The loss of the Mumbles Lifeboat - 23 April 1947
Content of "The loss of the Mumbles Lifeboat - 23 April 1947"
The loss of the Mumbles Lifeboat
and SS Samtampa - 23rd April 1947
by Kate Jones
On 30 April 1947 James Kluge, the Honorary Secretary of The Mumbles Lifeboat Station sadly made the following bleak entry on the RNLI Lifeboat Service Report for the previous week: 'All lives lost on lifeboat and SS Samtampa'. There was no counter-signature from the lifeboat coxswain.
Shortly before 6pm [British Double Summer Time] on Wednesday 23 April 1947 William Gilbert Davies, the Mumbles Lifeboat mechanic, fired the maroons from the lifeboat cottage at Southend. A merchant vessel, SS Samtampa, was in grave danger in storm-force winds in the Bristol Channel, not far from Porthcawl. Members of the lifeboat crew dashed down to the boathouse, struggling to stand upright in the strong winds and rain gusting across the pier gangway.
The Crew: Coxswain William John Gammon, holder of the RNLI's highest award - a Gold Medal for leading the rescue of 42 officers and crew from a torpedo-damaged Canadian frigate caught in a storm off Port Talbot in October 1944 - chose his crew carefully. When the lifeboat, Edward, Prince of Wales, launched at 12 minutes past 6 into the gale force wind, driving rain and rough seas her eight-man crew consisted of Coxswain Gammon, Mechanic Davies [RNLI Bronze Medal holder], Second Coxswain William Noel, Assistant Mechanic Ernest Griffin, Bowman William R.S. Thomas, William Ronald Thomas [William Noel's brother-in-law], Richard Smith [due to be married in three days] and William Howell.
The Lifeboat Edward, Prince of Wales had been at The Mumbles since 1924 during which time she and her crew had helped to rescue over 190 men. The crew knew and liked their lifeboat. When, in November 1946, the RNLI had promised a new boat for the station, the then Bowman, Tom Ace, remarked: 'If she is as good as this one we will be satisfied. We could go to America in this one!' But Edward, Prince of Wales was just an open boat fitted with an engine but no radio.
The SS Samtampa, a 700 ton Liberty ship built in 1943, was on her way to Newport from Middlesbrough. Her captain was a New Zealander, but nearly three-quarters of the crew of 39 were from north-east England. Battling the storm in the Bristol Channel the Samtampa, in ballast and difficult to handle in the strong winds and rough seas, became unmanageable and drifted towards Nash Shoal near Porthcawl. Putting down anchors Captain Sherwell sent several increasingly urgent messages for assistance and the coastguard requested the launch of The Mumbles Lifeboat.
The Last Signal: Ten Minutes after the lifeboat had launched the coastguard received Samtampa's latest position. Auxiliary Coastguard Eric Michael signalled to the lifeboat using an Aldis lamp. But despite being:'123 feet above sea level in the coastguard station we were losing the lifeboat in the troughs of the waves.' Unsure of the signal Coxswain Gammon turned the lifeboat around and headed back to the boathouse slipway to hear the information shouted via a loud-hailer. The crew set off once more into the storm. Soon Edward, Prince of Wales was no longer visible from the shore at Southend. Nothing more was seen or heard of the lifeboat and her crew that night.
At Sker Point: Off the Glamorgan coast Captain Sherwell and his crew were unable to prevent the Samtampa from going ashore. The ship's anchor chains parted and she was driven by the violent winds and rough seas onto the rocks of Sker Point - a jagged, rocky plateau that
rose sharply 25 ft. from a small beach. The plateau was only covered by the sea when very high tides combined with rough weather. Pounded by 30 ft. waves of what was to be an exceptionally high tide, the Samtampa broke into three. The bow and stern sections were thrown up onto the plateau; the middle section with engine room and crew remained on the beach - in deeper water. When Porthcawl Coastguards and the Life-Saving Apparatus crew arrived at Sker, sea and oil were pouring inshore, creating a dangerous backwash. The flat land provided no elevated position for firing rockets; the first two fell short and waves swept over the equipment. A third rocket was fired but one of the coastguards later reported: 'It seemed to stand still in the air before it was blown back.' The rapidly rising tide and 30ft waves of the storm forced the Life-Saving crew back from the rocks. Splattered with oil from the Samtampa's punctured tanks the onlookers could do nothing but stand and watch helplessly as sea, spume and oil enveloped the stricken vessel and her crew.
