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A cadet remembers

Captain Maurice Watson was a young cadet on only his second voyage with Harrison's when the 'SS Politician' was grounded - an incident that later became the subject of the film 'Whisky Galore'. In 1983 he recounted his memories of that last voyage in an interview, as part of the Merseyside Dockland History Survey.

This interview, which is part of the oral history collection in the Maritime Archives and Library, has been added to the website to accompany theWhisky for all! feature and display, to mark to anniversary of 'SS Politician's last voyage.

Interviewer: You sailed from Liverpool, February 1941. Can you tell me where the ship was bound for and what sort of sailing conditions there were?

Captain Maurice Watson: Yes. Of course it was wartime as far as I can remember. We sailed from one of the north end docks, I think Alexandra. I was onboard the ship for about two days before we sailed, in the February winter time. We were to go to Loch Ewe to form convoy, as far as I can remember, to go to Jamaica. Cargo from what I recall was low hold mainly general, plus ammunition. War supplies. And practically the hold next to it full of whisky, Scotch whisky.

Interviewer: Did you see this cargo being loaded?

Captain Maurice Watson: The greater part of it, yes. See I was only there for two days before we sailed, so mainly the top deck stuff which I saw was mainly whisky going in. We sailed reasonable weather for what I can gather, then we hadn't been out long it really started to blow. It was one of those winter months, just everything hit us. Wind, snow, sleet, gale force winds, the lot. In those days no gyro compass, radar or anything like that. We bound for Loch Ewe up between the Minches and it was just atrocious weather

Interviewer: The official report says that the weather was OK? That the weather seemed OK?

Captain Maurice Watson: No no I can guarantee you, atrocious weather. This happened early morning about seven o'clock in the morning from what I gather. I was on the bridge, I was a cadet at the time, with Mr Swain, chef officer, I don't remember, one of the sailors as a lookout and one of the gunners up there - naval gunners, DEMS gunner. The first we knew about it I think it was one of the gunners said that looks like a battleship right ahead of us.

Interviewer: And what did it turn out to be?

Captain Maurice Watson: It was actually a rock. Suddenly out of this filthy weather this appeared and actually we weren't going full speed, I know that. Mr Swain, chef officer, he took action. what I remember he went hard over one way or the other put his engines astern, that's all I can gather. Next thing I knew well we seemed to pass it and we felt a crunch at the stern of the ship. So she'd obviously gone over rocks, beaching. The stern had hit it. Subsequently it was foundered to bows in what I can gather sort of sandy bottom. The stern was bouncing up on rock like that [sound of him tapping the table as he demonstrates with his hand].

Interviewer: What was the reaction on the bridge when the ship did run aground?

Captain Maurice Watson: Oh dear! Well this was a one in a lifetime thing that happened. Mr Swain seemed very cool and efficient about it, chef officer. Of course he immediately called Captain Worthington. He came up and afraid he couldn't do much about it then that was it.

Interviewer: Was there any panic among the members of the crew?

Captain Maurice Watson: No no I don't think so from what I can recall.

Interviewer: They went down and you know carried on the normal business?

Captain Maurice Watson: Yes of course the usual emergency things were done you know. I can't recall whether anchors were dropped or anything like that, I just can't remember. Naturally they were taking soundings and all this sort of thing. One thing that sticks vividly in my mind was the stern pounding up and down on rock. I recall a quadrant of a steering actually was pushed up for about three or four feet pounding up on the stern.

Interviewer: A lot of structural damage then because of it?

Captain Maurice Watson: Structural damage from what I can gather would be right out yes. I think Captain Worthington tried with the engines several times to no, no chance of moving it at all. Later on in the day the weather had eased off considerably and they decided to get ashore in a boat.

Interviewer: Yeah they sent a lifeboat out, were you on that lifeboat?

Captain Maurice Watson: No, no I wasn't on the first one. The first one went down, fully loaded still quite a sea. I said the weather had eased off but it was still not very nice. She just more or less touched the water and [clicks fingers] carried away, force carried and everything, away she went. She was swept onto a little rock and they were just thrown out. Fortunately no one was hurt at all. Very wet, cold wet day. I think what I can gather a little fishing boat brought them back to ship. Of course in view of that we didn't send a second boat ashore, we just stayed onboard. I can't recall what time it was a lifeboat arrived from Barrow. Castle Bay in Barrow and took us off - not very easily, it was still a big sea.

