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Joe Dryburgh

A few photographs of my dear old friend Joe Dryburgh who I first met at Sarina Beach in Queensland. Joe passed away on Sunday 20th July 2014.

A few of Joe’s wonderful stories, taken from “A mariner remembers” (Australian Mariners Welfare Society)

Joe Dryburgh was born in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, in 1927. He first went to sea in 1943 as a deckboy, aged 15, aboard a small “puffer” out of Coleraine. He takes up the story of his wartime and later seagoing life:

After some time aboard the puffer I was sent to sea school at Wallasey, Liverpool, where I improved my skills and became a Junior Ordinary Seaman. I shipped out on an Anglo-American tanker, Schuylkill, which joined a convoy assembled in Bangor Bay. I later joined a second convoy assembled in the deep harbour of Loch Ewe, Wester Ross. The Scottish loch looks out over The Minch, opposite the island of Harris in the Outer Hebrides. This long channel would take us south to the Atlantic for the trans-Atlantic crossing to New Jersey in the United States, where we would load supplies to support the allied war effort in Europe.

The ships then assembled for the hazardous Eastbound Atlantic crossing. The tankers were kept in the centre of the convoy for added protection. All had a known speed, since the speed of the convoy was the speed of the slowest ship. The Masters went ashore to meet with the convoy Commander. Here they received their orders and sealed alterations for a zigzag course to be adhered to night and day in all weather. They were assigned a position in a convoy of about 40 ships, with emphasis on the need to maintain this position at all times. Should a U-boat attack be made, the Commander had to know where to deploy defence escorts, the little corvettes and maybe an occasional frigate.

The ships moved out and took position. With much flag and Aldis Lamp signalling, they moved forward like a Roman phalanx. In the centre were the tankers, the most valuable ships in this war effort. Every cargo from the United States was valuable, of course: food, machinery, trucks, explosives, tanks and weapons without which the war could not be continued or won; but the most important was fuel.

These tankers were 20’s and 30’s-designed vessels with forecastle, centre castle and after castle, with a flying bridge connecting them about two and-a-half metres above the main deck with only two metres of loaded freeboard. At this height an open deck of spars had been added to allow a tanker to carry many planes, such as Hudsons and Liberators. In a disassembled manner or condition, they were covered in sewn canvas and painted to protect them from the weather.

Additional to this, many tankers had a heated tank to refuel the little corvettes and, to top it all, could carry 60 to 80 depth charges to replenish those used by the defenders. They were therefore very desirable targets whose destruction within a convoy was crucial to the U-boat Commander. If a warship picked up an Asdic signal and High Frequency Direction Finding (HFDF) positioned it, the corvettes went to work racing down the convoy lines and dropping depth charges. It was so deafening, you leaped out of your bunk fully-dressed and expecting the worst.

I sailed aboard two tankers during the war, Schuylkill and British Chancellor. I was aboard Chancellor when it was mined at war’s end. In all that time I never heard any but optimistic talk. When heavily-censored war news was relayed via the mess-room speaker reporting that the Germans used 16 year-olds in the army, we all condemned it. “How low can they get?” Never did we compare them with us, yet thousands of 15 and 16 year-olds were being torpedoed and dying on allied ships, representing one-third of the 30,000 seamen who were lost. [The Sea Cadets Corps founded in 1942 was the Royal Navy’s voluntary youth organisation for boys aged 14-18 likely to be interested in a career at sea.]

The tanker man in general did it hardest. If his ship had petroleum, it exploded in an inferno. If it had heavy oil he could drown in a sea covered with it. The old hands used to tell me, “If we’re going down, always jump from the weather side. It doesn’t look good but there’s less danger”. The benevolence of the tanker owner and the government to survivors of a torpedoed or mined vessel was well known.

And like all seamen the tanker man knew that if he survived the disaster his wages stopped then. And until he returned to port as a Distressed British Seaman and found another job, he and his family suffered.

After the war, having been promoted to Senior Ordinary Seaman, I joined a very old Blue Star ship, Albion Star, carrying coal to Patagonia, Punta Arenas and other ports in Magellan Strait, and returning with chilled and frozen meat. Next, promoted to Able Seaman, I joined the Macgregor Laird, an Elder Dempster vessel in the West African trade. We crossed the Niger Bar and went hundreds of miles inland, into the Benue River, where I caught malaria.

I sailed to most parts of the world with companies such as Union Castle Line, Canadian Pacific, Port Line, and Stanhope Shipping. In August 1949 I arrived at Wyndham in the northwest of Western Australia. After discussion with a Norwegian skippering a small barge from the West Kimberley to Darwin and other ports I jumped ship and joined him for nine months. I then returned to Wyndham, where a policeman came to arrest me. He said, “We need people like you,” and tore up the warrant.

Then I joined BHP iron boats on the coast, before being appointed Bosun on the Westralia.

I went ashore for a spell. At 34 I took a job as rigger on the Sydney Opera House and was dogman on the main sail. In those days you rode the hook, but every dogman spliced his own riding sling. This was an exciting job that allowed me to go back to night school to study for the Leaving Certificate. I next went to Queensland and sailed out of Cairns as Mate and Master on small coasters. I spent four years as Skipper of a barge for the Aboriginal community of Mornington Island.

In late 2005 I worked with the US Embassy at Port Moresby on the repair and transport to PNG of a vessel, Popoli. I brought her from the Gold Coast to Cook’s Passage, where she suffered a broken fuel tank in rough seas. Finally, after repairs at Cairns, I took her to Port Moresby.

After my wife died I took a position as volunteer senior instructor at Vanuatu Maritime College. I still teach, sometimes as a volunteer and sometimes for pay, and still go to sea when asked.

Joe Dryburgh is also a seasoned land voyager. The picture above was taken during a 3000-mile riverboat and canoe voyage in South America in the year of his 77th birthday. He sailed and paddled from Alto (High) Amazon to Manaus, Brazil. He had visited the Inca city Machu Picchu, and then Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake. At the museum of Chiclayo he examined a lazamento de darts, which he found to be exactly the same as the Australian Aboriginal throwing stick, the woomera. Then there was a bus trip across Brazil, a visit to Guyana and the River Orinoco, followed by a brief spell in the north of Venezuela before heading for home via Cuba and Singapore.

 Further Information on the Schuylkill

The Schuylkill was completed by Sir J. Laing & Sons Limited in Sunderland. She was 145m long and 18m wide. She survived the war and in 1947 was sold for scrap. The original plan was to take her to the Tyne but she was found to be too large for the shipbreaker’s yard.  So instead she was taken up to the Firth of Forth where P & W Maclellan Limited were to break her up. Whilst awaiting her fate she broke her moorings in a storm and blown across the Forth and ended up running aground near the entrance to Charleston harbour. It was a month before she was refloated before being beached at the breaker’s yard at Borrowstounness.

British Chancellor

The British Chancellor was completed in December 1921 by Sir J. Laing & Sons Limited in Sunderland for British Tanker Co. Limited. During the war she was damaged during July 1940 when she was bombed at Falmouth. She changed hands several times after the war before being sent to be scrapped in 1961 at Spezia.

Jonathan Tolhurst

About Jonathan Tolhurst

Based in London, my interests include photography, kayaking, paddle boarding, electric unicycling, teepees, robotics, programming, databases, informatics and pharmacy.

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Jonathan Tolhurst