Today is armistice Day, and I want to tell you the amazing story of how a simple small gesture still makes my family happy and thankful 71 years later, and about my own act of remembrance for a relative I never met. I only found out the full details of the story I have to tell last year from my Grandmother.
My Grandfather and his brother were both Merchant Navy men in the war, helping keep the country, its factories and its fighting forces supplied during the struggle. Like all Merchant ships they ran the gauntlet of all the Nazis could throw at them, U-Boats, planes, and anything they could think of.
My Great Uncle William served on the Melbourne Star, which twice was in the convoy of ships that lifted the siege of Malta and stopped the Mediterranean falling to Rommel & Mussolini. The ships were so badly damaged they barely made it, many were sunk, and when they arrived at Valletta they had to jump from them and swim ashore as the docks were so badly bombed. Amazingly legend has it the Melbourne Star was the only undamaged ship not once but twice.
Here is his ship in Malta, somewhere on that boat is my Great Uncle.
During the war my Grandfather and his brothers hardly saw each other due to the sailings of their ships meaning they were rarely in the same place at the same time. He missed Great Uncle Williams wedding because of it.
Then fate smiled on them, off the coast of Australia my Grandfathers Ship had been held in quarantine before being allowed to sail, this delay meant the night before they were finally due to get under way Great Uncle Williams ship sailed in. An officer saw my Grandfather waving at the other ship and asked him who he was waving at. He explained it was his brother and that he had missed his wedding so he was hoping to see him on deck and shout hello.
The officer said to my Grandfather that as he missed his wedding he would give him a shore pass because they weren’t sailing until the next day, my Grandfather, always a lover of fun and mischief (he once got up early to hang polo mints on a tree so we would believe he grew them) jumped at the chance. On the other side of the world he had a fantastic night out with his brother and may have had a few drinks, he left Great Uncle William in the back of a rickshaw that delivered him mildly staggering back at the gangway for his boat and the next morning sailed for home.
That last sight of him in the back of the rickshaw being peddled away would be the last time he saw him, at 3am on the 2nd of April 1943 U-129 spotted them on the way to the Panama Canal, and of the 111 people on board within 5 minutes only 11 would still be alive, only 4 would be saved in the end 39 days later, the original survivors had been questioned by the U-Boat crew who then sailed off leaving them for dead. My Great Uncle, an electrician, worked below deck and never stood a chance, he was just 27.
Two Torpedos were fired by the attacking vessel, destroying the ship.
My Great Uncle is remembered in the Merchant Navy Memorial by the Tower of London, where he is remembered with over 20,000 other Merchant Navy men who “have no grave but the sea”.
Last weekend I took my trip to remember a man I’d never met and lay a simple carnation for him. As I stood there with my friend I said a small thank you to the officer who had given something my Grandfather and his family. He gave my Grandfather an extra day with someone he loved, an act that all through the rest of his life he would treasure, and something that so many people will never get.
I think when my grandma told me this story it made me realise that you can’t leave things unsaid, you can’t say it tomorrow, it may never come. 71 years later this event that passed without notice is still teaching lessons in how to live.