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Wednesday, 13 July 2016

The Sad Saga of Billy Shaw

Billy Shaw's British War Medal and Mercantile Marine Medal were sent to Dunollie in New Zealand in September 1922, almost five years after he had been killed. Image from the National Archives, Kew, England.

Billy Shaw, a "gentlemanly, studious little fellow" from the mining hamlet of Dunollie outside Greymouth, was surely one of the youngest New Zealanders, if not THE youngest, to be killed in an act of war. Billy was 11 days shy of his 16th birthday when, without warning, a torpedo from the German U-boat UB40 exploded into the cadet sleeping compartment on the port side of the stern of the SS Aparimaat 10 minutes to one on the morning of Monday, November 19, 1917. The Aparima was crawling at 11 knots six miles south-west from Anvil Point off Swanage in Dorset, headed from London for coaling at Barry in south-west Wales before a scheduled crossing of the Atlantic to New York. She sunk within eight minutes and 56 lives were lost - Billy Shaw was one of 16 New Zealanders killed, a quarter of them with close West Coast connections. The wreck now lies 45 yards deep on the bottom of the English Channel, listing to starboard. 
What the Aparima looks like now. At far right is the stern where the cadets slept, and where the UB40's torpedo struck.
I wonder if Billy's name appears on any war memorial, other than the Merchant Navy Memorial at Tower Hill in London? Another cadet, Billy Williams, is commemorated at the Clevedon War Memorial in Auckland, and Australian victims are remembered on the Australian Merchant Navy Seamen’s Memorial in Canberra. But what of Billy Shaw?
Billy Shaw left Grey District High School in December 1914 and went to work as a clerk for the Union Steam Ship Company's Greymouth agents, Nancarrow, on Mackay Street. From there he was encouraged to take up an officer training cadetship aboard the Aparima, the USS's training ship since 1913.  “It was my boy’s first trip," his Dunollie coalminer father, also Bill Shaw, later said in a claim to the New Zealand Seaman’s Compensation Fund. "His kit cost £60, but that is nothing as the losing of my boy, so young and bright.” The Grey River Argus added that Billy was "a good musician".
The Aparima leaves Wellington for Egypt, October 1915.
Requisitioned by the British Admiralty for general cargo carrying in mid-February 1917, the Aparima had returned to Auckland from Plymouth to pick up a supply of wool for uniforms for soldiers serving on the Western Front. At the same time, 30 new cadets, including Billy Shaw, joined the crew to start their four-year apprenticeships. One day out from London, Captain James Gerald Stokely Doorly (1880-1956) was hurled across the chartroom as the UB40's torpedo smashed into his ship. Second Officer George McDonald shouted “Torpedo sir! Aft, there the stern’s blown off sir!” Doorly’s first reaction was, “Oh Lord - the poor boys”. Within a minute Doorly felt the stern sinking - 17 of the cadets sleeping there were either killed outright by the explosion or drowned as a result of it. Captain Doorly told the Sydney Daily Telegraph in May 1918:
In fact, the UB40 went on with its evil hunt, but was scuttled in Ostende when the German army retreated from Belgium on October 5, 1918.
The UB40, above, and below what remains of the Aparima's one gun.
Of the 17 cadets killed, 13 were young New Zealanders, the remaining four Australians. The cadets who perished ranged in age from 15 to 20. They were:
BANNANTYNE, Walter James, Waikouaiti, 16
BARGROVE, Geoffrey Robert, Christchurch, 16
CHALMERS, Geoffrey Walter, Tasmania, 15
HOARE, Donovan O'Bryan, Christchurch, 18
McDONALD, Colin Boyd,  Dunedin, 18
McKENZIE, Ian Kenneth, Auckland, 20
MARSHALL, Robert Joseph, Westport, 19
MARSHALL,  Adam Houliston, Kaitangata, 17
MASSEY, Leon Joseph, Gisborne, 18
NEWTON, Sydney Allison, Melbourne, 17
PROUDFOOT, John Frederick, Christchurch, 16
RAMSAY, Alex McKinley, Dunedin, 18 
SHAW, William, Dunollie, 15
SMITH, John Gordon, Warepa, 19
STACEY, Aubrey Beckingham Neale, Melbourne, 19
TOWNSEND, Philip Mervyn Maunsell, Victoria, 16
WILLIAMS, William Harry, Auckland, 20
Robert Marshall's headstone at Orowaiti Cemetery in Westport. Below, Colin McDonald's headstone in Dunedin mentions "Imperial service".
Otago Daily Times, December 10, 1917
