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Sam Coward: Diary of a WW2 sailor

Amble RC schoolchildren 1928. Sam Coward is third from left top row (with holes in his jumper).

Amble RC schoolchildren 1928. Sam Coward is third from left top row (with holes in his jumper).

My father Sam Coward was an Amble man, my early childhood memories are populated with summer holidays spent in the town visiting my grandmother and uncles, John, Joe and George.

Days were spent fishing from the pier, walking home along the harbour where real fishermen unloaded boxes of fresh salmon caught off the Coquet. When we weren’t fishing it was picnic lunch with my granny on the links beach, where I climbed the dunes and scoured rock pools for crabs.

Sam Coward on board HMS Arethusa

My father served in the Royal Navy during the war, but somehow we never got around to discussing those years. He had an interesting post war career, designing and installing catapults on carriers.

In retirement he enjoyed a passion for gardening and rode his Rudge motorcycle the length and breadth of Britain attending rallies and visiting friends. He embraced technology, viewing computers simply as the world moving forward, though spam exasperated him.

One day in 2006 while clearing junk from his hard drive, I came across a folder entitled ‘Sam’s diary 1942’. Though not in the habit of reading his personal mail, on this occasion curiosity got the better of me.

The diary detailed his daily life onboard HMS Arethusa , sailing from Greenock in May 1942 down the west coast of Africa to Johannesburg, around Cape Horn, then up the east coast through the Suez canal into the Mediterranean.

On the 18th November, while escorting a convoy to Malta, Arethusa was torpedoed. 156 crewmen perished in the initial explosion, which should have sunk her, but after an epic three day voyage she made port in Alexandria, where dry dock exposed a hole in her hull the size of a bus.

A page from Sam's diary

A page from Sam’s diary

Aware that I was reading a copy of an existing diary and not the recollections of an old man, I sought out my father and asked him about it. His response was: ‘so you’ve found that have you’, then told me where in his desk I would find his original diary. A few minutes later he was recounting the events as if it were yesterday, as I thumbed the pages he had written 64 years previously.

He mentioned taking ‘snaps ‘, (photographs), I enquired as to their possible whereabouts and was sent back to his desk where I found an envelope containing a packet of negatives.

Torpedo strike
The Arethusa web page www.hms-arethusa.co.uk documents the voyage, the torpedo attack and the aftermath, providing a detailed account from the Naval perspective, which complemented my father’s hand written account of the time.

    Friday 26th November 42 ‘sitting on the quarterdeck now it seems it ages since that paralysing explosion and the subsequent 25 deg list       yet it is only nine days’.

He was standing by the port throttle when the torpedo struck. Orders from the bridge were to maintain full speed, but he instinctively seized the throttle and reduced speed, aware that if he didn’t, the ship would have gone to the bottom.

After handing over the engine to his shipmate he made his way up on deck, where he found the sea coming over the gunwale. He clung to the guard rail, then climbed down into the aft engine room, his ‘action station’.

There he found the port side ring main dead (electrical power). He spent the next twelve hours rigging up emergency leads to fire and ballast pumps, extractor fans etc.

Later he writes, ‘a huge fire had threatened to engulf the ship, but ‘great things had been done, men worked hard, brought it under control and finally it was extinguished’.

Crewmates on HMS Arethusa: l-r, Stuart Cooper, Ted Mullin, George Woods, Stan Brightman, Pete Pursier, sitting, Sam Coward

Crewmates on HMS Arethusa: l-r, Stuart Cooper, Ted Mullin, George Woods, Stan Brightman, Pete Pursier, sitting, Sam Coward

Impressive actions
Over the next few months I put together a book, scanned pages of his diary accompanied by ‘snaps’, in which my father managed to name most of his shipmates.

The more I wrote the more his actions impressed me. Reducing the throttle was in direct conflict to the orders given and he was only 22 at the time. I asked him about rigging up emergency leads, only to be told, ‘it was nothing’ and that, ’everyone had been shown how to do so.’ I imagined climbing into the bowels of a ship that appeared to be sinking and connecting up emergency power supplies.

My father passed away peacefully at home in 2007. Sometime after, as you do, I found myself scrolling though the Arethusa site, reading comments, when I recognised a name: Ted Mullin. I had a photo of him with my father, so wrote an email introducing myself. The following day I eagerly opened his reply, well aware that he must be around 90.

Ted survived the torpedo, but lost all of his possessions. I sent him photos of his shipmates and told him about my life in France, he in turn told me about his, as a retired headmaster living in Canada.

I sent him my father’s, ‘crossing the line certificate’, which he subsequently photo- shopped his name onto. ‘For my grand children,’ he wrote.

On his retirement, at the insistence of Iris his wife, he had written his account of the attack, entitled ‘Three Fateful Days’.

