Stories from the Front: St. Catharines’ Wartime Sources Part One

Black and white picture of a naval vessel with crew on the deck. The British Flag is at the front of the ship.

This November the Museum’s Stories from the Front program has been updated to include new primary sources from the First and Second World Wars. This program revision led to research of many different facets of the Museum’s archival and artifact collection to narrow down the sources to include in an hour-long program. The size of the Museum’s World Wars collection meant that all the material could not all be included into an hour program. This November we are using the Museum’s blog to take a more in-depth investigation, over four blog posts, into a selection of the sources featured in Stories from the Front.

The first source we chose to examine was the story of Merchant Marine, Kenneth Rickers. The museum’s collection contains three artifacts that are associated with Kenneth, two letters he sent home to his family while he was serving in the merchant marines. These letters detail Kenneth’s experiences in London, England and a voyage to Buenos Aires, Brazil.  An open letter that Kenneth’s father, Cyril Rickers, wrote to McKinnon employees on Kenneth’s passing is included in this year’s Stories from the Front program. Cyril’s letter was an expression of how he intended to channel his grief into ensuring MiKinnon produces the absolute best product for the war effort, and he is requesting that his co-workers do the same. It is a very moving and powerful letter that makes clear exactly how beloved Kenneth was to his family. It makes the reader want to know more about Kenneth which makes reading the two letters he wrote in the Museum’s collection more bittersweet.

Wartime London

Kenneth’s letters date to 1941 and detail his experiences while he was working as a mariner in the Atlantic Ocean stationed out of the UK. The first letter which is undated details a weekend trip to wartime London. Kenneth initially decided to take the weekend trip to because some of the other boarders he roomed with were from London and had described the bombing of the city in such a way that, “it sounded as though there was nothing left of the place.” During this impromptu trip Kenneth forgoes taking hotel accommodation as he feels there is no reason to pay for nice lodgings when he would end up spending his nights in an air raid shelter. He lamented that he failed to purchase better footwear as his intention is to spend his entire time in London walking around since that is the best way to see everything.

On his arrival to London Kenneth realizes exactly how large the city is when trying to navigate between one well-known landmark to another. During his wanderings he shares his surprise at the non-military structures that have been targeted. “[I] Cannot imagine why the [German’s] wrecked these places unless they were trying to bomb Westminster Bridge. It seems a shame that what took centuries to build should be ruined by a few bombs.” His continued wanderings take him by Kensington Palace which he found to his surprise was without glass in any of the windows.

Kenneth details his route in this letter to his family back home in a manner that they could almost imagine themselves travelling the streets of wartime London with him. His descriptions even draw on Niagara landmark comparisons, “Nelson’s monument is much like Brock’s except that at its base there are four lions, one at each corner, they look as if they are guarding something.”

From the letter one gets the sense that the 23-year-old Kenneth chose his career as a means of seeing the world. Kenneth was born in 1918 in Scotland and emigrated to Canada at the age of six with his mother and father. He was raised in Port Dalhousie with his four younger siblings. The St. Catharines directories show Kenneth living on Welland Ave. with his family in 1939 and he is not listed in the 1940 printing of the directory. Since the merchant marine records rely on individual ship archives it is difficult to determine exactly when Kenneth went to work on the ships, but his second letter is dated May 1941 which helps establish a career timeline.

Wartime Buenos Aries

Whether or not Kenneth started before the war, his description of the loss of a tanker from the convoy enroute to Buenos Aires provides a glimpse into the danger of shipping on the Atlantic. “One dark night a tanker on the outside of us began to blow her whistle in rapid succession. One escort ship in front of us altered course and sped up to where she was. We do not know what happened to the tanker, but she was not there when dawn broke.”

This glimpse into the dangers he faced doing his job was tempered with the stories of the experiences to be found during the journey. When the ship stopped to refuel, he shares the antics of the crew who were trading cartons of cigarettes with the locals’  in exchange for fresh fruit and in one sailor’s case a monkey. Once in Buenos Aires he took great care to balance the heavy war related experiences with fun and lighthearted ones. He describes how beautiful and clean the city is and his fun at a fair he visited while there where he was chased by an elephant. These anecdotes are tempered with details of his experiences watching a German propaganda film called Panza depicting the Germans doing well in the war. However, Kenneth remarks that the movie is of a poorer production quality than he would have expected for the Germans. Even when speaking on serious subjects he had the ability to put people at ease.

Kenneth remarks that sailors need to be weary of the drinking houses in Brazil as they are not what they appear. Due to a high number of Germans living in South America during the Second World War, the local taverns were being used for espionage by the Germans. He explains that the local German loyalists would name their establishments after British landmarks and places as a means of putting sailors at ease. The plan was that by calling a tavern Liverpool for example the sailors would think they were in a pro allied bar and so they would feel comfortable revealing vital information while drinking. How many sailors fell for this trap Kenneth does not mention but it made clear that one always had to be vigilant.

Sinking of the Gracia

In an addition to the letter that was added after the original content, Kenneth details what had happened when he served on the Gracia. A ship that was sunk by a U-boat in 1941.

“We were bombed and sunk in the North Atlantic in the middle of February. There was no panic everyone was calm, and we took our time about it. Sid and I went down into the boat first, we both held on to the lifeline to grab the others as they came down. The other two boats could be seen as far as we knew all the men got off o.k. My days rowing at home on the creek and lake sure did come in handy here. To tell the truth no one else here could row right. We rowed on steady for about an hour and a half when we sighted a corvette. We all got aboard O.K. and the other lifeboats came along. We were mustered up and found to all be aboard.”

Reading the account of the sinking of the Gracia there is a sense of amazement at how calmly the sailors handled the evacuation and maintained momentum until they were rescued. Discovering that everyone had survived the sinking of their ship must have been a big relief considering the odds that were against them. The Gracia highlights how much danger the Merchant Marines were undertaking during the war. The crews on these vessels received no formal training to rely on during these dangerous voyages.   During the Second World War the Merchant Marines were known as the armed services “fourth arm,” and recognized as an essential service. However, after the war they were not classified as war veterans. It was not until 2000, that the Merchant Marines were provided with veteran status in Canada.

Merchant Marines

We know from Cyril Ricker’s letter to McKinnon that Kenneth would be lost at sea because of a U-boat attack. What the letter does not mention are the particulars surrounding that attack. Archival material provides more details to Kenneth’s passing. Kenneth was part of the crew of the Empire Sailor which, much like the Gracia, was hit by a torpedo from a U-boat. Unknown to the crew of the M/V Empire Sailor, however, was that in addition to mail and general cargo, the ship was also carrying mustard gas, commercial cyanide, and phosgene bombs as part of its secret cargo. While three crew were lost in the sinking of the ship Kenneth and many others made it to the lifeboats. These men died later and were buried at sea, because of inhaling these toxic gases which exploded as their ship went down.

Kenneth’s letters share the experiences of a young man who found adventure wherever he went. Cyril’s letter expresses the depth of grief and the hole that Kenneth’s death has left in their family’s life. These letters highlight the extreme importance of the war work being done by St. Catharines citizens and the sacrifices they made to see their work through.

November represents a time of year when we honour and celebrate the stories of service and we invite you back next week for part two of our spotlight on Stories from the Front when we look at the First World War Diary of Jack Hardy.

This post is part one of our Stories from the Front series. Catch all four parts of this series using the tag or category ‘Stories from the Front’.

Abbey Stansfield revised the Stories from the Front program and is a Public Programmer at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre.

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