Norman WALKER 1917-1943

C/JX212028 Able Seaman Norman Walker, HMS Welshman died 1 February 1943 aged 25.  He is buried at the El Alamein War Cemetery, Egypt [1] and commemorated on the HMS Welshman memorial at St. George’s Centre, Chatham Maritime, Gillingham, Kent and on the Cockfield War Memorial, County Durham.

Family Details

Norman Walker was born 9 October 1917,[2] at Evenwood, [3] the son of Joseph and Effie Walker.  There were at least 2 children: [4]

  • Norman born 1917
  • Arthur born 1920

18 October 1938:  Arthur Walker aged 18 was employed as a pony driver at Randolph Colliery, Evenwood.  He was killed as a result of a mining accident.  There were no witnesses but it is thought that his head had become fastened between a tub and a prop while riding the limbers.  The Coroner Mr. J.E. Brown-Humes, in returning a verdict of accidental death, was horrified to hear that safety helmets were almost unknown and hoped that this fatality would encourage more extensive use.[5]

In 1939, the family lived at Esperley Lane near Cockfield where Joseph worked as a bus driver, Effie “unpaid domestic duties” and Norman as a “general labourer”.  There were 2 other entries who’s “record is officially closed”.[6]

In 1940, Norman married Frances Ellen Wallace.[7]

Military Details

The service details of Able Seaman Norman Walker have not been researched.  The following details are from a variety of sources and will indicate the circumstances surrounding his death.

HMS Welshman [M84] was a Royal Navy “Dido” class, cruiser-minelayer launched in September 1941 at R. & W. Hawthorn, Leslie & Co. Ltd., Hebburn-on-Tyne.  She had a complement of 289 officers and men.[8]  During the Second World War, she served with the Home Fleet carrying out minelaying operations before being transferred to the Mediterranean Fleet in mid-1942 for the Malta Convoys.  HMS Welshman also saw service during Operation Torch, supporting the Allied landings in North Africa.

1 February 1943:  while transporting stores and personnel to Tobruk, HMS Welshman was hit by a torpedo fired by U-617 commanded by Albrecht Brandi.  At 17.45, the U-Boat fired a spread of 4 torpedoes, 2 hits and a boiler explosion were observed.  The ship capsized and sank by the stern 2 hours later.  Captain W.H.D. Friedberger DSO RN commanded HMS Welshman.  She went down 45 miles north east of Tobruk at position 32˚12’N 24˚52’E with the loss of 167 lives.[9]  Some survivors, 124 in total, including the Commander, 5 officers and 112 ratings, were rescued by destroyers HMS Tetcott and HMS Belvoir.  Another 6 survivors were rescued by small craft from Tobruk.  Survivors were taken to Alexandria. [10]

An account is provided by a survivor, Robert Ferry, a Telegraphist on HMS Welshman and reported in the Times of Malta:[11]

“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,”

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’.”

12 September 1943:  U-617 was sunk off the Moroccan coast.  A British Wellington bomber, 179 Squadron RAF, pilot S/L D.B. Hodgkinson RCAF, dropped depth charges and another Wellington, 179 Squadron, pilot P/O W.H. Brunini, homed in and dropped its depth charges at position 35˚17’N 03˚20’W.  The Wellington crew circled the boat for 45 minutes until she beached herself near Melilla, Spanish Morocco.  The entire crew of 49 abandoned ship and were interned in Spain, later repatriated to Germany.  U-617 was finished off by several air attacks of British aircraft from Gibraltar and the wreck was finally destroyed by gunfire from HMS Hyacinth and HMAS Wollongong.  A rear gunner of one of the Wellingtons was fatally wounded after being hit by flak during the attack.[12]

Burial [13]

Able Seaman Norman Walker is buried at grave reference XXIV.A.6, El Alamein War Cemetery, Egypt having been reinterred when graves from the El Daba Military Cemetery were concentrated into the El Alamein Cemetery, 27 May 1943.[14]

Commemoration

Able Seaman Norman Walker is commemorated on the HMS Welshman memorial at St. George’s Centre, Chatham Maritime, Gillingham, Kent[15] and on the Cockfield War Memorial.

3 February 2013: The Maltese branch of the Royal Naval Association marked the 70th anniversary of the sinking of HMS Welshman by a flower wreath which floated beneath the Siege Bell Memorial in Valletta.  The minelayer had played a leading role to save war-stricken Malta.  It formed part of 3 relief convoys that delivered crucial supplies during the Second World War – Operation Harpoon, Operation Pinpoint and Operation Pedestal.  The Association was asked to mark the event by Angela Eyennett. 

PHOTOGRAPHS

HMS Welshman: By Royal Navy official photographer – This is photograph FL 4485 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 8308-29), Public Domain.

HMS Welshman

U-617 Beached near Melilla, Spanish Morocco
HMS Welshman Memorial, St. George’s Centre, Gillngham, Kent

REFERENCES

[1] Commonwealth War Graves Commission

[2] 1939 England & Wales Register & England & Wales Birth Index1916-2007 Vol.10a p.420 Auckland 1917 Q4

[3] UK British Army & Navy Birth, Marriage and Death Records 1730-1960

[4] 1939 England & Wales Register & http://www.dmm.org.uk/individ1/i17915.htm

[5] The Science and Art of Mining 5 November 1938, p.131 & http://www.dmm.org.uk/individ1/i17915.htm

[6] 1939 England & Wales Register Note:  Possibly another 2 siblings.

[7] England & Wales Marriage Register 1916-2005 Vol.10a p.829 Durham South Western 1940 Q4

[8] https://uboat.net/allies/merchants/ship/2614.html

[9] https://uboat.net/allies/merchants/ship/2614.html Note: this source records 167 lives lost – 8 officers, 144 ratings and 13 passengers including 2 civilians.  Naval History records 155 including 2 civilians killed.  Wikipedia quotes 155 lives lost.

[10] https://uboat.net/allies/merchants/ship/2614.html

[11] https://timesofmalta.com/articles/view/Wreath-marks-sinking-of-HMS-Welshman.455872

[12] https://uboat.net/boats/u617.htm

[13] CWGC

[14] CWGC Graves Concentration Report Form Report No.10GCU/HQ/47

[15] https://www.warmemorialsonline.org.uk/memorial/158199/