My interest in genealogy really began some 20 odd years ago when I was able to find out, relatively easily, how my uncle Dennys McGill was killed during WW2.
Dennys was born in Edinburgh on 5 August 1919, the youngest of 3 children born to John (Jack) McGill and his wife, Theresa, nee Ramage. He was educated at the city’s Daniel Stewart’s College. Along with his older brother, Robert (Bobby), my father, he enlisted in the local Territorial Royal Artillery Battery prior to war being declared. At that time he was a hotel management trainee.
The declaration of war saw Dennys formally enlist in the Royal Artillery and he saw service with he BEF in France, albeit for a day or so after the Dunkirk evacuation, followed by a spell at home before serving in the Middle East theatre. It was whilst on service there that he was killed on 16 September 1944. My father did not tell me much about his brother’s death. Perhaps he himself did not know the full story. We had, as a family, photos of his grave and also a small boat which we believed showed him on board.
Some 55 years after his death I wanted to try and find out more about his war service and the circumstances in which he died. No other family members were alive to help me. My father had died in 1984 and Denny’s widow had remarried after the war. At the time I was living in London, fairly close to the National Archives in Kew, at that time it was known as the Public Record Office. Denny’s name was listed on the World War II Roll of Honour, killed in action on 16 September 1944 in the Mediterranean theatre of operations. That in itself did not give me much help but my sister had established, having written to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, that he was buried in Phaleron War Cemetery on the outskirts of Athens.
The CWGC had suggested writing to the Army Records unit but there was no guarantee that his record would still exist. A similar situation arose with the Royal Artillery Association. So it looked as if I had hit the proverbial “brick wall”. As with lots of family history research some things get put on a back burner for a while and get looked at again if new information comes to light.
A breakthrough came in a phone call from my sister following a visit to our mother. She had found some papers inside the back of a photo frame in her house. They included letters of condolence sent to Denny’s widow by his immediate commanding officer. Copies were sent to me so I could begin to search once more.
The letter mentioned Force 133 in Cairo, Egypt. It transpired that this was a Special Operations Executive force involved with guerrillas and partisans in Greece.
Armed with this information I returned to Kew, having initially obtained a Reader’s Card, to find files relating to this Force. One file listed the Casualties and there was a document relating to Dennys. The Battle Casualty form initially stated that he was missing, believed to be a prisoner of war, following a reconnaissance of the Cyclades Islands in the Aegean. Further perusal of the file showed routine correspondence between his unit and HQ Middle East Command, relating to procedures following the death in action of personnel. From these memos I discovered that he was originally buried in the German Military Cemetery on the island of Santorini in the Cyclades Islands. There was also a list of his personal effects, which were forwarded by Force 133 to MEF HQ. A further item in the file was a letter written by the commanding officer of Force 133 to his widow giving her a little more detail of the work he had been involved in. She was asked to treat this as confidential. It stated that he had joined Force 133 in January 1943 and in June of that year, as he was keen on sea life, he had volunteered as an engineer on one of the unit’s ships. His ship was attacked on 16 September 1944 and he was killed whilst manning one of the guns. The vessel was subsequently sunk.
I now had solved the mystery of how he was killed. As it had not taken long to find this out I was intrigued and wanted to find out more. When I had time over the next few weeks I made return visits to Kew and looked at various files covering Force 133’s activities in 1944. I established that the vessel on which he had served was a caique named Saint Nicholas. A caique is a small fishing vessel particular to the Bosphorus and the Levant. The Allies and the Germans had commandeered several of them from their Greek owners and used them to put agents on the Aegean Islands. They were also used to take supplies of food and weapons to the agents. The commanding officer of the Saint Nicolas had received information that a German caique and two small escort boats were in the port of Thira on Santorini Island. The Saint Nicholas entered the harbour at dawn on 16 September to find these ships as well as the German armed merchant ship Pelican. The Pelican’s armament was some 20 to 24 guns, ranging in size from 15mm to 88mm, while the Saint Nicholas’s armament comprised a 20mm gun and some machine guns. The unequal battle, which lasted only a few minutes, resulted in the death of one crew member (Dennys) and the wounding of another (a Maltese named Katania), who later died. The boat was beached and the survivors taken prisoner.
The above formed the basis of an article I had published in the January 2000 issue of Practical Family History. At that time the internet, well for me anyway, was in its infancy. A few years later I uploaded the article to a writers website, Wikinuts. Imagine my surprise when a lady in Australia contacted me to say that her father, James Kossuth Rhodes, also had served on the Saint Nicholas. However, he was not a member of the crew when Dennys was killed. She sent me several photos that her father had taken including one of the vessel. As previously mentioned I have the photo of the boat which I believed to be the one on which Dennys served, however, it is not the Saint Nicholas as it is too small.
Another Wikinut reader also contacted me. His father, Alan Dale-Harris, was on the Saint Nicholas when it was attacked on that day in 1944. He was captured by the Germans together with the other survivors. They had had no option but to surrender. They were detained in custody until 18 October when the German garrison surrendered. The crew of another caique, the Santa Claus had hoped to obtain the German surrender but the commander of the enemy force did not want to surrender to so small a vessel. The garrison would, however, surrender if a naval vessel came. HMS Ajax, a Leander class light cruiser met up with the Santa Claus at sea and a party of marines from the Ajax travelled ashore on the caique to accept the Germans surrender. (HMS Ajax was famous for its part in the Battle of the River Plate in 1939. She was the flagship of Commodore Henry Harwood.)
The survivors of the Saint Nicholas returned to Cairo along with the German garrison who were now prisoners of war. Upon their return the C.O. of the Saint Nicholas, Sub Lt. Powers was able to write the letter of condolence to Denny’s widow, the copy of which my sister found all those years later. ENDS
Frances Rhodes – image of the Saint Nicholas
CWGC – image of the grave prior to reinterment
War Office Letter,“boat” image and coloured grave image – Author’s collection