The story of Mavis and Jack

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Able Seaman Jack Hill, RN, & Mavis Holt
Late Winter ~ 1942

This is their story


Read out by the minister at Mavis' funeral, when she died in March of 2017, just short of her 94th birthday. Her long life was not matched with good fortune, but beset with tragedy, and this is her story.


Mavis Wardle was a wife, a mum, a grandmother and a very treasured aunt.

This lovely lady you all knew, by one of those titles. We pay tribute to her now, and as we give thanks for the almost 94 years of her life, I think we also give thanks for the privilege of just knowing her. For we have all benefited at some time in our lives from her kindness, love and generosity. It is hard to recall now how hard her life has truly been, for although Mavis did find a great deal of happiness and contentment in family life, she would also know more than anyone's fair share of tragedy. Brought up in a Methodist chapel family, she had a reassuring belief and faith that would sustain her during her darkest hours.

And there were many of those.

Mavis was born on May 1st, a Mayday baby, in 1923. The third of four daughters, to Harry and Violetta Holt of Coalville, the four Holt girls were affectionately known by their father as his "four GEMS", from their initials - her sisters being Gladys, Edna, then Mavis herself, and the youngest Sylvia. Little jewels they were too. The Holt family were well-known in Highfield Street, and their early years were marked by regular attendance at chapel and Sunday School.

In the dark days of the middle of the Second World War, aged 19, Mavis met and married naval rating, Jack Hill, in the late winter of 1942, and this just a year or so after the four daughters had lost their mum to cancer. Harry, a veteran of the First World War and now a widower, had struggled tirelessly along with Violetta bringing up his four girls during those endless hard years of the 20s and 30s.

But tragedy was to strike the family again, within weeks of Mavis' marriage. Her new husband would be lost at sea in mid-Atlantic when his ship was torpedoed and sunk. Mavis would receive the dreaded telegram to learn that Jack was posted missing, and then, only weeks later, would discover that she was expecting Jack's son. Now a widow, with a child on the way, life must have seemed more than harsh. The war's end, and victory when it came - as it would have been for all war widows - must surely have been so bitter-sweet.

It was in the years from the mid-forties to the mid-fifties that Mavis became particularly close to sister Edna. With older sister Gladys married and without children, and younger sister Sylvia still a young girl, it was natural that she would be drawn towards Edna, and her two sons, Alan and Rodney, who were to become natural pals and playmates to cousin Michael.

They became inseperable during these years, and Alan remembers some of the times spent together:- walking to Bardon Hill for a picnic, so that the three boys could scramble around together. Or on many occasions catching the bus from Coalville to Whitwick, and walking up to Spring Hill, and sitting on the hillside amongst the bilberry bushes picking bilberrys for pie and jam making. The three cousins were supposed to be helping with the picking but tended to consume more than they contributed - ending up with purple fingers and lips. Then it was down to Spring Hill Farm for a bottle of Vimto and perhaps an ice-cream whilst Mavis and Edna would have a cup of tea.

Whilst all three sisters were very close to Mavis, it was Edna that spent the most time with her because of the boys naturally wanting to be together.

So apart from the welcome help within the family, Mavis spent several years alone, bringing up Michael, but always hoping against hope that Jack may well turn up one day - he was after all, just 'missing', as he was never found, and it was not unknown for such things to happen. But slowly, acceptance took hold. When Michael was still a little boy, in the early 1950s after some ten years of widowhood, Mavis did again find happiness when she met Percy Wardle, our beloved grandad and uncle of memory, and they had many happy years together. In Percy, Michael found the loving father that war and fate had robbed him of. But Jack was never forgotten, and frequently talked of in the family, all the cousins being always aware of the sacrifice Michael's father had made, as well as of Mavis' loss.

Percy worked, for a short time, on the Midland Red as a conductor. At that time, Mavis and sister Edna worked at Chad's café on Coalville Clock Tower, a favourite tea stop beloved of Coalville bus crews. So both sisters were destined to meet their husbands there. Mavis and Percy eventually settled in Newbold Verdon, which would be Mavis' home village for the next 50 or more years, and they went on to have a son of their own, Phillip. Sadly, years later, when working at Desford Tubes, Percy was to suffer a terrible accident at work which so badly injured a foot that it did in effect cut short his life, and he died in the mid-1970s leaving Mavis a widow once more, and for this past 40 years or so.

It is hard to credit how tragedy can strike one wife and mother so many times, but in the years that followed, Mavis would also lose both of her sons; both at a similar age in their forties, and both through heart disease. The death of first Michael, and then 15 years later, Phillip, added to her ever increasing burden of loss.

Michael's widow, Val, was a great comfort and constant companion for many years after, on many frequent and enjoyable shopping trips and days out.

Nonetheless, Mavis meeting with her friends in the village, usually at the weekly Monday Lunch Club, and throughout retained a faith that is a lesson to us all, displaying a quiet strength, love and fortitude that we can only marvel at now, given all that befell her.

In those later times, Mavis' found great consolation in the company and love of her grandchildren. Anna-Marie, John and Ross were a great joy to her over the years, as were her several nephews - as well as continued contact and regular meeting with her three sisters, all of which would themselves die long before her. Mavis always said she didn't want to be 'the last one left,' but time and events would prove it to be so.

Later years would see the increased infirmity that led to her reluctantly giving up the Newbold home she had shared with Percy and her two boys, to move into the bungalow at Barwell. By this time, grandson John, along with Clare, now very much taking on the mantle of his late father, made it their job to care for their grandma's best interests and to be sure she had all she needed in her new home. It must have seemed that she was leaving some very deep roots, and then again, even more so to move yet further into Barwell where she found sanctuary and friends in Saffron House retirement home for her more peaceful last years.

So today, we not only remember Mavis, and thank providence that she was our grandmother and aunty, we remember all those that she so dearly loved, all those that have gone before, in war and peace, by accident and ill-health or, like Mavis herself, through that toll which age and time exerts on each and every one of us.

Mavis, that lady so quietly spoken, so kind-hearted, the last of her generation, who showed us that tragedy and adversity really could make us stronger, but above all else, showed us all, such unconditional love and affection.

We give thanks that we knew, and loved you. We miss you.


Many boys of the 1950s generation grew up knowing of brothers and cousins, fathers and uncles, that didn't come back from the war. Many a lad was influenced by the stories attached to those family tragedies. So it was for me.

