Hilary O’Connor BA, MA, MAGI

“Died at sea”…. What a generic statement that so many of us genealogists encounter on our quest for ancestors who were involved in World War II. Very little detail accompanies a statement like this and rarely can we fully comprehend what happened to our relatives in their final days and hours. My great uncle, P.J. Hollingsworth, was one such fatality and I have endeavored over the years to discover just what this statement would have meant for him.

P.J. Hollingsworth

Patrick Joseph ‘P.J.’ Hollingsworth was the sixth of eleven children born to my great grandparents Francis and Mary Ellen Brennan. The large family lived in and around Rialto and Harold’s Cross in Dublin. P.J. worked initially as a house painter like his father Francis before him and in December 1935 married Catherine Browne. The couple had two sons.

In early 1941 P.J. joined the Merchant Navy as lance corporal with the 12th mobile laundry unit in the Royal Army Ordnance corps (army number 13039407). The RAOC served numerous roles during WWII and were responsible for supplying weapons, ammunition, and equipment to the British Army. It was also involved in bomb disposal and the repair of equipment and vehicles until the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers assumed that responsibility in 1942[1] P.J. and his regiment were assigned to the SS Benalbanach, which was part of the KMS-6 convoy involved in the Allied Landings in North Africa codenamed ‘Torch’. In November of 1942 under the command of Captain D. MacGregor they successfully landed at Tunisia in French Morocco where they supported the troops which captured Lourmel Aerodrome and the airfields at Tafaroui and La Senia. SS Benalbanach then headed back to the UK to backload additional troops and equipment and once again sailed for North Africa leaving on Christmas Eve 1942. The convoy was attacked northwest of Algiers on the evening of the 7th of January 1943 by low flying Luftwaffe aircraft which released two torpedoes. Benalbanach was struck by both and sank in less than two minutes. Four hundred and ten personnel lost their lives that day[2] One of the few survivors of that day George Codling, recalled his harrowing story to his daughter which was subsequently documented on the BBC WWII People’s war website:

At 6.10pm as the light was failing I was heating water amidships when every ship opened out with their guns at 5 Savoia Topedo planes as they flew through the convoy, a few yards only from above the water. I dived down the first hatch for cover from the flak as our ships were practically firing on to each other. I was just taking stock of my surroundings when there was a crash, the ship heeled over and as the lights went out the roof fell in, missing me by about a yard. ……..Debris was thrown everywhere and the water was almost up to the bridge. The aft had been blown off by the explosion which was terrific owing to the nature of our cargo, ammo, bombs, high octance spirit, etc. I climbed onto the bridge where an attempt to lower the lifeboat was being made. It looked to me as if the boat would capsize so I did not climb in, which was fortunate as it did capsize, flinging the men into the water, where they clung to the bottom of the boat.

I jumped overboard, my life jacket being secure, and swam ahead of the bows of the ship. The sea was covered with oil and debris and men were all around shouting and screaming, this was the most terrible thing of all, to hear them and no-one could help. I swam as hard as possible but did not seem to make progress. The ship stood on her tail as it were and towered above me and then slid quietly, taking the capsized boat down along with the men. There was no suction whatsoever. From being torpedoed to sinking must have been seconds and yet to me felt like hours, even now[3]

It was sobering indeed to read these words and to imagine what my great uncle P.J.’s last moments were like given these graphic descriptions. On the 27th of January 1943 the War office contacted Catherine Hollingsworth, P.J’s widow to outline what had happened to the convoy and to assert that her husband was deemed missing-in-action. It was not until an agonizing seven months later in August 1943 that they wrote again to confirm that as P.J’s body was never recovered, he was consequently presumed killed in action. Both these letters are in our family’s possession. P.J. was just twenty-nine years old when he died He is commemorated in Broookwood Military cemetery, Surrey, in the United Kingdom. I finally appreciated how trite those words ‘Died at sea’ really were when confronted with the reality of what had occurred. It was thanks to military archives and rooting through vast personal accounts on various websites that I could stop and consider the true human cost of that statement.