One cadet, Thomas Evans Bevan from Manukau, had a miraculous escape. “I was asleep,” he said, “and something hurled me out of my bunk into the sea, I thought. But in a moment I knew I was still in what was left of our cabin, because as I swirled round and round in water I bumped against bunks and bulkhead. My head was under water all the time, but I didn’t become unconscious. Then I felt the deck overhead pressing me down, and the water dragging me up. All of a sudden I was sucked up that 10-foot ventilator in the centre of our cabin deckhead, and shot clean out of the cowl. I landed on something hard. It seems a wonderful thing, but it was on that raft; it must have slid off the boat deck and hit against the ventilator just as the stern began to sink. I lost my clothes coming up through the narrow shaft - they were stripped off me. After the ship went down under me I managed to unscrew the brass cap of the provision tank, grabbed a signal light, and set it off.”
The Aparima was a twin-screw, schooner-rigged Union Steamship Company of New Zealand shelter deck merchant vessel, which had been chartered by the New Zealand Government as a troopship to take reinforcements to Egypt, starting in August 1915. By 1917 it was considered too slow for this task and after arriving at Plymouth with the 22nd Reinforcements First New Zealand Expeditionary Force and 14th Reinforcements Maori Contingent, it was requisitioned by the Admiralty. It was then defensively armed with one 4.7 inch quick firing gun. mounted on the stern. 
Billy Shaw was one of four young men with West Coast ties to die as a result of the sinking of the Aparima. The others were chief wireless operator Robert Perrett Taipo Millington, who was born in Greymouth in 1891, Robert Joseph Marshall, a 19-year-old cadet from Waimangaroa, inland from Westport, and the ship's chief engineer Tom Rogerson from East Gore, who had been a coal mine engineer on the West Coast. 
One of these two wireless officers photographed on the Aparima is Greymouth-born Robert Millington, probably the man on the right. The other is Australian Alton Frederick Vipan, who was a year older than Millington.
News of the UB40 attack on the Aparima reached the Grey River Argus on November 23 in a Press Association story from Wellington which listed the names of those saved and which, in doing so, indicated Billy Shaw had perished. Billy's parents, Bill senior (1871-1951) and his wife Kate (1874-1964), were officially notified of Billy's death by his aunt, Frances Harriett James of Greymouth, who received a cable from Union Steam Company of New Zealand general manager, David Alexander Aiken in Dunedin. The bodies of Billy, Robert Millington, Robert Marshall and Tom Rogerson, along with those of all but one of the Aparima's 56 victims, were never found, but all crew members are commemorated at the Merchant Navy Memorial at Tower Hill
Billy Shaw was born on November 30, 1901, at Hale, a village in Trafford, now part of Greater Manchester, England, where his father was a journeyman baker from Earlestown on Merseyside. His family moved to New Zealand and settled on the West Coast when he was eight. Bill Shaw senior first worked as a coalminer at Stockton outside Westport while Kate set up the family home at  38 MacDougall Avenue, Dunollie, beside the State Colliery town of Runanga. It seems a little ironic that if Billy had survived the torpedo explosion and had been picked by the Norwegian steamer, the Selun, he would have been taken to his mother's hometown, St Helens. The couple had an elder son, Alf (1896-1934), who was born in Golborne, Wigan, and was a grocer in Dunollie. He enlisted in 1916. William and Kate continued to live in Dunollie into the 1950s.
Bill Shaw senior's headstone in Greymouth.
Billy Shaw didn't sign up to serve with a military unit, and I grasp that "killed in action" is a casualty classification generally used to describe the deaths of combatants. Nevertheless, Billy died as a result of a hostile attack by an enemy force, and in 1917 the English Channel was surely one theatre of war as much as any other. I'm not sufficiently schooled on military matters to mount on argument on this, but I take as true of attitudes of the time the sentiments expressed by New Zealand newspapers, which listed victims of the Aparima's sinking as among "the fallen". The New Zealand Free Lance, on what would have been Billy's 16th birthday, November 30, said, "We offer our heartfelt sympathies to the parents and relatives of the lost men and youths [from the Aparima]. They died just as much for Britain and for Britain's cause, the sacred cause of Liberty, Truth, and Justice, as if they had been bombed in the trenches or had fallen victims to the deadly machine guns whilst crossing No Man's Land [on the Western Front]."
