I never knew my maternal grandfather, but I stand in awe of his bravery.
He was born, as the saying goes, with the sea in his blood. But instead of becoming a sailor, he became an engineer and worked in one of the great shipyards of the west coast of Scotland.
He had most of his life still in front of him when the spectre of world war reared its ugly head in 1939. Mass conscription was hastily introduced and young men from all over the UK were called up for military service. My grandfather, however, was not one of them. As a marine engineer, he worked in a reserved occupation and was exempt from conscription.
No one would have criticised my grandfather if he had stayed in his job and saw out the war in relative safety and comfort. After all, his job was an important one – and he was good at it. However, he chose not to do so.
In 1940/41, Britain teetered on the brink of defeat. German U-boats prowled the North Atlantic and exacted a heavy toll on the merchant vessels that brought desperately needed food, fuel and arms to Britain. As ships and their crews succumbed to the guns and torpedoes of the Kreigsmarine, the very life-blood of this country was being drained away.
It was at this critical juncture that my grandfather, like many other men, stepped forward and volunteered to join the Merchant Navy. He was no fool and must have known that he was trading a safe job for one that would place him in extreme jeopardy. But still he went.
Alas, his story would not have a happy ending. On 20th August, 1944, his ship was torpedoed by a U-boat. It sank, but 94 out of the 102 crew members aboard survived. My grandfather was one of the 8 who did not. The sea is his grave. He was 29 years old.
The men of the Merchant Navy played a vital role in keeping this country and its allies fed and armed. They succeeded, but the price was high: over 30,000 Merchant Navy sailors lost their lives in world war 2, a proportionately higher loss rate than any of the British armed forces.
There was neither glory nor honours for those who survived the war, only nightmares, sorrow and, in years to come, the cold blade of redundancy. They were the forgotten sons.
They are all but gone now, but we can still remember their courage and offer a silent word of thanks. Few, if any, deserve it more than they do.
Just under 75% of U-boat crewmen were killed. For the most part, they were not fanatical, murdering monsters, just young men sent out to do a terrible job and face a nightmarish death. That is the reality of war.
Spare a thought for them, too.
A letter from my grandfather to my mother, dated 14 April, 1943
Home page image: John William Morrice, 4th Engineer Officer, SS Berwickshire. My grandfather.