Ceremonies and Services at Tower Hill
Each of the War Memorials at Tower Hill had inauguration/opening ceremonies and these are described on the relevant pages. This page describes some of the ceremonies and services that have subsequently been held at Tower Hill.
After much lobbying by the Merchant Navy Association and others, an official 'Merchant Navy Day' of 3 September was approved in the year 2000 by the government of the day; it was long overdue. The day was chosen as the anniversary of the sinking of Athenia on 3 September 1939 - just nine hours after Great Britain declared war on Germany.
A commemoration service is held at Trinity Square Gardens on the first Sunday in September.
I have not yet managed to attend one of these services and would like to add more information to the website. If anyone reading this has photos or details of previous services they would be prepared to share, please contact me - details are at the foot of this page
In 2013 a programme of events was arranged to commemorate the Battle of the Atlantic. On 11 May 2013, a commemorative service was held at Tower Hill and I was privileged to attend. Details of the service and photos of the event follow. The service was preceded by an introduction to explain its significance, and included a reading that recounted the experiences of one particular sinking; both are reproduced after the Order of Service on this page.
The event was organised by the Merchant Navy Association and Honourable Company of Master Mariners in conjunction with the Royal Navy and Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and was attended by veteran and serving Merchant Navy and Royal Navy personnel, former London dock workers, Commonwealth High Commissioners, maritime industry representatives, London mayors from the former docks areas and the Lord Mayor of Liverpool, the wartime headquarters of the Royal Navy’s Western Approaches Command controlling Allied operations during the Battle, and others such as myself who came to pay their respects to those who lost their lives.
The destroyer HMS Edinburgh was berthed in the Thames alongside HMS Belfast for the occasion and provided a Guard of Honour that was inspected by Admiral the Rt Hon the Lord West of Spithead GCB DSC PC, Patron of the Merchant Navy Association and former First Sea Lord. He was Joined by Rear Admiral Russ Harding, OBE, Assistant Chief of Naval Staff (Aviation & Carriers). Music was provided by the Band of HM Royal Marines Plymouth.
Order of Service
Before the start of the service, Roger Hoefling provided a brief introduction to explain the background to the event. His text is reproduced below.
The first was on 3 September 1939, 8¾ hours after Britain declared war on Germany following its invasion of Poland. The liner SS Athenia was torpedoed West of Ireland.
The last was on 7 May 1945, 1¼ hours before VE-Day. The SS Avondale Park, a cargo ship, was torpedoed off the Firth of Forth.
Between, the Battle of the Atlantic, the longest continuous campaign of the Second World War. Prime Minister Winston Churchill described it as ' .... the dominating factor all through the War. Never for one moment could we forget that everything happening elsewhere, on land, at sea or in the air depended ultimately on its outcome.'
Keeping Britain fed, fuelled and fighting relied on merchant ships, escorted by those of the Royal and Allied Navies, bringing supplies from across the North and South Atlantic. In the convoys, the Merchant Navy's civilian seamen were in the front-line alongside their Allied naval counterparts in facing enemy submarines, mines, surface ships and aircraft while always at the mercy of the sea and weather. Army counterparts too, the guns of the DEMS (Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships), initially manned by the Royal Artillery.
Unescorted, the odds against merchant ships were even greater and thus so were the losses. For them all, the attack could com unseen as too could be their end.
Admiral Lord Mountevans wrote:-
Those of us who have escorted convoys in either of the great Wars can never forget the days and especially the nights spent in company with those slow-moving squadrons of iron tramps - the wisps of smoke from their funnels, the phosphorescent wakes, the metallic clang of iron doors at the end of the night watches which told us that the Merchant Service firemen were coming up after four hours in the heater engine rooms, or boiler rooms, where they had run the gauntlet of torpedo or mine for perhaps half the years of the war. I remember so often thinking that those in the engine rooms, if they were torpedoed, would probably be drowned before they reached the engine room steps ....'
