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The Mumbles lifeboat disaster of 1947

by Well Polished Swansea, Feb 2019

As far as sailors are concerned the land bordering the Bristol Channel, and in particular its northern extremity, has always been a dangerous and deadly stretch of coast.

This part of the estuary has seen hundreds, perhaps thousands, of shipwrecks over the years but none is more famous or more tragic than the post-war wreck of the Liberty ship Samtampa and the subsequent loss of the Mumbles lifeboat Edward Prince of Wales.

The double disaster took place on the night of 23 April 1947. The Samtampa was a 7219 ton Liberty ship, built and launched in the USA in December 1943, one of many vessels intended to plug the gap caused by the German U-boat campaign against British and Allied shipping.

She, like all of her class, was built in a hurry, her hull being welded together rather than riveted – something that may have contributed to the eventual breaking up of the stricken ship.

By 1947 the Samtampa was owned and operated by the Houlder Line. On 19 April she left Middlesborough, in ballast and therefore high out of the water, bound for Newport. Her captain, Neale Sherwell, was a New Zealander, an experienced and able seaman. In all, she had a crew of 39.

Severe gales

By the afternoon of 23 April, the Samtampa was in the channel off the Devon coast. With a severe south westerly gale blowing and being in ballast, she was light and soon unmanageable. Both anchors were out but the stricken vessel was being blown, slowly and inexorably, towards the Welsh coast.

Her captain had little option other than to radio for assistance. The nearest lifeboat station at Mumbles, to the west of Swansea, was alerted.

As darkness gathered, the Mumbles lifeboat Edward Prince of Wales, under the command of coxswain William Gammon, was launched in what was to prove a fatal and unsuccessful rescue attempt. Unable to locate the Samtampa, Gammon brought his tiny craft back to the slipway at Mumbles in order to find the exact location of the vessel. Then he and his crew set out, once more, into gigantic seas and a wind that had now assumed virtual hurricane proportions.

Shortly after 7pm the Samtampa was driven onto the rocks of Sker Point, close to Royal Porthcawl Golf Club. The tragedy was that watchers from the shore could see what was happening, could even hear the cries of the doomed men, but were powerless to help in any way.

The hull broke into three sections almost immediately. The bow section drifted several hundred yards out to sea and most of the crew huddled together on the central bridge section or at the stern. They were already beyond help.

The Porthcawl Lifesaving Company made three attempts to fire rockets out to the ship, with the hope of setting up a breechers boy. But, with the wreck lying about 500 yards beyond the waters edge and the wind – now between Force 10 and 11 – howling into their faces, the lines fell well short. Before long all three sections of the wreck were under water.

The Edward Prince of Wales was last seen by Coastguard watchers at 7.10 pm. She was not equipped with radio and attempts to communicate with her by signal lamp were hindered by mountainous seas and rain squalls. It was not until the following morning that her wrecked hull was found about 450 yards south east of the Samtampa.

The events surrounding the loss of the Edward Prince of Wales will never be fully known. The RNLI, after looking into the disaster, said that she had been capsized and driven ashore onto the rocks at high water, about 8pm on 23 April. She was never seen by the watchers on Sker Point so it is hard to confirm these findings.

Choked by oil

Many of the bodies – lifeboat men and sailors from the Samtampa – were found with their mouths, ears and nostrils clogged by fuel oil. In many cases they had died after being choked by this oil rather than by drowning.

There is a theory that William Gammon took his tiny vessel inside the stricken Liberty ship, between the Samtampa and the coast, where the water was calmer and the chances of taking men off were greater. Then, so runs the theory, the Samtampa was hit by a gigantic wave that threw her on top of the lifeboat and capsized her.

After this time it is hard to know – certainly there were few marks on the hull of the boat while everything above deck had been smashed away, consistent with her being driven ashore upside down.

In all, 39 of Samtampa’s crew perished along with eight crewmen from the Edward Prince of Wales. It remains perhaps the worst maritime disaster to hit the south Wales coast. But such is the courage of the men and women of the RNLI that within 24 hours of the sinkings a new lifeboat crew had been formed and the service from Mumbles carried on as before.2