From bliss to capture – Tommy’s amazing story

Steve and Tommy Mathieson at the signing of their book in The Shetland Times Bookshop. Photo: Dave Donaldson
Steve and Tommy Mathieson at the signing of their book in The Shetland Times Bookshop. Photo: Dave Donaldson

Unst man Tommy Mathieson has had a long, eventful and very fulfilling life, the details of which have been put into print by his son Steve.

The book, Born a Beachcomber: The Story of Thomas Mathieson as told to Steve Mathieson, is basically in three parts, two chapters about his early life in Unst, the middle five detailing his Merchant Navy experiences, including being captured by the Germans and incarcerated in West Africa, and the final two about his subsequent career with the Port of London Authority and retirement back in Shetland.

Tommy grew up at Buddabrake, near Burrafirth, and now at the age of 96 is the only surivivor of a family of five boys and two girls.

His childhood days, detailed well in the first two chapters, were obviously happy and idyllic, although life could certainly be hard on a small croft. Fishing was a favourite pastime of Tommy’s, both for pleasure and sustenance, and after initial reluctance he remembers his schooldays with fondness.

An interesting interlude concerns his grandfather Scollay Mathieson, a haaf fishing skipper who survived the Gloup Disaster of July 1881. Attempting to outrun the worst of the weather on the trip home he lashed his hand to the tiller with part of a sail and guided his sixareen towards safety. Rather than try to make landfall in Unst with the currents raging, he headed around the isle to the eastern lee side and only when the weather subsided did he turn the boat round and head for shore.

Tommy tells how his grand­father’s hand was badly injured, swelling to twice its normal size overnight, and required the assis­tance of young Fetlar doctor William Watson Cheyne. He operated and saved the hand, showing the skill which would later feature in an illustrious career as a surgeon.

Crofting was never a great love of Tommy’s, so in 1938 he accomp­anied his older brother Johnny to Edinburgh in search of a seafaring career.

He attempted to get a job on the coaster Tolsta Head, and although possessing no experience he impres­sed the skipper with his ability to “box the compass” and splice a rope. That, allied to his Shetland back­ground, convinced the man he was worth taking a chance on.

Tommy spent some time around the UK coast, mainly carrying stone and cement, but following the outbreak of World War Two he joined the bigger King Idwal. One of his trips was to the Bulgarian port of Varna on the Black Sea, where the freezing weather was like nothing he had ever experienced before. He decided after that ex­perience that he needed to try something different.

He went into a shipping office in Leith, asking about a job in the Ben Line boats, and was sent to Liverpool to get one.

He was too late for the first Ben vessel leaving Merseyside but that proved to be one of his first narrow escapes. That ship, the Ben Lomond, was later sunk by a German U-boat with only one survivor.

The crew of the Benarty at the Italian prison camp in Somaliland. Standing are John Cogle (third left), Tommy Mathieson (fifth left) and Gibby Bruce (seventh left). On the ground are Dodie Irvine (second left) and Andrew Sandison (fifth left).
The crew of the Benarty at the Italian prison camp in Somaliland. Standing are John Cogle (third left), Tommy Mathieson (fifth left) and Gibby Bruce (seventh left). On the ground are Dodie Irvine (second left) and Andrew Sandison (fifth left).

Instead Tommy signed on with the Benarty, and to his delight he discovered that there were four other Shetlanders on the ship. They were Whalsay men Dodie Irvine and Andrew Sandison, boatswain Johnny Cogle from Cunningsburgh and fellow Unst man Gibby Bruce. Carpenter James Henderson, who lived at Leith, was also originally from the isles.

The 10,000 ton Benarty left Liverpool with a load of coal which was discharged at Aden. She then made for Rangoon and sailed from there fully laden on 8th September 1940. The cargo including 400 tons of wolfram, a kind of tungsten in big demand back in the UK.

Ten days into the voyage home, midway across the Indian Ocean, the notorious German raider Atlantis struck. The ship was strafed with gunfire from a spotter plane from the raider and Tommy, who was on lookout duty at the time, remembers that Johnny Cogle was hit by shrapnel.

Tommy got back amidships and helped get another injured shipmate to safety. If not, the man would most likely have been killed as one of four shells from the Atlantis was a direct hit. The spotter plane also dropped two bombs, one of which caused a fire in the starboard quarter.

A boarding party was quickly on the Benarty and the crew were transferred to the German raider. Explosive charges were placed and the captured ship was sunk.

On the raider were many sur­vivors from other ships. Around 300 prisoners together with over 300 of the German crew made for extremely crowded conditions.

The Shetland men were put in the lower hold, near ammunition and mines, where they slept in three-tier bunks. Although ventilation was seriously inadequate Tommy says they were fairly treated.

The day following the capture he developed acute toothache, but luck­ily there was a dentist onboard. In a matter of seconds there were three blackened teeth lying in a bowl and the German dentist informed him that British people were “all the same”. They never looked after their teeth and “ate far too many sweets”.

While having a further medical inspection onboard the Atlantis, Tommy was given the description which was to form the title of his book.

Two German officers strolled past him and it was obvious from his cap insignia that one of them was Captain Bernhard Rogge. They stopped in front of Tommy, and the captain made a remark which caused the other German to chuckle.

When they moved away he asked the man standing next to him what had been so funny. He turned and said: “Captain Rogge said that you are undoubtedly a beachcomber!”

