When retired seafarer Captain Peter Thomson started to research the person memorialised on a bench at his home in Mariners Park in Wallasey, little did he know what a fascinating story he was going to uncover.
It was to be a story that would lead to a rarely investigated aspect of Merchant Navy History from the Second World War.
Peter was sitting on a bench and enjoying the sunshine when he noticed a small plaque in memory of Frank Walker. Peter did not recognise the name but knowing that many, if not all, seafarers have a tale or two to tell he decided to find out more.
Sadly, Frank had “crossed the bar” in 2008 but his widow, Vera, still lived at Mariners Park so Peter set about researching the story of his fellow seafarer.
It was a tale that many on Merseyside could tell, a tough upbringing before heading off to sea at an early age.
For Frank, the Second World War came along when he was fifteen, and a year later he found himself a deck boy on the Blue Funnel Line cargo ship SS Automedon in the Indian Ocean where she was attacked by the German armed merchant cruiser Atlantis.
It was an unequal fight and the Automedon was forced to surrender but not before six of the crew had been killed including Captain W B Ewan.
In spite of what might have been Captain Ewan’s last words, “Come on! We’re going to fight!’ – there was no return fire from Automedon, which makes the deaths and injuries sustained by crew the more tragic.
The surviving crew members were taken on board Atlantis as prisoners before being transferred to captured Norwegian tanker, Storstad with other British Merchant Navy prisoners.
Conditions were harsh with food, exercise and even fresh air strictly rationed. Frank and his fellow prisoners eventually reached shore in the Nazi-occupied French port of Bordeaux but that was far from the end of the journey for the unfortunate prisoners who were taken by train on a six-day journey to Sanbostel near Bremen in Northern Germany, and then on to Milag-Marlag Nord when conditions at Sanbostel became overcrowded with military and political prisoners.
Frank’s life did not improve much once inside this prisoner of war camp with food scarce and discipline harsh. The camp was only liberated on 26 April 1945 a week before VE Day and Frank made his way back to Liverpool from where he returned to sea and had an otherwise uneventful life before retiring and moving to Mariners Park.
Peter started to research the prisoner of war camp where Frank was held and discovered that very little had been written about it and the lives of over 5,000 British merchant seamen who had been held prisoner during the Second World War.
Merchant Navy prisoners were, of course, civilians and should have been held in an internment camp but in Germany they were treated as Prisoners of War in the same way that service personnel were.
Peter’s book, Frank’s Bench, is being launched at the Merseyside Maritime Museum at 1:00pm on Thursday 14 September and Peter would be especially interested to meet merchant navy personnel and families of people held prisoner so that these unsung heroes can have their stories told in what is hoped will be a new chapter in Merchant Navy history.
Tickets for the event, which are free, can be obtained by following this link
For more information contact Captain Peter Thomson on 07437 197 300 or, preferably, by email at – firstname.lastname@example.org
Image: Captain Peter Thomson sitting on ‘Frank’s Bench’