Gloucester RCW: The Galway Mystery


This story is now the subject of a splendid new documentary made by production company Snag Breac for Irish language TV station TG4.

“Fear an Tanc” was first transmitted at 2130 on Sunday 12 October 2014.

Further details can be found at



GRCW_Galway_brake blockIn June 2014 I was contacted by Aenghus Geoghegan of Snag Breac Films who  explained that he was making a programme for Irish language TV station TG4 about a man who was found dead inside a railway tank wagon washed up on the shore of the Arran Islands, County Galway, off the west coast of Ireland in 1941

The hatch of the tank wagon was closed, and a brake block found nearby had the word “GLOUCESTER” embossed on it.

As Irish railway historian Jonathan Beaumont suggested, it might be that the wagon was manufactured by the Gloucester Railway Carriage and Wagon Company and further information from Mark MacShane, author of “Neutral Shores, Ireland and the Battle of the Atlantic in World War II” put forward the idea that the tank wagon had been lost from the SS Jessmore, which was bound for Turkey via Gibraltar as a part of Convoy OG-53 with a cargo of railway vehicles for the neutral Turkish Government.

Although the Ottoman Empire had sided with Germany and Austria during 1914-1918, The Republic of Turkey had stayed out of the Second World War and the Allies were keen for it to remain so – hence the supply of both 600 railway wagons and 25 LMS designed 2-8-0 steam locomotives, known to Turkish railwaymen as “Churchill Engines”.  The May 1940 decision by the British Government to transfer the 25 2-8-0s to Turkey was also in part to compensate for a pre War order for 58 2-10-0s which could not longer be fulfilled by British industry under the original agreement on prices and conditions.  In addition the Allies wanted Turkish railways to keep improving should a military supply route through Anatolia become needed.

In fact SS Jessmore was carrying three of the Stanier 8Fs, built at The North British Locomotive Company of Glasgow in January 1941 as part of War Department order L932 and carrying the War Department numbers 343 to 345.  Two replacements for the three locomotives lost at sea were eventually delivered in 1943, the same year in which Nazi Germany supplied Turkey with 53 equivalent BR52 Kriegsloks.  The replacement British 2-8-0s were however sent straight to the port of Iskenderun rather than being unloaded at Port Said and steamed north through Palestine.

Although not ideal for Turkish railway use, the Churchill engines steamed on into the 1980s and since then three have been repatriated, WD 348 now having been fully restored as London Midland 45160 on the Gloucestershire and Warwickshire Steam Railway.

At 0300 on the morning of 19 February 1941, fellow convoy member SS Baron Haig suffered a steering failure and collided with SS Jessmore at co-ordinates 54 North 16-56 West.  SS Jessmore was badly damaged and it was decided to take the vessel in tow back to Londonderry by one of the destroyers escorting the OG-53 with a corvette as its own escort.

A tug was also sent out from Londonderry to meet SS Jessmore but by the morning of 21 February 1941 the ship was very low in the water, making her difficult to control.  With weather conditions deteriorating, the crew abandoned her and before the tug from Londonderry could arrive SS Jessmore sank just before noon at the co-ordinates 53-11 North 16-07 West, some 225 nautical miles west of the North Brannock Island.


GRCW_Galway_wagon remainsIf the railway tank wagon washed up on the pebble beach had been from the SS Jessmore, it is likely that it had been deck cargo rather than being stowed in the hold and perhaps the body inside was a stowaway.  The crew had already taken to the lifeboats in a controlled fashion rather than having jumped into the water and clung on to wreckage as so many unfortunate seamen had to do following a torpedo attack.  Perhaps we will never know.  The twisted wreck of the wagon underframe however remains a silent witness to the event, covered as it is by the corrosion of over half a century in the sea air of the coast of the Republic of Ireland.


