Captain John Garnet Smith   


Captain John Garnet SmithBorn in the Midland town of Walsall April 1926. One of four children an older sister Betty and younger sister Cynthia and brother Maurice. There is an early photo of John taken in October 1941 when he was 15 a day before he joined the Prince of Wales Sea Training School at Ingham Hall. He is seated at a table displaying the wooden model warships he had made out of scraps of wood. Captain Scott's ship the Discovery took pride of place in the centre. At home he recorded in a book the name and silhouette of any British war ship that had been announced lost. His father had served in the Royal Navy during the first world war and an uncle was now serving in the same service. There seemed no link with the Merchant Navy.

Prior to joining up when the air raid siren sounded he would be off on his bike to the local ARP station acting as a messenger. Since leaving North Walsall school at the age of fourteen he had been employed in the De Havilland aircraft factory at Aidridge in the frame making section. We do not know what inspired John to join the Merchant Service. It could have been he answered an advert that appeared in the news papers at the time. They were looking for younger recruits than the Royal Navy to serve as Merchant seamen.

John attended the British Sailor Society Sea Training School at Ingham Hall Norfolk. 20th October 1941 and left 2 June 1942. Others remembered attending at the time were, Taffy Vaughan, Lofty Burns, Tom Brennand and Bob Ball who after all these years remains a firm family friend of the Smith family.

A month after leaving the school Johns first ship the Donaldson line “Cortona” 7093 was torpedoed in the Atlantic while outward bound Liverpool to Buenos Aires by two U-boats U 20l Albert Schnee and U.116 Werner Von Schmidt on 11th July 1942. After spending 10 days in a life boat with 23 survivors and sailing 300 miles hoping to make landfall in the Canary Isles they were picked up by HMS Pathfinder and landed in Londonderry. The other boat that got away with 29 crew members under the command of the chief mate was lost. U 201 under the command of Gunther Rosenberg was attacked and sunk with all hands by HMS Viscount on February 17th 1943. U 116 commanded by Willhelm Grirnme sailed on the 22nd of September 1942 and disappeared without trace.

John torpedoed on his first trip at 16 years of age served on Merchant ships throughout the war without any further mishaps. He made seafaring his career and befriended by a Chief Officer was encourage to study for his third mates ticket and continued on to gain his Masters ticket at the age of 36. Serving all of his time with the Caltex and Texaco Oil Company. As Master of the super tankers Texaco Greenwich, London, Great Britain and Spain to name a few. He visited Auckland New Zealand on the Caltex Columbo with his wife Maisie where they met up with his sister and brother and on another occasion called into Marsden point refinery while on the Texaco Greenwich. His other sister Cynthia was able to see him when the same ship visited Los Angeles.

He was paid off in 1981 as a senior Master when the Company was reformed and the ships came under new management. He retired to live in Eastbourne. Seafaring was John's only career and the forced early retirement came as a shock, being shore bound he found it hard to adjust to the stationary lifestyle. He died 31st Dec 1993

John's sister Betty used to write to another member of the Ingham Hall at the time Tom Brennand from Blackburn. He joined his first ship “MV Stentor” Alfred Holt Line. When returning from West Africa to Britain with palm oil, and 125 passenger and 121 crew it was torpedoed by U 509 Werner Witte on 27 Oct 1942 near the Canary Islands. Boats were lowered and the ship abandoned. HMS Woodruff picked up 201 survivors the other 45 crew members and passengers lost their lives including Tom Brennand just four months after he left Ingham Hall. He was an only child. Betty visited the family to offer her condolences.

U 539 was attacked by air and sunk with all hands Julyl5th 1943 off Madeira.

I would like to offer my thanks and appreciation to Andy the Director of the PWSTS for giving all the old boys, their families and siblings the opportunity to be remembered and have their stories told.

Maurice Smith

San Francisco 7th July 1943 - John Smith far right aged 17 yrs

San Francisco 7th July 1943 - John Smith far right aged 17 yrs



A War Time Story - The First Trippers

On a clear crisp morning on 20th October 1941, in the city of Norwich, three young lads met at a bus terminal for the first time.

