Voyage of Discovery
Looking into his father’s Merchant Navy service, DJ Wiseman discovered the wartime realities behind a few dates and mementos.
Like many family historians a point was reached in my research where the tree was reasonably complete (apart from a couple of glaring exceptions) and my interest turned to discovering more about the people’s lives, not just the BMDs. Where better to start than with my father who died in 1973, well before I had any interest in family history and also sadly before I had thought to talk at length with him about his service in the Merchant Navy during World War II.
I am lucky enough to still have his box. This wooden box has a sliding lid and is the size of a large square cake tin. It contains various mementos collected during his life, including his seaman’s Book of Continuous Certificate of Discharge (BCCD), a handful of photos, a Christmas 1939 telegram from The King, a couple of newspaper cuttings, a letter to my mother at the end of the war and a few other odds and ends.
To go with this I have a few half-remembered things that he had told the family of his life at sea :- training in gunneryon HMS President and HMS Chrysanthemum on the Thames in London; supplying the British Fleet in the Pacific; going through the Panama Canal; breaking ice from the ship’s superstructure with an axe off Newfoundland; tracking down his lost father in Vancouver; losing shipmates to U-boat torpedoes.
As a first task I set about building a time line from September 1939 to September 1945, recording everything that was at hand or was thought to be known. In this the BCCD was the essential first building block, indeed it proved to be the foundation for all that followed. This record, carried by all merchant seamen, shows each vessel on which they serve, together with the ports of signing on and off. There is also a one or two word description of the voyage. Much later, I was to discover that similar brief details are held at TNA in the Fifth Seamen’s Register (BT 382).
The timeline was expanded by carefully examining each of the mementos from the box and trying to assign a likely date and place. Two of the simpler items illustrate the point. First, a menu card from SS City of Dieppe celebrating the day that Japan finally surrendered confirmed he was at sea somewhere in the Pacific theatre in August 1945. And second, a slip of newspaper showing my father sitting in a New York hospital bed above the caption ‘Stanley Wiseman, wounded able seaman from Greenock Scotland, recuperating at Long Island College Hospital’. It was relatively simple to provisionally date this event since his BCCD showed that there was just one solitary occasion on which he had signed off a ship in New York, and that was 23rd April 1943.
Some time during this process of trying to track the vessels and their voyages through mainly internet sources, I discovered that WWII merchant seamen were entitled to medals according to their service and theatre of war, just as members of the armed forces were. I felt sure that my father had no such medals, since I had never seen or heard of them. Indeed, up to that moment I had the impression that merchant seamen had no medal entitlement. It was all the more astonishing to find a little later that any medals to which my father might have been entitled could still be claimed by his children, 62 years after they would normally have been awarded. After a family consultation with my sister in Maryland USA it was agreed that if possible we should go ahead and try and establish his medal entitlement.
I learned from the Marine and Coastguard Agency (MCA) that to have such a claim considered they would need proof of my father’s dates of service on each vessel from the seamen’s register plus details of each voyage that he served on. Each voyage! My heart sank. The details shown in the BCCD were as brief as ‘Foreign’ and ‘OHMS’. But help was at hand. The MCA pointed me to TNA and BT 389. This is a massive card index of each shipping movement from 1939 to 1946. These cards are stored in heavy boxes, thousands of cards to a box, all laced together with treasury tags. They are very difficult to handle and to photograph. Some ships changed their names over the years and tracking them can be difficult. But they do hold the vital information needed plus a good deal more in the way of convoy numbers and small incidents such as breakdowns and local emergencies. Or at least, that was the theory.
After many months of part time research I was left with a near completed time line that had only two gaps. The first was a two day voyage from Liverpool to Cardiff on the ‘Kaituna’ in September 1943 which was insignificant in the overall scheme. The second was far more important. The shipping movement card for the City of Dieppe at TNA had no entries on it beyond September 1943. That left two whole years unaccounted for, apart from a loose certificate of discharge from the same ship which showed the voyage as ‘OHMS’. That and the menu card from the celebration meal on 14th August 1945 ‘at sea with the British Pacific Fleet Train’.
