Veteran Stories:
Stuart Byatt

Merchant Navy

  • Stuart Byatt beside the online article written by metro Calgary.

Enlarge Image
Listen to this story

"Fortunately, our two flying boats [fixed-wing seaplanes with hulls] sighted us, so we knew that help was coming. But we were there for 35 hours in the water,"


I was born in Bradford, England, 1921. I went through high school and all the rest, etc. and I went to a wireless school that was close by and I learnt the Morse code, and so I went into the British Merchant Navy as a radio officer. We were not armed forces, but we were - getting out of Germany they called us - but we were not active government forces. We were the merchant navy. I went to this naval school and learned the Morse code, etc., and as a result, I went in the British Merchant Navy. 25th of June 1941 was when I went onto my first ship in Liverpool, England.

The first six months were very, very quiet. We made three trips to the [United] States and back to England. And fortunately, nothing spectacular occurred. We were in and out of convoys. That was pre-war for the U.S., so it wasn’t quite a heavy wartime. And after that, the States had come into the service, and so things were a lot busier then.

After that, I was on a ship that did two trips, one to Halifax and one to Montreal. We took in food and wheat, etc., for England. Now, those were all nice and quiet trips. One trip to Australia, we came from England across the Atlantic and through the Panama Canal and across the Pacific to Australia. We couldn’t go around the south of Africa at that time because it was quite covered with the U-boats from the German side.

But that was a nice quiet trip there and back. Then I had my time of, what do you say, excitement. I was then assigned to a ship which was owned by Saguenay Terminals of Canada but running under the British flag. We went down to Takoradi-Sekondi in West Africa [now Ghana], which I forget now, I think it was called Christian Country. It’s next to Nigeria. And we loaded there and headed back towards Freetown in Sierra Leone. Now, everything was quiet, but the night before we were to get into Toronto, we were attacked and my ship was hit by a torpedo from one of the submarines.

Now, this was my excitement, if you’d like to call it, of the time. Yes, I had to jump overboard. On a chance one of the lifeboats was damaged and couldn’t be used, and the other went down and it was overloaded and I was too late, so I guess I threw my boat that I had, my radio into a special suitcase because I couldn’t do anything with it, and I jumped overboard as well. Now, that was, oh, shortly after 8:00, between 8:00 and 9:00 pm, the 25th of June, 1943. Now, I was in the water for about 35 hours. At first I was alone and then I got together with about three other people, so there were four of us. However, two were badly damaged. One gentleman had been hit by a board from on the ship there and he was a solid bruise from his neck to his rear end. And he was pretty sick. And then the cook, he’d been caught by the propeller of the ship, which hadn’t cut off fully, and he was gashed on his knee, his hip and his elbow. And he was really suffering in the saltwater.

Fortunately, our two flying boats [fixed-wing seaplanes with hulls] sighted us, so we knew that help was coming. But we were there for 35 hours in the water, and then we were picked up by what they call an ML, motor launch, similar to the other boats, but they didn’t have guns, they had torpedoes on the ship. And the flying boats came back and dropped first an air force life jacket. We were being surrounded by barracuda and they’re as bad as a shark and in some respects more so because they have their mouths at the front and they were pretty dangerous. Fortunately, the aircraft dropped us some chlorine, I don’t know what you called them, but they were carried by the navy and the air force. And that made the water all green and yes it was horrible to get into your mouth, I will admit. But it, it surely chased off all the fish there that were around, and you could see the water all going greeny around you. And these fish, barracuda, they came up to it and just right to the coloured part and they backed off just like a goldfish hitting the side there. So we were on that luckily and we had to wait until they came the second day, an ML, motor launch, and there were two of them that came around and they picked up quite a few. The vessel I was on, it picked up 13 of them.

Now, I don’t know how many of the other it picked up, but we were managed and saved and we were taken into Freetown in Sierra Leone. And we were there for quite a while. At first, I couldn’t eat, my mouth was dry. I don’t think I would have lasted another 24 hours. But I’m lucky and I got out of that. And then we were put on a ship and we were taken back to England. Now, that was all my excitement, should I say, because the rest of my sail days, we didn’t have any dangers of that kind. I know in the convoys going across the Atlantic, we did a lot of changing directions. Some days we were going due north or the days due south to avoid all the U-boats from the Germans. But I managed to do several trips across the Atlantic back and forward without any problems.

We knew we went to sea that it could be one hour, one year, it could have been anything. Yes, we, those things you knew. The one thing was, a merchant ship was not equipped with guns for attack. They could only have guns facing for the 180 degrees down towards the stern of a ship. If you had one going ahead, you were classed as an armed force.

We knew that there was any time that I might not get back home, yes, that was, we knew that was a possibility. When we were being torpedoed and this kind of stuff, and you seen or heard a torpedo hitting your ship, you’ll never forget it. And I knew then and I just had to hope and pray that I survived and I did. My roommate, my cabin mate, he never did, he didn’t get found.

I’m proud of what I did. A lot of people said I was a draft dodger by going in the merchant navy instead of the armed forces, but we were just as necessary, if you’d like to call it, as the armed forces were. Because I brought home grain and meat from Canada and this stuff and then trips down to the Argentine, we brought meat like the dickens, a whole ship full of it.

Follow us