Interviewer: How did you get off the ship, what means did you use to get of the ship?

Captain Maurice Watson: Nets and ropes and this sort of thing

Interviewer: Threw them over the side?

Captain Maurice Watson: I think recall one or two people jumping. It's all rather vague now! And that was it. Then we were in Barrow for... I was there I suppose for about a week. Because the ferry services across to mainland had been cut down you know because of wartime. I was there for about a week living in a, staying in a private house. After about a week they sent most of us home, myself included. They kept a skeleton crew there I think - master, chef officer, chief engineer, second and so on, skeleton crew. That's about all I knew about it at that time. I did hear later that they moved her round a corner to a near a place called Loch Boisdale, where I understand she ran aground again

Interviewer: Can you tell me about the crew members, the people you served with. How would you describe your colleagues?

Captain Maurice Watson: Captain Worthington was a gentleman. that sums it up as far as I can recall. Mr Swain the chief officer, I sailed with him many years later as master. He was a bit of a rough tough man to sail with but he was a good seaman and he retired eventually honourably. By the way Captain Worthington retired honourably after that, there was no blame attached. Second officer Mr Baker, I think he rose to rank of - he did become master and he died quite early, heart, or something. Third officer left. I don't know where he went he disappeared. I can't recall many the engineers. I recall the chief engineer Mr Mossman, Ernie Mossman. He served his full time and then retired. As regards the crew they were local crew, Liverpool crew. See I'd only been aboard two days. Usual decent bunch, Liverpool crowd, Liverpool sailors

Interviewer: Was this your first voyage with Harrisons?

Captain Maurice Watson: Oh no no. I'd had a bit of experience before that actually. I went to Harrisons first in February 1940. I did two voyages to the States and back and the third voyage I was on a ship called the 'Diplomat' and that was torpedoed on her way home

Interviewer: So you had experience?

Captain Maurice Watson: Good experience in all that lot, yes. Then I had a long leave and then I joined 'Politician'. Since then, fairly recently I did hear something. I was having dinner with a couple in the West Indies in an island and a lady I - the hostess - I detected a bit of a Western Isles accent and I tackled her about it. She oh yes she was from the Western Isles. Of course it all came out then. It transpired, this would be about ten twelve years ago, it transpired that she had had some 'Politician' whisky two years before that.

Another little thing a boyhood friend of mine, we keep in touch, he’s working for a ministry up in Carada Rock House West Coast of Scotland. He sent me a newspaper clipping last year
of his local newspaper and this was to the effect the locals are now using the wreck of the 'Politician' for an oyster farm. That's about all, absolutely last I've heard of it. So of course Compton Mackenzie wrote a wonderful book 'Whisky galore' and I think Harrisons approved. It was very successful and the film was very successful. I think everyone enjoyed it

Interviewer: Why do you think they were sending the cargo of whisky to the West Indies? It seems an unusual thing to do?

Captain Maurice Watson: It seemed rather a lot just for the West Indies but I would think it was probably a central point and being spread out you know to various other places. Maybe even the States, I don't know.

Interviewer: Just to earn, presumably, foreign currency.

Captain Maurice Watson: Central port, yes.

Interviewer: Regarding the voyage itself of course, the last voyage of the 'Politician'. Was there any enquiry about this, any board of enquiry? What do you think happened, why do you think the ship ran aground? Because altogether there’s a very curious incident that she was so far of course

Captain Maurice Watson: Well I’ve not heard anything definite but there were rumours, I say rumours. There was talk of a magnetic anomaly around that area.

Interviewer: What by the rock structure?

Captain Maurice Watson: Yes possibly. As I said there was no gyro compass on the ship at the time, just magnetic compass. This could be a main cause. But to me the main cause was just atrocious weather. Bad weather. Everything, as I say - gale force winds, snow, sleet, high seas, the lot.

Interviewer: Was this all the way from Liverpool?

Captain Maurice Watson: Well more or less after we cleared the Bar yes it started then really from what I can recall

Interviewer: Can you describe what it was like? How the ship sailed?