The menu card was the real clue. I investigated all that I could find about The British Pacific Fleet Train. It was made up of what today might be called Royal Fleet Auxiliaries, supply ships ferrying food, fuel and ammunition to the Royal Navy ships in action right across the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Nowhere were supply lines more stretched than across the vast expanse of the Pacific and merchant ships were requisitioned by the government to keep these vital supply lines alive. For the researcher this can represent quite a formidable hurdle, for some of the records kept for merchant ships ceased to be kept once they took up military duties. But the Royal Navy viewed them as merchant ships and took no interest in recording their movements.
It is always worth revisiting web sites that have been found useful in the past. From both convoyweb.org.uk and warsailors.com much information had been gleaned for the vessels in the period 1939 to 1943. Such mines of information are a tribute to those who maintain them and a return visit can sometimes find something overlooked before or an extra set of data that has relevance. So it was that I gained the first solid evidence of the City of Dieppe leaving Liverpool on the 15th October 1943, joining convoy KMF 25 a day later. The KMF series of convoy records had been added to the information available since last I had searched. The City of Dieppe was bound for Suez through the hazardous Mediterranean and then to Aden, Colombo and beyond. This was a start, but little more.
Once again a visit to TNA came up with a vital record that shed light on the City of Dieppe and its travels. The original ship’s papers, including the log and the seamen’s signing-on agreements, are held at TNA, together with hundreds of others under BT 380. It was an emotional moment when I turned the page to see my father’s signature on the ship’s papers where he signed on in 1943 and there, opposite, exactly two years to the day later, where he signed off on 5th October 1945 at Hong Kong. The ships log showed that he had spent the greater part of that time in and out of port in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Australia and somewhere called Manus. Later I discovered that this was an island supply depot set up by the US Navy on the island of Manus north of Papua New Guinea.
All that information was good for my research and along the way I read and learnt a great deal more about life in the British Pacific Fleet Train. But none of it was the evidence that MCA required to consider his medal entitlement. In reply to my letter explaining the difficulty the ever helpful staff at MCA suggested that I search the ships voyage cards held at the Guildhall Library in London. These are paper records once kept by Lloyds Register of Shipping and are an alternative ‘official’ record to the shipping movement cards held at TNA. An enquiry revealed that there was indeed a record for the City of Dieppe for 1943 to 1945. A modest fee produced a copy of this record within days. With a little careful work and interpretation of the abbreviated notes, the timeline was finally complete.
After more than a year’s work the record of my father’s war service had sprung to life, and along the way I had found the bare facts of his days at sea and the ports that he spent his shore leave. But I also discovered so much more. Through what seemed at the time like endless searching of the web and downloading this report or that photograph I have learned the details of many of the convoys that he sailed with, the ships that escorted them, the attacks repulsed and the ships lost, even the weather conditions at the time. I have come to understand more deeply the largely unsung and quiet bravery of the tens of thousands of merchant seamen who kept Britain supplied through the Battle of the Atlantic and kept British and Allied fighting ships fed and fuelled across the world. Much has been rightly made of the huge contribution made by American ships and merchant sailors, but I discovered that the support and sacrifices made by Canadians were also great and are often overlooked.
Sadder details were also brought in to focus. The ‘Calchas’, sunk by U107 off the Cape Verde Islands 21st April 1941, was on the homeward leg of a round trip from Liverpool to Sydney and back. My father sailed on the ‘Calchas’ on that voyage and would also have been lost had he not been hospitalised in Australia with appendicitis. Noted too was the loss of the ‘Pacific Pioneer’, torpedoed off Nova Scotia 29th July 1942 taking many more of my father’s friends to their death. ‘Pacific Pioneer’ was the first vessel that he served on in 1939. (See note 1 below.)
In November 2007 the final 40 page dossier of all relevant information was sent to MCA. One month later it was with a great deal of satisfaction and not a little pride that I received on behalf of R29127 Stanley Wilson Wiseman his 1939-45 War Medal, 1939-45 Star, The Atlantic Star, The Pacific Star and Burma Clasp. Even without the medals it had been a hugely rewarding voyage of discovery.