Name: Alfred Henry (David) Watkins
Birth: 17 AUG 1907 in Usk Monmouthshire 1
Death: 24 SEP 1942 in HMS Somali
Rank 1942 Ordinary Seaman
Alison writes ABT SEP 1942 Garden full of flowers see AML BB
Monmouth G S SEP 1916 July 1924
Technical College SEP 1924 Newport
Applied 1st job to DEC 1924 National Provincial Bank Ltd
Occupation: ABT 1928 Bank Officer
Bible 13 OCT 1918
Burial: 24 SEP 1942 Missing in action at sea
Baptism: 6 OCT 1907 note back of Holy Bible 1611 version
CONF: 28 MAR 1922 note back of Holy Bible 1611 version
Military Service: BET MAY AND SEP 1942 P/Jx329492, HMS Coillingwood, from August HMS Somali
Reference Number: 1
ADR1: The Cottage
ADR2: Coleshill Street
CITY: Sutton Coldfield
Medical Information: 5' 6 3/4 12 Stone 7lb in1924
Form IVa MGS
A Junior Trigonometry
Borchardt and Perrot
C. Bell and Sons, London 1920
My father AHW the second had to go into the National Provincial Bank (in Blaenavon as a trainee then Horse Fair Birmingham, and Solihull as an accountant ) because the business of Watkins & Co could not support another partner in the lean 1920ies
A colleague of his was married to a school friend of my mother (Colston Girls Bristol) who had come to Birmingham to teach.
AML met her in News Street by accident and was invited to her home and introduced to AHW
I have just a few memories of my father at 230 Widney Lane one Christmas day taking my hand and leading me outdide to show me a little christmas tree all dressed with little iceicles of glass.
We played with my first train set a circle and a clock work 0 4 0 black wind up locomotive and a yellow american box car.
Then out in the garage he made a staition platform form scrap wood with a shelter on it like a halt.
At my mother's request one morning he also taught me to pee standing up by showing me how men did it.
Many years later my mother told me why I am an only child, they could see war was coming and decided not to have any more children until after it was all over.
My father read The Times and one day at breakfast he announced "There is going to be food rationing" which impressed a very small boy with a healthy appetite . .. what did that mean?
When the air raids began my cot was moved downstairs by the front door in the hall
and my father boarded up the porch and painted the togue and groove planks maroon red, and an ante blast wall created by filling the porch with sand.
He used to walk the two miles each way to Solihull each day to work as as the accountant at the National Provincial Bank Solihull branch.
If the books failed to balance by as little as one penny he stayed on until the error was found and corrected
My mother joked about his big feet flattening the new tarmac when there was road works
In Memory of
ALFRED HENRY WATKINS
H.M.S. Somali, Royal Navy
who died on
Thursday, 24th September 1942.
Memorial: PORTSMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL, Hampshire, United Kingdom
Panel Number: Panel 66, Column 1.
Location: The Memorial is situated on Southsea Common overlooking the promenade, and is accessible at all times.
Historical Information: PORTSMOUTH MEMORIAL REGISTER. The first part (1914) records particulars of the loss of 1,917 ranks and ratings of the Royal Navy, 1,524 of whom fell in H.M.S. "Good Hope" and "Bulwark". The second part (1915) records particulars of the loss of 972 ranks and ratings of the Royal Navy, 536 of whom fell in H.M.S. "Viknor", "Bayano", "Goliath", "Princess Irene", "Lynx", and "Natal", and of four civilians employed by the Admiralty. The third, fourth and fifth parts (1916, divided alphabetically into three parts) record particulars of the loss of 4,485 ranks and ratings of the Royal Navy, 567 of whom fell in H.M.S. "Black Prince", "Defence", "Indefatigable", "Invincible", "Queen Mary", "Tipperary", and "Hampshire", and of eight civilians employed by the Admiralty. The sixth part (1917) records particulars of the loss of 1,269 ranks and ratings of the Royal Navy, 443 of whom fell in H.M.S. "Ghurka", "Paragon", "Vanguard", "Begonia", "Partridge", and "Torrent", and of five civilians employed by the Admiralty. The seventh part (1918-21) records particulars of the loss of 1,086 ranks and ratings of the Royal Navy, 249 of whom fell in H.M.S. "Narborough", "Opal", "Louvain", and "Glatton", and of four civilians employed by the Admiralty. Each entry in these Registers represents untimely death, and the bereavement of a family. Together they represent the price paid by those families and the Empire for keeping our shores inviolate; for moving here and there, as we would, greater Armies than the Empire had ever before dreamed of raising; for confining to its harbours, during almost the whole of four years, the greatest Navy except our own; for annihilating enemy sea borne trade; and for a decisive share in breaking the aggressive spirit of the German Government and people.
