Lifeboats - Mumbles Lifeboat

Wreck of the S S Samtampa

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Last Updated (Tuesday, 07 February 2012 16:01) Sunday, 13 December 2009 16:37

 

 The Third Mumbles Lifeboat Disaster.

Wreck of the S.S. SAMTAMPA 

and loss of The Mumbles lifeboat EDWARD, PRINCE of WALES

23  April  1947

 

 

 

Though a number of books, and many websites and "blogs", mention these two wrecks it is not out of place to point out that much that has been written, even by professional mariners, is inaccurate. One can, perhaps, forgive the amateur but the professional should know better. It is clear that these writers have not read the report published as a result of the Board of Trade Inquiry, nor the report of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution published in its journal. Below I quote relevant passages from both reports.

 

Most writers claim that the Samtampa  was forced to anchor because of engine trouble. This is understandable but the evidence shows this was not so.   [I too fell into this trap: in my first book The Men of the Mumbles Head, published in 1977, I wrote "As she (the Samtampa) came up channel engine trouble developed".  I had not then read the official report - in fact my attention was drawn to it by a young lady who was researching a project at Bishopston school. In Mumbles Lifeboat,  published 1989, I corrected this to "As she came up channel she became unmanageable due to the force of the wind."]   Secondly a number of articles claim that the Mumbles lifeboat returned to station, having failed to find the ship, and was then sent out again. Again this is not true. I shall show why these ideas came about and attempt to write a clear and accurate picture of the event.

 

It is very likely that these inaccurate ideas originate with the account in the local newspaper the South Wales Evening Post. I have a copy of the Late Town Final edition of Thursday 24 April 1947. Almost the whole of the front page is taken up by the story of the wrecks. The fourth paragraph of the main article states "Returning, after failing to make contact with the steamer on her first trip, the life-boat went out a second time shortly before eight o'clock." An eye-witness, G. Price of the Porthcawl Golf Club, was quoted as saying "Looking out across the channel I saw a steamer struggling against the storm. As I watched I could see she appeared out of control and I thought the engines must have broken down." It is interesting to note that the article does not include any statement from the Coastguard. The lifeboat "Hon. Sec." H.J. Kluge was interviewed by a reporter and said "The boat went out last night, turned back about 6.30 and was given further directions on the position of the Samtampa."

 

Other writers have let their imaginations run riot by suggesting that the lifeboat first rescued all 39 men from the ship before herself capsizing with the loss of rescuers and rescued. Another claims that Coxswain Gammon attempted to use an area of calm water, created by the ship's leaking fuel oil (that is the ship's bunkers and not cargo as some have suggested), to get alongside the vessel and that the ship then rolled onto the lifeboat. This is pure fancy and can be shown to be completely false. I wonder whether the writer was thinking of the loss of the Penlee lifeboat Solomon Browne  and the Union Star  in December 1981?  No sources are given for these claims.

 

 

The Samtampa, a former Liberty ship built at Portland, Maine, USA was of 7,219 tons gross, 4,380 tons register. Bound from Middlesborough for Newport (Mon.) in ballast, she was under the command of New Zealander Capt Neale Sherwell and carried a crew of 38 many from the north east of England. She left port in the early hours of 19 April 1947 and was expected to reach Newport on the morning tide of 22 April. At 11.30 on 21st a message was sent to Houlder Brothers, the vessel's managers, that owing to the weather she was not expected to arrive at Newport before the evening tide on the 22nd. Then on the morning of the 22nd a further message was sent that she did not expect to arrive in Barry roads (where she would expect to pick up a pilot) until 08.00 on the 23rd. In deteriorating weather her speed was reduced still further and she passed Hartland Point in the Bristol Channel at 08.00 on 23 April. Gale warnings had been broadcast but it was not until after 08.30 that a warning of exceptionally severe weather was given.

 

At 12.53 GMT on the 23rd the Samtampa  sent a message to the ship Empire Success  saying that she was off the Foreland (on the Devon coast) and  was going to heave to.

There were no further messages to ships or shore stations until 15.14 when a message reading "XXX Samtampa rapidly drifting towards Nash Shoal" was received by the Empire Success  and by Burnham and Land's End Radio Stations.

At 15.54 the message "Have both hooks down and hope to keep off shoal but doubtful" was received.

At 16.03 the ship transmitted a message that was not clearly received by the three stations but probably read "XXX Samtampa position 51° 29′ N, 3°45′ W, Bearing 290°, 2.5 miles from Porthcawl Light."

At 16.32 "S.O.S. Samtampa  fear cables will not hold much longer please send assistance."

