Tag Archives: Merchant Navy

Two strange graves

Wandering around Penzance Cemetery looking for the graves of three Luftwaffe bomber crew members, I soon found the War Graves Section of the cemetery.

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Of the 110 identified casualties, two stood out from the rest for very different reasons. The first is a war grave of an extremely strange and unusual political background, coupled with a puzzling discrepancy over dates.
According to his grave, Sapper William Ormerod (1903548) of the 661st General Construction Company of the Royal Engineers died on June 17th 1941.

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William was born in Manchester and had lived in London. As Sapper Ormerod, he was a British Volunteer in the Winter War of 1939-1940 and was killed in action fighting against the Soviet Red Army in Finland.

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Sapper Ormerod was initially buried in Karelia, but at some point his remains were returned to England. This lengthy delay is presumably the reason that the date of death on his grave in Penzance is listed as June 17th 1941, when there is much evidence to support the idea that he was actually killed in the previous year. But neither is a death date of June 17th 1940 particularly likely either, given that the Winter War ended with the Peace of Moscow,  a treaty which was signed on March 12th 1940. Perhaps Sapper Ormerod was initially injured in combat, and then died of his wounds.

The Soviet Union, of course, were our allies for the vast majority of the Second World War. Before Hitler’s surprise attack on Russia, however, the Soviets, having signed a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany in August 1939, the so-called Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, were considered by the British to be an ally of Nazi Germany.

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For this reason, when the Soviets attacked Finland on November 30th 1939, the gallant Finns were considered to be our allies. Presumably, this was the reason that men such as Sapper William Ormerod went out there to fight and in some cases, to make the supreme sacrifice. The great ironies of war were re-established, of course on June 22nd 1941, Operation Barbarossa, when Hitler attacked his erstwhile ally. The Soviet Union then immediately ceased to be a bunch of Commies and became our true and most wonderful of friends. The gallant little Finns became our treacherous, despicable enemies. Too late alas, for William Ormerod.

A second war grave in Penzance Cemetery is unusual for a very different reason. It is the grave of John Ostrich.

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John was a member of the Merchant Navy and served as a Mess Room Boy. He was aged only fourteen years and 344 days old at the time of his death. John was the son of Louis and Nancy Ostrich of Canton in Cardiff, and was a member of the crew of the S.S. Margo, a cargo ship registered in Cardiff, with a weight of 1,412 tons.

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John was killed on March 8th 1941. This account comes from a Merchant Navy Message Board and was written by a guest who signed in with the name of “SIF9HD8”. I hope he will not mind my quoting his words…

“On the afternoon of the March 8, 1941, sailing in the English Channel, the Margo came under attack from three German aircraft who proceeded to rake the ship with machine gun, cannon fire and bombs. Although no bombs or explosives hit the Margo, the ship was violently shaken by the concussion of the near misses and her hull and superstructure were pierced by cannon and machine gun fire. Crew members returned fire with small calibre weapons onboard the Margo, and in the process hit one of the aircraft, which was subsequently seen to break off the attack and black smoke was observed coming from the starboard engine. The remaining aircraft continued their attacks for several more minutes, which was eventually broken off and the aircraft disappeared over the horizon. While assessing the ship’s damage, it was found four crew had suffered various injuries and the young Mess Room Boy lay dead. A course was then set for Penzance to land the wounded and the dead”.

At the tender age of fourteen, John Ostrich was one of the youngest casualties of the Second World War. I found another part of the story on the Internet….

“Archie Richards, a former serviceman with the Royal Navy, who notified the local; newspaper, “The Cornishman” of the grave, said: “I don’t want this to be a competition for who has the youngest war dead. I just want to let people know that a 14-year-old died for his country and lies here.” His final resting place is sited across a path from other war graves, meaning John Ostrich is separated from fallen comrades . Mr Richards added: “I also hope that maybe a family member might come across this and want to visit the grave”.

For years,  the Royal Navy Association had held a service at the war memorial in Penzance cemetery and members had wondered about this boy. Recent government acknowledgement now allows Merchant Navy veterans to stand alongside armed forces personnel and their efforts and achievements in time of war have been recognised as an important part in winning the war.”

A book “They Shall Grow Not Old” by Billy McGee is dedicated to more than 500 boys aged under 16 who died in service with the Merchant Navy during the Second World War. It is only available from the author who can be contacted on “billy1963@ntlworld.com”

The Margo herself had a very long and complex history. Just one screen capture hardly does it justice.

