Able Seaman Ralph Rowley, HMS President III.
Ralph Rowley was born on the 4th March 1907 in Heckmondwike and was baptised at Chapelthorpe St. James Church on the 7th April 1907. Ralph was the third son of five surviving children born to miner Herbert Rowley and Annie Sykes, who had married at the same Church on the 13th August 1898. Herbert, aged 29 years was a miner living at Jeremy Lane, Heckmondwike and Annie, aged 24 years, was living at Back Lane, Crigglestone. Both bride and groom were the children of miners.
By April 1911, Herbert and Annie were living at 36, Park Street, Horbury and Herbert was now employed as a miner, stone contractor. The couple had seven children from their 13 year marriage, but sadly, two of those children had died before April 1911. The surviving children were Norman (b. 1900), Fred (b. 1892), Ethel (b. 1894), Ralph (b. 1907) and John Sykes Rowley (b. 1909). Four of the children were born in Heckmondwike and the youngest child was born in Barnsley.
Ralph Rowley married Emily Wilby in the Spilsby, Lincolnshire area in the Summer of 1932, and after their marriage they settled in South Ossett where they had three children: David, born in late 1932; June, born in spring 1937 and Josephine Rowley, born in spring 1942. In 1939, Ralph, a rag packer, was living at 15, Old Briggs Row, Ossett with his wife, Emily who was born on the 25th August 1908. Three other persons, names redacted, were living with the couple and it is supposed that two of them were their children, David and June.
The "Ossett Observer" carried a short piece about Ralph Rowley being missing, which proved to be prescient:1
"Ossett Naval Rating Missing - Son of Horbury Councillor - Mrs. Rowley, 15 Briggs' Old Row, Storrs Hill, Ossett, received a telegram on Monday from naval headquarters at Portsmouth that her husband, Able Seaman Ralph Rowley (36), was missing, and this was confirmed by letter on Wednesday, which stated that there was insufficient evidence to show whether he was alive or not.
Brought up in Horbury, he is a son of Councillor Ralph Rowley and the late Mrs. Rowley, 36, Park Street, Horbury, and was educated at St. Peter's School. Up to entering the Royal Navy in September 1941, he was for seven or eight years employed by Messrs. R.T. Secker and Son, woollen rag merchants, Ossett. He had been engaged as a gunner on a merchant ship on convoy work, his last trip being to Canada. There are three children, and since his marriage ten years ago, he has lived in Ossett. He was much interested in swimming."
HMS President III was not a seagoing ship, but a shore depot near London, its only function was to carry the pay records of DEMS Gunners (Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships). Seamen ratings of the Royal Navy were trained to man the guns fitted in Merchant ships. These gunners would carry out a voyage and then most likely move another ship. It was a hazardous assignment, and many lost their lives when the merchant ship they were serving in was torpedoed.
In fact Ralph Rowley was serving aboard the steamship "Afrika" when he and 22 others lost their lives. On February 7th, 1943, when in the convoy SC 118, in the North Atlantic and on route from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Liverpool, 'Afrika' was torpedoed and sunk by German submarine U-402 in the Atlantic Ocean, south east of Cape Farewell, Greenland. The ship was carrying 5,000 tons of steel and 6,457 tons of government and general cargo, including grain and explosives. Of those, 23 men of the 60 aboard, including Capt. Jensen, were killed.
'Afrika' was completed in March 1920 as 'Afrika' for A/S Det Østasiatiske Kompagni, Copenhagen. On the 14th April, 1940, she was en route from Aden to Colombo and was seized by HMAS Hobart (D 63) under the command of Captain H. L. Howden, OBE, RAN. Taken over by Britain and transferred to the Ministry of War Transport (MoWT). After the German occupation of Denmark in April, 1940, the seized vessel sailed under the British flag.
Above: The armed merchant vessel MV 'Arika' sunk by German submarine U-402.
On the 13th October 1943, U-402 was sunk by a Mark 24 FIDO Torpedo dropped by Grumman TBF Avenger aircraft from the escort carrier USS Card. U-402 had sunk 18 Allied ships in the two years between May 1941 and May 1943.
Ralph Rowley died on the 7th February 1943, aged 36 years, and is remembered on Panel 75, Column 3 of the Portsmouth Naval Memorial. Portsmouth Naval Memorial commemorates around 10,000 sailors of the First World War and almost 15,000 of the Second World War.2
1. "Ossett Observer", Saturday, March 6th 1943.