Opawa was completed in 1931 and was sunk in 1942 by a torpedo and gunfire from a German submarine in February in the North Atlantic. The survivors faced extreme hardship and all but fifteen of them perished - many in lifeboats that never made it to safety.
My thanks to Cathy S of the Wiltshire Online Parish Clerks (OPC) Project for bringing this ship to my attention.
|Type||Cargo Ship (Ref)|
|Registered owners, managers and operators||New Zealand Shipping Co Ltd|
|Engines||2-stroke cycle single acting 18 cylinder oil engine (2S.C.SA) with cylinder bore 26 3/4" and stroke 47 1/4".|
|Engine builders||A Stephen & Sons Ltd.|
|Boilers||3 double boilers operating at 100 psi|
|Crew||71 people were aboard when she was sunk.|
The Lloyds Register entry for Opawa for 1945 has the following additional information about her:
- 2 decks (steel) with a 3rd deck (steel) in forward holds
- Cruiser stern
- Duct keel forward of machinery space
- Tanks in way of tunnels
- Fitted with radio direction-finding and echo-sounding equipment
|20 January 1931||Launched|
|25 April 1931||Completed|
|6 February 1942||Sunk by submarine torpedo|
I have been unable to find any specific information about the service history of Opawa before WW2 but Uboat.net - External Ref. #3 - includes the following statement:
On 23 Jun, 1931, the Opawa, on her maiden voyage from Liverpool to Auckland, took the British steam merchant City of Kimberley in tow which had lost her propeller near the Cook Islands and arrived at Auckland on 2 July.
Presumably she was employed on services between the UK and Australia/New Zealand.
According to Uboat.net - External Ref. #3:
On 6 Jul, 1940, requisitioned by the Admiralty as troop transport but returned to the owner after serving four months as cargo transport. On 14 Jan, 1941, the Opawa was damaged by near misses during an air raid on Avonmouth.
Opawa took part in a number of convoys during the war years according to information shown in the table below which is provided courtesy of Convoyweb - See Ext. Ref. #4.
|Freetown, Dec 3, 1939||SL.11F (Freetown - Liverpool)||Liverpool, Dec 15, 1939|
|Liverpool, Feb 17, 1940||OB.93 (Liverpool - to OG 19F)|
|OG.19F (to AT SEA - Gibraltar)||Gibraltar, Feb 25, 1940|
|Methil, Jul 30, 1940||OA.192 (Methil - Dispersed)|
|Liverpool, Feb 7, 1941||WS.6A (Clyde - Freetown)||Freetown, Mar 1, 1941|
|Freetown, Mar 8, 1941||WS.6 (Freetown - Capetown)||Capetown, Mar 22, 1941|
|Capetown, Mar 27, 1941||WS.6C (Capetown - Dispersal Off Aden)|
|Independent||Suez, Apr 20, 1941|
|Halifax, Aug 29, 1941||HX.147 (Halifax - Liverpool)||Liverpool, Sep 12, 1941|
|Belfast Lough, Sep 13, 1941||BB.75 (Belfast Lough - M Haven)||Avonmouth, Sep 16, 1941|
|Milford Haven, Oct 13, 1941||ON.26 (Liverpool - Dispersed)|
Charles Green's Account
The following is an extract from Charles Green, WW2 People's War - External Ref. #56:
My name is Charles. I spent four years in the services in WW2, some of it in the Merchant Navy which I joined in 1939 at the outbreak of hostilities as a steward aged 18, on MV Opawa of the New Zealand Shipping Co. London.
We sailed the UK-New Zealand-Australia run, sailing initially under ballast from King George the 5th docks in London, to join a convoy of some forty plus other assorted merchant vessels under the protection of destroyers for a few days till we were clear of British waters, then we and a few other ships who had a slightly higher rate of knots than the older steam-ships, left the convoy to go it alone to our seperate destinations.
The Opawa went out via Jamaica-Panama Canal to Sydney then on to Aukland and returning the other way via the Indian Ocean and CapeTown, docking back at Avonmouth, as London docks were then the attention of the Luftwaffe, the run took about three months. It wasn't long before Avonmouth was also attacked, which made things difficult for any ships' return home. For our defence from enemy bombers we had an historic anti-aircraft gun mounted right aft above the carpenters shop, a poor old thing but it did at least fire a few shots, even if in doing so, it almost dismantled the place, which wasn't built for agressive usage. We the crew shared the gun-station and treated the whole affair when the alarm first sounded as a bit of a laugh, so chaotic were our attempts to get into action, but we soon got the hang of things.
