A flower wreath floated on the calm waters beneath the Siege Bell Memorial in Valletta yesterday when the Maltese branch of the Royal Naval Association marked the 70th anniversary of the sinking of HMS Welshman.
The minelayer had played a leading role to save war-stricken Malta. It formed part of three relief convoys that delivered crucial supplies during World War II: Operation Harpoon, Operation Pinpoint and the famous Operation Pedestal.
The Welshman was sunk off Tobruk, Libya, on February 1, 1943 after being hit by two torpedoes fired by a German submarine. More than 150 of the ship’s crew perished; 60 survived.
The association was asked to mark the event by Briton Angela Evennett. The Times was shown a copy of an unpublished book compiled by Ms Evennett’s late husband about his brother who had perished on the Welshman. It also includes recollections from survivors.
“After a short period, the captain sent a brief distress signal giving our position, which I transmitted on a local frequency that could be read by any British warships in the area. We had been struck by two torpedoes fired from a German U-boat, U-617,” according to an excerpt from the book quoting survivor Robert Ferry, who worked on the Welshman as a telegraphist.
The torpedoes hit the stern, putting the propellers and steering out of action and killing about 20 of the crew. The third explosion happened when some of the Welshman’s ammunition blew up.
The ship remained in an upright position and the repair parties set to work shoring up the internal bulkheads in an attempt to prevent the sea from entering the mining deck. For a short period of time, this seemed to be working.
Mr Ferry came off his watch at 8pm and went to the upper deck. Many of the ship’s company had returned to the mess decks to eat because the ship appeared as if it would remain afloat. However, suddenly, at about 9pm, the damaged bulkheads gave way and within minutes it rolled onto its starboard side.
“I made my way down the side of the ship and jumped about 15 feet into the water and swam away. When I was about 50 yards away, I turned to see our beautiful ship disappearing stern first.
“No one had the time to lower the lifeboats and those people who had managed to get over the side were swimming about trying to locate any floating object they could hang on to.”
Mr Ferry swam close to Capt. William Friedberger who was calling out for everybody to keep together as he knew help was on the way. He exhorted everyone to sing and they did, mainly Roll Out The Barrel.
“I had lost my lifebelt when I jumped over the side but eventually managed to find a small raft to cling on to. This raft was very unstable and turned turtle a number of times, depositing the occupants into the water. “After about four hours of this, I was beginning to lose consciousness and the next thing I remember was being assisted up the netting on the side of a ship and a voice saying: ‘OK Sparks, you’re alright now’.”
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