also National Provincial Bank memorial London
Usk churchyard war memorial
The final four months in the life of a Tribal Class Destroyer
June - September, 1942
C.E.R.A. Peter Belchamber
Serving between 1937 - 1958
Reproduced by kind permission of "Warship World"
HMS Somali was torpedoed on the 20th of September, 1942 while escorting Convoy QP14 homeward bound from Archangel to the U.K. She was towed 420 miles by HMS Ashanti but broke in two on the night of the 24th of September with the loss of 81 of the 100 who had volunteered to try to save their ship. I was one of the survivors.
Of the sixteen original Tribal Class destroyers some 12, including HMS Somali, now lie on the ocean floor from Murmansk to Alexandria. Towards the end of June, 1942, Somali took a very active part in escorting the infamous Convoy QP17 in the general direction of Murmansk and was one of the escorts ordered to turn back and abandon the merchant ships to their inevitable fate.
At the time, the escorts were under the impression that they were leaving the convoy to ward off an imminent attack by German heavy units. I will never forget the frustration and disgust shown by my war weary shipmates when the truth became apparent in spite of the fact they had participated in nearly every major naval action since the beginning of the War. By the end of February, 1943, a total of 416 naval ships of all classes had been lost; 94 of these were destroyers; life expectancy was not very great.
On return to Scapa Flow from PQ17, Somali was allowed a short respite to re-provision and execute urgent repairs before being ordered south to form part of the close escort for Operation Pedestal whose task was to get vital supplies to Malta at any cost.
When the heavy escort of battleships and carriers turned back at the Sicilian narrows, the close escort was on the receiving end of a terrific pounding; everything the Germans and to a lesser extent Italians, could throw at us. One comforting thought was that we had a better chance of survival if sunk as the water was warmer than the Arctic Ocean!
Temperatures in the Engine and Boiler Rooms were in the region of 130 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit and this, coupled with the high humidity caused by steam leaks which could not be repaired while the ship was under way, caused many cases of what is now recognised as heat exhaustion among the engine room personnel. The naval remedy at that time was to issue extra rations of oatmeal mixed with water and extracts of lime juice - an excellent cure for Scurvy since Nelson's time but in these circumstances had the effect of leaching out the remaining vital salts in the body making the condition even worse. It was later discovered, when the Americans entered the war, that a teaspoonful of common salt dissolved in a glass of water or in the form of a salt tablet was all that was needed to bring about a miraculous recovery!
Before the heavy units turned back personnel, at Action Stations on the upper deck, witnessed the famous "Splash Barrage" aimed just in front of incoming torpedo bombers by the main armament of the battleships. The effectiveness of this action was very encouraging to the morale of their targets within the close escort.
When the cruiser Manchester was sunk off Cape Bon Somali stood in toward the shore, stern first with gun barrels depressed, to show no hostile intent in an abortive attempt to pick up survivors who were lined up on the beach. She was forced to abort the attempt for two reasons: The 'neutral' Vichy French commenced firing at her with heavy artillery from the fort on top of Cape Bon and an Italian float plane dropped a depth charge alongside her starboard side. At the time, I was making a routine inspection of the shaft compartments and stern gland spaces and can remember making an undignified but speedy ascent to the upper deck!
The shock of the explosion damaged the hydraulic system of the 4 inch high angle gun mounting, the main defence against attacking aircraft. With the mounting changed to hand control bearing the gun was a much slower process. The remainder of the main armaments were 4.7 inch low angle mountings effective against torpedo bombers and ship or shore targets but very little else in the prevailing circumstances.
Once in sight of Malta, the close escort handed over to the local escort and turned back through the Sicilian narrows for the relative safety of the Western Mediterranean and the odd spasmodic attack by the enemy. Shore leave was given in Gibraltar but this degenerated into pitched battles in Main Street between ratings from the heavy units and those from the close escorts who claimed they had been deserted in their time of need.
Somali returned to Greenock where it was found that no facilities were available to repair or replace the damaged hydraulic pump for the 4 inch gun mounting. Fifty percent of the ships' company was sent on 48-hours leave to be followed by the other 50% - provided that the first batch came back! Many urgent minor repairs were carried out by those of the Engineering Department who remained on board who were working long hours.
