Voyage Of Discovery

SS City Of Dieppe

SS City Of Dieppe (Allan C Green)

Like many family historians a point was reached in my research where the tree was reasonably complete (apart from a couple of glaring exceptions) and my interest turned to discovering more about the people’s lives, not just the BMDs. Where better to start than with my father who died in 1973, well before I had any interest in family history and also sadly before I had thought to talk at length with him about his service in the Merchant Navy during World War II.

I am lucky enough to still have his box. This wooden box has a sliding lid and is the size of a large square cake tin. It contains various mementos collected during his life, including his seaman’s Book of Continuous Certificate of Discharge (BCCD), a handful of photos, a Christmas 1939 telegram from The King, a couple of newspaper cuttings, a letter to my mother at the end of the war and a few other odds and ends.

To go with this I have a few half-remembered things that he had told the family of his life at sea :- training in gunnery on HMS President and HMS Chrysanthemum on the Thames in London; supplying the British Fleet in the Pacific; going through the Panama Canal; breaking ice from the ship’s superstructure with an axe off Newfoundland; tracking down his lost father in Vancouver; losing shipmates to U-boat torpedoes.

As a first task I set about building a time line from September 1939 to September 1945, recording everything that was at hand or was thought to be known. In this the BCCD was the essential first building block, indeed it proved to be the foundation for all that followed. This record, carried by all merchant seamen, shows each vessel on which they serve, together with the ports of signing on and off. There is also a one or two word description of the voyage. Much later, I was to discover that similar brief details are held at TNA in the Fifth Seamen’s Register (BT 382). (At the foot of the page are many of the links used in this research.)

The timeline was expanded by carefully examining each of the mementos from the box and trying to assign a likely date and place. Two of the simpler items illustrate the point. First, a menu card from SS City of Dieppe celebrating the day that Japan finally surrendered confirmed he was at sea somewhere in the Pacific theatre in August 1945. And second, a slip of newspaper showing my father sitting in a New York hospital bed above the caption ‘Stanley Wiseman, wounded able seaman from Greenock, recuperating at Long Island College Hospital. It was relatively simple to provisionally date this event since his BCCD showed that there was just one solitary occasion on which he had signed off a ship in New York, and that was 23rd April 1943.

Some time during this process of trying to track the vessels and their voyages through mainly internet sources, I discovered that WWII merchant seamen were entitled to medals according to their service and theatre of war, just as members of the armed forces were. I felt sure that my father had no such medals, since I had never seen or heard of them. Indeed, up to that moment I had the impression that merchant seamen had no medal entitlement. It was all the more astonishing to find a little later that any medals to which my father might have been entitled could still be claimed by his children, 62 years after they would normally have been awarded. After a family consultation with my sister in Maryland USA it was agreed that if possible we should go ahead and try and establish his medal entitlement.

I learned from the Marine and Coastguard Agency (MCA) that to have such a claim considered they would need proof of my father’s dates of service on each vessel from the seamen’s register plus details of each voyage that he served on. Each voyage! My heart sank. The details shown in the BCCD were as brief as ‘Foreign’ and ‘OHMS’. But help was at hand. The MCA pointed me to TNA and BT 389. This is a massive card index of each shipping movement from 1939 to 1946. These cards are stored in heavy boxes, thousands of cards to a box, all laced together with treasury tags. They are very difficult to handle and to photograph. Some ships changed their names over the years and tracking them can be difficult. But they do hold the vital information needed plus a good deal more in the way of convoy numbers and small incidents such as breakdowns and local emergencies. Or at least, that was the theory.

After many months of part time research I was left with a near completed time line that had only two gaps. The first was a two day voyage from Liverpool to Cardiff on the ‘Kaituna’ in September 1943 which was insignificant in the overall scheme. The second was far more important. The shipping movement card for the City of Dieppe at TNA had no entries on it beyond September 1943. That left two whole years unaccounted for, apart from a loose certificate of discharge from the same ship which showed the voyage as ‘OHMS’. That and the menu card from the celebration meal on 14th August 1945 ‘at sea with the British Pacific Fleet Train’.

