Youngest Merchant Seaman Casualty of WWII

4th June 2009, 19:35
Cargo ship North Devon, 3,658grt, (North Shipping Co. Ltd) On the 5th July 1941 the ship left Ipswich in ballast for the Tyne and joined up with the 82 ship coastal convoy EC-42. On the evening of the 5th at 21.30 (GMT) the convoy was attacked by a number of German bombers. Four bombs which were all near misses exploded close by North Devon fracturing the ships main steam lines causing the ship to stop dead in the water. At 00.30 (GMT) on the 6th July another enemy aircraft attacked the North Devon with machine gun fire while releasing another three bombs which again were all near misses. An hour later the HM Trawler "Neil Mackay" arrived to offer assistance and towed the ship towards the Humber. Mean while it was discovered that six of the crew including young Reginald Earnshaw, whose body was found in the Engineers alleyway had been killed, while others would die from their injuries, all scalded to death after the main steam line had burst in the first attack. The following day the ship docked at Immingham and the bodies of two crew were taken ashore, with one other being found the following day and brought ashore.Reginald Earnshaw was recorded as being just 15 years old, but was actually only 14.

Reginald Earnshaw was commemorated on Tower Hill Memorial on Panel 74, which records all those who have no grave but the sea. Back in 2005 my attention was drawn to the fate of a young Reginald as one of the survivors from the attack named Alfred Tubbs who was serving as a DEMS gunner at the time remembers the body of Reginald being taken ashore at Immingham. The first thing to do was to trace a copy of the ships Log Book & Survivors Report for 1941 held at Kew, which was obtained by a contact of mine Mr. Roger Griffiths. Next a simple application with the General Register Office for a death certificate was made and within a week I had an official copy of his death certificate recorded at Cleethorpes reference 7a 1170., which proved his body had been landed ashore and examined as to be given a death certificate. The next phase was to find out where he was buried. A check of all burials in Grimsby and Cleethorpes for this period drew a blank so contact was made in Reginald's last place of abode in Edinburgh, which revealed he was buried in Edinburgh's Comely Bank Cemetery, Section P Grave Space 440. (Details from Edinburgh City Council Phone No 0131 664 4314 Morton Hall Edinburgh) and was unmarked. A temporary cross baring his details was added and all documents were forwarded to the CWGC. Finally in 2008 our combined effort and findings were officially accepted by the CWGC and we are awaiting the erection of an official headstone. There was also some confusion of Reginald’s age. The ships Log Book has his date of birth as 5th February 1926 in Dewsbury and his death certificate has him aged about 15. Only problem being there was no birth registered at Dewsbury for a Reginald Earnshaw in 1926, but there was one registered in Dewsbury in the March quarter 1927 in Volume 9b page 864. Having obtained a copy of the birth certificate, I can verify he was born the 5th February 1927, so the Log Book shows an error of exactly one year to the day, which made him 14 years 152days old when he was killed as to Raymond Steeds 14 years 207 days whose death is recorded officially as the youngest service war death from WWII. Another twist in the tale revealed that the bodies of two other seamen commemorated on Tower Hill from the North Devon were also landed ashore. One of the men Reginald Mitchell has been found to be buried in Piershill Cemetery in Edinburgh and Commission is in the process of producing a headstone to mark his grave. The other Douglas Crichton has his death registered in Grimsby, though his place of burial is not yet known to me. His last known address was 2 Henderson Row, Edinburgh.

Have been informed by a contact Bill Watt stating he has been contacted by CWGC advising him that the memorial headstone has been completed for Reginald Earnshaw and the intention seems to be to put it in place next month.

I contacted the Commission last month with the details of his correct age, but as yet they have not been in touch.

Thanks to all those concerned.

Lest we forget

Rgds Billy McGee

5th June 2009, 08:56
Billy, Another masterpiece of detective work. Thank you.

5th June 2009, 09:05
BZ, (Well Done) as they say in the RN, efforts like this make our site really worthwhile.
Yours aye,

Steve Woodward
5th June 2009, 21:06
A moving and terribly sad article - 14 !

5th June 2009, 21:07
That is an outstanding piece of research work and such a marvellous outcome although a tragic case.
Well done!

