Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Remembering. How the sea brought Petty Officer Lown to Hillswick

“To the world, he was just one. To me, he was all the world.”

I managed a walk this afternoon, in the brief glimmer before sunset that's my favourite time of the day in a Shetland November. I drove a mile or so from our house up towards the peninsula of Eshaness and parked on the abandoned piece of single track tarmac near the spectacular Heads of Grocken, an often ignored but spectacular piece of cliff scenery. To the west, the islands of Papa Stour and Foula. The Edge of the World, Ultima Thule. 

There are no sheep at this time of year and Dexter can run off the lead in pursuit of a million strange aromas. And the cliffs are fenced, so  he can't pursue seagulls in defiance of gravity.

There's a cairn from which the whole of Eshaness and Hillswick tumbles away around you, and in the pulsating, constantly changing light, the shift between blue sky, dirty storm clouds and vast white cumulus, I could see our house. The tiny, vulnerable splinter of land Hillswick sits on, waiting for the climate to change even more, the seas to rise and the Ness to become an island. Again. What will happen, then, to the bodies in that sandy, seagirt cemetery of ours, steeped as it is in legend, superstition and tragedy? The last 'witch' burned in Scotland died after being accused of seeing 'trowies' (fairy folk) dancing there.

So I was thinking about the sea, the storm we'd just had, and the one coming tomorrow (boats cancelled, travel arrangements in tatters). And I remembered. Remembered the date. 

What follows is a piece I wrote initially for Shetland Life Magazine, but which was edited and published this month in Scottish Memories. 

November is the month of remembrance. Remembering the dead of not just two world wars, but the wars that have taken place since. The ones still going on. Those who left to serve and fight, but never returned. Shetland, where I live, became a garrison in both world wars and, at the crossroads of the North Atlantic and the North Sea, a place familiar with the terrible cost of war.  There were 78 recorded air crashes on or around Shetland in World War Two, many involving multiple fatalities.
And there were those given up by the sea. It’s something rarely mentioned or discussed, and awful to contemplate - the many, many bodies washed ashore throughout Scotland in the course of world War One and World War Two. But a cursory look at  headstones in coastal cemeteries throughout the country  reveal the appalling numbers. 

There are other signs of death and destruction still visible. On remote Shetland hilltops lie the remains of some of those 78 crashes. You can see the solidified remnants of heavy bunker oil from long-lost convoys ingrained in outcrops of rock, and until quite recently a bale of raw latex, cargo from a sunken cargo ship, was used to hold down hauled-up boats below our old house at Heylor.
But the gravestones all tell stories. Notably the one (pictured) in the Hillswick graveyard at West Ayre - site of an ancient kirk, with nearby monastic settlements and signs of a broch. A place which has always been special, probably always holy, for as long as humans have been here. And past which I walk my dog every night.

The story of Petty Officer NE Lown  centres on HMS Bullen, a Captain class Frigate built in the USA as part of the lend-lease scheme which saw a great deal of military matériel being provided for the use of British Forces in the Second World War. She was system built as a submarine hunter, welded together like the notorious Liberty Ships, and her crew, probably including PO Lown, travelled to New York aboard the Queen Mary to bring her back across the Atlantic. They had some adventures in the USA, some of which you can hear about in the voice of one of the crew members, Rating John Albert Hodge interviewed here for the Imperial War Museum’s archives.

HMS Bullen - named for one Nelson’s commanders at the Battle of Trafalgar - joined the 19th Escort Group based at Belfast, and on 6 December 1944 she was off Cape Wrath, protecting a convoy which came under U-Boat attack. But the submarine hunter became the hunted. A torpedo from  U-775, commanded by Oberleutnant Erich Taschenmacher, hit her amidships, an explosion occurred on the starboard side, just behind the funnel. The aft engine room and boiler room probably flooded immediately. The ship quickly broke in two, the forepart turning on its beam ends and the aft-section floating vertically. Within an hour and six minutes, both parts of the ship had sunk. Ninety-seven men were rescued, many in a poor state from cold, injury or from inhaling oil. Seventy-two died. U-775’s part in the war was limited. She sank only the Bullen and one merchant ship. She was at sea for just 86 days.

Erich Taschenmacher survived the war, surrendering U-775, which was sunk by the Royal Navy along with dozens of other empty U-boats. U-775 was used for target practice.
And Petty Officer Lown’s body was taken by the sea, moved by the strange shifts of currents, eddies and tides, until it ended up in St Magnus Bay, to be buried in  the company of Northmavine’s dead, other lost seamen, soldiers and civilians. In the strange hush of our round graveyard with its careful wall. But where the waves from the West Ayre can still be heard, and the beam of the Eshaness lighthouse sweeps over each night.

The heartbreaking family inscription, easily missed at the bottom of the stone, perhaps expresses the real cost of war, the true and eternal story of loss. And sums up why it is important that we remember, not just on 11 November, but always, the price that was paid by so many.
“To the world, he was just one. To me he was all the world. Always loved,deeply missed.”

1 comment:

Bill said...

Rest in peace, PO Lown. There are worse places than Hillswick to see out eternity. And thanks to you, Tom, for this most moving piece.