On September 3, 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany. A little over a month later, on October 14, HMS Royal Oak was sunk by a German submarine in Scapa Flow. In Orkney, within days, enemy air raids had commenced and a blackout was imposed.
On the high seas, shipping was already being exposed to submarine attack.
Facing such a danger was the MS Mim, a newly built ship on her maiden voyage from Fremantle to Bergen with a cargo of wheat. This account concerns the naval boarding and subsequent loss of the Mim and with the rescue of her crew and naval personnel aboard at the time. It also attempts to reconcile the various conflicting reports connected with the incident, and to acknowledge the rescue of 16 men by John Tulloch and his crew.
The MS Mim (tonnage 4998.01, length 126m) had been built in 1938 by Flensburger Schiffbau in Germany for her Norwegian owners in Tónsberg.
Her photograph shows a very fine and graceful looking ship. During the voyage from Australia the Mim called by South Africa for ‘bunkers’ and then the Canary Islands, where the Captain, Olaf Andreas Nielson, asked for permission to continue his journey to Bergen. Nielson, who had heard of three neutral ships, that had been sunk by German U-boats in the Atlantic, decided to sail north, and then east passing north west of the Faroe Islands in an effort to avoid submarine attack.
The Mim, however, was intercepted 60 miles NW of Faroe on October 31 by a Royal Navy ship HMS Colombo. The Norwegian ship was boarded by Lt Commander, William K. Buckley, RNVR, who explained that an armed boarding party was to take over the ship and continue to Kirkwall for investigation. He left on board Sub Lt John A. T. Maisham, a navigation officer, and six naval ratings one of whom was a signalman.
On Wednesday, November 1, the Mim was seen off the north side of the North Ronaldsay. According to local watchers, which included lighthouse keepers at the unlit new lighthouse, she appeared to be moving unusually slowly. The ship came very close inshore, and at 9.40pm the lighthouse foghorn was sounded in an effort to warn the ship of the danger of her position. She continued without alteration and passed very close to Kirk Taing.
William Thomson, Neven, Receiver of Wrecks, was one of the many watchers who saw the Mim. As the ship passed Dennis Taing, sailing in a southerly direction, Willie o’ Neven, in an account given to the district controller Coastguard some time later, remarked: “The Mim was lit up like a Christmas tree”, and, as he stood at the door of Neven, he said to the womenfolk that if the vessel did not alter course she would find herself on the Reef Dyke a dangerous submerged reef about one mile south east of the island. Shortly afterwards, at exactly 10.10pm, the Mim did strike the Reef Dyke. This was to be the end of the MS Mim‘s ill-fated maiden voyage, and the hidden reef was to be her final destination and resting place.
At the time of grounding at 9pm, the wind, according to the meteorological return from the North Ronaldsay Lighthouse, was from the south-east, force four, increasing all the time, and between 3am and 9pm the wind strengthened from force five to six south-easterly. The tide was flowing and would do so until around one in the morning. Ebb tide would follow and run strongly north over the reef for almost the duration of the prolonged rescue operation. Visibility was good and the moon, which had been full at 6.24am on October 28, still gave a little light in a somewhat overcast sky.
Principal lighthouse keeper, David Work, in his official account, noted that when the Mim came to a sudden stop she sent out an SOS a signal which she continued to transmit for some hours. A white flare was also fired. This was answered by flares fired from the lighthouse and the Start Lighthouse on Sanday. At the same time a rocket was set off by the local Auxiliary Coast Guard Volunteers, of whom there were four: John Tulloch, Purtabreck, Martin Thomson, South Ness, with John Tulloch, North Ness, in charge. The fourth man was probably George Tulloch, North Ness (John¹s brother). The Stromness Lifeboat, J. J. K. S. B. (capability nine knots), whose secretary at the station had been informed of the casualty, left Stromness at about 11pm under Coxswain Greig on a 60 mile stormy trip round the west side of Orkney. She was to arrive at the casualty some seven hours later. According to Captain Nielson, the Mim‘s crew numbered 29 (one of whom was an 18-year-old Englishman), one distressed Norwegian seaman, Captain Nielson (total 31) and seven naval personnel. A total of 38 men were on board at the time of the stranding.
As weather conditions were deteriorating John Tulloch, North Ness, made the decision to attempt a rescue. ‘Johnny o’ Ness’ as he was locally known, was in charge of the North Ronaldsay post boat which carried the Royal Mail and passengers to and from Sanday. He was the last in a family of boatmen who had for three generations continued to cross the North Ronaldsay Firth in all weathers. His knowledge of the sea and reputation as a seaman was unquestionable.
John Tulloch, accompanied by his three colleagues, launched the motor post boat from Nouster pier and embarked on their mission. Willie Thomson, Neven, mentioned above, and Harry Tulloch, Twynas, Piermaster, were also on the pier helping. The only lights available, either on the pier or in the post boat, were hand held flashlights. Having arrived at the Mim, 11 men were taken aboard the post boat, According to Sub Lt Maisham¹s report, which I will refer to later, the boat left at 1.50am.
The 11 men were landed at the pier, and shortly afterwards conducted to the Memorial Hall where the local honorary secretary of the Shipwrecked Fishermen and Mariners’ Royal Benevolent Society, Mr James Swanney, Trebb, attended to their needs.
Johnny and his crew set off again arriving at the Mim at 3.30am. However, this time fuel oil, which either had leaked or had been discharged from the Mim, got into the boat’s water intake and stopped the engine. In worsening conditions the situation must have become considerably more difficult. But, as Willie Thomson recounted in his report: “In true Orcadian fashion, this minor fault would not stop his craft returning to the jetty. Sails were hoisted and with five naval ratings from the prize crew aboard he set off for home arriving back at the jetty at 5am”.