At 16.38 "Starboard anchor carried away now drifting ashore rapidly."

17.08 "S.O.S. Samtampa now aground at Porthcawl Light."

17.14 "Now breaking up leaving shortly."

 

No evidence was presented to the Court of Inquiry relating to the ship between the message of 12.53 and that of 15.14. "There was no evidence of any lack of steam or any trouble with the engines, and we can find no trace of any such trouble having existed. It is to be noted that none of the signals from the vessel gives any indication of trouble in the engine room. The probabilities are that during this period the Samtampa, in worsening weather, was driven to the northward and became unmanageable."

 

The conclusion of the court of inquiry was "that the loss of the  Samtampa  was due to her being driven on the rocks in exceptionally severe weather. There was insufficient evidence before the Court to enable it to find the reason why the said vessel came within dangerous proximity to the said rocks". However in the Annex to the report are the answers to thirty-three questions submitted by the Ministry of Transport. Question thirty-two was "What was the cause of the stranding of the S.S. Samtampa  and the ultimate loss of the vessel with all members of the crew?"  The answer given was "The loss of the Samtampa  and the members of her crew was due to the vessel being driven on the rocks in exceptionally severe weather. Her dangerous proximity to the rocks was probably caused by the vessel becoming unmanageable in light condition."  From this it would seem to me that the ship was adequately ballasted for sailing in good weather, but insufficiently ballasted for the storm conditions experienced.

 

The station officer of Porthcawl Coastguard received a report, at about 15.45, that a vessel was near the shore in Rest Bay. He went there straight away. He estimated the ship was about a mile off and heading out to sea but stationary and probably at anchor. [With her anchors down her bows would be facing into the wind which was blowing directly on shore.] She was making no signal of distress. He watched her for about ten minutes and could see no sign of her dragging. He could see that her propellor was turning. He went to Porthcawl Golf Club and telephoned his station for Mumbles lifeboat to stand by. When he went back outside he could now see that the ship had hoisted a two flag signal. He could not read it but presumed it indicated distress. This was at 16.47. Shortly afterwards he received a call saying that the starboard anchor had carried away and then noticed the vessel moving a little east of north. At 16.55 he called out the Life Saving Apparatus company. Tugs were also called for (the report of the Court states "So far as tugs are concerned, the evidence was that no tugs were immediately available."). The Station Officer then went along the shore to Sker Point by which time the ship was ashore. The rocket apparatus, which was kept about three miles away in John Street, Porthcawl, arrived promptly and three attempts were made to fire a line over the ship, the first at about 18.15. With the tide on the flood the apparatus had to be moved back after each of the first two attempts. None of the rockets reached the wreck. The lines were 400 yards in length but the wreck was nearly 500 yards from the water's edge. The District Inspector of the Coastguard was now on scene and described the third rocket as "seeming to stand still in the air before being blown back." He was of the opinion that, even had a rocket reached the wreck and the breeches buoy rigged, it would have been impossible to haul any of the crew ashore alive.

 

The ship had struck the coast at Sker Point a rocky reef with a sandy beach at each side. She went ashore about two hours before high water. The storm resulted in a tide which was about two feet higher than prediction. The wind at the scene was SW force 9 to 11. Shortly after grounding the ship was seen to crack just forward of the bridge, and in a few minutes the whole bow section came away and was swept up onto the Sker which forms a plateau about twenty five feet above the beach. The extreme after end then broke away and was also driven up onto the reef and lay close to the bow section. Some of the crew could be seen on the midship section. They were unable to make any attempt to use the lifeboats or the Galbraith line-throwing apparatus which was carried on the upper bridge. "In view of the heavy pounding which the vessel was sustaining it is probable that anyone on the bridge would require both hands in order to hold on."

 

As darkness descended a number of cars were driven from the Golf Club onto the dunes behind the Sker in an attempt to illuminate the scene and offer assistance to the coastguard.

 

