As a young child I can remember opening my father’s closet and seeing a very fancy looking sword hanging in there. I don’t think I knew whose it was until I was older and learned it belonged to my mother’s father. My grandfather, Harold James Davis, died about 2 years before I was born. The one thing I remember being told about him was that he was a military man through and through. Tough, no-nonsense and a strict disciplinarian. However, I do think he had a soft spot as my older brothers’ remember Sundays when he would give them money for an ice cream … if they had finished all their dinner.
But back to that sword. Some time ago I was looking through photographs of my grandfather and noticed that sword at his side in his wedding photograph. Just barely peeking out but it immediately reminded me that I had no photographs of the actual sword. My mother still has it in her home in South Africa and I immediately asked her for photographs of it so I could document it in my files.
Here is the wedding photograph of my grandparents, Harold James Davis and Hazel Jane Keown on their wedding day, 19 June 1937 in Johannesburg, South Africa.1 It’s a little difficult to see as the resolution isn’t great but the yellow circle shows the hilt of the sword at his side, just near the hand of his wife as she holds onto his arm. You can also see the baldric (my new word of the day: a baldric is a belt worn over one shoulder that is typically used to carry a weapon (usually a sword) or other implement such as a bugle or drum.)2
There are no other photos of my grandfather wearing that sword. Used only for formal ceremonies, I imagine that there weren’t many of those that came up. He spent many years in the military, serving part-time at first in the Imperial Light Horse Regiment, then entering the South African Defense Force full-time during World War 2. He served in Egypt with the Allied Forces in the North African Campaign. He was honorably discharged in 1947 due to the partial demobilization of his unit.3 Family heirlooms have stories to tell. How have you used them in telling the stories of your ancestors?
Harold James Davis and Hazel Jane Keown wedding photograph, 1937; digital copy in Sue McNelly collection, Phoenix, Arizona. Original photograph in possession of Estelle Davis Thomas, South Africa. ↩
Harold James Davis military papers, compilation of enlistment and service records; privately held by Sue McNelly [address for private use], Phoenix, Arizona, 2018. This collection includes records from the S.A. Defense Force, unit service timelines, enlistment and discharge papers. ↩
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.
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.
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.
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”
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.
This post was written in 2016 but fits the theme for the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge from Amy Johnson Crow. Week 12 prompt: Misfortune
On the night of April 25, 1945 LAC (Leading Aircraftsman) Thomas was involved with the last operational mission for Bomber Command No. 35 Squadron based at R.A.F. Graveley in Huntingdonshire, England. This last mission would provide tons of vitally needed medical supplies to the Allied men on the ground in Germany and occupied France prisoner of war hospitals. Lancaster bombers were fitted with specially adapted medical supply baskets which were dropped by parachute behind enemy lines. LAC Thomas, ground crew at RAF Graveley, was involved in the adaptation of the baskets as is indicated by the letter below, sent from the Group Captain Commanding the R.A.F at Graveley to the Station Armament Officer and on which LAC Thomas’ name and military number is written by hand. The copy of the letter is poor but a transcription is below.
From: – Royal Air Force, GRAVELEY, Huntingdonshire. LAC Thomas (896) To: – Station Armament Officer
Date: – 27th April, 1945
Ref: – GY/s.933/P.1
MEDICAL SUPPLY BASKETS
The ingenuity and effort put forth by your section in adapting the Medical supply baskets for dropping by No. 35 Squadron on the night of 25th April, has earned glowing praise from higher places.
Your section will no doubt be gratified to know that all the supply Baskets were accurately delivered to a prisoner of War Hospital housing British and American aircrew where the death rate had been in the region of eight to ten per day, due to shortage of medical supplies. This position is now relieved and I am sure your section will consider that fact just reward for their efforts.
Would you please pass this information to the personnel concerned, along with my thanks for furthering Graveley’s reputation for reliability, ingenuity and initiative.
G.F. Grant (Sgd)
Group Captain Commanding
Royal Air Force, GRAVELEY. Hunts.
Not every man saw armed combat but many behind the scenes contributed just as much to the war effort. The men and women of R.A.F. Graveley No. 35 Squadron participated in over 1000 bomber raids with many losses of life. A memorial stained glass window of the Parish Church of All Saints in Offord Cluny, Huntingdonshire serves to honor the memory of all the airmen and airwomen who served with 35 Squadron at Graveley.
As part of this month’s theme for the Genealogy Blog Party ‘The Strong Will Survive!’ I am highlighting my Grandfather as someone I believe was strong both emotionally and physically. He survived not only a war but a situation at home, happening at the same time, which was incredibly emotionally stressful for him. Read on and see why I think he qualifies as a man of great courage and integrity.
I’ve always been fascinated with this postcard that my Grandfather, Harold James Davis, had made in Cairo, Egypt. He never sent it (there is no writing on the back) but from what we can gather brought it home to South Africa to give to his only daughter.
Harold James Davis (1908-1967) was stationed in Egypt with the 1st Hygiene Company of the South African Medical Corp from November 1941 to April 1944 and transferred to the United Defense Force Admin HQ in Cairo, Egypt from March 1944 to November 1944. Obviously he carried with him a photograph of the young daughter he had left behind in South Africa, enabling him to have the postcard made.
It was during this time serving in Egypt that my grandfather would have heard that his wife, my grandmother, Hazel Jane Keown, had abandoned their young daughter. Perhaps tired of life as the wife of a military man (Harold had been an Army man since July of 1929) Hazel Jane Keown had left their 4-year-old daughter and disappeared. Harold returned to South Africa in November 1944 where he sued for divorce and sole custody of his daughter.
It must have been difficult to be in the middle of a war and to be worrying about his young daughter. I like to think that the photograph of her he carried, and the postcard he had made, helped him to feel closer to her.