Captain Maurice Watson: It was a fine ship, she behaved beautifully. Oh yes, good ship, no problem.

Interviewer: Was it a strong wind? Can you describe the weather conditions?

Captain Maurice Watson: As I said, I think it was force eight or force nine gale force winds. Heavy seas, poor visibility. I might add that that wasn't one of our normal routes. We wouldn't normally choose to go in that area, Harrisons. As I say, I put it down to just the atrocious weather. And maybe this fact about the magnetic anomaly, which I don't know whether it has been proved or not. There have been an enquiry, I don't know, but as I say Captain Worthington, there was no blame attached, or Mr Swain. If there was an enquiry they came out with flying colours. See I was only a boy of what, sixteen, seventeen. So I was not called of course even though I was on the bridge at the time.

Interviewer: So you don't think it have could have been at all attributed to bad seamanship?

Captain Maurice Watson: Definitely not, no I wouldn't say so. No I wouldn't think so.

Interviewer: I read that it was the company's policy that the captain should have been on the bridge in home waters is that true?

Captain Maurice Watson: Going in and out of port, yes.

Interviewer: But it didn't affect it if they were just coasting?

Captain Maurice Watson: The master would be called to the bridge when necessary. It'd be up to the officer of the watch really.

Interviewer: So if they were just on a normal voyage with no problems then they wouldn't need to be there?

Captain Maurice Watson: No.

Interviewer: Once the ship had run aground, can you describe and tell me about what procedures were involved once you had run aground. What exactly happened with the crew? Did you think about saving the cargo? Did you realise how much danger you were in? Was there concern about the safety of the ship?

Captain Maurice Watson: Well naturally the first thing was the safety of life. I think that was the first concern of the master, was to try and get the crew off. He did make this attempt with one boat which was thrown over onto the rock. I remember myself going round, I got a job with a carpenter going round taking soundings and all this sort of thing. Finding out is she was making any water, which she was.

Interviewer: The average adjusters were in port, gives details of the soundings. Can you explain the soundings, what you do?

Captain Maurice Watson: I'm afraid I can't remember what we got now.

Interviewer: Oh no not the figures, how it was done?

Captain Maurice Watson: Just the normal way with sounding rope, steel rods, the usual. Sound all double watered tanks bilges etc.

Interviewer: And was she taking on much water at this time?

Captain Maurice Watson: I think she was at the stern end from what I can gather, from what I remember. Apparently from what I can gather her bow was not on a rock. The bow seemed to be held, probably sand, I don't know and the stern was just bouncing up and down. So much so that I recall seeing the deck starting to buckle cross just behind the Minchin House. Had she stayed there a lot longer she would probably have broken her back, that's my opinion at the time.

Interviewer: How was the cargo stored? You said that the whisky was stored between decks could explain a little bit more about that?

Captain Maurice Watson: Just the usual between decks store with cartoons of whisky.

Interviewer: Which decks would they have been? If they're not presumably top and not the bottom then they're just in the middle?

Captain Maurice Watson: Certainly in top twin decks. I think that ship had a lower twin deck as well. I just don't know if there was any thing in the lower twin deck or not

Interviewer: How secure was the whisky on the ship? Because as you know when the ship was abandoned after the first salvage attempt they were saying that the locals raided the ship and took it all off. How secure was it? Did the crew have access to that whisky on the voyage? Was it bonded, you know, sealed?

Captain Maurice Watson: Since the war those ships had steel lockers for putting this sort of thing in, you know, and locked up steel lockers in the decks and everything. But in those days there was no such thing as that. It was just a case of hatches bantoned down and steel locking bars on tightened up and padlocks. These old type of ship were, the wooden hatches and then about three tarpaulins on top of that and tucked in with wedges round the side and then steel locking bars cross then locked with padlocks.

Interviewer: Then that would have prevented access from the deck itself?

Captain Maurice Watson: Yes.

Interviewer: Could you have got access inside the ship?

Captain Maurice Watson: No.

Interviewer: Not at all?

Captain Maurice Watson: No not in that type of ship. In a modern ship you can but not in that, there was only one way down through that main hatch, one way to get in.

