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WW2: Reginald Andrews' Franconia Adventure
photo of Reg Andrews

Reginald F Andrews 1902 - 1993

Following his call-up into the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) in 1940 Reg was based for a time at an Army Kinematograph Service (AKS) Depot located within the Fox Film Studio's premises at Wembley. It appears that he was resident during the week but, in normal times, could cycle home to Streatham Hill at weekends. He could not use his car for lack of fuel allowance so he parked it behind the ABC Regal cinema in Streatham for the duration. As the crow flies the journey from Wembley was not large but it was not an easy one given his heavy bike, his kit (including a gas mask), and sometimes in the blackout. But in 1944 our house was near-destroyed by a V1 and my mother took me to Didcot to join my brother who had already been evacuated there. So family contact would have been much reduced as a result.

At some point he worked at Elgin in Scotland but it was from Wembley at the beginning of 1945 that he was ordered to head for Liverpool and join the RMS Franconia. He was under very strict orders of secrecy as reflected in this excerpt from a censored letter he sent to my mother on 13 January 1945:

"...I really have been greatly honoured in being selected for a xxxxxxx job xxxxx. I do hope my love that I shall make some sense in this letter, but I am tired - have been working up till now and it's almost 4am."

His letter went on to say that a Major Dallender would be writing to her shortly with a little more news but he, Reg, could do no more than try to allay her fears because he could say nothing about the job, where it was, how long it might take, nor whether he would be able to communicate further. It must have worried her enormously. However, their situation was one that had already been shared by millions of others and would continue to do so for six more long months.

Surprisingly, Reg was able to write a second letter the following day on 14th January but this time from Falkner Square in Liverpool, probably in a house requisitioned for military use:

"...I mustn't disclose anything I shouldn't. This job is regarded as No1 Priority, and highly secret. Everybody who must know a little is guessing what we are on - we have a good idea by using common sense - all the rest is pure guesswork. ... I came up here [ie to Liverpool] last night and slept well."

So he travelled north later on the 13th after he wrote the first letter mentioned above. Things were clearly moving quickly.

Major Dallender's promised letter was written on 15th January and arrived the same day:

Dear Mrs. Andrews,

I am writing to you on behalf of your Husband who has been selected for an important duty which will prevent him from visiting you for a few weeks.

I would like to say that your Husband has been selected for this duty owing to his efficiency and ability as a NCO, and this should be regarded as an honour.

I am writing in order that you should not worry and that you will be hearing from your Husband at the first opportunity he gets.

Military Security must be the first thing to be considered in these cases and that is the reason why he is unable to communicate with you.

I shall be pleased write to you again if you want any further assurances from me.

Yours faithfully, Major A E Dallender

I was too young to know whether my mother was reassured by this letter but she preserved it so it must have had great significance for her. As far as is known there were no further communications until 8th February.

Second letter from Major Dallender, arrived 8th February:

Dear Mrs. Andrews,

I am now in a position to inform you that your Husband is serving in the Black Sea Area, and this will be enough to tell you of the importance of his present duties.

You may, or may not, have received a letter from your Husband but I should imagine you will hear in the near future. In any case, I feel sure you will be very proud to know that your Husband was selected for service of this importance.

Yours faithfully, Major A E Dallender

By this time news of the Yalta Conference involving Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin would have appeared in the press, and perhaps in cinema newsreels, but this would have been the first time my mother would have known that my father wasn't even in UK, let alone somewhere in the Black Sea. What on earth was he doing there?

A few days later my mother would have been terribly shocked by a policeman knocking on her door because in those times a policemen brought bad news more often than not. But he quickly told my mother that he had been ordered by the army to tell her that if she could write a letter to my father within an hour, when he would return to collect it, then it would be delivered to him. Sadly, her letter does not survive but no doubt it would have been written with a shaking hand.