I heard all about how Uncle Jack was a gunner, who had died at sea, was reported missing, serving in the Royal Navy. There were a few unusual facts in the story that perhaps even my mother didn't quite understand herself, and she would have been astonished at what we have found out since. But for me as a 10-year-old lad, they were over my head and only became something of a mystery in later years. Suffice to say that Jack, though long dead, instilled in me a life-long interest in the Royal Navy, enough for me to start reading stories of naval history at quite a young age.

Aged about 10, the real interest sparked when I picked up a tattered copy of a paperback book at a Scout bazaar - costing about 6d if I recall rightly and a week's pocket money - about the famous 'Battle of the River Plate'. This sea battle had been the first significent naval action of the war, one that had literally occurred only twenty years before I was actually reading about it. Memories of those dark days for folks older than me were still very fresh, raw even, and all very much still in the recent past. I learnt of how our naval gunners had beaten off a much larger German warship and ultimately won the day. That famous action would prove to be our only real victory for quite some considerable time.

I often wondered if the stories of that battle, as they had filtered down through news just before that first Christmas of the war, had also influenced the 18-year-old Jack in some similar way. The fact that I never succeeded in joining the navy myself was not for want of trying, but that is by the by. But that deep interest did help greatly, over 50 years later, to uncover some remarkable facts about Jack's service, if only in having some inkling as to where I might find them.

Jack was lost at sea just eight years before I came into this world. Still very much a presence in the family, the grief still deeply felt, I recall my mum telling myself and my brothers in the 1950s the story of how her sister, our Aunt Mavis, had met and married a sailor. How within six months of their marriage, she had lost him to a German U-boat. Of how she had waited years for his return, for she never gave him up as dead. Somehow, Mavis always believed, always felt, that Jack had actually survived the sinking of his ship and one day would return.

So Jack was really my uncle by marriage and therefore my mum's brother-in-law. In many ways, because of Jack's influence on all of the Holt family, the Holt family story is paradoxically also Jack's story. One paradox was that his real name was not Jack. He was christened John William Hill when he was born in Donington le Heath in 1921, and like a lot of boys called John, he assumed this obvious nickname as a lad, and kept it. I do also wonder if 'Jack' being the traditional affectionate name for a naval rating had some bearing on Jack himself joining the navy.

Mavis was 19, and her younger sister just 12, when she met this dashing young naval rating on “The Monkey Walk” in Coalville. Along the north side of Marlborough Square there was, and still is, a wide footpath that was colloquially known by that somewhat disparaging term. This tongue-in-cheek name has become so much embedded in local folklore that a pub, on the site of a former bank, is known by exactly that name today. It appears the tradition lives on.

It had long been the practice, almost from when Coalville as a town was first founded, for local lads and lasses to 'promenade' in that area on fine weekend evenings as a way of finding boy and girlfriends, and perhaps ultimately a marriage partner. Dances and cinema trips would then be the usual routine as couples got to know each other better, or not, as the case may be.

So it was exactly in that way that Mavis met Jack.

Mavis, and her three sisters, had not long lost their mum, the year before in 1941. Violetta Holt had succumbed to cancer aged only 41, in the second full year of the war, leaving husband Harry a widower and four daughters bereft of their mum. Harry was a miner, a veteran of the Great War, whose own wartime experiences had left him with ongoing issues of depression and nervous anxiety. It was a common problem for tens of thousands of men coming back from that monumental conflict, and one that we would today almost certainly call post-traumatic stress disorder. Harry had a couple of periods of 'convalesance' in the 1920s and 1930s, periods of quiet away from the family to recover from nervous exhaustion. Life for any miner in the Coalville in that era was an ongoing financial struggle to make ends meet.

Nonetheless, Harry and Violetta had brought up four daughters, Gladys, Edna, Mavis and Sylvia, affectionately termed by their father as his four 'GEMS', after their initials. The family were well-known in Highfield Street, and their weekly routine was governed by their father's shifts at South Leicester Colliery, the girls' schooling at the village school in Hugglescote, and chapel. Attendance at chapel was required twice on Sunday, once to Sunday School for bible instruction, as well as either the morning or evening service. Harry and Violetta were strong Methodists, as were many folk in the area. Violetta's own father was a lay preacher in Shepshed, and the christian faith ran very deep on both sides of the whole family.

In 1941, at the time of their mother's death, the youngest girl, my mum Sylvia, was then 11. The loss of their mum hit all of the girls very hard, as can be well imagined. The eldest at 26 years was Gladys, by then grown and already left home to work in service to a Loughborough family in the bakery business.

The next eldest sister, Edna at 23, was already married with a young son. Then came Mavis, 18, and lastly Sylvia, her baby sister. Mavis had been 7 when Sylvia was born. They were a typical miner's family, in a town and street of similar mining families.

If not employed at mining or other work at the pit, most local men were 'on the railway' or on the post, on the buses, or worked for the local council. The rest were in various light and heavy engineering or electrical workshops and trades, many of which were connected to or supported the mining industry. And a great many of the men over the age of 45 were war veterans, just like Harry.

That early naval victory mentioned above was a rare victory indeed, for there were no more to be had for a very long time indeed. Once the war really got going, in the spring of the following year in 1940, it was a seemingly never-ending story of defeat and disaster, withdrawal and retreat. Things just went from bad to worse, the only slight relief perhaps being the Battle of Britain, which at the time was not even regarded as the great victory it is today, but merely as a relief from the immediate threat of invasion and a certain and comprehensive defeat. By 1941, when Mavis' mother took seriously ill and cancer was diagnosed, her passing in late summer was relatively swift by today's standards. Certainly, by the Christmas of that disastrous year, things were very bleak indeed, and not just for the Holts.

It might have been true that immediate invasion had been staved off, but the war news just went from bad to worse, all down the line. Shipping losses at sea mounted, defeats in North Africa and the Mediterranean came one after another. For a generation like Harry's, who thought they'd fought 'the war to end all wars', the world must have seemed to be coming to an end. Indeed, for Harry and his four daughters, it already had.

Thousands of British and Empire servicemen and women had already lost their lives to the German onslaught, and on top of that, the war was also now being fought at home. Bombing of cities and towns had started soon after the Battle of Britian had ended, and from then on they just increased in number and intensity. Sylvia herself recalled standing with her mum and sister at the bottom of their father's garden, looking over the fields of Standard Hill and seeing the glow in the southern sky as the centre of Coventry burned to the ground some thirty miles away.