Morale was high but was somewhat dented when the stand-in captain, in a stress-relieved condition, banged on the door of the Tiffies' Mess in the early hours of the morning brandishing a 24 inch carpenter's folding rule. Accompanied by a very embarrassed Engineer Commander, he stated that he had personally 'measured up' with his rule and was confident the Engineers could remove one of the forward hydraulic gun pumps serving A or B 4.7 inch low angle gun mountings (weighing 2 tons and 2 decks down), transport it aft and replace the damaged pump of X gun (also two decks down). He showed no interest in the fact that the Tiffies not on leave were a Coppersmith, a Boilermaker and the junior sprog Tiffy (the author) the only Engine Fitter!
After a lengthy and rather unreasonable discussion during which he was still not convinced that his suggestion was a three week dockyard job, with the consequent loss of much needed sleep by the Tiffies, he gave in and was escorted back to his cabin to sleep it off by the Engineer Commander
Sailing orders were received to depart at once for Scapa Flow to refuel, top up with ammunition and provisions and depart immediately for Spitzbergen as part of Force A (consisting of 8 destroyers) to escort Convoy PQ18 to Mumansk. This meant that Somali would be defending a convoy from anticipated heavy air attacks with her main antiaircraft gun mounting less than 50% efficient.
Refuelling at Lowe Sound, Somali joined up with Force B and formed the escort for convoy PQ18. When a Heinkel 111 reconnaissance plane spotted the convoy on September 13th. It was being escorted by 20 destroyers, 11 smaller warships, 3 antiaircraft ships and the aircraft carrier Avenger. There were intense submarine and air attacks for the next 6 days during which 13 merchant ships were sunk, 3 U-boats destroyed and many planes shot down or damaged.
When Somali was within sight of Murmansk, she joined convoy QP14 to run the gauntlet again on the return to Scapa. This convoy consisted mainly of the battered survivors of the ill-fated PQ17. During more attacks, by submarines and aircraft, Somali did not fire at an aircraft which was on fire and assumed to be crashing into the sea. Humanity did not pay on this occasion; the aircraft peppered her with cannon shells along her starboard side. I was at my action station attending to the Flooding Valves in the After Flat and miraculously avoided injury although all around me were wounded.
Damage control teams immediately went into action to find and plug the holes in the hull which were then fortunately all above the waterline. Soon afterwards the carrier Avenger departed leaving the convoy with no air cover but the main threat still present was that of submarine attac
At about 19:20 on the 20th of September, Somali was torpedoed by U703. Shortly before this, the Engine Room watch keepers had been ordered to cruising turbines in order to conserve fuel. Maximum speed in this mode was about 10 knots with two of the three boilers shut down to what was called "short notice for steam". As a result, when the order came on the Engine Room telegraphs to go "Full Ahead" on one engine and "Full Astern" on the other, to comb the track of the incoming torpedo, the Tiffies were fighting a losing battle. It took a minimum of 5 minutes to revert to main turbines and still longer to connect the other boilers.
The torpedo hit the Port side directly in the Engine Room. The torpedo tubes above were blown over the side together with the Torpedo Rating on watch. The boiler in the after Boiler Room was blown on its side and the Gearing Room was flooded. Looking down, from the upper deck through the hole left by the torpedo tubes, it was possible to see the keel bending and creaking with the motion of the ship.
The entire watch in the Engine Room was killed instantly and no bodies were ever recovered. The Stoker Petty Officer and the Stoker in the damaged Boiler Room were brought out badly burned and scalded but miraculously, the Gearing Room watch keepers, though shocked, survived the attack relatively unscathed. When the explosion occurred, I was drinking a cup of Pusser's Kye (Cocoa) in the mess and was left with just the handle in my hand.
The first job was to tend the casualties and if possible get them out and then ensure that the ship was not in immediate danger of sinking. The next task, in true naval tradition, was to check on the safety and security of the bottle of "Gash" rum contributed jointly by the Chief's mess and the Tiffie's mess next door! A hurried mess meeting took place at which it was decided that, in case the ship sank and in view of the pervading cold which was becoming more evident with the total loss of power, the best policy was to share it out among those entitled!
As the ship began to list, the cannon shell holes which peppered the starboard side well above the water line before the torpedo hit, were now taking in water in large quantities so were dealt with as a matter of urgency.