The Otago Daily Times headed a death notice for another cadet as being "For the Empire's Cause" and the Christchurch Press listed the death of 16-year-old cadet John Proudfoot under the heading "Roll of Honour". The Free Lance ended its tribute by saying "New Zealand mourns them, but is proud of them, and will hold them in treasured memory". This has not proved to be entirely true, as the victims from the sinking of the Aparima have been largely forgotten in war histories.
As one grieving mother said in a claim to the New Zealand Seaman’s Compensation Fund, after the loss of yet another teenage cadet, "The steamer [the Aparima] was entirely under military control and the boys were on active service." Another bereaved mother added, "I may also state that [my son's] death has quite unnerved me - the awfulness of it is too dreadful.” 
Amazingly, for this cowardly act of killing 17 young boys while they slept in their bunks, UB40 commander Kapitänleutnant Hans Howaldt (1888-1970) was awarded the Orden Pour le Mérite (the "Blue Max", right), Prussia's highest military award, "for repeated and continual gallantry in action". Gallantry!? In all, Howaldt sank 65 ships and took thousands of innocent lives.
During the Russo-Japanese War, the Aparima had been fired upon by a warship. Once bitten, twice shy, the Union Steam Ship Company had offered concerned parents the chance to remove their sons from the ship once it was know it would be sailing into war zones in World War I. Fourteen did so, but other cadets continued to sail on troop and cargo runs to Britain and the United States.
I am unable to find a list of New Zealand's youngest war dead. However, it is known that at least one 13-year-old and four 15-year-olds served in World War I - none of them were killed in action. Another boy called Shaw, Leslie Raymond Shaw, born in Napier on January 17, 1901, was 13 when he enlisted in England and 14 and three months when he landed at Gallipoli. Frederick James Ewart enlisted as a drummer boy with the Auckland Infantry Battalion on September 7, 1914, aged 15 years and 10 months, and also reached Gallipoli. James Dunlop of Christchurch was 15 years and five months old when he signed up on June 1, 1916. He served on the Western Front. Sydney George Stanfield of Dannevirke was 15 years five months old when he joined the 9th Hawke's Bay Company, 1st Wellington Infantry Brigade. Alfred James Hutchins was 15 years and eight months old when he enlisted with the 14th Reinforcements on January 16, 1916.
Chief wireless officer on the Aparima, Robert Perrett Taipo Millingtonwas the son of English-born general practitioner and surgeon John Perrett Millington (1863-1925). Dr Millington established his practice in Greymouth in 1890, went bankrupt in 1893 and moved to live with his father Joseph in Picton, then returned to Greymouth in 1898. He finally settled in Auckland in 1912. The Millingtons had moved to New Zealand to join in-law Robert Sparke Perrett, a storekeeper at Nobles who had landed at Nelson in 1856.
Before World War I, Robert Millington worked in the cinema industry in Wellington. He was a nephew of movie pioneers Edward Joseph Righton (right, 1872-1942) and Henry John Hayward (1865-1945), who were brothers-in-law, as were Hayward and Dr Millington. Hayward was born at Wolverhampton, the son of a professor of music and former court violinist to King William IV. Among Henry's achievements was to bring the typewriter-inventing Maskelynes to New Zealand and Australia (as magicians). 
West Coasters certainly dominated the illustrated pages of the Auckland Weekly News at the end of November and early December 1917, with images of members of the Aparima crew as well as one of Blackball coalminer Samuel Frickleton (1891-1971) being presented with his Victoria Cross by King George V in Glasgow. Frickleton was awarded the VC for real gallantry in the face of the enemy, for his actions in the Battle of Messines. "He set, throughout, a great example of heroism." The same cannot be said of Herr Howaldt. But what of little Billy Shaw, who was brave enough, at age 15, to leave a peaceful village in far off New Zealand and sail right into a war zone, and who paid the ultimate price?


Richard P said...

Just the other day I walked by the Merchant Navy Memorial at Tower Hill in London and took note of the dedication to those who have no grave but the sea!

Nick Merritt said...

I think you're rather hard on the commander of UB40 -- it's not as if he knew he was aiming at a group of youngsters. The Aparima was a legitimate war target; that's all he had to ascertain. As for "gallantry," well, that term gets used to cover all sorts of violence in war, doesn't it?

Very interesting post, as always.