Thursday, 24 December 2009

The War Underground

"To rid ourselves of our shadows, we must step into either total light, or total darkness" Jeremy Preston Johnston

AS THE cage doors closed on Hanmer's Arnold Ballard and the elevator hurtled ever deeper into the coal black mines, the 19-year-old resigned himself to leaving behind his family and friends, spending his Second World War in the alien underground world of the miners, as one of Britain's 'Bevin Boys.'

Even back in 1943, few were aware of the Bevin Boys, least of all 19-year-old Arnold Ballard who returned home from his honeymoon to find a fateful letter waiting for him.The man who had given his name to the programme was Ernest Bevin, the Minister of Labour and National Service for the wartime government which at the outbreak of war had begun desperately conscripting men into the armed forces, not foreseeing the difficulties a shortage of experienced coal miners would create.

By the time they realised what they had done, the coal mines had lost more than 35,000 of workers, and when attempts to persuade volunteers to replace them in time for the winter failed, Ernest Bevin announced plans to take a percentage of the conscripts to work in the mines.

"We need 720,000 men continuously employed in this industry," said Bevin, "This is where you boys come in. Our fighting men will not be able to achieve their purpose unless we get an adequate supply of coal."

News of the selection came as a real shock for the young men chosen, not least Arnold Ballard who was all set for life in the armed forces: "I was stunned," he said, "I was just back from my honeymoon and there was the letter waiting for me."I had hoped to join the Navy and wanted to be a medic, having done Red Cross certificates and training, so this came a real shock.

"Having prepared himself mentally to go to war and fight alongside his friends, the news that he would spend the war down the mines and hundreds of miles from his friends was hard to take in: "The selection was random. Each week they would pick a number and the men whose national service number ended with that number would be sent down the mines. I forget what the number was that week, but I didn't know anyone else who was selected.

"For those sent to the mines there was little chance to appeal the decision. Even those suffering claustrophobia, for whom the mines would have been a worse kind of hell than the battlefield, had little choice in the matter. One of the Bevin Boys who suffered from just this condition wrote that after psychiatric assessment he was informed he could either report for the mines or accept three months in prison, after which he would be given the same choice, again and again and again.

Only certain professions vital to the war effort were made exempt and though Arnold might have reasonably expected his medical training would secure his place in the armed forces, such was the desperate situation back home that even these skills were given up in favour of coal and energy. Like countless others he appealed, but like countless others he received his orders to report for training.

Arnold and his fellow intake received four weeks of hard physical training to ensure they were physically able to carry out the gruelling work, followed by two weeks at a disused mine in Sheffield. In no time they were reporting for work at Glapwell colliery in Derbyshire."The first time the doors slammed shut on the cage my heart was in my mouth," said Arnold, "I had no idea what to expect down below and it took off downwards at an incredible speed."

That first experience of hurtling down into the mines, surrounded by unfamiliar faces was an ordeal shared by all the Bevin Boys, packed in nervously among the joking regular miners for who this was just a normal Monday morning, but while the miners would have been used to what greeted them, for newcomers like Arnold, the sight was beyond anything he could have imagined:

"It was like a complete village underground," remembered Arnold, "there were offices, stables and horses, and tunnels - or 'gates' - each heading off to different coal faces."I was put to work on the iron rings which support the gates and tunnels. The huge weight of rock would gradually cause them to subside and it was our job to lift them back up to the proper height."

Arnold's first 18 weeks in a row were spent working the night shift, something he says took a long time to recover from. There was no shortage of danger either, with the inexperienced new miners facing terrifying underground accidents for the first time. Arnold may have been grateful his role did not involve working the dusty coal face, but as one of the men responsible for keeping the tunnels open, he could expect to be called to dig out rock from the cave-ins.

"After some months, the family I stayed with had allowed my wife to come and stay with me. I remember the one day I had left as usual at 10 o'clock and by 12 the next day I had still not come home which left her incredibly worried.

"There had been a tremendous roof fall not long after I had arrived. It was incredible, if you looked up all you could see was the vast black hole above and we had to work around the clock to try and clear it. You had to work quickly, but you were never sure if the rest of it was going to come crashing down."

