During the early seventies while working as an apprentice shipwright within Cammell Laird Shipbuilders and Engineers I first became aware of men who, while serving in the merchant navy, survived an attack by torpedo. In this instance an unlikely-looking veteran of the Second World War had sailed as a carpenter on merchant ships running the gauntlet of the U-boat packs.
In my youthful innocence the man appeared rather old, forgetful and occasionally confused. His workmates explained his demeanor in whispered tones 'His ship was torpedoed while he was securing cargo in the hold. He managed to scale the hold escape ladders with the sea water lapping at his heels and never quite recovered from the experience'. He was evidently suffering from what we now term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, something I would again become acquainted with during a stint as a carpenter in the merchant navy.
In the 1970s ageing veterans of the Second World War Atlantic convoys still abounded in an ever shrinking British-staffed merchant navy; they, like so many former veterans, shied away from discussing their wartime experiences. However, one individual routinely kept his cabin light off during the night, so as not to show a light to submarines! During the war his tanker was torpedoed off the Caribbean island of Curacao, and whenever our tramp tanker approached the island he suffered flashbacks, packed a valise and prepared to go to hospital. Three decades later the consequences of the term 'ship torpedoed' took on a new meaning as I witnessed at first hand, the trauma revisit an ageing seaman. It is a sobering thought indeed to imagine the fear and anxiety experienced by the merchant navy personnel as they determinedly maintained the United Kingdom's essential food and materials lifeline. The fourth service depended on women and men like my maternal great-grandfather who survived a torpedo attack off the Irish coast; family legend maintains he returned home, still in his wet clothes.
To add insult to injury when a vessel sank, the shipping companies automatically ceased paying wages to the crew. Denied an income, the seafarer generally signed on the next outward bound ship; faced with the starvation of their families most took to the sea, to worry about the U-boats another day. During the great recruitment drive for the army, volunteers officially had to be aged between eighteen and forty-one years old, extended upwards in 1918 to fifty-one.
The Mercantile Marine had no such confines, exemplified by Mrs. Bridget Trenerry, a sixty-five-year-old stewardess drowned on Asturias. If a person's past life flashes by in the seconds before death, seventeen-year-old Henry George Taylor's must have passed in the blink of an eye, as he drowned trapped in the bowels of the Dover Castle. Their status as non-combatants meant little during the merciless war at sea.