"Lost at Sea"

The tragic story of Albert Neil Howe

It was not uncommon for men to be lost at sea - in both wartime and peace - and the danger was greatest on small warships like the V & W destroyers. They were long and narrow with a length of just over 300 foot and a beam of 30 foot. In even moderate seas the waist of the ship, the iron deck, would be swept by waves. The men on the V & Ws were paid a "Hard Lying" allowance for the rough conditions they endured as their ship pitched and rolled in Atlantic gales.

The officers had their cabins and wardroom in the "cabin flat" under the quarterdeck at the stern and the ratings on the lower decks at the bow beneath the foc'sle. When not at Action Stations the watches changed every four hours and officers and men went to their stations regardless of the weather. In rough weather lifelines would be slung from bow to stern and they could attach themselves with slings and if swept off their feet would not be washed overboard. But accidents still happened. Ken Brown, an AB on HMS Vanessa, told his son "The seas often washed over the decks and you had to pick your moment to run along the deck to a hatchway. Dad was waiting for the right time with a steward one day and the steward mistimed his run and was instantly washed  over board and lost!"

The CO had a sea cabin beneath the bridge but members of the Wardroom had to struggle the length of the deck to relieve the Officer of the Watch on the bridge. 
If a relief was late to arrive the officer on watch would know he had either overslept, a grievous sin, or been washed overboard. Lt.Cdr. Richard George Kirby Knowling RN took command of HMS Vimy on the 25 - 26 May during the evacuation from Dunkirk and was lost overboard the following night.

The loss of a man might go unnoticed for some time and there was almost no hope of turning and recovering him particularly in a rough sea. When a married man on the lower deck was lost overboard it was customary for an auction of his personal belongings to be held. His friends would bid quite large sums for items of little or no value so that his widow would receive something to support her family. When "Teddy" Weekes, a Bosun's Mate on HMS Venomous, was washed overboard in an Atlantic gale on 8 October 1941, his friend, George A. ("Arnie") Birkin, a gunlayer on “A” Gun, made the successful bid for his bosun’s call which his son, Malcolm Birkin, still has.

The widow would receive an official telegram notifying her of the loss of her husband and might be visited by one of his shipmates when next in port with further details of the manner in which he died. If she wrote to the ship care of the GPO London she might receive a personal hand written letter from the First Lieutenant.

Albert Neil Howe was an orphan, a Barnado boy who joined the Merchant Navy when he was 15 and the Royal Navy in November 1936. He was 20 and unmarried when he was washed overboard from HMS Wolsey on the night of 15 - 16 May 1940. On the 10 May, the day German forces swept in Belgium, the Netherlands and France, Wolsey was transferred from Western Approaches Command at Liverpool to Dover Command.

"On 13 May, she and the destroyers HMS Boreas (H77), HMS Keith (D06), and HMS Wivern (D66) escorted a convoy bringing reinforcements from the United Kingdom for French antiaircraft defenses in ports along the English Channel, and later the same day embarked demolition parties and carried them to Le Havre, France, to destroy port facilities there before advancing German Army forces captured them. On 16 May, she and the destroyer HMS Vimiera bombarded German ground forces at Escault in Offrethun, France, and Wolsey again bombarded Escault on 17 May" Wikipedia

Within ten days of Albert being swept overboard HMS Wolsey was taking part in the evacuation of the BEF from Dunkirk and it is little wonder that George Blackler, her First Lieutenant, was unable to write to Albert Howe's sister, his nearest relative, until the 1st of July. She kept his letter for the rest of her life and I was sent these scans by her son, Neil Wastell, who tells the story of his Uncle's tragic life below.

Letter from Lt Chris Blackler RN
Letter From Lt Chris Blackler RN

HMS Wolsey
C/O GPO London

Dear Mrs Wastell,

I am sorry not to have replied to your letter sooner, but know you understand why.

