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|The Sinking of the Marnix van Sint Aldegonde 6 November 1943
by Joe Kirwan
|Editor's note: Joe Kirwan (1910- ) was a brother of two Dukies, Pat and Dan Kirwan. The father of the Kirwan boys, a sergeant major in the Rifle Brigade, was killed at the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915. Joe was commissioned in the Second World War and served in the far east. He received his MA in philosophy, politics and economics at St. Catherine's College, Oxford, and later became the Principal of Plater College, Oxford, from 1962 to 1977. This is an account of the sinking of the Marnix van Sint in the Mediterranean in 1943 when Major Kirwan of the Welch Regiment commanded a draft of men bound for India. Joe was not a Dukie himself, but his account and connection with the school justify its being posted here as of interest to Dukies.
It was on 23 October that I boarded the Marnix, (a Dutch East Indiaman) bound for Bombay. Under command I had 120 men of the Welch Regiment plus a company sergeant major and two sergeants. On board, the ship's adjutant seconded to me six subaltern officers, one very good sapper who had already seen service in the Norwegian campaign, two very idle, opinionated and insubordinate sapper second lieutenants, and three infantry subalterns who did what they had to do and otherwise wisely kept out of the way. What each of them had to do was sleep one night in seven on a camp bed outside the mess deck where the draft lived, ate and slept, so as to be at hand should there be immediate need (or an officer's presence, necessary, for instance, for a sinking.
From Liverpool the ship sailed in convoy north up the Irish Sea and then northabout into the Atlantic. Off Northern Ireland we joined an American convoy out of Glasgow bound for the Italian theatre. The united convoys sailed south-west about half way to America, then turned south to about the latitude of the Azores, then north-east to the Strait of Gibraltar. The weather had been good: autumn sunshine with only a moderate sea, and just sufficiently rough to put me off smoking cigarettes for long enough to cure me of the addiction - one of the benefits of army service and, like much else in the army, free.
We passed Gibraltar in the fine and peaceful evening of 5 November, but when we looked towards the land we said to each other: 'Now Jerry knows where we are.' He did.
All that night and the next day we cruised in convoy along the North African coast, clearly visible as day came. All day there was a fighter aircraft overhead, relieved every fifteen minutes or so. It was a comforting sight, but at 5.45, with the sun still high in the sky, the last plane waggled its wings and the pilot went off to his tea. There was no relief, aircraft, and at 5.55, just as it got dusk, the Germans arrived.
But before then I had to attend to a little Unexpected business: part of the work of a draft commander if not quite in the ordinary line of duty: not every officer has a Cardiff street bookmaker and his runner in the draft under his command.
About the time the last Spitfire went home for tea I went down to my cabin to change for dinner. At that stage in the war every officer commanding a draft had a single cabin all to himself, and all officers changed into service dress - brass buttons and barathea cloth - before going to old first class saloon for dinner served by the old East India line stewards and accompanied by officers of the women's services, also with their brass buttons and (how wonderful!) skirts.
Before I had time to take off my battle-dress blouse the sergeant-major appeared.
'Jones thirty-five wishes to see you, sir.'
In my command there were fifteen men called Jones who had to be distinguished by the last two figures of their regimental number. Jones was asked to come in.
'Is this service or personal?' I asked.
'Personal, sir,' so I asked the sergeant-major to leave.
'What is it?'
'It's this, sir,' said he, reaching into his blouse and drawing out a very large bundle of banknotes.
'How much is it?'
'Three hundred and fifty pounds, sir.' Multiply that by forty and you nearly enough get today's value.
Now, Jones was the Cardiff bookmaker, and he had been running a crown and anchor board, a gaming device forbidden by the code of military discipline. So it was my duty to charge Jones and bring him the next morning before the commandant on board . . . but could I prove the charge? No soldier had complained; none would give evidence to support the charge and who could prove that Jones 35 had not come on board with the money and was now doing the prudent thing by asking his officer to take care of it? His officer decided to do just that, and the bundle was transferred from his blouse to mine. I told him that I could not immediately put it into the ship's strong box since the adjutant had now gone to his cabin to change, but it would be safe with me for the night.
