Over the six years that the Second World War lasted my father used to say there was never such a thing as a good day, only days that were less bad than others. Victory over the Axis powers and Japan eventually came to bring days of rejoicing, although it did not take long before there dawned the recognition of victory’s awful cost in human suffering and lost lives.
Our community suffered as much as anywhere else, disproportionately perhaps in relation to those who served at sea. Around 45 per cent of the 3,600 Shetlanders who served in the war were in the Merchant Navy – and suffered 72 per cent of the total of lives lost. Put another way, this means that every week for six years on average, a seaman died; another household mourned. Seventy years ago tomorrow, the very worst wartime day for Shetland dawned; by its end, 23 sailors had drowned on an Orkney shore. Eight of them were natives of Shetland, another had Shetland grandparents, and another was resident in Sandwick. Their ship was the Giralda, and this is the story of her end and its terrible aftermath.
The Giralda wasn’t a big ship as cargo steamers of her time went, carrying only a little over 3,000 tons of cargo. She was very suited to the “short sea trades” – from British ports usually little further than the Baltic or Mediterranean, exporting coal, importing timber and similar bulk commodities. Built in Aberdeen for Welsh owners in 1924, she and her sister-ship were acquired by Christian Salvesen of Leith in 1926 and renamed Giralda and Orkla. For the next 13 years the Giralda traded her innocent way around Europe’s coasts, propelled by a three cylinder steam engine powered from coal-fired boilers at a leisurely 10 knots, manned by a crew of 23.
Salvesens were renowned as “da Shetland navy” for decades, for the company recruited hundreds of employees from the isles to man the ships of their cargo and whaling fleets. In 1939 when war broke out, Giralda and Orkla were chartered by the Admiralty as fleet colliers, mainly to carry coal to the naval bases in Scapa Flow and Kirkwall.
Thus, with the war only in its sixth month, that Giralda began her final and fatal voyage. Normally she loaded her cargoes at Forth ports such as Methil, but probably because of a prolonged spell of heavy weather from south-easterly, she was routed down the more sheltered west coast of Scotland to load coal at Ayr, from whence she sailed north on 17th January. Normally the voyage to Orkney would take no more than two days; it seems there were delays, either to shelter or to part-discharge cargo in Scapa Flow. For whatever reasons, the ship passed through the Pentland Firth on the morning of Tuesday 30th January, and headed for Kirkwall on a foul day of south-easterly storm with heavy snow showers.
Although 15 years old, the Giralda was in good condition and well-manned, equal in all respects to the task in hand of making her way safely to Kirkwall in spite of the weather. All the sailors in her had Shetland connections, from her master Captain John Erasmusson from Lerwick to her young ordinary seaman James Henderson from Cullivoe. Chief officer Laurence Goudie was from Bigton, while second officer Andrew Sandison was born in Leith to Shetland parents. The bosun was Robert John Bruce from Whalsay, and the able seamen were Thomas Williamson from Whalsay, Robert Johnson from Gluss, James Smith from Aith, Charles Sutherland from Bressay and Donald Farquhar, from Wick originally but now living in Sandwick. The rest of the crew was made up of a radio officer, three engineers, six firemen, cook, steward and cabin boy. Their ages ranged from 17 to 62.
By the middle of the day the Giralda was three miles south-east of Grimness, the most easterly point of South Ronaldsay. Watchers on shore heard gunfire, and spotted the Giralda being attacked by machine-gun fire from two German aircraft. A boat was launched from the ship, whereupon bombs were dropped on or close alongside her; after a heavy snow shower had cleared the watchers could see no sign of the Giralda. Not long after, the civilian Scottish Airways aircraft on its way to Orkney spotted the lifeboat, and its occupants responded to waves from the pilot, Capt. Vallance. He landed at Kirkwall and raised the alarm, whereupon all the emergency services were called out, including the Longhope lifeboat.