In the initial confusion following the explosion, some personnel had put Carley floats and life rafts over the side without securing them to the ship. These were last seen disappearing half a mile astern as the ship was still underway.
A good proportion of the ship's company was taken off by the other escorts which left about 85 personnel on board in order to make a determined effort to get the ship to Iceland some 600 miles away. One lasting memory from this time was the sight of an elderly three badge seaman, the ships' tailor, transferring to the destroyer alongside with his most treasured possession under his arm - his treadle sewing machine.
Although the Engineer Commander was very pessimistic about the chances of the ship's survival in anything but a flat calm, the Captain. Lt. Commander Colin (Mad) Maud who was standing in for Captain (D) Eaton, was determined to save his command if possible. As so often happened at this period in naval history, the advice of the engineers was tragically disregarded.
For a time, the standby diesel generator supplied power for essential pumps and services but as the list increased it finally seized up. A sister Tribal ship, Ashanti then took Somali in tow following the diesel failure.
Lt. Lewin, the 1st Lieutenant of the Ashanti (now Lord Lewin, former 1st Sea Lord), together with Leading Seaman Brown as coxswain in the Ashanti's motor cutter achieved the Herculean task of lashing an electric cable to the towing hawser. The cable was made up of bits and pieces commandeered from the surrounding escorts. Ashanti was then able to supply power to the crippled Somali and Damage Control measures went ahead.
Top weight had to be reduced and I recollect having to remove the sirens from funnels. Unfortunately, other enthusiastic but unsupervised efforts towards this resulted in the ransacking of the Tiffie's workshop on the upper deck; all their tools and machinery were thrown overboard! Personnel removing the gun mounting on the top of the after superstructure did not appreciate that the ship was listing and removed the top bolts of the mounting first. The result was that, when they removed the last bolt of the mounting at the bottom, the mounting swung 'round, jammed and increased the list by another two degrees.
For the next three days things went relatively smoothly marred only by the behaviour of four ratings who broke open the Wardroom spirit bar getting gloriously drunk. They were apprehended, placed in cells and transferred under close arrest to one of the escorts. They survived.
On the fourth night, a Force 10 gale and blizzard blew up. During the middle watch the tow parted and Somali broke in two. All hands, with the exception of a small duty watch, were having their first relaxation and sleep in nearly a week. I was in No. 2 Boiler Room when the grinding of tortured metal increased to an alarming pitch. I realised the ship was breaking up and reached the upper deck in time to see the after end of the ship drifting astern with two or three figures frantically waving and shouting. The forward compartments flooded and the bow rose higher until nearly vertical.
By now, the elements were at their worst. On the steeply sloping bridge, the Captain was furiously pedalling a bicycle type portable generator which provided power for a small signalling lamp. This piece of machinery had the reputation of being jinxed; every ship to which it had been transferred on this operation had been sunk.
As the bow section became perpendicular, the order was given to "Abandon Ship" - with advice to jump off the starboard side in order to be washed away from the ship. Those who blindly obeyed were hurled back into the forward gun mounting by the waves and dashed to oblivion. Others, who sussed out the situation for themselves, found that the best way to leave the ship was by using the stanchions of the vertical guard rails as a ladder on the port side where the shelter of the sinking hull left a relative calm.
Lord Lewin remembers watching men toppling into the sea as one of the most vivid memories of his career. Because of the premature release of the Carley floats and life rafts earlier, there was only one raft available for the 70-odd men in the water. Those who clambered on to it were the first to freeze and fall off. Their places were taken by those in the water clinging to each other or the lifelines on the raft but they, in turn, suffered the same fate. The luckiest were those who never managed to get on the raft as the sea temperature was above freezing and slightly warmer than the ambient air temperature.
The Ashanti came around and Lt. Lewin and Leading Seaman Goad climbed down a scrambling net grabbing the Captain of Somali who, according to "Peterborough" of the Daily Telegraph in 1982 on the anniversary of the sinking, was clutching a half bottle of whisky and just able to say, "Jolly good show" before lapsing into unconsciousness. They also picked up a Petty Officer who did not survive.
At the same time, a rescue trawler, the Lord Middleton, loomed up out of the darkness and those who were clinging to the perimeter of the circle round the raft struck out towards her. Some were buffeted and washed away by the sea water discharges from her hull. A Filipino, survivor from a previous sinking, grabbed me by the hair pulling me aboard; something which wouldn't be possible today! A total of 18 men were saved by the Lord Middleton.
