Hundreds remember the seafarers lost in war at Merchant Navy Day at Tower Hill
PUBLISHED: 10:59 05 September 2016 | UPDATED: 17:59 07 September 2016
Hundreds turned out for the Merchant Navy annual remembrance at the Tower Hill for the civilian seafarers who died in both world wars and those lost at sea—and the plucky ferry captain who rammed a German U-boat rather than be captured on the High Seas.
Yesterday’s remembrance in Trinity Square opposite the Tower of London was the 17th officially recognised annual event, held on the Sunday following Merchant Navy Day which fell on Saturday this year—the day the Second World War broke out in 1939.
The memorial bears the names of 35,842 seafarers from both world wars and the Falklands war for whom there is “no grave but the sea”.
MP Jim Fitzpatrick, whose Poplar & Limehouse constituency includes Tower Hill, brought a message from Prime Minister Theresa May when he addressed the remembrance service.
“The Merchant seafarers risked their lives keeping Britain supplied through two world wars,” he said. “It is important to remember their sacrifice.
“I am delivering a message from the Prime Minister—it’s good that the Merchant Navy is finally being recognised.”
This year was the centenary of the North Sea ferry captain Charles Wyatt being captured on the High Seas by the German navy in 1916 and shot by a firing squad in revenge for the humiliating ramming of a U-boat the year before.
His execution led to worldwide outrage. His body was exhumed after the war and given a hero’s funeral service in St Paul’s Cathedral in 1919, before his coffin was put on a special train at Liverpool Street and taken to his native Harwich for reburial.
Among Capt Wyatt’s relatives at yesterday’s remembrance was his nephew Leslie Wyatt, now 92, who said: “Three or four German destroyers not showing any lights surrounded his ferry at night on the High Seas—that was out of order. He was a marked man to the Germans.
“My dad had cuttings from all over the world protesting against him being shot.
“I think I would have done the same as him, ramming that U-boat—anyone would. We were at war. If you’re the captain you don’t want to lose your ship.”
Among the oldest guests taking part in yesterday’s service was 99-year-old Lady Alma Kent, who was a Queen Alexander nurse stationed in Singapore when the Japanese invaded in 1941.
She went on the run in the Bush—but was soon captured.
“I was a prisoner five years—they were so cruel to us,” she told the East London Advertiser.
“I was beaten every day. I have a rod in my spine, plates in my head, knees and ankles from all the beatings.
“Every time you walked by, the guards would bayonet you or hit you with a gun. I got broken bones just being a prisoner.”
But a defiant Alma, incredibly, lived to tell the tale.
“Every time they hit you they said you wouldn’t live long,” she added. “But I bloody did!
“I told them I’d live to 100—they just laughed and said I wouldn’t even see the night out. But the next day I was there—and here I am and I’ll be 100 next birthday.”
Lady Alma, who lives today in north London, has nine children, 38 grandchildren, 14 great-grandchildren, two great, great-grandchildren—and one great, great, great-grandchild!
“That’s no thanks to the Japs,” she tells you. “I can never forgive them—they chopped people’s heads off in front of us. I can’t ever forget.”
The crowds observed a two minutes’ silence, before a Royal Navy detachment from HMS President land base at Wapping led the procession, with standard bearers from naval, seafaring and Armed Services organisations.
Local politicians included Tower Hamlets Tory Opposition Leader Peter Golds and the Council Speaker Abdul Mukit, as well as mayors from across London and many parts of the country.
But the dangers of the High Seas do not pass into history, even decades since the two world wars, the gathering heard.
Canon Ken Peters, from the Mission to Seafarers, spoke of “those in the Merchant Navy to this day who transit high risk areas subject to pirate attack and armed robbery—we pray for their safe return to their homes”.
The procession was followed by the Royal Marine Band which also gave a military precision march at Trinity Green, in sight of the historic Tower of London.
Representatives also came from the shipping industry, Commonwealth High Commissions, embassies, Trinity House light-houses, maritime organisations and seafarers’ charities.
Standard bearers were from the Merchant Navy Association, Royal Fleet Auxiliary Association, Royal Naval Association, Royal British Legion, Royal National Lifeboat Institution and the Sea Cadets.
The multi-faith service was led by Canon Ken Peters from the Mission of Seafarers, The Rev Bertrand Olivier from nearby All Hallows-by-the-Tower where a reception was held for the veterans afterwards, The Rev Malcolm Weiseman who is President of the Allied Airforces Chief of Chaplains committee and Ron Maddox of the Buddhist Society.
Wreaths were laid, followed by planting 400 miniature Red Ensigns to form a ‘Sea of Remembrance’ in front of the memorial.