5th June 2009, 21:29
A truly great piece of research Billy, it is right that these men should be honoured.
Where I originate from (Harwich) there is a cemetry with a mass grave containing the bodies of Chinese seamen from the Simon Bolivar which was sunk by enemy action off Harwich at the beginning of the war.

Regards Robert

stan mayes
6th June 2009, 23:08
Hi Robert,
I saw the wreck of that Dutch passenger ship Simon Bolivar two days after she had been sunk by a mine near Sunk lightship -it was November 1939.
I was mate in Goldsmith's sailing barge Celtic and bound for Ipswich.

7th June 2009, 00:17
Hi Stan
Our family came to live at Harwich in 1940, I knew about the grave for the men of the Simon Bolivar, because my maternal grandmother was buried close, and I used to see the mass grave every time I tended my grandmothers grave.
I stated my seagoing career in Horlock's barges but was only the boy.

Regards Robert

stan mayes
7th June 2009, 00:33
Hi Robert,
Serving in sailing barges was a good start to a career at sea..
I knew Horlocks barges very well.
After seeing the wreck of Simon Bolivar we discharged a grain cargo at Ipswich and were about to sail for London but were told to remain until further orders -a destroyer HMS Gipsy had been sunk by a mine in entrance to Harwich harbour -I believe with a heavy loss of life.
Many mines had been laid by aircraft in the area but we sailed next day and another ship was sunk near Sunk lightship by a mine.

stan mayes
7th June 2009, 01:05
Hi Billy,
My apologies for using your thread.
As Robert says - well done for your dedicated research of the tragedy of North Devon ...and that young lad.
Lest we forget..

7th June 2009, 01:52
Well done Billy your dedication and research is to be admired .


7th June 2009, 16:41
Billy: Good job we have men like you who have the skill to dig out information from obscure sources. Good on you.
Re very young men in ww2 there was an obit a few years ago of a chap who had died and was a bomber pilot at age 15 !! Yes - I have the obit somewhere. He lied about his age and he was found out when his father saw a photo of him being presented to King George 6th.
I thought I was young when I went on HMS Conway aged 15 and to sea at 17 in 1942 but I was quite mature compared with some like Stan !

22nd June 2009, 11:30
On Monday 6th July 2009, 68 years after the death of young Reginald Earnshaw a permanent war graves headstone is to be mounted on his grave. A small remembrance service will also take place around 11 o'clock that day.

Lest we forget

22nd June 2009, 12:04
Great bit of research, I also understand that the youngest Soldier killed on D-Day was also only 15yrs old. My Father "Signed Up" in 1921 for the Army when he was only 15yrs old and was out manning the North West Frontier by the time he was 16yrs old, The British Army is still there of course with no signs of a finish to the job as yet. Father came out in 1946.

23rd June 2009, 02:14
Well done Billy your dedication and research is to be admired .


Hear, hear, GWB!

6th July 2009, 16:09
Unfortunately I was unable to attend the service today, but this was the order of service. BBC Scotland local news has just shown the service to Reginald Earnshaw this afternoon and maybe repeated later for those interested.

Commemoration Service for Reginald Earnshaw. Comely Bank Cemetery, Edinburgh, 6th July 2009. 11.00am

Tim Bell, The Sailors’ Society Port Chaplain in Leith:

Call to order


Introduce Ranald Leask of The Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Ranald Leask Reginald Earnshaw’s story

Alf Tubb Remove Red Ensign from headstone

Alf Tubb For the Fallen by Lauence Binyon

"They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them."

One minutes silence

Piper Lament

Sea Cadets Form Guard of Honour

Alf Tubb Laying of Wreath

Tim Bell Prayer

Ranald Leask Closing remarks

Piper "Flo’ers o the Forest" and other tunes

All Move to St Ninian’s Church Hall, Comely Bank Road where refreshments will be available.

6th July 2009, 17:10
two video links

peter drake
7th July 2009, 13:00
Todays Yorkshire Post newspaper has a quarter page on this story with a photo of Alf and Reginald's headstone in Comely Bank Cemetery Edinburgh. There is also a photo of Alf Tubb holding a Lewis gun during the war.


Don Matheson
7th July 2009, 13:35
Saw this rather moving ceremony on BBC News yesterday. You have done a wonderful job Billy to have brought this sad story to a close. It is amazing that his friend Alf was able to be there and I watched and listened as he recited For the Fallen. A very proud man indeed.
I noticed there was a woman there who's brother had died at the same time on the North Devon. All in all a very sad but moving service.