Coalville itself, small town though it was, was not immune to air raids, with some nearby factories already targets of the Luftwaffe by reason of their manufacture of all sorts of materials for the military. For the Holts, as bad as the First War had been, notably in the unprecedented number of men's lives lost, this war now seemed far, far, worse. And late in 1941, there seemed to be no end to it all. Victory, even if it could be achieved, was a long, long, way off, at the end of the darkest of tunnels, down which there was no visible light. The sheer disappointment amongst the older generation that, despite all those sacrifices of the First War, and all those promises made thereafter, that it had all been for nothing, must have been very palpable.

From a naval point of view, late May of 1941, saw the worst naval disaster so far during the episode of the sinking of the 'Bismarck'. But even that victory had been at a very great cost, of more than 1,400 men killed in the unbelievably tragic loss of the pride of our fleet, “HMS Hood”. Other European countries were going down before the German jackboot like flies, Crete had been lost with enormous casualties, and then in the summer, the apparently unstoppable German war machine had invaded Russia. Surely, things could not get any worse.

But they did. The attack on Pearl Harbour, closely followed by the naval disaster of the loss of another two of our best and biggest battleships, along with most of their crews with nearly another 1,000 men lost and as many again taken into captivity, all must have surely sent a shiver down the spines of even the most stout-hearted. Now there was war with Japan too; folks must have asked, how on earth were we going to even manage that, let alone win it. The only bright spot was that the Americans were now involved and we were not alone any more. It was their involvement that, in the most curious of ways, brings us back to Jack's story.

Exactly when Jack joined the Royal Navy, on which date, we don't know. Whether he volunteered and chose his service, or was conscripted and assigned his naval role, we don't know that either. He may even have joined right at the start of the war, aged 18, and so perhaps had already been an old hand and seen some service. If for some reason he had deferrment from 'call-up', he might not have received his papers until he was 20. My guess is that the latest he could have joined would be towards the end of 1941 for his basic training, then having been selected for training as a gunner, would have almost certainly gone to the naval gunnery school on Whale Island, 'HMS Excellent,' to learn his job. His wedding photo with Mavis, in the late winter of 1942, shows him proudly in his Number Ones, the term for a naval rating's very 'best blues'.

Whatever the answer to how he came to be in the navy, he was proud enough of his job to make sure the sleeve of his arm was pulled round just a little bit to show off his shining new gold, gunner's badge. The gun, with one star above, and the letter 'Q' below, denotes that Jack was a 'Quarters gunner – 3rd class', so very junior and literally just out of training.

In effect he was a gun layer, and would sit in the gun layer's seat, a bit like an old fashioned farm tractor seat. He would raise or lower the angle of the gun, and train it to the left or right for firing, by quickly turning the adjustment wheels whilst also looking through the long telescopic lens at his target. Another rating loaded the gun manually by lifting the shell and sliding it into breech itself. Yet another would slam the breech door shut and possibly press the button to fire the gun when ordered by the gun captain.

Jack was one of a team of four or five men to each gun, and his job was to ensure the gun was on target, both for direction and elavation.

To understand more of what Jack did, what he trained for, and the circumstances of his loss, we need to delve a little into the background of those aspects of the naval war at sea that would ultimately determine his story.

Much of this is well known to the wartime generation and those such as myself who came shortly after, growing up steeped in the stories, terminology and folklore of that huge conflict, but as time passes, it is less well-known amongst younger generations. Even lads of my post-war generation knew the difference between a battleship and a destroyer, or the effective ranges of a 15-inch gun compared to a 4.5-inch, from when they were at junior school. Perhaps some filling in of basic information may be helpful here, as well as placing events on a timeline that puts things into context for Jack and Mavis and their families.

By that Christmas of 1941, we were not only building more warships of every size, but also 'borrowing' extra ones from America, those being the 50 redundant, leaky, First War destroyers that we gained on 'lend-lease'. All these, as well as the ones we were frantically building for ourselves, from aircraft carriers down to tiny corvettes and minesweepers, had to have crews, and all needed gunners. In fact, along with all the other trades and skills, we needed lots of gunners, and very quickly.

By the time Jack was doing his gunnery training, German submarine attacks on our merchant shipping were already taking their terrible toll. The main answer to this type of attack was to organise shipping into convoys, hopefully escorted by enough warships to deter U-boat attack, and if not deterred, then at least to attack the submarines themselves.

The Admiralty's plan was simply to revert to what had been done in the First War. Huge convoys with armed escorts was the larger answer, but with merchant ships also being given some form of armament to defend themselves as best they could. Shortage of warships of all types meant that some convoys were not escorted at all. Defence also now meant against air attack as well as submarine or surface attack, and therein was a big problem for the British government.

Just as in the First War, there was great political unease about what to do about unarmed merchant ships. This worry came about out of British nervousness about not being seen to play by the rules – the rules of war. Those rules are governed by the Geneva Convention, a rulebook still observed by most democratic countries of the free world. Following the horrors, and some would say unethical German practices of the First War, such as sinking merchant ships without any prior warning, previous conventions of warfare were updated in 1929 at a huge world-wide convention held in the Swiss city of Geneva. These strict rules covered how non-combatants and civilians would be treated, as well as the treatment of prisoners-of-war. They covered how war could be waged at sea, what actually defined a warship and what didn't, and indeed, what was a civilian and what wasn't.

The German argument, used to justify torpedoing merchant ships without any warning in that First War, deemed that any ship that carried arms or munitions of any sort made it a warship, and therefore liable for attack and to be sunk – without warning! They applied this warped logic even to passenger liners with women and children aboard.

In the end, for our government and the admiralty, it all came down to a name. Having decided that merchant ships would now most certainly have to have arms to defend themselves from all sorts of attack, it was simply a matter of what they were called, the terminology, but without being seen to break the rules. Therefore, they were designated 'Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships.' Otherwise known as 'DEMS'. It was a feeble effort to make the point that they were, after all, just merchant ships. Not that any amount of messing with words bothered the Germans one bit, not in that war or the First.

Merchant ships would be fitted with large calibre naval guns for seaborne defence, and fixed or mounted machine guns for air defence. Merchant seamen, are and always were, civilians, and the rules of war were that they should be treated as such.