The thoughts one had while in the water were not of panic or fear but a feeling of intense compassion for those at home one might not see again. After being pulled aboard, the survivors were taken to the top of the Engine Room, stripped off, given a glass of rum and kitted out with a woollen vest, balaclava helmet and moccasin slippers - both for the same foot! These and the dried out overalls in which one was rescued had to suffice until we arrived at Royal Naval Barracks, Portsmouth a week later.
The journey was delayed for one day while survivors disappeared in all directions in London and ended with a glorious binge, spending all meal tickets, on a good English beer at the Union Jack Club at Waterloo!
After being rounded up by the Military Police, who were very sympathetic under the circumstances, the survivors were put on an early morning train to Portsmouth where they were received without counselling or ceremony and ordered to wait for a period of two to three hours on one side of a draughty parade ground crowded with reluctant ratings waiting to be inspected by King George VIth. Had His Majesty been made aware of the facts, I am certain he would not have approved.
There was a certain sense of resentment felt by the survivors that, at no time after the sinking, did Lt. Commander Maud make any contact with them although he was alive and fit.
The gallant 18 were medically examined, pronounced fit for sea service, kitted out and sent on a 14-day survivor's leave during which time the author was married. On return from leave, a week was spent as a Barrack Stanchion before being drafted to another destroyer, H.M.S. Brissenden and then back up north. Well, that was 'life in the old Navy........'
I was serving on the British Destroyer HMS Grenville based in Alexandria, Egypt when World War II began so it was no surprise to me. Our first reaction was ready the ship for sea and leave harbour that night on patrol looking for German Submarines.
I was 19 years of age when the war started, having enlisted in the British Navy in 1937 and shipped to the Mediterranean in 1938. The war started in November 1939.
My family was living in England. I was living on my ship until it was returned to England and sunk in the North Sea by a magnetic mine. I managed to survive. Had to swim, very cold!
I was sent to the Gunnery School in Portsmouth England and became an Anti-Aircraft Gunner and sent to a Mine Layer, the HMS Southern Prince which laid anti-submarine fields. We carried 600 mines. After about 1-½ years Southern Prince was sent to the USA for some repairs. At this time as we were crossing the Atlantic the German ship Bismarck was being hunted. We were detailed for this job also. The year being early 1941, the USA was still not in the war. Being British Navy men in uniform we could do no wrong while in the States, we had a wonderful time.
When we got back to Scotland, which was our base, we loaded up with mines and started out on our first trip since leaving for the States, and promptly got our bow blown off by a torpedo. 12 P.M. midnight, managed to keep the ship afloat and got her to port. Repairs we going to take a long time and a seaman with an advanced gunnery rate, which I had, was needed at sea.
Many things were happening at this time. France had surrendered to the Germans, and the British Army had withdrawn to England by way of Dunkirk. England was expecting to be invaded by the Germans, so along with many other seamen you could find me at this time digging trenches and manning machine guns along the south coast of England waiting for the Germans to try it. The never did, mostly due to the British Navy and RAF.
Somewhere about this time the USA had entered the war by way of Pearl Harbour. We were beginning to see many American soldiers in England and Scotland. Somewhere about this time they found another ship for me. One of the best Destroyers in the Navy, HMS Somali, which was mostly engaged in running ships to north Russia (also known as the Russian Convoys), a job in which I saw and was engaged in many battles between German ships, submarines and air craft. The aircraft were very bad with their bombs, torpedoes, and machine guns.
About this time, the Somali and many of the other top-notch destroyers were called south, away from the Convoys, along with battleships, aircraft carriers and cruisers. We were about to participate in a very important action that made a great difference in the outcome of the war. A convoy, a really special one, was being pushed through to the Island of Malta loaded with ammunition, fuel and food. An almost impossible task considering the route they had to take within a few miles of German and Italian aircraft, E-boats and submarines. (An E-boat is like a speedboat, but it carried torpedoes.)
Many ships and many lives were lost, but the job was done. Enough food and material was delivered until the North African invasion was carried out.
So off went the Somali, heading back for the Arctic Ocean and the Russian Convoys. Stopping at Gibraltar for fuel and to take aboard a dozen Polish soldiers who had escaped from the Germans in Poland and had crossed Germany, France and Spain and wanted to be taken to England to join up with a Polish Army being formed there.
