Wednesday, 9 December 2009

All at sea

Sons who try hard to please their fathers sometimes get hurt.
Back in the late 1970s, I remember my father John buying a special birthday present for his father, Les.
John reckoned that Les would really appreciate his gift - an enlarged and framed sepia photograph of the S.S. Andalucia Star, one of several merchant ships on which Les had voyaged across the world during the 1930s.
Grandad Les always enjoyed telling me, his only grandchild, about his life and times aboard the Majestic, Almeda Star, Doric Star and the Andalucia Star (above, click on ship to enlarge)He'd regale me with exciting tales of Tenerife, Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Pernambuco and Rio de Janeiro.
As chief steward (photo below) on the Andalucia, Les looked after some famous people, including former Prime Minister Lloyd George. He recalled the Great Britain rugby team practicing on deck for their 1936 Argentina tour.
Most of all, Grandad Les spoke of happy times spent with his colourful and mischievous shipmates.
He’d often pipe up with ‘When I was at sea…’
Understandably, my Dad anticipated his dad would be chuffed to receive the Andalucia Star photo.
But Les’ birthday smile disappeared when he opened his gift.
Les blurted a muted thanks to John but the image of the old ship had clearly upset him.
A rejected and hurt son pressed his father to explain.
‘I’d rather not say right now,’ Les replied sullenly.
In the 1970s, Dad didn’t have the web to do instant research into the fate of his father’s ships. Even if he had, not even Google searches find submerged emotions.

Decades later, and some years after both Grandad Les and Dad passed away, I drifted across a clue on the web to possibly explain Grandad Les’ terse reaction to the picture.
Built and launched in September 1926 by Cammell Laird’s shipbuilders at Birkenhead, the Andalucia Star - a 15,000-ton steamship - took to the seas as one of the Blue Star Line’s ‘luxury five’ liners. The others were the Almeda Star, Arandora Star, Avelona Star, and Avila Star.
When Les was part of her crew, the Andalucia was a refrigerated passenger, cargo and mail liner.

On 26 September 1942, the Andalucia Star set off for Liverpool from Buenos Aires by way of Freetown on the West African coast. On board were 170 crew and 83 passengers including 22 women and three children. Captain James Hall’s ship also carried 5,374 tons of meat and 32 tons of eggs.
On 6 October, at about 10pm, the Andalucia was steaming at her full speed of 16 knots without lights about 180 miles south of Freetown.
She was spotted by Harald Gelhaus, a 27-year-old German from the Lower Saxony town of Göttingen.

Gelhaus, the Kapitänleutnant (Lieutenant Commander) of U-107, a Type IXB U-Boat submarine, ordered the firing of two torpedoes.
The devices struck the Andalucia abreast of two of her holds.
The explosions ruptured the hull, causing the main engine to flood.
Captain Hall gave the order to abandon ship.
All lifeboats were lowered and rowed away – except for lifeboat Number 2. Whilst being lowered, this lifeboat fell forward, tipping its occupants into the freezing, darkened sea.

This cost the lives of a steward and a stewardess. One of the last acts of stewardess Mrs. L.A. Green was to switch on the red lifejacket light of a little girl, aged five. After the lifeboat tipped, it was this red light that enabled another crewman William Wheeler to spot the little girl. Wheeler swam 600 yards through choppy, oil-strewn waves to save her. 
Green, thrown into the sea by from Number 2 lifeboat, was sadly never found.
Incredibly, only one of the Andalucia’s passengers died during this lethal U-Boat attack. Another crew member suffered heart failure and also died.
Meanwhile, Gelhaus ordered another attack.
A third torpedo detonated so violently on the ship’s port side bow that it ripped out the starboard side also (click on link to see Trickett's painting of torpedo hitting the ship).
At about 10.25pm, the Andalucia Star sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
Six hours later, the H.M.S Petunia picked up the survivors and took them to Freetown.  

Family letters show Grandad Les was posted to Liverpool to join the Doric Star in August 1937, just over five years before Gelhaus issued his orders to fire. The Doric was sunk by the German battleship Admiral Graf Spee south of St Helena on 2 December, 1939 although Grandad Les - thankfully - wasn't on its voyage from New Zealand.

I can only speculate how devastated Les must’ve felt on hearing about the Andalucia’s violent end.
Probably, Grandad Les keenly felt the loss of two former colleagues, Mrs Green and the other steward.
Possibly, he felt guilty for escaping their fate.
After all, Grandad Les had lost two older brothers in the trench warfare madness of World War I, a conflict that began when he was just eight.

The Andalucia Star was just one of 39 ships destroyed by U-107. The submarine itself was sunk on 18 August 1944. A Royal Air Force Sunderland aircraft dropped depth charges close to the sub as it lurked in the Bay of Biscay. All 58 crew were lost.
However, Gelhaus escaped their fate. He wasn’t on board. By that time, he’d also been posted elsewhere. Haphazardly, I can only guess Gelhaus felt sad when he learnt of U-107’s demise.
Gelhaus died in December 1997, aged 82, one of 144 U-Boat men who’d received the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross, the highest award given by Hitler's Third Reich for 'successful military leadership' during World War II.
I'm left with one thought. The Cross showed how Gelhaus had pleased his 'Fatherland' but did the Cross help Gelhaus please his father?

My grandfather Les' 1935 Christmas card to his wife Winifred, my Nana. (Click on photo to enlarge).

Interested in the Blue Star Line? Visit Fraser Darrah's excellent website.

Paul Coleman, London, December 2009.


Anonymous said...

What a lovely and moving story, thank you -- I felt whilst reading that I was part of the ship, the many voyages (happy and sad) and the vast black seas of infinity! Love the Andalucia Star Xmas card. What a treasure.

Caroline Brechin said...

My great uncle,Robert Cruickshank, his wife and child, Dolly Baxendale and Jacquelyn Cruickshank,were on board this ship, He had emigrated from Aberdeen Scotland and volunteered in Buenes Aires. ll three survived.

mandy said...

my dad's seamans record book shows he was on the andalucia star from aug 1942 to discharge in oct 1942, as a fireman in the engine room. I know he was torpedoed a number of times. this must have been one of them. the book shows he was always discharged after a torpedo and then went to another ship.

Fraser Darrah said...

It is the 70th Anniversary of her sinking on the 6th October 1942.
I have uploaded an extract from the diary of William (Will.) Francies who was an Assistant Engineer at the time and survived.

Michael Bullers said...

My father was also part of the ships crew he was on the bridge when the first two torpedoes hit the ship. He was also in charge of one of the life boats. I was going through his papers after his death 3 months ago.

Anonymous said...

I looked on this site as my mother had a silver cup (mangled and destroyed by her - a success which became a very bad memory I think!)awarded when she was travelling on this ship in a tennis tournament. TSS Andalucia Star. I wonder when she won it. I had though it was later than this date.

Thank you for the accounts posted - moving,tragic as all war is