Poignant pilgrimage to the spot where South Shields dad was killed

The Esso Portsmouth in the Tyne.
The Esso Portsmouth in the Tyne.

It’s a rough-edged piece of wood, the letters ‘London’ on it barely discernible through layers of charring.

Yet in its own way, it has helped to bring closure for the family of a South Shields merchant seaman who lost his life in a drama that still stirs memories among a community hundreds of miles away.

Jimmy Sutcliffe, right, as a young merchant seaman. He was torpedoed during the war.

Jimmy Sutcliffe, right, as a young merchant seaman. He was torpedoed during the war.

Jimmy Sutcliffe was killed when the tanker he was serving on, the Esso Portsmouth, blew-up in port at Milford Haven.

He left behind a wife and five children, the eldest only in their teens, the youngest just a toddler.

Recently, two of his daughters and his youngest son decided they wanted to see, for the first time, where their father had died.

But what they never expected was that their pilgrimage would not only see them meet up with a witness to the tragedy, but that they would also return home with a memento of the day that changed their family’s life forever.

Lorraine, John and Linda with charred memento of the Esso Portsmouth's loss.

Lorraine, John and Linda with charred memento of the Esso Portsmouth's loss.

Milford Haven man Philip Witts was just a boy of 12 when he rowed out in a dinghy to watch the fire-fighting operation as the Esso Portsmouth burned.

Fifty-five years later, he turned out to still have a lifeboat London registration board, which he had salvaged on the day and which he has now given the family.

“We keep saying how totally amazing it was to just bump into him that way,” said Jimmy’s daughter, Lorraine Watson, who was only 11 when her father died.

Speaking at her home at Marsden, she said: “I am going to put the board in a frame, with the newspaper cuttings and everything, and then it will always be here for the family.”

The word 'London' can just be made out on the lifeboat's registration board.

The word 'London' can just be made out on the lifeboat's registration board.

Seeing where his father lost his life was especially important for Jimmy’s youngest son, John, who was only four at the time of the tragedy.

He said: “Because I was so young, I was never brought-up with a father, so I missed all the things that a lad does with his dad.”

He had never known how his father had actually died; that he had been blown into the water by the explosion.

“I’d wanted to go and find out what had really happened for more than 40 years,” he said.

How the Shields Gazette reported the tragedy in Milford Haven.

How the Shields Gazette reported the tragedy in Milford Haven.

“Now I know, I can’t do anything about it but it has at least made closure for me.”

James Edward ‘Jimmy’ Sutcliffe had been at sea since the beginning of the Second World War, during which he was torpedoed, and joined Esso in 1946.

By 1960, he was a chief steward with the company, serving aboard the Esso Portsmouth, which had come out of the yard of Vickers-Armstrong at High Walker 
on the Tyne just the year before.

On July 8, 1960, the ship had been dressed-overall, in celebratory fashion, as she became the first ocean-going tanker to berth at the new Esso Refinery’s marine terminal at Milford Haven.

She was carrying 32,000 tons of crude oil.

The following day, there was a structural failure which resulted in a spillage, which rapidly caught fire. The resulting explosion devastated the tanker.

From the left, Linda Gibson, Lorraine Watson, Philip Witts and John Sutcliffe.

From the left, Linda Gibson, Lorraine Watson, Philip Witts and John Sutcliffe.

Jimmy Sutcliffe was the only fatality. Two others were injured. The news soon reached the family back home in Gorse Avenue, Shields.

Said John: “In the morning, my mam’s best friend came to tell her that she had heard on the radio that the ship had exploded. My mam thought ‘Good, he’ll be back home early,’ but as her friend was going out of the back door, two people from Esso were at the front door to tell her my dad had been killed.”

The Esso Portsmouth was subsequently salvaged and returned to the Tyne where she was fitted with a new midships. In 1975, by then re-named Winson, she foundered in the South China Sea and sank under tow.

It was John turning 60 this year, and the fact their dad would have been 100 in April, that gave the the three – John, Lorraine and their sister, Linda Gibson – the idea of visiting Milford Haven. They went with Lorraine’s husband, also called Jimmy.

It was as they were walking through Milford Haven marina that they passed Philip Witts, who lives on a boat there.

“We said good morning to him, but then I decided to go back and ask him if he knew anything about the Esso Portsmouth,” said Lorraine. “I had read on the internet about a 12-year-old boy rowing out with his cousin in a dinghy to the ship, and when he said ‘That was me,’ we were totally shocked. It was just so amazing.”

He and the family have since kept in touch.

John, Lorraine and Linda, whose mother, Irene, died in 2008, also took the opportunity to cast flowers on the waters where their father died.

Said Lorraine: “It was very emotional.”

Jimmy Sutcliffe, who died in the explsion aboard the Esso Portsmouth 55 years ago.

Jimmy Sutcliffe, who died in the explsion aboard the Esso Portsmouth 55 years ago.