Wednesday, 31 July 2013

SS Ulysses - the story of a ship

SS Ulysses - the story of a ship

In an earlier blog  I wrote about Lt. Stuart Hills whose parents were in Hong Kong when the Pacific War erupted  and were incacerated in Stanley Camp. He had joined the army and took part in the invasion of Normandy. He was a tank officer and he fought his way through France to Germany. In the earlier blog I included a reference to his sister Helen who was in Australia in late 1941 when the Pacific War commenced. She decided to return to UK and took passage on the blue funnel line SS Ulysses. However the ship was torpedoed off the Carolinas – the survivors were picked up by an American Destroyer the USS Manley. Helen eventually reached England safely.

This is the story of that ship with a focus again on Hong Kong - what I had not realized at the time is that SS Ulysses left Hong Kong on Sunday 7th December 1941 the day before war began.

The ship was launched in 1913 in Belfast for the China  Mutual Steam Navigation Company to sail from Glasgow - Liverpool - Brisbane.  After World War 1 broke out  in 1914 she served as a troopship resuming commercial service for the Blue Funnel Line in 1920.

Fast forward to 1941 - the Ulysses needed a refit and British dockyards were targets for German bombing so she was sent out to Hong Kong to undertake a full refit. While nearing completion in September 1941, the ship was damaged in a typhoon and ended up being grounded at Green Island, in the western entrance to Hong Kong's natural harbour.

Blue Funnel Liner - SS Ulysses

Lt Alexander Kennedy a young officer in the RNVR who had been recently posted to Hong Kong and was commanding officer of a Motor Torpedo Boat (MTB 09), had fallen in love and proposed to Rachel Smith, daughter of former Colonial Secretary and Acting Governor Mr Norman Lockhart  ("NL") Smith, who was due to retire from Hong Kong and return to UK on SS Ulysses, which by this time had almost completed repairs.

Lt Kennedy in a privately published book "Hong Kong Full Circe 1939-1945 takes up the story:

"On the evening of 6th December, the officers and crews of the merchantmen in harbor were recalled to their ships, and the passengers for the Ulysses told to be onboard within 12 hours. I went out to the ship to to say goodbye to Rachel and  "N L" early the next morning. Crossing the harbor the launch passed a coaster which had just arrived from Singapore and had brought among its few passengers the new Colonial Secretary, Mr Franklin Gimson.

A steady stream of ships put out from Hong Kong that Sunday morning, all heading south. Ashore the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corp were being mobilized, and the regular battalions were at their battle stations on the border." (1)

Ulysses sailed that fateful Sunday while the Japanese were preparing to attack the American Fleet at Pearl Harbour and to invade Hong Kong, Malaya and the Philippines and to plunge the Pacific into war and devastation.

One day out of Hong Hong and heading for Manila - they heard by wireless that war had begun and that Manila  was already under attack and accordingly the Master -  Captain Russell set course for Singapore. Early one morning the ship's siren sounded and a loud explosion was heard. The passengers rushed up to the boat deck to find that Japanese aircraft had passed overhead and dropped bombs which luckily were near misses and no damage was done. Another close escape.

The next day a single Japanese aircraft attacked the ship with gun-fire. Again no serious damage and no injuries were sustained. The ship eventually reached Singapore causing some surprise as people had thought she had been sunk - since the ship had maintained radio silence after the first aircraft attack.

The destroyers HMS Scout and HMS Thanet which left Hong Kong on Monday evening 8th December bound for Singapore had been ordered to look out for SS Ulysses as a distress signal had been received that she was under attack by Japanese aircraft. Although they spent some time searching on Tuesday 9th December they had seen no sign of her or of enemy aircraft.  

In Singapore she remained a week whilst she was placed in dry dock for bottom scraping and other repairs. The passengers including Rachel and her father were put shore and accommodated for a week in the Raffles Hotel. Just before Christmas Ulysses departed Singapore  for Fremantle after having embarked a large number of women and children evacuating from Singapore whilst battle raged ever closer in Malaya.

