It wasn’t your typical day on Cruit Island. Blue skies, sunshine and a slight breeze coming off the sea are not a common sight on a windswept Donegal island. Vast swaths of rushes running along the path sway gently in the breeze. If you are lucky a pheasant might appear. When walking along this trail there is a local cemetery and right at the front are ten grey headstones lined up regimentally in a row. Somehow it seems fitting as they are in fact military graves for soldiers who were washed ashore during World War II. Half of the graves bare a name while the other are simply engraved with “a merchant seaman/soldier of the second world war”.
One of these headstones bears the name William Henry Caswell; a second engineer officer of the Merchant Navy who had been serving aboard M.V Accra when he died on 26th July 1940 aged 45. I was curious to know more about William Henry Caswell and what was he doing so far from home. The detective work soon began!
William was born on 15th March 1895 in Swinton, Lancashire; the fourth of eight children born to Ernest Caswell, a civil engineer clerk for a railway company, and Susan Gertrude Landless. Little is known about William’s upbringing other than he grew up in Southport with his parents, five sisters and two brothers called Ernest and George.
Following the declaration of war on 4th August 1914, William joined the King’s Liverpool Regiment rising to the rank of Corporal. At the same time Ernest Caswell, who was the eldest of the three brothers, joined the 8th Battalion Canadian Infantry on 22nd September 1914 with a salary of 15 dollars a month. Both brothers were sent to serve in France and Belgium.
Ypres, Belgium was considered an important strategic position with regards to the war effort and both sides were determined to gain control. It was on 22nd April 1915 at 5pm that the Allied soldiers noticed something strange coming from the enemy lines. A thick cloud of yellow-green smoke was slowly drifting in their direction. Within minutes thousands of soldiers were unable to breathe and burning sensations were felt in their eyes. The Germans had released several tons of chlorine gas. Two days later on 24th April 1915 another gas attack was launched at the Canadian battalions holding the fort at St Julien. The fighting at St Julien lasted until 5th May 1915,after which Ernest Caswell was unaccounted for and, like so many soldiers of the First World War his remains have never been found. It is hard to imagine the dread felt by his parents when the official letter landed on their doorstep.
Some consolation could be taken from the fact that William survived his time in France. He married Alice Louise Bayley in 1920. It was around this time that William decided on a career change and joined the merchant navy. A son Dennis Wycliff Caswell was born on 21st May 1921.
Being a merchant seaman was one of the most dangerous occupations during the Second World War with the Germans targeting Atlantic convoys in the hope of starving Britain into submission. Convoy OB-188, which consisted of 35 merchant vessels and three escorts, departed Liverpool on 22nd July 1940. Three days into the voyage at approximately 2pm, Able Seaman Edward Long was up the mast when he heard an almighty explosion which almost threw him onto the deck had he not grabbed a rung on the ladder. Smoke could be seen billowing from the Accra’s stern. Despite what had just happened there was no reported panic amongst the passengers and crew. It took Accra about 75 minutes to be embraced by the Atlantic Ocean, four crew and one passenger went down with her. A further eleven crew and one passenger were lost to the ocean after a lifeboat capsized. Among those lost was William Caswell. His body was recovered some time later and taken to Cruit Island for burial.
It is hard to imagine what William’s family were going through having lost Ernest 23 years earlier. However there was another family member for them to worry about and that was William’s son Dennis Caswell who had joined the RAF in July 1939. Details of Dennis service in the RAF are rather limited but it is known that he was captured by the Germans on 31st May 1942 and remained in the POW Camp Stalag III. This prison camp would become famous for the Great Escape and the Wooden Horse Plot.
On a freezing winter night on 27th January 1945, with the Soviet Forces just miles away, the prisoners of Stalag Luft III were ordered to evacuate the camp. The snow was 6 inches deep and a cold biting wind was swirling around them as they marched 50 miles to Spremburg. Several men did try to escape but almost all of them were recaptured. Some of the POWs were sent to Stalag VII while the rest were sent to Stalag XIII-D at Nuremburg. A prisoner camp designed to hold 14,000 prisoners now held 130,000. The US 14th Armored Division liberated the camp on 29th April 1945. Dennis Caswell must have felt a sense of relief at having survived the prison camp but also a sense of sadness when he eventually learned that he would never see his father again.
From the West Coast of Donegal to East Germany, never underestimate what stories can be told with a small amount of information and an inquisitive nature!