The ‘true grit’ of South Shields folk

Derby Street in 1941.
Derby Street in 1941.

Thanks to the research of historian Dorothy Ramser, I recently ran an article paying tribute to South Shields man Robert Stanley Chipchase, whose raft invention helped save the lives of countless seamen during the Second World War.

Within her account, mention was made of a national newspaper reporter who visited the town during those dark days of war.

Not only was she impressed by the dedication of those women tasked with making the Chipchase rafts, she was also struck by the character and resilience of all the Shields folk she met.

As Dorothy reveals: “When the journalist arrived in South Shields, on walking around the town, she observed ‘practically every family is connected with the sea through a son or a husband. As I walked through the tightly-packed cobbled terraces there was always some house with the curtains drawn across in mourning. The Chapel at the back of the Mission has no space left for the brass plaques that commemorate the men who have been sunk by enemy action’.”

The reporter made a point of talking to local seamen and wrote, in admiration, of their modest bravery, as Dorothy goes on to explain.

“She described the seamen as ‘men of understatement, because all their lives they have been fighting – gales, icebergs, typhoons. Added to this list are U-Boats and enemy aircraft’.”

She also read some of the letters these men had sent to local shipping offices, one of which reads: “I beg to inform you that I had a very exciting trip, and would not have missed it for the world. Everything aboard is OK except for the loss of an anchor and chain.”

But then, as Dorothy relates, the journalist found a different story when she looked at the ship’s log of that journey to South Africa, and found a precise statement detailing 24-hours of attacks by torpedoes and Messerschmitts which concluded:–“The final torpedo crossed our bows closely, but we could not follow its wake in the gathering dusk.”

The reporter’s newspaper went on to run a story on April 19, 1943 about Albert Edward Wallis, a 46-year-old sailor of Vine Street, South Shields, who upon his return from an Atlantic voyage had crept into his home in the early hours of the morning to lay a toy gun beside his sleeping son Raymond.

It was a poignant moment as Dorothy explains. “Weeks before Albert thought he’d never see his little boy again,” said the knowledgeable writer.

“His ship was hit by a torpedo and they were forced to abandon ship. He had bought the gun in New York, and for some reason had kept it in his pocket. When he was heaved into the rescue ship he discovered the toy still in his pocket – it was the only thing he’d manage to save. It was the sixth time he’d been torpedoed.”

Despite all the dangers involved, there were queues of Tyneside men at the shipping offices wanting to do their bit, including young boys like 16-year-old Robert Wood who, in 1943, had already completed two voyages, enduring gales and U-Boat attacks. “In 1941,” continues Dorothy, “when a British ship was caught in an Arctic blizzard and tried to send out an SOS, it discovered that ice had broken the radio aerial.

“Ernest Richardson, who was 20, of Akeman Way, South Shields, volunteered to replace it.

“He climbed the mast in blinding snow with his gloves off. It took him 40 minutes to replace the aerial, as a result his hands froze to the mast. Another Shields man, Able Seaman Marshal Mordew, of Wawn Street, grabbed a rope and went up the mast to rescue him. He put a rope around Ernest and slid down to the deck, then lowered the wounded young man down. Ernest lost three fingers to frostbite, but he saved the ship. He was landed in Iceland 11 days later to be treated in hospital. Ernest was later awarded the British Empire Medal.”

Together with the Royal Navy, our merchant fleet fought a constant battle against the elements as well as the Germans to keep the country supplied with raw materials, arms, ammunition, food and fuel. Dorothy concludes by saying: “Of these merchant seamen, 36,749 were killed, 5,720 taken prisoner and 4,707 wounded. The war could not have been won without them.