“Atlantic Convoy” by Stuart Gregory
Can you imagine what it was like for a mother to have had a son serving on the North Atlantic Convoys in the Second World War? These convoys were at the mercy of the German U Boats who could strike
at any time. Hunting in packs of up to 80 submarines attacking one convoy and took the lives of thousands of sailors and sunk close to two hundred Allied ships.
On top of mountainous seas the crew had a constant battle with spray that would rapidly turn to ice that would build up on ships, the sailors always mindful that if the ice built up it could cause them to become top heavy and ships to capsize.
One Abercynon mother Mrs Polly Edwards of Park View actually had two sons serving on the same ship for most of the war and miraculously both of them came through it to become well known in our area.
The first one to serve was actually Ffrangcon the younger who lied about his age in order to serve his country.
Ffrangcon Edwards who sadly passed away 20 years ago was a well-known trade unionist and County Councillor for the Penrhiwceiber Ward for many years. His brother John (Wenglish) Edwards joined the same ship but even though he was legally the elder, the records in fact showed Ffrangcon to be 20 when in fact he was a mere 18 and so qualified for the rum ration.
So the younger brother could have what his older brother couldn’t, something that still amuses John even today.
Ffrangcon joined HMS Jamaica as soon as it was built in Barrow in Furness and at times was escorting a convoy every month in such harsh conditions and all this as a 16 year old.
A remarkable feat that took a courage unknown to the youth of today.
When John joined the same ship almost two years later he was greeted by a sailor asking if he were related to Taffy Edwards? John Said “of all the ships the Navy could have posted me to, they chose the one my brother was on”
The brothers were reunited and served together for most of the remainder of the war.
The Jamaica saw lots of action guarding the convoys and the Edwards boys were there to witness and partake in the sinking of the premier German Battleship the Scharnhorst On Boxing day 1943.
John told me that this premier German Battleship had been engaged by HMS Sheffield and other smaller ships the previous day and even though they were no match for “the pride of the German Navy” they had succeeded in disabling its radar so she was steaming blindly into a trap that was to prove her downfall.
John puts it down to the remarkable skill of the Enigma code breakers that intercepted messages that they passed on to the British Navy and indicated the route it would take.
John can recall that the darkness was broken by a Star-shell and he and Ffrangcon witnessed its end as it slowly slipped into icy waters.
While he personally didn’t disclose it, Ffrangcon’s shipmates could tell John that Ffrangcon had engaged with other big German ships before John joined him.
As a “Coder” John’s job was to deliver messages all over the ship. Ffrangcon as a Seaman, had to be part of the gunnery group an extremely dangerous job handling high power shells often in huge seas that could throw a man and whatever he was holding across a room with no notice.
The Jamaica’s job was to sit away from the convoy and to move in to support the convoy should an attack happen. This meant operating in harsh conditions in some of the worse seas imaginable.
Often sailing into the Arctic waters north of Iceland in the winter, axes and big hammers would have to be used to de-ice the ship as the build-up of frozen spray could cause the ships to become top heavy and run the risk of capsizing.
Its worth pointing out that for most of the winter months in huge seas when this dangerous work had to be carried out, it had to be done in total darkness as the sun didn’t rise at this time of year.
John found it strange that even though they were risking their lives to help Russia, there was no welcome from the Russians and were only allowed to take a short walk on the quay side before being turned back by their “Russian allies”
When the convoys came to an end, Ffrangcon saw out the rest of the war at Plymouth before returning to civilian life.
John however ended up in warm Pacific waters before his return to the UK with his war wound. John had cut his foot on some coral and had to return to the UK for treatment.
He settled down in Bristol and perused a notable career in Education.
Incredibly, Ffrangcon never mentioned or spoke about his time on the convoys, even to his son Allan.
Local historian David Maddox who worked with John for many years was also unaware that he was working with a true “War Hero” until recently.
As yet John and Ffrangcon’s family have only received confirmation of their entitlement to this award and still await the actual medal.
John and his late brother were both pupils of Abertaf Primary School before going on to MACS (or the former Mountain Ash Grammar School) John became a head teacher and later a School Inspector for the former Mid Glamorgan County Council.
He is also famous as a broadcaster for the BBC and had his own “Wenglish” program and has helped raised incredible amounts of money for various organisations with his own unique brand of humour
A staunch trade unionist, Ffrangcon served his community for many years as a County Councillor for Penrhiwceiber under the former Mid Glamorgan County Council.