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Archives help trace [merchant] ships' movements

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Archives help trace [merchant] ships' movements

Postby U-5075 » Thu Mar 19, 2009 12:48 pm ...

Archives help trace ships' movements
Published Date:
18 March 2009
By Janis Blower

WE know from experience that the fog of sea battle still clouds events of the Second World War, even after all these years.

But they are starting to clear, thanks to the National Archives, which is now making it possible to download details of merchant ships' movements during the war.

A few years ago it would have been an uphill struggle to trace a vessel's movements during that era.

Heavens, one ship often didn't know where another was even at the time.

I coincidentally came across an example just the other day.

She was a Glasgow freighter, the Coulmore, which had Shields men among her crew.

Briefly, in 1939, she was a 'mystery SOS' ship which had sent out a Mayday after a run-in with a German submarine in the Atlantic.

Other merchant vessels, destroyers and planes combed the area, but nothing could be found.

In the event, she had eluded her potential attacker, and was safe.

Even documentation at the time was limited, though, because of security.

On Admiralty orders, masters of merchant vessels were not allowed to enter destinations or ports of call on the ships' logs or crew lists, etc, for reasons of security.

However, there had to be some record kept, with the result that the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen began compiling a card index.

It's these cards which, on using the ship's name as your search term, you can now download.

The cards record the movements of both British-registered and Allied vessels.

Each set records the name of the ship, any former name it had, its tonnage and the like, as well as its destination and sometimes ports of call.

They also record any cargo, and whether the ship was torpedoed, mined, damaged or sunk.

There are, however, no passenger or crew details, and the information relates only to ships ordinarily employed in foreign-going trade – not those in the home trade or requisitioned for military service.

I've had a quick go on it, and my dad's ship, Stag Line's Cydonia, on which he went through most of the war before she was mined in 1946, is there.

It costs £3.50 to download a card, so it's not cheap.

But given that a seaman's wartime discharge book usually only gives details of where he signed-on and signed-off, there's scope for creating a much bigger picture of a father or grandfather's wartime service at sea.
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