I fully realise how terrible the shock of the bad news must have been especially coming just before what might have been the happiest day of your life for I know how close you both were to each other. In reply to your question regarding the actual death of Albert I'm afraid I can only say he must have been drowned by falling over the ship's side some time during the night when off Dunkirque - this is by no means an uncommon occurance in War Time especially in Action - and although there were many people on deck, all eyes may have been concentrated on something else at the time.

It may help you to know that my own father - a Captain - was lost one November morning in 1923 in more or less the same way - there again no one heard or saw him go and it could only be presumed - conditions making such a thing quite possible - he was lost over the side. It is a terrible feeling I know, so uncertain and one tries to conjure up reasons to comfort oneself that one day he will return. I've suffered exactly the same & know your feelings.

However be brave as I know you will, and always remember that Albert was one of the most popular men in the ship - liked and looked up to by his mess-mates - as you say - always bright & cheerful, and at all time ready and willing to help - a man in whom I could always rely upon.

Remember he lost his life like all too many have done in the service of his country and defending his loved ones at home against this unholy scourge that threatens us.

If there is anything what so ever I can do for you or help you in any way do let me know.  

I trust this letter will help and comfort you a little, and may I take this opportunity in wishing you every happiness in the future.

Yours sincerely

George Blackler

(1st Lieut)

Albert Neil Howe 1920 - 1940
Able Seaman on HMS Wolsey

My uncle, Albert Neil Howe, was born at Harrogate on 29 April 1920, to Albert Wright Howe, a cold storage manager, and Alexandra Howe, his Russian wife. Albert was their second child, my mother Mary was born five and a half years earlier in Russia at Astrakhan on the Volga Delta near the Caspian Sea.
Albert’s father was born at Cardiff in 1873, one of eight children. His first wife was 30 when she died in 1910 and he decided to make a new life abroad. His brother helped him get a job managing the Union Cold Storage Company in Astrakhan. In 1913 he married a Russian girl, Alexandra Leschinsky, 17 years younger than him, the daughter of a local doctor. My mother was born the following year.

Although Russia was Britain’s ally in the Great War, the political situation was highly unstable and the British Government decided to appoint a number of vice-consuls to be their ‘eyes and ears’. Albert was appointed as unpaid vice-consul for the Astrakhan region, reporting to Consul Patrick Stevens in Batumi (now Batoum), 500 miles away in Georgia, then part of the Russian Empire. Albert performed his vice-consular duties alongside his paid employment for Union Cold Stores.

Albert Wright Howe (1873-1923): Manager of the Union Cold Storage Company in Astrakhan and Honorary British Vice-Consul
Outside apartment house in Russia
Outside his apartment building in Astrakhan in 1914 with his wife Alexandra in a drosky
With his family back in England
With his family after his return to England in 1919
Albert Howe 1923
A portrait taken not long before he died in 1923

In 1917, as the situation in Russia deteriorated, Albert decided to send his young wife and two-year old daughter back to England. In a letter to Alexandra in April 1918, Albert described the destruction of half of the centre of Astrakhan during the Russian Civil War. He assured her ‘don’t be anxious about me, if necessary I shall leave here at once’.

He left it too late and on 1 August 1918, Albert’s office was raided and searched by the Red Guard, who took away all his correspondence relating to consular work, and imposed a night-time curfew on him. Six weeks later he was arrested, accused of spying and interrogated, before being imprisoned in the Astrakhan Kremlin.  He was incarcerated ‘with about thirty prisoners of the very worst type … with no bed to sleep, only the stone floor’. He was only allowed out to exercise once a week, had an appalling diet such as soup made from rotten fish heads, and as a consequence his health began to suffer. One night he was taken out of his cell and told he would be shot but was given a last-minute reprieve.  There were many indiscriminate killings at that time. Lieutenant McBryde, one of the Royal Navy officers imprisoned later with Albert in Moscow described how execution parties would often call at his cell to check his name, to see if he was on the list for execution.