Throughout the stormy night, illuminated by car headlights, the police, coastguards, ambulance crews and many helpers watched in vain for any survivors from the wrecked ship only 300 yards away. They knew the Edward, Prince of Wales was on her way so they watched out for her too. In Mumbles those waiting anxiously all night in the empty boathouse feared the worst when, by dawn, there was no news.
Dawn: By 3am the tide at Sker had ebbed sufficiently and rescuers scrambled over the slippery, oil-coated rocks, twisted spars and steel hawsers searching in vain for survivors. When light came they discovered Edward,. Prince of Wales upside down on rocks 500 yards away. Later that day the bodies of the lifeboat crew were found - their lifejackets correctly fastened. All 39 men of the Samtampa had been lost and the eight men of the Mumbles lifeboat had given their lives attempting to save them.
Communities in Mourning: Mumbles was stunned. Hundreds of miles away the people of Middlesbrough, Whitby, Stockton-on-Tees, Staithes and Redcar were devastated by what the Middlesbrough Gazette called: 'One of the worst disasters within living memory for the seafaring community of North Yorkshire and South Durham.' Disaster funds were immediately opened to help families of both crews and a huge wave of sympathy brought donations from all over the world.
What happened to Edward, Prince of Wales on her final service could not be known for certain, but RNLI inspectors concluded an exceptionally big sea around high water had capsized her throwing the crew overboard. The lifeboat was driven by the high tide, bottom upwards, over the submerged rock plateau where she remained when the sea receded.
The Funerals: On 29 April, undeterred by relentless rain, thousands lined the streets of Mumbles to pay their respects. Schools, shops and businesses were shut, curtains drawn and flags were at half-mast on buildings and boats anchored in the bay. After the church services the flag-covered coffins were placed on a tender provided by RAF St. Athan. Led by Swansea Police and Salvation Army bands the funeral cortege of Mumbles lifeboatmen supported by colleagues from Tenby and Ferryside, coastguards, representatives from the RNLI, Merchant and Royal Navies, the British Legion, Glamorgan Police, local authorities and many other organisations and individuals, moved slowly up Newton Road to Oystermouth Cemetery. The eight men were solemnly laid to rest, the Last Post sounded, poppies were cast into the graves and people went sorrowfully home.
Extract from All Saints' Church Magazine, May 1947: 'The loss of the lifeboat with her crew of eight men has been the greatest tragedy that our village community has suffered in the last 50 years or more. The unexpectedness of this disaster, the concentration of most of the families in Southend, and the familiarity of the persons concerned to so many of us, bring the sorrow home to us in a more personal way. These heroic men of ours were plain home-spun; they would not have marked their own amazing courage. The cry of men in distress found an answer in the hearts of those who knew the joys and terrors of the sea, some of whom had thanked God that in the hell of war friendly rescuers had saved them from their own torpedoed ships. .
The Station Re-opens: On Sunday 4 May 1947 the overflowing congregation at the lifeboat memorial service in All Saints' Church heard Archdeacon Harold Williams praise the gallantry and bravery of the eight men who had lost their lives. He continued: 'As long as there is a Mumbles there will be a Mumbles lifeboat and Mumbles men will man her.' When the station re-opened in June, with the aptly named reserve boat Hearts of Oak, 30 men had volunteered for the crew. William Garner, an experienced fisherman, was chosen as coxswain. Jack Gammon was appointed mechanic. On 28 July the new lifeboat arrived - a twin-engine, Watson Cabin Class built at Cowes. The £17,000 boat was called Manchester and District X)O( (the 301h boat provided by the Manchester RNLI Branch) but as a mark of respect for the late coxswain and crew 'William Gammon' was added to the name.