Interviewer: So presumably after the salvage attempts they would have disturbed that and then the locals could have just dived in.

Captain Maurice Watson: Oh yes you wouldn’t worry about what noise you were making. Nobody there you see, so if the crew were trying to get it out they would have made a noise to get in.

Interviewer: Did you know how valuable the cargo was at that time? You all knew that it was whisky ?

Captain Maurice Watson: Oh yes had seen the whisky going in Liverpool of course. Don’t know how the locals knew unless they were told by a crew. I don’t know whether they just said "here’s the ship we’ll have look at it"or not. I don’t know. May have known there was whisky but I don’t know how they would find out there was whisky in it.

Interviewer: You said that after the ship ran aground you were taken ashore and you were looked after for a week. Can you describe what the local people were like? Can you tell us a bit about that?

Captain Maurice Watson: Fantastic people, they were great. Of course when we landed in a lifeboat the whole town came out of the village and one tall gentleman, "I will have the apprentices". He was a retired master, name was Donald MacDonald, good name. We stayed with him and his wife and were very comfortable.

Interviewer: What was the atmosphere like in the house?

Captain Maurice Watson: Very nice, pleasant.

Interviewer: You were well looked after?

Captain Maurice Watson: Oh yes excellent. Some of the officers stayed in that hotel, others were in the school room. I think one or two other people were taken to private houses, so very comfortable, ate very well. See mostly female population. Nearly all the local males were away either on fishing boats or navy or this sort of thing. Very few males, younger ones you know. Obviously there were some males because they went and got at the whisky.

Interviewer: What was your reaction when you heard that they'd raided the ship? You know after the salvage attempts.

Captain Maurice Watson: Not very happy about it. Wasn’t a very good war effort really. Nasty thing to do particularly when there was a war on and they find time to do that, I think.

Interviewer: Do you think there was just like opportunism? Just happened to be there?

Captain Maurice Watson: There's one little incident which I can verify as being true that came out in the movie. The local home guard officer he will stop all this lot, so the locals kidnapped him and locked him in a little croft up in the hills. That was in the film and that was quite true, I can verify that.

Interviewer: How did you know about that?

Captain Maurice Watson: Well of all the locals knew about it, they were all talking about it and planning it. Some of our lads heard them planning it. The thing was you see normally there's a daily service or something by boat across, but being wartime it was cut right down only about once a week or something like that. It took two customs officers a long time to get over here you see by which time the damage was done. As for the other stuff on the ship I don't know. I believe they worked a lot of it out, general cargo and the munitions and so on, round at Loch Boisdale I believe.

Interviewer: I also heard there was cargo of Jamaican currency. Did you know anything about that?

Captain Maurice Watson: I only heard about that since the war. I read it in a newspaper several years ago now. That came out of a newspaper. If there's anything in the masters safe a boy cadet of 16 wouldn't know about it you see. I mean that would have been in the captain's safe, you see. How it got into their hands I wouldn't know.

Interviewer: The captains log he would have recorded the record of everything that was going on at this time.

Captain Maurice Watson: Presumably, yes.

Interviewer: You see I wrote of to the Register General of Shipping and Seaman to find out if I could find out anything out about the captain's log and I just got any entry on the official log book that the ship ran aground and said that the file didn't turn up it got fined something or other but where would the captain's log be kept now ? Do you have any ideas were it might be?

Captain Maurice Watson: I tell you what, normally now they keep a log book that’s written by the chief officer. Chief officer keeps one, chief engineer keeps one but in wartime he didn’t do it.

Interviewer: So there was no record at all?

Captain Maurice Watson: But I mean if he didn't keep a log book recording courses and positions etc if the Germans got hold of that that was it.

Interviewer: Of course yes.

Captain Maurice Watson: You see so a normal logbook wasn't kept in wartime I suspect I don't know I suspect I wouldn't be sure of this but maybe the captain and the navigator whoever he was kept a little of note of positions and courses and so on. But if they did it wasn't like a normal log book, the official log. I've no doubt the master would have to record all this in his official log which I never saw of course.

Interviewer: So can you describe a little bit about the captain and the chief engineer, Captain Worthington so what sort of man, his appearance, I have a photograph of him.