There was at the time a real threat from magnetic mines the Germans had laid in the Indian Ocean and elsewhere, so we had a Degousing Gear (sic) fitted around the vessel to counter the mines' attraction to our steel hull, and this equipment came in for a real hammering from some of the very high seas in the Indian Ocean especially, bending the 12" H section steel arm which stuck out for'ard, like a stick of soft rock. Those were exciting days for a young chap who had never been to sea before, with enormously towering waves that swept over the whole vessel at times, and I spent hours of my off-duty time standing in the well-deck enjoying the thrill of watching the waves roar past me a few feet away and getting soaked.
Our cargo back to UK was New Zealand lamb, butter and the like, Grain from Australia, and bananas picked up from Jamaica, but my memory fails me as regards our cargo from Cape Town, maybe the Captain felt the wine a was a good pick-me-up. We crew members certainly enjoyed our few days ashore there finding the bars, a great break to have plenty of beer and stretch our legs. It was here I believe that I first fell victim to the effects of too much Rum, and God how I suffered. The mere smell of rum for many years afterwards made my stomach pound and ache, though I seem to have recovered from that now thank the Lord!
I came ashore after two years on medical grounds, then after a few months ashore, joined the army in 1942. I had six months quick training then was part of the North Africa invasion by the 1st Army in November 1942.
Opawa was fatally damaged on 6 February 1942 by a torpedo fired by German submarine at position 38° 21’ N, 61° 13’ W and sunk by gunfire.
According to Uboat.net - External Reference #3
At 12.10 hours on 6 Feb, 1942, the unescorted Opawa (Master Wilfred George Evans) was hit amidships by one torpedo from U-106 about 400 miles north-northeast of Bermuda. The ship had been chased since 08.32 hours and stopped after the hit. The U-boat dived to get closer and observed the launching of four lifeboats. At 14.17 hours, U-106 surfaced and shelled the ship with 93 rounds until she sank at 14.59 hours. However, 54 crew members and two gunners were lost. The master and 14 crew members were picked up by the Dutch steam merchant Hercules and landed at New York.
According to the Mercantile Marine website
Opawa 10,354 tons commanded by Captain W.G..Evans. Opawa was sunk with a tragic loss of life, two engineers were killed in the explosion and three of her lifeboats carrying fifty-four crew members were lost without trace. She had loaded 4,000 tons of copper and 2,000 tons of sugar in Australia, sailed to New Zealand and loaded refrigerated cargo, lamb ,butter also 1,533 bales of wool, sailing from Lyttleton via Panama Canal on 6 January 1942 for the UK proceeding independent. 6 February 400 miles north east of Bermuda and 430 miles from Halifax, she was torpedoed by a U-boat, there was a terrific explosion wrecking the engine room, the steering gear was jammed, the main engines and all auxiliary pumps electrics all power failed, causing complete blackout of lighting and wireless power the ship broached to. The engineers on duty were killed instantly. The ships company were mustered at boat stations and were cleared and lowered to abandon ship. Captain Evans then decided to reboard the ship to send a distress message and salvage some navigational instruments and gather some warm clothing as most were scantily clad, as they approached the ship the U-boat surfaced and started firing shells into her before she started to sink. Opawa was now well ablaze, the U-boat now moved off without contacting the boat crews. The ship turned slowly on her port side and sank quietly, bow first.
400 miles from land, cold, wet, and raining, they decided to shape course for Bermuda. The boats parted company due to the heavy seas and swell running. 8 February the boat was experiencing high seas and gale 8 force winds, the hand pump was kept going to clear the boat of water as it was pooping and shipping water, it became impossible to heave to, all attempts failing, the sea and swell was running thirty feet high, the men complained of swollen feet and knees, and for six days were soaked through. The boat had plenty of food and water to last for twenty-five days.
11 February 'We sighted a large ship but she did not see us. At seven o'clock that night another ship was sighted, flares were burned and she put about.' The fifteen survivors of Opawa were taken aboard the Dutch steamer Hercules and landed in New York on 13 February seven days after she was torpedoed. No trace of the other boats was ever found and it was concluded they had foundered in heavy weather, with the loss of fifty four officers and men another tragic disaster for the company.
