Alexander Burton with his friend, Jack Ebsary, in Bombay, India, 1943. Jack never returned home, being the victim of U-862s torpedoes onboard SS Wayfarer.
The cable ship CS John W. Mackay.Alexander Burton
3rd Mate Alexander Burton (left) in 1943 with a photograph of his son, Leading Seaman Phillipe Burton.Alexander Burton
"So once they decided to steal the cable and they had the cable ship and they sent it out into the Atlantic to steal a cable that was running from Anzio in Italy all the way to South America."
Perhaps a little preview of the conditions at that time for the British. They owned about 150,000 miles of undersea communications cable and they were – that’s at the beginning of the war – when the war broke out and the Germans started bombing England, they destroyed all of their cable manufacturing companies and most of their cable chips. So England found themselves in a position that they couldn’t make the cable that they needed for repairs. They couldn’t buy it because the other maritime countries were France, Germany, and Italy and of course England. The United States or Russia didn’t have a cable industry because they didn’t have sort of an empire. So once the 155,000 miles of the British cable started breaking down, they found that they had no reserves to repair it with so…and they couldn’t make it and they couldn’t buy it because they were at war with the other cable-manufacturing countries.
So they had to go and steal it, which they did. Having decided to steal it, then they needed a cable ship and the cable ship they wanted was located in Halifax, the [CS] John W. MacKay. So once they decided to steal the cable and they had the cable ship and they sent it out into the Atlantic to steal a cable that was running from Anzio in Italy all the way to South America. That was installed in 1924 I think it was. And you had to remember that at that time in the Atlantic, according to Winston Churchill’s book, the Hinge of Fate, the Germans had sunk 568 ships and we had to go out into the Atlantic and on a cable ship you had to go out and then stop to try and find the cable, which is all charted on all the maps, and pick it up and then coil it in tanks ten miles to the foot because the tanks were 20 feet deep and 32 feet in diameter. So this took – to get the 450 miles that they required, took more or less 450 hours plus, having to find it and pick it up. And once we had the cable which we did, then we took that cable and then we started to link up all the British cable lines off Africa and into the Indian Ocean and run to Maldive Islands and we were about a year doing it. And that’s basically what I was involved in.
I grew from a teenager to an adult almost overnight. So that very often things will be happening around me and people will talk about what they do when they went to university and so on, and I missed out on all of that sort of stuff. And I missed out on it unfortunately when I came ashore because the Canadian government didn’t recognize the Merchant Navy as a fighting unit and I missed out on my free education and land grants and you know, awards and so on. So that was a difficult period of time. But other than that, I made it on my own you might say.