One day, which I will always remember, is the day my ship Somali received a torpedo to the engine room, killing all the crew in that part of the ship and blowing that part off the upper deck which was above it. This includes my gun deck, also me and my gun crew, most of whom did not survive.
The only thing I remember was flying through the air and being under the water for a very long time. Fortunately I was wearing a life jacket which eventually brought me to the surface. We had been told that in that part of Arctic Ocean no one could survive in that water for more than 5 minutes. It so happened that I lasted for about 20 minutes before being picked up by a rescue ship.
I was pretty bad when they picked me up but after toasting myself in front of an almost red-hot stove for a while, and downing a couple of jugs of rum I began to feel pretty good. The rescue ship being small, I was transferred to another destroyer.
The Somali, although very badly damaged, did not show any signs of sinking and the sea was fairly calm. The Captain was of the opinion that she could be towed. So it was decided that the Destroyer Ashanti should be given the job of towing her. With difficulty this was done. However this was okay with a calm sea but after 3 days the weather got very bad and the Somali with her back broken could take it no more and the Captain ordered “abandon ship”. The Somali broke into 2 pieces and sank.
The Ashanti and several other ships did their best in rescue work but high seas and the pitch dark were against them and very few survived. A very good friend of mine, (Frank Mullahy) at whose wedding I had been best man 6 weeks prior, didn’t make it.
It was now September 1942, the war still had another 3 years to go. I still have a lot more writing to do.
Arthur H. Donaldson
Born February 2, 1920 in Butlers Marston, Warwickshire, England
TOM WALKER. any info on TOM WALKER (hookey) served on H.M.S.SOMALI during world war 2 previously on HMS ANTHONY.he survived through all the bad times but took his own life 5years ago reason not known. contact here mailto:email@example.com
JIM OLDHAM. My father Jim Oldham was a member of the crew of HMS Somali when she was torpedoed in 1942. He was a telegrapher who, during the 30's, had joined the RNVWR as part of his hobby of amateur radio. He was on the Russian Convoys and Operation Pedestal although I believe the Somali was turned back to Gib for some reason and never reached Malta at the time of the relief. He survived the sinking and was later posted to Nova Scotia at a gunnery school where he trained airforce gunners in radio telegraphy. Prior to joining the Somali he served on May Island at a naval installation involved in developing a system for detecting shipping using wire loops laid on the sea bed. He died in 1999 aged 89.
Archive List > Royal Navy
Archive List > World > North Atlantic and Arctic
Contributed by Ian Billingsley
People in story: Reg’ Swan
Location of story: Russian Convoys
Background to story: Royal Navy
Contributed on: 04 May 2005
HMS Ashanti, December 26th 1941 sic
This is the true story of two destroyers, Ashanti and Somali. They were sister ships; were, because the Somali was escorting with Ashanti, a convoy from Archangel Russia to the U.K. For seventy two hours, Ashanti and the ships company did their utmost to save their wounded sister. What happened during those hours gave me nightmares for many years afterwards.
It was nearing the end of September 1942. We had already been part of the Fighting Destroyer Escort on three previous convoys to Russia. Also, we had in August, been escorting the famous Pedestal Convoy to Malta.
We were on the homeward bound convoy and as our destroyer Ashanti was leader, we had to alternate our escort positions according to weather conditions. In the early hours of the morning we had changed positions with Somali and were about 120 feet ahead of her when she was hit in the engine room and boiler room by two torpedoes from a U-Boat. The hole in her was as large as a double decker bus.
Smoke and steam were bellowing from her and she listed heavily to starboard. We thought she was about to sink.
Ashanti immediately swept around and dropped several patterns of depth charges as a mine sweeper went alongside Somali and took off about 100 merchant seamen survivors, 140 Officers and ratings, leaving about 80 other officers and ratings still on board.
Somali didn’t sink. Commander R.G. Onslow, C.O. of Ashanti, decided to tow her to Iceland. A very long tow. Eventually, after two unsuccessful attempts, we now had Somali in tow moving at roughly five knots. Meanwhile the remainder of the convoy had gone on, leaving the two sister ships alone.
We were eight miles S.W. of Jan Mayan Island. The temperature was about 25 degrees Farenheight with and icy wind blowing and very soon the snow began to fall. As we crept along, we tried to ease Somali’s passage by pumping oil over the stern, but after an hour the tow parted again. We managed to rejoin the cables despite the weather conditions. Somali was asked, “How are you feeling?” the reply was, “Quite well, thank you.”