The following moving account of the loss of Opawa is from the memoirs of survivor Peter Frank Luard and is reproduced with kind permission of his daughter Elizabeth Luard DeAmicis.
On February 6,1942 there were two loud explosions. The lights went out and the ship took an instant list. I grabbed my duffle coat and ran to my station on the bridge as Captain’s messenger.
"Arrange for the boats to be swung out but don’t abandon ship yet", the Chief Officer ordered.
"Go and see if Sparks has managed to get out an S.O.S." was the next order. I returned to the bridge to advise the Chief officer that Sparks was transmitting using emergency power.
Roll was taken and four members were missing and I was sent to search. We found two seamen stuck in the room when their door jammed. We broke the door down. The two engineers could not be found and had probably been instantly killed. The engine room was flooded.
Shortly the Opawa was on fire. It took forty shells to sink her.
Four boats were left on the lonely ocean four hundred miles from Bermuda and four hundred miles from the Nova Scotia shore of Canada.
In our boat were 15 men. Darkness fell. By February 7th the wind was blowing over 50 knots with violent rain squalls. Finally daylight came and we searched the horizon expecting to see the other boats but to our horror there was no sign of them. We were alone, adrift at sea. With care perhaps we could last 14 days so we set the rations accordingly. We set watch two hour on, two hours off.
We broached, almost capsized, became filled again and again with water. The next three days became somewhat vague in my mind. On the fifth day the steward complained of pains in his chest. The carefully guarded bottle of whiskey was rubbed in his chest. That night it began to get much colder. By morning it was below freezing. We must have just cleared the gulf stream. We estimated that we had sailed two hundred miles and had another two hundred to go to land. For the first time I wondered if we would make it.
At 0200 that afternoon the AB who was on forward lookout yelled that there was a ship on the horizon. We yelled, shouted waved but the ship disappeared below the horizon.
That evening I prayed and we all sang "For Those in Peril on The Sea." There was then a gentle breeze, a slight sea and a million stars above. I lay down with my blanket and fell into a deep exhausted sleep. Suddenly, I was awake. "My God! A ship!". I grabbed the flares and pulled the cord. The ship turned to starboard away from us and disappeared into the darkness. Then suddenly she reappeared heading for us. The ship’s crew lowered a scrambling net over the side and one by one with surprising difficulty we climbed up the net. The engineer prior to climbing up came aft and recovered the remains of his whiskey.
The Hercules - the rescuing vessel was an old 'goal poster' with a top speed of nine knots, flew the Dutch flag and was completely manned by wonderful Dutchmen. Ah - a comfortable bunk with sheets and glorious sleep. The Hercules had disregarded orders by stopping and allowing herself to be a sitting target.
On February 14, early morning, we sailed into New York harbor. It was snowing and visibility was down to a couple of miles. The skyscrapers of downtown Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty appeared vaguely through the snow. Immigration did not quite know what to do with us.
Elizabeth provided the following additional information:
Opawa MV was a New Zealand Refrigerated Cargo Liner. On the 6th February 1942 under the command of Captain W G Evans she was torpedoed and shelled by German submarine U-106 when 400 miles NE of Bermuda on a voyage from Lyttelton to Halifax and the UK with a refrigerated and general cargo. Fifty six men were killed. My father was amongst the 15 survivors.
Peter Frank Luard passed peacefully in Nova Scotia on March 11, 2013. I don't know if he was the last survivor or not.
According to his records, on board the lifeboat were fifteen men: The Captain, Fourth Officer Bob Downey, himself, an apprentice Ian Davison, deck officers, the Chief Engineer, Chief wireless operator(Sparks), the Eighth Engineer, Chief Refrigerator Engineer, Chief Electrician, two able bodied seamen, one ordinary seaman, two engine room greasers and one steward. The Fourth Engineer should have been in the boat but had been killed in the explosion.
Peter Luard's memoirs were also referred to in an article in his local newspaper that is reproduced below. It gives additional information about discussions between the survivors as to which course to plot to reach safety.
