The Sinking of the Shelbrit: Part 1

This post was written by Heather Martin, a member of the Historylinks Museum Board and her Great Uncle was Captain William Martin.

On the morning of 19th September 1940, Battery Commander, Captain McGurk was on duty at the Coastal Defense battery on the South Sutor above Cromarty. At 7.45am he heard a dull explosion and looked up to see a vessel approaching Inverness Firth. She was partly lifted out of the water and covered with a thick cloud of grey smoke. A few seconds later he saw a flash of flame and the ship, and the surrounding sea went on fire. For about quarter of an hour, all he could see were flames. At about 8am he caught a glimpse of a part of the ship outlined in the blaze and then she disappeared.

Captain William Martin was born in Dundee, and he grew up listening to his father’s stories about his voyages to the far north as a whaler on his brother-in-law’s ship the Arctic. One of these stories, which must have been repeated many times, was of how the ship was lost, trapped by pack ice off Fury Point on the northeastern edge of Creswell Bay, Newfoundland. The moving ice stove in the port bow of the wooden ship and water flooded in. All the men’s efforts to pump it out were in vain and Captain Adams ordered them to move as much of the provisions out onto the ice as they could while all around masses of ice were thrown up. Men lost their clothing, and it was too dangerous for anyone to attempt to go below decks to retrieve anything. They gathered what they could and stood by their ship, without shelter in the heavy pelting rain, a violent gale blowing across the ice. As evening approached a fire broke out and the men watched helplessly as the vessel was enveloped. The flames rose to a great height, shedding a brilliant light over the ice. Then, just as the fire was at its fiercest, the ship disappeared beneath the ice in a great hissing cloud of steam. The crew then had to make their way slowly over the ice to where other ships of the whaling fleet, the Camperdown, Victor, Narwhal and Intrepid, had also been trapped by the ice. There, the crews were living in makeshift shelters fashioned from their ships’ sails. The following morning, when the storm had died down, the ice began to loosen and the crew of the Arctic returned to Dundee, divided among the other ships.

Captain William Martin.
Photo is from his obituary in the Dundee Courier & Advertiser, December 27, 1940.

William was born the year after this incident, in 1875, and such stories must have given him a taste for the sea, rather than putting him off. At sixteen he set off on his first voyage. Both he and his brother Alexander became merchant seamen. Eleven years later, William left Dundee for Antarctica. He was a member of the crew of the research ship Scotia, and part of the scientific staff, on the Scottish Antarctica Expedition of 1902-1904 led by William Spiers Bruce. The expedition established the first permanent weather station in Antarctica and their work laid the foundations of modern climate change studies.

William’s career took him all over the world. For his Arctic and Antarctic exploration work and his achievements in oceanographical and meteorological surveys he received distinctions. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.

During the 1st World War William was a naval officer on the “mystery ships”, the Q ships. These were a fleet of, ostensibly, small merchant craft and fishing boats which were in fact heavily armed, with concealed weapons and a double crew of Royal Navy men. Their incredibly dangerous job was to act as bait, in order to trick German submarines into surfacing to attack, only revealing their true nature at the last minute. He took part in the Suvla Bay landing at Gallipoli in 1915 and, near the end of the war, served as icemaster and pilot at Archangel.

At the outbreak of war in 1939, William was a ship’s captain with the Shell-Mex Company. His ship, the Shelbrit I, was a coastal motor-tanker. She was built by Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson, at their Neptune Yard, in 1928 for British Tanker London and named The British Pluck. When she was sold, in 1936, to Shell-Mex she became number one of several vessels named Shelbrit owned by that company. She was 240 feet in length and 32 feet in beam and could carry about 1,000 tons deadweight.

William was now sixty-six years old and due for retirement, however he continued as master of Shelbrit I for the Petroleum Board, with the rank of Lieutenant Commander. The ship’s role was to carry fuel, both petrol and aircraft fuel, around the coast in convoys which were organized the Royal Navy. This was a hazardous job: the convoys were often attacked by bombs and machine-gun fire from German aeroplanes. In addition to these direct attacks, there was the danger of mines. In 1940 and 1941 the Luftwaffe carried out mine laying sorties at the entrances to major Scottish rivers and harbours. These were mostly 500kg magnetic mines. On the east coast they were particularly targeted at the Forth and at Scapa Flow, but also the Aberdeen and the entrance to the Tay. Some of the first were dropped off Montrose in July 1940. In addition to the obvious danger to ships, clearing these mines could take several days and cause considerable disruption to the carefully scheduled convoys.

At the beginning of September 1940, the Shelbrit left Hull. The ship was registered at Swansea, but several of the twenty-one men of the crew were from the northeast of England and were leaving their “home port.” They were heading north towards the Forth and Grangemouth and then on to Inverness. Coming up the Forth, William Martin would have looked towards Leith, where his wife Annie was waiting at home.

To be continued…


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