In 1940 there were no Churchill barriers to seal off Scapa Flow, so South Ronaldsay was still an island. On the beach at Grimness a crowd of well-equipped helpers gathered to assist the lifeboat’s landing; farmers, servicemen, the local doctor Stephen Mouat – himself a Shetlander – nurses and police officers.
It took great presence of mind, along with discipline and seamanship of a very high order, to abandon the Giralda safely in such extreme conditions of wind and sea. To turn the ship beam-on to the seas, slow her down, lower a boat in her lee and get 23 men aboard it while the ship rolled and pitched – and the attackers circled overhead – is a testimony to the abilities of all concerned.
For all that, the Orkney shore three miles to leeward held but slender hope of safety. A great deal of the Orkney coastline shelves only slowly out to seaward from the shore, and in onshore storms a heavy sea breaks a long way from land, creating a savage cauldron of boiling surf. It was impossible to row the unwieldy lifeboat to windward in the conditions, and really their best chance was to slow the boat’s inexorable drift towards the hostile shore in the hope of rescue from seaward. As the boat came nearer to land, the watchers observed it alter course more northerly, as if to head north past Grimness towards the relative shelter of Water Sound, between South Ronaldsay and Burray. So far, all was going well with the boat, under control with a sea anchor out astern on a line to slow her progress and keep her stern to the seas, but as the entrance to Water Sound drew nearer, the strong tidal stream that always ran there presented an additional hazard. North of Grimness a shallow seabed ridge runs east from a little point called Rumley, obstructing the run of the tidal stream and the progress of the heavy seas. As the lifeboat neared this point waves broke around her and in an instant she capsized, rolling upside down and throwing all 23 men into the raging surf.
The stunned observers ashore did their best to save lives, showing extreme courage in wading out with ropes to retrieve inert bodies as they were washed to shore, or joining hands in human chains to secure the victims of this sudden utter disaster. A few flickering sparks of life remained among them, but all the efforts of Dr Mouat and his assistants were in vain and none of the Giralda’s men survived. The upturned hull of the lifeboat did not drift ashore immediately, and it was deduced that the capsize occurred because the sea anchor had snagged in the jagged rocks of the shallows. By the time darkness fell the bodies of 18 men had been recovered, and they were taken first to the hall in St Margaret’s Hope, then later to Kirkwall. Another five bodies were found over the next two days.
In Shetland, the reaction to the loss of the whole crew was stunned disbelief, followed by numbed shock and huge sadness at the cruel outcome of events. My father was home in Whalsay on leave at the time, and many years later he told me that the first news of the Giralda’s abandonment and sinking travelled to Whalsay very quickly but, “With men like Tammie Williamson and Bobby Bruce aboard, we never doubted that they wouldn’t easily make the land. When the terrible news came, we just couldn’t believe it, or understand how it could happen”.
The disaster left 12 orphans in Whalsay, three in Gluss and one in Sandwick. A cruel and poignant irony was added to the community’s pain when it became known that Donald Farquhar’s widow had given birth to a son the day after the tragedy. The bodies of Captain Erasmusson and chief officer Goudie were taken to Edinburgh – where they had lived – for burial, and that of chief engineer Cordiner to Aberdeen. Tammy Williamson and Robert Bruce were brought home to Whalsay for burial, their funeral procession half a mile long. On Sunday 4th February the remaining 18 men were buried alongside each other in a single long grave in St Olaf’s cemetery in Kirkwall, each with a headstone. Christian Salvesen & Co later erected a memorial to the crew.
The loss of the Giralda’s crew as a result of enemy action was in a sense Shetland’s big wake-up call to the horrors of wartime; the first and the worst bad day for the community over the whole conflict. There were many more days of mourning and grief to come over the next five years before Japan surrendered, by which time 346 serving Shetlanders and 13 civilians had lost their lives. Tomorrow in St Olaf’s cemetery a service of remembrance will be held at the memorial for the Giralda’s crew, with solemn laments on the bagpipes, wreaths laid and the Last Post sounded. It’s absolutely right that they – and all of the others – should never be forgotten.
With thanks to Peter H Williamson, Isle of Wight, for detailed information.