The table below lists the 53 merchant seamen lost when Opawa was sunk recorded on the Tower Hill Memorial and the Commonwealth War Grave Commission's "Debt of Honour" database. This is slightly at odds with the report on the Mercantile Marine website (see above) which quotes 54 deaths, and Uboat.net website which quotes 56 deaths.
|Surname||Forenames||D.O.D.||Rank||Cemetery/Memorial||Grave Ref.||Additional Information|
|Appleton||Thomas Frederick||06/02/1942||Second Engineer Officer||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 36. Son of Richard John and Ann Elizabeth Appleton; Husband of Elizabeth Phyllis Appleton, of Falmouth, Cornwall.|
|Ball||James||06/02/1942||Chief Refrigerator Engineer||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 44|
|Batchelor||Ewart William||06/02/1942||Able Seaman||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 38. Son of William and Edith Eleanor Batchelor, of Pett Level, Sussex.|
|Baxter||Clifford Lionel||06/02/1942||Able Seaman||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 36|
|Blake||Kenneth Henry George||06/02/1942||Junior Engineer Officer||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 20. Son of George W. and Margaret E. Blake, of Isleworth, Middlesex.|
|Budge||Lionel Gerald||06/02/1942||Fourth Engineer Officer||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 30. Son of Arthur W. and Margaret E. Budge; Husband of Joan E. Budge, of Witton, Middlesex.|
|Casey||Reginald Patrick||06/02/1942||Assistant Steward||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 24. Son of Dennis and Mary Brosner Casey, of Townsville, Queensland, Australia; Husband of E. M. Casey, of Moorooka, Queensland.|
|Chastney||Frederick Hilary||06/02/1942||Engineer Officer||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 23. Son of Frederick William and Ada Chastney, of South Shields, Co. Durham.|
|Childs||Albert||06/02/1942||Greaser||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 38|
|Cooper||Frank Denis||06/02/1942||Third Officer||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 35. Son of Frank Leslie and Alice Gertrude Cooper; Husband of Leonora Cooper, of Wallasey, Cheshire.|
|Cowell||Henry Walter George||06/02/1942||Boatswain||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 33|
|Cowles||Albert Frederick||06/02/1942||Able Seaman||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 24. Son of Mr. and Mrs. W. J. Cowles, of Nottingham.|
|Crawley||Frederick Norman||06/02/1942||Greaser||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 20|
|Edwards||George James||06/02/1942||Second Radio Officer||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 29. Son of George and Mary Edwards, of Maitland, New South Wales, Australia.|
|Fraser||Hector||06/02/1942||Third Engineer Officer||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 34. Son of Hector and Elsie Fraser; Husband of Hazel Fraser, of Falmouth, Cornwall.|
|Friend||Arthur John||06/02/1942||Able Seaman||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 32. Son of William John Friend, and of Annie Rose Friend, of Hadleigh, Essex.|
|Gay||George William||06/02/1942||Ordinary Seaman||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 19. Son of Alfred William and Sushannah Hariet Gay, of Tooting, Surrey.|
|Gittings||Peter Charles||06/02/1942||Third Radio Officer||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 29. Son of Charles Gittings, and of Florence Elizabeth Gittings.|
|Harding||Barry||06/02/1942||Apprentice||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 19. Son of William Arthur and Vera Joyce Harding, of Chestfield, Kent.|
|Irwin||Laurence George||06/02/1942||Able Seaman||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 21. Son of Laurence George and Frances Helen Irwin; Husband of Doris Lydia Irwin, of Newmarket, Suffolk.|
|Johnston||Andrew||06/02/1942||Ordinary Seaman||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 19. Son of Mrs. J. Johnston; and Stepson of Mr. T. Flynn, of Harlesden, Middlesex.|
|Jones||John Jenkin||06/02/1942||Assistant Steward||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 36. Son of John Jenkin Jones and Alice Maud Jones.|
|Jowett||George William||06/02/1942||Steward's Boy||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 20. Son of Mr. and Mrs. G. W. Jowett, of Bermondsey, London.|
|Joyce||Edward||06/02/1942||Greaser||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 29. Son of Frances and Mary Ann Joyce; Husband of Grace Beatrice Joyce, of Custom House, Essex.|
|Lambie||David Core||06/02/1942||Cook||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 24. King's Commendation For Brave Conduct. Son of Joseph W. and Annie Lambie, of Lanark.|
