It may have been the pull of white horses and a thirst for adventure that lured my father’s family towards the sea.
In my more fanciful moments, I believe it is in the genes. For thousands of years our nomadic ancestors wandered across the north African desert in a bid to escape the encroaching Sahara. In the end they crossed the Mediterranean and made their way into Europe.
Eventually they stopped and settled, but it seems the family were restless people. It was hard for them to stand still. My father joined the Royal Navy and was on the verge of sailing to India when an accident on board ship terminated his service. He then entered the Foreign Office at the end of the war and spent the next few years travelling across Europe.
His younger brother did not complete his National Service because he could not refrain from deserting at the weekends and evenings. In the end, they grew tired of him and discharged him, whereby he immediately faked his way into the Merchant Navy pretending to be a qualified chef. Such cheek saw him travel around the Cape of Good Hope, the Indies, and onto Australia to satisfy the thirst for adventure he longed for.
It may have been his older brother Teddy who planted the seed of wandering in his head. Teddy had joined the Merchant Navy, without any fakery, several years before.
In 1939, Teddy was on the Dunvegan Castle before joining the Union ship the Gloucester Castle on 13th June 1941 at Glasgow. While no chef, Teddy was working as the 1st assistant baker, possibly because he had some experience working for Bartons in east London.
During the war, ships like the Gloucester Castle with a compliment of both passengers and crew would leave these shores in convoys for protection. Once away from the convoy they were vulnerable to attack – in the case of the Gloucester Castle, such was the nature of the assault it would suffer, it was later considered a war crime.
The ship sailed from Birkenhead on 21st June 1942 in a convoy bound for Cape Town, but when the convoy dispersed on 10th July, she sailed forth alone. She was not far off Ascension Island, directly west of Gabon, when she was attacked.
It was 7 pm and a pitch-dark night. Out of the blackness, a German raider called the Michel under the command of Helmuth von Ruckteschell, started firing her 5-inch guns and machine guns on the Gloucester Castle’s starboard bow. Immediately, the drums of petrol in the well deck were set on fire and all the starboard lifeboats were blown away.
Teddy, his fellow crew mates, and the passengers made a dash through columns of fire to get to the lifeboats on the port side, however they were attacked by another small torpedo boat firing a machine gun. Just as they managed to get one lifeboat into the water, the raider fired a torpedo into the starboard side and the Gloucester Castle started to list.
The shell demolished the bridge and radio room, killing all of the ship’s officers but one. Their deaths meant no distress message was transmitted before the carnage.
Those who managed to climb into the lifeboat were overturned in the wake of the listing vessel. They floated in warm waters, terrified beneath the pitch-black sky, until others who had managed to escape into another lifeboat held out a hand. In the boat they sat, surrounded by a calm sea that gently rolled in a slight well, watching stunned and numb as the Gloucester Castle went down.
It all happened in just ten minutes.
As they watched her sink, the occupants of the lifeboat could see the red lights of lifejackets bobbing in the blackness: there were people still in the water. They rowed to pick them up.
As they drifted in the darkness, the beam from a searchlight was suddenly cast over them and a voice rang out that they were going to be picked up. Their rescuers were the very same foe who had attacked the Gloucester Castle: the men of the Michel. The raider pulled alongside the lifeboat and took off the women and children first, tying ropes around them while simultaneously pointing their machine guns at all the survivors. These people were wet and frightened and of no danger to their captors, but the Germans still proceeded to point their guns and blindfold the men of the Gloucester Castle.
Life in the hold
After they gathered the survivors, they treated the wounded and gave out cigarettes and mugs of soup. Those who survived this episode would testify they were treated better by the Germans than their future captors, but after spending two weeks on the raider while it continued to attack other ships and take on more prisoners, they were transferred to the supply tanker Charlotte Schliemann.
Here their situation worsened.
Back home, the families of the passengers and crew, sat reading their newspapers and opening their mail to the news the Gloucester Castle had gone missing. The kin of those who served received messages of condolence from their Majesties and wives were given widow’s pensions.
My family were resigned to the fact that their son and brother, Teddy, would never be seen again. Even though nobody knew of the fate of the ship – the newspapers calling it one of the great mysteries of the sea – many were convinced all souls were lost.
It was a devastating moment for the families. Not knowing their loved-one’s fate meant their grief could not rest nor could they let go of the tortuous vision of how they may have met their deaths.
For those aboard the Charlotte Schliemann, thoughts of home and food would consume them. While the women and children had been accommodated in cabins, about 250 seamen were placed in the bottom of the hold. They were given dirty blankets and mattresses and their food, consisting of stew, black bread, and weevil infested biscuits, was lowered down to them in large containers.
They believed Germany was their destination, but the tanker headed south through the stormy weather of the roaring forties (between latitudes 40° and 50° south) and headed for Singapore. They endured their time in the hold for eight weeks, spending bitter nights freezing beneath their blankets while rats ran across their bodies.
They would eventually spend time in one of the most notorious camps of WW2. That story will be told in part 2 which you can find here.
By Mish J Holman
(c) 2022 Mish J Holman. Do not reproduce without permission.
West Sussex Gazette. (1945) Littlehampton. West Sussex Gazette. 13 December. p. 3g. www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk
Board of Trade. Registry of Shipping and Seamen: Fifth Register of Merchant Seaman’s Service (CRS 10 forms). BT 382/861.
Otago Daily Times (2012). Taken by the enemy. Otago Daily Times. 3 August. https://www.odt.co.nz/lifestyle/magazine/taken-enemy
Otago Daily Times (2012). Life as a Japanese POW. 4 August. https://www.odt.co.nz/lifestyle/magazine/life-japanese-pow
Morris, Austin Francis. (2005) The Sinking of the Gloucester Castle. www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/56/a5917656.shtml