From Fremantle they sailed to Adelaide for repairs. By this time Hong Kong had surrendered and Lt Kennedy had escaped with the remaining MTBs to the coast of China and were making their way across country to Free China.

It was in Adelaide that Rachel heard that her fiancé had escaped and was making his way to Rangoon in Burma.  She burst into tears with relief. After picking up cargo the ship sailed via Sydney across the Pacific and through the Panama Canal into the Atlantic Ocean. One of the passengers who joined the ship in Sydney was Helen Hills whose parents were now held captive in Hong Kong and whose brother Stuart would later land on the Normandy beaches and fight his way through France to Germany.

As she steamed up the coast of Florida Ulysses was involved in a collision.  On 8th April 1942 she collided with the Panamanian tanker  Gold Heels resulting in serious damage to the bows and a hole below the waterline. The ship had to slow down making it a perfect target for German U-boats.

On April 11th her luck ran out and she was torpedoed by U-160 off the coast of Carolina. Three torpedoes hit the ship but she settled slowly providing enough time for life boats to be launched and all 190 crew, 5 gunners and 95 passengers were picked up by an American Destroyer, the USS Manley.

SS Ulysses after having been struck by a torpedo - her final moments

The picture above shows the Ulysses' boilers blowing shortly before sinking. This was taken by a US aircraft who first reached the scene. Shortly afterwards the American destroyer arrived, scrambling nets were lowered and the the survivors brought up on deck. They were landed in Charleston and then sent by train to New York, where they took passage on SS Myrmidon back to England.

SS Ulysses had made her last voyage.


Passengers on SS Ulysses final journey include:

Helen Hills
Whose parents (Herbert and Edith) were interned in Stanley Camp and whose brother was
born in Hong Kong and served as a tank commander in the Battle of Normandy. She joins  the ship in Australia.

Group Captain Horry
He was commanding officer of the RAF in HK but was posted to Singapore and departed HK on 7th December on SS Ulysses. His successor being Wing Commander Sullivan.

Norman Lockhart Smith
N L Smith was returning to UK to retire - a former Colonial Secretary in Hong Kong an Acting Governor until the arrival of Sir Mark Young on 11th September 1941. His replacement as Colonial Secretary Franklin Gimson arrived the day before war began - and on the very day that SS Ulysses sailed on her fateful last journey.

Rachel Smith
Daughter of "NL" she had recently become engaged to Lt. Alexander Kennedy RNVR who escaped from Hong Kong with the remaining Motor Torpedo Boats and made his way to Free China.


(1)  "Hong Kong Full Circle 1939-1945" -  Alexander Kennedy, Lt Cdr. 

Photo of SS Ulysses :                         

Photo of  SS Ulysses sinking:             

"By Tank into Normandy"                           Stuart Hills

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

The Battle for Normandy and the Battle for Hong Kong

In the summer of 2012 my son and I went over to France to visit the landing beaches and battlefields of Normandy.  It was an incredible experience to see the invasion beaches and the ruins of war scattered over that historic countryside. One of my friends in Hong Kong, Martin Dewick, had come across a book about a tank commander in Normandy by the name of Lt Stuart Hills which had a surprising Hong Kong connection. Stuart Hills had been born in Hong Kong in 1924 and likewise his elder sister Helen in 1922, and his younger brother Peter in 1926. His parents Herbert Stuart Hills and Edith Attwater Hills were in Hong Kong when war began in December 1941. Their home was destroyed by shelling and they were incarcerated in Stanley Internment Camp until liberation in August/September 1945.

The book is titled By Tank into Normandy and is the gripping account of Lt Hills experiences landing on the invasion beaches on D-Day and the chase across France to Germany.

Lt Hills served with the Nottinghamshire Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry. He was an officer in charge of a troop of three Sherman Mark IV DD (Duplex Drive) or swimming tanks. His unit was assigned to Gold Beach on the western end of the British sector.  As the Landing Craft approached the beach under shell and machine gun fire,  he recalls.

"I gave the order, 'Go, Go,  Go'  and we lumbered slowly down the ramp and flopped into the sea".

