MN PoW-2

Merchant Seamen as Prisoners of War

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British Merchant Navy Graves in Timbuktu

By Bernard de Neumann

     The photograph (below) shows the two lone British war graves in the European Cemetery at Timbuctoo [sic}. They are the graves of Chief Engineer William Soutter (died 28 May 1942 age 60) and AB John Turnbull Graham (died 2 May 1942 age 23), both of the ss Allende (Cardiff). Allende was sunk 17th March 1942 off the South coast of West Africa, by U68. How do they come to be there? What is the story behind these wartime graves of British Merchant seamen who died in the legendary city so far from the sea?

The War Graves at Timbuktu –
The grave on the left is that of Graham, while the Soutter’s grave is on the right.

Photo by Tim Insoll (©)

SS Criton     The story really emanates from the fate of the ship’s company of the ss Criton, a Vichy French vessel arrested by the RN for carrying contraband, and escorted into Freetown. In Freetown she was manned by a scratch British Prize crew of recently released prisoners, other DBS (distressed British seamen), and native firemen from Sierra Leone. Her Master was Captain Dobeson, ex Wray Castle, and the remainder of the officers and crew came from various sunken ships; she also carried a token RN officer, and a stowaway.     Criton sailed in convoy SL78 on 19th June 1941 carrying a cargo of iron ore, but kept breaking down, and could not keep up with the convoy – she had been extensively sabotaged by her former Vichy French crew. Criton was ordered back to Freetown alone by the escort AMC HMS Esperance Bay at noon on the 20th.

She was spotted off Conakry on the morning of the 21st and intercepted by two Vichy French sloops, one of which fired a shell over the Criton from the port quarter. Although ordered to stop, Criton refused so one of the sloops (Air France IV), after two-and-a-half-hours of arguing through megaphones, swept the decks with machine gun fire from a range of about fifty yards.

‘Abandon Ship’ Ordered     Criton’s firemen panicked and rushed the starboard boat, and Dobeson ordered “abandon ship”. The starboard boat was launched under the orders of de Neumann (Second Officer), and the port boat under the orders of Chalmers (Chief Officer). The port boat cleared the Criton smartly, but with the firemen’s panic, it was difficult to launch and clear away the starboard boat.

Before the starboard boat had completed launching, the sloop opened up with her main armament, and shells went right through the Criton narrowly missing the starboard boat on the far side. On leaving his ship, Dobeson fell into the starboard boat and injured himself, leaving de Neumann to get the boat clear.

Conakry Prison and Court Martial

     The crew in the two boats were picked up by the sloop after she had wrecked Critonwith 46 salvoes, and escorted under guard to Conakry. They were then thrown into a special section of a camp in the jungle containing other merchant seamen, but Criton’s crew was separated off by barbed wire, and everyone was warned that they would be shot if they tried to talk to the others.

     The climatic conditions that then prevailed, typically 51″ of rain in July, a humidity of over 95%, and temperatures of about 28°C, meant the camp was continuously awash with rainwater and sewage, with the rain pouring through the roofs of the native mud-huts they occupied.

     Many of the crew became very ill and were treated in hospital in Conakry, according to criticality, in the eight beds available. These beds were in permanent occupation by various of the crew, such was the demand. However they never lost hope and made several forays outside the camp in an effort to steal a fishing boat and sail it to Sierra Leone and freedom.

     During this time there was a French Naval court-martial to investigate the circumstances of the sinking: Capt. Dobeson would not comply with the Vichy French demand that he declare that he had had the Criton scuttled.

     Following the court-martial where the crew were declared to be Pirates, in late September, all the officers, except the 4th Engineer, 3rd Radio Officer others of the crew still hospitalised and the native firemen, were transported to Timbuctoo [sic] via the River Niger.

Journey to Timbuktu

Map of West Africa Showing Journey
(Courtesy of B. de Neumann)

     The journey began with two days on a narrow-gauge railway steaming to KanKan. This was followed by two days in lorries journeying to Bamako, where they were rested for five days. Following the break they were again moved in lorries to Koulikoro, where they were then ordered into a barge strapped to the side of an ancient stern-wheeled paddle steamer.

