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Roy Wilkinson

Stoker, 1st Class, Roy Wilkinson, C/KX 127018, HMS Curacoa, Royal Navy.

Roy Wilkinson was born in Ossett on the 9th February 1921, one of six children born to Earlsheaton born Clifford Wilkinson (1888-1967) and Emily Williamson (1891-1973) of Horbury who married at South Ossett Christ Church on the 10 February 1912. Clifford was 23 years of age and a miner living at Crossley’s Buildings, Chickenley Heath. His bride Emily, aged 20 years, lived at 41 Horbury Road and the daughter of a warper.

In September 1939 Clifford, a coal miner, and Emily were living at 5, Moorlands Avenue, Ossett with three of their children. Another name is redacted which could be Roy Wilkinson or another of his siblings. The "Ossett Observer" of 21st February 1948 records Roy Wilkinson at this address.

Stoker Roy Wilkinson served on C-class light cruiser, HMS Curacoa, built for the Royal Navy during the First World War. HMS Curacoa was named after the island more usually spelled Curaçao – it appears this was the old spelling which had been used by four successive Royal Navy ships since 1809. Curacoa was converted into an anti-aircraft cruiser. She returned to service in January 1940 and, while providing escort in the Norwegian Campaign that April, was damaged by German aircraft. After repairs were completed that year, she escorted convoys in and around the British Isles for two years.

HMS Curacoa

Above: Stoker Roy Wilkinson's ship the light-cruiser HMS Curacoa.

On the morning of the 2nd October 1942, HMS Curacoa rendezvoused north of Ireland with the ocean liner Queen Mary, which was carrying approximately 10,000 American troops of the 29th Infantry Division. The Queen Mary was steaming an evasive "Zig-Zag Pattern No. 8" course at a speed of 28.5 knots, to evade submarine attacks. The Curacoa remained on a straight course at a top speed of 25 knots and was eventually overtaken by the liner.

Each captain had different interpretations of "The Rule of the Road" believing his ship had the right of way. Captain John Boutwood of the Curacoa kept to the liner's mean course to maximize his ability to defend the liner from enemy aircraft, while Commodore Sir Cyril G. Illingworth of Queen Mary continued their zig-zag pattern expecting the escort cruiser to give way. The two ships found themselves on a collision course – both Captains were informed and both believed the other would take evasive action. The consequences were tragic.

The two ships collided with each other at 2:12 pm. The massive Queen Mary split Curacoa in two, leaving the cruiser’s halves engulfed in flames. She sank six minutes later with a loss of 338 men from a total crew of 439. The Queen Mary was under strict orders not to stop for anything and continued on to Scotland, where she was outfitted with a concrete plug and sailed to Boston for more permanent repairs.

Queen Mary

Above: Formerly a luxury liner, the SS 'Queen Mary' was converted into a troop ship during WW2. Shown here on the 21st May 1942 at Gourock Bay, on the west coast of Scotland. She was known as the 'Grey Ghost' during this period, when she conveyed tens of thousands of men across the Atlantic to fight for the Allies.

Many bodies of those lost from the Curacoa were washed up in various places on the Western Scottish coast and are buried in nearest small graveyards including Lower Breakish and Arisaig. Some were identified, but most were not.

Alfred Johnson was on the Queen Mary that day:1

"It was 1942 and I was 22 years old and a Seaman in the Merchant Navy on the Queen Mary. We were returning to Glasgow from New York, which was a four or five day journey. The Queen Mary was carrying about 20,000 American Troops to join the Allied Forces. She was known as a "hornets nest" in the war as there were lots of nationalities on the ship.

There were two of us on the poop deck on the aft of the ship and we were manning the 6 inch gun, in case we came under attack. What good we could have done with one gun, I’ve no idea!

A cruiser called HMS Curacao met us 200 miles off the coast to escort us into Greenock. I could see her clearly as I was on the aft. We could see our escort zig-zagging in front of us. It was common for the ships and cruisers to zig-zag to confuse the U-boats. In this particular case, however, the escort was very, very close to us.

I said to my mate "You know she’s zig-zagging all over the place in front of us, I’m sure we’re going to hit her." And sure enough, the Queen Mary sliced the cruiser in two like a piece of butter, straight through the six inch armoured plating. The Queen Mary just carried on going (we were doing about 25 knots). It was the policy not to stop and pick up survivors even if they were waving at you. It was too dangerous as the threat of U-Boats was always present."

Roy Wilkinson was to die in one of the most tragic accidents at sea of WW2. Those who witnessed the collision were sworn to secrecy due to national security concerns. The loss was not publicly reported until after the war ended, although the Admiralty filed a writ against Queen Mary's owners, Cunard White Star Line, on the 22nd September 1943 in the Admiralty Court of the High Court of Justice.

Little happened until 1945, when the case went to trial in June; it was adjourned to November and then to December 1946. Mr. Justice Pilcher exonerated the Queen Mary's crew and her owners from blame on the 21st January 1947 and laid all fault on Curacoa's officers. The Admiralty appealed his ruling and the Court of Appeal modified the ruling, assigning two-thirds of the blame to the Admiralty and one third to Cunard White Star. The latter appealed to the House of Lords, but they upheld the decision.

Stoker Roy Wilkinson, aged 21 years, son of Clifford and Emily Wilkinson of Ossett was lost at sea on the 2nd October 1942 whilst serving aboard H.M.S. Curacoa and is remembered on the Chatham Naval Memorial, Chatham, Kent. Overlooking the town of Chatham in Kent, the Chatham Naval Memorial, commemorates more than 8,500 Royal Navy personnel of the First World War and over 10,000 of the Second World War who were lost or buried at sea.2

References:

1. World War II Today - October 2nd 1942

2. Commonwealth War Graves Commission web site