So although it was not at first deemed appropriate for a ship's own crew to man these newly mounted guns, on many ships, they did just that. It was always intended that the job of maintaining and firing the guns would have to be done by Royal Navy personnel, but it wasn't always so, and not always possible. In fact, on a few British merchant ships, guns were manned by army personnel of the Royal Artillery. But from the point of view of the rules of war, if a merchant ship was captured, the civilian crew should be treated as civilians and ultimately returned to their home country, and naval ratings were properly prisoners-of-war and could be detained as such. It was natural enough that the naval gunners destined to man these guns would be called DEMS gunners, which is how we know them today.

Naval ratings, also known by the slang term of 'matelots' (pron: matt-lows), as well as 'Jacks', who passed their course at gunnery school would be assigned their ship according to the size of guns they trained on. A new gunnery rating couldn't hope to be drafted to a huge battleship with the biggest 15-inch guns; he would learn his trade on smaller guns first.

The calibre of guns back then were designated in inches, the number being the diameter of the opening in the gun barrel across the centre from one side to the other. The guns fitted to merchant ships tended to be the old secondary armament from redundant cruisers or destroyers, so were most likely to be 3-inch or 5-inch naval guns. A 3-inch gun, although regarded as small and something of a pea-shooter in big gunnery terms, could still punch a fair sized hole in the hull of a submarine wallowing on the surface. Two hits would almost certainly be fatal. Armed merchant ships, given the chance of a fair fight, could give a very good account of themselves.

It was on guns of such size that Jack would find himself working. The circle of a 5-inch shell placed standing up on its end would cover roughly half the width of an A4 sheet of paper, and perhaps be a little more than the length of a computer keyboard in length. They were heavy, though not too heavy for one man to carry. Generally, they were loaded into the breech of the gun by hand. Fate would determine that Jack would volunteer to be a DEMS gunner, and so be posted to a merchant ship - but as a Royal Navy rating. Though this particular posting would be slightly more unusual.

When the USA came into the war during that fateful December of 1941, one thing quickly became very apparent for their navy. They didn't have enough gunners either, not even enough to man all their own warships. They certainly didn't have enough to man their massive fleet of US merchant vessels as well. So an agreement was quickly reached with the British government; we would 'loan' them some of our naval gunners to cover their shortfall until enough of their own naval ratings could be trained up.

Unlike Britain, the Americans never had any qualms over terminology or the need to use long, vague acronyms to describe a gunner. Not for them the worry of issues over whether defending a grain carrier or oil tanker was an act of war or not, nor the use of the word 'arms' or 'armed'. They came out with it plain and simple; their naval gunners on merchant ships were designated 'Armed Guards'. Their ratings were in the United States Navy and wore the badge 'AG' on their uniform sleeves.

Jack would incredibly find himself one of a very small number of RN men to be loaned to the American navy, to work alongside their Armed Guards to make their numbers up. I say 'incredible' because, he would not have expected such a turn of events, and would have scarcely believed it when first told where he was going. On Jack's ship, a large oil tanker, the requirement needed to man all the guns was for fourteen men. This was made up of twelve armed guards, and two Royal Navy DEMS gunners.

Thus Jack, having volunteered for 'DEMS' service and undergone further training, would receive a 'draft chit' telling him he would be a gunner on an American tanker, the 'SS Jack Carnes'. This tanker moreover was brand-new, one of dozens being built at the same time as the American war machine revved up to maximum output, having only been launched the year before and had just made it's maiden voyage only in the February, 1942. Another fact we cannot know is just where Jack joined his namesake ship, but we have to presume it was from a UK port.

A great deal of information we have now is by way of the internet, and the massive host of websites of the last 20-years or so that deal with wartime naval matters, from lists of ships sunk, to crew lists and naval veteran memories. There is a great deal of detail out there now, much of which Jack's family, and namely Mavis, when they first learnt of his loss, could never have been aware of. All they knew was what the Admiralty telegram told them at the time, and perhaps a little more detail later when it was revealed that Jack was in fact serving on an American tanker, and they learnt of its name and approximate place of its loss. Indeed, as a lad learning about Jack first hand from those that knew him, that is all I would know too for the next fifty-something years.

One of the snippets of information we gain now is that this new coal-fired steam tanker, owned by the Sinclair Oil Company and built at Wilmington on the Delaware River, was a very busy ship indeed. Other information from another website is that this new tanker did a run to Murmansk on the perilous arctic convoys. But I am satisfied now that this was a story put about by the relatives of one of the American crew's survivors, perhaps from misunderstood information, extracts of which still appear online, but it is mistaken. Firstly, the ship's name does not appear on any of the arctic convoy lists available online, on any of the outward or return runs to Russia.

Secondly, the ship's name does appear on the excellent 'Arnold Hague Database' online, as part of the website, ConvoyWeb. Therein is the 'SS Jack Carnes' story, a full list of ports, arrival and departure dates, from when she set out on her maiden voyage on February 25th from New York. All possible dates are accounted for even allowing for minor errors. She spent the first few months of her career between the oilfields of The Gulf of Mexico and New York, then made one trip through the Panama Canal and round to Brisbane, which now turns out to have then been a little suburb of San Francisco, with an oil terminal. The data records her passing through the ports of Cristobal and Balboa on the canal in both directions, thence back to the Gulf to collect a cargo of oil for her first trans-Atlantic trip, to Belfast.

But we can be confident that she made those voyages without Jack. The earliest Jack could have joined her would have been July 21st, when she left Swansea for her first trip back across the Atlantic, this time to Aruba, to collect another cargo of much needed oil. She seems to have brought oil from Texas City in the Gulf to Belfast the first time in late June, then called at Swansea to rebunker, before her first trip back across the Atlantic to Aruba. She came back to Belfast once more with that cargo, then once more to Swansea to rebunker again. If he joined on 21st July, that would fit with embarkation leave following completion of his DEMS training, which seems to have nicely coincided with his 21st birthday at the end of June. In which case, Jack had already been to Aruba once, and was on his way back to that port again when he was lost.

