Some of the stories in my family history are so graphic, so poignant, that they will always remain a fixture of my mind and my imagination. Such is the case of my grandmother’s cousin, William Samuel Morris, who died in the Second World War at the tragically early age of sixteen.
I first found out about William Samuel’s existence many years ago, when I began researching the English side of my family tree. My grandmother had by then passed away, but luckily her cousin Joan was still alive, and I was able to ask her questions about her side of the family. In doing so, Auntie Joan told me that her father, William Morris, a farm labourer from Herefordshire, had been married twice, and that she and her younger brother William Samuel were both born from the second marriage. Joan knew her father’s first wife had died young, and that there had been a child, whose name and sex she could not recall – and she added, perhaps somewhat dismissively, that the child died young anyway.
Tracking down someone with a relatively common name like William Morris was no easy task. It would be years before I was able to locate my great-great-uncle William Morris on the 1911 census, which showed him living with his first wife Emily (née Price) in the small village of Whitney-on-Wye, near the Welsh border. William worked as a wagoner on a farm, while Emily probably looked after the home. I was also able to find the birth record of their only child, a boy who was named William Grenville Morris. But as I knew, the little boy died soon after – aged 28 days, as it happens – having been born premature. Emily herself suffered from heart disease, and a few years later her delicate constitution gave in when she came down with influenza at the end of 1918, during the pandemic commonly known as the Spanish Flu.
My 36 year-old great-great-uncle William was left a childless widower, but a few years later he managed to overcome his grief and remarried, this time to a woman called Flossie Theodora Hopkins. Flossie and William had two children, the aforementioned Joan and her younger brother William Samuel, whose first name he was given in honour of his father and in memory of his late older brother.
The family lived happily at the foot of the Malvern Hills during the interwar years. William Samuel left school at a young age and as early as 1939, when he would have been only fourteen, he was working as a garage employee, near the town of Ledbury.
The outbreak of war that same year would have stirred in many men across the country a great sense of patriotism, and William Samuel, caught up in the excitement, wished to enlist. He was, of course, far too young to join the army, but he was able to be recruited in the Merchant Navy.
William Samuel was engaged as a mess room boy (i.e. someone who waits at table on ships, maintains the officers’ quarters, works in the ship’s kitchen…). It would have been very hard physical work, but in view of his enthusiasm to fight for king and country, I am convinced that William Samuel would have been very proud of the modest role he had to play.
By 1941 the war had entered its third year, and submarine warfare was at its height. By spring and early summer the amount of British ships sunk by German U-boats had increased exponentially. William Samuel and his fellow crew would have been acutely aware of the dangers that lay ahead of any crossing.
And yet, duty called. William Samuel began working as a mess room boy on the Merchant Navy’s SS Embassage, a relatively large cargo steamship that had been built in Sunderland in 1935 by J.L. Thompson & Sons Ltd. In August 1941 the Embassage was commissioned to take cargo to Bathurst and Pepel, in Sierra Leone – then a British colonial protectorate – as part of convoy OS-4. The convoy, which left Liverpool on 23 August, was formed by a total of 33 vessels, some of which would have travel over the course of three weeks from Britain to the Protectorate.
Four days into the voyage, about 100 miles west off Achill Island the convoy came under attack by German submarine U-557, commanded by 26 year-old Oberleutnant zur See Ottokar Arnold Paulssen. In the dark of night, the Norwegian Motor merchant Segundo sank will the loss of seven men. Almost simultaneously, the British steam merchant Saugor was also hit and sunk, leaving 59 dead and only 23 survivors. Less than an hour later, another British steamer, the Tremoda, was torpedoed, leaving 32 dead and 21 survivors. Just before half-past-four in the morning, Paulssen ordered a new attack, this time with the Embassage as his target.
Given the string of attacks perpetrated in the preceding hours, it is hard to imagine that William Samuel and his fellow crew members would not have been alert to a possible attack. And yet, despite their efforts, a German torpedo pierced through the hull of the Embassage, which began to sink quickly. Of the 42 men on board, only five made it to an overturned lifeboat – miraculously, William Samuel Morris, who survived the explosion and the actual sinking, was among them. Among the other four were boatswain William Garbutt Magrs, from South Shields, and a young apprentice called William Kelsey, from Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The story related by Magrs to his family after he was rescued was that both Kelsey and William Samuel Morris, who were only 17 and 16 years of age, respectively, were weakened by the lack of food and water. They were told not to drink sea water, as it would make them ill and delirious. William Samuel obeyed, but the ordeal was too much for the young lad, and he died the day following the sinking, on 28 August 1941. His comrades had no choice but to bury him at sea.
William Kelsey did not pay heed to his colleagues’ advice and began to drink seawater in order to alleviate his thirst. Within hours he became delirious, and often dipped into the sea from which Magrs or one of his other colleagues had to jump in and reel him back onto the lifeboat. On one such occasion, Kelsey managed to slip away, and drowned on 31 August.
The surviving three crew members, including Magrs himself, were picked up by the Canadian destroyer Assiniboine, and taken to safety. Magrs would later meet with William Samuel’s parents, and tell them of their son’s final hours.
Ottokar Arnold Paulssen, the commander of the U-boat responsible for the Embassage sinking, was promoted to the rank of Kapitäleutnant a few weeks later, and then made a Korvettenkapitän in December 1941. He was transferred to the Mediterranean, where on 15 December he ordered the sinking of the HMS Galatea, killing 470. The day after, near Crete, Paulssen’s U-boat 557 was accidentally struck by an Italian torpedo boat, the Orione, causing the submarine to sink. Paulssen and all of his crew died in the sinking.
As William Samuel Morris was buried at sea, he does not have a grave. His name is commemorated on Tower Hill (Panel 37) and on Colwall War Memorial near his family home.
William Samuel Morris was only sixteen when he died. Like most deaths during WWII, his was a senseless, unnecessary death, and yet for all his enthusiasm and courage to go away to fight, his name was almost forgotten -even by his own family – for decades. Until today.
Lest we forget.