war memorial at dusk, photographed by Michelle Cooper



Edwin Robinson


Part Three

After an action-packed life, Captain Edwin (Ted) Robinson, aged 94, now lives in well-earned quiet retirement in Walmer. His three-part story offers fascinating social insights into 1930s Britain and foreign countries he visited as a 16-year-old just before the war, and his eventful war years ...

September 3, 1939, witnessed two historic events. Firstly, it was Ted's 19th birthday. Secondly, war was declared.

Just before the outbreak of hostilities, returning from Murmansk loaded with phosphates, the captain received coded morse messages instructing him to proceed to designated positions, plotted each day to minimise potential danger. From that date allied shipping observed total blackout, including navigation lights. Accordingly, the Rio Azul blundered westwards, without radar, totally blind at night.

News came that the ship's charter was cancelled and British merchant ships were now under the control of the Ministry of Defence. Instructions were received to head to Freetown, Sierra Leone, to load iron ore. The journey was undertaken on a war footing, with total black-out, secrecy of movement, and under total radio silence. However, onshore, in a moment of frivolity, Ted swapped a blanket for a monkey. This eventually he presented to his less-than-thrilled parents.

War brought realisation of mortality. As his apprenticeship terms were not being honoured, and as he owed 30, a debt that would die if he did, he cancelled his indenture and became a seaman. Suddenly, for the first time in his life, he was rich, 9 every month instead of 18 annually as an apprentice.

Along the West African coast, palm oil was loaded. Despite sweltering heat, open deck fires were required to stop the oil solidifying before being poured into casks, a dangerous and dirty task. The ship returned unescorted to Liverpool. there it joined a convoy assembled in the Irish Sea, in June 1940. As Ted explained, with understatement, "This was my first convoy experience, although there were many afterwards".

Near the American coast the convoy split. The Rio Azul headed to South America on a war footing. There life was lively and bright after the duller and greyer condition of the Atlantic. They then went to Nova Scotia to join a convoy for the return Atlantic crossing. Ted said, laconically, "One at a time ships were torpedoed and sunk, some blowing up, some catching fire. Tanker losses were spectacularly awful as the surrounding sea caught fire, making escape impossible. For me, tanker crews were heroes".

The ship arrived safely in Liverpool in March 1941, but to no relief as the city was under heavy attack. Convoys became even more dangerous. There were regularly strafed and bombed by German planes. As surviving ship drew out of range they came into the reach of wolf-;acs of prowling U-boats - and Ted's ship was carrying explosives.

Surviving another Atlantic crossing, Ted arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, on his 21st birthday. Although Ted had forgotten his anniversary, a customs officer noticed and presented him with a stick of chewing gum.

Crossing the Bay of Biscay again, U-boats sank six ships from a convoy of 15. Arrival in Gibraltar gave scant relieve. Returning to his ship in total blackout, a fellow seaman fell into the water, dragging Ted with him. Ted survived; his companion drowned.

Aged 21, after five years at sea, Ted passed his nautical exams, was promoted to 3rd May, joining the brand-new SS Shahjehan. In August 1942 he left the Clyde, in a large convoy, heading for Bombay, India. Meanwhile the Axis powers were retreating along the southern Mediterranean coastline. The convoy included thousands of gallons of fuel, loaded in what appeared to be battered biscuit tins. Such hazardous cargoes were necessitated by the war effort. Captains on the huge 60-ship convoy opened sealed orders and found that they were ot support the invasion of Sicily.

However, Ted's luck ran out. The one-year-old state-of-the-art SS Shahjehan was torpedoed. As seawater poured in, discipline was bravely maintained by the many troops on board. "Abandon ship" was ordered, with only Ted as officer of the watch and the captain staying on board until ordered off. Ted volunteered to return onboard so that tow lines could be attached to a tug. The stricken vessel was towed astern towards Benghazi in Libya. Records show that onboard munitions were exploding. As fire raged, the hull plating glowed red. Then the dying vessel keeled over and sank. The volunteers just made it to the tug, which was nearly capsized by the undertow. Ironically, far from receiving a hero's reception, Ted was confined to barracks, to ensure secrecy, until the invasion began. A lorry transported Ted 1,000 miles across the desert from Libya to Egypt for his return trip to Blighty.

After five-and-a-half years of horror, deprivation, and fear, Ted, sailing from Melbourne to Bombay, learned that peace had been declared. However, the war in the Far East continued. Ted, onboard SS Malika, was transporting military supplies and troops for the invasion of Japanese-held Malaya. Cargo included 20 truck-mounted, large-calibre rapid-fire, Bofors guns. These were stowed below deck. Marine safety forbids ammunition for transported armaments being carried in ready-to-fire positions. However, army edict overruled these regulations, since the troops had to be ready for immediate invasion.

Anchored in Bombay, in a convoy of 40 ships, 15 feet of water was found in number two hold, caused by a jagged hole. As Ted explains, "Despite every precaution, the impossible had happened. We had shot ourselves; probably the only ship ever to have done so!"

Ted finally headed back to Blighty. His ship was packed with passengers. On board were hundreds of Polish women who had fought for the Allies after walking from Poland to Palestine, escaping the Germans. Eventually, via Suez, the Mediterranean and the Bay of Biscay, on board the Dutch ship SS Chistiaan Huygens, Ted arrived back to battered peacetime England, after an incredible three-and-a-half years with no home leave.

This article and photograph first appeared in the Dover Express on 27 November 2014
Reproduced with permission 


Copyright 2014 Marilyn Stephenson-Knight. All Rights Reserved