May 1943 is commemorated as the Battle's turning point. Air cover out into the Atlantic had been extended by the CAM-ships (Catapult Armed Merchantmen); then MAC-shops - Merchant Aircraft Carriers with a flight deck and Fleet Air Arm Swordfish atop a cargo of oil or grain, and then escort or 'Woolworth' carriers, but it was the introduction of long-range, land-based aircraft by RAF Coastal Command and the US Navy that helped to close the 'U-boat gap' in mid-Atlantic. Improved decryption of German radio signal traffic at Bletchley Park; increased ship production and more, all contributed to reducing merchant ship losses while those of U-boats grew. This forced the German Navy to withdraw its large-scale operations involving 30 or 40 U-boats attacking a convoy which, typically, could consist of 50-100 merchant vessels, 167 in the largest. Enemy operations continued nonetheless but, ultimately, prevailing in the Battle of the Atlantic kept open the supply routes and thus Britain in business while allowing the build-up for D-Day and the subsequent Allied liberation of Europe.
Of the Merchant Navy, Max Nicolson of the Ministry of War Transport said, 'The nation owes these people a great deal'.
That is why we are here today.
This is the text of the reading given by Roger Hoefling; the account of the sinking of MV Silveryew is from 'The Real Cruel Sea' by Richard Woodman
Here on Tower Hill, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Second World War Memorial records the names of members of the 23,832 Merchant Navy, fishing fleets, Lighthouse, Pilotage and Steam Services for whom there is no known grave but the sea. Of those named, two aged 74 were the oldest British seamen lost, while twelve were the youngest at 14.
Listed too are their 2,174 vessels, 9 amongst them from the Silver Line. One is the MV Silveryew, a refrigerated cargo ship which, with a cargo of pig iron, manganese ore, kyanite ore and kernels, was on passage from Calcutta via Capetown to Oban and London. Until that is, 12.36 on the morning of 30th May 1941 when, unescorted off the coast of West Africa, one of two torpedoes fired by the U-106 struck the stern.
Keith Angus, an apprentice on board recalled:-
"I might have slept through if my chum hadn't rushed in and roused me. By the time I staggered out on deck the 4-inch gun was just disappearing under water, and the engines were still pounding away, the torpedo having hit the bulkhead between the engine room and the refrigerated hold and flooded the engine room with ammonia gas as well as water. The black gang dropped everything and decamped, and pushed off a life raft, the boats being gone, all but one which was dangling from one fall. I jumped onto the raft too, with seven or eight others, all engine staff but me and the Chinese Carpenter. Rafts then were not the elaborate devices we had later, just four drums in a wooden frame. The painter had no quick release, it was just tied on. The raft floated like the dropped toast, knot-side down and was being dragged along as the engineers tried to release it. I had a knife and began to cut the painter but the ship suddenly plunged and down everything went, and everybody. We came up again, the raft having broken its painter and preceded us and crawled back aboard. After a bit we thought there must be a head fewer than previous, so looked about and found a hand sticking out from under the raft, waving feebly. We dragged it out, the owner, the Junior Fourth Engineer, a happy type from Belfast, wheezing, "Aw, thanks boys. You know, I thought I was a long time comin' to the surface". He had been trapped by the buoyancy of his life jacket.
After several hours, I noticed that the raft had less freeboard, but it decided it would do no good to announce it. It transpired from later conversation that everyone had noticed it and had thought as I had. The matter was resolved when the Third Mate, a Canadian like me, showed up out of the darkness, rowing the jolly boat single-handed, and took us off."
There were 56 crew of whom 3 were lost. The names of the Chief and Assistant Stewards, Yue Chank Sung and Chow Ah San, appear on the Commission’s Hong Kong Memorial while here it is that of the ship’s Master, James Smith.
Born out of the Battle in 1941 and with its name a clue, the Outward Bound scheme prepared many a young merchant sailor for coping with survival after sinking and its successor, the Outward Bound Trust, is represented today amongst those who now lay their wreaths.
Photographs of the Guard of Honour and Procession
Photographs of the Service
One of the Veterans
I was pleased to make the acquaintance of one of the veterans of the Battle of the Atlantic. Charles Hemmings told me that he had joined the Royal Navy in 1939 and served on various ships including the Destroyer HMS Lamerton. As well as escorting Atlantic convoys, he served on convoys to Russia and is waiting on the award of the Arctic Star. He was accompanied to the ceremony by his grandson Steven Hemmings and wore his medals with pride.