The menu card was the real clue. I investigated all that I could find about The British Pacific Fleet Train. It was made up of what today might be called Royal Fleet Auxiliaries, supply ships ferrying food, fuel and ammunition to the Royal Navy ships in action right across the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Nowhere were supply lines more stretched than across the vast expanse of the Pacific and merchant ships were requisitioned by the government to keep these vital supply lines alive. For the researcher this can represent quite a formidable hurdle, for some of the records kept for merchant ships ceased to be kept once they took up military duties. But the Royal Navy viewed them as merchant ships and took no interest in recording their movements.

It is always worth revisiting web sites that have been found useful in the past. From both convoyweb.org.uk and warsailors.com much information had been gleaned for the vessels in the period 1939 to 1943. Such mines of information are a tribute to those who maintain them and a return visit can sometimes find something overlooked before or an extra set of data that has relevance. So it was that I gained the first solid evidence of the City of Dieppe leaving Liverpool on the 15th October 1943, joining convoy KMF 25 a day later. The KMF series of convoy records had been added to the information available since last I had searched. The City of Dieppe was bound for Suez through the hazardous Mediterranean and then to Aden, Colombo and beyond. This was a start, but little more.

Once again a visit to TNA came up with a vital record that shed light on the City of Dieppe and its travels. The original ship’s papers, including the log and the seamen’s signing-on agreements, are held at TNA, together with hundreds of others under BT 380. It was an emotional moment when I turned the page to see my father’s signature on the ship’s papers where he signed on in 1943 and there, opposite, exactly two years to the day later, where he signed off on 5th October 1945 at Hong Kong. The ship’s log showed that he had spent the greater part of that time in and out of port in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Australia and somewhere called Manus. Later I discovered that this was an island supply depot set up by the US Navy on the island of Manus north of Papua New Guinea.

All that information was good for my research and along the way I read and learnt a great deal more about life in the British Pacific Fleet Train. But none of it was the evidence that MCA required to consider his medal entitlement. In reply to my letter explaining the difficulty the ever helpful staff at MCA suggested that I search the ships voyage cards held at the Guildhall Library in London. These are paper records once kept by Lloyds Register of Shipping and are an alternative ‘official’ record to the shipping movement cards held at TNA. An enquiry revealed that there was indeed a record for the City of Dieppe for 1943 to 1945. A modest fee produced a copy of this record within days. With a little careful work and interpretation of the abbreviated notes, the timeline was finally complete.

After more than a year’s work the record of my father’s war service had sprung to life, and along the way I had found the bare facts of his days at sea and the ports that he spent his shore leave. But I also discovered so much more. Through what seemed at the time like endless searching of the web and downloading this report or that photograph I have learned the details of many of the convoys that he sailed with, the ships that escorted them, the attacks repulsed and the ships lost, even the weather conditions at the time. I have come to understand more deeply the largely unsung and quiet bravery of the tens of thousands of merchant seamen who kept Britain supplied through the Battle of the Atlantic and kept British and Allied fighting ships fed and fuelled across the world. Much has been rightly made of the huge contribution made by American ships and merchant sailors, but I discovered that the support and sacrifices made by Canadians were also great and are often overlooked.

Sadder details were also brought in to focus. The ‘Calchas’, sunk by U107 off the Cape Verde Islands 21st April 1941, was on the homeward leg of a round trip from Liverpool to Sydney and back. My father sailed on the ‘Calchas’ on that voyage and would also have been lost had he not been hospitalised in Australia with appendicitis. Noted too was the loss of the ‘Pacific Pioneer’, torpedoed off Nova Scotia 29th July 1942 taking many more of my father’s friends to their death. ‘Pacific Pioneer’ was the first vessel that he served on in 1939. (But see notes 1 & 2 below.)

In November 2007 the final 40 page dossier of all relevant information was sent to MCA. One month later it was with a great deal of satisfaction and not a little pride that I received on behalf of R29127 Stanley Wilson Wiseman his 1939-45 War Medal, 1939-45 Star, The Atlantic Star, The Pacific Star and Burma Clasp. Even without the medals it had been a hugely rewarding voyage of discovery.

