One of The Second World War’s Best Kept Secrets

The headlines rang out with the news:  “Queen Mary Cut Cruiser in Two. Disaster that was Kept Secret.” (Dundee Courier) and “Queen Mary Sank a British Cruiser.  Disaster While Evading U-Boat” (Daily Record).  It was Friday 18 May 1945.  Joseph and Mary Thomas had been wondering for 3 years exactly how and where their youngest child, Stanley Mather Thomas had died.  They had received the news in 1942 that their 22-year-old son was missing ‘at sea’ presumed dead. The story of what happened to Joseph and the other 338 British sailors who died in October 1942 was one of World War Two’s best kept secrets.

Stanley Mather Thomas was born on June 1, 1920 in New Silksworth, Sunderland, County Durham.  He was the youngest of four children born to Joseph and Mary (Mather) Thomas.  Stanley joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Force, a reserve force of the Navy called up during war time operations.  At the time of his death in 1942 his rank was ‘Able Seaman’ indicating he had at least 2 years’ experience at sea.

StanleyMThomas1920_Navyrecord_snip
UK, British Army and Navy Birth, Marriage and Death Records, 1730-1960.  Thomas, Stanley Mather, ancestry.com. Note:  the 2. refers to ‘Missing – death on War Service presumed

On October 2, 1942 Stanley was on board the HMS Curacao in the coastal waters north of Ireland. The ship had been ordered to provide an escort service to the 81,000 ton ocean liner, the Queen Mary.  The Queen Mary, sailing from New York across the Atlantic, was carrying some 10,000 U.S. troops.  Converted from a luxury ocean liner and painted battleship grey she was one of the fastest and largest troop ships in the world.

StanleyMThomas1920_ships
“World War II Today – ww2today.com – edited by Martin Cherrett.  Photos in public domain

In order to deter U-boats and German aircraft the Queen Mary undertook a zig-zag pattern moving across the ocean.  The HMS Curacao was to provide anti-aircraft cover for the other ship and in order to do so sailed to within 200 yards of the larger, faster ship.  Historical newspaper accounts differ somewhat to witness accounts of what exactly happened next.  In 1945 newspaper accounts reported that a U-boat had been spotted which caused the HMS Curacao to change course in pursuit and in doing so put themselves in the path of the Queen Mary.

StanleyMThomas1920_newspaper_snipCuracoa
Dundee Courier, Friday 18 May 1945 via Britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk

Witnesses to the accident reported that the HMS Curacao was traveling far too close to the Queen Mary but do not mention the sighting of a U-boat.

“We could see our escort zig-zagging in front of us – it was common for the ships and cruisers to zig-zag to confuse the U-boats. In this particular case however the escort was very, very close to us.  I said to my mate “You know she’s zig-zigging all over the place in front of us, I’m sure we’re going to hit her.” And sure enough, the Queen Mary sliced the cruiser in two like a piece of butter, straight through the six-inch armoured plating.”  — Alfred Johnson, eye-witness, BBC: “HMS Curacao Tragedy”  (Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/13/a2733013.shtml

“It all happened during the watch changes, the “Curacao” was doing a zig jag course in the fare of Q.M: and naturally losing her distance and it was during one of her sweeps across the bows of Q.M that she was cut in two halves. The Q.M: went throu her like a knife throu butter, to this day I wonder what the bridge personnel and lookouts of both ships were doing not to notice the nearness of each other.” – Able Seaman on watch Enoch Foster aboard HMS Bramham.  (Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/28/a4146428.shtml)

The HMS Bramham was assigned to escort convoys from the North sea into home port in Ireland.  As described above several sailors witnessed the accident from the bow of the HMS Bramham.  The Bramham arrived at the spot it had last seen the Caracao only to find a tragic scene.

Able Seaman on Watch Enoch Foster, on board the Bramham:

“I immediately contacted the bridge and reported “Curacao” had disappeared, from then on it was panic, our ship turned about, asdis lamps flashing messages, we past the Queen Mary she was still making for homeport like a bad horse, we arrived at the last position where I had seen “Curacao” what a terrible sight it was, the sea was covered in oil, dirty and black with hundreds of heads with oily faces and panicky white eyes, mouths opening and closing like fish, some shouting for their mothers and help, others just chocking with fuel oil in their lungs and dying from drowning, all good British lads, bobbing up and down. We picked as many as we could 97 out of 650 the rest perished. On our way back to Ireland 5 out of the 97 we had saved from the sea died on board due to the fuel in their guts, all that destruction in the time it takes to light a cigarette”  (Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/28/a4146428.shtml)

Captain Charles Illingworth of the Queen Mary was under strict orders to not stop for anything and the Queen Mary continued on to Ireland, sustaining a damaged bow.  The Curacao sank in about five minutes. Approximately 101 survivors were rescued some hours later by HMS Bramham.   Witnesses to the event were sworn to secrecy and details were kept very quiet. The loss of any ship due to war time activity was not reported publicly so as to keep the Germans unaware.  Three years after the accident, in 1945, newspapers began to publish the first accounts of the collision.

Immortalized on the Chatham Naval Memorial in Kent, England are the names of the 338 men who lost their lives that day on the HMS Curacao, among them is that of Stanley Mather Thomas, my first cousin twice-removed.  The wording on the memorial is particularly poignant:

“The names of over 18,500 men and women are recorded on this memorial;  of these some 8,500 died during the First World War and 10,000 during the Second World War. All were buried or lost at sea or were otherwise denied, by the fortunes of war, a known and honoured grave”

ChathamNavalMemorial2
Chatham Naval Memorial, Kent England

The wreck of the HMS Curacao is today designated a “protected place”.   In 2015 a Scottish documentary team, working with the National Geographic Channel produced a series titled ‘Deep Wreck Mysteries’.  One of the episodes explores the story of the collision of the Queen Mary and the Curacao.    A portion of that episode, along with witness interviews from those on board both the Queen Mary and HMS Curacao, can be seen here.

 

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