Thursday, 1 September 2016

Remembering the Raceland: Righting a Wrong

During the Second World War one of the most perilous duties of any Allied ship was to round the North Cape under threat of attack from the Luftwaffe, U-boats and the Arctic weather. In March 1942 one of the hundreds of merchant ships which braved those waters in the PQ Arctic convoys sailing that route became one of the victims.

The Clydebuilt SS Raceland had been the Italian owned ship Ircana berthed in Florida. In 1941 she was requisitioned, passed into US ownership, and as was common for the day was registered under her new name in Panama. The ports of the USA were filled with sailors from all over the world in 1942 and her crew was as multi-national as her background.  The bulk of her crew were Scandinavian – Norwegians, Danes and Swedes but there were also Estonians, Dutch, Canadian, English and Scots sailing her.

On 28th March 1942 the Raceland was attacked by Junkers 88 Luftwaffe bombers as she rounded the tip of Norway on her way to Murmansk as part of convoy PQ13. After taking several hits the Raceland’s engines gave up and the ship began to sink. She was already a slow ship and the convoy couldn’t wait for her as she settled in the water. It was a still day in the Arctic waters and with their ship sinking beneath them the forty-five crew took to four lifeboats in the hope of reaching the fairly close Norwegian coast. Their luck took a turn for the worse that night as the weather changed and a storm scattered the lifeboats and capsized two, killing all occupants.

For the next few days the two remaining lifeboats endured the hardships of small boats in Arctic waters. Exposure took its toll in both boats and many men died before they separately reached the inhospitable shores of northern Norway; one boat after five days and the other after eleven. The bodies of those who died after reaching land first were recovered, but were buried at a remote location on the island of Söröy. All the Scots sailing on the Raceland had died on the lifeboats and had no grave but the sea.

A few men did survive, and it is from the survivors - passing the details via the Red Cross, from a German prisoner-of-war camp, to the next of kin of their dead shipmates - that we know this story of the Raceland’s fate.

Unfortunately  - and shamefully -the Scots of the Raceland who laid down their lives for freedom were not commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission after the war. Out of ten Commonwealth crew members of the ship only one was commemorated by the CWGC. I think it is no coincidence that Ship's Boy Roy Currie - who was one of those whose bodies were recovered on land - is the only one commemorated. Either the German or Norwegian authorities will have recorded his death and burial, and ensured his recording in the official registers. The rest have been lost in a gap of recording British and Canadian nationals serving in non-British registered ships. The recording of British sailors lost in British ships during both World Wars was already patchy; adding an extra level of administration had obviously been too much. In April 1942 the US Coastguard informed the British Consulate in Washington of the British nationals who were missing after the loss of the Raceland. We don’t know if this was the only occasion when the details of the names were passed on to UK authorities from the US authorities but there are other paper trails between next of kin and US authorities and ship owners to suspect it wasn’t.

A nephew of one of the Dutchmen who died when the Raceland foundered has been researching the fate of the ship and the men for a book he is going to publish. Jos Odjink in the Netherlands has already pieced together the facts around the sinking of the ship and has researched the background to many of the crew. It is thanks to Jos’s hard work that we know so much about the Raceland and we are very grateful that he has put a lot of the details online.

Consulting archives in London and Washington whilst on business trips, Jos has uncovered several useful documents. From Jos’s information and the work of some members of the Scottish War Memorials Project this is what we know of the Scottish sailors of the Raceland so far:

John G Keogh
He was born at Carntyne Street, Shettleston on 28th March 1902. The ship was sunk on his 40th birthday.
His parents were John and Ellen Keough (nee McKeown) and in the 1911 Census he was one of five children. His next-of-kin address during the war was given as 703 Shettleston Road, Glasgow - his mother was living there. She died in the same location in July 1949. One of the survivors wrote to her from a PoW camp and said her son had died the day after the sinking. A Merchant Navy index card from 1937 for John Keough survives and gives his rating as Fireman.

James Joseph Burns
No date of birth has been found yet, but his age is given as 38 by the US Coastguard so it should be around 1904. No James Joseph Burns has been found to match this date of birth.
His next-of-kin address was given as 117 Florence Street, Glasgow - it was his mother who was living there. The same survivor in the PoW camp who gave information to John Keogh’s mother told James Burns’ mother that her son had died in a lifeboat on the 2nd of April.

Hugh McKenzie
This man is more difficult to track down and not just because of the name. He was listed by the US Coastguard as 48 years old, so he should have a date of birth around the mid 1890's. His next of kin address is given as 1913, 75th St Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio. Jos thinks he may have taken US citizenship even though the US Coastguard sent his details to the British Embassy.
We have managed to find a Merchant Navy index card for a Hugh Brown Mckenzie with a birth of 2nd November 1896 in Glasgow which is a possible lead but will need to be confirmed. Interestingly it also features a photo of the man concerned.  

Could this be Hugh McKenzie?

Jack Kleinberg
This man is actually listed on the SNWM roll of honour at Edinburgh Castle. This is because his sister approached the Secretary to the SNWM Trustees in the 1990’s with the information she had about her brother’s death. The SNWM entry says he was born in Glasgow:

Able Seaman Jack Kleinberg
Place of birth: Glasgow
Date of death: 28 March 1942
Theatre of death: Unknown
Other detail S.S. "RACELAND"

Jos Odjink has found a letter from Kleinberg’s fiancée -an Etta Bernstein of Glasgow -looking for information from the ship owners about his fate.
Along with his place of birth, that would seem to suggest he was a Glaswegian but intriguingly he is also listed on the Jewish War Memorial in Piershill Cemetery in Edinburgh. This memorial also gives his age as 23. It was the investigation of this man’s name on which prompted the SMRG investigation of the fate of the other Scottish crewmen of the Raceland –

Jewish War Memorial in Piershill Cemetery

Earlier this year Jack Kleinberg’s name came to the attention of Martin Sugarman. Martin has set himself the task of identifying Jewish servicemen and women who had died during the World Wars but had not been commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. We passed on all we had on Jack Kleinberg to Martin as did Jos Odjink. Martin lives in London and is able to make regular visits to The National Archives and was able to track down the vital pieces of information which could be used as evidence in progressing Jack Kleinberg’s case with the CWGC.  The good news is Jack Kleinberg has been accepted by the CWGC for commemoration and he will be added to their database. At some point in the future his name will also be added to the Tower Hill Memorial to the Merchant Navy in London.

The other Commonwealth war dead lost on the Raceland deserve to be commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and the three Scots by the Scottish National War Memorial. With Martin’s successful submission to the CWGC that commemoration looks a step closer and the SMRG will look for the evidence and provide them to the relevant authorities. 

It’s not just the men of the Raceland. Other Scots serving on US merchant ships are not commemorated either. There will be some amount of work to identify the unrecorded Scots and get them commemorated, but the men who manned our lifeline, the unsung heroes of the Second World War, deserve nothing less.  Men like:

Thomas Mullin. Lost on the Nathaniel Green 02/24/43 F/W from Rothesay, Bute, Scotland
C. W Hunter. Lost on the Nimba 09/13/42 Scotland
Joseph Sutherland. Lost on the Rochester 01/30/42 3rd Engineer, from Glasgow, Scotland
Edward M Mackin. Lost on the Tambour 09/26/42 Donkeyman, from Scotland, Aged 32
John McRae. Lost on the Winkler 02/23/43 Able Seaman, from Scotland

Hugh J. Smith. Lost on the Winkler 02/23/43 Ordinary Seaman, from Scotland