I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
A foul storm was blasting the coast of southwest England in April 1947. Out in the Bristol Channel, a 7,000-ton ship was in trouble. The SS Samtampa was unable to make headway and was being driven ashore by the gale-force winds. Her captain recognized that his vessel was in perilous danger so he radioed for help. Early in the evening of April 23rd the Mumbles lifeboat was launched to rescue the crew of the SS Samtampa.
The Liberty Ships
The SS Samtampa was a Liberty ship. These vessels were built in America to replace the ships being lost to U-boats during World War II. The boats were needed in a hurry, so 2,700 were built quickly; the hulls were constructed of three pre-fabricated sections that were welded together rather than riveted.
U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt called the ships “ugly ducklings” but added they were destined to bring liberty to Europe.
After the war the SS Samtampa was run by the Houlder Line as a regular freighter and she was headed for Newport, in South Wales to pick up a cargo. As she was in ballast with no cargo aboard she was riding high in the water.
The fierce wind caught her and made her difficult to handle. Captain Neale Sherwell decided the drop anchor and ride out the storm. Unfortunately, the anchor cables snapped and the SS Samtampa was now at the mercy of the gale. The wind was driving his vessel onto the rocky coast that had claimed hundreds if not thousands of ships over the centuries.
Captain Sherwell sent out a distress call.
The Mumbles Lifeboat
The SOS from the SS Samtampa was picked up ashore and relayed to the nearest lifeboat station at Mumbles, west of Swansea.
The volunteer crew, all experienced sailors, was mustered and the lifeboat Edward, Prince of Wales was launched, shortly after 7 p.m. After a short while, the lifeboat’s skipper, Coxswain William J. Gammon, returned to the station to get a more precise location of the SS Samtampa.
The sea, of course, was exceptionally rough as the winds occasionally hit hurricane force. With better information, Coxswain Gammon took his lifeboat out again. Neither he nor his crew of seven were seen alive again.
Nobody knows for sure what happened but it’s assumed the lifeboat was hit by a massive wave and capsized. The overturned wreckage was found the following morning not far from where the SS Samtampa had run aground.
The Wreck of the SS Samtampa
While the Mumbles lifeboat was trying to render assistance the SS Samtampa had smashed onto rocks at Sker Point. She quickly broke into three parts where the sections had been welded together. And, her fuel tanks had ruptured.
Coastguard members ashore tried to fire rockets to the stricken ship so they could attach a line and rescue crew members by breeches buoy. This is a canvas cradle that can be used to haul sailors ashore. But the gale blew the rockets back.
A crowd had gathered to watch the drama. As they huddled against the tempest, all they and the Coastguard could do was watch the ship break apart and listen to the cries for help of the doomed crewmen aboard.
Assessing the Damage
The next morning the weather was calmer and it was possible to see the true scale of the disaster. All 39 members of the SS Samtampa’s crew had perished along with all eight lifeboatmen aboard the Edward, Prince of Wales.
One theory was that Coxswain Gammon had taken his lifeboat between the freighter and the shore. In the lee of the ship the water would be calmer and there would be a better chance of getting the sailors off the ship. The hypothesis is that a rogue wave hit the SS Samtampa which heeled over onto the lifeboat. When found, the superstructure of the life boat was crushed in, while her hull was scarcely damaged.
Many of the men aboard the freighter did not drown but were suffocated by the heavy oil that spewed from the ship’s tanks. There were two survivors. One crew member fell ill before the SS Samtampa sailed and was left ashore. In addition, the ship’s cat was found alive in the wreckage and given to a local family to look after.
Within 24 hours of the disaster, the Mumbles lifeboat station had a new boat and a new crew ready to rescue those in peril on the sea.
- Most of the SS Samtampa was salvaged, but a few of her remains can still be seen at low tide.
- The Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI) is a charity that operates 444 lifeboats around the coasts of the British Isles. Since its inception in 1824 the RNLI has saved more than 140,000 lives while 600 of its volunteer rescuers have died in the course of their duty.
- The Mumbles lifeboat station was set up in 1835. The Edward, Prince of Wales was delivered in 1924 and was the first motorized rescue vessel at the station. In the course of its history, 18 crew members of the Mumbles lifeboat station have lost their lives, while more than 800 people have been saved.
- In a longstanding tradition, the hull of the Edward, Prince of Wales was burned where she was found.
- “The Mumbles’s Lifeboats.” RNLI, undated.
- “He Was 13 When He Watched His Lifeboatman Dad Sail off to Drown in a Fateful Bid to Save Lives.” Abbie Wightwick, Wales Online, May 31, 2016
- “The Mumbles Lifeboat Disaster of 1947.” Phil Carradice, BBC Wales Online, April 20, 2012.
- “1947 Lifeboat Disaster.” Richard Porch, Parish of Oystermouth, undated.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor
Liz Westwood from UK on December 30, 2018:
This is a tragic story. Lifeboats and their crews play a vital part around the UK coastline.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on December 29, 2018:
This is a very intersting account of what happened in this WWII diaster. I like learning the history of WWII events. This was sure a tragic situation.