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11 Nov 2020

Remembering the sinking of the ‘William Humphries’

Written by Donald Mackenzie, Harbourmaster, Isle of Canna
A close-up of a gravestone. At the top is a coat of arms with the letters MN carved inside. Beneath the engraving reads: C H Bridge, Skipper, S. T. ‘William Humphries’, 20th November 1939, Age 38.
The war grave of Charles Bridge on Canna
Tucked away in a corner of Canna’s graveyard stands a solitary war grave from the Second World War. It commemorates the captain of the steam trawler ‘William Humphries’, which was sunk off the coast of Northern Ireland 81 years ago.

The story of the William Humphries begins over a hundred years ago in Aberdeen, when the Admiralty commissioned a number of steam trawlers for harbour defence and mine-sweeping roles. Completed on 24 December 1918 at J Duthie shipbuilding yard, our vessel was one of what were called Castle-class trawlers, built to Admiralty specifications. All were named after ordinary seamen who had served at the Battle of Trafalgar in either HMS Royal Sovereign or HMS Victory. William Humphries came from Caernarfon in North Wales and was a victim of the notorious press gangs; at the age of 21 he served in Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory.

A black and white photograph of a steam trawler sailing along a river. Sailors stand on deck on the bow of the ship looking towards the dock. Flags are suspended from the mast line, and a funnel in the middle emits smoke. Large guns can be seen on deck at either end of the vessel.
A similar vessel to the ‘William Humphries’, which would have had the deck gun removed in 1920.

The William Humphries did not stay a Royal Navy ship for long, and was sold by the Admiralty in 1920 to a J Ritchie of Milford Haven, South Wales. For the next 19 years the vessel was part of the British fishing fleet and changed hands several times. The St Andrews Steam Fishing Company in Fleetwood were the last owners, acquiring the vessel on 4 August 1939, just before the outbreak of the Second World War.

Her last voyage was in the company of another trawler, the Sulby, and ended between 0830 and 0920 on the morning of 20 November 1939. Both trawlers came under attack from the German submarine U-33, under the command of Hans-Wilhelm von Dresky. The U-33 sank both trawlers with the use of her deck gun. The 13 crew members of the William Humphries took to the only lifeboat.

Exactly what happened next is unknown, but all 13 men died, probably of hypothermia. Sadly not all of the crew were recovered; however, two bodies were washed up and buried on Barra, three on Skye and one on Canna.

The small Canna graveyard is the last resting place of the skipper of the William Humphries, Charles Horace Bridge. He was 38 years old and came from Fleetwood, Lancashire. He was washed up below Compass Hill on 29 November 1939, an event that was recorded by the owner of Canna, John Lorne Campbell, in his diary.

On Remembrance Sunday this year some of us will gather again to lay poppies on this lonely war grave and to pay our respects, not only to Charles Bridge and his crew but also to all the other seamen who have lost their lives during times of war and peace around our coast.

Three men stand close to a single gravestone with a bunch of red poppies laid in front. The two men on the left are listening to the man on the right, who is reading from a sheet of paper. He wears a high-vis jacket.
Canna residents holding a remembrance service at the graveside

There’s one other casualty of war who is remembered on a family headstone in the Canna graveyard. Neil ‘Dubh’ Maclean (41) from Canna was killed on 15 March 1940 when his cargo ship, the SS Melrose, hit a mine in the Dover Strait. He was the captain of the ship and died along with 16 other officers and crew. He’s also remembered on the Tower Hill Memorial in London, which commemorates those men and women of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets who died in both world wars and who have no known grave.

A black and white photograph of a long steam ship, with a large funnel in the centre emitting smoke. It is sailing close to a dockside.
SS ‘Melrose’, Neil Maclean’s ship

As a footnote to the story, it’s worth noting that the U-33 did not survive much longer, as she was sunk by minesweeper HMS Gleaner in the Firth of Clyde just a few months later, on 12 February 1940.

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