On 26 December without warning, Albert was taken by rail to Moscow in an unheated prisoners’ wagon, with a guard of twelve soldiers. The journey, which normally took two and a half days, took seven days. On arrival, Albert was marched through the streets to Butyrka prison where he met other British prisoners, mainly military, including officers and soldiers from the Caucasus Military Mission led by Major George Goldsmith, who had been supporting the White Russians. Their treatment improved when the Red Cross were allowed to supply food three times a week.

Soon after his arrest Albert’s wife and daughter back in Harrogate had been told that he had been executed. It was only when Major Goldsmith succeeded in relaying a message to the Foreign Office in January 1919 that Alexandra and Mary found out that Albert was alive in prison in poor health.  Many executions did take place in Butyrka prison. Albert wrote that most were carried out by other prisoners who were given the clothes of their victims as payment.
As the war was ending a high ranking Russian was captured by British warships in the Baltic Sea off Estonia. F. F. Raskolnikov was the Naval Commissar for the Bolsheviks, the political leader of the Red Navy.  Raskolnikov would eventually be the key to getting my grandfather home. He was on the Russian destroyer Avtroil sent to bombard Reval (now Tallinn, capital of Estonia) on Christmas Day 1918, because of the presence of a British squadron. The British Navy captured and boarded Avtroil and found the Russian First Lord of the Admiralty disguised as an ordinary seaman, hidden behind twelve sacks of potatoes. Raskolnikov was taken to London and, after interrogation, locked up in Brixton prison. By his own admission he was well looked after in England, in stark contrast to the British prisoners in Moscow.

Negotiations took place to secure the release of the British prisoners in Moscow, in exchange for Raskolnikov. The exchange negotiations took place at the very highest level, between Foreign Minister Lord Curzon and Lenin, Trotsky and others.

On Wednesday 28 May more than seven months after my grandfather’s arrest, the 18 men, 16 military officers and two civilians, one of whom was my grandfather, were exchanged on a bridge on the frontier of Russia and Finland for Raskolnikov and one other Russian. Ironically, twenty years later , Raskolnikov was killed in exile on Stalin’s orders. One of the Royal Navy officers who was exchanged later wrote ‘it was noticeable at the moment of exchange, how excellent the condition of Raskolnikov was compared with that of the British prisoners. He was in good health and well-dressed while we were hungry and in tatters’. Both The Times and Daily Mail carried reports of the exchange, the Daily Mail commenting that Mr A.W. Howe, British Vice-Consul in Astrakhan ‘had previously been reported as shot’.

My grandfather arrived in Newcastle on 2 June 1919 wearing the clothes he had worn during the whole time he was in prison. Albert was still employed by Union Cold Stores and in April 1920, his second child and first son Albert Neil Howe was born in Harrogate. Soon afterwards the family moved to Cleethorpes where a second son, Robert Alexander Howe, was born in August 1921. Albert pursued a compensation claim against the Foreign Office and  after considerable effort and the intervention of the Foreign Secretary, Lord Curzon, was awarded 1,250 ‘in full settlement of all claims’.

Albert health was bad, however, particularly his mental health. In his 1919 letter to the Foreign Office, he had written ‘owing to the treatment received whilst under arrest my health is very seriously impaired and although my bodily health is much better, my nerves are very seriously impaired’. He never got over the trauma and in 1923 decided to end his life. He was seen walking into the sea on Saturday 13 October, leaving a wife and children aged nine, three and two. Three weeks later his body was washed up on the north coast of the Humber Estuary at Patrington. At his inquest – reported in The Times - a verdict of ‘suicide during temporary insanity’ was returned. He was 50 and his body was buried in an unmarked grave in the tiny graveyard of the remote St Helens church at Kilnsea, near to where the body had been found.