Despite the risk involved, Arnold said he preferred his work to the unfortunate souls sent to work the coalface, unprepared for the explosions and thick choking dust of the mine's outer reaches.Conscripts received helmets and steel-capped safety boots but most had to wear whatever clothes they already owned. In some places, being of military age but without a uniform led them to be questioned by police, while there was also a popular misconception that the Bevin Boys were conscientious objectors, as this was where a number were sent, making them unpopular with the families of those fighting.

Arnold says luckily he did not encounter much of this kind of attitude, partly because the area was so used to miners that its inhabitants were among the few who realised what the conscripts faced underground.As time went on and Arnold and his intake gradually grew to know the mines and become proficient and familiar with their workings, he says it was strange to see the new raw recruits arrive at the bottom of the mine shaft with that same expression of fear and awe on their faces, realising that he and the others had become the 'old hands' helping them learn the ropes.

Arnold's time as a Bevin Boy was brought to an abrupt end 18 months later, by a medical discharge: "I remember being sent to see the doctor, who thumped my back at which point I nearly fainted. He just said, 'well, you're not faking it' and that was it. There was no compensation, no-one you could see about it, you were just out."

The Bevin Boy programme was wound up in 1948. The men received no medals and unlike the armed services did not have the right to return to the jobs they had left at the start of the war.To add insult to injury, the men were not even fully recognised as contributors to the war effort until 1995, 50 years after VE Day. After a further ten years, Prime minister Tony Blair the conscripts would each receive a Veteran's Badge to honour their efforts, but Arnold says he considers the tiny cheap-looking pin he received, depicting an incorrect drawing of a winding gear, an embarrassment and an insult.

As the soldiers returned home to medals and a heroes welcome, thousands of Bevin Boys finally emerged from the darkness of the mines, with no medals or uniforms to prove they had taken any part in the war effort.

Only now have we really come to understand just how important their role was and that without the coal they mined and the energy they produced, Britain would have been lost long before the war could be won.

Friday, 26 June 2009

A Ship Called Oswestry - Part 3

IN THE final piece of our three part series, we look at the last of the ships to have carried the name ‘Oswestry’, starring on screen in a 1950s blockbuster, and we see how the demise of a earlier vessel in the 1800s gave rise to an incredible act of heroism.

Part Three: Tiger Bay
THE last of the ships to bear the name Oswestry Grange made the most of peace time, but found fame and stardom in the 1958 film Tiger Bay.

“Oswestry Grange was the third ship of that name, a Doxford of 13,390 deadweight and relatively modern,” says Oswestry’s radio officer, Barry Johnson, who has fond memories of his days onboard. “She was built in 1952 and I remember seeing her again in Buenos Aires in 1966.

“I was Second Radio Officer aboard the Oswestry, which sailed regularly between the UK and the River Plate. At the beginning of October, we were in Avonmouth, when the Tiger Bay cast and crew came aboard to film the dock scenes, which were supposed to be in Barry.
“The ship’s name was over-painted with the name La Poloma, and the white Maltese Cross on the funnel was transformed into a white square, but when we sailed, we still had to have our correct ship’s name painted on boards, which were suspended over the bows, and only removed when filming was taking place.
Still, our unique funnel must have caused a lot of puzzlement aboard other ships.”


The BAFTA winning crime thriller Tiger Bay starred British actors John and Hayley Mills, who performed the film’s climactic ending onboard ship, including a leap from the deck into the Bristol Channel, as Barry recalls: “We sailed up and down the Bristol Channel for a few days, while filming John Mills’ arrival, as well as the chase and jump involving Hayley Mills’ character.

The jump was performed by a stunt
woman, who was very much bigger than Hayley. It was a cold day, and the Bristol Channel looked very uninviting, but the stunt girl was cheerful and unperturbed. Fortunately for her, only one take was needed!

“The film people, including John and Hayley Mills, were very friendly, but of course, we had no idea what it was all about. I didn’t manage to see the film until 1960 when I was serving with the Zim Israel line. It was shown in a cinema on Mount Carmel in Haifa and I’d expected to see myself in the scene where the ship was leaving Barry docks, but I’d ended up on the cutting room floor.”

