Merchant navy historians have been commemorating today the 76th anniversary of one of the least known – but most devastating – WW2 shipping tragedies ever to occur in the waters around Penarth.
On July 4th 1941 the steam-ship “Lunan” – a small 395 ton collier – was loading coal at one of the four jetties on the banks of the River Ely.
There was of course no Cardiff Bay Barrage at this time. In the pitch-dark, early hours, of the morning, the tide was coming in and the two ships, with their cargoes of coal, were becoming afloat in the tidal harbour on the rising sea level.
Tredegar was more lightly loaded and was the first to cast off. She was followed by SS Lunan who began making her way down the Ely Estuary and out to sea . Strict blackout precautions were in force. No ship could shine a spotlight ahead.
At 01.20 – when Lunan was almost immediately over the underwater pedestrian tunnel which ran beneath the Ely (linking Penarth with Cardiff) – there was a huge explosion. An enormous ball of flame erupted which could be seen for miles around . Lunan had struck a German mine – dropped into the River Ely by the Luftwaffe.
An eyewitness who was on another ship out in the Bristol Channel between the Outer Wrach and the East Cardiff recalls seeing the massive explosion which lit up the sky.
There was no Penarth Lifeboat in 1941. However, from the shore two men – an army volunteer T. E. O’Leary, and a policeman – PC Everett of Cardiff City Police – immediately went in search of a rowing boat to attempt to pick up any survivors.
The pair found what contemporary accounts describe as a “delapidated rowing boat” . It was so leaky in fact that whilst O’Leary manned the oars, PC Everett had to keep bailing-out to stay afloat. Helpers on the shore attempted to guide them towards the site of the wreck of the Lunan – which was still emitting clouds of smoke. Cries for help were heard coming from the water.
They eventually found only 1 survivor of the crew of 7 who had been on board SS Lunan. He was the ship’s Chief Engineer but was in a bad way “covered with coal dust and oil and suffering from shock” . His hands were lacerated and it appeared the explosion and blown him through a deck skylight . On being brought safely ashore, the wounded man collapsed and was taken to hospital.
For their bravery in carrying out the search for suvivors and saving the life of the Chief Engineer, Volunteer T. E. O’Leary of the Cardiff Battalion was awarded the King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct ,. The citation reads “For bravery and devotion to duty in helping to rescue a survivor after S. S. Lunan hit a mine and sank on 4th July 1941.Volunteer O’Leary and Police Constable Everett were instrumental in saving the life of the only survivor in difficult and dangerous conditions.” Police Constable W. J. Everett – who was technically a civilian – received the civilian version of the King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct.
The SS Lunan sank on the spot – blocking operations at the mouth of the River Ely for several weeks .
Three of the crew of the Lunan are buried in Penarth Cemetery . Those who died are listed as:-
ALLSOP, JOHN GOODWAY (35), Able Seaman, S.S. Lunan, †04/07/1941, Son of William and Alice Allsop; husband of Phyllis Allsop, of Shorncote, Gloucestershire, Memorial: Penarth Cemetery
BIGGS, GEORGE (50), Second Engineer Officer, S.S. Lunan, †04/07/1941, Son of George and Eliza Biggs; husband of Elizabeth Ann Biggs, of Knowle, Bristol, Memorial: Penarth Cemetery
GARRETT, DENYS (28), Able Seaman, S.S. Lunan, †04/07/1941, Memorial: Tower Hill Memorial
MORGAN, ROBERT LOCKWOOD (42), First Officer, S.S. Lunan, †04/07/1941, Memorial: Penarth Cemetery
WINDOWS, WESLEY (59), Master, S.S. Lunan, †04/07/1941, Son of Henry and Eliza Windows, of Bristol; husband of Louisa Sarah Windows of Bristol, Memorial: Bristol (Canford) Cemetery