     The steamer towed four barges, two abreast on each side, and they were in the outer barge on the port side – their adjacent barge was stacked high with wood to fuel the steamer, and the two starboard barges were stacked to capacity with ammunition. The journey on the Niger took five days, during which they were eaten alive by mosquitoes.

     At Kabara, they were forced to march five miles through the desert to the prison camp. Those remaining made several escape attempts, which prompted the Vichy French to move them inland to KanKan. Those in Timbuctoo also made escape attempts, but white men in the Sahara were easily spotted.

SS AllendeIn March 1942, the Allende was sunk, and all but five of her crew got away in the boats. They landed at Tabou on the Ivory Coast, and were later taken to Sassandre. From there they were taken in lorries for five days, followed by a day and a night in a train which brought them to Bobo-Dioulasso. From there they travelled for a further five days in lorries to Mopti. Then they were put into canoes for ten days for the journey down the Niger to Timbuctoo. They had a most uncomfortable journey from Mopti to Port Caron, lying in the bottom of canoes, drenched with water, and just about eaten alive by mosquitoes. At night and for meals they had to tie up at some native village.

For details, see  SS Allende: experience of Wilfred Williams

Prison Camp at Timbuktu

     There was not sufficient room in the original building used for the camp for the new contingent so the men of Criton and Allende were put into the new building and the officers of both ships into the old building. They were all glad to see new faces as conversation becomes very limited and things became somewhat dull when a few men are shut up together for a long time.

     Not long after their arrival at the end of April Graham and Soutter died – of sunstroke and typhoid respectively. After these men died, the Vichy French moved to repatriate the remaining members of the Allende’s crew at the end of June 1942, and in August moved the remainder of Criton’s crew back to KanKan to join their shipmates. The crew of the Criton were released in December 1942, and arrived back in the UK in January 1943

see  The Man from Timbuctoo

Compensation Confiscated

     The crew of the Criton received far worse treatment than any other British prisoners of the Vichy French, and was imprisoned longer than other MN prisoners in West Africa. After the war the French government made an ex gratia payment to the British government in compensation, but did not apologise.

     To add insult to injury, the British Labour government of the day kept the money, and the exceedingly poor treatment of the crew of the Criton conveniently forgotten. Like the Japanese, the Vichy French withheld medicines, Red Cross parcels, clothing and footwear, leaving them rotting in the sun.

     The two graves were recently attended and restored on behalf of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission by Dr Tim Insoll of the Department of Art History and Archaeology, University of Manchester.

© 2002 – Bernard de Neumann

West Africa War Graves where members of Criton’s crew were buried.

William FREEMAN, Fireman and Trimmer (age 28)
S.S. Criton. Merchant Navy. 19th November 1942. Buried Dakar (Bel-Air) Cemetery.

John SAVAGE, Greaser (Age 29), S.S. Criton. Merchant Navy. 10th September 1941. Buried Dakar (Bel-Air) Cemetery.

STRIKER, William Theophilus (Age 43).Donkeyman, S.S. Criton. Merchant Navy. 20th August 1942. (Served as George WILLIAMS, Son of William and Albertina Belvina Striker, of Freetown Sierra Leone; husband of Jestina Striker, of Freetown. Buried Dakar (Bel-Air) Cemetery.

Douglas Irvine HYLAND (Age 18), Mess Room Boy, S.S. Criton. Merchant Navy. 16th January 1943. Son of Sidney George and Jessie Violet Hyland, of Ringwood, Victoria, Australia. Buried Freetown (King Tom) Cemetery.

The following two men died in Conakry while imprisoned crew of the S.S. Criton were there. Members of the crews from Danish, Norwegian, and Greeks probably died there too.

Robert ANDERSON (Age 45) of UK, Greaser, S.S. Pandias (of Greece). Merchant Navy. 2 July 1941. Boffa Cemetery.

Reginald BELL (Age 18) of UK, Fireman, s.s. Pandias (of Greece). Merchant Navy, 20 July 1941. Son of John and Mary Jane Bell, of Newport, Gwent. Dakar (Bel-Air) Cemetery.



Also Robert Anderson – 2 July 1941, and Reginald Bell – 20 July 1941, of the  Pandias died in Conakry whilst the imprisoned crew of CRITON were there  I am also sure that members of the crews from Danish, Norwegian and Greek ships died there too.
Bernard de Neumann