- Contributed by
- Norman Date
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 01 November 2003
The war started for me on the tanker, M.V James Maguire on the 5th November 1940 when the bell rang for “action stations”, on deck we could see shells being fired at the “Jervis Bay”, our only escort, she did not stand a chance, the raider (the pocket battleship “Admiral Sheer”) fired at a small ship astern of us and she sank at once, then next the raider fired at the tanker “San Demetrio” setting her on fire. We fully expected to be the next victim and we had lowered our lifeboats ready to abandon ship, but the raider did not attack any more.
We stayed on deck all night, sailing at full speed to Gourock in Scotland, which we reached in about five days. Two or three days after our arrival the “San Demetrio” came in severely damaged by fire and with only fourteen crew aboard to be greeted by every ship in the harbour blowing their whistles to welcome her in. We were in port for three days before sailing to Avonmouth after which I stayed with the “James Maguire” for three more trips to Texas and Aruba before leaving her on the 12th May 1941.
I joined the tanker M.V Robert F Hand on the 30th May 1941 and fortunately never saw any action all the time that I was aboard her, leaving her on the 12th July 1942, I joined the tanker “Empire Oil” on the 10th August 1942. We sailed from Avonmouth on about the 20th August 1942 and at Swansea loaded with petrol bound for Malta or Russia. Our orders were changed and we discharged the cargo and sailed with water ballast from Milford Haven to Belfast from where on the 5th September 1942, we joined convoy ON-127 for our journey across the North Atlantic. On the 10th September we were torpedoed in the engine-room, killing two crewmen and injuring gunlayer Jones, who was coming out of his cabin when a rivet driven from the plates by the explosion, hit him in the stomach. Gunlayer Jones subsequently died from this injury and was buried at sea from HMCS Ottawa prior to her being torpedoed.
I got into one of the lifeboats with two other crewmen but were unable to launch as the lifeboat was stuck to the ladder, but luckily for us there were still a few left on board, the Captain, Chief Engineer, Fourth Mate and Chief Steward who managed to cut the ladder and we got away from the ship. Eventually two lifeboats including mine were picked up by the HMCS St Croix, the survivors in the third boat being rescued by the HMCS Ottawa. Unfortunately the HMCS Ottawa was later torpedoed and only five of our crew survived, those being the Third Mate, Chief Cook, Second Cook, Galley Boy and a Fireman. We were landed in St Johns, Newfoundland on the 15th September. Two of my shipmates from the “Empire Oil” are still in contact with me : Bob Lark, serving as a Deck Boy and Gordon Smith who was the Third Mate.
All of our survivors plus about another five hundred seamen were accommodated in a building perched high on a hill and comprising of two stories, with the bunks three high all on one floor. I complained to one of the men in charge that the place was a death-trap if we should have a fire as the windows were all sealed with wire mesh. I was there for three weeks before embarking on a small steamer called the “Caribou”, on the first leg of my long journey home. The ship carried at least six hundred passengers, all accommodated on one deck down below. What with all the lights on all over the ship I would not go below as if we were torpedoed we would not stand a chance, so I told the First Officer about the lights and he said that the “submarines would not come this far!,” anyway we managed to reach Halifax safely.
After a few weeks I learnt that the “Caribou” had been torpedoed with a large loss of life including many of the wives and children of R.A.F men who were on board and were going to Halifax to visit their husbands. Later I also heard that the building that we had stayed in at St Johns had burnt down killing at least three hundred and fifty men, so I was very lucky to escape both tragedies. A monument to the men who died in the fire at St Johns has been erected there. After spending two months in Halifax we had a journey of five days by train across the Rockies to Vancouver where we joined the S.S Fort Steel, arriving home on the 8th February 1943.
After a months leave I joined the S.S Iroquois on the 10th March 1943 until the 31st July 1943, after which the M.V. D L Harper from the 20th August 1943 to the 11th June 1945, followed by the M.V Walden from the 27th August 1945 to the 12th October 1945, then finally the M.V Chesapeake from the 24th October 1945 through to the 10th March 1946 finally discharging myself having completed six years war service.
The “Jervis Bay” commanded by Captain Fegen RN was sunk on convoy HX84 which was sailing eastwards from Halifax, when the Admiral Scheer attacked. Captain Fegen was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his attempts to protect the convoy. During the attack six merchant ships were sunk and two damaged with the loss of two hundred and six merchant seamen, but thanks to the “Jervis Bay” thirty-two ships had survived.
The Bristol City Line ship “Gloucester City” commanded by Captain Smith rescued seven boatloads of survivors from this action, landing ninety-two at St Johns, Newfoundland on the 13th November 1940. Captain Smith was later awarded the O.B.E for outstanding courage and leadership during the war.
The “Fort Steel” was the Canadian Equivalent of the American Liberty Ship
From: Norman Date / Hon Secretary/ Merchant Navy Association Bristol UK
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