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When you think of high casualty rates and military operations, one may think of special forces operations such as Chindits behind Japanese lines in World War Two or Bomber Command over Occupied Europe. However, one section of people who were all volunteers and performed an absoultely essential operation were the Merchant Navy ships and men who took part in the Battle of the Atlantic.
During World War Two some 24,000 members of the Merchant and Fishing Fleets died and have no known grave but the sea; a ratio of approximately 1 in 3 who served.
Battle of the Atlantic
The Battle of the Atlantic was the name given to the conflict for control of the Atlantic Ocean, and in particular what became the convoy routes between North America and the UK. At the start of World War Two it was anticipated that the conflict would revolve around a show of capital ships. The effects of the use of submarines against merchant ship had been observed during the First World War, however these lessons had not been learned by September 1939.
While there were merchant vessels lost to U-Boat actions as early as 3 September 1939, due to their long sea voyages from Germany into the Atlantic the effects had not reached their later levels. With the fall of France in June 1940, Doenitz (then head of the German submarine arm) gained Atlantic Bases for his U-Boat fleet. The U-Boats could leave bases, such as La Rochelle, and quickly gain access to the convoy routes.
With more U-Boats at sea, the rate of sinking rapidly increased. Also with the use of Focke-Wulf Condor aircraft to direct (what Doenitz called) Wolf Packs of U-Boats on to the path of a convoy, the rate of loss became ever higher. Even though this partnership of aircraft and submarines was not fully exploited by the Germans, the rate of loss continued and threatened the UK existance.
The UK had to import all its oil supplies and vast majority of foodstuffs from overseas locations. If these links were cut then the UK would lose the war. Also once the USA entered the war, the Atlantic convoy routes were needed to build up men and material for the longed-for invasion of Europe.
However, with the introduction of short-wave (centimetric) radar and the greater use of aircraft (especially equiped with centimetric radar) the U-Boat threat was finally overcome. The U-Boat relied on surface manoeuverability to shadow a convoy and launch an attack. Radar-equipped aircraft and surface vessels took this advantage away.
The San Emiliano
The San Emiliano was owned by Eagle Oil & Shipping Company, launched in 1939 at Harland & Woolff. The dimensions of the vessel were 463.2 x 61.2 x 33.1 feet, providing a displacement of 8,071 tons. Powered by oil engines with a nominal horsepower of 502, the ship was capable of a top speed of 13.25 knots.
The San Emiliano was a tanker that was fully loaded with a cargo of high octane gasoline in all about 12,000 tons. She had left Trinidad on 6 August 1942, bound for the Cape and eventually Suez.
The following account was provided by the San Emiliano's Chief Officer Captain T.D. Finch. The account is taken from the publication "The World At War" by Mark Arnold-Foster, and appears in the episode that dealt with the Battle of the Atlantic:
We left Trinidad on 6 August 1942 in convoy, bound for the Cape and eventually Suez.
In the evening of 9 August the convoy dispersed. Round about 6 in the evening as dusk fell I noticed a ship coming up from astern with full navigation lights blazing, indicating a neutral vessel. By 7 o'clock she was half-a-mile on our starboard beam and I noticed with the lights she was carrying that she was a hospital ship. By 8 p.m. when the 3rd officer relieved me of the watch she was well down on the horizon and disappearing. I've always had the idea that the U-boat must have been hanging around then, probably on the surface on that particular track and must have seen the hospital ship and more than likely saw us silhouetted against her lights.
At about 9 o'clock I decided to turn in for the night and was partially undressed when there was a terrific explosion from the starboard side which was immediately followed by another. I jumped out of the bunk, rushed to the cabin door, which came away in my hands, saw that the mess was ablaze, and started to run down the alley-way.
I saw the apprentice running around and shouted to him 'Quick, this way . . . follow me'. We rushed back into my cabin, smacked the door back into position to prevent the fire entering, undid the thumb-screws to the port-hole, opened it up, and pushed the apprentice through it, and I followed him, landing on the shelter deck, down the ladder to the fore-deck and ran to the focs'le head which I judged to be the safest place.
By this time the ship was ablaze from bridge to stern, the whole sky being lit up by the flames which must have been hundreds of feet high. I saw the starboard life-boat had crashed into the sea but the port life-boat was still hanging in the davits, so I shouted to the apprentice 'Come-on ... quick . . . we've got two minutes to get that boat away. If we don't, we're dead'. As we were running along the fore-deck towards the bridge, this boat also crashed into the sea. We had to jump from the shelter deck to the falls about 6 feet and slide down them. Three other men threw themselves into the boat in desperation. At this time I had let go the after painter and noticed men running round the poop who were on fire, throwing themselves into the sea which was itself on fire.
