January 1942 saw one of the blackest days of the Second World War when the Caledonian Monarch was sunk, taking 20 Gwent sailors with her. For one Newport man whose uncle was among those lost it was both a tragedy and a family mystery.

JEFF Wood was brought up on stories of the death of his uncle Richard ‘Dickie’ Beal, a Newport seaman, who was one of 20 from Monmouthshire who died when the Caledonian Monarch sunk with all hands.

Granville Square near where the George Street bridge now stands was home to Richard Beal. A Merchant seaman before the war, he had left the service to marry but then re-joined the Merchant Navy when war broke out despite working in a reserved occupation.

In a bid to solve the mystery of how his uncle died, Jeffrey found much which shed light on the fate of the Caledonian Monarch. An accident was to have fatal results for her crew.

“She ran aground off the coast of northern Scotland” Jeff says. “The ship was taken to Newport to be put in Bailey’s dry-dock for repairs in June 1941.”

The damage was so extensive it would have caused the ship to be scrapped in peacetime, but such was the need for shipping to replace those being sunk that the decision was taken to repair her.

“She was in dry-dock for months” says Jeff “so long that her original crew had to be paid off and a new one recruited in Newport.” The new crew boarded her in September 1941 when she sailed with a cargo of coal.

She joined a convoy sailing across the Atlantic, eventually reaching Buenos Aires. In Argentina she swapped her coal for grain and steamed north to join convoy SC-63 off Halifax, Nova Scotia in Canada.

Convoys, carrying vital supplies to Britain, sailed every day of the week. At any given time there would be 100 or more ships crossing the Atlantic taking food, weapons and fuel.

Each convoy was timed, with each running on a different route, and each was scheduled to arrive on time at a rendezvous 200 miles west of Ireland. The slow convoys limped along at five to seven knots. This slow speed made them vulnerable.

The designation ‘SC’ meant that this group was a ‘slow convoy’ often made up of older ships. Even among these convoys which would travel at nothing more than walking pace there were still ships which would struggle to keep up or would lose sight of the convoy.

In early 1942, convoys would have only a couple of corvettes as escorts. They would be tasked with keeping stragglers in line, but in the foul weather of the North Atlantic this was not always possible.

The convoy headed out into what was one of the worst storms of the century. “Another Newport seaman Jacky McCarthy was on a ship in the same convoy, the Somerton, which turned back” Jeff says. He had told how its masts were bent over and bulkheads were buckled such was the force of the weather. It was into this furious storm that the Caledonian Monarch fresh from its extensive repairs sailed.

The Caledonian Monarch fell behind from her station and was reported missing on January 7. Now she would be in grave danger.

Working from the premise of ‘strength in numbers’, the convoy system worked because it meant the protective net of the warships could be spread over more ships. Also just as a herd provides protection against the predator, going it alone was fraught with risk.

The remaining convoy fared little better. SC63 was one of the very few convoys to be given the order to ‘scatter’. In this case it was because of the appalling weather conditions which forced the ships to go it alone.

There is some debate about how the Caledonian Monarch met her end. Because she had left the convoy, no other friendly ships saw her go down.

One theory is that she was sunk by the storms which battered her as she sailed on alone. Another says that a submarine sank her off the coast of the Hebrides.

This says that submarine U-588 fired a single torpedo at an unescorted steamer at 4.11am of similar size to the Caledonian Monarch around 30 miles from the island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. The vessel was seen to settle slowly and the U-boat waited for the crew to abandon ship before finishing her off with another torpedo.

The crew reported five fully occupied lifeboats, but were not able to identify the vessel. For Jeff, however, there is little doubt about who was responsible.

A consolation of dreadful weather like this meant that life was equally hard for the U-Boats hunting the merchant ships. But 125 miles south of Iceland, U-Boat U-333 spotted a lone merchantman. The captain, Peter-Erich Cremer ordered the submarine to surface.

Jeff said: “Reading Captain Cremer’s account of his war service, he wrote about this ship he spotted. Cremer told how he fired two torpedoes, both of which hit the steamer, striking her amidships.

“He said the ship ‘went down in a trice.’ It must have blown a hole so large to make the ship sink so quickly - and it explains why there were no survivors.”

There are other points which make this case persuasive for him: “The fact that it was attacked at 1.30pm meant the crew would very likely be sat down eating lunch in the mess which would have been directly above where the torpedoes struck.”

He says the fact that the U-588 saw five lifeboats full of survivors escape the ship sunk so close to land means there would have been survivors from that sinking. He believes the U-588 story may have gained credibility because of the pressure to have an account of how a ship met it send, including the day it sank for a very pressing reason: “The day a ship sank was the day the pay for the crew stopped also compensation for the owner had to be decided on.”

The blow to those Newport families can barely be imagined. Jeff tells how this blow was made all the more harsh. “Richard had told how he didn’t have a good feeling about the ship before he joined it” he says. “He told his father, who was also a Merchant sailor who said ‘don’t go then’”.

There would be a price to pay for this.

“If you were contracted to sail with a ship and you didn’t go, you’d have to pay a fine” Jeff adds, so Richard’s father said “I’ll pay the fine.” But Jeff said: “It was also a question of honour for seamen - to join a ship they had agreed to sail with.” So on he went.

But it was poignant for another reason. “Richard and his wife had just had a baby boy before he sailed, so he was left without a father. It was a real family tragedy.”

The men are all remembered on the Mercantile Marine Memorial at Tower Hill in London. The roll call would make it one of the most costly days for Newport and Monmouthshire during the Second World War.

All are of Newport unless stated: Richard John Beal, 24, sailor, son of Dick and Margaret Beal; husband of A Beal; Robert Thomas Blackshaw, 24, husband of Doris Blackshaw; Costi Hadji Constantin; William George Flanagan, 39; Wilfred John Fry, 30; Alfred Melvern Conway Goverd, 23, son of John Henry and E. A. M. Goverd; Thomas Edward Hall, 26; Thomas William Hines, 21, son of George and Sarah Hines, of Abergavenny; Leonard John Holifield, 37, husband of Elizabeth Holifield, of Tredegar; John Charles Ingles, 22, son of Mr. and Mrs. Fred Ingles; Frank Lachanudis, 21, son of Paulos N and Grace Maud Lachanudis; John Augustus Lillygreen, 48, son of Augustus John and Elizabeth Lilygreen; Stanley John McMillan, 19, son of John and Elsie May McMillan, Denys Haig Moore, 24, Wilfrid and Emily Moore; William John Clifford Stewart, 17, Son of Thomas and Mary Ellen Stewart; Timothy Sweeney, 41, son of Timothy and Margaret Sweeney; John Henry Ware, 56, son of David and Mary Hannah Ware; William Edward Reginald Watkins, 21, son of Lewis and Clara Maria Watkins; Harold White, 23, husband of RH White, and Allen James Wood, 27. Acknowledgements: Shaun McGuire