The following day (13th February) a third letter arrived from Major Dallender:

Dear Mrs Andrews

Approximately at 16.00 hours on 12 FEB 1945 I received information that it was possible to get a letter to your Husband by plane if it arrived at this office 11.00 today, 13 FEB 45. I therefore contacted the Police and I am pleased to say that your letter arrived in time and went by special courier to the plane, and your Husband has probably received it by the time you receive this letter.

You will see from the press that the big conference is now over, so it will not be long before before your Husband will return to this country.

Yours faithfully, Major A E Dallender

Today we can only marvel that, amidst all the chaos and uncertainties the war provided, time and effort such as this was put into keeping just one worried wife informed. The speed and efficiency of the postal service can only be applauded.

Like many of his generation my father spoke little about his war experiences; he probably thought them minor compared with those gained in combat. He described life on board Franconia as "very busy" but was struck by the quality and quantity of food which was far from the regime of rationing families were used to at that time. He witnessed the level of destruction at Sevastopol and said that hardly one brick was left on top of another. Amongst his papers was the photograph/postcard below which he had obtained that showed some of the destruction there.

In 1945 "Sevastopol was a wreck we were told only seven buildings remained intact[2]."
On the back are the printed words Karla Mapkca (Karl Marx Street), destroyed by the Germans, Sevastopol, 1944
(translated from the Russian with the help of Google translate).
The indentations of the printed text can be seen near the bottom of the image.

My father said that once Winston Churchill had joined the ship at Gibraltar his main responsibility was to prepare and show film to him and his senior entourage which included Anthony Eden (Foreign Secretary), Field Marshall Alan Brooke and, once at Sevastopol, Vyacheslav Molotov (Russian Foreign Minister). During the day the material was generally newsreels and other material flown in from battle areas in Europe and the Far East. On a few occasions he was told to prepare the projector but then had to leave the room while the particular item was shown. His strict orders were never to discuss anything he saw, and I have no doubt he took that utterly seriously.

But in the evenings the atmosphere would change and the bigwigs would relax for a while, smoke cigars, sip brandy, and watch a selection of movies and cartoons of the day. Probably some of my father's long hours and preparation at Wembley involved getting all the required film stock together and transferring it to Liverpool.

Once the conference was over both Churchill and the Foreign Secretary gave short speeches to everyone on board, thanking them for all they had done. It is not known how he came about them but my father had copies of both, which are shown below:

Original copy of Prime Minister Churchill's speech to the ship

Original copy of Foreign Secretary Eden's speech to the ship

But it is now clear that these scenes from on-board life might never have happened because there is a parallel story that I am sure my father never knew about. When researching the ship I came across the BBC's 'WW2 People's War' online archive of wartime memories[1].

A contribution by Joan Schwarz provides an extraordinary insight about a few, key hours of Franconia's voyage from Liverpool[2]:

"I was one of Churchill's cypher officers at the Yalta Conference. I was selected in January 1945 and went down to London for two weeks to learn a special cypher. There were 20-30 of us. We had no idea where we were going but thought it was possibly Archangel as we were measured for arctic clothing - obviously a security measure.

At the end of the fortnight we were put on a train at Abbey Road, Olympia - it was closed for normal traffic - and taken to Liverpool where we boarded S.S. Franconia which was equipped as a peace-time cruise ship to impress the Russians. Originally we were put in one large area next to the engine rooms but were soon moved to cabins - with stewardess service!

We sailed down the Irish Sea - we were detailed to de-cypher all incoming messages - we received one warning about U-boats in the area. Out of curiosity we plotted where they were and found there were five in a half-moon a few miles ahead - Franconia turned round and we went round north of Ireland[3].

There were many top-flight service and civil service personnel on board. We were allocated different areas in the dining room but after the first night we were invited to join the hierarchy for dinner. Franconia had her pre-war stock of wines. There were deck games and dancing every night."

Most striking here is her revelation that Franconia was probably within minutes of being torpedoed and, given the cold winter seas, the likely loss of most, if not all, those on board, including my father. The significance of the captain's quick decision to change course and take his ship out into the Atlantic to sail 'the long way' round Ireland on its way to Gibraltar and the Mediterranean cannot be overstated.

