Sunday, September 29, 2013

"The finest man who ever walked the deck of a ship"

In March 1939, my father sailed to South Africa as a passenger on board the Union Castle Line ship, the Dunbar Castle. The master was Captain H A Causton. 

Dunbar Castle. Image from
Less than nine months later in January 1940, that vessel was sunk by a German mine in the English Channel off the North Goodwins while in convoy. The event made headlines in British and Empire newspapers: 

"Stories of Heroism on Mined Liner" (The Evening Telegraph)

"Deeds of Heroism as the Dunbar Castle Sank" and "Even the Children were Brave"  (Hull Daily Mail)

Fortunately all except one of the passengers were rescued by minesweeper HMS Calvi and a coastal barge and taken to the Kent coast. According to the newspaper reports of the time only four crew died, including the Captain who was struck by the falling mast. [The Merchant Navy death records confirm that 8 crew, including the Captain, died.]  Captain Causton struggled valiantly to save the ship's documents before being carried to the lifeboat, but sadly had died by the time they reached Ramsgate.

This was just one story among many similar events during the dark days of 1940. British merchant shipping suffered horrendous losses of vessels and many crew members perished while simply doing their jobs. Numerous tales of great deeds by the RAF, the Royal Navy, the Army and individuals in ancillary services have been told but the Merchant Navy is not always as well represented as it ought to be. 

In one of the newspaper reports about the sinking of the Dunbar Castle, the chief officer described the Captain as "the finest man who ever walked the deck of a ship".

This captured my attention. Who was this long-forgotten hero of what is an almost minor event in the annals of World War II? 

So, with all the genealogical material at my disposal today, I set out to try and find out more about Captain Causton - this "fine" man my father may well have met and spoken to during his pre-war voyage to South Africa.

Courier and Advertiser Jan 12 1940 Copyright National Library of Australia

Henry Atherton Causton was born on 7 August 1879 in Hampshire. His father was Edward Atherton Causton, shown in the 1881 Census Return as Curate at St Peters Church, in the village of Goodworth Clatford, Hampshire. Henry was the youngest of five children. He later married but does not appear to have had any children himself. His wife, Margaret Getrude, outlived him by more than 40 years and died aged 95 in 1982.

The documents of his naval service show him receiving his master's certificate in 1909 at the age of thirty and interestingly his steamship certificate has the notation of him being qualified also as a "1st mate of a square rigged sailing vessel".  There is a photograph of him as a younger man in the records available to subscribers on His physical description being 5ft 10 1/2 ins tall, hair and eyes brown.

A curious side to all of this is that the SS Kent, a vessel on which Causton served as 2nd Mate in 1906 was sent from Durban to look for a dredger called Walrus that had gone missing in the same latitudes as did the later famous Waratah - on which I have previously posted a story (see here).  A report in 1910 from the New Zealand Herald describes how a piece of canvas was located on Ile St Paul and which showed the names of the crew (including Causton) who called there during the search.

Causton served as master on several Union Castle liners including Dromore Castle, Edinburgh Castle and Gloucester Castle. His first command of the Dunbar Castle was in March 1939, the same voyage that took my father out to Cape Town, South Africa, and from where he travelled to his ultimate destination in Northern Rhodesia.

As an indication of how much men like Causton were respected and esteemed in their time, not just in Britain but in her far-flung dominions as well, this photograph of his funeral comes from the Central Queensland Herald of 7 March 1940

Copyright National Library of Australia

The passenger whose body was washed ashore covered in oil and was at first thought to be another crew member turned out to be Lieut. Col. Walter Russell Johnson, DSO, CBE. 

He had a distinguished record in the First World War, serving at Gallipoli and in the Russian Civil War campaign, and had been hoping to sign on again in the Second but was probably considered far too old as he would have been over fifty. 

The coincidences with my own family background continue. From the Northern Rhodesian address given for Johnson in the probate documents means that there is every possibility that even if my father may not have met him personally, he certainly would have known about such a distinguished local resident, as the British community that existed in that country in those days was small and closely connected.

Captains and Colonels may get most of the glory, but one must never forget the others who died doing their vital jobs. The seven crew from Dunbar Castle were

Norman Leslie Bacon
John Thomas Linney
William Frederick Young
Angus Fraser
Richard Kay
Ronald Albert Davis
William John Stewart

These fine and appropriate words by poet laureate, John Masefield, appear on the memorial at South Shields to men of the Merchant Navy who died in World Ward II. [The full poem can be read here.]

Unrecognized, you put us in your debt;
Unthanked, you enter or escape, the grave;
Whether your land remember or forget
You saved the land, or died to try to save.

Merchant Navy Memorial at South Shields

1 comment:

  1. Very nice post. I am the Great Great Grand Niece of Walter Russell Johnson. I've been researching him lately and am happy to come across this. It led me to some great newspaper articles! I'm about to dive into his African years.
    Thanks! - Robin