Veteran Stories:
John Allan Edwards

Merchant Navy

  • Luftwaffe Focke Wulf 190 aerial photo of the RMS Empress of Japan - the vessel in which John Allan Edwards was serving as Navigating and Gunnery Officer - under attack, in position 53º54'N, 14º28'W, 0910 GMT, November 9, 1940.

    John Allan Edwards
  • Merchant Navy officers on shore leave from RMS Empress of Japan pose in front of The Pyramids, Giza, Egypt, October 1940. John Allan Edwards is third from right, in the centre of the photo.

    John Allan Edwards
  • Officers and ratings posing in RMS Empress of Japan during the sailing of convoy US1 in the Indian Ocean, January 1940. John Allan Edwards is third from the left in the top row.

    John Allan Edwards
  • John Allan Edwards early in his wartime service as the Navigating Officer in RMS Empress of Japan/Empress of Scotland, circa 1939-1940.

    John Allan Edwards
  • Citing of OBE awarded to John Allan Edwards, January 1946

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"I was 51 times across the North Atlantic and 12 times around the Cape of Good Hope. How many times I crisscrossed the Indian Ocean, I do not remember."


As a young person in high school, in Halifax, there were a great many of people engaged in the Merchant Navy; and from my earliest readings, I thought that it would be very nice to have a career at sea and work my way up to be master of a ship. I signed up in March of 1928 as an ordinary seaman at the bottom of the tree.

The war began, for me, on 3 September 1939 in the port of Shanghai. We were on our way from Shanghai to Vancouver, to be stopping in ports in Japan. But due to the situation, the Japanese ports were omitted and we sailed on September the fourth, escorted by HMS Cumberland.

The Cumberland escorted us to a position south of Japan and then left us; and we made our way to Honolulu and to Vancouver. [My ship was RMS] Empress of Japan. I was either fifth officer or fourth officer. [laughs] I’ve forgotten, but I had only joined the ship the year before. We arrived in Vancouver eventually, and we made one voyage on our peace time schedule. That is from Vancouver, Honolulu, Yokohama, Kobe, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Manilla, and back to Vancouver. In the latter part of November, we were taken over as a troop transport and sailed from Vancouver direct to Sydney, Australia. And then we were ordered to proceed to Greenock in Scotland.

On our way to Greenock, off the west coast of Ireland, we were bombed by a Focke-Wulf Condor [Fw 200: German anti-shipping bomber], hence the picture in your possession. The picture in your possession shows the bomb results of the second run that they had at us. The third one was the usual procedure for some reason or other, of trying to wipe out the guns crew. The two bombs that were dropped to do this, just missed the ship. One struck the taffrail [rail around the stern] on the stern and left part of the fins. They both exploded in the water, and blew the bottom of the rudder off. But a matter of a couple of inches, and I wouldn’t be talking to you now.

Then we started carrying British troops in convoy around the Cape of Good Hope to Suez. We would have the troops outbound and return with perhaps people being transferred or some refugees, but we would be sailing without escort singlehandedly back to Britain. The Empress of Japan was 21.5 knots, cruising speed.

After that, in June 1944, I took command of the [SS] Alder Park. I made one voyage from Montreal to Manchester, England; and then of all things, we were loaded and told to go to Calcutta with supplies for the [British] 14th Army [in Burma]. We returned to Halifax via the Suez Canal and Mediterranean. And when we got to Halifax, we were ordered to load again and go to Calcutta, which was not that enjoyable, it was crossing the Atlantic.

So those were long voyages in hot conditions, no air conditioning, and we were a coal burner. The poor firemen [maintaining the ship’s engines], they did their job in the stokehold with the coal and ash. They all suffered from skin eruptions and the ash, heavy perspiration. The coal dust irritated the situation, but they all served their positions and there was never any trouble. We did what we could to alleviate the situation, but there was very little you could do, apart from [put] liniments [topical skin medication] on their backs. So the thing was that you have an excellent body of people working in these ships under, apart from enemy action, physical discomfort.

Now for the record, I was 51 times across the North Atlantic and 12 times around the Cape of Good Hope. How many times I crisscrossed the Indian Ocean, [laughs] I do not remember. One trip took us completely around the world; and in all that time, I had one month’s leave because I was landed for physical exhaustion. And why I’m here, let me see: I survived the bombing off the west coast of Africa; I survived a horrible situation where there was a mix-up in a convoy where my beam mate [the ship sailing next to the Alder Park] turned the wrong way and I had to maneuver out of that, being the officer of the watch.

In Singapore, all the near misses we had didn’t damage the ship to any extent and other ships were badly damaged. I was nearly incinerated in the Red Sea with a near collision with a tanker in the middle of the night. And my beam mate going off in the north coast of Ireland, going into Glasgow was torpedoed. Why him, why not me?

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