The Wartime Adventures of my Grandad …… Ernest Nash (1903-1981)

At the outbreak of World War Two, Ernest Young was 39 years old which placed him just inside the declared age group for conscription but his previous time in the Merchant Navy had placed him in the “reserved occupation” exemption category.

Between the years of 1933 and 1935, Ernest had completed four lengthy “tours” onboard stores freighter RFA Bacchus which worked the Chatham-Gibralter-Malta (pictured below)  carrying naval stores and a small number of service personnel in its limited passenger accommodation.

The Bacchus never made it to the outbreak of war after a decision was made to replace the ship with Bacchus II, leaving the original ship to see out its days as a target for military practice with HMS Dunedin eventually sinking her off Alderney in November 1938.

After a “time-out” from the Merchant Navy for the small matter of getting married and fathering the first three of his six children in Stockbury, it was back to an altogether different career at sea in the early wartime 1940s.

Initial Merchant Navy casualties in the first two years of war had been massive and with resources, both in terms of ships and seamen, reaching crisis point, the War Ministry moved in late 1941 to assemble a database of all Merchant Navy personnel from previous years in an effort to rebuild their resource pool.

Merchant Seamen were strictly speaking exempt from conscription so a package of “benefits” was offered to entice “dormant” seamen back to the seas and to recognise their valuable service in similar ways to the Royal Navy. This package included guaranteed pay whether at sea or at home and a range of benefits for seamen and their families relating to rail travel.

Ernest’s return started on the promenade at Gravesend in early 1942 when he attended HMS Gordon, the Merchant Navy’s training school that set out to cover “seamanship, boatwork, knots and splices, swimming, marching, patrol and guard duties, small arms drill and firing, navigation, watch keeping and all with a strong naval flavour”. Ernest “passed out” from HMS Gordon and was declared ready for action in May 1942.

Shortly after leaving the Training School, Ernest joined the crew of the SS Shaftesbury, a 1923 built cargo steamer, at Swansea for what was a short manoeuvre around the coast to Southampton. For whatever reason, Ernest left the ship at that point, which turned out to be a stroke of good fortune.

The Shaftesbury returned to Milford Haven before heading off,  initially in convoy, to Buenos Aires but after striking out on its own towards South America, she was hit and sunk by U-boat U-116. The ship’s master was taken POW but the remainder of the 45 man crew were picked up mostly by HMS Folkestone.

While the dramas of the Shaftesbury were taking place, Ernest had briefly returned home before heading off to Tilbury to join a ship that he would stay with for over a year. He joined the crew of 1912 Hull built stores carrier the Miriam which had initially been built to boost the First World War effort.

The Miriam took Ernest north via the Clyde ports and up to Reykjavik in Iceland to move frozen fish back to the UK before heading off to warmer weather on a tour to Gibralter via Tangiers and back to Liverpool.

Ernest completed three tours from June 1942 through to June 1943 and the Miriam herself survived through to February 1944 when thick fog resulted in her running aground and sinking off the coast of eastern Italy.

After a three week break back on land, Ernest was off again on 15th July 1943 to join the crew of the Themistocles in Liverpool which was initially built as a White Star Line passenger liner but had been refitted to carry goods for the war effort.

Ernest stayed with the Themistocles until February 1944 during which he traveled with some huge convoys to and from New York as well as monster trips to Cape Town, South Africa and even on to Australia. The ship survived some of the most daunting wartime convoys despite, being a converted ex-passenger liner, regularly standing out as the biggest ship in the convoy carrying in excess of 11,000 tons of miscellaneous goods and chemicals.

The ship continued to make commercial runs to and from Australia after the war before being laid up just outside Falmouth in late 1946 from where it was moved up the coast to Glasgow for breaking up by late 1947.

After spending most of March 1944 back at home, Ernest returned to Tilbury to join the recently built motor cargo ship the Cape Howe, complete with its own anti torpedo nets and renowned “home crew” from the Western Isles of Scotland.

A six month tour with the Cape Howe saw convoy trips to places such as Gibralta, Malta, Tripoli, Naples, Algiers and Casablanca.

Another brief “leave” period was followed by a return to Tilbury where Ernest joined the crew of the Canadian built freighter Fort Chipewyan on 17th October 1944 for a four month tour that included numerous shuttle runs to and from Antwerp.

After the war, the ship was registered at Bombay, India under the new name Bharatrja and was eventually scrapped at Bombay, India.

Ernest spent the Spring and early Summer of 1945 back at home during which war in Europe came to an end in May but there was one last trip back to Tilbury in July 1945 where he joined his last ship, the 1936 Glasgow built oil tanker British Destiny.

This tour would have been a more relaxed one with an itinerary of  13/07/45 SOUTHEND, 18/07/45 DOWNS, 31/07/45 DELAWARE CAPES, 18/08/45 GIBRALTAR, 01/09/45 ISTANBUL, 05/09/45 HAIFA, 11/09/45 AUGUSTA

14/09/45 BARI, 22/09/45 ANCONA, 22/09/45 VENICE, 25/09/45 TRIESTE, 02/10/45 HAIFA, 11/10/45 BONA, 13/10/45 GIBRALTAR, 15/10/45 FEDALAH, 17/10/45 CASABLANCA, 25/10/45 PORT SAID, 26/10/45 SUEZ, 30/10/45 ADEN, 07/11/45 ABADAN, 28/11/45 PORT SAID, 06/12/45 GIBRALTAR, 11/12/45 DOWNS, 11/12/45 LONDON, 15/12/45 ISLE OF WIGHT, 16/12/45 FALMOUTH. During the crew’s time in Istanbul, the war was officially brought to an end.

Ernest returned home to Detling in time for Christmas 1945 and completed his family with the birth of daughter Lesley late in 1946. He spent the rest of his life in Detling, living to the age of 78.

Pictured with my brother Phil in the back garden at Dorridge in the early 1960s