Captain Maurice Watson: From what I can gather he was a rather short plump man. I say plump, now I wouldn’t be sure if he was short or plump well built man. He looked a seaman from what I can gather. I say I only knew him for about two or three days.

Interviewer: You never served with him afterwards?

Captain Maurice Watson: No I think he did one voyage after that or something like and he retired.

Interviewer: I believe he was 63?

Captain Maurice Watson: I think he was on the verge of retiring yes.

Interviewer: That would have been one of his last voyages.

Captain Maurice Watson: Yeah I say Mr Swain, chief officer, he carried on, retired honourably. I sailed with him later on.

Interviewer: Can you describe Mr Swain? what was he like?

Captain Maurice Watson: Big, big, very tall man, very gruff. I say probably a very good seaman but not a friend to young cadets really. You chased him round a lot, shall we say put it that way. Which probably did us good had we known. He was alright. Second officer Mr Baker he was a real nice person. Met him in later life and he was most popular throughout the fleet. I say he died some years ago. Chief engineer, elderly man at the time but nice pleasant popular man, Mr Mossman, Ernie Mossman. I sailed with him later on and he retired honourably. Nice bunch of people really all round. One little point I would like to point out, that ship she wasn’t built for Harrisons, she was an ex Furness Withy ship. She had a huge saloon, she had a piano and it so happened that one of our DEMS gunners, naval gunner for merchant ships -they’re called DEMS: Defensive Equipped for Merchant ships and they were gunners sort of temporary naval ratings. What happened, a pianist for a gypsy dance band that was going around just before the war called Pietro Lengo and he while the ship was bouncing all around he was sitting playing the piano, that’s was interesting.

Interviewer: Did he play much piano after you’d ran aground?

Captain Maurice Watson: No no this was a while after we hit the rock that he was sitting playing, this is when he did it. You were asking about living ashore. One little point, the final going away meal were given by this really nice lady and gentleman. It was a seaweed pudding - sounds horrible but this is one of their delicacies really. To me it looked horrible, like a neutral coloured jelly, but we ate it and that was a speciality of the island. Probably do you a lot of good. I did have a little run round the island while I was there. There was one car I think, about one car on the island and that was the doctor and the two of us, Dr Maclaren, two cadets myself and right round the island while he visited his various patients out in the crofts.

Interviewer: What was the name of the other cadet with you?

Captain Maurice Watson: His name was Cotterell.

Interviewer: Can you tell me a bit about him?

Captain Maurice Watson: He was one of a very large family of about ten I believe. His father I think was quite well to do. I think nearly all the boys went to Pangbourne Naval College. Cotterell he finished his time and got his certificates and last I heard of him he was chief officer. When he left I did hear that he had gone strawberry farming, don’t know where.

Interviewer: How did he feel? how did he react when the ship ran aground?

Captain Maurice Watson: Quite cheerful, bit of an adventure really I think. I think it affected me differently because I’d been blown up the previous voyage, torpedo attack. You see a sort of vision of that, in the back of my mind, you know when you're in the water in North Atlantic in November, it's not a very pleasant thing.

Interviewer: So just running around up there would have been much smaller altogether?

Captain Maurice Watson: As it turned out it wasn’t quite so bad as the other business.

Interviewer: You were used to it?

Captain Maurice Watson: Yeah.

Interviewer: What did you do afterwards? Did you return to convoy duty?

Captain Maurice Watson: Yes we got home and I was sent on leave of course. I think I had about a month's leave, six weeks, something like that. I rejoined another ship, the 'Collegian' which was the sister ship to the 'Politician'. I was on the Collegian I think only one voyage and then I was on various ships after that until about three years ago when I was made redundant. I was 15 years in command in Harrisons.

Interviewer: You were a master?

Captain Maurice Watson: Oh yes, yes master for fifteen years. I lost count of how many ships I was actually on. Lots and lots.

Interviewer: Does the 'Politician' have any significance do you think? Do you think its memorial incidents?

Captain Maurice Watson: Oh yes yes. Little things keep cropping up you know that remind me of it. Fairly recently the film's been on television, you know people keep saying "Oh I saw the film of the 'Politician'." You know it comes back sort of thing.