This post was written by Heather Martin, a member of the Historylinks Museum Board and her Great Uncle was Captain William Martin.
In the weeks following the Shelbrit’s departure for Hull, newspapers reported that it was travelling to Inverness in ballast. That was most likely deliberate misinformation as the ship had loaded up with a full cargo of petrol and aviation fuel.
At 22.15 on the 18th of September, the convoy was in the Moray Firth. The men on watch heard the unmistakable sound of an aircraft and saw a German plane approaching. It passed overhead and headed off in the direction of Invergordon.
The following morning, in typically dreich autumn weather, the convoy was approaching the entrance to the Inverness Firth. One member of the crew, Frederick Mant, had a special reason for looking forward to a stop at Inverness. His wife Helen was at North Kessock. At 07.35 the Shelbrit passed the Whistle Buoy off Cromarty Bank, an important navigational point outside the Sutors. There the Cromarty Ness lines up with the Free Kirk spire in Invergordon and the Fyrish Monument, and the South Sutor lines up with the Hugh Miller Monument above Cromarty. Some of the men on the ship would have been in their bunks after a night on watch while the others would have been busy: the stewards getting the galley sorted out after serving up a breakfast; the officers checking the charts and planning their approach to the harbour; engineers concentrating on the engines, a sturdy set of Neptune Polar Diesels, with six cylinders, 420mm bore and 720mm stroke. These turned the propulsion crew that could push the ship through the sea at up to nine knots, the equivalent of just over ten land miles an hour. There were four greasers on board to ensure that every part of the engines ran smoothly. They were all Sunderland men, although Arthur Brejder had been born in Finland. He was an experienced seaman, his right arm tattooed with heart and anchor, one of the few men on board who had served in the First World War. Samuel Capper, the pumpman would have been making sure that everything was in order, ready for offloading the cargo. Captain Martin ordered the crew to set course for the Navity Bank Buoy, on the north side of the Firth.
Seven minutes later the ship hit a mine dropped by the aircraft that had crossed the previous night. The explosion was heard by Captain McGurk at the South Sutor battery. The shipload of fuel ignited. Shelbrit 1 sank slowly and her crew of twenty-one men were lost.
Only one man’s body was ever found. A copy of a telegram was found on it, “Post parcel Inverness – Ted,” and from that the Admiralty identified him as Edward McVicker, the Third Engineer. It was only when Ted’s family received the body for burial that they realized that it was not him, but his friend Walter Stewart. Ted and Walter were both from the Duncairn district of Belfast and had been best friends since they were small boys. They had worked together, as engineers on the Shelbrit I, for four years.
Nineteen of the men who died that morning are remembered on the Tower Hill Memorial in London. An inscription on the front of the World War II section reads: “The Twenty-Four Thousand of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets whose names are honoured on the walls of this garden gave their lives for their country and have no grave but the sea.”
With Captain William Martin, they are: First Mate, George Frederick Aird, 40, of Gravesend; Second Mate, Samuel Herbert Taylor, 56, of Sunderland; First Engineer, Thomas Vardy Oliver, 36, of West Hartlepool; Second Engineer, Stanley Bolton, 38, of North Shields, usual residence Shiremoor; Third Engineer, Edward McVicker, 38, of Belfast; Boatswain, Ernest Smith, 37, of Stockport, usual residence North Shields; Able Seaman, John Thomas Gill, 29, of Kings Lynn; Able Seaman, Edward Kavanagh, 58, of Arklow, Eire; Able Seaman, Frederick Garnett Manta, 45, of Aldingbourne in Sussex, usual residence North Kessock; Able Seaman, Robert Stanley Minister, 42, of King’s Lynn in Norfolk; Pumpman, Samuel Capper, 57, of Manchester; Greaser, Edward Graham, 28, of North Shields, usual residence Sunderland; Greaser, William Henry Huntley, 30, of Sunderland, County Durham; Greaser, Arthur Arvid Brejder, 62, of Finland (Naturalized British Subject), usual residence North Shields; Greaser, Henry Gill Johnson, 27, ofSunderland; Cook/Steward, Joseph Smith, 26, of Durham, usual residence South Shields; Assistant Cook/Steward, Sydney Birrell Wells, 17, of Sunderland; and Steward’s Boy, Denis Johnson, who was only sixteen years old. Denis was from London and had been a pupil at the West London Residential School at Staines.
Fourth Engineer, Walter Stewart, 34, of Belfast, is remembered on stone 29 in Carnmoney Cemetery, County Antrim.
Seaman, Maurice Lamport, 27, of South Shields, was a seaman gunner from the Royal Naval Reserve, assigned to the Shelbrit I. Maurice is remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial.
In 2007 the ship’s bell, which still bears the ship’s original name British Pluck, was recovered from the seabed. In 2000 it was presented to Inverness Museum by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Although it is not yet on public display, it can be seen by appointment.