"You want to save that lad, remember the day it saved your life.”
The words of a stranger spoken to my great uncle moments after fishing him from the waters of the Atlantic as they made their desperate escape from the SS Yorkshire which just minutes before had been torpedoed by a German U-boat.
The male stranger was referring to a piece of cork, hooked from the lifejacket of a then 14-year-old Cyril Dixon, who was flung from a lifeboat as he cut away the rope holding the boat tightly to the sinking vessel.
It is quite the story and one I was hearing in full for the first time as my Grandma, also a passenger on the doomed ship, recalled her brother’s brave actions for the archives of the Merseyside Maritime Museum.
My great uncle Cyril Dixon is today 92 and my grandma Maureen Ashcroft, 85, 78 years on he still possesses that small chunk of cork. His ‘lucky charm.’
Along with their parents George and Bridget Dixon, they were the only complete surviving family from that fateful day in 1939.
The Yorkshire was the first ship from the Liverpool based Bibby Line to be sunk in the Second World War. It was hit by the U-37 at 4.31pm on October 17.
The ship was just a few days into it’s crossing from Gibraltar to England, carrying cargo and convalescent soldiers home after the declaration of the Second World War in September that same year.
Operating as the flagship, the Yorkshire was torpedoed by U-boat U-37, while in convoy off the French coast, near to the Bay of Biscay. Another ship the City of Mandalay, was hit just a short time later
The Yorkshire sank in nine minutes. The master, 24 crew members and 33 passengers were lost. There were 281 survivors picked up by the American steam merchant Independence Hall.
Maureen, says: “We were playing housey, housey - I remember a bang but was not really sure what it was - Cyril knew. I just remember he grabbed my hand and rushed us straight to the lifeboat station.”
Grandma was eight years old when the family boarded the Bibby Line ship after a changeover from the troop ship HMS Nevasa in Gibraltar.
Born on a military base in Catterick, Maureen and Cyril had spent their younger years abroad in Hong Kong and Ambala, in India. Her father George, was a regimental sergeant major attached with the East Lancashire Brigade.
With his posting coming to an end and with her mother Bridget suffering poor health, they were sent home ahead of the rest of the regiment.
The stop over came after a recall for the Nevasa to return further troops on the outbreak of the war.
She says: “I remember thinking when we got on-board ‘this is a nice ship’, it was much fancier than the troop ships we’d been used to - being so young I took a lot for granted about what was going on around us.
“I knew my mum and dad were worried about being at sea but I don’t remember being scared myself .”
The Battle of the Atlantic began with the sinking of the Liverpool liner Athenia of the Donaldson Atlantic Line, eight hours after Great Britain had declared war on Germany on September 3.
It would become the longest and most crucial campaign of the war.
Speaking of the chaos that ensued in the moments after the torpedo struck Maureen says: “There were only seven lifeboats left as the torpedo had destroyed one whole side of the ship.
“We were at the back end of the boat, there was only Cyril and I, we were separated from mum and dad but I vaguely remember catching a quick glimpse of my mum but I wasn’t sure where she was. I was lifted down into the boat into the hands of a lascar
“We were positioned against the boat and we were going down all the time, we were right at the back and tilting a lot - that’s when Cyril shouted out to the chaps. Someone threw him a knife to cut away the rope but as he did he went with it.
“I remember him being thrown into the water and some of the men fishing him out with a boat hook - it was that which tore his life jacket, the man handed it to him and said ‘save that lad - that just saved your life.’
“And he did.”
Grandma can’t say how long they sat in those lifeboats in the hours after, praying for rescue, “People said it was about nine hours but there was lots of hearsay, stories over the years. I know it was very dark and very cold.”
“The boats were packed with 50 or more, they had piled us in. It was around midnight by the time the American ship (Independence Hall) picked us up. Everything we had ever owned went down with the ship.
“The lascar kept wrapping me up in a blanket and lifting my legs, keeping me from getting wet - he was a very, very good, a kind man.”
“There were tragedies, two of the officers which had saved the ship from blowing up were buried at sea - another man was fished from the water with his young baby.
“His wife had no lifeboat and had handed the children to him, the swell of the boat meant one of them didn’t make it - he said as he went under he was ready to just let go, but coming up he caught sight of the other young baby - she was gurgling and cooing away and he knew then he had to hold on. They were picked up into our lifeboat”
“I hadn’t realised dad had made it in to a boat but it’s only years on now I realise just how lucky we were.”
The Independence Hall landed in Bordeaux on October 20 and the survivors were transported by train to the north to cross the Channel.
“Cyril said getting on a ship again was very scary but at my age I just jogged along with it.
“We had nothing, no clothes - just the dress on my back but my mum was a very determined woman she didn’t make a terrible fuss.”
Maureen, a grandmother of 12 and great-grandma of three, now lives in Poulton, she says: “Dad was stationed at Fulwood Barracks on our return to England”
An unwell Bridget was being cared for at the then Sharoe Green Hospital. Maureen and Cyril were homed in rooms with family friend Annie Smith ‘Aunty Smith’ at 207 Watling Street Road.
“Funny enough not long after we came back -they were showing it (the rescue) on the Pathe news at the cinema in Preston and with dad being stationed at the barracks, someone must have said something about it, so they invited us along and said ‘would you let the family come on stage while we’re showing it?’
“My mum was still ill but such a proud woman, she told them ‘no absolutely not’ - ‘you’re not doing that’
“Cyril was most put out, I remember him saying ‘she should have let us, we would have had people throwing money and sweets at us’
“We didn’t get to go and we didn’t get any money or sweets!”
Asked whether the experience had ever left her with any fears of the water, she adds: “I’ve managed a fair few cruises since - they were certainly different!
“It was a strange thing really, with it happening at the beginning of the war people talked about it at the start but as the war went on we were no different to anyone else
“As I’ve got older realised how lucky we were - the grandchildren talked about it at school for their projects, so I’m grateful now, with the people that were lost, to see how big a thing it was.”
Ben Whittaker, Curator of Maritime History and Technology
Maritime History National Museums, Liverpool
“It was fascinating and moving to hear Maureen’s recollections of the sinking.
“The piece of cork from Cyril’s life jacket may not look like much, but it is a great object for the museum to collect because of the
dramatic story behind it.
“Liverpool played a crucial role in the Battle of the Atlantic, which you can find out about in our Battle of the Atlantic gallery.
“We continue to collect material that relates to Liverpool and the conflict so were delighted when
Maureen and Cyril got in touch.”
SS Yorkshire fact file
SS Yorkshire was one of around 1900 ocean going ships that made up the British Merchant Navy, the formal largest merchant fleet in the world.
By 1938, the merchant navy was made up of over 190,000 seafarers, of these around 130,000 were British, and 10,000 of these from Liverpool.
Liverpool was Great Britain’s main transatlantic convoy port and headquarters of the Atlantic campaign.
Liverpool was also a major naval base and centre for repair and ship building.
Including the SS Yorkshire, Liverpool lost over three million tons of shipping in the war, which amounted to a quarter of the total of British Merchant ship losses, and more in tonnage then the merchant fleets of entire countries like Holland, Norway and Greece.