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The First and Last Voyage

of the Fort Crevier: EPILOGUE

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Continued from Part Three


EPILOGUE


After surviving the Bombay Explosion, John Garside remained
Toronto Star Clipping

Among her explosive cargo Fort Stikine also carried gold bars which were blasted all over the city. Fort Stikine was one of 90 Canadian-built "Forts" which although purchased by the USA, were chartered to and registered in Britain as part of the "Lend-Lease" deal. The date of this Toronto Star clipping is unknown.

a DEMS gunner and he was soon assigned to another merchant ship, the Norwegian tanker MV Braja . Braja served throughout the Pacific Ocean and John remained aboard her for the duration of the war. Wartime secrecy surrounded the catastrophe at Bombay and what happened there was not public knowledge for a long time. The two horrendous explosions aboard Fort Stikine had caused thousands of casualties and untold devastation, but the clean-up and salvage effort was so massive that within six months the docks and surrounding area had been re-built. For many years afterwards, John wondered if he had dreamed the whole horror or had at least exaggerated his memories of it. It wasn't until 1992 when Donald F. Patterson of the Canadian Merchant Navy Association gave him the article "The Oceans, the Forts and the Parks" by L.A. Sawyer and W.H. Mitchell, published in a 1966 issue of Sea Breezes, that John realized that his horrifying memories were accurate.

A few months after his story had been up on the Internet, John received an e-mail from a young British man, Ian Walsh, who turned out to be the oldest grandson of Fort Crevier's Third Engineer John Walsh. John Walsh had been standing next to John Garside on the deck of Fort Crevier just before Fort Stikine blew up and he had been killed instantly by the explosion. Ian Walsh generously sent John Garside the following precious momentos which had belonged to Ian's widowed grandmother.

This first photo shows John Walsh and two of his friends taking a break from their sea duties. John is the gentleman on the left.

John Walsh and Friends
John Walsh (on left) and friends


This next photo is a copy of the letter of condolence which Captain Emrys Jenkins, the master of Fort Crevier, wrote to Mrs. Walsh after her husband's death.

Letter From Captain Emrys Jenkins
Captain Jenkin's Letter


This next photo shows John Walsh's grave as it looked in April 1944. After the war was over John was commemorated by a Special Memorial which was placed in the Kirkee (also known as Khadki) Military Cemetery at Poona (now Pune), India. Pune is a university city of over two million people and it is located about 115 miles south-east of Bombay on the Deccan Plateau. Bombay is now called Mumbai.

John Walsh's Grave, Sewri Cemetery, Bombay
John Walsh's Grave, Sewri Cemetery, Bombay


On April 14th, 2002 -- the 58th Anniversary of the Bombay Explosion -- John Garside received a letter from Michael Wale the eldest grandson of survivor George E. Todd. Michael wrote that his Grandfather George was a foreman shipwright with the P&O Shipping Company. During the war he worked in Bombay for P&O's subsidiary company Mazagaon Dock Limited which looked after the Prince's and Victoria docks. Like John Garside, George E. Todd not only witnessed the Bombay Explosion, but also had a narrow escape from death himself. Michael Wale kindly sent John the following letter giving the harrowing details of what his Grandfather George went through on that day and how it affected him and his family in later life.

April 14th, 2002

A few years ago I was given a copy of an interview with my Grandfather that appeared in the Victoria Daily Colonist newspaper. The article was dated March 4, 1973 and recalls his personal experiences from that day.

My Grandfather was the senior civilian official for the shipyard and was responsible for the ships Fort Stikine, Jalapadma, Baroda and El Hind. According to the article, at 1:30, while returning from lunch, he was notified that a fire had broken out aboard the Fort Stikine. My Grandfather did not known that ammunition was aboard until 3:00 when the fire had become out of control and he was notified of the matter. A decision was made to scuttle the ship and a squad of shipwrights were sent to assist the fire fighters in their efforts to cut through the hull. An evacuation of the docks was also ordered. At this time my Grandfather was standing on deck of the El Hind, two berths away from the Fort Stikine when all hell broke loose.