A shorter version of this article was first published in Your Family Tree magazine.
If you have any questions or additional information regarding any part of this article then please get in touch There is other unpublished material but little that is likely to assist another researcher. DJW
Note 1. Thanks to Ian Watson whose father served on Pacific Pioneer, who tells me that the whole crew were rescued by HMCS Calgary, something of which my father was unaware.
Note 2. Thanks to wrecksite.eu I subsequently learned that not all hands were lost on the Calchas, although many were.

Recent Posts

A Reading Year: 2021

The end of the year is almost upon us and looking back over 2021 I’m surprised to find I’ve read more books this year than for several years. Were they better books, faster reads? Surely not, more likely I was more motivated to read, and found – or made – better reading space in my life. Whatever the reason, I’ve been rewarded by rich and varied reading in the last 12 months, including more non-fiction than I’ve enjoyed for a long time.

Fiction

TheManNextDoorThe Man Next Door by Britt Holmström (1998)

I’m always in awe of an author who can write with such mastery in a language other than the one they were born into. As a first novel written in English, this is outstanding. But it is not only the accomplishment that makes it worth reading: it is a good story well told, full of that particularly dark Scandinavian foreboding. It’s also a study of mental instability, full of that awful tension that comes with watching someone teeter on the edge of the abyss. Find a copy and read it.

PontoonPontoon by Garrison Keillor (2007)

This was a return to the once-familiar. Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon world has provided many happy hours of reading, now Pontoon joins that collection. Pontoon is a thoroughly enjoyable stay in Keillor’s fictional Minnesota town, always with a wry and acutely observed take on small-town America. If the series is new to you, don’t worry, you can pretty well dive in anywhere and lose nothing. Never laugh-out-loud for me, more a continuous smile, which is a very good recommendation. One day I’ll go back to Minnesota for more.

InTheShadowOfAgathaChristieIn The Shadow of Agatha Christie edited by Leslie S Klinger (2018)

This is a collection of crime/mystery short stories by female writers, who for the most part have disappeared from the history of the genre. The stories read today as curiosities, as momentary insights into what might have entertained Victorian readers. These tales have not aged well (as the likes of Sherlock Holmes have) and offer little to the modern reader beyond academic interest. Even without the incomparable Agatha Christie these authors and their work would likely have been long forgotten.

NikolskiNikolski by Nicolas Dickner (2005)

Did this lose something in translation? Is it a particularly French-Canadian take on life? Whatever the reason, this story spluttered like a misfiring engine, now running smoothly only to falter at critical moments, despite having an interesting premise (and so far as can be told, being well translated). Mine must be a minority view since it was well enough received to win a prestigious award. Which only goes to show that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or in this case, the reader. It’s tempting to say don’t take my word for it, try it and make up your own mind, it does, after all, come highly recommended.

WarlightWarlight by Michael Ondaatje (2018)

An outstanding story told by a master among writers. It resonates all the more since it describes some of the postwar landscapes of London that were still recognisable to me in my youth. The characters of Warlight are not immediately familiar, and yet in a short time they become so. The reader quickly understands Nathaniel and his family, even though they’re highly unusual, all shaped and disfigured by their experiences of war and each other. The reader suspects that even without the war this family would have had another, similar, fractured history to relate.

TheWildAsssSkinThe Wild Ass’s Skin by Honoré de Balzac

Picked up on a whim motivated by a moment of perceived self-improvement, this proved to be a difficult read, but ultimately worthwhile. It is surely a good thing to stretch your reading limits, and this certainly does. What does ‘well read’ really mean? Many would claim to be so, yet most of us have glaring gaps in our reading, particularly among the classics. This is a moral tale of excess in France of the 1830s, and full of melodrama. For today’s reader the form is too wordy, too laboured in making its points, yet it still manages to evoke sympathy for the main protagonist. Balzac was once ‘one of worlds’ greatest novelists’: of his time, perhaps.