After Jack and Mavis had married in Coalville, in the spring of 1942, Jack would have had a very short leave, possibly when straight out of his first gunnery training, but prior to his further DEMS training. It is also very likely that on the day of his marriage, he had no idea where or to what ship he would be going, or even that he would become a DEMS gunner, though he may have already volunteered for the role. The badge on his sleeve does not denote that distinction, so it is also likely that he went straight off to DEMS training right after his wedding. It would then be after that further training period that he would have had one more period of leave, maybe a couple of weeks or so, on what might be termed 'embarkation leave'. This was routinely given to service personnel about to serve a period of time abroad and for whom 'Home Leave' would not be an option for a couple of years or more.

The badge Jack would have
worn after his DEMS training

To the best of our knowledge, this leave would be the last time Jack and Mavis would see each other, sometime during June of 1942. Jack had his 21st birthday towards the end of June, on the 26th, and all forces personnel, if still in the UK, used to move heaven and earth to get home for that special day. It is not unreasonable to suppose Jack was home with Mavis for that day, and maybe for a week or so after. The coincidence of training courses, imminent and indefinite sea service and his 21st would have been just too much a temptation to not to try and do something to get leave to go home.

When an oil tanker discharged a cargo of oil, it was the practice to then re-load with thousands of barrels of fresh water ballast. This prevented her from riding too high in the water as an empty vessel, for a rudder and propeller half out of the water makes a very inefficient ship. Having unloaded oil at Belfast Lough, she then loaded the water ballast, and crossed the Irish Sea to make her way to Swansea docks to rebunker with Welsh coal. From there, she crossed the Atlantic to Aruba, in the southern Carribean, in order to load yet another cargo of much needed oil for Britain's war effort.

The dates on the database quoted above tell us that the 'Jack Carnes' had already made one trip to Aruba, then back to Belfast, and then Swansea. She arrived in Swansea again to rebunker with coal on August 22nd, and sailed for Aruba on the 25th. That is the very latest Jack could have joined his namesake ship. The only certainty is that when the 'Jack Carnes' departed Wales once more, Jack was aboard for that second run and about to fulfill the role he had trained for. But, given the dates we have, and surmising when Jack had leave and when he would have finished training, give or take a week or so, it is very possible he was on that first run to Aruba too. In which case, he had already crossed the Atlantic once, and was about to do so again. Only his full service record will tell us when he actually became one of the 'SS Jack Carnes' ship's company, and indeed, when he actually joined the navy.

Another snippet of information that comes out of the research is that all DEMS gunners were volunteers for that role. He must have asked, or been suggested, for the role and then agreed to the job, and as such, would then have been appraised of the 'risks'. All volunteers would have been told how dangerous it would be, in more ways than one, and not just the danger of being sunk.

Firstly, they would have been made aware of the anomaly of being a British naval rating, in uniform, aboard a foreign merchant vessel, where it was obvious to the Admiralty and government that we were breaking the spirit of the Geneva Convention if not the actual code. And with that would have been an awareness of how the Germans viewed this and their refusal to accept any British explanation of reasons for placing guns, however defensive, aboard civilian ships.

Secondly, the implications in all this for Jack were that, should he be taken prisoner, he may not be treated very well, even treated very cruelly. He may not be allowed the normal facilities that prisoners-of-war under the rules of the Convention were deemed to have a right to, such as access to letters from home, Red Cross parcels and many other things – including food. Today, we can safely regard the German attitude of that time as hypocritical in the extreme and just a clever Teutonic bartering of words to justify their own murderous intent and actions. Historians now are very sure that both British and American officials in government had already come to that very same conclusion following German practices at sea in the First War.

Jack's naval paybook would make no mention of “SS Jack Carnes.” Officially, he was part of the ship's company of 'HMS President III.” This was partly to show, if captured, that he was a bona-fide Royal Navy rating, on official business for His Majesty's Navy, and his cap tally would display HMS whatever ship he was on. But it was also largely for pay purposes. There were hundreds of DEMS gunners, serving on just as many different ships, and for naval pay and accounting, it was easier if all were considered to be part of the same ship. This ship did actually exist, a former WW1 corvette, converted essentially into a floating office and moored in the Thames just above Blackfriar's Bridge. She exists still, albeit now decommissioned, and serves as a historic-ship venue for wealthy businesses to host conferences and corporate events. It is doubtful if Jack ever stepped aboard her, or even knew where she was. It's a sad fact that when scrolling down the huge lists of naval ratings killed in WW2, you will see 'DEMS' and 'HMS President III' many, many times. There were hundreds like Jack - volunteers all, heroes each and every one.

Just what would Jack have found when he first went aboard the 'SS Jack Carnes'? From his own point of view, to be drafted to an American ship, and a new one at that, must have seemed to be some sort of deliverance. Under training, he would have heard endless tales of the hardships of new matelots sent to serve on rustbucket smaller warships that were tossed about like corks in rough seas, the discomfort of crowded messdecks where hammocks were close-slung by the dozen in rows, and the hardships and filth endured by crews in the regular task of coaling ship if one was unfortunate enough not to get an oil-fired vessel. Larger ships like battleships and cruisers may have ridden rough seas better, but there was more 'bull', discipline, and a lot more observance of strict rules of ancient naval etiquette. On this American merchant ship, he would still be under strict naval rules, but things would still be much more relaxed than he could ever have hoped for.

Another point worth making is when we consider the fact that he was just one of two Royal Navy ratings aboard. Both would have come under the jurisdiction of the senior American naval officer aboard for his gunnery duties, and under that of the vessel's captain for other matters. The senior American gunner was a Petty Officer in the USN, and it says a lot about both British men that their service record to date, their bearing and discipline, that they were trusted to be the only Royal Navy ratings aboard and thus to represent their service, and king, to the very highest standards in all respects. Not something a lot of folks would realise now.

We can be sure Jack would have marvelled at conditions aboard this new American tanker. Not that there would have been any luxury, for this was a speedily built 'utility' vessel, the tanker equivalent to the dozens of liberty ships American shipyards were knocking out almost daily. Though built to a basic wartime specification, there's no doubt her American crew would have sought to make her more than comfortable. Even her basic crew accommodation would have been superior to their equivalent pre-war British tanker of the same size, and many times better than even the largest British warships.

So no hammocks here, but proper bunks with mattresses. As one of only two RN ratings aboard, he may well have even had a cabin, shared with his 'oppo', unheard of even now for ordinary ratings on British warships. A decent messdeck, with plenty of tasty and homecooked food, is another given. There were fridges in the smokerooms, icewater machines in the messes and crewrooms. Americans were not then, as now, known for liking to live rough, willingly or otherwise. Extra luxuries, like ice-cream, or the newly invented fizzy, carbonated drinks that we now know as Coca-Cola or Soda, would almost certainly have also been available, though the USN was notably strict on beer consumption aboard ships, and I don't think there was a rum issue. Perhaps on this merchant tanker, the rules were a little more relaxed, but no master of Captain Merritt's stature would permit any abuse of drink, especially considering their cargo.