On a lighter note I smile now that the WRENs dined with the hierarchy and sampled the fine wines in the way that a sergeant from the AKS did not but, on this occasion, I think the WRENs more than earned their suppers.

The rest of Joan's eye witness account of events at Yalta is fascinating and I commend anyone reading this to read the rest of her story. One of her final comments concerns the journey back to the UK and includes:

"One unexpected bonus was that on entering Malta we [ie Franconia] fouled the boom and had to spend ten days there in glorious sunshine with nothing to do."

My father never mentioned that. However, he did tell me that when he was finally demobbed he returned to the Regal cinema to recover his car and found it safe, if dusty from nearby bombing, but with fresh petrol it started immediately.

After the war Franconia was eventually handed back to Cunard where she was refurbished and returned to service, including being allocated to the Liverpool-Quebec route. Via this route thousands of troops (and, in many cases, the wives and families they had acquired while serving in Europe) were repatriated back to Canada. Many who made that journey westwards once lodged their stories on a specialised website but sadly this seems to have disappeared.

By the 1950s Franconia would have begun to show her age (she was launched in 1922) and the demand for liners began to decline as flying began to increase in popularity. She was finally scrapped in 1956 with a distinguished life of service behind her.

At this point my Franconia narrative might have ended. But in 2017 my wife and I toured Eastern Canada, spending a few days in Halifax, Nova Scotia. For me a visit to the excellent Maritime Museum was a must, not least because of the city's importance in the aftermath of the loss of the 'Titanic', but nothing prepared me for the shock of turning a corner and finding myself in front of a huge ship model of 'Franconia' in all its exquisite detail. It was totally unexpected and I found it very moving. Presumably it was presented to the museum by Cunard in acknowledgement of the ship's history of repatriating Canadians, but further information on this would be welcome.

After our visit I contacted the museum to congratulate them on such a fine collection and subsequently they kindly gave me permission to include the following images of the ship from their archives:

Franconia 1
"Franconia on World Cruise, Sydney, NSW".

Franconia 2
"Franconia". Port side view, well dressed, ca. 1949

Franconia 3
"Franconia". Port side view, well dressed

1. Photo of Reg Andrews © Andy Andrews collection.
2. Photo or postcard of Sevastopol, 1944. No publisher. In the collection of, provided by and © Andy Andrews.
3. Mr. Churchill's speech (via link). In the collection of, provided by and © Andy Andrews.
4. Mr. Eden's speech (via link). In the collection of, provided by and © Andy Andrews.
5. Digital image: "Franconia on World Cruise, Sydney, NSW". Port view with bridge in background.
Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax, Nova Scotia, a part of the Nova Scotia Museum, MP18.381.15.
6. Digital image: "Franconia". Port side view, well dressed, ca. 1949.
Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax, Nova Scotia, a part of the Nova Scotia Museum, MP18.381.16.
7. Digital image: "Franconia". Port side view, well dressed
Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax, Nova Scotia, a part of the Nova Scotia Museum, MP18.381.17.
Information researched, written and provided by and © Andy Andrews.
Web page designed by and © Ann Andrews.
Intended for personal use only.

Sources and acknowledgements

[1] WW2 People's War. The BBC permits small extracts to be published on non-commercial websites such as this for the purposes of research and public information. I acknowledge its permission and am grateful for it.

[2] Article ID A4336012 was contributed on 03 July 2005 by Joan Schwarz (nee Evans) who was a cyber officer in the Womens Royal Navy Service (WRNS). Her story can be found at "A Bird's Eye View of the Yalta Conference" by A Wren.

[3] It is worth noting that although the speeches by both Churchill and Eden thank Captain Harry Grattidge (1890-1979) and his crew but, for security reasons, no mention was made of the Captain's decision to change course after leaving Liverpool.

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