Seventy-seven years ago at the beginning of July 1940, Jack Lewis of Splott, Cardiff, my 28 year old dad-to-be, signed-on in Liverpool as an assistant steward for his second voyage on the merchant vessel, the SS Stangrant. It was to be a fateful decision. Her keel had been laid in the year that dad was born and he described her as a slow, unreliable, old rust-bucket. Three and a half months later, his ship was returning from Hampton Roads in the eastern United States laden with nearly 8,000 tons of scrap metal destined for the war effort. Due to her lack of speed, the almost defenceless Stangrant was lagging behind its Belfast-bound convoy, when she was attacked and sunk by the German submarine U-37. Her position was approximately halfway between the north coast of Scotland and Iceland, a few nautical miles north-east of Rockall. Eight of her thirty-eight-man crew died that day. The master, twenty-eight crew members and one gunner survived.
One poor man had been in the bath at the time. He had only a thin blanket to protect his modesty and to keep him warm in the chilly autumnal air. Meanwhile, my dad had been lying on his bunk, fully clothed with his boots and socks on, absolutely ready to go at a moment’s notice. They always had to be prepared for anything, so he told us.He had been reading the War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells and had reached a passage in the yarn that began “And there was an explosion.” At that very moment, the torpedo from U-37 struck the Stangrant and all hell broke loose. I’m not sure that my dad ever finished that book. His pay was stopped from the moment that his ship went down. This was to rankle with him for the next 50 odd years….
After spending three very cold days in an open lifeboat on the north Atlantic during late autumn, dad and the other survivors were very fortunate indeed to have been spotted and then rescued by a Sunderland flying boat of 10 Squadron, the Royal Australian Air Force and flown to Oban on the northwest coast of Scotland. After the Stangrant had been sunk, dad’s mother, Annie Harriet had been sent a telegram saying that he had been lost at sea and presumed dead. It is almost impossible to imagine how difficult and worrying it must have been for the wives, children and parents left behind to tend the home fires whilst their loved ones went to war.
Dad spent most of the rest of the war serving on petrol tankers bringing vital fuel supplies to the UK from the United States. He described these ships as floating bombs which they were. Apparently, it was much more dangerous to be aboard an empty tanker than a full one because the residual petrol fumes in the empty tanks combined with the air to produce an extremely explosive mixture. At one point in 1942, the ship on which he was serving was rostered on to a convoy bound for Malta carrying relief supplies for the besieged island. This would be an extremely hazardous undertaking as the Axis forces were determined to make sure that no ships or supplies got through.
Operation Pedestal in August 1942 was the final Allied effort to supply Malta before she would be forced to surrender. The convoy sustained constant attacks from the German forces as it passed through the Mediterranean and it suffered very heavy losses. Only 5 ships got through including the very badly damaged tanker, SS Ohio. Dad was very fortunate that last minute technical problems had prevented his ship from taking part in the operation.
He had begun the war as a committed and very idealistic socialist and pacifist. He refused to sign-up for the armed forces where he might have been called on to harm another human being. He took some stick for his pacifism from his two older brothers who had both joined the Army and who saw action in North Africa. However, dad was determined to do his bit in the struggle against Hitler and fascism. So, he opted for the merchant navy instead which as things turned out, was an extremely hazardous place to serve during World War II. In total, over thirty thousand men or almost a third of the UK’s merchant seamen died during the Battle of the Atlantic. This was a casualty rate which was proportionately higher than in any of the UK’s armed forces.
The harsh events of the WWII, the sheer brutality of the German and Japanese war fighting machines and the experiences dad himself had during the war, caused him to re-evaluate his views on pacifism. As his anti-aircraft gunnery certificate obtained in 1943 shows, he had by then understood that desperate times demand resolute and robust responses. Fascism and all it implied, would not be defeated through talk alone, however sincere and well-intentioned.