Ted wrote in detail, his story ran to 20 pages, one of which contained this line: ‘Although the port side was impassable due to buckled steel plates and debris, the fire main, miraculously, was intact, because full water pressure was available as soon as the hydrant was turned on’.

I read the line several times, reflecting that great things had indeed been done by Ted and his shipmates, but my thoughts went down below decks to my Dad.

Sam Coward (Jnr)

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7 Comments

  1. Hello Sam, I was interested to read your dads account of life on the Arethusa. My dad was George Branscombe, a gunner who survived the war, met and fell in love with my mom, while on a stop over in Simonstown, South Africa. He passed away about 11 yrs ago, still with a strong cockney accent and a sense of humour to match.
    I have his photo album, filled with his Arethusa buddies, all looking fit and tanned……quite hard to believe they are either dead now or really old.
    My dad at some stage got transferred to the Australian navy and was on the Norman. I know he was torpedoed a few times and clearly had his guardian angel working overtime, as with your dad!
    All through his life he was an ardent member of the local Moths, an ex servicemen’s club, where they could gather once a month and swap tales!
    Its only been in my later years that I realize how much we owe our fathers for having fought during those years.
    Many thanks for posting your thoughts and comments. Regards Pauline Marais

  2. Hello Pauline, as I mentioned my father didn’t talk much about the war, I don’t think it was anything other than he had a very interesting post war career and lots of hobbies. When I found his diary and asked him about it he seemed surprised that I had an interest in it. Maybe interest comes with age and I had reached a time in life that I could appreciate it.
    He sat in the kitchen of our old house in Scotland and related in great detail the events of that day, at times it was if he wasn’t in the same room as me.
    I asked him how clearly he could remember the engine room and he told me he could see every nut and bolt.
    I thought it was a really cool experience to have with my dad, he talked me through what he had done immediately after the torpedo struck and I have no doubts that his reaction in taking the throttles and reducing the ships speed contributed greatly to her staying on the surface.
    On my first read of his diary I remarked the 12 hrs he spent in the engine room connecting up emergency leads to the fire and ballast pumps, I understood immediately the importance of this. What was incredible was finding Ted Mullins in Canada, who on his retirement had written an account that described the fire pumps on the port side coming on at full pressure enabling him and his mates to fight the fire which threatened to engulf the ship.
    Like you I have all my father’s photos scanned onto my pc, if you want them just give me an email and I’ll send them to you.

    regards Sam

    • Hi Sam, thanks for the reply. This morning while watching the Remembrance Sunday programme on TV, I was reminded to check if you’d replied to my email. It is amazing at how each year there is such a gathering to remember those that fought in the wars…..very different to this part of the world here unfortunately. Yes that would be great if you could send me some of your dads photos. Who knows I might even recognize my father in one. Thanks again, regards Pauline Marais

  3. Very interested in your story.My father (also William (Bill) Douglas) was on the Arethusa when it was hit , he was a stoker and fortunately survived the disaster. If you have anything relating to him or photos which included him I would love to hear from you. I live in Newcastle. Bill Douglas.

  4. Hi my father was George Fleming and was a Range Taker on Hms Arethusa before war broke out until torpedoed. He was due to come off watch at1800 hours when his relief said the mess deck was busy,so my father stayed for a while, as he was on his way to the mess deck the alarm was sounded he just arrived on deck as the torpedo stuck, he was with two other sailors all three received flash burns from the explosion one sailor jumped over the side never to be seen again. My father was put on another ship to be treated for the burns. Twenty years later when I was born he walked into a Doctor’s room to see a picture of the ship he was treated on and the Doctor was the same one who had treated him for his burns he was my father’s Gp until he retired. My father also lost all his kit and pictures , but the chance of fate my father wasn’t in the mess deck when the torpedoe struck .He always said to me “It didn’t matter how good you was or how brave ,you had to be lucky “.He was always proud of HMS Arethusa or Arrie as I think she was affectionately know .Of all the ships my father severed on board over fifteen years service . Arrie was the only one he talked about and the boys on board he never forgot, especially those from his mess deck that didn’t survive the torpedoe . My father George Fleming Passed away on 15th October 1996. Father and my best friend.

  5. My uncle Len Mansell was an able seaman stoker on the Arethusa and was killed on the 18 November 1942. Some years ago i put his picture and a brief outline of his family history on the memorial website for the 156 killed that day.I only know a little about Len from what my father told me but he died back in 1981.I do know Len was a keen boxer (light heavy) and I still possess a boxing medal from the navy dated 1939.(I also possess his service medals.)His first ship was the HMS Boedicia which was sunk in 1944. He left it after damages in post Dunkirk evacuations and then joined the Arethusa. If you have any comments /links from your own relatives records to my uncle i would be interested.Any photos would be of interest.Thanks.Paul

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