It is from the records that we know that Jack was not alone. He had a British crewmate aboard, an older man of 31 called Albert Farrow, who came from Wellingborough in Northamptonshire. It is likely they joined ship together, possibly even from the same DEMS course. Their American Armed Guard crewmates would have delighted in showing off their more superior living conditions, on every level, to these two 'Limey' sailors. For a new and young British sailor, with visions in his head of what he might have gone to, he must have thought all his birthdays had come at once.

For younger folk reading this, who may be inspired to learn a little more of what conditions were normally like for RN ratings posted to serve on smaller warships in both world wars, like destroyers, frigates and corvettes, I heartily recommend reading the most famous novel of the time, “The Cruel Sea”, by Nicholas Montserratt. It really is an eye-opener, and an unforgettable picture of the hardships of Atlantic convoys in foul weather.

Jack's new experience couldn't have been much further from reality than that described in “The Cruel Sea.” Not for Jack would days and days go by without warm food, because small ships in stormy weather had to have the galley fires extinguished, nor being frozen with cold and perpetually soaking wet, nor the ardous tasks of watchkeeping in mountainous seas.

He would have been the envy of any of his classmates when under training, or any of his friends he was in touch with, had he happened to mention what ship he was going to. But the likelihood is that he would not have even mentioned it to anyone, perhaps not even to Mavis, though his excitement would no doubt have been very great.

This American tanker was not built for speed either. It is doubtful that she would have made more than 15 knots on a calm sea ~ roughly 17-18mph. She had two steam turbine engines, geared to one single screw. The wartime requirement for new merchant ships was for two speeds, those to be able to make 12kts for slow convoys, and 20kts for what were laughingly called fast convoys.

Displacing just a little under 11,000 tons, she was for her time and type considered a large vessel, albeit dwarfed by the massive leviathans we see today, regularly now at over 100,000 tons. Next to a battleship or aircraft carrier, a 10,000 ton tanker was the next prime target of any u-boat commander, and top of the merchant shipping list of targets along with ammunition ships.

She was of the slower speed, but at 15 knots, she would be considered just about capable of outrunning a u-boat on the surface, but could certainly outrun any submerged. We know now that in the event, she very nearly did. To successfully hit a ship with a torpedo at 15kts, from perhaps a mile or two away required, in essence, for a submarine to lie in wait, take very careful aim, and hope for the best.

The ship sailed from her Welsh port on the 25th of August. It would take almost five days for the 'Jack Carnes' to make her way from south Wales out into the north Atlantic, heading roughly south west through the already heavily U-boat infested waters of the Western Approaches to her last known position, just north of the Azores. Running a bit lighter, even with water ballast, she could have been a little quicker too in covering the roughly 1,500 miles. She was also sailing independently, not within an escorted convoy, and indeed, the record shows she had never been in convoy, on either side of the Atlantic.

Late August would have been reasonably nice, weather-wise, and as they journeyed south west, the sea would have got even more blue and the temperature would have climbed even further. All in all, as Jack took in his new surroundings and role, he would have looked forward to the voyage ahead and seeing foreign climes. We can well imagine him lying on his bunk at night, after a fulfilling American meal, which wouldn't have been short on meat, hardly able to believe his luck, and thinking, 'this is the life.'

There are numerous websites that detail the loss of the 'SS Jack Carnes', some with a crew list, or listing the casualties of the incident. Some details vary in minor ways, but piecing them all together, we now get some idea of what happened, what took place, and also what can be discounted.

During the morning of the 30th August, the ship was maintaining a zig-zag course, the appropriate method to avoid being prey to a torpedo. The accepted practice was not to keep to the same course for more than ten minutes, then alter course 10 degrees or so, to port or starboard alternately, but at the same time maintaining a general heading in the direction they wanted to go on a gently weaving course. At 08:00hrs, they were roughly 200 miles north of the Azores, and still generally heading south-west.

What happened next is gleaned both from the accounts of the American crew, and from German records and reports they submitted later.

One u-boat, U-705, was indeed lying in wait. The submarine fired a spread of four torpedoes, but it appears that the tanker was not hit on this first occasion. The submarine then surfaced, and from about 5 miles away, started shelling the tanker with her surface mounted deck gun. Around 10 rounds were fired, but none directly struck the ship, though they were close, with shrapnel being scattered over the deck.

By now, the crew would have been called to action stations, and the master, Captain Merritt, would be directing his crew's responses from the bridge. Within three minutes, all gun crews would be closed up, just as they would be on a warship. At the same time, the radio operator would immediately have started sending desperate mayday signals to tell that they were under attack. The captain would have rung down to the engine room for the chief engineer to open up the engines and make as much extra speed as he could muster to open up the distance between them and their attacker. But in truth, she was probably not far off full speed anyway and couldn't have gone much faster. Jack would have quickly turned to, helping to man whichever gun was his action station.

There were two larger guns carried, one 4-inch and one 3-inch, plus some smaller calibre machine guns. I suspect Jack would be on the 3-inch gun, which records say was mounted on the large circular mounting on the ship's bow, along with his RN messmate, working together. The Americans would perhaps have took the slightly larger and more powerful gun mounted on a similar large mounting over the stern, behind the crew quarters and aft superstructure. Other American guards would have been ready at the machine guns for a close-quarter fight if required.

The gunners between them fired eight rounds from the forward gun, and 13 rounds from the after 4-inch gun. Either way, we can assume that Jack did get to crew a gun that fired in anger and do what he was trained for. Their gunnery was obviously effective, for they forced the submarine to submerge. With only one deck gun, the enemy sub was effectively outgunned, and now in a very dangerous position herself on the surface.

In essence, they had won their first battle. The tanker's crew would have been both euphoric, and at the same time, apprehensive. The sub was now an unseen enemy below the waves, and all they could hope for was to outrun her. This first battle may have been won, raising hopes, but sadly, their hopes were to prove misplaced.