According to the article, the concussion of the blast blew my Grandfather through a cabin door and burnt most of his skin on chest and shoulder. The blast also snapped the El Hind of her mooring lines. Caught in the explosion's vortex, she began to slip towards the blazing Stikine. As she drew closer the El Hind began to catch fire and the men onboard decided to lower the lifeboats, some of which were by now already aflame. This is when the second explosion occurred. I remember my Grandfather telling me of a man standing next to him at the time that was split in two by a piece of falling debris. The survivors aboard the El Hind, unable to find a means of escape gathered on deck. Someone had found some water and cigarettes in one of the cabins and group huddled together when a landing craft bumped along the side. The craft had set adrift and somehow, by chance had found them. They were quick to throw a rope over the ships side and climb down to the craft, start its engine and navigate their way through the harbour to safety. My grandfather and his companions then staggered through the Red Gate towards the city.

My Grandfather was hospitalised for two weeks after the explosions. Doctors removed 70 splinters of wood and steel from his body. My Grandmother and Mother joined him in India a year later. My aunt, Ann was born in Bombay a few years later. They remained in India until 1953, experiencing first-hand the rise of Indian Independence and the Royal Indian Navy mutiny before returning to England. Two years later My Grandparents emigrated to Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, where George became a charge-hand at Yarrows Shipyard. He passed away several years later, but I can still remember his stories of India and the experiences he indured. I remember him showing me his chest and legs, still spotted with shrapenel from the explosion. As a teenager I returned to India with my parents and two brothers in 1984. We visited the Mazagaon Dock area and the compound in which my Mother had lived in as a child. The residences had remained unchanged, however they were slated for demolition the following year.

My Grandfather is survived by his wife Vicki, of Victoria, British Columbia, who at the age of 84 has just recently gone 'on line'. I work in the film industry and have often thought this story would make a good film. I have begun the process of collecting information about this time in Indian history and would appreciate hearing from anyone with suggestions or sources about the Bombay Explosion.

Michael Wale
Vancouver, B.C.
E-Mail: hopewale@telus.net



In the first week of July 2002 John Garside received two letters from retired Shipmaster Vic Pitcher of Scotland. Although Captain Pitcher did not witness the Bombay Explosion himself, 17 years later he sailed with one of the Explosion's most amazing survivors, Captain John (Jack) Longmire. Here are excerpts from Vic's letters which tell the unforgetable tale of Captain Longmire:

Vic Pitcher wrote:


"Back in 1961 I was the 2nd Mate of a Hong Kong registered ship East Breeze belonging to John Manners of Hong Kong. The Master was Captain J. H. Longmire, who was very much a "China Coast Man", having sailed out of Shanghai before the war and Hong Kong post-war. At the time I served with him Captain Longmire was resident in the town of Wickepin, West Australia. During the war Captain Longmire was based at Bombay where he was serving as a Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Navy. At the time of the Explosion he was a Salvage Officer and was alongside the Fort Stikine when she blew up. He was later recovered, still alive, from a cart full of bodies.

Vic also came across a brief reference to Captain Longmire's ordeal in John Ennis' book Bombay Explosion, which Vic found in a London library in the early 1970's.

Vic Pitcher can be reached at the e-mail address of Vjmandarin@aol.com
UPDATE APRIL 2003: Commander Longmire's son, John Longmire, would like to hear from anyone with connections to the Bombay Explosion, and he can be reached at clitheroejl@bigpond.com.


This last photo -- shown below -- was sent to John Garside by Ian Walsh. It is a copy of the newspaper article, dated September 12th, 1944, which summarized the Commission of Inquiry into the Bombay Explosion. The Bombay firemen referred to in this article and in Michael Wale's above letter, had courageously remained by the burning ship and were killed by the second explosion. (For more on the heroic Bombay firemen see John H. Harding's letter under "Recommended Reading" below).

