JOHN DILLEY’S WWI BLOG: Amazing tale of survival after torpedo attack

Ex Harborough Mail editor John Dilley with a copy of the Market Harborough Advertiser.
Ex Harborough Mail editor John Dilley with a copy of the Market Harborough Advertiser.

May 8, 1917 – Brothers somehow survive torpedo attack by German dawn raiders

The dramatic story of how two town brothers ended up in the murky depths of the Mediterranean after their ship was sunk by a surprise German raid is told in the May 8, 1917, edition of the Market Harborough Advertiser.

Private Wilmer Clayson of High Street goes into remarkable detail describing how he and his brother Private Alan Clayson were sunk, rescued and taken to safety on Malta – uninjured but with left with nothing but the clothes they were wearing.

In a letter to his parents, the Advertiser quotes Wilmer as writing that they had ‘met with quite a chapter of accidents’.

Apparently both soldiers were on a troop ship which set sail from Marseilles only to be torpedoed ‘without warning at 5.45am’ and they sank within 30 minutes.

Wilmer adds: “Luckily we had an escort of two destroyers, which picked up the majority of us; luckily too it was daylight, or I don’t know what the consequences might have been.

“It was a pretty rotten experience while it lasted and as we were about 150 miles from land it’s a good job there was something to pick us up.”

The rescue operation to save those men in the sea went on for many hours. Wilmer writes: “We were cruising all night, picking up all stragglers on rafts, upturned boats etc and the crews of the boats acted splendidly and notwithstanding pretty heavy seas running a very much overloaded boat they got us into port with nothing more than a shaking up and a wetting.”

Wilmer adds. “We landed in a somewhat dilapidated condition...no shirt, no coat, no cap, no nothing. I’m rather sorry as I’ve lost all I possessed, some of the things I will greatly miss.”

And in a strange twist of fate the brothers had been picked up by the same rescuers but didn’t realise. “Alan and I did not meet until we landed here in Malta; we were both very much worried but found out that we were both on the same boat all the time. We can certainly thank God that we are safe.”

The happy ending for the Claysons is not repeated for many other families whose stories are recorded in this week’s edition of the Advertiser.

Private Bertie Elliott of Nelson Street has been killed in action. Elliott, who was just 22 and a former employee at R and W H Symington and Co, had only joined up a few months ago.

Corporal W Holman of Little Bowden, who leaves a wife in Bellfield Street, has also been killed in action as has Bomber Percy Crain, who used to live in Harborough before emigrating to Canada but still had an aunt Miss Crain of Dantzic House, Market Harborough. Crain, of the 31 st Battalion, 2 nd Canadians, had joined up at the beginning of the war and ‘had taken part in some severe fighting’.

There is also brief news of injuries to Sergt E Williams of Logan Street; Private E Wilson of Logan Street; Private L Powell of The Bank, Little Bowden, and Sergt A Goode of Highfield Street.

And Lance Corporal G Wilford of Little Bowden Lodge is in a Leicester hospital after being wounded for the THIRD TIME, having twice been injured during the Dardanelles Campaign in 1915. It is clearly a trying time for the Wilford family as the Advertiser last week published a photograph of his brother Bombardier J W Wilford who had died in a Turkish prisoner of war camp.

Finally, there is some good news about Lt-Cpl Raymond Mottram, who used to work in Market Harborough Post Office before joining up at the beginning of the war, has been awarded the Military Medal “for gallant work joining telephone cables under heavy fire”.