Albert’s two brothers accepted financial responsibility for Alexandra and her three children, and a small ‘two up two down’ house was purchased in Hartlepool for them, near to one of Alexandra’s brothers-in-law. After a year or so Albert’s brothers decided she would be better off with ‘her own people’, so in the summer of 1925 the family were sent back to Astrakhan. Russia was only just recovering from the long civil war and conditions were very poor. My mother wrote:

‘It took us about three weeks to travel – we went on a ship called the ‘Achelle’ ..... when we did get to Astrakhan it was literally a hell-hole, believe me. We lived in one room, the boys, myself and my mother. It was dreadful! We got there in summer, the place was literally infested with flies! They were everywhere and the heat was intense ... we all went down with some fever, the boys and myself, no wonder because the sanitation was deplorable! It was just like a nightmare at that time .... to us it was hell on earth. Mother was desperate, she longed to get back to the peace and security of England’.
Alexandra and her three children eventually managed to return home with the help of the Red Cross. Then tragedy struck again. Albert Neil Howe was just 12 years old when, on 2 March 1933, Alexandra died suddenly of heart failure while sitting in her chair. She was 42.

Albert Howe at Russel-Cotes Naval SchoolAlbert How My mother was 17, old enough to work, but the two boys were accepted as orphans by Dr Barnardo’s Homes. They were admitted in July 1933 at the ages of 13 and 11. Barnardo’s sent them to a reception home at Newcastle but they were soon separated. Bob was sent to a Barnardo’s technical school in Hertfordshire to be trained as a printer. Albert (on left) was sent to Russell-Cotes Naval School, part of Barnardo’s, at Parkstone in Dorset, a mile from Poole harbour, which  trained orphaned and destitute boys aged 13 to 16 for entry into the Merchant Navy.

Albert was nearly 16 when he joined the Merchant Navy on 1 January 1935, as a deck-hand with the Union Castle Line (right). His first ship was Balmoral Castle and he was paid 2/11/- per month. She was an old vessel, built in 1910 and scrapped in 1939.  She had a displacement of 13,361 tons, length of 570 feet, 17 knot service speed and could carry up to 531 passengers. When she came into service in 1910 she was the first ship of the Union Castle Line to be fitted with Marconi wireless telegraphy. Albert went on six voyages with Balmoral Castle on the Cape Mail run from Southampton to South Africa, each (including time before departure and after arrival) lasting just under two months. She stopped at Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, East London and Durban and on the way north at St Helena and Madeira. By his final trip from December 1935 - January 1936 he had become an Ordinary Seaman, no longer a deck boy. He had a clean record and joined the crew of Stirling Castle on her maiden voyage.

The new mail contract agreed in 1936 specified a passage time of 14 days which required a service speed of 19 knots. At first only Stirling Castle and her sister ship Athlone Castle could keep to this timetable. She left Southampton on her maiden voyage on 7 February 1936. In August she reached Table Bay in 13 days 9 hours, beating the previous record of 14 days, 18 hours, and 57 minutes set by SS Scot in 1893. Albert was on the maiden voyage in February and the record-breaking trip in August. He made four trips to the Cape on Stirling Castle, and his record shows that his ability and general conduct were ‘Very Good’.

In April 1936 Albert decided to join the Royal Navy. His half-Russian parentage would normally be a bar to entry but an exception was made and in November 1936 aged 16 and a few months he joined HMS St Vincent, a shore establishment in Gosport, as a Boy Seaman 2nd Class. Albert did his initial training at HMS Ganges at Shotley in Suffolk, where generations of boys trained for service in the Royal Navy until its closure in 1976. In July 1938, Ordinary Seaman Albert Neil Howe signed on for three years and joined HMS Garland - part of the 1st Destroyer Flotilla of the Mediterranean Fleet.

HMS Garland
A torpedo leaving the tubes on HMS Garland
Courtesy of Neil Wastell
Albert How
OD Albert Neil Howe C/JX 150819 on HMS Garland
Courtesy of Neil Wastell

HMS Garland was a G-Class destroyer built in the mid-1930s. She was part of the ‘Spanish Patrol’ during the Spanish Civil War, leaving Malta on 28 November 1938, visiting Palma, Gandia, Caldetas, Marseilles, and Cartagena, calling at each port more than once before returning to Malta on 1 January 1939.  On 17 September 1939, while on convoy escort duty, HMS Garland was badly damaged by the premature explosion of her own depth charges and required over six months of repairs. Albert recorded in his diary that they were 200 miles from Alexandria when a German u-boat was detected. The depth charges went off prematurely and there were two massive explosions, resulting in serious casualties. The explosions flooded all the officers’ and stewards’ cabins at the stern of the ship. Garland was taken in tow by HMS Griffin half an hour before dark.

