A brief word of explanation about these biographical sketches. These will mostly be about the things I found out about these men for which there wasn’t room in Convoy. They do all feature in the poems but there is so much more to tell about their lives. Each one of them could do with a book to himself and many of them, for example Laddie Lucas and Tom Neil have written their own books.
Captain Thomas Horn is someone who I really wish had written a book about his experiences during the war. He was master of the Blue Star line’s Sydney Star. He was born in Amble, Northumberland in May 1899. He went to sea when he was fifteen and he obtained his second mates certificate in 1924 and his Master’s certificate in 1924, the year he got married. He took the Sydney Star on her maiden voyage to Australia in May 1936.
I discovered him and his ship in Ian Cameron’s Red Duster, White Ensign. Cameron evidently interviewed Horn for the book as there is a very full account of what happened to the Sydney Star during her eventful voyage to Malta as part of Operation Substance in July 1941. Thomas Horn and his ship have a poem to themselves in Convoy. He was awarded the OBE as a result of his actions, as was his chief engineer and other members of the crew also received awards as follows;
The other glimpse I got of Horn was in the pages of Tom Neil’s Onward to Malta. Neil left Malta on board the Sydney Star on Boxing Day 1941. She’d been on the island since arriving in the summer undergoing repairs. Neil writes
“Mealtimes were welcome breaks [from the claustrophobia of his cabin] during which all four of us RAF officers dined at the captain’s table, the latter a worried little man who was only occasionally joined by the Chief Engineer and one or two others, their empty chairs serving to cast an additional shadow over our halting conversation.”
The following morning the ship is bombed by a Ju88 without any consequences although this does raise the spirits and interests of the pilots.
“The Captain and several of his officers having joined us for the meal, it was obvious that the headman was in a nervous and unsociable mood – as well he might be! Much less concerned we joked about the attack, pointing out that the bombing had been as effective as the gunfire, which seemed to us all bark and no bite The gunners were hopeless, we opined. How could they expect to hit anything if they were ignorant of even the rudiments of deflection shooting? Being fighter pilots we knew all about such things, naturally; it was a pity the gun crews weren’t similarly competent. We laid it on pretty thick, aware of our hosts’ frowning and slightly injured silence.
Finally the Captain stood up and blotted his lips. Did we think we could do any better? We all exchanged exaggerated glances of surprise. Of course we could; it was just a matter of know-how and practice wasn’t it? He nodded then turned away. In that case when the next attack came, we could show him just how it was done. All right?
“Now about twelve hours sailing from Port Said, much of the tension had disappeared; it looked as though we would make it after all and even the Captain’s face was seen to crack into the occasional bleak smile.”
The Sydney Star reached Egypt on Tuesday 30 December 1941.