He was standing on the back of the tank, in order to be able to see over the flotation screen. After fifty to seventy five metres the tank started taking in water and finally sank no doubt due to shrapnel damage to the soft underside of the tank.

The crew abandoned the tank some five-hundred metres offshore, and got into their small rubber dinghy without a paddle or any means of propulsion other than their bare hands. For much of the day they drifted offshore, with shells and gun fire all round them, and they were lucky not to be mown down by approaching landing craft and other vessels heading for the invasion beach. 

The photograph below shows a Sherman Tank with the flotation screen lowered.

Sherman Tank with flotation screen lowered (Wikipedia)

This picture  (below) shows a tank with lowered flotation screen, fighting with infantry support having just landed on D Day.

Sherman Tank still with flotation screen just after landing
 (Source: Wikipedia)
Lt Hills and his crew were eventually picked up by an LCG (Landing Craft Fitted with Guns) whose job was patrolling up and down the beach pounding German shore defenses from different positions off Gold Beach.  When the LCG had to return to England they deposited Lt Hills and his crew back in a dinghy but this time with a paddle, and they landed by dinghy, some what ignominiously, no doubt looking wet and wretched on Gold Beach on D+1. They rejoined their regiment were allocated another Sherman tank and Lt Hills went on to win the Military Cross.

But now let its go back to that Hong Kong connection.

Lt Stuart Hills' father Herbert had come to Hong Kong in 1910 and was employed by Jardine Matheson. When World War 1 erupted in 1914 he joined the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corp (HKVDC) and later transferred to the imperial cavalry where he saw service at Salonika and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Stuart Hills takes up the story :

"My father had met my mother Edith in the Middle East, where she had served as a nurse at Gallipoli and in Egypt. They duly married in Hong Kong in 1919, after my father had returned to the colony to rejoin Jardine Matheson. Their house was 29 The Peak, where I was born in 1924".

In 1941 when war began Herbert Stuart Hills was a fifty-six-year-old Exchange Broker. His house on Lugard Road was heavily shelled during the eighteen days of fighting following the Japanese invasion of the Crown Colony on 8th December 1941. Stuart writes that his father "as an old soldier, served as a Private in the HKVDC with special responsibility for radio communications".

"My mother nursed in Rosary Hill (also known as St Albert's Hospital) and later was moved to St Theresa's Hospital".

Edith & Herbert Hills (Courtesy: Mandy Parkes)
After the surrender of the colony on Christmas Day 1941 Herbert and Edith were incarcerated at Stanley Civilian Internment Camp. Hebert was billeted in Block 13 Room 19  whilst Edith was in Block 13 Room 53. Edith was moved from Rosary Hill to St Teresa's Hospital in Kowloon and came into camp some six months later than Hebert, which explains why they had different billets.  Stuart recalls that "when  they were finally released (in 1945), my mother resembled a skeleton and my father was in an even more terrible condition, suffering from tuberculosis and beri-beri among other things.  My father was put on a hospital ship to New Zealand and then in 1946 invalided back to Britain, where he died in 1947" aged sixty-two, no doubt as a result of the privations experienced in Stanley Camp.

"My sister Helen  and my mother had gone by ship to Australia in October 1941 to stay with an Aunt When my mother returned to Hong Kong in late November 1941 (weeks before war broke out), my sister stayed on in Sydney. She decided to risk returning to England and departed on the Blue Funnel line vessel SS Ulysses in 1942, but the ship was torpedoed off the coast of South Carolina. Helen and other survivors were picked up by a US destroyer", eventually reaching England where she joined the WAAF (Women's Auxiliary Air Force).

"My mother was in fact lucky to survive. During the fighting she nursed a Japanese soldier, who died of his wounds, but she made sure he was properly buried, wrapped in the Japanese flag. When the Japanese took over the hospital at the end of the fighting, my mother, the doctor and ward sister might have been murdered. Machine guns were trained on them while the body was disinterred, and only when the Japanese saw the body wrapped in the flag did they accept what had really happened". Edith was awarded the MiD (Mention in Dispatches) for her conduct and bravery as a war time nursing sister who served in both world wars. Edith died in 1974 aged ninety-one.

