Able Seaman Brian James Winter, HMS Saumarez Holy Trinity Church, Poynings, Sussex
When Winifred Pollard was growing up in the terraced row of Duke of York Cottages (still there) in the village of Sayers Common, on the London-Brighton Road in Sussex, it is unlikely that she would have imagined living into her hundredth year. Life expectancy for a woman in those days was the mid-sixties, and she was the daughter of a miller’s labourer, descended from a line of farm workers and gardeners who had lived in the Hurstpierpoint area for over a century. When she married Arthur James Winter in 1923 she was marrying into a similar background. Going back over the generations his family had been farm labourers in Poynings, and the newly-married couple probably assumed their own lives would continue in the same vein. The 1930s, however, was not a good decade for agriculture. The Depression affected the industry badly, with falls in production as demand fell, then the selling off of land and farms, with a subsequent rise in unemployment, and emigration from the countryside into the towns. The couple’s son, Brian, born in 1927, would have been raised facing a much more uncertain future than his parents. It is not surprising, therefore, that Brian should have used the opportunity of the war to learn a trade that took him off the land. He trained to be a radio mechanic, and it was as a Leading Radio Mechanic that, in 1946, he sailed into the Mediterranean onboard HMSSaumarez. Life must have seemed exciting and hopeful; the war was ended, and the destroyer’s main duty was to patrol, and intercept illegal immigrant boats heading for Palestine, a duty potentially harrowing but hardly life-threatening. The Ship
HMS Saumarez had had an eventful war. Launched at Hawthorn Leslie’s Hebburn yard in November 1942, she had been dispatched to the Arctic convoys, and was involved in the sinking of the German battleship Scharnhorst in December 1943. After supporting the Normandy landings in June 1944 she was posted to the Far East and took part in several fights with Japanese ships before being sent to Durban for a refit. In March 1946 she was ordered to the Mediterranean, to intercept boatloads of illegal Jewish immigrants trying to reach British-controlled Palestine; illegal because Britain was trying to enforce pre-war quotas on Jewish immigration into the state. Understandably, Jews in 1946 were not respectful of the quotas. The Background
However, as the Saumarez undertook its routine patrols, it and Brian Winter started to be drawn in elsewhere. In mid-May Royal Navy minesweepers were sent through the Corfu Channel, which separated Corfu and the Albanian mainland, and on the 15th two light cruisers, HMSOrion and HMSSuperb sailed through. They came under fire from Albanian shore batteries. The War had been over for less than a year, and already conflict was starting again. The Corfu Channel is narrow, less than two miles at one point, and so it is easy to believe the Albanian allegation that the ships had crossed into Albanian territorial waters. Furthermore Albania insisted that they had thought they were firing at Greek ships, the country at the time being involved in hostilities with Greece over the latter’s claims on territory in Southern Albania, and over Albanian support for the Communists in Greece’s civil war. The diplomatic situation was complicated even more by Albania being led by Enver Hoxha’s pro-Stalinist government at a time when the Cold War was beginning, by Britain and the USA vetoing Albania’s application to join the United Nations in January 1946, and by them supporting the Greeks’ territorial claims in July. It is easy to imagine Albania’s anti-Western proclivities being heightened as the summer wore on. The Incident
In October Britain decided to raise the stakes. A flotilla was ordered to sail through the channel to assert the right to free passage through, and to test the Albanian reaction. The Albanians probably regarded it as a provocation. On the 22nd October the flotilla, consisting of two cruisers, HMSMauritius and HMSLeander, and two destroyers, the Saumarez and HMSVolage, began their journey through. Unknown to them a few days earlier the Yugoslavian navy, following a request from Albania, had laid mines in Albanian waters. At 3 p.m., close to the Bay of Saranda, the Saumarez struck a mine, blowing her bow off, and killing over thirty men, including eighteen year-old Radio Mechanic Brian Winter. HMSVolage managed to attach a line to the stricken vessel, and started to tow her back to Corfu, but at 4.15 she also hit a mine, killing a further complement of men, the damage forcing her to sail stern first to Corfu Harbour, still towing the Saumarez. A total of forty-four men were killed, and a further forty-two injured. The dead were buried in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Kolokotroni, near Corfu town, and can be visited there today. Aftermath
On the 13th November the Royal Navy again swept the channel for mines, and found twenty-two laid out in formation. Both parties complained to the United Nations; the International Court of Justice ruled that the Albanians should have informed the British of the minefields, but that the British sweeping of Albanian waters was illegal. Thus diplomacy halted active hostilities, just rather too late for the eighty-six casualties. It seems astonishing to me that less than a year after the end of the Second World War Britain was prepared to provoke an argument with Albania over a relatively trivial issue, arguing with people who were allies only two years previously, even though they were Communists. Forty-four men died because of diplomatic failure. They were not the first, and unfortunately they will not be the last.
Afterwards Winifred Winter outlived her eldest son by over half a century. She died in 2001, in her hundredth year, in her home county of Sussex. I do not know whether she ever visited her son’s grave in Corfu.
IN LOVING REMEMBRANCE OF BRIAN JAMES WINTER. ROYAL NAVY. AGED 18 YEARS. FOR 7 YEARS A SERVER IN THIS CHURCH. CALLED TO HIGHER SERVICE 22ND OCTOBER 1946 IN HMS SAUMAREZ OFF CORFU
Sources Pictures Holy Trinity Church, Poynings - Simon Carey, from Wikimedia Commons HMS Saumarez - image FL18717, from Imperial War Museum Collection
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