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Ms Willesden

COFEPOW member, Hilary Cunningham has prepared the article transcription for addition to our website from the original documents

The late R.D.Wilson MBE (David) was Secretary of the National Federation of the Far East Prisoners of War Clubs and Associations - NFFCA. He was in the Merchant Navy and on board "MS Willesden" when it was captured by the German raider "Thor". Later the crew were handed over to the Japanese and they spent their entire imprisonment in Japan. When David died, his son gave a box of his papers to Carol Cooper (COFEPOW Chair) which contained, amongst many other things, the crew list of the 'Willesden' and an article about their capture written by A. J. Joyce, also a Far East Prisoner War, and that of other ships and their fate.

Taken from the article “Guests of the Reich and the Emperor” by Arthur H Joyce, FEPOW Published in “The Seafarer” 1989

The Wellpark, Willesden and Kirkpool were sunk in the South Atlantic by the German raider Thor.

The Willesden left New York on 1st March and was well into the South Atlantic bound for Cape Town and Alexandria her cargo, like that of the Wellpark, supplies for the army in North Africa.

On 1st April 1942 the Thor’s aircraft took off at 0630 for another early morning reconnaissance flight and at 0805 sent a report that a steamer was 65 miles to the southwest of the Thor. The steamer was “of considerable size, about 6,000 tons, one funnel, two masts, funnel and bridge separate, speed about 12 knots, probably on a northwesterly course.” Course was altered to intercept the ship and at noon the aircraft took off again to obtain further information, this time reporting “steamer on a southeasterly course”. This caused some confusion on the bridge of the Thor as to whether they were dealing with the same steamer.

However, Captain Gumprich wrote in his war diary:“Decision – to approach at full speed. Regarding tactics for the offensive, I intend to advance like that of 30th March, but without a warning salvo.”

The diary continues:

1635 Smoke sighted. Aircraft sent out.

1721 I give orders to the aircraft to “detach aerial”

1724 Report on short wave “aerial detached”. As the distance is still too great for our artillery, I give the aircraft orders to attack. Two bombs are dropped.

1738 I have come within firing range. I give orders to turn to port and open fire.

1742 The enemy fires but its shots fall far too short

1752 Report from crows’ nest “enemy launching boats”. Cease fire ordered. Four hits observed. The steamer is listing, the fo’c’sle well alight.

1815 Turn towards steamer and launch a boat to pick up the men who are on a raft and in the water

1845 Dusk has fallen very quickly and the red glow of the blazing steamer can be seen in the distance. It is imperative to sink her as fast as possible. She is therefore sunk by torpedo. Next I take on board the rest of the crew who are coming alongside in boats, six of them wounded. As the ship must have been visible far over the horizon as a blazing torch, I set full speed to make off to the southwest.

(How well I remember, imprisoned below deck, the terrific vibration of the Thor going flat out)

On 3rd April another ship, the Norwegian Aust, bound as the others were for Alexandria with war supplies, was sunk using exactly the same tactics. There were seven British seamen in her crew, all of whom were rescued.

So, three ships had been sunk in five days. Not bad going!

A week later, after a night attack, the Kirkpool was sunk. The Thor spent two hours, at considerable risk to herself, using her searchlights to rescue 30 survivors of the crew of 46. The remainder were presumed drowned when the Kirkpool sank at 2235 on 10th April. It is interesting to note that the Thor’s captain recorded that “the enemy crew was excellently kitted out with life saving equipment. Good life rafts, splendid life jackets with electric torches and whistles. It would be a great advantage if the German navy was also equipped in this way.”

So now on board the Thor’s prison quarters were 107 British merchant seamen, some DEMS gunners and the mixed nationality crew from the Norwegian Aust. Treatment and conditions on board were as good as could be expected under the circumstances. We were well fed and allowed on deck for exercise for a very short period most days.

The Thor bristled with lookouts and there was even one on a swivel chair on the truck of the foremast. When the ship was in action the steel hatches leading to the prisoners’ quarters were bolted but we were assured that in the event of the ship being abandoned we would be released.

Armed guards were by the hatchway at all times. It was most nerve-racking listening to the Thor’s guns firing and not knowing if it was another cargo ship being attacked or the Thor defending herself against a British cruiser.

On 4th May the crews of the Wellpark, Willesden, Kirkpool and Aust were transferred to the German supply ship Regensburg. On 14th May the Regensburg made a further rendezvous with the Thor and a ship she had captured on 10th May, the old (built 1912) coal burning E and A liner Nankin, bound from Australia to Colombo. She had a large crew, mostly Lascars, and many passengers including women and children. Most of the passengers and some of the European crew were then transferred to the Regensburg.

Conditions on board were quite good and were allowed on deck nearly all day. Over the next few weeks the German crew was busy transferring some of the Nankin’s valuable cargo of wool and meat to the Regensburg. Because of overcrowding the women, children and the crew of the Kirkpool were transferred to yet another German ship, the Dresden, which proceeded to Yokohama on 31st May. Two weeks later the Regensburg also went to Yokohama when large flags with the Swastika emblem were hung over the sides and on deck. After arrival on 13th July all prisoners were transferred to the German mv Ramses.

While on the Ramses in Yokohama harbour the prisoners had the frustrating experience of seeing two large Japanese passenger ships being painted out as diplomatic repatriation ships, the letters DIPLOMAT in ten feet high letters being painted on their sides.

More merchant navy prisoners from the Lylepark, Patella and Gemstone arrived on the Ramses on 19th August, having been sunk by other German raiders. There was naturally much animated conversation between the various crews. However, on 25th August, 1942, nearly five months after their capture by the Thor, the crews of the Wellpark and Willesden, together with some men from the Aust and Nankin, were handed over to the Japanese and taken to the former coolie doss house at Kawasaki. This was their home for the next three years.

Other men went to a camp at Yawata, about 60 miles from Nagasaki while the Kirkpool’s crew, who had arrived earlier on the Dresden, went to a former Catholic convent at Fukushima. So the merchant navy men were well and truly scattered throughout Japan.

Existence in all the Japanese camps was pretty tough and quite a few men succumbed under the hardships. All POW’s regardless of rank, had to go out to work in coal mines, steel works, railway sidings and factories. Food was very poor, mainly rice and vegetable soup with sometimes a few fish heads thrown in. Life over the next three years was a steady routine of going out to work at 7 am, a break for lunch at mid-day and back to camp around 6 pm.

Medical facilities were practically non-existent. Fleas, together with bed bugs in the straw mattresses, were quite a problem in the summer months. Sleep was impossible when they swarmed out in their hundreds. Lice were also present and most POW’s kept their heads shaved.

As the war progressed food became more scarce and when the American air raids started in 1945 the population and the guards became very hostile. Unfortunately some of our men were killed as the intensity of the raids increased. At times the sky was almost covered with hundreds of B29 bombers.

When the war in Japan ended most of the merchant navy men were taken to a transit camp in Manila by the British aircraft carrier HMS Speaker. Eventually they returned home via Singapore on the Empress of Australia. Others came back via the USA and then across the Atlantic in style on various liners.

This small group of British merchant seamen had the unique experience of being prisoners of both the Germans and the Japanese during WW2. Many of them bear to this day the mental and physical scars of their ordeal.

Author’s note: the Merchant Navy suffered the highest percentage of fatalities of any of the services during the war: Merchant Navy 16%; Royal Air Force 9.5%; Royal Navy 9% and the Army 6%.

A Nominal list of officers and men of the MS WILLESDEN Mercantile Marine P.O.W's

To review this list see below link

Images of Original Notes