Talk given by Stuart Gill, reviewing the development of the Dunedin Society:
DunSoc Review – July 2006
Look How far We have Come
When some of us gather at the Naval War Memorial in Southsea on 24th November this year, it will be 65 years since the sinking of Dunedin.
It is also a little over five years ago that we held the first ever Dunedin reunion, in Henley.
I thought it would be timely to take stock of how far we have come and what we have learnt and achieved.
In short, we have gone from knowing virtually nothing about what happened to constructing a near complete picture and compiling an archive of HMS Dunedin and her men.
For my part, HMS Dunedin was – for many years – simply a name. My father rarely mentioned her, but just occasionally, when the subject came up, he would tell us that he served on an ageing light cruiser; was torpedoed; then was adrift on a raft, one of 22 men, of whom only three survived; rescued by a passing American ship; taken to Trinidad; and then came home. The only evidence was the fish bites on his legs.
And that was it. These meagre facts became part of family folklore – along with the understanding that we would never know more. And we understood. We understood that it was probably simply too painful a subject to talk about. So we left it.
But, perhaps like some of you here, curiosity occasionally got the better of me when I picked up WWII history books to check the index to see if my Dad’s ship was mentioned. But it rarely was. And whenever Dunedin merited a reference, it was short and insignificant.
It was as if Dunedin had disappeared without trace.
And then, about ten years ago, my Mum and Dad came to visit me and my family when we were living in Chicago.
I made what I thought was a risky suggestion. “Let’s go and see a U-boat”, I said. The Chicago Museum of Science and Industry has a real U-boat – U505 – captured by the Americans in 1944.
I said I would quite understand if he wasn’t keen, but Dad insisted – and so we went to see a U-boat.
As we were led around the cramped iron tube, I paid more attention to my father than to the U-boat, desperate to see whether I had made a terrible mistake in bringing him to something that was bound to bring back unpleasant memories. What right did I have to do this?
But he was fine.
Once off the U-boat, he was drawn to a map of the Atlantic on a nearby wall. He pointed to Freetown, in Sierra Leone. This is where we operated from, he said. And then he drew an imaginary circle with his finger to show the area in which Dunedin patrolled.
Then, making a bit of a guess, he pointed to where he thought Dunedin had gone down and where he had been picked up by a passing American ship.
He remembered being hauled up the side of the ship in a sling and feeling it cut into his sunburnt skin. And he remembered being landed on the ship’s deck and calling out, “there’s more, there’s more”, referring to the other rafts still in the sea.
I tell you this because this was new information. For the first time in my presence, he had started to recount the story beyond the family folklore.
It proved to be the spark that started our search for more. Immediately, in the museum shop we found a few specialist books on the U-boat war and for the first time, we found out the date of the sinking, the number of the U-boat and even the name of its Captain.
At the time, for us, this was a major discovery.
In the course of the next few months, my father told me more and more about what happened – so much so that he wanted to find out if there were still others out there, like him.
The first thing we did was to put small ads in Saga Magazine and Navy News. We had no idea whether this would produce anything at all, but it seemed a reasonable way to start.
And so it proved. Very soon, our one survivor had become four.
Harry Cross was our first. Not only was he a survivor, but he had been on the bridge when the first torpedo hit. Here was someone who could tell us first-hand what the lookout had shouted when he thought he’d seen a periscope in the water. Harry had been standing next to the Captain. Later, he told us he had spent the first night adrift on a box, before finding a Carley float the following morning. Sadly, Harry is no longer with us.
Next came Jim Davis, who is with us today, and who has been a regular feature of these gatherings. He’d been reading a book on deck when the torpedoes struck.
Later in the war, in 1943, he was serving in HMS Stonecrop, when she took part in the sinking of the very U-boat that had sunk Dunedin.
Third, Les Barter, who also, sadly, is no longer with us. He was a Boy sailor who was left for dead on the rescue ship. But he was alive and crawled off the deck and into the galley, where an American sailor picked him up and looked after him.
That first Navy News small ad also brought us Chris Broadway. Or rather Lt-Cmdr Chris Broadway, who, it must be said, rather scared me at first. Chris had been a small boy in Bermuda when his father died in Dunedin. And now he wanted to find out what had happened.
Not long after this I discovered how to use the Internet and started to post messages on Naval web sites. In time this produced an explosion of interest, especially when we developed our own web site.
From this people began finding us from all over the world. E-mails started to drop into my Inbox from far and wide, from Australia, New Zealand, Bermuda, Ireland, Luxembourg, Zimbabwe, Canada, Belgium, Saipan, a small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and from all over the UK.
We now have well over 300 members, all of whom are listed in the book that is circulating among us today. Do please grab it and check that your entry is correct.
With all this interest has come so many stories and material: Letters, diaries, first-hand accounts from survivors and others who served in Dunedin but who were not on board when she went down, photos, and all manner of memorabilia.
For me, one of the most touching stories came from an elderly lady who responded to that first Saga Magazine ad. She wrote to me and told me that her fiancé had died in Dunedin and that she still had all his letters. She would let me have them but not wanting to include the really private passages, she wrote out by hand pages and pages of extracts.
