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