Sailor Albert Mills was killed on September 17 1939 when the aircraft carrier he was serving on was sunk by a German U-boat. The Second World War was just days old, but its tragic consequences began to hit home, 75 years ago.
On Sunday September 17 Stoker Albert Mills became the first Rochdalian to die in the war when the aircraft carrier HMS Courageous was sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland. The 24-year-old was one of 519 crew killed in the disaster.
The Observer reported how his mum, of Diggle’s Cottages, Bamford, received the news in a telegram delivered to her home while she was at work at Dunlop Mills. Stoker Mills had joined the Navy three years earlier, having previously worked at Moss and Standard mills in Rochdale, and had last returned home on leave in July before war broke out.
The Mills’ despair was contrasted by the relief felt by two other Rochdale families when they learnt their sons had survived the sinking. Aircraftsman John Gill, of Norden Road, Bamford, told the Observer how he owed his life to being called away from a game of cards to assist an officer.
It meant he was in the hangar at the time the torpedo struck and was able to scramble down a rope into the sea. He told how the sound of the explosion was like ‘hearing artillery fire re-echoing round a room’. The Observer reported: “Along with others he slid along a rope into the sea. “Nearby he found a sailor unconscious, on whom he put his lifebelt and towed him towards an upturned lifeboat on which a number of survivors were clinging.
“Apparently the man who life he had attempted to save was dead, however, for he had slipped through the lifebelt and disappeared.” Aircraftsman Gill was eventually picked up by a warship, then transferred to the merchant ship SS Dido, before being transferred to a destroyer and taken to Plymouth. Royal Marine Private Eric Howarth, of Dicken Green, told how he was in the water for about 15 minutes before being picked up by the British destroyer Impulsive.
He said: “It was about 7.57pm when the torpedo struck and before 8.30pm the vessel had disappeared under the water. “We had no warning at all and five minutes after it had happened we got orders to abandon ship. “We stripped and swam for it. “only one boat was lowered, but it went out of action as soon as it was let down.”