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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
Albert Wright Howe (1873-1923): Manager of the Union Cold
Storage Company in Astrakhan and Honorary British Vice-Consul
Outside his apartment building in Astrakhan in 1914 with his wife Alexandra in a drosky
With his family after his return to England in 1919
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
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
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
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
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:
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
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.
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
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.
A torpedo leaving the tubes on HMS Garland Courtesy of Neil Wastell
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:
‘REGRET TO REPORT THAT YOUR BROTHER ALBERT NEIL HOWE AB C/JX 150819 IS MISSING ON WAR SERVICE LETTER FOLLOWS
COMMODORE ROYAL NAVAL BARRACKS CHATHAM’
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
Albert Neil Howe AB is commemorated on the Royal Naval Memorial to the Missing at Chatham.
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.
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