Monkey business

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a ship model

The Clara Monks

The idea of a fleet of small ships being mustered to support the Normandy landings in the Second World War is something I find very inspirational.

It was part of an audacious plan to hoodwink Hitler’s forces but it paid off handsomely. I also think this element of surprise is very British and the D-Day landings rank with other victories over the centuries.

They were workhorses of the sea, but 362 coasters played a vital role in Operation Neptune – the landings in northern France which heralded the end of the war.

The Battle of Normandy was launched on 6 June 1944 when the Allies landed on the beaches of German-occupied France.

Once they had a foothold and had forced the Germans back, substantial Allied contingents poured through the beachhead and joined the battle to liberate Europe.

One of the little ships involved was the 577-ton Clara Monks, a sturdy Liverpool-owned steam coaster dating from 1920.

She was part of convoy ETC.16 which left Southend on 23 June 1944, arriving the following day at Seine Bay, east of Cherbourg, with crucial supplies.

There were a total of 24 merchant ships in the convoy, with two escort ships. Small coasters were perfect for maintaining the continuous flow of supplies of ammunition, cased petrol and general stores from more than 20 Allied ports to the Normandy beaches.

There is a model of the single-funnelled Clara Monks in the Life at Sea gallery in Merseyside Maritime Museum which captures the robust construction of the original ship.

She had a long and varied career carrying diverse cargoes around the west coast of England for John S Monks of Liverpool, one of the major coastal companies of the day. After the war the Clara Monks carried goods between Le Havre and the Channel Islands and Liverpool before being scrapped in 1959.

A photograph shows her at sea with members of the crew on the monkey island (the roof of the wheelhouse).

Two similar ships are featured in the display – the Cornish Trader, also of 1920, and the Slievenamon.

A plan of the Cornish Trader shows the layout of crew accommodation as well as cargo holds. There is a page from the cargo book of the Slievenamon dating from 1922, the year of the Irish uprising, when her cargoes included coal, stout – and IRA prisoners.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1.50 p&p UK).