John SmithThey were John Smith from Walsall Staffordshire, Tom Brennand from Blackburn Lancashire and Bob Ball from Bexhill-on-Sea Sussex. They discovered that they were each waiting to catch the same bus that would take them to the village of Ingham. There they would receive first class training, second to none in preparation for war time service on deck in the Merchant Navy. They were all keen for the opportunity to be able to serve their country in its time of need. They bonded together straight away and formed a friendship that continued throughout their training period and for John and Bob a lasting friendship that would continue throughout both war and post war years for both themselves and their respective families. On the completion of their intensive training, the three lads left the school together in 1942 and each joined the very different ships assigned to them.

Tom Brennand signed on the Blue Funnel Line M.V Stentor a passenger cargo vessel. His ship was torpedoed on the 27th October 1942, off the Canary Islands by U Boat 509, Kapitan-Leutnant Witte. From a compliment of 246, only 201 survivors were picked up by HMS Woodruff. Tragically amongst the 45 who lost their lives was young Tom Brennand, aged fifteen and a half years old. He had only left the PWSTS a few months earlier. He was an only child. U Boat 509 was subsequently attacked by aircraft on 15th July 1943 off Madeira. She was sunk losing all hands.

John Smith signed on the Donaldson Line M.V Cortona, a general cargo ship of 7093 grt, and when outward bound from Liverpool to Buenos-Aires was torpedoed in the Atlantic in August 1942 by two U Boats U201, Kapitan Schnee and U116, Kapitan Werner von Schmidt. John spent ten days in a life boat with twenty three other survivors. They attempted to land fall in the Canary Islands but were picked up by HMS Pathfinder and landed in Londonderry. The second life boat launched, commanded by the first mate and twenty nine crew members were never found.

John being a fit young man, easily shook off this war time experience but what he did find hard to accept on being paid off at the end of that unfortunate episode was the discovery that it was general practice of all shipping companies to stop crew members wages at exactly the time their ships were sunk beneath them, together with all their possessions, for which they received no compensation. How very different were American Seamen treated by contrast when the USA entered the war. Each and every man was insured by their government for $10,000. Their wages were twice that of our own on top of which they received bonuses for every theatre of war in which they sailed, 100% for North & South Atlantic & Mediterranean, 80% for the Pacific and Indian Oceans and 40% for sailing anywhere else.

John Smith carried on with his war time service without any further mishaps and decided to make seafaring his career and with the help of friendly bridge officers he studied and passed his Third-Second and First mates examinations. He finally obtained his Masters Certificate while serving with Caltex & Texaco Oil Company during which time he took command of the Texaco Greenwich – London – Britain – and Spain to name but a few. He retired with his wife Maisie to Eastbourne in 1981 with the rank of Senior Company Master.

Bob Ball signed on the Union Castle Line Capetown Castle 27,000 grt a 26 knot troop ship which owing to her fast turn of speed sailed unescorted out of convoy. His first trip as such was almost uneventful by comparison with that of Tom and John’s experience and he served on a wide variety of ships there after mostly on Atlantic crossing in convoy. He later took part in the D Day Normandy landings initially getting Canadian troops from the Lake Superior Regiment and their equipment successfully onto their beach head. Then shortly after was engaged in shipping supplies and equipment to our forces engaged in the push up Italy on the Adriatic Coast and then with a crossing to Dubrovnic and Split with supplies and weapons for Tito’s Yugoslavian Chetniks. Bob carried on seafaring after the wars end for a further two years before leaving the sea to join the family construction business and later taking up post in Nigeria and the West Indies. He gained a degree in Civil Engineering and finally retired in 1993 with his wife Ilse in Bexhill-On-Sea.

The number of merchant ships lost during the last war totalled five thousand one hundred and fifty. Three thousand of which were sunk by U Boats and fifty thousand merchant seamen from the United Kingdom, Commonwealth counties, Canada and the USA lost their lives in the service of their countries. By comparison Germany’s U Boat service lost thirty five thousand men from a total number of forty thousand.

It was very unfortunate that in 1975 the Prince of Wales training school was obliged to cease functioning, probably caused by the lack of requested from shipping companies for fully trained boys wishing to take up a career at sea. This is mainly due to the shrinking size of our post war merchant fleets and the practice of shipping companies generally registering their ships under various flags of convenience in order to cut costs. Plus the practise of engaging untrained and cheaper crews from various parts of the world who were prepared to work under lower standards and conditions than those enjoyed on ships flying the Red Duster.

Bob Ball