Newport sailor's valour recognised as medals arrive
3:30pm Tuesday 6th July 2010 in Gwent at war
FOR 70 years the ghost of a Newport seaman killed in the Battle of the Atlantic has haunted his son. Now Oscar Hansen's valour has been recognised but says Erik, Newport and the terrible year 1940 have unfinished business. Mike Buckingham reports.
THE hopes and dreams and bittersweet memories of 70 years arrived one sunny morning, in a plain brown envelope.
“I looked at it lying on the doormat for a minute or so although I already knew what was inside" Erik Hansen says.
“Finally the medals which my farther never lived to be able to wear on his chest had arrived.”
He slides each of them from the envelope: the 1939-1945 Star, the North Atlantic Star and the Victory Medal, newly-minted and with their ribbons but laden with thoughts which go back to 1940 and Britain's Atlantic battle against the German Navy and in which Oscar Hansen died when barely half the age his son is now.
The story of the sinking of the SS Anglo-Saxon is inseparably interwoven with Newport and its war and with a potent relic of the doomed merchantman.
Erik himself takes up the story.
“Dad was born at Aalborg in Denmark in 1897, one of 13 children and went to sea as a boy so that the family had some money” he says.
“Although detailed records have been lost we know he was aboard a sailing ship torpedoed in the First World War, an incident that prefigured his death in another war.
“Between the wars he sailed the globe including on clippers to Australia but pitched up in Newport in 1929 when having met Winifred Skoll and married her with myself and my brother and sister as the result.
"He was a big man who had learned seven languages whilst at sea and so had little problem getting a job as an interpreter at the courts in Newport.
"At the time we were living at 74 Commercial Road although later we went to Maesglas.
"When war came in 1939 and even though he was a foreigner he went back to sea in the Merchant Navy."
Seventy years have done nothing to dull the pain of parting, the instant etched forever on Erik's brain of his father turning towards the gates of Newport Docks never to be seen by the family again.
"I worshipped my father and even today can recall the moment in photographic detail" Erik Hansen, now grey but once blond and with his father's blue eyes pauses to fill his pipe.
"It was a day like today" and he points the pipe stem outside the window where in Lynhurst Avenue a bright sun is reflecting off passing cars and glinting off house windows.
Yet, inside the house is dark and a Danish flag and pictures of the long-dead seaman give the appearance of a shrine.
“My father had got his kit together and we were talking about how he would get to the docks", Erik continues.
“He said 'I've organised a lift in Tremayne the baker's van' and when the van turned up we all climbed in.
“The Anglo-Saxon was tied up at South Quay but because of wartime restrictions we couldn't go into the docks which meant we had to part at the dock gates.
“I distinctly heard my father say to our mother 'Win, this could be the last. This is going to be as serious as the last war. There's a chance I won't come back.”
“He was wearing a pea-jacket and had his canvas kit-bag, a small suitcase and the chest of tools he would need as the ship's carpenter.
“He made towards the dock gate, turned for one last look at us and that was the last we ever saw of him.”
As Oscar had predicted fate had indeed spun its wheel and spelt doom for the Anglo-Saxon.
In mid-Atlantic she was sighted by the German surface raider Widder against which the British ship's deck gun was puny defence.
Of those crewmen who survived the pounding of the Widder's gunfire several took to one of the ship's jolly boats and under cover of darkness pulled silently away from the burning hull.
Oscar Hansen was not among them.
For the rest of the war the family hoped against hope that Oscar was stranded somewhere on an island or the South American coast unable to get news of his survival to them.
“But I think we knew.
“When all the others were out in the street celebrating the end of the war I was inside, crying for the father I had lost and missed so much.”
In his turn Erik went to sea, serving with the Merchant Navy for 12 years.
“On Atlantic crossings I would ask the second mate to tell me when we were in the area where the Anglo-Saxon was sunk and I stare out to sea and offer up a prayer.
“There was an almost mystical sense that I was sailing exactly where my father had been and that he somehow close to me.
“I have felt that ever since.
“I'm 78 so our reunion cannot be all that far away.
“But until that day I shall carry with me the image of our parting at the dock gates but for now I have the medals of which he would have been so proud.”
Could the boat that survivors sailed in return to Newport?
THE Gods of War dictated that only two crewmen were to survive the Widder's attack and they are both now dead but a memento soaked in tragedy and bravery remains for Newport to reclaim as its own.
Abandoning themselves to wind and current the two survivors were washed up on the island of Eleuthra in the Bahamas where they were received by the Duke and Duchess of Kent.
In the meantime the jolly-boat which had taken them to safety was salvaged and exhibited around the United States where it drummed up sympathy for Britain's war effort which 18 months later led to America's entry into the war.
Even after 70 years the jollyboat still carries a powerful emotional cargo.
At the war's end it was given to a maritime museum in New England from where, largely because of pressure exerted by the Newport Anglo-Saxon Jollyboat Association and the Merchant Navy Association and its chairman Mr Bert Bale, it was given to the Imperial War Museum in London where it is today part of the museum's Atlantic War display.
For the past 15 years sporadic efforts have been made to return the craft to Newport from whence it sailed 70 years ago almost to the day.
Financial strictures and lack of space in which to display such an important artefact have so far proved serious obstacles but the prospect of a purpose-built home for the Newport's mediaeval ship raises the possibility of the jollyboat being housed alongside her.
Thus would Newport have not only a reminder of her distant seafaring past but of much more recent events still within living memory, when her menfolk went down to the sea in boats, there to die for their country.
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