Tommy was pretty sure it wasn’t a compliment, but strangely it was a fairly accurate description of how he had spent a lot of time before leaving home, so he didn’t take offence.

The Atlantis continued her operations, capturing other ships. For her prisoners, deep down in the bowels of the ship, there was always the feeling that at any time they could be sunk by a British warship.

After the sinking of a large passenger ship, the Commissaire Ramel, the already overcrowded raider could take no more. A way had to be found of transferring some prisoners to another vessel.

Towards the end of October the solution was found, in the form of the old Yugoslav tramp steamer Durmitor, which was carrying a cargo of coarse salt. There was no accommodation other than the two holds so enough salt was dumped overboard to make room for 100 men in each.

For nearly a month they lay on tarpaulins which had been spread over the salt. They were given only a tiny quantity of porridge and a small cup of water each day. Some men tried to get extra water by holding their cups under dripping steam pipes.

Rain getting into the holds made conditions even poorer, as some of the salt turned to slush, clogging the prisoners’ clothes and making their skin chafed and sore. Some told of rats running over the faces and nibbling their bare feet.

On the 29th day the Durmitor reached the coast of Italian-held Somaliland in East Africa. The senior German officer, trying to take the ship in, ran her on a reef just off Warshikh, a small village 30 miles north of the capital Mogadisho.

Tommy was held capture for another three months before finally being repatriated by the British-led Africa Corps.

He recalls that the sanitary con­ditions were awful, and four men died following an outbreak of dysentery.

They were given rice two or three times a week and it was full of beetles. First of all he only ate the rice but after feeling himself getting weaker he began to eat the whole lot, weevils and all. It seemed to work and he did not appear to lose any more weight.

After being released Tommy and the others were taken to a transit camp in Mombasa, Kenya, where they spent six weeks before a ship took them around Cape Town and back to the UK.

When he finally arrived back in Unst, Tommy saw that the war was as close as his home at Buddabrake. The German airforce had attacked the house and put a few holes in the gable end.

After regaining his strength he worked for a while constructing buildings for the forces, first at Unst, then at Lerwick and finally at the Scapa Flow barricades in Orkney.

He longed to get back to sea, however, and while looking out for shipping one day he saw a tug heading in, towing barges. He asked the skipper if there were any jobs available and he received his wish.

Tommy was stationed mainly around the Portsmouth and South­ampton area. In 1944 he played a part in the D-Day landings, towing ammunition barges for Navy ships bombarding the Normandy coast.

After that he joined the War Department and while stationed in London just after the war finished he met his wife Hilda in a cafe in the city. He “chanced his arm”, as he puts it, and asked if he could buy her a cup of tea. They seemed to get on well and he asked if he could walk her home.

Following a two-month courtship he decided to “pop the question” and they were married on 27th July 1946 at Greenwich.

Tommy settled in London and in 1951 he joined the Port of London Authority as a boatman, where he was to spend the next 29 years before retiring in 1980.

In the early 1960s, as part of his duties to take a note of all shipping on the Thames, he noticed a familiar looking vessel – the Durmitor!

His thoughts travelled back over 20 years to the time on the Indian Ocean when his personal experiences had been very different. But he held no grudge against the ship as she and her crew had been as much victims of the circumstances as himself. At least she was looking in better fettle than she had when he first en­countered her.

Having attained the position of chief boatman, Tommy was given the task of leading the Thames procession at the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill in 1965.

He had already ferried a host of famous people up and down the Thames, including film stars, the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh and world leaders including De Gaulle, Truman and Khruschev.

But the “greatest of them all” was Churchill, who he describes as “a great, great leader” whom Britain was so lucky to have at the time of conflict. He lifted everyone’s spirits when it was most needed. “What a man,” Tommy says. “It was great that I was able to to do a little turn for him.”

After his retiral Thomas and Hilda returned to Shetland to live, first back at Unst and latterly at Leog in Lerwick. Two of their three children are also now in the isles, June and Steve, while their other daughter Linda lives in London.

As for the book he admits that would have been the last thing on his mind when growing up in Unst. He is very grateful to Steve, known to many as head of tourist organ­isation Visit Shetland, that it came about.

“Not so long ago I was talking to him. I don’t know what he was doing but he was taking all the particulars down. Then he said: ‘I’m writing a book about you.’ About a month or so afterwards he said: ‘I’m getting it published. It’ll be coming out soon.’ That was it and I’m very pleased with it.”

The book is dedicated to Hilda, who sadly died earlier this year before it was published.

Tommy told me last Friday how much me missed her, and how meeting her made such a difference to his life.

“London was the best place I ever lived. I got my job through being there, working for the War Depart­ment, and I have many happy memories. I have had a good life and a good wife. We were married for 68 years. You couldn’t wish for better.”


Add Your Comment
  • Yolanda Bruce

    • June 20th, 2014 21:00

    What a fantastic story and great that someone has taken the time to write it. Looks like a great read.

    • John N Oakes Manchester, England.

      • July 17th, 2014 0:58

      I concur. A fantastic story. Worthy of a movie no less Yolanda. As a former Unst resident 1988 to 1989 at Saxa Vord and many a day walking and driving around Unst then.

  • tanith cogle

    • April 17th, 2017 23:15

    John Cogle is a relation of mine. I look forward to reading this!


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