|Lawrence||Stephen||06/02/1942||Greaser||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 38. Son of John and Elisabeth Lawrence; Husband of Lucy Lawrence, of Kirkdale, Liverpool.|
|Lindholm||Dennis John||06/02/1942||Ordinary Seaman||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 19. Son of John and Gladys Lindholm, of Durban, Natal, South Africa.|
|Long||Norman Mcmillan||06/02/1942||Engineer Officer||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 24. Son of Charles and Annie Morton Long, of Lincoln.|
|Mapletoft||John Albert||06/02/1942||Chief Cook||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 42. Son of John and Elizabeth Mapletoft.|
|Martin||John||06/02/1942||Greaser||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 31|
|Massey||Matthew||06/02/1942||Able Seaman||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 26. Son of Richard and Eleneor Massey, of Courtown Harbour, Co. Wexford, Irish Republic; Husband of Florence Ivy Massey, of Newport, Monmouthshire.|
|Mignot||John||06/02/1942||Assistant Steward||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 20|
|Moss||Stanley William||06/02/1942||Chief Steward||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 36. Son of Samuel and Agnes Moss; Husband of Marjorie Phyllis Moss, of Muswell Hill, Middlesex.|
|Mudge||James||06/02/1942||Galley Boy||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 19. Son of Mr. and Mrs. L. A. Mudge, of Buckland St. Mary, Somerset.|
|Mutch||James||06/02/1942||Donkeyman||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 29. Son of Robert and Lucy Mutch, of Liverpool; Husband of Katie Mutch, of Liverpool.|
|Mackinnon||Neil||06/02/1942||Greaser||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 17. Son of Michael and Emma Mackinnon, of Hirston, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.|
|Mcculloch||Peter Alexander||06/02/1942||Electrician||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 26. Son of Peter Mcculloch, and of Elsie R. Mcculloch, of Giffnock, Renfrewshire.|
|Oliver||George Edward||06/02/1942||Carpenter||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 23. Son of George and Emily Adelaide Oliver, of Ilford, Essex.|
|Osborne||George William Guy||06/02/1942||Engineer||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 24. Son of George and Nellie Osbome, of Southend-On-Sea, Essex.|
|Penfold||Alfred||06/02/1942||Ordinary Seaman||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 20. Son of Sarah Penfold; Nephew of Mrs. E. Balding, of East Ham, Essex.|
|Raison||Henry Bernard||06/02/1942||Butcher||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 22. Son of Ernest and Louisa Raison, of Hornsey, Middlesex.|
|Redwood||William||06/02/1942||Chief Officer||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 37. Husband of Gertrude Kate Redwood, of Bridgwater, Somerset.|
|Smith||Albert Edward||06/02/1942||Engineer Officer||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 22. Son of Bernard and Laura G. Smith, of Cold Knap, Barry, Glamorgan.|
|Southall||William Alan||06/02/1942||Apprentice||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 19|
|Stark||Frank Charles||06/02/1942||Greaser||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 24|
|Steel||John Edward||06/02/1942||Greaser||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 32. Son of Mr. and Mrs. W. Steel; Husband of M. Steel, of Litherland, Liverpool.|
|Taylor||John Godfrey||06/02/1942||Second Officer||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 28. Son of Hugh and Jessie Taylor. Master Mariner, Merchant Navy.|
|Taylor||Ralph Frederick||06/02/1942||Engineer Officer||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 22. Son of Frederick Fuller Taylor and Doris Jane Taylor, of Ballarat, Victoria, Australia.|
|Telford||Thomas||06/02/1942||Greaser||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 38|
|Walder||Robert Percival||06/02/1942||Ordinary Seaman||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 21|
|Warrick||Albert Henry||06/02/1942||Ordinary Seaman||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 21. Son of Albert Henry Warrick, and of Lavinia A. Warrick, of North Woolwich, Essex.|
|Workman||John||06/02/1942||Third Electrician||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 76.||Age 19. Son of Lionel Frank and Evelyn Maud Workman, of Cam, Gloucestershire.|
The Merchant Navy Memorial Tower Hill
Australian Merchant Seaman's Memorial
The following are also commemorated on plaque 7 of the Australian Merchant Seaman's Memorial at Campbell, Australian Capital Territory.
