Growing up, I often heard my mother talk about her great uncle “Sanky” who had died “in the war.” The bare bones of the story were that he drowned while serving on the Arctic Convoys, but like most family stories, it sat at the back of my mind, unexamined and half-forgotten.
When I first began researching my family history, mum sent me the photo above of her Uncle Sanky – whose real name was Stewart Cameron Cruden. My mum doesn’t know when or where the photo was taken, or who the other people were, but that image of a confident young man walking nonchalantly towards the photographer somehow made him real to me and it became important to understand more about his life and death.
Constructing the skeleton of Stewart Cruden’s life was relatively easy. Scotland’s People searches told me he was born on November 8th 1903 at East End, Coaltown of Wemyss, Fife, Scotland. He was the youngest child, and second son of Isabella Simpson Wallace and another Stewart Cameron Cruden. By the 1911 census, the family was living at 1 Locheil Crescent, West Wemyss, where Stewart attended the local school.
I know nothing about Stewart’s schooling or early employment – although since his father and elder brother Alexander (my great grandfather) were both coal miners, I think it’s safe to assume that Stewart also went to work as a miner.
In 1924, Stewart and Isabella immigrated to the United States, following two of their daughters – Elizabeth and Isabella – who had already moved there. In 1925, twenty one year old Stewart joined them.
According to the 1930 census, the family lived at 34/1 West Third Street, Bayonne City, Hudson, New Jersey. Both Stewarts were factory workers, and the family also had two lodgers.
I can find no passenger records for Stewart’s return to Scotland, but I know he did, because during World War II he enlisted in the Royal Naval Patrol Service (RNPS). This appears on the record of his death.
… and death
Stewart Cameron Cruden died on 9th March 1942 when his ship, HMT Shera capsized and sank in the Barents Sea.
I haven’t yet been able to find his service record, but Google searches told me a little bit about the ship and the circumstances of her sinking. The most widely reported account is that the boat capsized because of excessive ice and heavy seas. However, I have subsequently found – from the official enquiry into the sinking held by the British Admiralty – that this was not quite true.
The National Archives at Kew contains the report of the official inquiry. It has not been digitised, but I was fortunate enough to be able to go to there a few weeks ago and read the original documents.
What I now know
HMT Shera was a Norwegian trawler, probably used for whaling. It was requisitioned by the British Navy and brought into commission as a minesweeper on the Arctic Convoys on 12 January 1942. These convoys, which operated from August 1941 to May 1945, were made up of merchant ships and escorts from the Royal Navy, US Navy and Royal Canadian Navy . A total of seventy eight convoys transported vital supplies to the USSR during a time when the Nazis controlled much of the territory around that vast country. The Shera was en-route to Murmansk to be loaned to the Soviet government when it sank.
Prior to the departure of the convoy, stability testing had been carried out to determine whether the whalers would be at risk of capsizing in the icy waters of the Arctic. Without understanding the engineering, it seems that the additional fuel loads required to make the long voyage to Murmansk meant that the boats – and in particular the Shera – were susceptible to capsize in heavy seas. As the extra fuel was burned, the load balance was shifted, increasingly instability.
The official inquiry focused almost exclusively on the possible causes of the Shera’s capsize, and barely mentions the crew. I wasn’t even able to find out exactly how many men were aboard. The RNPS Memorial at Lowestoft lists 17 names, while another RNPS source says 20 men lost their lives. An article published in the RNPS newsletter for Spring 2013 recounts a survivor’s experiences of the Shera; he estimated the boat had a crew of around 30.
Whatever the actual number of men aboard; it is clear that only three survived the sinking. In total, five men were pulled from the water into a small boat lowered by another trawler, the HMT Svega, but two died soon afterwards. The survivors were:
- Lieutenant Nils Olaves Hansen (Norwegian)
- Ship’s Steward Douglas Robert Phillips (British)
- Ordinary Seaman Charles Alfred Harris (British)
Causes of the disaster
The official inquiry included testimony from all three men; each of whom was asked about the stability of the boat. All three expressed concern about the boat’s sea-worthiness under the circumstances. Lieutenant Hansen had worked on trawlers like the Shera for 10 years and testified that he had talked to the Captain about the boat being top-heavy. Seaman Harris was also an experienced fisherman and in his testimony he said “there had been much talk in the mess about her (Shera) being top-heavy.” The final survivor, Douglas Phillips said:
There had been a big roll to port the morning of the 8th. The crew complained of her heavy roll. One stoker complained that ‘she wasn’t a sea-going ship’. She had a list to port at Milford Haven and carried it ever since. … All the crew said she was top-heavy. I was on-board at Greenock when the gun platform was fitted. The crew continually complained of her being top-heavy.
The three survivors also testified that the day before the sinking, crew had chipped off large amounts of ice and that at the time of the sinking, the seas were not exceptionally heavy.
The official inquiry noted that:
There is evidence that considerable doubt existed in the minds of officers and ratings of both HMT Shera and Svega of the stability of these vessels as fitted for passage from the United Kingdom to North Russia, and that there was free discussion onboard HMT Shera on the result of the stability test carried out at Greenock during 1942 …
And … “hearsay evidence … indicates that there is reason to believe that the stability test on HMS Shera was unsatisfactory.”
The report concluded
After a full and careful enquiry, with all the witnesses available, into the circumstances attending the loss of HM Trawler Shera … the opinion of the Board is that the loss is attributable to the instability of the vessel, aggravated by a heavy formation of ice … which resulted in the vessel becoming unstable and capsizing.
Sixteen days after the sinking of HMT Shera, an almost identical boat, HMT Sulla disappeared in the Barents Sea whilst part of the same convoy. No trace of the ship was ever found, so it is impossible to know for sure if it sank for the same reasons as the Shera, but an official inquiry concluded that it was likely the Sulla capsized due to excessive ice and high seas with the loss of all onboard.
Both inquiries concluded that no-one could be held accountable for either sinking, and in a final note said:
‘In view of the urgency of the service requirements, the sailing of these ships had to be accepted as justifiable in wartime.
As was normal for war casualties; news of Stewart Cruden’s death reached his family in the form of a telegram. My mother remembers this event; she said her parents were in the cinema and the film was interrupted so that they could be called out and sent home to comfort Stewart’s mother, Isabella; my great, great grandmother.
Isabella Wallace died in June 1944, her husband having pre-deceased her by about 10 years. Stewart’s big brother Alexander, my great-grandfather died in 1970 and I’m unsure what happened to their sisters. The reason I mention this is that the report into the sinking of the Shera was classified until 1972; too late for most of Stewart Cruden’s family to know that their son and brother’s death wasn’t due to freak weather conditions, but was – at least in part – a consequence of human actions that could have been prevented. Indeed, my mother is one of the few people left who remembers this much-loved uncle and still mourns his loss.
I understand that wars – and in fact all major human endeavors - involve decision-making that risks some lives to save others. It’s just harder to take when the lives lost are those of people we know, or are part of our whanau.