Uknown to them all, the u-boat that they had beaten off had signalled to another u-boat further along the “Jack Carnes” zig-zag path. This u-boat, the U-516, sighted them passing going at full speed, and so a frantic chase ensued. The u-boat chased after them for no less than 270 miles, over a period of 18 hours. The 'Jack Carnes' with it's American and British crew very nearly did get away.

By later that evening, the whole crew must have thought that they had successfully escaped disaster, at least for now. But luck was not with them. In the early hours of the 31st, just short of 2am, the chasing u-boat caught them up sufficiently enough to get sight of them in the moonlight, take aim and stealthily fire two torpedoes, one of which struck the 'Jack Carnes' on the starboard side just forward of the bridge. The chase was over.

Miraculously, although their ship was now seriously damaged, no crew were killed or injured at this point. Once again, the klaxons of 'action stations' would have sounded. Considering what had happened earlier, it is likely half of the gun crews were already closed up, taking it in watches to have at least one gun manned constantly. Within a couple of minutes, all the other guns would be fully manned too.

The master had ordered the helm to be swung to starboard, to face any other oncoming torpedoes and present less of a full-length profile, but the watch below erroneously secured the undamaged engines and the ship lost way. Four minutes after the first hit, the u-boat fired a torpedo which struck on the port side in the No4 tank, followed by a coup-de-grâce which struck the starboard side amidships.

The nine officers, 33 crewmen and 14 armed guards then abandoned ship in two lifeboats. A fifth torpedo was then fired by the U-boat, which struck the starboard side aft of the midships house, a sixth hit the starboard side bunker tanks and a seventh struck amidships

The captain and officers would realise straight away that those first few hits meant the game was up, and that they would ultimately lose the ship. Luck was with them again insomuch as there was no fire, for even an empty tanker can be something of a torch if oil fumes in the storage tanks were ignited. What did happen was that the total of five explosions in her hull weakened her structure so severely that she 'broke her back', she effectively broke in two, and started to sink. Her last known position was at 41.35 N - 29.01 W.

Once the order was given to abandon ship, the two large lifeboats were launched successfully, and all the 58 crew got away fairly swiftly from their stricken ship. Their job done, the u-boat submerged, and simply slipped away. The crew were only able to sit in their lifeboats at a distance, and just as dawn was breaking, at about half-past four in the morning, watch as the bows of the remaining half of their vessel rose into the air and quickly slipped beneath the waves.

The crew were divided evenly between the two lifeboats, 28 men in each. Eight of the Armed Guards, and the two DEMS gunners, Jack and Albert, along with the master, Captain Theodore Roosevelt Merritt, and three officers were all in one boat, and the rest of the officers, four more Armed Guards and civilian crew were in the other. The sea was evidently fairly calm to start with, and the crews roped both boats together.

What happened next was described by some of the survivors, including the ship's chief engineer, a Henry Billitz. He tells that during the night, (maybe the same night or the next, we don't know), a storm blew up, which brought 50 to 60 foot waves, and the line between the boats parted, and so they drifed apart. The chief says that he never saw the other boat again.

The remaining lifeboat gradually drifted south, no doubt assisted by some fervent rowing, and after six days spent in an open boat at the mercy of the weather, they thankfully made landfall on Terceira Island in the Azores on September 6th. It was here that they apparently learnt that, three days earlier, a Royal Air Force flying boat had attacked and sunk with depth charges the very same u-boat that had torpedoed the “SS Jack Carnes.” The survivors took some comfort from the additional information that the u-boat was lost with all hands.

Jack and Albert were never seen again, and nor were any of the other 26 men that escaped the initial sinking. Given the rough seas that came later, we can only speculate and hope that their end would have been mercifully quick, and that their boat was swamped and overturned and all were drowned.

It is unlikely that they drifted for several days, as was the fate of many a ship's crew in wartime when forced to take to the boats, to eke out ever diminishing rations and water only to eventually succumb to starvation, thirst, and the burning heat of the sun.

The curious thing about Jack's loss is that Mavis could not accept his loss at all, not for several more years. She always harboured the hope that he had somehow survived the sinking and would one day return from the war. Such miraculous returns of men long thought to be dead were not unknown, and many a supposedly lost sailor did indeed fetch up on foreign shores somewhere, often badly injured and nursed back to health by locals, only to return out of the blue some years later to the surprise and delight of his grieving family. It had been known to happen.

Finding out so much more detail now, over 70 years after the war finished, tells us the tragic truth. That Mavis' instinct, her long held belief that Jack had survived the torpedoing, indeed, had also survived the sinking, was correct all along. His family at the time, his parents and all Mavis' three sisters, now long dead themselves, would have been astonished to learn all this today. She was not wrong to hold out such hopes, for it very nearly did happen. The fate of an unseasonal mid-Atlantic storm ultimately robbed Jack of his life, and both of them of what might have been.

By the time she received the dreaded telegram, within a week or so of the sinking, initially just posting Jack as 'missing', she had discovered something else - Mavis was expecting Jack's son. The tragedy was now compounded by, not just his grieving widow and his own family, but also the expectation of a fatherless child.

Michael was born early the following March, and grew up always knowing of his dead father's sacrifice, but also aware that he was not unusual either. For many other boys had also lost fathers in the war, and going through his school years, he would have known of several in a likewise position to himself. By the time the lad was about eight years old, we think Mavis was beginning to accept that Jack was indeed lost and would never return. I think that Michael, who himself died as a result of a heart attack aged only 42, would have taken great succour and comfort to know of the small role his father had played in Britain's defence, had all this information been available to him.

It was not until almost ten years after Jack's death that Mavis would find renewed happiness when she married Percy Wardle, a bus conductor, then working for the Midland Red. They met whilst she was working at a cafe in the centre of Coalville much frequented by bus crews. Mavis' next eldest sister, Edna, had also met her husband, Gordon also on the buses, whilst working at Chad's Cafe, just a year or so before the war.

Writing this now, I also wonder whether her sister, or even brother-in-law, had some hand in that meeting, a sort of guidance. Perhaps there was some gentle encouragement from Gordon advising Percy to bide his time. Both were conductors working out of the same depot, so both knew one another. Edna had met her husband at Chad's Cafe, so why not Mavis?

They married in the summer of 1952.

Edna and Gordon already had a three year old son, Alan, at the time of Jack's death, and then Rodney, another cousin to Michael, would be born later in 1942, just after Jack's loss and just a few months before Michael himself the following year. In later times, the three growing cousins would become almost inseparable, as Mavis drew particularly close to Edna, five years her senior, and her two boys.