All hands were kept at Action Stations and except for staggered watch changing no one was permitted to sleep. At the speed which we were moving, we were a sitting target. For the next three days and nights, we plodded on. Although the orders were no sleeping, we were cat napping whenever possible.
At dawn of the second day, Commander Onslow sent myself and nineteen other ratings over to Somali in the motor cutter to help to cut loose her deck equipment, dump her ammunition, oil and as much top gear as possible. She was without lights and heat. Her steering was out of action and her port turbine had fell out making here list to starboard worse. She was by now completely water logged astern.
During the remainder of that day, we ran an emergency power cable to her. It was a hard cold job, but when we’d finished, the working party returned to Ashanti. When the light went on Somali sent us a message saying, “Many thanks sister.” During the evening we also attached a telephone wire so the two C.O’s could talk.
The third day went quietly and everyone was full of hope. All we thought of was saving Somali and getting some sleep.
During the night the weather became very heavy, waves ran very high with white tops and very deep troughs causing the towing cable to part again taking with it of course the power and telephone cables. With the weather as it was, this was not altogether unexpected. Somali’s Aldis lamp flashed “Close in. I’m sinking. Goodbye.”
With our searchlight on her we watched the stern go down first. The bow lifted and pointed upwards as we watched men jumping off into the cold sea. She sank very fast. The scrambling nets were put over the side but we dared not stop the engines as part of the tow cable was still streaming astern. We all did our utmost to spot and pick up survivors. Some were throwing lifebelts and codlines. Myself and half a dozen others were at the bottom of the scrambling nets up to our waists in the icy water.
As the searchlight spotted the men in the water, (it was that clear you could see their legs and arms) we tried to grab them, when we missed, lifebelts and lines were thrown to them. They were either too frozen or dead and did not respond. Between 30 and 40 men floated past out of reach. A life raft came near us and we grabbed it. There were three men on it, one was an officer. We hooked the officer. His name was Lt Bruce. He refused to be brought aboard. He was determined that we took the men first. Sadly, by then, the raft was sucked away under the ship. If ever a man gave up his life for his men, Lt. Bruce did. We rescued thirty five survivors. The searchlights kept scanning the water for three hours but no more were found.
The last man to be pulled from the water was unconscious. He was taken to the bridge to the Captain’s sea cabin. It was Lt.Com Maud. After about twenty minutes in the warm cabin he started to sing at the top of his voice. Afterwards he told us that, that was the only way he could stop himself from freezing. He had no knowledge that he had passed out in the icy sea. There is little doubt however that a fair share of Pussers Rum helped a lot.
One of the seamen had been to the galley and taken a jug of ‘Kia’ (cocoa) on to the bridge’ While filling a mug to give to the frozen officer he spilled most of it onto his legs. All Lt.Com Maud said was, “More please.”
The next morning he was on the bridge with Commander Onslow as right as rain. Although everyone was dead beat, none of us could sleep much because we were haunted by the thought of the men we had watched float by us frozen and dying, those we had been unable to save. We couldn’t forget them. It could just have easily been us.
Coming into Scapa Flow, we heard terrific cheering from the ships in harbour. I heard one A.B. say to another, “Who getting the cheers then?” He replied with surprise in his voice. “Blimey, it’s us.” We all went up on deck and sure enough, every ship in harbour had it’s rails lined with cheering men waving and throwing their caps in the air. It was all for us. It did make us feel a little less down hearted.
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Father: Alfred Henry Watkins b: 13 AUG 1862 in Llanvair Kilgeddin, Monmouthshire AML BB c: 2 NOV 1862 in St Mary's Llanfair Cilgedin
Mother: Blanche Eveline Jones b: 5 JUN 1874 in Raglan, Monmouthshire (AHW BB 1874)
Alison Mary Lapham b: 16 MAY 1908 in Rostellan House, Filton, Gloucestershire UK Chipping Sodbury, Births Sep 1908 6a 223
23 DEC 1933
in St John Baptist Church, Berkswell, Warwickshire
23 DEC 1933
in John Percival Knight Rennie
23 DEC 1933
in Howard Bartley Lapham
23 DEC 1933
in Arthur Lionel Whittaker, Rector of Berkswell
- Living Watkins
- Title: AHW BB
Author: Alison Mary Lapham
Note: my mother kept her birthday book from age 8 to 91
Note: In documents collection at my home