8th July 2009, 13:19
Another video link

The lady in question was the sister of Donald Crichton, a 16 year boy sailor who died the following day in hospital from the attack on the 6th. His body was returned home to Edinburgh and cremated. He is commemorated on Tower Hill Memorial.

26th November 2009, 15:38
hi billy i was moved when i read your story but reminded me that i cant find a member of my family from ww2 can you help? his name was edward charlton born 1911 in gatehead an old family member said he went down with his ship that is all i know!! also he died young teens to early twentys can you help me by any chance ive been looking for him for 1yr now.thanks kirsty

18th December 2009, 18:16
As Billy McGee can no longer post on this site
I post this on his behalf
Evening Gent's,
I have just received the following email from the CWGC:

----- Original Message -----
From: Tim Brown
Sent: Friday, December 18, 2009 4:03 PM

Dear Mr McGee

I have now taken over Peter’s responsibilities. Just one of the case files which Peter has passed onto me is that of Boy Reginald Earnshaw.

I can confirm that the certification provided is sufficient for us to add “Age 14” to our records. As far as I am aware, this would indeed make Reginald the youngest known service death of the 1939-1945 war.

Naturally, we will have to amend the headstone but this also presents the opportunity to offer the step sister (being a blood relative) the choice of a personal inscription, should she so wish, which can be engraved at the foot of the headstone. The inscription should be no more than 25 letters and spaces per line with a maximum number of 4 lines being available.

We will write separately to the step sister, Pauline Harvey, on this matter but it seems likely that any additional engraving required on the headstone will necessitate its removal at some stage for the work to be carried out.

Yours sincerely

Tim Brown

18th December 2009, 19:46
Thanks for the additional information on this poignant story, Ray.

Very sorry to learn that Billy McGee no longer posting on the site, that's a great loss, he was very helpful towards me on more than one occasion, and his knowledge and contributions to matters maritime have been quite exceptional over the years to many for whom he brought closure and comfort.

Angus Mac Kinnon

19th December 2009, 14:33
What a sad, though interesting, story. I suppose it was not that uncommon in those days to encounter merchant seamen who had lied about their ages, either upwards or downwards. I should think it must have been somewhat easier to get away with that sort of thing on a merchant ship than in the military, and it probably still is. Over the years I've sailed with seamen whose papers were suspect. However, so long as they did their jobs, nobody ever bothered to look them over too closely.

Hugh MacLean
6th February 2010, 21:23
It was an honour to be present at Comely Bank Cemetery, Edinburgh yesterday 5th February 2010, with Billy McGee, Roger Griffiths, Ray Buck and Bill Watt, where this tragic story came to a fitting conclusion.

After over 4 years of research we were able to help provide evidence to the CWGC to prove he was the youngest service casualty of WWII aged just 14 years and 152 days old.

It was a well attended ceremony which included Pauline Harvey [sister of Reginald Earnshaw] and members of Reg Mitchell's family and Douglas Crichton's family.

CRICHTON, Boy, DOUGLAS STEWART, S.S. North Devon (Newcastle-on-Tyne). Merchant Navy. 7th July 1941. Age 17.

EARNSHAW, Boy, REGINALD, S.S. North Devon (Newcastle-on-Tyne). Merchant Navy. 6th July 1941.

MITCHELL, Fireman, REGINALD, S.S. North Devon (Newcastle-on-Tyne). Merchant Navy. 6th July 1941. Age 23.

STEWART, Fireman, JOHN, S.S. North Devon (Newcastle). Merchant Navy. 6th July 1941. Age 27.

WOOD, Fourth Engineer Officer, DONALD CAMPBELL, S.S. North Devon (Newcastle). Merchant Navy. 6th July 1941. Age 51.

McCONNELL, Third Engineer Officer, NORMAN BLAKEY, S.S. North Devon (Newcastle-on-Tyne). Merchant Navy. 6th July 1941. Age 41.

ROACHE, Senior Ordinary Seaman, MATHEW, S.S. North Devon (Newcastle-on-Tyne). Merchant Navy. 23rd August 1946. Age 25.