Thursday, 9 February 2017

96 The 1947 Mumbles lifeboat tragedy

96 The 1947 Mumbles lifeboat tragedy

23rd April is St George’s Day, the birthday of William Shakespeare, and it is believed to have been the date of his death 52 years later.  This year it is the 70th anniversary of the Mumbles lifeboat’s worst tragedy, when all eight crew members of the ‘Edward, Prince of Wales’ lifeboat were lost in going to help the liberty ship ‘Samtampa’ at Sker Point off Porthcawl.

Mumbles lifeboat had been involved in two earlier tragedies - in 1883 four men from the ‘Wolverhampton’ drowned when seeking to aid the ‘Admiral Prinz Adalbert’ near the lighthouse.  Twenty years later six crewmen from the lifeboat ‘James Stevens’ - one of whom had survived the ‘Wolverhampton’ tragedy - drowned at the entrance to Port Talbot harbour when seeking to aid the SS ‘Christina’.

Liberty ships were a class of cargo ship mass-produced in the United States during the Second World War, to meet British orders to replace those torpedoed by German U-boats.  2,710 liberty ships were built at eighteen American shipyards between 1941 and 1945.  The 7,219 ton ‘Samtampa’ had been built in Maine, and was launched in December 1943, one of 2,400 liberty ships that had survived the war.  On the night of 23rd April 1947 she was journeying from Middlesbrough to Newport when the decision was made to ride out a 70mph gale at Sker Point off Porthcawl.  But the cables could not hold the ship in those conditions, and she broke into three sections on the rocks in just over an hour: all 39 members of her crew, mostly from the Teeside area, were lost.  

The Mumbles lifeboat had been launched at 7.10pm, and nearing Sker Point coxswain William Gammon made to pull alongside the wrecked ship.  But an exceptionally high wave overturned the lifeboat, flinging the entire crew of eight men into the water, where all perished.  At the subsequent inquest the doctor giving evidence opined that the men had died of asphyxia from drowning, with head injuries as a contributory cause in three cases.  Technical staff from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution later examined the wrecked lifeboat, and concluded that she had overturned around the time of high water.  The boat was then burnt.

The bodies of the ‘Samtampa’s crew that could be identified were returned to their homes for burial, with those not identified being buried at a cemetery outside Porthcawl.

The eight Mumbles men who drowned were coxswain William Gammon, William Noel, Gilbert Davies, Ernest Griffin, William Thomas, William Howell, Ronald Thomas and Richard Smith.  Their funerals were held on 29th April at All Saints Church, Oystermouth, attended by the Admiral of the Fleet, the Mayor and members of Swansea Corporation, RNLI officials, and crews from other lifeboat stations.  Simultaneously there was a requiem mass for William Noel at the nearby Roman Catholic Church, Our Lady Star of the Sea.  In spite of torrential rain the route from the churches was lined with thousands of people as the funeral cortege made its way to the cemetery, where the eight men were buried in adjacent graves.  Notwithstanding post-war austerity, £93,000 was raised for the crew’s dependants.

The replacement lifeboat was named ‘William Gammon’ in honour of coxswain Gammon and his crew.  Six widows of the Mumbles crew attended the annual meeting of the RNLI in October 1947, where they were presented with the men's certificates of service; illness prevented the seventh widow from attending.  Inside All Saints Church a stained glass window designed by Tim Lewis and dedicated in 1977 depicts the heroic rescue attempt off Sker Point.  There is also a memorial to the victims at the site of the tragedy, and it is hoped that a central memorial in Porthcawl town, close to the sea and harbour, will mark the 70th anniversary of the tragedy.


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