Home on the Peak

The photographs below show the Hills family home at 29, The Peak in pre-war days. One notices the well kept lawn, the stunning views across the harbour and the many windows.

29, The Peak (Lugard Road) in pre-war days (Courtesy: Mandy Parkes)
The photograph below was taken in 1954 and shows the house (on the left of the photo) still in war-time ruin. The house was demolished in 1955 and rebuilt.

(Photo courtesy of Peter Gesner Van der Voort as posted on
The following photographs from Mandy Parkes (neé Hills) gives us a fascinating glimpse of the inside of the house, a chance to see what a family home looked like in pre-war Hong Kong.

(Courtesy: Mandy Parkes)
One's attention is drawn to the old fashioned radio set. In those pre-televion days the radio was a popular form of entertainment in the privacy of one's own home, although there was only one radio channel (ZBX) in Hong Kong. The radio programmes for the day were included in the daily newspapers.  The comfortable armchairs arranged around the hearth and the books on the coffee table all tell of a comfortable family home. Hong Kong winters could get quite cold especially on the Peak and the fireplace would have been well used.
(Courtesy: Mandy Parkes)
A cosy dining room one's attention is drawn to the fireplace and the mantlepiece with the mantle clock which had to be wound up by hand and the hydrangeas.
(Courtesy: Mandy Parkes)
A cosy alcove fitted with a couch and a desk for writing letters in the pre-digital world where the word email did not exist. Photographs of family on the desk and the painting of a boy in the alcove is Stuart .
(Courtesy: Mandy Parkes)
Sunlight shining through the windows, this was a bright and happy home with spectacular view across the harbour. It was a house of many windows. When war started the house built in 1922 with its memories of happier days was badly damaged by shelling from across the harbor and aerial bombing. It was left in ruins. The family sold it after the war and it was demolished in 1955 and a new house built on the plot.

The letter below was written to the owner of 29, The Peak by Stuart Hills in 1984 hoping to see the house on a trip he was planning on making to Hong Kong in 1985 by then he was aged sixty and living in Tonbridge, Kent. Of course at that time the original house had been demolished and rebuilt.

A glimpse of  pre-war Hong Kong from family albums

These following photographs are taken from the family album and show Hong Kong scenes before the war.

The peaceful village of Aberdeen with Brick Hill in the background (Courtesy: Mandy Parkes)

Dragon boat racing before the war (Courtesy: Mandy Parkes)

The HK Club Building, the Cenotaph and the statue of Queen Victoria in pre-war Hong Kong                                 (Courtesy: Mandy Parkes)

View across the  Harbour in pre-war Hong Kong (Courtesy: Mandy Parkes)


My thanks to Stuart Hills' daughter Mandy Parkes (neé Hills) for permission to use the family photographs and for providing me with other information relating to her family's history in Hong Kong.

My thanks to Peter Gesner Van der Voort for allowing me to re-produce the 1954 photo from his family collection which shows No. 29 The Peak still in ruins from its wartime damage.

My thanks to David Bellis, local historian in Hong Kong, who established the Hong Kong history web site for allowing me access to photographs published on and other assistance so helpfully given.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Taste of History - Aberdeen Reservoir - Dec. 1941

I set out one hot summer's day from Wan Chai Gap walking south and downhill towards Bennett Hill and Aberdeen Reservoir.  The objective   was to find the company positions of 'C'  Coy Winnipeg Grenadiers. They had been deployed around Aberdeen Reservoir to defend not only the the critical water supplies but also to defend the approaches to Aberdeen and the Royal Naval dockyard. 'C' Coy was commanded by Major John Albert Baillie and consisted of Platoons 10, 11 and 12.

Sgt. Leo Paul Berard commanding 12 Platoon recalls how one of his solders spotted a rock that previously was not there. Sgt Berard ordered the soldier to take a shot at it. Nothing happened and he fired again.

