ALBERT COLWILL (1889-1918)

Leading Stoker Albert Colwill K/18812, HMS Anchusa, was lost at sea on 15th July 1918 following the sinking of his ship by U-boat U54.

Albert, born in Lifton, was one of at least ten children born to William and Thirza Colwill. William was a farm labourer and moved from farm to farm in the Tamar Valley. Sometime after 1907 but before 1911 the family had moved to Batten's Farm in North Hill. In the 1911 census William was recorded as a labourer and his son Albert was aged 21 and a waggoner on the farm.

Albert joined the Royal Navy as a Stoker Second Class, K/18812, on 7th April 1913, signing on for twelve years, perhaps responding to this poster from that year. The role of a stoker on the coal-fired warships of the day was an arduous one. Shovelling coal in temperatures of up to 150 degrees, in an atmosphere full of coal dust, with the furnaces roaring, in a rolling and pitching vessel, knowing that you were below the water line: all this called for courage of a special kind. Stokers were also expected to have a good theoretical and working knowledge of the ships' boilers.

Enemy torpedoes and exploding ammunition magazines were a constant threat to all on board, but particularly to the stokers. A direct hit could suddenly end your life, or you could face a slower death behind closed, watertight doors on a sinking ship.

HMS_Ajax_(1912)Albert trained at HMS Vivid (a shore base and depot ship at Plymouth) and served on HMS Ajax, a brand new King George V class battleship from October 1913 to the end of January 1917. HMS Ajax (shown here) was present at the Battle of Jutland on 31st May 1916 and, as a member of the ship?s complement, Albert would have participated in this famous conflict between the British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet. After a period as acting leading stoker, Albert achieved substantive promotion to the rank in February 1917.

Albert joined HMS Anchusa as a leading stoker at the end of May 1917. This was a less prestigious vessel than the Ajax, but the dangers of life below deck remained the same. German U-boats continued to glide unseen through the dark seas, ready to attack.

The Anchusa was launched in 1917, the first of a 28-strong Flower-class of Fleet Sweeping Sloops. HMS Bryony, of the same class, is shown here. The Anchusa's top speed was 16 knots.

All the ships in this class were built very quickly under the Emergency War Programme and were completed between August 1917 and June 1918 to counter the increased U-boat threat. These ships were deliberately built to designs which gave them the look of merchant ships, so that as well as mine-sweeping, they could also serve as 'Q' or decoy ships, offering an armed response to surface U-boat attacks. Before long the German U-boat commanders had worked out the subterfuge.

Records relate that the Anchusa sailed on her last voyage with a crew of 91 officers, men and boys. She sailed on 14th July 1918 from Lough Swilly, a Royal Navy staging port for North Atlantic convoys on the Donegal coast. The following morning she screened a homeward bound convoy off the Northern Ireland coast and was then ordered to return to Lough Swilly. Whilst on her way back to port she was diverted to help search for a submarine which had been reported in the area. Nothing was discovered and she resumed her passage to Lough Swilly. Early in the morning of 16th July she was torpedoed by U54. The Anchusa broke up and sank rapidly. Only twelve of the ship?s crew survived. Albert was lost with the ship and his body was never recovered. Of the 27 ships sunk by U54 the Anchusa was the only warship, the others being merchantmen.

Albert's name is recorded on North Hill's War Memorial and on panel 28 of the Plymouth Naval Memorial, pictured here.

It is possible to see a member of the Flower-class moored alongside the Thames Embankment. This is HMS Saxifrage launched in January 1918, renamed HMS President in 1922 and now in private ownership.

Albert was lost at sea following the sinking of HMS Anchusa by the German U-Boat U54. Here follows a report on the sinking of HMS Anchusa, told by the wireless operator of U54, Georg Haidt:

The crew of U54 in 1915 whilst patrolling the North Sea

On the 13th travelled at high speed westward on the surface. Lots of porpoises were playing around us. For us, that was the sign of an approaching weather change. Towards evening the sky became overcast and the seaway became stronger. Was it because of the weather that we could see no opponents in the distance around us? Not until midday on the 15th, after we had rebuilt a defective gyrocompass, did the first enemy escort ships come in sight, which had been fruitlessly chasing after us till towards evening.

At 2.30 at night a 13000 ton (sic) steamer approached. Attack was started immediately. The ship must have had a valuable cargo on board - it was running at such high speed we could hardly keep pace with it.

At 2.55 came the command: "Tubes one and two fire!"

A double shot at 1000 metres range!

Two powerful explosions and - the steamer sinks. Nevertheless it rears up and pushes its bow vertically out of the water. Curious smouldering flames flicker from the ship.

We make away at 'Utmost power'. Suddenly a volcano spews from the middle of the sea. Amid unheard-of noise the entire steamer, torn to atoms, flies into the air. A white-hot glowing spot, then nothing! It hails uninterruptedly down on us. Bits of iron of all sizes strike all around us. A huge shockwave runs up and buries us over our heads in water. We stand as if carved in stone and stare at the tremendous, destroying drama.

We are grateful to the members of The Great War Forum, particularly Willi from Cologne who found this on a German website, and MikB of Redditch who translated it.

A recruitment poster for stokers to remember Albert was reproduced for the book launch of "The Fallen of North Hill Parish".

The images at the top of the page show (L-R): Plymouth Naval Memorial; The flag of the German Navy and silhouette of a U-boat; British War Medal (WW1)