Getting Involved

On the 1st September 1939 Germany invaded Poland and Britain declared war on the 13th September. Immediately, Britain was critically dependant on the umbilical cord provided by its Merchant Navy and they were instantly under attack.

In three months the German Battleship Admiral Graf Spee, sank nine ships in the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean but was then trapped by the Royal Navy and scuttled by its crew.

Near to home the German surface war ships in Europe dared not leave port. Initially U-boats attacked the Royal Navy but they were not winning. The Royal Navy sank the first U-boat the day after war was declared. The lack of access to the Atlantic and foul weather over the winter limited the German U-boat threat to the new convoys across the Atlantic, but Britain could now see what was coming and struggled to get the equipment to counter it.

It is incredible that Statesmen with full personal knowledge of the horrors of the Great War were prepared to start the same thing again. People start wars because they believe that they have the upper hand and will win, but technology catches them out. In the Great War the machine gun was a surprise, and the battles did not go as expected because of it. Now the Germans though they had the upper hand. They had set the timetable and were ready, their tanks and blitzkrieg tactics quickly overran the Western defences.

In April 1940 the Germans gained Norway and direct access to the Atlantic ready to apply their U-boat technology to strangle Britain. Fortunately for Britain it appears that Hitler did not see this as his winning hand from the start and the U-boats were not fully resourced. The human cost of the Battle of the Atlantic was immense but the pendulum would be swung by the technology.

Though he had just started his fifth year Alister decided he was going to join the Merchant Navy because he had good knowledge of the sea and little was happening at school; they spent their time filing sandbags.  He left Glasgow High School to do a course at the School of Navigation at the Royal Technical College, now amalgamated into the University of Strathclyde.

Alister and his classmates encouraging people to help the war effort. Even in 2010 you can still see where railings were removed for their metal and never replaced.

In April 1940 Alister was sixteen.  On 8th May 1940 the Donaldson Line Limited wrote to Alister at the school house in Furnace placing him on a weeks notice to go to sea, his Indentures were being prepared ready for signature by his parents.

As an apprentice Alister was not just going to the Sea, it was the start of a professional career leading to a Master’s Certificate so maybe he saw it as a good option in the circumstances.

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