Mum’s WW2 letter reveals frantic search for lost lads

6 December 2018

A wartime letter written by a mum in search of her drowned teenage son has emerged after 75 years.

“The Government thinks nothing of those left behind,” wrote Liverpool mum Mrs Clare in a letter to another young woman also fearing for her husband lost at sea.

Ordinary Seaman Leslie Clare , 17, was one of 655 men, women and children who lost their lives when Liverpool liner SS Ceramic was torpedoed.

The Ceramic was a merchant vessel working the Liverpool to Australia route. It was a Liverpool ship – and many men from the city were crew. 

Fred and Leslie (pictures

In some quarters it was known as the ‘relief of Bootle’ as it took men off the dole queues and into work. 

During war Ceramic continued her usual route – carrying troops and civilians. A role which was seen as a ‘calculated risk’. 

Overnight on 6/7 December in 1942, German u-boat U-515 sent hell in the middle of the Atlantic west of The Azores. Only one person survived. 

It was to be one of the worst shipping disasters in maritime history yet some eight months after the sinking the British Government gave no information to families. 

In June 1943 Leslie’s mum frantically writes from her home in Knotty Ash to Annie in Waterloo, in a desperate search for news of her son.

The letter was uncovered recently as Annie’s family went through some old papers.

New mum Annie was trying to bring up her 10-month-old baby in the knowledge that her husband Fred, 36 (below) was presumed dead. 

How could it take almost a year for the Ceramic’s sinking to be confirmed? Surely The British Government knew exactly what had happened to the ship and lads like Leslie and Fred? 

There is some debate that those in power were aware of the facts, yet chose to keep quiet. 

Clearly a government of a country fighting a war has its work cut out having to contend with huge loss of life during conflict. But did those at the top make the calculated decision that news of a huge disaster at sea could be “bad for morale”?

When the Ceramic was struck the crew’s wages were stopped the moment the liner sunk below the waves. 

Mrs Claire writes: “The Government thinks nothing of those left behind. They are not giving me a penny for the loss of my boy. Do you think we are getting treated right? Not likely.

“All I have had is £10 for his belongings. He had two large cases of beautiful clothes and a gold signet ring that I bought him for his 17th birthday. And a beautiful watch.

“He was a very proud boy so you can guess how he dressed – and they insult you with £10. All they want is the men.”

Mrs Claire write to Annie: “We must keep praying and hoping God is good and we must have faith in him. God has given you your baby to be a comfort to you.”

The Merchant Navy kept the United Kingdom supplied with raw materials, arms, ammunition, fuel, food and all of the necessities of a nation at war throughout WW2 – literally enabling the country to defend itself.

Merchant crew would have a basic working week of 64 hours. Just try to take that in – 64 hours. 

In doing this they sustained a considerably greater casualty rate than almost every branch of the armed services.  Leslie and Fred were two of those casualties. 

There is an underlying feeling of discrimination against men like Leslie and Fred who died for their country – yet were Merchant seamen and not Royal Navy men. 

Post-war, although their memory was kept alive by families, the government of the time did not grant them automatic right of commemoration by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. 

Fred’s name was only added to the war memorial closest to his home in Waterloo in the late 1990s – more than half a century after this death. 

Fred was my grandad. 

By Dickie Felton 

In Memoriam:

The 655 men, women and children lost on SS Ceramic.

Leslie Clare, died 6/12/42. Aged 17

Merchant Navy Ordinary Seaman.

Fred Felton, died 6/12/42. Aged 36.

Merchant Navy Steward.

An excellent book written about the SS Ceramic, its career, and sinking was written by Clare Hardy in 2006.