Dad was a self-taught, fluent German speaker, who during the 1930s had travelled extensively in Germany with his great friend, mentor and surrogate father, D.E. Evans. My own grandfather, or bamper John had worked as a coal trimmer on Cardiff docks and had died of “the dust” six weeks before my dad was born in 1912. D.E. as he was known, was a leading light in the Workers Educational Association, an academic, and also the Head of the extra-mural studies department at Cardiff University. I am sitting at a large, handsome, art-deco desk that D.E. built himself from fine Welsh oak. When he died in 1955, his wife Nellie gave it to dad and it has remained in our family ever since.
On one memorable occasion, D.E. and dad found themselves in a Bavarian bierkeller full of loud, drunken Nazis singing German martial songs. Dad (and he must have had a stein or two of lager by that point) decided that drastic times required drastic solutions. In order to bring the Horst Wessel song and Lili Marlene to a rapid conclusion, he determined that he urgently needed to stand on a table in the middle of the room and sing God Save the King at the top of his voice. For anyone who knew my dad personally – he was normally very thoughtful, contemplative and one of the most abstemious of men – this is a scene that is very hard indeed to imagine. Luckily, he managed to avoid getting them both arrested by the German police and being interrogated by the Gestapo.
Despite everything that had transpired during the conflict and notwithstanding the fact that they had tried to kill him and his crew mates when his ship was torpedoed, Dad liked and admired the Germans. He continued to visit West Germany after the war where he had many friends. He loathed the Nazis with great passion though.
He was a thoroughly modern man in many respects; an internationalist and a proper European – heart and soul. He strongly believed in the aims; initially of the Common Market or EEC and then latterly, of the European Union. The Maastricht Treaty which formally established the EU was signed just after his death in 1993. Dad was a man who had experienced the horrors of war at close quarters and he had decided that peace was a much better option. He saw the post-war moves to forge closer economic and political ties between the nations of Europe as being essential to preventing the almost endless cycle of wars that had plagued the continent for centuries. He was a keen student of history – for him, achieving greater European cooperation was both a question of securing the peace and an economic opportunity.
Dad died nearly 25 years ago. He would have been truly appalled and dismayed at the decision the UK took last year to leave the EU. He was well-aware though of all the faults and shortcomings there were in the European project but understood that it was a work-in-progress. He thought that on balance, it was a very positive force for good in the region and the world. He felt the UK’s place should be inside, at its centre; helping to improve and rectify its many problems and giving a British perspective to the process.
It would have been extremely unlikely that dad would have contemplated lining-up with the unruly mob of chancers, city boys, obsessives, right wing Tory MPs, Ukippers and probably some good people who were leading or involved with the Leave campaign. I am certain that he would have found their very confident claims; that after a brief period of turmoil and uncertainty in the UK post-Brexit, that hidden sun-lit economic uplands would reveal themselves, where we could become rich beyond the dreams of avarice and properly British again, as being a rather facile pipe-dream.
Dad understood how short the collective memory can be, and he was rightly concerned that Europe could easily fall back into its bad old ways. He knew how little most people understand about history, subscribing as he did to Edmund Burke’s view: “Those people who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”
I still think a lot about my dad and the two world wars and tremendous adversity that he experienced, particularly during his early years. During World War 1, his recently bereaved mother had to struggle very hard to bring-up four small children on a widow’s pension of about sixty pence a week. There was very limited schooling (mornings or afternoons) available for poor children and food was severely rationed. Despite being a very bright lad, my dad had to go out to work at age fourteen to earn a living to help support his family. His headmaster visited my grandmother at home to plead with her to allow dad to continue-on to the grammar school. But financially it was impossible. He served a seven-year apprenticeship to become a compositor in the printing industry. For much of his life, the welfare state and the NHS existed only as the implausibly romantic vision of socialists and other Utopian dreamers. I am very proud to report that he certainly numbered among them.
Dad (2nd from the right, back row) aged 10 in a Moorlands Road Primary School photo circa 1922.
Despite everything, dad was a real optimist, and almost Pollyannaish in his outlook sometimes. He could be impatient at times with whingers. Occasionally, when I hear people complaining about a trivial issue or minor inconvenience they have encountered, I can clearly hear my lovely old dad whispering to me in a voice gently tinged by a south-east Wales accent: “Dave – they simply do not know they are born!” And he is right.