GRCW_Galway_SS JessmoreHowever, further research has revealed that the SS Jessmore began life as the SS Peruviana and was built in 1921 by Irvine’s Shipbuilding and Drydock Company Limited of West Hartlepool.  With a Gross Registered Tonnage of  4 099 and Dead Weight of  6308 tons, the 371′ 5″length x 52’2″ beam x 23′ 4″ draught general cargo ship with the yard number 585 was powered by a three cylinder triple expansion engine built by Richardsons Westgarth and Company of Middlesborough driving a single propeller.  As such its service speed was around 12 knots.

Although the vessel was renamed SS Jessmore in 1923, it retained the International Maritime Organisation number 143675 and at the time of its sinking was owned by the Johnston-Warren Line based at the Royal Liver Building in Liverpool.  However, on its last fateful voyage it had left the port of Hull en route to Liverpool and thence to join Convoy OG53.


GRCW_Galway_National Benzole_1936In turn, this might have a bearing on the origin of the tank wagon.  Although the brake block found on the Galway beach was cast with the word GLOUCESTER it is not impossible that it was another maker’s wagon with a spare GRCW brake block added during hasty wartime repairs.



Similarly, although Gloucester RCW’s wartime achievements have been widely written up by historians, no order was placed directly by the Ministry of Supply or other British Government body with the Bristol Road Wagon Works for any tank wagons for Turkey.  Indeed, the only order placed with Gloucester RCW specifically for Turkey was for 150 four wheel goods vans in Jan 1941.


GRCW_Galway_ICI_1940As can be seen from the illustration -left – from Keith Montague’s seminal book “Private Owner Wagons from The Gloucester Railway Carriage and Wagon Company Limited”, the Wagon Works DID build tank wagons as well as the more numerous private owner open coal types and this official Works photograph from May 1940 is particularly interesting not only as it shows an ICI tank wagon completed as an underframe with hoops but one with three-holed disc wheels like the Galway wagon underframe rather than the more conventional spoked wheels fitted to the pre War National Benzole tank wagon.

However, Gloucester RCW built no new tank wagons in 1939 and although there were 50 x 14 ton petrol wagons ordered from Bristol Road by the Ministry of Supply in October 1940 the first completed tanker under this order was not delivered until 24 June 1941.  As such, only three orders for new tank wagons from GRCW could have been fulfilled in order to meet the sailing of Convoy OG53.

Firstly six 14 tonners  were ordered in January 1940 and supplied from 22 June 1940 to Sadlers, a chemical firm in Middlesborough – although the Arran Island wagon is unlikely to be one of them.

Secondly 10 x 14T tank wagon UNDERFRAMES – as pictured – were ordered by ICI Billingham on 19 January 1940 and delivered on 24 June 1960.

Thirdly 18 x 20T tank wagon UNDERFRAMES only were ordered by ICI Runcorn, on 11 April 1940 and delivered on 29 August 1940.

ICI were in the habit of only buying underframes, as presumably they had access to, or could get, cheap tanks and mounted them themselves or by a third party. As such it may be possible that it could be these wagons were commandeered by the Government for supply to Turkey, ICI Runcorn being not far from Liverpool.

However, the possibility at least remains that the Galway beach tank wagon was originally built for another company – perhaps based near Hull or Liverpool – before being pressed into service, whether the rolling stock manufacturers were originally The Gloucester Railway Carriage and Wagon Company Limited or not.  Gloucester RCW made thousands of brake blocks which could be fitted to any number of four wheeled wagons.

One final clue comes from the April 1992 issue of Harakevet, the journal of middle eastern railways, which shows a former Palestine Railways standard 14 ton petrol tank wagon body on wooden blocks at the former Hedjaz Railway depot in Haifa, Israel.  The caption states that it was built by the Gloucester Railway Carriage and Wagon Company and was first registered by the LMS in 1941 as number 160023.  This would suggest that tank wagons were being taken out of everyday service in Britain and sent abroad as well as, or instead of, brand new tank wagons being ordered from manufacturers and exported.

However, if readers have any more information on this topic they are more than welcome to leave a comment or send me an email.