In Percy, the beloved uncle of my own memory, Mavis found herself a real gem, and they married in the summer of 1952. Percy became the loving father that the fates of war had robbed Michael of, and Mavis did then have several happy years as a wife and mother, bringing a new brother to Michael into the world when Phillip was born in 1954, giving Percy his own son.

Now the past could be better laid to rest, but Jack was never forgotten, and never would be. It is to Percy's credit, kind and gentle man that he was, that he helped to keep Jack's memory alive for Michael. The rest of his cousins, Sylvia's boys, were always aware of 'Uncle Jack' and the sacrifice he had made and what his loss had meant to the family, and particularly to Aunt Mavis herself.

Whenever we visited Coalville to see either set of grandparents, or aunts and uncles, whether returning to Leicester by bus or train, mum would always drag us boys by the hand up the steps of the Coalville Clock Tower War Memorial to see Jack's name carved into one of the stone plaques listing the dead of Coalville from both world wars.

Mavis, in happier times, standing next to her dad, alongside two of her sisters, Sylvia and Edna, and young nephew Alan, c.1946. We think her eldest sister, Gladys, took the photo.

Sylvia was only 12 when Jack was lost, and the circumstances of not quite knowing what happened to Jack, plus her sister's grief, indeed the grief of the rest of the family, following on so closely after their own mother's death, made a massive impact on her and Mavis' other two sisters.

The tragedy for the family of this Second War loss of Jack was that, in some ways, it cruelly mirrored a similar family wartime loss on the girls' mother's side during the First War. Their own mum's brother, Uncle Lakin, had been in the army, and ultimately died through being gassed. Lakin Manderfield was also an uncle to all four of the Holt girls, just as Jack was an uncle to all the Holt grandsons, including myself. Coincidentally, Lakin's own son was also killed in the Second War, in 1943, serving with the Royal Artillery in Liverpool. It was indeed a terrible span of three years of successive tragedies affecting the Holt family.

To all of the Holt family, the victory when it came in 1945 must surely have been very bitter-sweet indeed. As the nation celebrated, widows all over the country and empire mused on what that victory had cost, and Mavis, bless her, still thought, prayed and hoped, that she may not be a widow after all, and Jack may well just walk through the door.

But it was not to be. By the war's end, Mavis already had the second letter from the Admiralty informing her that her husband, previously listed as missing, was now officially, 'missing, presumed dead', and now actually listing the name of the ship he was actually serving on. So Michael always knew his father had been serving on an American ship, a tanker, which must have puzzled him all those years ago just as it puzzled me.

Even then, for several more years, she still harboured hopes of a miracle. But somehow, the fates conspired against her again and again, and gradually took all those she loved most dear, one by one, her second husband, both sons, and all her sisters before her.

For incredibly, after only some 25 years of marriage, Mavis would be robbed of Percy also, when an industrial accident at work caused him to lose a foot, which then turned gangrenous and, in 1975, ultimately cost him his life too. Jack's son, Michael, aged only 42, would himself die of a heart attack in 1984. Even more incredibly, only 15 years later, Percy's son and Michael's younger brother, Phillip, would also succumb to heart disease when aged only 46, and leaving three children.

Mavis, left, enjoying a cuppa with sister Edna in later years

Much of this later information, the extra details about the actual attacks and the sinking, how the boats were separated, was only discovered by virtue of the internet in the last 10 to 15 years of Mavis' long life. It first all came to light by discovering an Armed Guard veteran's site, written by one of the survivors in the other boat. It would have been cruel to tell her, then aged well over 80, that her initial instinct, that Jack had indeed survived the sinking, was correct after all, and that cruel fate and a strong wind had conspired to prevent his homecoming. So she never knew.

Now, with her passing, and the last of the generation of Holts and Hills that were affected by these events, the full story can be told for the benefit of the rest of the family who are interested enough to read it. But moreover, to keep alive the memory of two things.

Firstly, of one man's sacrifice amongst so many others for their country in time of war, and secondly, of one woman's undying love and belief, her faith and fortitude, to carry unbelievable burdens of grief as the loss of one family member after another befell her, her two husbands and then her two sons, losses that would sorely test her faith and resolve over the years. Mavis always said, in that last few years and particularly after her last sister, Gladys, died in 2010, she never wanted 'to be the last one left'. And after so much loss, we can well understand that now. But the fates once again conspired against her, and it would turn out to be so. Despite everything, our Aunt Mavis never gave in to self-pity, nor to any bitterness. She really is a hard act to follow, in every sense.

Jack's death is recorded in several places, of which at least two are war memorials. The Clock Tower War Memorial in Coalville, and the Royal Navy memorial at Portsmouth, on Panel 64, Column 1. And of course, now online on various websites, not least of which is the Commonwealth War Graves site, none of which actually mention the 'SS Jack Carnes' by name, only that Jack was 'aboard' HMS President III, that psuedo-fictitious payship moored in the Thames.

Hundreds of men are similarly listed as HMS President, most were DEMS gunners and volunteers all, and it's still true that many of their families, even all these years later, know nothing of the actual ship on which their relative was lost, nor of any deeds in which their men may have taken part. Though, for those curious enough to enquire further, it is now possible to find out most of what is to be found without even leaving an armchair.

Almost a million men alone served in the Royal Navy during the war, five times the number serving when the war started. In total, 81,000 sailors of both the Royal and Merchant Navy lost their lives during their service, both at sea and ashore, or as prisoners of war.

To be a naval rating on a warship was dangerous enough, though it could have its rewards and occasional periods of excitement. To be any sort of rating on a merchant ship was highly hazardous in the extreme, and was for the most part very boring. When merchant ships were attacked by warships, or aircraft, there was usually only one outcome. Jack's role was to try to make that outcome just a little less likely, and as we have seen, most outcomes were not good.

Mavis with son Michael, c.1947

To the memory of Jack, and of Percy, and their sons,
Michael and Phillip, and not least, Mavis herself. R.I.P.

one of the memorial plaques on Coalville Clock Tower,
'Our Jack' listed on the right as 'HILL J.W.'

a link to Jack's memorial page on the
Commonwealth War Graves Commission Website
listing his details on the
Portsmouth Naval Memorial at Southsea.