Exit Jones 35. Enter the sergeant-major.
'Williams twenty-seven to see you, sir.'
Enter Williams who had been Jones's runner in days of peace. I should explain that in those days a street bookmaker lurked at a street corner, and as he took bets from the punters, his runner took them to a legal bookmaker who had a proper office.
The same questions: the business was personal, the sergeant-major withdrew, the hand reached into the battle-dress blouse, and the bundle of notes, smaller this time, emerged. It was Williams's percentage for keeping an eye open for inquisitive corporals and sergeants, who for the most part turned a blind eye as long as good order, if not military discipline, prevailed. So all that Williams 27 could offer for my safe keeping was a hundred and forty pounds. That went into the other side of my blouse.
So there I stood, with four hundred and ninety pounds puffing out my chest, when the attack alarm went.
I got down to the mess-deck to find all in good order. The sergeant-major reported all present; my assistant officers were at their posts, one at the end of each mess table. My post was at the rear end of the mess-deck where a door gave (access) onto a main staircase. All were quiet. Meanwhile there was considerable banging going on above, and the ship was steering an erratic course at very high speed.
I sent back orders to the sapper officer on deck to get the life rafts overboard, making sure they were firmly tied to the guardrails. I then told each officer in turn to take the men of his mess table on deck and to form up quietly. That was done in admirable order, and then I also left.
On deck all was in order. The attack was over. Of the convoy there was only an American troopship to be seen besides our own.
She also had been hit and was heavy in the water. Two American destroyers had been left with us. Of the remainder of the convoy there was no sign. I later learned that another American destroyer had been sunk with all hands; the attack had been well timed, fitting in nicely with the RAF tea. There were no German losses that we were aware of. The sergeant-major called the roll. All were present apart from one man in the sick bay.
I called out to Jones 35 and Williams 27: 'I've still got your money. Do you want it now?'
'No, sir. You keep it. We'll see you don't sink.' That sounded like a good guarantee: I kept their money.
Meanwhile all was quiet. It had begun to rain. I was not bothered because my training in naval architecture told me there was, no great danger indeed virtually none of an early sinking. The ship had been hit in the engine room, hence the lurch to starboard, the silencing of the engines and the dousing of the lights. There was only the good sapper officer on deck: the others had gone I knew not where. I suppose they reckoned they had done their job. I gave no thought to it at the time; they were not needed anyway.
Next morning dawned bright and clear, with much of interest to watch as British and American destroyers tried to take the two stricken ships in tow and get them to port or, at worst, to a grounding: we could see the land.
Attempts to rescue the two ships failed. Had the naval vessels concentrated on saving one troopship they might have had a success, but one ship was British and the other American, and it may be that fear of offending one or the other led them to attempt what proved to be the impossible.
At about midday word was brought to me that I should get my men off the ship. It would remain afloat until the evening at least, but getting us off in the night might not be pleasant. American destroyers sent boats to take us off.
All went well. At last only my good sapper and myself remained. I exercised my prerogative as senior and sent him down the ladder first then, feeling no end of a hero, I also abandoned ship.
My arrival on an American destroyer was less dignified. A 40,000 ton liner has a vastly different motion from that of a destroyer: the one rocked gently, the other heaved. Hardly had I stepped onto the destroyer than I heaved too all over a beautifully cleaned deck. The people were very nice about it: while one man fetched a bucket and mop, another took me to the commander's steward who put me to bed in the commander's own cabin. There I slept soundly, to be awakened at six that evening with the news that the Marnix had sunk.
We were put ashore in Algeria. Next morning I returned to Jones and Williams the money they had entrusted to me, advising them to send it to their wives. 'This,' I told them 'is an Arab country.'
They may have done as I advised; I know only that when, some three weeks later as we were marching down to the harbour to board a naval vessel, those two were in the front rank behind me.
'How did it go, Dai?' asked the runner.
'Grand replied the bookie. 'Cleaned out the camp. Even won the crown and anchor board.'
'We docked at Bombay. Again the sergeant-major brought these two before me.
'Sir,' the said, 'will you give us a sub? The navy has cleaned us out.'