Ordinary Seaman Arthur Albert Cole (1922-1941)
LOST AT SEA, 1941 - The Seaforth by Jill Waterson

During the Second World War, 2,426 British merchant ships were sunk and 29,180 seamen killed. This
represents 1 in 6 of the 185,000 merchant seamen who served. With losses on this scale it is perhaps not surprising that in June 1941 the Government decided to stop the publication of monthly shipping losses. But lack of reporting has meant that the ships and seamen have been in danger of being not only lost at sea, but lost from history. In February 1941 alone, 68 British merchant ships were lost by enemy action, and many seamen with them. This is the story of one seaman and one ship, both lost at sea in 1941.

Arthur Albert Cole (1922-1941)

Arthur Albert Cole was born in Lambeth on 23 rd May 1922, son of Albert Edward Cole (known as Joe) and Bertha Cole, née Geldard. Arthur's mother died when he was 3 years old, and his father died when he was 12. Arthur was then sent to Heswall Nautical Training School (HNTS).

In a letter to his younger sister from HNTS, dated 15th July 1940, Arthur writes:

"The boys in the school are being issued with rifles soon, to use against any parachutists or 5th columnists who care to visit Heswall. When I went to Liverpool last week to get my job, I saw several French ships with our soldiers in control, and Liverpool is packed with French sailors. All the roads up this way have been barricaded, and machine guns put in the middle of the roads."

In the same letter, Arthur describes what his first job at sea was to be:

"Well, I am going to sea on Monday or Tuesday on the 'Empress of Britain'. We may go to Canada or Australia . I am not sure. But I will only be away for two months at the most. Then I will come home for a day or two."

The Empress of Britain was an ocean liner owned by the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company. On the 26th October 1940, the ship was traveling along the west coast of Ireland, with 416 crew, 2 gunners, and 205 passengers on board, when it was hit by 2 bombs from a German Focke-Wulfe C 200 Condor long-range bomber. The ship caught fire and most of those on board were evacuated and picked up by other ships. An attempt was made to tow the ship to shore, but on 28 th October, it was hit by 2 torpedoes from the German submarine U-32, and sank. 25 crew members and 20 passengers died.

Fortunately for Arthur, he was not on the Empress of Britain, as he explains in a later letter:

"Well I wasn't on the 'Empress of Britain' fortunately, but three of my friends were. I was transferred to my present ship at the last minute. As to you not being able to find out if I was killed (which is very unlikely), we have to leave the name and address of our nearest relative when we sail."

Arthur's 'present ship' was the Duchess of Richmond, which was also an ocean liner operated by the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company. In a letter in which Arthur gives his address as Deck Department, RMS Duchess of Richmond , c/o C.P.R. Dock, Gladstone Dock, Liverpool , he writes:

"Just a few hurried lines to say I have arrived in Liverpool , but only for a few days. I am sorry I can't come to London as promised, but the law is that we mustn't leave the port we dock in."

The Duchess of Richmond was Arthur's first ship and he was employed as a 'deck boy'. He was described as being 5'1" tall, with brown hair and brown eyes. Arthur served on this ship between 24th July 1940 and 24th November 1940. Both his ability and conduct were recorded as 'very good'. The Duchess of Richmond survived the war, and in 1947 was renamed the Empress of Canada.

Arthur was not so lucky. His second ship was the Seaforth, which he joined on the 10 th December 1940 as an Ordinary Seaman.

The Seaforth (1939-1941)

The Seaforth was a new ship, built in 1939 by Caledon Shipbuilding & Engineering Company Ltd, and owned by Elder Dempster Lines. Elder Dempster Lines was based in Liverpool and served West Africa.

On November 27th 1940, the Seaforth arrived in Liverpool from Lagos, and on December 12th, it commenced its next journey to Lagos . En route it stopped at Glasgow, Freetown, Takoradi, Cape Coast , Winniba, and Accra, arriving in Lagos on 11th January 1941. Additional crew members were signed on there on 13th January, including one who was dismissed on 25th January, while still in Lagos . In this case, it seems that bad conduct was rewarded.

On February 18th 1941, the Seaforth was returning to Liverpool from Monrovia, Liberia with a cargo of West African produce. On board were 47 crew, 2 gunners and 10 passengers. The ship was traveling alone and was attacked by a German U-boat (U-103), south of Iceland. The U-boat fired 3 torpedoes, 2 of which hit the Seaforth, and it sank. The commander of U-103 reported seeing lifeboats being launched after the first hit, but no-one was saved.

The loss of the Seaforth was not reported in British newspapers, and official documentation referred to it as "missing" for some months. It was not until September 23rd 1941 that the Registrar General asked for the records to be amended:

"This vessel is reported by Shipping Intelligence Branch as 'Torpedoed, 18.2.41. Presumed sunk'. It is requested, therefore, that the wording at (3) respecting Termination of Voyage (page 1 of List C & D) be amended to this effect. The words 'Vessel missing' should be deleted from column 12."

The full title of 'List C & D', referred to in this letter, is 'List of the Crew and other Particulars of a Foreign Going or Home Trade Ship'. When the Seaforth sank, it took its papers with it, and officials at home were left to compile the required list of those who had been on board. Archived letters requesting information about those
on board show that this was not an easy task.

Other information given on 'List C & D' for the crew includes the 'Balance of Wages due on Discharge' and 'Report of Character' (ability and conduct). In Arthur Cole's case, this was £22-3s-1d, and "very good".

Merchant seamen from the Seaforth are commemorated at Portsmouth and Plymouth Naval Memorials, which commemorates men and women of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets of both world wars who have no known grave. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission 'certificate' for Arthur Cole reads:


In Memory of



M.V. Seaforth ( Liverpool ), Merchant Navy

Who died age 18

On 18 February 1941


Remembered with honour



Commemorated in perpetuity by

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission


© 2008 Jill Waterson

Page published Dec. 5, 2008