The following day the casualties were transferred to HMS Galatea, which escorted Garland for three hours until HMS Afridi came in sight and replaced Galatea, which proceeded to Alexandria at full speed with the casualties. Albert recorded in his diary that HMS Garland developed a dangerous 25 degree list to starboard as she entered Alexandria. Afridi sent a signal to ‘stand by boats’ and a tug took Garland into dry dock with her starboard quarter under water. After temporary repairs had been made, Garland was towed to Malta for permanent repairs which took from 11 October 1939 to May the following year. HMS Garland was then loaned to the Polish Navy.
The crew of Garland including Albert Howe, by then an Able Seaman, were assigned to HMS Wolsey, whose 4.7 inch guns were being replaced by 4 inch high elevation guns to operate as an anti-aircraft destroyer, a WAIR conversion.  Garland’s ship’s company were re-commissioned on Wolsey at 09.00 on 1 January 1940.  Albert’s diary describes how they fell in on the jetty ‘and received watch-bill and liberty cards’ from the 1st Lieutenant George Blackler RN. Albert left Wolsey to go ashore until the refit was completed.

HMS Wolsey left Malta in mid-January 1940 as one of the vessels for the 25 ships of Convoy 17F from Gibraltar to Liverpool, arriving 7 February. Wolsey was then allocated for convoy escort in the Western Approaches. She was transferred to Dover Command for support of military operations following the German invasion of the Low Countries and France on 10 May. On 13 May Wolsey, with three other destroyers, escorted a convoy to Dunkirk to reinforce French anti-aircraft defences at the Channel ports. On 16 May, off the Zeeland coast, Wolsey and HMS Vimiera, provided gunfire support to military action taking place on-shore.

On the night of 15-16 May, while engaged in this action, Albert lost his life. He was 20. As 1st Lieutenant George Blackler wrote, in his touching letter to my mother - Albert’s sister and next of kin - ‘.. he must have been drowned by falling over the ship’s side sometime during the night when off Dunkerque ….. all eyes may have been concentrated on something else at the time.’

A telegram was sent to Albert’s sister at her employer’s address where she was live-in nurse to their children. It simply states:


Wolsey was taking part in the evacuation of the BEF from Dunkirk and the telegram was not sent until 12 June, almost four weeks after Albert was lost. It arrived on the the eve of my mother’s  wedding and was intercepted by her employer who decided not to hand it over until after she was married. My mother, who was very close to Albert, and kept a photograph of him on display until she died 65 years later, was always very grateful for that kindness.

Albert Neil Howe AB is commemorated on the Royal Naval Memorial to the Missing at Chatham.

Neil Wastell
1 June 2018

Memorial Book to those Lost at Sea

I was able to put Neil Wastell in touch with the son of Lt George Blackler RN who wrote to his Mother about the circumstances in which her brother was lost at sea and he was moved to learn how his father's letter had been carefully preserved for all these years.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission provides memorials to people killed in war, but many who have been lost at sea - whether during peacetime or in war - have had no such memorial. All Hallows by the Tower, the oldest church in the City of London, contains a Memorial Book to those lost at sea presented by the Maritime Foundation to provide just such an enduring memorial.

It records the names and circumstances of the deaths of people lost at sea with no known grave. Families can still arrange for names to be added and the records are being digitised so that they can be viewed online. A Service of Thanksgiving is held in October each year for friends and families to commemorate those whose names have been entered in the Memorial Book. This year's service is on Thursday 12 October at Noon.

If you want to find out more about the wartime service of a member of your family who served on HMS Wolsey you should first obtain a copy of their service record
To find out how follow this link:

If you have stories or photographs of HMS Wolsey you would like to contribute to the web site please contact Bill Forster

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