A family at war
I have previously written about the life and experiences of my great uncle Harold, a wounded survivor of the First World War who also volunteered in the Second World War in support of the D-Day landings (see here and here).
I also had three uncles who served in the Second World War; Tot, who died at sea, Jack, who survived the land war and Doug, the eldest of his siblings, an electrical engineer in a reserved occupation who was unable to volunteer for active service or to be conscripted.
Tot was the second oldest of the brothers and served as an engineering officer in the Merchant Navy as poor eyesight caused him to be rejected by the Royal Navy. In 1941 he broke his leg when ashore in the United States and, although permitted to recuperate there, he chose to travel home on his convoy vessel, the SS Empire Crossbill, as a supernumary Fourth Engineer.
Empire Crossbill was an American cargo ship built in 1919 as the West Amargosa and laid up in 1937. In 1940 she was transferred to the UK Ministry of War Transport and renamed the Empire Crossbill. After several successful crossings of the North Atlantic, she mustered in Cape Breton in August 1941 as part of Slow Convoy 42 bound for Liverpool.
SC42 was attacked by the Markgraf wolfpack of 14 German submarines that was on patrol southeast of Greenland. The attack extended over three night nights, 9-11 September. Empire Crossbill was torpedoed by U-82 east of Cape Farewell at 03.11 GMT on 11 September 1941 and sank with all hands: 38 crew, 10 gunners, and one passenger – Thomas Lang Forster, aged 23.
Of the 65 merchant vessels that comprised SC42, sixteen – almost one quarter of the convoy – were lost. U-82 was itself sunk with the loss of all 45 crew just a few months later on 6 February 1942, north of the Azores, having been depth charged by HMS Rochester and HMS Tamarisk. Its captain, Kapitänleutnant Siegfried Rollmann, was 27 – just four years older than Tot.
Jack, the youngest of the three brothers, survived the war having experienced both the Dunkirk evacuation and the D-Day landings.
Prior to the Dunkirk evacuation, he had been with 285 Battery, 72nd Field Regiment, Royal Artillery 50th Northumberland Division, a part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). His Division was one of the last to leave Dunkirk as it had been tasked to destroy any installations as the BEF retreated. Jack and his companions joined one of the last ships, if not the last, that departed Dunkirk. He landed at Margate on 2 June 1940.
As far as his family was concerned, Jack was missing in action, so it was a great relief to them that a telegram arrived from him on 3 June. No “Hello Mam, I’m fine”, but just one line asking her to ‘wire’ 10 shillings (50 pence) to him care of the General Post Office in Rugely Staffordshire!
The 50th Northumberland Division (and Jack) then went on to fight in the North African desert war with General Montgomery and landed on Sword beach on D-Day itself. He was on active service from the time of the BEF to VE Day.
Jack being Jack, he was almost court martialled on VE Day itself. He had been listening on the radio to Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s speech announcing the end of the war in Europe when a senior officer sent for him. He refused to attend the officer and told the messenger to go away saying that he was busy. Jack was subsequently escorted under armed guard to the officer’s room.
I don’t think the officer could have seen much action, certainly not compared to Jack, and on learning of his involvement at Dunkirk, in North Africa, and on D-Day, the officer absolved him of any offence. Many years later they were reunited on Breakfast TV in a segment to mark the 40th anniversary of VE Day and retold their story on air. (I have never watched breakfast TV apart from that one morning, but, unfortunately, despite viewing it from 6am until about 9.50, I never saw his contribution – my employer’s flexitime limit meant that I had to be clocked in by 10am and Jack’s contribution only came later – we had no video recorder at that time.)
NB. Some of the above is taken from archived records detailing the events mentioned, the rest is taken from the family matriarch’s tome ‘A European Family’ and archival material held by family members.
Postscript: This is Jack’s personal recollection of the D-Day landings…
The journey we made from Portsmouth to Normandy in France was unforgettable. We travelled in a ‘Landing Craft Tank [L.C.T]’ and to some, the journey was a veritable nightmare. The transport consisted of very long barges, designed to carry eleven tanks, and acted like huge white whales; they would rise from the water towards the sky and then crash onto the sea again after each swell.
It was a welcome relief to land on Sword beach with the main assault troops of the 3rd British Infantry division. The tanks, which went straight into action, left first and at the same time the ramp was in about 15 feet of water.
We were a signal section, part of the advance signals H.Q. and were issued with only handcarts containing wireless equipment. We managed to get a line ashore and the carts, being waterfproof and containing air, floated just below the surface. During this time shells were falling closer and closer. The L.C.T. Captain bawling “Get the hell out of here”, added to the threatening atmosphere. Fortunately we made dry land with only one casualty and that was the barrage balloon we were painstakingly carrying for the beach defence. It was shot down!
We struggled over the beach and found some protection in a farm just inland from the French holiday resort of Lion-sur-mer. Some holiday! Leaving the wireless operators to set up their equipments, driver Morgan and I set about clearing up the area following the tank and infantry assault. My binoculars and watch had been damaged by the sea water but I was able to replace them with those of a German Officer who sadly had no further use of them.
One of our tasks was to search the sleeping quarters below the fortress which had been designed to keep us out. While a young Welsh soldier covered me with my revolver I found two young Germans cowering in the upper bunks. They were terrified and I had to drag them out as they were convinced they were going to be shot. They were no more than seventeen years old and begged us not to shoot them. Having survived the previous infantry attack when many of their comrades had been killed, they were relieved to find out that they were destined for prison camp and safety.
It was unfortunate that our D-Day objective, Caen, was not taken for a further two weeks due to the arrival of Rommel and his famous Panzer troops. They had come north in an attempt to hurl us back into the sea. Rommel must have been extremely unhappy when he realised that both the 3rd. and the 50th. Divisions of the British Army were the ones that prevented him from doing so because he knew that they were the last ones to leave Dunkirk in 1940.
Postscript: Since this was originally posted, I have been able to access some further documents relating to Tot. These are presented below:
(i) Tot looking resplendent in his Merchant Navy engineer’s uniform…
(ii) The families of the Empire Crossbill’s crew would have all received the following notification a few days after the vessel was sunk. It holds the forlorn hope that its crew may have been saved…
(iii) When it was known that no-one had survived the sinking, the families received the sympathies of King George VI…
(iv) Tot’s service medals accompanied by regrets that he never lived to receive them…
(v) Finally, a personal reminder. Tot’s business card…