TheBellJarThe Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963)

An astonishing novel, even half a century after it was written. This is an intense, sometimes excruciatingly raw account of a young woman’s life of pressured excellence. She’s a top student, fêted and acclaimed, yet that very success and expectation constrains her and leads to mental instability. Her breakdowns surely reflect the author’s own struggles, sometimes in agonising detail. This was purchased in order to plug another perceived gap in my ‘well-read’ credentials. It turned out to be so much more.
Superb. Read it.

ThePianoTeacher2The Piano Teacher by Janice Y K Lee (2008)

Prior to reading The Piano Teacher I knew nothing of Hong Kong’s story in World War 2 or in the years immediately following. This may be fiction but it certainly has the cold ring of truth about it. Beautifully written and rich in fully rounded characters, this is a story of unexpected love, deep hate, of quiet heroes and barbaric cruelty. It is also a story of intense loyalties and the inevitable betrayals. Highly recommended.

Non-Fiction

SapiensSapiens by Yuval Noah Harari (in English 2014)

‘A Brief History Of Humankind’ is a short description that covers a lot of ground. In fact, it covers everything we’ve done since the dawn of man, which is no mean feat. This is no ordinary history, this is perceptive, incisive and hugely readable. Anyone who takes the trouble to read Sapiens cannot fail to understand more about themselves and the society they live in. The writing is excellent, the teaching is never force-feeding. With history texts like this even I might have gained more from my education. It’s never too late, read Sapiens.

UnderlandUnderland by Robert Macfarlane (2019)

What an extraordinary and unexpected gem! This is the apparently unpromising exploration of the worlds beneath our feet, the hidden and often unknown underworlds of mines and caves, of potholes and nuclear storage, of secret rivers and ancient art. And it is marvelous from beginning to end. The author has such affection and understanding of landscape, both above and below ground, has such a way of writing – of teaching – without once lecturing, that the reader is delightfully transported to unimagined places. Thank you for taking me where I would never dare go.

TheCaseOfTheMurderousDrCreamThe Case Of The Murderous Dr Cream by Dean Jobb (2021)

There are many good things about Dean Jobb’s latest in-depth inquiry. Not least amongst them is the amount of research and investigation he’s clearly done: there can hardly be an aspect of Dr Cream’s life and crimes not covered. And it’s well written, giving the impression of witnessing events without straying into embellishment bordering on fiction. If there’s a criticism it concerns repetition. Too often events are retold as if new to the reader, too often you might wish for better editing. But it’s still a good read.

TheGreatHalifaxExplosion2The Great Halifax Explosion by John U Bacon (2017)

The Halifax explosion of 1917 has become a study on mine recently, partly for my own writing research, which explains the presence of two such titles in my year’s reading. It remains a fascinating subject. In modern times the details have become little known, even among Haligonians but it is an incredible story. Many books have been published on the catastrophe but the source material is finite, so there is little that is original in this, as with other works. But it’s none the worse for that, it’s a good read and far better than some that cover the same subject.

TheHalifaxExplosionThe Halifax Explosion by Ken Cuthbertson (2017)

Published on hundred years on from the disaster that befell Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1917, this is one of the best books on the subject. Not only does it include some unique source material, but it also adds a very human touch to the events and the main protagonists. It manages to retell the whole story from the most compelling point of view, that of the people directly involved. Here at last is an account which puts flesh on the bare bones of the catastrophe. Well researched, well written – if you read only one book on the subject make it this one.

There were also other, less remarkable, books in my year: One Good Turn, the slightly nerdy history of the screw; And Nothing Remains, a limp collection of short stories; The Art Flogger, a soulless tale of sex and violence.

But overall it was a year of excellent books, which makes choosing the book of my year all the more difficult. In fiction The Man Next Door and Warlight come immediately to mind, even though I read them early in the year. In non-fiction, Sapiens and Underland are both masterpieces, not only of writing, of research and knowledge, but of great readability. By the narrowest of margins the book of my year is Underland which took me to places I’ll never visit and never dreamed of, physically and figuratively.

Already waiting for 2022 are A Certain Justice by PD James, Final Spin by Jocko Willink and Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield. There’ll be other delights, as yet unknown, as well a smattering of duds, either way there’s much to look forward to.

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