The memorial is formed around the central block of three large concrete and stone structures in the sculpture garden on the west side of the main Australian War Memorial building. The north and south sides of the block carry plaques recording the names and ships of merchant seamen who died during World War I and World War II. On the west side of the block is a bronze sculpture depicting men helping others into a rubber raft. 'Survivors' was designed by Dennis Adams who was a war artist in World War II. The sculpture was cast in Sydney and acquired in 1973. Below the sculpture is a flat surface of polished black granite in the centre of which is a circular light for illuminating the work.
The inscription on lower left hand corner of flat surface below sculpture says:
This memorial commemorates the service and sacrifice of Australian merchant seamen who manned ships in all parts of the world during the First and Second World Wars. The support these men provided was vital to the success of the war effort. Merchant ships carried vital supplies and troops but were vulnerable to enemy attack because they were generally slow, poorly armed and often loaded with dangerous cargoes.
The National Arboretum
I understand that there is a further memorial to the war dead of the New Zealand Shipping & Federal Steam Navigation companies at the National Memorial Arboretum at Alrewas in Staffordshire bearing the names of those lost with Opawa but I don't have further details at this stage.
Memorial at Compton Chamberlayne
I have been unable to find a full list of survivors but the following names listed on Uboat.net are not included on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database so presumably survived:
- Wilfred George Evans - Ship's Master
- Edmund Saxelby Hartnett (RNZNVR), age 26, DEMS Gunner
- George Eric John Stilton (RNZN), age 34, Able Seaman - DEMS Gunner
Further names of survivors have come to light from the memoirs of Peter Luard - please see HERE.
Based on his Obituary published by the Vindicatrix Association, John Desmond Fisher MBE (21 May 1920-24 September 2009) was another survivor from Opawa. He attended the Gravesend Sea School in 1936. Below is an extract from the obituary notice:
John Desmond Fisher was born in Brandon, Manitoba, on 21 May 1920, the eldest of three sons of Nesta and Thomas Fisher. His two brothers pre-deceased him; Robbie was an officer in the Merchant Navy, and the youngest brother, Gordon, a Pilot Officer in the Royal Air Force, was killed in a flying accident at the age of twenty-one.
He was nine years of age when the Great Depression started, causing Nesta to take her three sons home to England, On leaving school in 1936, he joined the merchant navy as a deck boy, working his way up through the Hawsepipe he obtained his second mates certificate, setting himself onto his lifetime career as a MN officer. Sailing from Southampton John’s early ships were Union Castle Cunard, NZSC, Federal boats then when the Ministry of War Transport took over a stream of Empire boats.
In February 1942 on the NZSC Opawa he was ‘discharged at sea’ when she was torpedoed off Newfoundland. The crew took to three lifeboats, only one of which was to survive, and this was the boat in which the ship’s captain had ordered John to join him.
After a week, they were picked up by a Dutch freighter, the cold, damp conditions had led John to contract the painful condition known as trench foot. Put ashore in New York, John was billeted with a certain Professor Parrott, and in later years, he was to recall having dinner with Albert Einstein when the great man came to visit.
After his recovery, John returned to sea, this time with the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, engaged in the task of supplying the Navy. After the War, John remained with the RFA and back in England in 1947, he met a young lady named Gwendoline. they were married in Portsmouth on 2 July 1947.
The outbreak of the Korean War on 27 June 1950 saw John once again in a combat zone, this time on the hospital ship HMS Maine. John’s years of dedicated service were rewarded when he was promoted to Captain in 1960. Postings followed in Malta, and then in Singapore, where he was Marine Superintendent. The sea was in John’s blood, however, and he subsequently returned to seagoing service with the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. His last command was HMS Apple Leaf, which was later transferred to the Royal Australian Navy as Westralia. John retired in 1980, and spent a great deal of the following ten years caring for his ageing mother and other close relatives. In his retirement year, a working lifetime of selfless service to his country was recognised with the award of the Order of Commander of the British Empire. The day of his investiture at Buckingham Palace by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother was one of the proudest days of his life.
- By courtesy of New Zealand Shipping - External Ref. #55 and originally from Wellington Harbour Board Maritime Museum Collection.
- From the Benjidog Tower Hill Memorial Website.
- By courtesy of Neil MacDougall
- By courtesy of the Vindricatrix Association
- By courtesy of the West Australian newspaper (Perth)
- By courtesy of Elizabeth DeAmicis