It must have taken her many hours, but they became a central part of the Dunedin story reflecting in her fiancé’s words so many of the feelings of all the men on board – about being away from their loved ones and families and wondering when they would be back together again.
Bit by bit, the story of what happened to Dunedin and her men began to take shape.
We need not rehearse the details now, but we know a great deal:
- How nearly 500 ordinary men went to war
- How they lived with each other
- How they wondered what was happening to their families and other loved ones at home
- How they were unknowingly part of the biggest secret of all – the breaking of the Germans’ Enigma code
- How they wondered when the next letter would arrive
- How they wondered when they would next be home
- …….and, of course, how it went horribly wrong
- How, almost by chance, a lone U-boat – U-124 – come across the solitary Dunedin
- How the Captain of the U-boat nearly lost Dunedin in the chase
- How he fired from a great distance and somehow scored two hits from three torpedoes
We know where this happened and when. We know what type of torpedoes were used and even how fast they were running.
We even know that the Captain of the U-boat fired a fourth torpedo from point blank range, as Dunedin fell into the sea with men floating all around her.
We know that he missed.
We know about the trauma of the following few days.
We know about the tragedies but also about the truly heroic acts.
We know that only 67 men survived…..of whom we are privileged to have four with us today
I am proud that the Dunedin Society has made this knowledge possible. DunSoc, as we have affectionately come to know it, is a unique organisation made up of people whose aim is to preserve the memory of once forgotten men.
For that, we should be grateful to some key people especially Chris Broadway – the backbone of the whole project – but also to Daniel Morgan, whose Grandfather was Dunedin’s Commander, but who, unfortunately, couldn’t come today. Daniel rightly earned the title of Chief Ferret because of his extraordinary research skills. He brilliantly foraged for the German side of the story and remains the only member of the Dunedin Society to have met the son of the Captain of the U-boat.
Anne Randall, whose father died when Dunedin went down, keeps us all focussed, and has proved a remarkable finder of new people. Not only have people found us through adverts and the Internet, but she has shown a remarkable knack of tracking down Dunedin contacts from out of nowhere.
Bas Bowyer is our man in this part of the country who pulls together our events here at the Arboretum.
David Allen has become our roving Ambassador as far away as New Zealand.
A year ago my Brother Michael’s unbounded energy and resourcefulness ensured the remarkable reunion with Roy Murray of the US rescue ship SS Nishmaha was a huge and memorable success.
And please allow me to give a special mention to my wife, Maggie, who has stood four-square behind us from the start and has understood all along the power and the value of what we were all doing.
Let me close with a few highlights of how far the Dunedin Society has come in ten years:
- The Dunedin Society has been privileged to know eight living survivors; sadly we have since lost four of them: Harry Cross, John Miles, Les Barter and Albert Cooke (I am very pleased that here today is Jane Pye, Albert’s daughter); As well as my father and Jim Davis, two of the original Gang of Four, we have here today Andrew “Boy” McCall and Arthur Binley, both of whom found us only last year. All the survivors remembered Boy McCall, so it was a huge bonus when he turned up just in time for the Roy Murray reunion last June. Andrew’s name was well known to us from our researches too. It was said of him and another Boy sailor in the official report of the sinking, that he “showed a very cool and courageous spirit throughout the period spent on the raft. Neither uttered a single word of complaint and both willingly and cheerfully carried out whatever duty was required of them”. I have learnt , too, that Arthur Binley survived not just the sinking of HMS Dunedin but that he had served in two other ships that had gone down.
- The Dunedin Society is proud to have established the memorial here at the Arboretum as a permanent reminder for us and future generations of what happened to HMS Dunedin and her men
- The Dunedin Society continues to amaze me with its capacity to find new people. Today, for example, we have with us Rob Macaulay, who e-mailed me out of the blue from Australia last November and who has travelled here especially to see us; he is the son of one of the only two other survivors on my father’s raft.
- The Dunedin Society has built up so much information that we can carry on building up the web site as the permanent electronic archive. I should no longer be surprised by what turns up – the Swastika from the German merchant ship Hannover, captured by Dunedin in March 1940 and on show here today was brought to us by the Hughes family from New Zealand.
- The Dunedin Society has now established the annual 24th November gathering at Southsea memorial (nb 2007 on a Saturday)
- But perhaps the biggest Dunedin Society development in recent times came last year when I received an e-mail from Houston, Texas. While we had come to know a lot about the rescue by SS Nishmaha from our survivors and historical documents, we had never come across a crew member. And then in March last year an e-mail dropped into my Inbox that took my breath away. It began very simply: “I was a third mate on the SS Nishmaha when that vessel rescued the survivors of the Dunedin”. It sent a shiver down my spine. It turned out that this third mate, Roy Murray, had been the first to spot the rafts in the failing evening light and that he, therefore, had been responsible for the rescue of our survivors. And, as most of you here will know, Roy and his family came over to England last summer for that extraordinary reunion.
So, there we have it. The Dunedin Society has become a remarkable self-perpetuating phenomenon. It is more than the sum of its parts and exists not just through the efforts of a small group, but through the collective will of everyone in this room and the many more that come with us. It belongs to us all and must be preserved – but it belongs mostly to the memory of the men who served and died…….and to the four men here today, who carry the torch for their former comrades.