The Grange vessels may have been the most famous ships to bear the town’s name, but they were not the first, however, with brief yet tantalising records of an earlier ship, back in the nineteenth century simply called Oswestry, stealing the prize for the earliest use of the name and enjoying one of the most heroic tales.
It was in 1888 that the Withy shipyards at Hartlepool produced the 300 foot long cargo ship Oswestry, owned by Sivewright Bacon and Co, which was destroyed 11years later in Ireland while en route to Manchester with a cargo of cotton, copper ingots, iron plates and Indian corn.
When the ship was wrecked in fog on March 3, 1899, on a rock pinnacle at a small bay north of Mizzen Head, local people rushed to the aid of Captain Wilson and his crew of 24, scaling the rocky outcrops to help the men to safety.
The ship’s engineer had been so badly injured that he could not make it up the rock face, the rescuers were at a loss and it seemed unlikely he would survive. It was
then however, that a local farmer arrived, picked the engineer up, put him across his
shoulders and proceeded to climb the rock face with the injured man on his back, in
an incredible feat of strength and courage.
The engineer made a full recovery and in the following years took gifts for the farmer each time he reached port as a mark of his gratitude.

The last of the Oswestry Granges is still in existence today and despite having enjoyed the most peaceful life of all the ships, has been well travelled, having changed hands no less than seven times, going by the names of Chelwood, Oswestry, Stenjohan, Gina T, El Billy, Gina T (again)and since 2001, Nadi. In fact, the name Oswestry was chosen by Houlder Brothers when the firm named their first ever fleet of ships, taking the letters of the company’s name and naming one ship after each, For the ‘O’ they chose Oswestry and while frustratingly there seems no record of why the town was so important to them, it must have been something significant to
have reused the name again and again.

CLICK HERE FOR PART ONE - The Oswestry Grange

CLICK HERE FOR PART TWO - The Rhodesian Prince

Monday, 8 June 2009

A Ship Called Oswestry - Part 2

While the second ship to bear the name of Oswestry Grange may have been an adopted member of the family, it met with a similar end to its predecessor, falling foul of one of the most devastating convoy attacks of the Second World War... Convoy SLS 64.

Part Two: The Rhodesian Prince

AS THE first World War ended, the Houlder Brothers shipping company looked to replace the first Oswestry Grange, sunk in a U-boat attack. A new ship, The Rhodesian Prince, was bought and renamed to replace her, but less than four years after Oswestry’s name had been painted across her side, it would face an even more devastating attack than its predecessor.

It was 1937, some 20 years after the demise of the first Oswestry Grange that it’s replacement took to the Houlder supply routes, enjoying just four years of plain sailing. By late January in 1941, enough ships had assembled at Freetown in Sierra Leone, to make up a convoy, but from the outset things looked bleak.

Nineteen of the merchant ships were in such a poor state that they could not maintain the minimum convoy speed of nine knots, but worse still, the navy then announced they could not spare enough ships to escort them.

Convoy SL64 set sail for Liverpool, passing by the navy gunships in port as they headed out to sea, where the 19 slower vessels were soon left behind, leaving the remaining 28 ships to plough on with just a single ocean escort for defence.

A few days in, news reached the crew of Oswestry that convoy HG63, who had started out just a few days earlier, had been attacked. The German submarine U-37 and a squadron of Condor aircraft had sunk six of the ships and damaged a seventh, which had also later sunk, but just when the surviving vessels had thought the worst was over, a large unidentified destroyer had loomed onto the scene, sinking the defenceless Iceland.

The days that followed would have been agonising onboard Oswestry, whose 42 men knew they were being hunted and must have holding their breath as their convoy attempted to slip by unnoticed. Finally there was relief, when two days later on February 19, it seemed the navy had had a change of heart and come to their aid.

The convoy’s log entry read: “06:05 - The Margot sights strange Man o’ War” but it was then that the large unfamiliar ship on the horizon hoisted its battle ensign. It was the Admiral Hipper.

A steely 200m long metal giant, the Admiral Hipper was the first of it’s kind. A new class of German heavy cruiser, designed for the sole purpose of smashing allied supply lines. It was hailed as a new breed of merchant raider, but it’s first outing had not gone well, inflicting only minor damage before engine problems forced the metal monster to limp embarrassingly back to port for repairs. It had remained there for more than a month. Now, finally returned to sea, the Admiral Hipper was out to prove a point.

