Newport has a special connection with the sea and hundreds of her sons lost their lives there in the service of the Merchant Navy in the two world wars.

MARTIN WADE tells of just some of the Newport ships and sailors who never returned.

THE MERCHANT Navy is the often overlooked arm of Britain’s defence.

While the three armed services can point to famous battle honours, the Merchant Navy has done the less glamorous but vital job of bringing vital supplies to our shores.

A risky enough job in peace, but in war it is one fraught with danger.

Around 35,000 men of the Merchant Navy were lost in the Second World War, a higher percentage of losses over any service, armed or otherwise.

Even if a sailor were to survive an attack on their often unarmed ships, they would remain in peril as they battled against the elements to survive.

One of the first Newport ships to become a casualty of war was not sunk by a U-boat luring beneath the waves. The SS Clan Grant would meet her end in unusual circumstances.

Her killer sailed above the waves, not below. The German cruiser Emden was stationed in the Indian Ocean as a surface raider, looking for lone merchant vessels to attack. Because the Indian Ocean was largely controlled by her enemies (the British and French in East Africa, the British in India and South-East Asia) refuelling was difficult. The resourceful crew of the Emden would capture ships and make use of their cargo if it was of any value to them. In September they had captured a collier and installed their own crew, which dutifully sailed alongside the marauding cruiser.

The Clan Line steamers were based out of Newport, Glasgow and Liverpool and it was a name famous in merchant shipping.

On October 15 1914, the Clan Grant was steaming 150 miles off Minikoi near the Maldive islands off the south-west coat of India. The Emden spotted her and captured her, however her cargo was not deemed to be useful enough and the Newport-based ship was sunk by gunfire.

Often crews were fortunate. In October 1916 the Newport trader SS Penylan was steaming off the coast of Algeria when it was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine U-39 when it was five miles west of Cape Bougaroni. The ship took two hours to sink and the crew were able to take to the life boats. They were eventually picked up by a French destroyer and all of her crew survived.

The story of one Newport’s ships to meet their end in wartime was the SS Anglo Saxon, is perhaps the most tragic.

The 5,596 ton merchantman was filled with coal at Newport Docks and left for Bahia Blanca in Argentina on 6 August 1940 with 41 officers and crew.

While in the North Atlantic the main threat was from U-Boats, in the South Atlantic surface ships could roam - safe as Allied forces were spread more thinly there. The German cruiser ‘Widder’ stalked these grounds searching for likely targets and on August 21, one such target, the Anglo Saxon, presented herself. She was attacked by the German raider in darkness and she opened fire at around one mile from her target. The first salvo destroyed the Anglo Saxon’s gun and her ammunition, killing many of the crew.

Now without the means to defend herself, the Widder came closer and opened fire with her anti-aircraft guns, killing more of the crew and destroying some of her lifeboats. In the hail of fire another lifeboat was holed and her wireless room was destroyed before she could send out a distress signal. When shells exploded the boiler, the order was given to abandon ship.

Finally a torpedo from the Widder struck the Anglo Saxon and she began to sink. Of the 41-strong crew, just seven managed to escape in the ship’s jolly boat, a small, all-purpose vessel that could also be used as a lifeboat.

What followed was one of the war’s great stories of survival but also one of great tragedy. In their small boat, lying nearly 800 miles west of the Canaries, they drifted across the vast expanse of the Atlantic. With just a tin of hard ships’ biscuits, some tins of condensed milk, tinned mutton and four gallons of water, they blistered and suffered in their open boat.

One-by-one, the survivors, delirious through thirst and driven to despair threw themselves overboard until only two were left, Able Seamen Robert Tapscott and Roy Widdicombe.

So crazed with thirst they broke the glass of their compass and sipped the distilled water and alcohol. After that they never knew where they were going. Their boat drifted and the pair slipped further into despair. But fortune smiled on them and towards the end of October, they spotted land and steered towards it.

The two were dragged from the bleached boards of the jolly boat as it grounded on Eleuthera, an island in the Bahamas, 70 days after they abandoned the sinking Anglo Saxon.

The Bahamas newspaper, The Tribune, told how the pair were: “Burnt black by exposure and their hair matted by salt water, Widdicombe was still strong and able to walk to the ambulance at the airport, but Tapscott was weak and had to be lifted”.

The Anglo Saxon’s jolly boat which carried the pair to safety eventually found a home at a museum in Connecticut. By the early 1990s, the Imperial War Museum asked if the boat, by then in storage, could be transferred to them. The boat is there now, the notches carved on its sides to mark the days adrift a poignant reminder of the terrible journey they endured.

Also there is a picture of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor meeting the two survivors at a hospital in Nassau. Robert and Roy are skeletal, sitting on a verandah in the sunny Bahamas as the ex-King and his wife chat to them.

After the miracle which saw them carried to safety, their survivors stories both end tragically. Having recovered, Roy Widdicombe travelled to New York to join another ship, the Siam Prince. It was within a day’s sailing of Britain when it was hit by a torpedo and sunk with no survivors.

Robert Tapscott rejoined the Merchant Navy and survived the war. His evidence was vital in the case against Helmuth von Ruchteschell, the captain of the Widder, who ordered the shooting of the Anglo Saxon’s crew as they escaped in life rafts. Ruchteschell was sentenced to 10 years in 1947, by a tribunal, as a war criminal and died in custody.

Still traumatised by is time on the open boat, Robert Tapscott killed himself in 1963.

To remember these and all of the sailors of the Merchant Navy who sailed from Newport never to return, the statue which towers over Mariner’s Green in Newport was erected in 1991.

The bronze sculpture is by Sebastien Boyesen and is of a navigator, sitting on a sphere and with a sextant is his right hand. The statue is placed on a seven-metre high column, at the base of which is an anchor, a torpedo and a gun.

At its feet tributes are placed each year as they were last weekend to remember Newport’s special place in the story of the Merchant Navy.