Article on Bombay Inquiry
Summary of the Inquiry


The exact cause of the Bombay Explosion will never be known for sure, but one current theory is that the initial fire was due to the cargo of cotton bales which had been loaded at Karachi. Cotton is capable of bursting into flames all on its own and it is possible that just such a "spontaneous combustion" was the cause of the fire which led to the two terrible explosions aboard Fort Stikine. Whatever the cause, there is no doubt that the Bombay Explosion was one of the greatest disasters of the Twentieth Century. In his book A Great Fleet of Ships: The Canadian Forts and Parks, historian S.C. Heal examined the Bombay Explosion and came to the conclusion that it was "probably the largest single disaster of its type on the Allied side during the war", and second only to the largest manmade blast before the nuclear age -- the December 6th, 1917 explosion of the SS Mont Blanc at Halifax, Nova Scotia, in which over 1,700 died and over 4,000 more were injured.

John Garside's entire life has been deeply touched by the cataclysmic events which he witnessed on April 14th, 1944. The lives of John Walsh's widow and family were irrevocably altered for generations by his death. George E. Todd never fully recovered from his terrible injuries and Captain Longmire must have been haunted for the rest of his life by his ordeal. The families of the dockyard workers and firemen as well as countless thousands of other families -- in Bombay, throughout India and around the world -- were also devastated by the Bombay Explosion. It is important that the rest of the world not forget this seemingly long-ago, but all too recent tragedy of war.

THE END


Ship Line

Return to The First and Last Voyage of the Fort Crevier Part One or Part Two, Part Three or Ships Lost in the Bombay Explosion.


RECOMMENDED READING:

Bombay Explosion by John Ennis. Published in London, England, by Cassell in 1959. An American edition entitled The Great Bombay Explosion was published the same year in New York by Duell, Sloan, and Pearce. John Garside highly recommends this book as does John H. Harding (see below).

"Quenching the Fires of Hell" by John H. Harding. Published by the U.S. Naval Institute of Annapolis, Maryland in the February 2002 edition of Naval History Magazine. John H. Harding who served with the US Army Air Forces during WWII, was one of the heroic rescue workers of the Bombay Explosion. In "Quenching the Fires of Hell" he gives a very moving account of the disaster and its aftermath. In December 2001, after coming across John's page on the Internet, John H. Harding wrote John Garside a series of moving letters -- an excerpt of one of them is printed below:

Excerpts from John H. Harding's Letter

"When I think of the courage of the firemen it reminds me of British and Indian (The Gurkha Rifles) action at the Battle of Kohima in Burma in the Second World War. The battle, which was where the Japanese thrust into India was stopped, produced a poignant and singularly beautiful verse, the "Kohima Prayer":

"When you go home, tell them of us and say,
For your tomorrow, we gave our today."

Credit for writing the "Kohima Prayer" is given to a young British solder who is buried at Kohima. The cemetery has been described as 'serene and beautiful, located on a hill overlooking the capital'. I would add that it lies amidst silence and beauty, a tribute to the young men who dwell within its confines. There is a variation of the "Kohima Prayer" chiseled into the front of the Bombay Fire Brigade's old headquarters building on Bycula Road in Bombay. This effort was done at the behest of my friend Lovejoy Mehervanjee, Chief Fire Officer, retired, of the Brigade. Lovejoy, who is a very nice guy from the old school, every inch the gentleman, supplied me with the photos I used in my Explosion story."

John H. Harding
May 25th, 2002





RECOMMENDED LINK:

Bombay Photo Images [Mumbai]: The Bombay Explosion, 1944   This blog, dated February 2, 2011, provides detailed information, maps and photos about the Bombay Explosion. The webpage also features personal eye-witness memories of the disaster, including the account by Derek P. Ings who was Assistant Purser aboard HMT Chantilly at the time of the Explosion.



To go to "Allied Merchant Navy's" TABLE of CONTENTS Please Click Here.


INDEX PAGE





John Garside can be reached at jgarside187@gmail.com

John's pages are maintained by Maureen Venzi and they are part of the Allied Merchant Navy of WWII website.