For Oswestry and the convoy, there was no chance of escape. More than 18,000 tons of German military might was bearing down on the convoy at 30knots. The Hipper carried a crew of 830 and was heavily armed with eight-inch guns as well as 21inch torpedoes, and it was just a few minutes before she was within range and brought her guns to bear.

The Hipper opened fire on the convoy from 3,000 yards. The convoy’s commodore immediately signalled for all ships to alter course, but in their haste the Margot and Blairatholl altered early. It was just what the Hipper had been waiting for and it attacked, destroying first the Warlaby, then the Derrynane, the Westbury, Perseus, Borgestad, Lornaston and finally the Oswestry Grange.

Three ships Derrynane, Borgestad and Lornaston attempted to fight back opening fire on the Hipper, the Borgestad even appearing to hit its control tower, but in return for their display of defiance, the official report describes the three ships as receiving “very heavy punishment.”

The Derrynane and Borgestad were sunk with all hands lost and the Lornaston left badly damaged as the Hipper turned it’s attention back to the merchant vessels, opening fire on the Margot, before the worsening weather came to the convoy’s salvation, forcing the cruiser to break off it’s attack.

Oswestry had been hit in the engine room on her port side, damaging her bridge and shelter deck.

The crew managed to launch the lifeboats and 37 survivors were picked up five hours later, but one boat had been damaged and capsised, drowning five crew. These men are commemorated at the Canadian Halifax Memorial, while George Medals were awarded to the ship’s British, Greek, and Norwegian captains.

It was a desperately sad end for the second Oswestry Grange, while the Hipper would go on to become known as a potent but temperamental killer, deadly at sea, but spending more and more time under repair.

Hitler would eventually become disillusioned with the Kriegsmarine surface fleet and after the Admiral Hipper was used, partly-repaired, to evacuate troops from the Eastern Front, it was scuttled in dock at the Kiel Deutsche Werke yards in 1945, before being broken for scrap in 1948.

CLICK HERE FOR PART ONE - The Oswestry Grange


Friday, 29 May 2009

A Ship Called Oswestry - Part 1

Between 1902 and 1970 four ships criss-crossed the Atlantic, running the gauntlet of the allied supply lines in two world wars, ferrying passengers to Australia, bearing witness to the passing of New Zealand’s greatest leader and even taking a starring role in a Hollywood movie, before being sunk by German naval forces. What linked these ships was their name... Oswestry.

Part One: The Oswestry Grange

The first Oswestry Grange was one of two ships built by shipbuilders Workman Clark in 1902, more than 6,500 tons of steel, shaped into a single funnelled, four masted steamer, 450ft long and capable of 13knots and with accommodation for 39 passengers. Oswestry took her place on the Federal-Houlder-Shire Line service travelling from Britain to Australia and New Zealand.

It was a boon time for the service and as one of its flagships, Oswestry transported dignitaries including New Zealand’s greatest and longest serving prime minister, Richard John Seddon. It was just before setting foot on Oswestry in 1906, that Seddon returning from Australia, sent a famous telegram to the Victorian premier, “Just leaving for God’s own country,” he wrote. Seddon would never see New Zealand again, dying onboard ship the following day, but his description of the country has endured to this day.

In 1912 Houlder Bros disposed of most of their Australian trade and Oswestry was sold on to the Union Steamship Company of New Zealand as the freighter Roscommon. It was during this same period that German high command placed an order for a new batch of their feared U-boat submarines, and while Oswestry was put to work on the supply routes, U-53 was being quietly assembled in Germany’s Germaniawerft Kiel shipyard.
It was finally ready for launch on February 1, 1916 under the command of Hans Rose and would cross paths with Oswestry just once, but with deadly effect.

The sub soon developed a fearsome reputation. Germany had hoped to use submarines to slip supplies past the Allied blockades and had fitted out the weaponless Deutschland and Bremen subs to carry cargo. The ballast tanks of U-53 were specially adapted to carry extra fuel so it could escort the Bremen, but Lt Rose instead put this extra range to more devastating use, emerging unexpectedly just outside US territorial waters and sinking five ships in an attempt to intimidate the Americans. Meanwhile, the cargo carrying Bremen, departed for America, but disappeared en-route.