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A Life on the Ocean Wave

After doing my researches on the German Dornier Do. 217E bomber which was shot down in St.Just in western Cornwall, I tried very hard to find the graves of the crew. It seemed likely to me that, whatever side they might have been on in the conflict, they had probably been interred a very, very long way from their homes and families. After failing to find their graves in the two cemeteries at St.Just, I visited the cemetery at Penzance.

The dead crew members of the Dornier bomber were not in that particular cemetery either, but I did find a great many other graves from the Second World War.

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And at the time, I was forcibly struck by two things. First of all, the majority of the dead were from ships, completely unlike, for example, the cemetery where my father is buried in South Derbyshire. Here more or less all the war casualties are from the Army or possibly, the RAF. Secondly, I became very aware of the discrepancy between what we do and say on Armistice Day, and what dreadful fates have befallen the people who are buried in these graves. We all wear our poppies, and dutifully pledge that “At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.” yet I am very sure that we don’t, despite all our best intentions.
The poor people in those graves in Penzance Cemetery no longer have any life whatsoever, thanks to their decision to join up and serve their country. They hit a brick wall in time, sometimes known precisely down to the very minute, and then no more. And they weren’t anonymous. They all had their own lives just like we do now, with families, girlfriends, wives, beer to drink and Christmases to celebrate.

William R.Baxter was an Able Seaman on the Merchant Navy ship, the S.S.Scottish Musician which was a motor tanker of just under seven thousand tons, registered in London. The ship was to survive the war, but William R.Baxter was not.

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On Friday April 18th 1941, the Scottish Musician was damaged by aircraft bombing at a position some three miles from St. Ann’s Head on a bearing of 205°. St. Ann’s Head is the extreme south western tip of Pembrokeshire in south west Wales.

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William Baxter was the only casualty. He was just twenty one years of age. William was the son of Richard George Baxter and Ruth Baxter of Penzance and the husband of Beatrice Joy Baxter.
P1500250xxxxxThe Scottish Musician was consequently further damaged on January 5th 1942 when she hit a mine at position 52° 16’ N, 01° 59’ E, which is near the port of Harwich in Suffolk in East Anglia. This resulted in the death of the twenty year old cabin boy, Albert Henry Jones. Albert is buried in Canada in the “Notre Dame des Neiges” Cemetery in Montréal.
P1500256XXXXXXXRonald Norman Neale was an Ordinary Seaman. He served on board HMS Warwick which was an Admiralty ‘W’ class destroyer. Young Ronald was only twenty years of age when he was killed, on February 20th 1944. He was the unmarried son of James and Linaol Neale of Grove Park, London. On his grave, his grieving parents have had inscribed “Gone from us all, but always in our thoughts”, as Ronald no doubt was for the rest of their lives. On the day that I visited, there were flowers on his grave, conceivably from one of his aging siblings perhaps, or possibly his nephews or nieces.

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HMS Warwick was itself only twenty seven years old, having been launched in 1917. As “D-25” she participated in both the First and Second World Wars, before she was torpedoed and sunk on the day that Ordinary Seaman Ronald Norman Neale was killed. From July to November 1943, she had been in the Bay of Biscay on anti-submarine duties, as part of the RAF Coastal Command offensive. In November she participated in Operation Alacrity,  helping to set up and supply Allied air bases in the Azores.
Having returned to Britain in January 1944,, HMS Warwick was tasked with leading an escort group operating in the South Western Approaches, guarding merchant ships against surprise attacks by German E-boats. The destroyer was patrolling off Trevose Head just north of Newquay on Cornwall’s northern coast when she was torpedoed by the U-413. At the time, HMS Warwick  was under the command of Commander Denys Rayner. The warship sank very quickly, in just a few minutes, with the loss of over half her crew.
The U-413 had been launched on January 15th 1942, and was commanded by Kapitänleutnant Gustav Poel, who, unlike the vast majority of German submariners, was to survive the war.

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As well as the Warwick, the U-413 was an extremely successful submarine which sank five merchant ships amounting to a total tonnage of 36,885 tons. By August 20th 1944, the U-413  was  commanded by the 26 year old Oberleutnant Dietrich Sachse.

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On this summer’s day, though, the U-413 was sunk in the English Channel to the south of Brighton, by depth charges from the British escort destroyer HMS Wensleydale and the destroyers HMS Forester and HMS Vidette. Forty five members of the Kriegsmarine were killed, including the fresh faced young Captain.  Only one member of the crew survived. His name is not recorded but it is thought unlikely to have been Ishmael. Oy vey!

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