We were about 40 ft. from the ship's side when the 3rd officer came running along the fore-deck from the focs'le head shouting 'Wait for me, wait for me!' He dived over the side and we picked him up. At the same time there was another man on the focs'le head shouting, but there was nothing we could do because out of the 5 or 6 who got away into the boat, only 3 were able to row. Slowly the ship drew ahead of us whilst we struggled to keep clear of burning sea. We heard some screams for help and rowed over and pulled out of the water a fireman who was terribly burned, so much so that when we pulled him into the boat, the skin from his body and arms came off in our hands like gloves, and he was in a very bad way indeed.
Eventually we heard two other cries for help and found in the water an able seaman who was clothed and not burned. Shortly after we picked up a pumpman in the same condition. We tried to pursue the ship, looking for survivors, but it was an impossible task because those in the boat were so gravely injured and collapsing, leaving only three to row against the wind and sea.
So we stopped rowing and found the first apprentice terribly burned, so much so that his hands had to be freed from the oars with scissors. The third officer and I attended to the wounded and were horrified at the extent of their injuries. There seemed no further signs of life anywhere so we hoisted sail and set course for Trinidad.
This time, the fireman who had been in such agony all night, died, and within minutes the second steward who had suffered terrible abdominal wounds and burns also passed away. I went over to him and lifted the blanket covering him and noticed the whole of his stomach badly injured and exposed. He had been very patient during the night and the only thing he complained of was the cold. Both these men were committed to the deep.
We had been sailing for an hour or two when the second mate called me. He had been badly burned and severely injured below the waist. He wanted water which I gave him, but even then I knew it was hopeless and a few minutes later he passed away, and as I covered him up with a blanket I noticed that the senior apprentice's life was also drawing to a close. About mid-day he died having been very badly burned all over his body and had been so very brave trying to keep up the morale of the rest of the men by singing. The most pathetic thing about the whole tragedy was the extreme youth of these lads, which was uppermost in my mind as I committed them to the deep.
We continued on our voyage, in utter despair and sadness. At about 1 o'clock in the afternoon we heard the hum of a plane. He circled round several times, increasing height and then dropped a parachute, which held a cask of water but this broke on impact and so was wasted. I wasn't too concerned about water at that point as I reckoned I had enough to last us about 30 days. We proceeded and just before dark the plane returned.
He dropped the second parachute and this time it was a churn, rather like a milk churn. It was a good drop as it landed about 30 to 40 yards away from us. We picked it up and inside was a flask of iced water, cigarettes, chocolates and soup and a message saying 'steer south, coast within 110 miles'. I had had a rough idea that this was so, but steering south for me was against everything, e.g. current and the wind. However I decided to try so we turned round and headed south as far as we could judge. Dawn broke, we tidied the boat as far as we could and had a few rations. About ten o'clock the plane appeared again and dropped another parachute and this time it wasn't food but a message saying 'Help coming'.
About an hour after dusk we spotted a schooner sailing without lights. I grabbed a torch and signalled because I thought this was the help that had been sent, but as soon as he spotted the signal he turned away and went off into the night. About an hour and a half later the whole sky was lit up by flares, we heard a plane, and then the flares came down lighting up the whole ocean and we spotted our rescue ship which turned out to be the 'Admiral Jessop', U.S. Army Transport. He came along side and took the wounded off first, the rest climbed on board and then all were taken down to the sick bay and put under sedation. Before I was put under sedation the captain asked me what to do with the life-boat, and I told him to sink it as it had been such a boat load of misery, despair, and death, and I wanted no more to do with it. I learnt later that I could have sold it and with the cash I could have clothed the survivors.
Six survived out of a crew of 46, but before the war was over I think another three of those saved at that time, lost their lives later.
For his conduct in the aftermath of the sinking, Thomas Daniel Finch was awarded the George Medal (London Gazette 20 July 1943), together with the Lloyds War Medal for Bravery at Sea.
Donald Owen Clarke
The posthumous George Cross recipient was Donald Owen Clarke - the Apprentice repeatedly mentioned in Finch's account.
