“They that go down to the sea in ships and do business in great waters”
Mr and Mrs James dreaded the arrival of the telegram from the Royal Navy which came to their home at 10 London St, Leek in late September 1943. It confirmed that their youngest son Able Seaman Edward James aged 21 had been lost at sea and therefore must be confirmed as dead. Edward was one of the 72,000 Royal Naval and Merchant Marine personnel along with 40,000 Germans who died during the Battle of the Atlantic, the longest continual engagement of the Second World War. It lasted from the earliest days of the war right through to its conclusion. Earlier this year a service of commemoration was held at Liverpool Cathedral recognising the huge losses endured by men and women of both sides on the 70th anniversary of the height of the conflict. Britain, being an island nation, required a constant flow of supplies and material to continue the struggle against Nazism. It was assisted by its North American Allies as well as other nations. The response of the German Navy was to stop the convoys by the use of surface vessels as well as the terrifying U Boats that caused great damage on Allied shipping.
The fate of Edward James illustrates the awfulness of this operation in microcosm. Edward was a silk worker prior to joining the Royal Navy in September 1941. He had been educated at All Saints School and the Britannia Street School before beginning work at the Euston Mill. He was a keen sportsman and very popular. The Leek paper reported him as being genial and of a sunny disposition. Edward had an older brother Frank who was in the Army serving in Iceland. Another relative Alf James was in a POW camp in Germany.
Edward wrote the last letter to his parents shortly before sailing with his ship HMS Fidelity formerly a French cargo vessel which during 1941/2 had been engaged in covert activity supporting the work of SOE in France. Interestingly the First Officer was a French woman Madeline Barclay who had been involved in espionage. It is unique that a woman should hold a senior rank at that time on a Royal Naval vessel. HMS Fidelity joined Convoy ON 154. The convoy was attacked by U-boats from 27 December while north of the Azores. Fidelity, suffering from engine problems, was left behind by the convoy and attempted to get to the islands. At 5pm on 30 December, the vessel was finally hit by two torpedoes from U-435 and sank immediately after heavy explosions. The U-boat reported a high number of survivors on overcrowded rafts and swimming in the water, none of them were rescued and all drowned in the worsening weather. The temperature of the ocean would have killed them in minutes,The dead included 274 crew, 51 Marines and 44 survivors from SS Empire Shackleton which the Fidelity had rescued the previous day.
The only survivors were the eight crew of the motor torpedo boat, detached on anti-submarine patrol, who were later picked up by HMCS Woodstock
The commander of the U435 was an experienced naval officer Siegfried Strelow he is credited with sinking 9 merchant ships and 2 Royal Navy vessels. The U435 was sunk by a Wellington Bomber off the Portuguese coast on 16th July 1943. All 43 hands were lost.