the sinking. Oliver didn't believe so. He said that lookouts would have been posted all over the ship, and would have constantly scanned the horizon for signs of U-boats. Unfortunately, in this case, they hadn’t been able to spot UC-35.
During the First World War, German U-boats sank over 6,500 merchant ships and killed 12,000 British sailors. Amazingly, no lives were lost in the attack on the Kohistan.
Ronald went on to become a sea captain in the merchant navy, and survived another world war, guiding his ships past Hitler's U-boats in the Atlantic convoys. He retired from sea after 43 years of service.
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