Donald Clarke was born in Chester-le-Street, Co. Durham in 1923. At the time of his service on the San Emiliano, he was an Apprentice.
The following citation was published in the London Gazette dated 20 July 1943:
The ship, sailing alone, was attacked by the enemy and hit by two torpedoes. Fire broke out immediately, flames sweeping the vessel from bridge to poop. Apprentice Clarke was trapped in the accommodation and was severely burned. Despite this he made his way on deck and was one of those who got into the only boat which left the ship. The painter of the boat was kept fast and the helm put over and, as the vessel still carried some way, the boat was towed clear of the burning ship's side.
When the painter was cast off the boat drifted back and it was clear to all on board that it would require a tremendous effort to pull it out of danger. Most of the occupants, however, were so badly burned that they were unable to help, but Apprentice Clarke took an oar and pulled heartily for two hours without a word of complaint. It was not until after the boat was clear that it was realized how badly he had been injured. His hands had to be cut away from the oar as the burnt flesh had stuck to it. He had pulled as well as anyone, although he was rowing with the bones of his hands.
Later when lying at the bottom of the boat his thoughts were still with his shipmates and he sang to keep up their spirits. Next day he died, having shown the greatest fortitude. By his supreme effort, undertaken without thought of self and in spite of terrible agony, Apprentice Clarke ensured the safety of his comrades in the boat. His great heroism and selfless devotion were in keeping with the highest traditions of the Merchant Navy.
In addition to his George Cross, Clarke was also awarded the Liverpool Shipowners' Silver Medal and Conduct Badge.
Thomas Daniel Finch & Donald Wilfred Dennis
In addition to Thomas Daniel Finch, Donald Wilfred Dennis was awarded the George Medal for his conduct after the sinking of the San Emiliano. Messrs Finch and Dennis were the Chief Officer and Chief Radio Officer respectively.
The following citation was published in the London Gazette on 20 July 1943:
The ship, sailing alone, was torpedoed and set on fire. The Chief Officer displayed courage and leadership of a very high order. When the ship was hit and set on fire he escaped through a 15 inch side scuttle on to the forward bulkhead and thence to the forecastle, where he took charge of a party of seven men which got away in a boat and, in the face of great danger and difficulties, made efforts to rescue others.
His bravery and leadership were an inspiration, while his judgment and skill in keeping the boat secured to the ship until way had been lost prevented the flames from reaching it. Throughout the night the boat stood by the ship, the uninjured caring for the others as best they could, but during the next day four died from burns. Shortly afterwards the boat was sighted by aircraft which dropped medical stores and later in the day the survivors were picked up. Undaunted by his grim experience, Mr. Finch at once volunteered to serve in another ship as soon as he landed.
The Chief Radio Officer volunteered to release the only undamaged boat. Although he was badly burned he crawled through the flames on his hands and knees and released the falls. Throughout he displayed outstanding courage and fortitude, and but for his brave act the boat would not have got away and there would have been few, if any, survivors. The Third Officer displayed great courage and coolness, remaining on board until forced by the flames to jump overside. Later he was of great help to the Chief Officer in the boat.
Tower Hill Memorial
The Tower Hill Memorial commemorates those Merchant and Fishing Fleet seaman from both world wars who have no known grave apart from the sea. The memorial itself is located opposite the Tower of London and in front of Trinity House.
Tower Hill Memorial - First World War(Stephen Stratford 2006).
The First World War section commemorates some 12,000 names listed in alphabetic order of ship and then surname.
Tower Hill Memorial - Second World War (Stephen Stratford 2006).
Looking across to WWI section with some WWII panels in foreground. The Tower of London is in the background (Stephen Stratford 2006).
The Second World War section commemorates some 24,000 names listed in alphabetic order of ship and then surname.
The San Emiliano Names
The 31 names of the crewmen who died when the San Emiliano sank are contained on panel 92.
San Emiliano - Tozer plus Andrews to Pyman including Clarke (G.C.) (Stephen Stratford 2006)
San Emiliano - Richardson to Woollard (Stephen Stratford 2006).
South Atlantic 1982
In Trinity Gardens, which contains the Tower Hill Memorial, is a statue which commemorates those members of the Merchant Navy who died during the 1982 South Atlantic Conflict.
Merchant Navy South Atlantic 1982 Memorial (Stephen Stratford 2006).
In the background of the picture is the Tower of London, with the Tower Hill Memorial behind the photograher.