Torpedoed twice

Donald W Staddon was Apprentice Deck Officer on the Athel Line in 1942 and had the misfortune to be torpedoed not once, but twice in the space of three months, on separate ships.

Donald was on the SS Scottish Heather on route to North America from Scotland when it was struck by a torpedo a week before Christmas in 1942, whilst refueling a Canadian destroyer.  

“There was a violent explosion on the starboard side that blew everything off the upper deck. The ship listed heavily and Captain Blanch made the decision to abandon ship and lay off for the night.”

Although the Scottish Heather did not sink, despite the large hole in her side, the same cannot be said of the tanker MV Athelsultan, that Donald was aboard three months earlier. It too was hit by a torpedo just after eight o’ clock on 22 September 1942.  Of the 60 people who were on board, only 10 were saved.  Donald had been in the steward’s pantry having a cup of coffee and dashed to his cabin for a lifejacket, then tried to join Mr. Sparshott, the Chief Officer:

“He was on top of, and struggling to release a large wooden raft just abaft of midships on the starboard side. This raft was responsible for saving seven of those ten lives, including his.”

But before he could help, Donald was washed overboard by a large wave and well clear of the ship as it sank. Coming to the surface, he saw a glimmer of light and swam to what turned out to be a raft with nobody on it.

“I climbed on board and wrapped myself in a tarpaulin; I was so tired I shut my eyes. This time the sea came to my rescue, washing me off the raft before I succumbed to hypothermia. I saw a shape moving in the darkness. I shouted and whistled – it turned out to be a Canadian corvette: HMCS Weyburn.”

Donald says “All in all, I crossed the Atlantic 20 times up to the end of the war.  We experienced air attack in the Med, and later V2 rockets at Thames Haven, but I did not consider myself to have been brave.”

Donald Staddon in 2014

“I will never forget those who were not lucky, and in particular the Athelsultan’s senior apprentice, Peter Abbot, one of the four Athel Line apprentices who sadly lost their lives during the war.”


Donald’s remarkable story is a reminder of why it is so important that we pay tribute to courage of those who served and continue to serve in the Merchant Navy. Merchant Navy Day, on 3 September each year, celebrates the bravery of the Service men and women who protected our nation in both World Wars.

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