Early on the morning of August 21, Oswestry was one of 19 steamers attempting to slip unnoticed out of Northern Ireland’s Lough Swilly. It was a tense time, and the fleet began the long process of manouevering from single file into convoy formation, unaware of the submarine below stalking it’s prey. It took almost seven hours to move the convoy into position, but at 11.30am the formation was complete and with a sense of relief, the ships finally began to get under way.

Suddenly alarm bells rang out as the destroyers picked up three torpedoes, headed straight for the ships. There was no time to react. The first torpedo struck the Devonian at the head of her column, a second skimmed past the lucky Vasari just behind her, but the third of U-53’s torpedoes found its mark, striking the second ship on the portside column... Oswestry was hit!

The convoy’s Destroyers immediately launched a counter attack, protecting the stricken ships from further assault, but U-53 was gone, the assassin slipping silently back out into deep water and making good its escape. Five of Oswestry’s crew were killed in the attack, but miraculously, 80 made it to safety, abandoning ship and reaching land.

Captain Trant of The Devonian later spoke of the danger of assembling such long lines of vessels, sometimes up to 12miles in length: “The hours spent forming the convoy had given the submarine ample time to prepare for the attack,” he said, “resulting in the loss of two large and valuable merchant-vessels.” It was a sad end for the first ship to bear Oswestry’s name.

U-53 would prove to be one of the German’s most potent convoy killers, sinking almost 100 ships before it was eventually surrendered and broken up in 1918, but ironically, while the submarine’s earlier attack on a US port had succeeded in intimidating the Americans, it ultimately did not have the effect its commander had hoped.

The Americans had been surprised when the weaponless sub Deutschland slipped the British blockade and suddenly appeared in Baltimore with cargo to trade, but it was the devastating surprise attack by U-53 far beyond a U-boats’ normal range, that would spur the Americans to channel even greater resources into their naval forces.

CLICK HERE FOR PART TWO - The Rhodesian Prince


Thursday, 5 March 2009

In the time it takes...

"Of all that is written, I love only what a person has written in their own blood" Friedrich Nietzsche

CAN five minutes sat in a chair really change someone’s life forever? What if there was something you could do in that time that cost you nothing, but had the chance to save a person’s life.

Having had a successful bone marrow transplant last year, leukemia patient Ben Walters from Glyn Ceiriog organised a Bone Marrow Register clinic through the Anthony Nolan Trust, which saw around 50 people join the register, which searches to find matches for those needing a transplant.

Having heard how easy it was, I went along to the clinic held at Bellan House and, arriving early, was amazed to find a dozen others had beaten me to it and were already finished.

I spent a couple of minutes reading a leaflet and filling in the form, another minute to realise I had ticked a wrong box (I don’t remember being pregnant in the last six months) and then it was into a room where a nurse took a tiny blood sample... there was even tea and a biscuit!

So what happens now? Well, my blood sample is sent away for testing and a record of my bone marrow stored on the Bone Marrow Register. On average just one person in every thousand turns out to be a match, so the chances are I will never be called upon, but for those that are, all that is needed is a minor medical procedure requiring a few days off work.

The register includes potential donors from 18 to 40 years of age, but as Ben explained even people at the end of that range should not be put off: “The one and only match for me was a 39-year-old, which shows how important it is to join the register even if it’s only going to be for a year.

While donating is a relatively easy process for the donor, it’s a rough ride for the person waiting for it. After intensive chemotherapy to kill off their existing bone marrow the new cells are introduced.

Ben says he remembers seeing the tiny pack of blood arrive for his transplant and was shocked such a small amount could have such a life changing effect.Anonymous

Once his bone marrow was killed off, Ben had to remain in a completely sterile environment, as without his body’s normal defence even the smallest infection could have been disastrous: “You have basically wiped the slate clean, so since then I have had to have all the children’s immunisations again and have gone through all the childhood illnesses like chicken pox.”

Donors remain anonymous for two years, then – if they wish – have the chance to meet: “I really hope I do get to meet him, to say thank you and find out what made them join the register,” said Ben, “Having had the transplant I can’t join the register myself, so I want to do what I can to raise awareness, persuade others to join and increase the chance of finding a match.”

Just think, those five minutes in a chair will either be a few moments out of your day, or could be the most valuable thing you ever do in your life.

To find out more or to join the register visit or phone 02072 841234.