Thursday, 7 October 2010

Toasting the Andalucia Star's brave crews

Out of the blue I recently learnt that another little girl - three-year-old Gillian Ash - was rescued from the sea after the Blue Star Line cargo ship, the Andalucia Star, was torpedoed and sunk on 6th October 1942 during the Second World War.

Gillian Ash fell from the same tipped lifeboat as Jill McNichol, the five-year-old girl whose rescue I've detailed in previous postingsGillian's mother plucked her from the cold choppy Atlantic and pulled her up into a lifeboat. 

I received details about Gillian Ash from Mary Godward, whose uncle George Godward was on his way to England as a volunteer on board the Andalucia Star when it was torpedoed three times by a German U-Boat submarine - U-107 - and sunk with three lives lost. 

I'll highlight more details about Gillian Ash's rescue story in future postings. But for the moment, I just want to say how pleasing it was to receive the following apt and timely note today from Jill McNichol.

Jill kindly wrote:
"My father always phoned me and we would drink a toast today to the Andalucia Star, her brave crew and all who sailed on her during her many voyages. 
Join me in a glass of anything you like. 
All the best and cheers, Jill."

Sixty-eight years ago, Jill was crossing the Atlantic on the Andalucia Star with her father, S.G. Bicheno. According to one account, Mrs L.A. Green, “an elderly stewardess”, switched on a red light on Jill's lifejacket before lifting the little girl into a lifeboat with other women and children

Most of the lifeboats had already been safely lowered but, as another survivor Douglas Gibson later recalled, one of the lowering lifeboats went down bow first, throwing many of its occupants, including Jill (and also Gillian) it seems, into the sea. "The bar steward and an elderly stewardess were crushed between the ship and the lifeboat and killed,” said Gibson. 

William Wheeler, the Andalucia’s lamp trimmer (the ship's lighting technician), heard little Jill’s cry for help and then spotted her red light switched on earlier by Mrs Green. Wheeler immediately dived into the water, swam through wreckage for a distance of 600 yards to Jill and supported her for 30 minutes before helping Jill into the lifeboat. 

"Daddy was getting into a lifeboat when the third torpedo struck," says Jill. "He was very lucky not to have been killed on the spot."

Early October is a poignant moment for Jill and possibly other Andalucia Star survivors and their descendants dotted around the world. "Daddy, every year when he was alive, would phone me on the anniversary of the sinking and we would drink a toast to the ship and her brave crew," says Jill.

So, earlier today, rummaging inside a kitchen cupboard, I found an old bottle of Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand and two ancient dusty cans of Fosters lager. I opted for the bottle of wine and pondered how a single event nearly 70 years ago continues to echo through the decades and connect with successive generations.

So, I raise my glass to my grandfather, Leslie Coleman (1906-81), who sailed many times as a crew member on the Andalucia Star - and I'll join you, Jill, in the toast you and your father so thoughtfully invoked: 
"To the Andalucia Star, her brave crew and all who sailed on her during her many voyages...we remember and salute you."

Paul Coleman, London, October 2010

Thanks to Jill McNichol.

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