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My Father's Story and the sinking of CITY OF CAIRO 6, November 1942

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Old 24th June 2018, 17:04
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Hugh Scotland Hugh is offline
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My Father's Story and the sinking of CITY OF CAIRO 6, November 1942

My father Calum MacLean was born in 1922 on the Isle of Barra in the Western Isles of Scotland. He was affectionately known as the "Swede" because of his fair skin and blonde hair, and like many islanders of his generation he had a natural love for the sea. In 1938, after a short time as a fisherman, he joined the Merchant Navy. This was the life he loved and, despite the trials and horrors of the war, was to be his life for the next 22 years.

During World War II, being in the Merchant Navy was an extremely dangerous occupation; ships were lost from the day the war in Europe was declared until the very day the war ended. The Merchant Navy lost more men per capita than any of the fighting services and my father had many lucky escapes. On 21st January 1941 he signed off the ss CAPE NELSON and on its next voyage, just a month later, the ship was torpedoed and sunk by U-95 whilst part of convoy OB.288.

In June 1941 he joined the tanker LAURELWOOD, but sometime prior to this he had completed a gunnery course at one of the D.E.M.S. gunnery centres. As a merchant seaman gunner his duties would involve assisting the military gunners on the ship's defensive armament when the gun crews were closed up; over 150,000 merchant seamen received gunnery training during WWII at D.E.M.S. centres at home and abroad. Those ships that carried armament were known as D.E.M.S. (Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships).

He joined the Ellerman Hall vessel ss CITY OF CAIRO in Glasgow on 28th May 1942. The ship usually operated between India, South Africa and the UK. On 1st October 1942 the CITY OF CAIRO departed Bombay (unescorted) on route to the UK via Durban and Cape Town, South Africa and Pernambuco (now called Recife), Brazil.
It was on the Cape Town to Pernambuco leg of their voyage home when the ship was struck by a torpedo from U-68 commanded by Karl-Friedrich Merten. The order was given to abandon ship and everyone made for their boat stations. My father's station was with No.5 boat, which was also the station of the CITY OF CAIRO's master: Capt. W. A. Rogerson. After about twenty minutes had passed Merten delivered the coup de grace and released a second torpedo. The CITY OF CAIRO sank by the stern.

The U-68 surfaced and its Captain informed the survivors of their position: approximately 2000 miles from Brazil, 1000 miles from Africa and about 500 miles from the island of St Helena. He then uttered the now famous phrase:"Goodnight, sorry for sinking you" and the submarine then departed the scene. Merten admitted in a documentary made about the sinking in 1984, that he didn't think the survivors stood any chance of making it to safety.

What then followed was an extraordinary account of seamanship, endurance, courage and determination. Capt. Rogerson gathered all the boats together and decided to make for the tiny island of St Helena. Such a small island (10.5 miles x 6.5 miles) in such a vast ocean was going to be very difficult requiring precise navigation. Thankfully, Rogerson's navigation was spot on and after two weeks at sea the main body of survivors was spotted and rescued by the ss CLAN ALPINE not far from the island. On route three boats became detached from the main group and their stories are the most remarkable of all.

After the ordeal of the sinking and the sea journey in an open boat, my father was landed at St Helena. After recuperating in the island's hospital, my father and some of his colleagues: QM Patrick MacNeil, DEMS gunners John Vass Morris, Albert Cockhill, Walter Allan Edwards, John Martin, Hugh Miller Porterfield, David Skinner and sixty two Lascar seamen boarded the Clan Line steamer ss CLAN COLQUHOUN on 9th December 1942 (on a conveyance order) on route to South Africa. They arrived in Cape Town on 30th December 1942 to await their onward repatriation to the UK, and in the case of the Lascars CLAN COLQUHOUN took them back to Bombay.

Until July 2007, I had believed that my father was torpedoed again while a passenger on ss QUEEN CITY when apparently being repatriated home. New information has now come to light.
According to my father's official seamans record it is recorded that he was repatriated to the UK on the Reardon Smith Line steamer ss QUEEN CITY. After years of research, this information has been proved to be incorrect. It clearly states on my father's record that he was repatriated 'per "QUEEN CITY" on conveyance orders'. ss QUEEN CITY was torpedoed on 21st December 1942 but the dates didn't tie in with my father's records. The entry in my father's records should have read 'repatriated per "QUEEN MARY" on conveyance orders'. This very simple clerical error took me 10 years to sort out.
My father was repatriated back to the UK, sailing from Cape Town, on the troopship "QUEEN MARY" on 10th April 1943. This was "The Grey Ghost's" twentieth trooping voyage of the war, she had earlier sailed from Gourock on 23rd December 1942. The ship arrived back in Gourock on 22nd April 1943. My father and his mates were landed to continue their war...

Dad sailed on another seven ships before the end of the war. They were relatively dangerous voyages, but nothing like his experiences on CITY OF CAIRO. From joining the service in 1938 until 1945 He served on a total of nineteen ships - by the end of the war, eight of those ships were lost to enemy action.

My father stayed on in the Merchant Navy after the war, serving in another thirty-five ships, sailing mainly with the Ellerman Line but also with many other well-known shipping companies now, sadly, like our Merchant Navy, almost consigned to history. Finally, after he met my mother, he "swallowed the anchor" in 1960. See this page for a list of all My Father's Ships

He worked, as a boatman, for the next seven years in the small Highland communities of Knoydart and Kingairloch before moving to Fort William, were he lived for the rest of his life. My father always missed the sea.

