Memory Lane - In Davy Jones’s locker

THIS is the story.

The true but sad story of an ordinary local lad, brought up over the years in a two bedroom end of terrace house in Melrose Street, West Hartlepool along with six other brothers and one sister.

At the outbreak of World War Two, wanting to do his bit for king and country he enlisted in the Royal Navy.

After doing his initial training he eventually joined the fleet.

On receiving his orders, each time he would walk down to the railway station with his girlfriend, Joan, to say their goodbyes, ready to join his ship.

But on this last occasion he also asked his sister to please come as well.

“What for?” She asked him.

“Look, please just come,” he begged.

She eventually agreed, and as the train arrived to take him away, and after the usual goodbyes with Joan, he took his sister to one side and quietly said: “I won’t be coming back after this one. You’ll all be laughing when this war is over but I’ll be in Davy Jones’s locker.”

“Don’t be daft and upset people like that. We will see you when you get back. Now get off with you.”

Whether it was some foreboding or gut instinct we will never know because, due to tragic circumstances, his words turned out to be prophetically true.

On this trip he was joining as an able seaman in the engine room on board the 4,200 ton Ceres class light cruiser HMS Curacao, originally built in 1917.

Converted meanwhile on anti-aircraft duties in 1939, then served with distinction with the home fleet during the Norwegian campaign in 1940, she was now working on convoy defence duties in the Irish Sea on the Western Approaches based in Belfast.

October 1, 1942, deployed along with destroyers Bulldog, Braham, Cowdray, Skate and the Polish destroyer Blyskawica with orders to escort the 81,000 ton USS Queen Mary (seconded to the USA during the war), travelling at 28 knots and carrying 20,000 American troops due to take part in the D-Day landings, on its final stage of the passage to the Clyde’s NW approaches on now October 2.

There are various accounts of what happened next.

This account records how the liner was under threat from a sighted U-boat 407.

In an attempt to halt any approach by the U-boat, HMS Curacao crossed the bows of the zig-zagging path of the Queen Mary with disastrous results.

Due to lack of judgement by both captains of course and speed changes, and travelling at top speed of 28 knots, the liner hit the Curacao amidships and sliced right through the stricken cruiser.

The aft end sank almost immediately. The front half remained afloat only a little longer, it too eventually going under beneath the oil and wreckage.

All this happened in six minutes. Six minutes.

The Queen Mary continued on at a reduced speed due to the damaged hull, following strict Admiralty orders to ‘stop for nothing until reaching the home port.’

The other escort vessels did a sea search for over four hours looking for survivors.

Almost 10 minutes after the disaster Captain Illingworth of the Queen Mary signalled the Admiralty of the incident.

“HMS Curacao rammed and sunk by Queen Mary in position 50.50N 08.38W. Queen Mary damaged forward speed 10 knots.”

Of the Curacao’s crew of 439 only 101 survivors remained.

No-one knows how many are forever entombed in the wreck or were killed by the Queen Mary’s giant quadruple screws.

Only 21 of the crew were found washed up on various shores, and were buried there on the numerous Scottish islands by the local inhabitants. Some with, some without names.

There followed an immediate D Notice on reporting the disaster, fearing its impact on troops’ morale.

The loss was not reported until the end of the war.

An inquiry followed.

The Admiralty court result, backed by Parliament, ruled that the captain of the Curacao was two-thirds to blame and the captain of the Queen Mary one-third to blame.

This was not to everyone’s satisfaction, especially the families of the unfortunate crew men.

I remember watching a Secret Millionaire TV show which showed him talking to two old Royal Marine veterans of many battles.

During the conversation he asked them: “Do you consider yourselves heroes?”

“Nay lad,” he replied. “We left them back there.”

May I ask if you have a couple of spare minutes next time you are down near the Marina to have a stroll down to the end of Jackson’s Wharf, where you will find the memorial to our killed and missing men and women of the Royal and Merchant navies.

And if you look down these lists of names, on the plaques underneath the column you will eventually come across this young man’s name, Stanley (Sammy) Skidmore AB, sitting in among our other local heroes.

Mike Burton,

Tynebrooke Avenue,

Hartlepool.