"Then the stone started moving. It rolled down the hill and then what looked like a leg jutted out. We found it was a Japanese sniper. He was one that carried  a bag of grenades instead of a rifle and would sleep  or observe all day underneath a groundsheet sitting on his heels, making himself look like a stone. He was dead. I reported it to the Major. He wasn't pleased. 'You'll have us all tortured', Major Baillie said." (1)

Not far away from the Canadian positions was Flight Lt. Donald Hill who commanded a small RAF detachment who had been deployed to fight as infantry after their aircraft had been destroyed during the first air raid one Kai Tak Airfield. In Donal Hill's diary, decoded by Ando Linklater,  he describes  'C' Coy's engagement  at Aberdeen Reservoir  on the night of the 24th December .

"Soon after midnight heavy firing starts just across the bridge. The Jap's weird war cry is plainly heard, and soon a small party of Canadians  retire over the bridge. They report a  heavy attack by Japs who crept up on them  and broke through. We open up with everything we have across the bridge.   The Japanese start shelling us and confusion sets in. Just as they start moving back up the road, Major Baillie advances down the road waving a revolver ... and shouts for volunteers to cross the bridge."(2) None are forthcoming - they probably thought he was crazy !

Baillie went charging across the bridge in a single handed attack. "Donald (Hill) could not let him die alone. Jumping to his feet , he ran after the Major. Together they reached the other side, unharmed." (3) The Japanese had by then dispersed and were trying to work their way around the reservoir along the shore line. A mortar was set up to fire at the Japanese as they crashed their way through the undergrowth. However disaster struck as the first shell to be fired hit the overhead branches of nearby trees and exploded amongst the men in the mortar group, blowing off one man's right arm, almost severing the leg of another and wounding others.

"We can hear the Japs' wild animal calls. We get the wounded into a dugout where there are some others that were badly wounded and try to stop their bleeding. We only have bandages and several of them are in danger of bleeding to death. Their moans are terrible and although I keep ringing for an ambulance, none arrives. What a horrible mess, I try to restore some kind of order."(4)

Back to the present - as I walk along the military road I start to come across splinter proof war shelters along the side of the road. These were to the north of the company positions and closer to their battalion HQ at Wanchai Gap. 

There was also a water tank with fragmentation damage that would have been used to supply drinking water to the company positions.

A little further on I came across a cluster of bunkers which I assume would have been C Coy HQ.

A little further down was the bridge over the reservoir that figured in the story of confused fighting above.

You can almost picture Major Baillie charging across pistol drawn and with Donald Hill hard on his heels. Nearby there was a pillbox. It's tower visible above the slope in the picture below:

 I clambered up to look at the pillbox - it's door still intact (see below) :

Crossing the bridge the path leads on to Bennett Hill the last line of defense with a string of assorted troops, RAF, Royal Navy and Canadians lying on the reverse slope of the stoney hill , whilst under mortar fire and holding the defensive perimeter  to defend Aberdeen and the Royal Navy Dockyard.

Up on the hill in the heat of a Hong Kong afternoon I found a British or Canadian webbing buckle, a gas mask clasp, part of a Mills grenade and two spent tommy gun rounds (.45).

In a different location but not far away I once found a cobalt blue WW2 Army water bottle buried (actually I think stashed) near the path on Mount Cameron (see the picture below),

When I lifted it out of the ground,  it was heavy, it was still full. The cork was welded into the top and water-tight after 70 years ! Knowing that some soldiers put rum in their water bottles. I opened it took out the liquid but it smelt and looked like off-colour water. I put it to my lips - hesitant to drink it ! but the taste was water - but it was WW2 water almost certainly dating back to that fateful month - December 1941.  It was truly a taste of history !



(1) Quotes taken from "17 Days until Christmas"  by Leo Paul Berard

(2) Quotes from the diary of Donald Hill  in Appendix to "The Code of Love" Andro Linklater.

(3) Quotes taken from "The Code of Love" by Andro Linklater

(4) Quotes from the diary of Donald Hill  in Appendix to "The Code of Love" Andro Linklater.