Malcolm (Calum) MacLean died on the 20th January 1996 aged 73.
Very much missed by all his family.

My dad never saw his medals. I enquired and received them from the Registry of Shipping and Seamen in Cardiff. He was awarded the 1939-1945 Star, the Atlantic Star, the Italy Star and the War Medal.

"Am fear, is fhaide chaidh bho'n bhaile,
Chual e'n ceol bu mhilse leis nuair thill e dhachaidh".

If anyone is interested I have a website with about 52 pages dedicated to this ship and the people who sailed in her. She was recently in the news as she was carrying 2000 boxes of silver rupees which have until now been at the bottom of the South Atlantic. The CITY OF CAIRO's treasure was salvaged in 2013 - a world record dive.

If you are interested in reading more about those involved please have a look here: http://www.sscityofcairo.co.uk/

Regards
Hugh
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Old 24th June 2018, 17:40
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What a great story Hugh, many thanks.

John.
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Old 25th June 2018, 05:53
Iain C United Kingdom Iain C is offline
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You might be interested in this website (http://www.chrishulland.me.uk/styled-3/index.html) and other similar ones relating to the 1st Regiment Maritime Royal Artillery who manned the guns on the DEMS vessels. The photograph on the opening page of that link shows the barracks in my village of Lochwinnoch, near Paisley, which was their headquarters during the war. Quite a few local families are descended from men who married local girls and stayed on after hostilities had ceased, and the local parish church has a memorial plaque to those who were lost.
By searching for that regiment (and no doubt the others) you will find many links to wartime reminiscences etc and possibly more about your father's escapades.

Last edited by Iain C; 25th June 2018 at 05:57.
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Old 25th June 2018, 07:21
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very interesting , thank you for sharing Hugh

Rob
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Old 25th June 2018, 12:26
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Thank you Iain and Rob - much appreciated.
Iain, my father was a merchant seaman gunner as opposed to a military DEMS gunner. I have seen that site, very interesting too.



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Hugh
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Old 25th June 2018, 13:51
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Excellent story.
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Old 25th June 2018, 16:41
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Thank you Bob
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Old 25th June 2018, 16:59
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Thank you Hugh what an ordeal for your father, you must be incredibly proud. The letters to families of those lost are most poignant too.
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Old 25th June 2018, 17:15
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Thank you Marian - much appreciated. There is a lot of content there, a bit of a labour of love as they say. The important thing for me as the son of a merchant seaman is in the sub-heading of the site:

A tribute to the British Merchant Navy - they also served!

Yes I am very proud of him.
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Old 25th June 2018, 17:22
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I suppose it's every seafarers nightmare having to commit to a lifeboat when very deep sea with bad weather and such to deal with.

Warfare, particularly World War Two, makes this common place as opposed to a rarity. I saw an interview recently with American Sci Fi writer Alfred Bester, who wrote a seminal book in the 50's called The Stars my Destination, and explained how the story of the character in his book was based on a seaman during World War Two who survived an incredible amount of time on a raft following his ship being torpedoed, and was passed by several times by other merchant ships because they thought it was a trap set up by a U Boat.

His story is set in space rather than the sea, but it makes for grim reading when you think it's based on an actual event.
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Old 29th June 2018, 02:45
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Hi Hugh.
Great tribute to your Dad and in a way to all the men who sailed in the Merchant Navy during the war, may we never forget them. We had enough Merchant seamen in our small village to man a cargo ship including my brother, thankfully only one young bloke; his mate, lost his life, on his first voyage.
Tugger
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Old 30th June 2018, 11:00
Jolly Jack England Jolly Jack is offline
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Hugh, thanks for that very moving account - a great contribution to Shipping History.


Your website is a terrific addition also.


JJ.
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Old 30th June 2018, 11:04
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Thank you JJ & Tugger - much appreciated.
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Hugh
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Old 30th June 2018, 12:13
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Hugh, wonderful account of some amazing seamanship and the downright toughness (and professionalism) of your late father and his generation, quite a suprising humane act by the Uboat captain too.
This great story reminded me of snippets that my late Uncle Bob told me of his exploits on similar deep ocean routes during the war when he was a Ch/Eng for Blue Flue/Clan line.
Lest we forget!
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Old 30th June 2018, 13:35
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Thanks Tom, agree with everything you say. After I found out my dad was on this ship, I came across the excellent book: 'Goodnight, Sorry for Sinking You' by Ralph Barker - the title of the book echos the words spoken to those in No.6 lifeboat by Karl-Friedrich Merten. He gave them a course for St Helena but admitted later in a TV documentary that he didn't think any would survive. Many did survive due to the qualities you mention but 107 souls did not. Lest we forget.
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Old 6th November 2022, 11:36
Harry Nicholson United Kingdom Harry Nicholson is offline
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It was today.

Her anniversary: http://www.sscityofcairo.co.uk
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Old 6th November 2022, 12:45
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A most remarkable piece of our maritime history Hugh. Thanks for posting.

Roy.
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Old 6th November 2022, 15:49
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Thank you Roy and Harry much appreciated. Time is moving on.

Marking the 80th anniversary of her sinking in the South Atlantic. My father was only 20, he survived but over a hundred were lost. Lest we forget those who didn't make it home.

Regards
Hugh
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Last edited by Hugh; 6th November 2022 at 17:05.
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