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Remembering the Forgotten Service

PUBLISHED: 09:00 10 September 2002 | UPDATED: 12:37 03 March 2010

THIS week saw the commemoration of the sacrifices of the Merchant Navy, the seamen from the 'Forgotten Service' who maintained a vital lifeline for this island through the dark days of war.

By James Fraser

THIS week saw the commemoration of the sacrifices of the Merchant Navy, the seamen from the 'Forgotten Service' who maintained a vital lifeline for this island through the dark days of war.

At the tender age of 15, sailor John Jones joined the service to became one of them.

James Fraser heard his story.

JOHN 'Jack' Jones spent more than half a century at sea. His eyes twinkle out of his wind-scoured face when he recalls experiences and he wouldn't have swapped his life on the ocean waves for the world.

After all, he saw most of it – South Africa, India, Sri Lanka, and Canada are just some of the places that became ports of call.

Yet the former Barnardo's boy found his sea legs in the dangerous circumstances of the Second World War when the expected survival rates for a merchant sailor was slim.

You stood a better chance if you joined one of the Armed forces – the ratio of losses to numbers serving in the 'civilian' Merchant Navy was higher than either the Royal Navy, army or air force. And the former Barnardo's boy was aged just 15.

Surprisingly, there had been no formal recognition of the high toll the service paid in wartime by the Merchant Navy until three years ago. While our island nation was under siege, 180,000 men – and boys – helped ferry vital supplies such as troops, fuel, food, armaments, and clothing, despite the risk of U-boats, enemy shipping and the harrowing loss of life.

On September 3 – exactly 53 years since the first merchantman, the SS Athenia, was sunk by a U-boat with the loss of 19 crew and 93 passengers – it was Merchant Navy Day

Following a service at the Merchant Navy memorial at London's Tower Hill this week John spoke to The Evening Star to tell of his own experiences – so the 36,000 of his fellow seafarers, who have no known resting place other than the sea, could be remembered.

"I'm no hero," he said. "I just did what I did. The point is you could go into the army, navy or air force as a cadet but they would never send you abroad to serve your country until you were 18. The Merchant Navy was always called a civilian service. But that was something I wanted to do and that's still something I'd like to do now but I'm too old."

Now 75, the retired sailor who lives in Maryon Road, Ipswich, is originally a Geordie who grew up in a Barnardo's home from the age of six.

He attended Russell Coates Nautical School in Dorset – "it taught ordinary schooling plus seamanship" – in the summer of 1939 as war clouds rumbled across Europe's horizon.

The early days of the war were marked with the sad roll calls of former pupils, fresh from school, who went down with their ships – young men claimed too early by a watery grave.

"We were all assembled in the gymnasium, flag at half mast, so-and-so's been killed, a young lad. The skipper always got us in the gymnasium – 'I've got some sad news: so-and-so's gone down with his ship'," recalled John.

He joined the Merchant Navy in 1942 at Kelvinside, Glasgow, signing on with the Union Castle ship, the MV Winchester Castle, a peacetime mail ship which, enlisted as a 20,000 tonne troop vessel, had had its distinctive lavender hull and vermilion and black funnel painted a drab grey. "A lovely ship," he said.

His first job, as one the ship's 12 deck boys, was in one of the biggest convoys of the war – the landings in North Africa named Operation Torch in a bid to supply the Allied armies fighting Rommel in the desert.

Was he scared? "Not really. When you're fifteen and a half you're a youngster. All the time I was at sea I was never frightened. All these ships sailed from Scotland. The Germans didn't realise we were going to invade North Africa. But on the way back…". He grimaced. "Oh yes."

"In convoy, you've got lines of ships a quarter of a mile apart. This particular morning, coming back, at twenty past eight in the morning we heard this terrible explosion and rushed up on deck, looked out from our starboard quarter. Our sister ship, the Warwick Castle. Boom! Torpedoed. Thirty nine killed. When we got to the Bay of Biscay, the ship ahead of us, the Viceroy of India, a P&O ship, a beautiful ship. She got torpedoed."

"We never stopped," continued John. "There must have been escort ships that picked them up. But the convoy had to sail on.

"My late wife, when she saw these programmes on telly, would say 'John, you never went through that, did you?' Well, I said, sitting here after all these years I can't believe I did but I know I did."

Special role

As a deck boy John was paid £3 15s per month plus £6 danger money. He certainly earned that on his next trip – the Anzio landings in 1943 – and the Winchester Castle had a special role he has since found out.

"I didn't realise we were the leading ship. I read that the Winchester Castle was the first one to go in there. One of the things that stands out in my mind – I'd have been about 16 then – was seeing what looked like a big landing craft next to me. It went along the shore and fired 1,500 rockets, and then came back and fired another 1,500."

John lied about his age to train as a DEMS [defensively equipped merchant ship] gunner in October 1942. This, literally put him in the firing line as German bombers preyed on shipping lanes.

Yet one tragedy seems peculiarly poignant. Far away from the noise and fury of war, simply an accidental death during the Normandy invasion.

"I'd been posted at a gunport door and we had scramble nets down the side of the ship. A young American soldier fell from the gangway, all his kit on and died.

"The storekeeper and sailmaker put the needle through his nose to make sure he was dead and sewed him up. He got an extra tot of rum for that."

Recognition for the Merchant Navy has been long overdue, said John.

"I am very disappointed. It's only in the last 12 years or so that they've actually realised what the Merchant Navy has done for this country.

"During the war years 180,000 served and they lost over 30,000. I had no fear because I was so young.

"We knew that an awful lot of ships were being torpedoed, Men on tankers got 10s a week [50p] extra because if you get torpedoed on a tanker you didn't stand much chance. They're just coming round to recognising it but it should have been done years ago."

The service has declined over the years – so the marking of its past glories becomes all the more important.

"What have we got left of the Merchant Navy now? Not many ships. They were badly let down the Merchant Navy. You don't hear much of the Merchant Navy. You didn't wear a uniform. All you had was a little silver badge. You could be pulled up and asked why aren't you working for your country. Why aren't you in uniform? That kind of thing. That's all you had."

There were other perceived slights.

"If you were in the Royal Navy and your ship got torpedoed all your pay carried on. If you were in the Merchant Navy and you got torpedoed, as soon as the company that owned that ship heard about it, your pay stopped then and there. You could've been in a lifeboat for three weeks or more. It's one of those things."

After years of reluctance, friends have finally convinced him to put in for his medals – but John is still unsure.

"What do I have to have medals for to prove what I've done. I've lived through it. I've been there and been through it. The only reason that I haven't done it – it's not me. If it hadn't been for the Merchant Navy I wouldn't have been sitting here and nor would you."

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