William Gammon, Coxswain of The Mumbles lifeboat, was informed at 15.41 GMT (5.41 BST - there being two hours of summer time) of the message broadcast by the Samtampa at 15.14 that she was drifting towards the Nash. Herman J. Kluge, the station honorary secretary, was informed of the emergency at 15.47 and authorised the launch.  Gilbert Davies, the boat's mechanic, fired the maroons from Lifeboat Cottage to summon the crew. The lifeboat Edward, Prince of Wales  was launched down the slipway at the pier at 16.10 some of the crew just having got home from work. Shortly afterwards the coastguard at Mumbles received the ship's message of 16.03 giving her position as 2.5 miles from Porthcawl Light. The lifeboat was not fitted with radio and the coastguard attempted to signal this information to it by lamp. There was no signalman aboard the lifeboat and visibility was poor so the lifeboat turned back and closed the slipway. The information was shouted to the coxswain and the boat turned seawards once more at about 17.10  [The report in the journal of the RNLI has the foot note "As a result of the lifeboat putting back to get this message, a story was widely circulated next day that she had returned from the wreck and been ordered out again. In this story there was no truth."]  {Sker Point is approximately twelve miles to the south-east of the Mumbles lifeboat station and to have got to Sker and back would have taken at least three hours in good weather a great deal longer in these poor conditions. The Nash sandbank is even further from Mumbles. The lifeboat was seen heading south-east for about three miles. She was then lost to sight in the gathering gloom. It is clear from these times that the Samtampa was ashore, and already breaking up, by the time the lifeboat turned seawards this second time.}

 

Darkness hid the last minutes of the ship and her crew from the coastguard and watchers on the shore. Nor was the lifeboat seen by those at Sker Point.

 

The next morning the police were able to board the sections of the wreck which had been driven up onto the Sker. There were no survivors of the crew of 39. The mid section of the wreck, which contained the engine room and all accomodation, and where the whole crew were probably gathered, was very likely totally submerged at high water. At day break the lifeboat was found upturned on the Sker about 480 yards south-east of the wrecked ship. Her crew had also died. Their bodies were found that day. All had their life-belts on and correctly fitted. Three were close to the lifeboat, the other five on a sandy beach beyond the Sker.

 

There had been an anxious wait at Mumbles overnight and Herman Kluge had telephoned the Chief Inspector of Lifeboats in London as early as 5.15. He in turn contacted the Deputy Chief Inspector and the Inspector of the Western District, who were inspecting stations on the Isle of Man. They at once left for Mumbles.

 

The lifeboat was examined by the Deputy Chief Inspector, the Western District Inspector, the Surveyor of Lifeboats, and the District engineer. They found it 60 yards from the rock plateau's seaward edge and concluded that she had been driven ashore at about high water which was at about 20.00 that night. There was not a scratch on the outside of the hull from keel to fender nor on the bottom of the rudder or propellor blades. The damage to the inside of the boat was severe - almost everything above deck having been torn away. The track of the boat across the rock plateau could be clearly seen from the trail of debris. There was ample petrol in the tank, the controls were correctly set and the throttle at a little over half speed. The inspectors concluded that the lifeboat had been capsized shortly before high water when close to the wreck. Her crew were flung into the sea and she had been driven ashore bottom up to be left near the high water mark. A doctor giving evidence at the inquest was of the opinion that the men had died of asphyxia from drowning, with head injuries as a contributory cause in three cases. The lifeboat inspectors also examined the wreck of the Samtampa  and concluded that there was nothing, such as broken ropes from the lifeboat, hanging from it, to show that the lifeboat had made contact with her.

 

The bodies of the ship's crew that could be identified were returned to their homes for burial, the unidentified were laid to rest at a cemetery outside Porthcawl. The funerals of the Mumbles men were held on 29 April. A requiem mass was said for second coxswain William Noel at Our Lady Star of the Sea  while the service for the others was at the parish church of All Saints, Oystermouth. The cortege made its way, in pouring rain, along Mumbles and Newton Roads lined by thousands of mourners to Oystermouth cemetery where the crew were laid to rest.

The bow and stern sections of the Samtampa.  Wreckage in the foreground is coated in the ship's own bunker oil.

This aerial photograph shows the bow and stern sections on the right, and the mid section of the ship virtually submerged left foreground.

 

Glamorgan Police recovering a body.

Mumbles lifeboat Edward, Prince of Wales  upturned on Sker rocks.

 

 

The midship section of the Samtampa  which would have been submerged at high water.

 

 

 

After examination the lifeboat was deliberately destroyed by fire.

 

 

The crew of the lifeboat.

 

The funeral cortege moves along Mumbles Road on its way to Oystermouth Cemetery.

 

 

Six of the widows of the Mumbles crew photographed in London.  Left to right: Mrs Ella Gammon wife of the coxswain, Elsie Noel, Irene Davies, Eileen Thomas, May Griffin, Diana Howell and Dorothy Court, sister of Richard Smith.

They attended the annual meeting of the RNLI in October 1947 where they were presented with the men's certificates of service.

The seventh widow was unable to attend due to illness.

 

 

 

The memorial window at All Saint's Church, Oystermouth, marking the sacrifice of the Mumbles crew.

Designed by Tim Lewis it was dedicated in 1977.