The landing this time was difficult and dangerous, as Willie reported, with the southeast wind blowing from force five to six. With great skill, in darkness, with only the light from flashlights and without engine power, the boat was brought alongside the pier. Two ratings were able to scramble ashore as an incoming wave raised the boat and, together with Willie, they held the boat alongside allowing the rest of the occupants to get ashore. Johnny remained on board to ensure that the chains from the lifting strops did not unhook. Further rescue attempts were now impossible and the boat was hauled safely on to her cradle and made fast in the boat noust. About that time the lights of the Stromness Lifeboat were seen coming down the North Ronaldsay Firth, and the five ratings, who were met by the assistant lighthouse keeper, proceeded to the lighthouse where they were looked after.
The Stromness Lifeboat arrived at the Mim at 7.30am and rescued the remaining survivors, which their records show to have been 22. Their records in addition mention a further 11 men whom they took on board afterwards from the island.
Those 11 were the first survivors rescued by John Tulloch and, according to Maisham¹s report (see below) they were brought out to the lifeboat by a local boat. Maisham asked (this boat) that the five ratings should be found and conveyed aboard. The lifeboat waited for about an hour until the King’s Cross possibly a naval ship arrived and picked up the guard and equipment. The lifeboat then left for Kirkwall after 11am and arrived at her destination about 3 pm.
The event involving the King’s Cross would concur with the memory of George Seatter, Howar, who, though very young at the time, remembers men in naval uniform with rifles being boated out from the noust at Howar. It will be seen that the numbers of men rescued: 11 Norwegian seamen plus five naval ratings (rescued by John Tulloch and his crew) and 22 rescued by the Stromness lifeboat gives a total of 38 Captain Olaf Neilson¹s recorded total on board the Mim given on oath to the Receiver of Wreck in Kirkwall.
Neilson also said that he was below in his cabin when the Mim struck and that the second officer was on the bridge. He goes on to say that 11 members of the crew plus naval ratings were landed on North Ronaldsay by boat (believed to be a Lighthouse boat) and the remainder were taken off by the Stromness lifeboat. Of the 22 men rescued by the Stromness lifeboat, two were the remaining naval boarding party Maisham and one other since only five ratings had gone ashore with John Tulloch in the post boat.
In The Orcadian of November 9, 1939, no mention is made of the local boat¹s rescue. It reports that 20 members of the Mim‘s crew were picked up by the Stromness lifeboat plus another 11 who had escaped from the Mim in one of their own boats.
In the following edition of The Orcadian a report from the island does mention that a local boat succeeded in rescuing 11 of the Mim¹s crew. By contrast, the Orkney Herald on November 8 states that ten members of the Norwegian crew of 32 had succeeded in launching one of their own boats and getting ashore, and that the other 22 men were then rescued by the Stromness lifeboat. According to both newspapers, at least one of the Norwegian crew said that they had been able to launch their own lifeboat.
In any event the following week the Orkney Herald contained a report by a local island correspondent in which it says that the local boat under the command of John Tulloch had made two successful trips rescuing two boatloads of the Mim‘s crew. In none of those reports is there any mention of the naval personnel. This, most likely, would have been as a result of war time secrecy.
A third account, contained in the 1939 RNLI Journal, does state that the Mim was on her way to the Kirkwall Contraband Base in Orkney for examination, but there is no mention of the naval personnel two of whom (as I said) were picked up along with the remaining Mim’s crew. The report goes on to say that 11 men had been rescued by a local boat before the Stromness Lifeboat’s arrival but that the boat had been damaged (this damage is not mentioned by William Thomson).
They picked up the remaining 22 members of the crew and, with the 11 already rescued, proceeded to Kirkwall, which they reached at 2.40 pm on November 2. The final account of this event resulted from the discovery of a file in the National Records Office in London, describing a claim for compensation from the Admiralty for the loss of the Mim (not the cargo) by the Norwegian owners. A court hearing finally began on July 7, 1947. The issue seemed to be an argument about who was in charge of the boat either the navigation officer, Maisham, or Captain Nielson. Maisham maintained that he was only acting as a pilot, while Nielson argued that the Royal Navy, who had taken over the ship, were responsible for her loss. The outcome, as one might expect, was that the Navy were exonerated.
The following sequence of events is part of Maisham’s report at the hearing. He, remained on board the Mim with the sixth rating (possibly the signalman) until rescued by the Stromness lifeboat. Although for some reason the rating is not mentioned.
- On October 31: 14.20 Mim was boarded.
- November 1: 22.10 Grounded.
- 22.11 Lost port boat. SOS by Morse. White Flare.
- 22.14 Flare answered by rocket from shore.
- 01.50 A boat left with 11 men. At the same time information via radio that a lifeboat was coming from Wick (this must have been a message from Wick radio).
- 03.30 Boat returned and took off armed guard and equipment.
- 07.30 Lifeboat arrived and took off remaining crew including captain and Maisham.
The above order of events agrees with Willie Thomson’s account, and with the principal lightkeeper’s log-book, where, among other details, two boat trips are mentioned. In addition, at the enquiry, the Mim’s second officer, Thormonnd Thormondson, says that 11 crew and six naval men were taken off the ship by boat (Nine Norwegians apparently attended the inquiry).
This more or less concurs with Nielson’s statement that 11 crew members and naval ratings were taken ashore by a local boat. The port lifeboat (on the weather side), which was lost during launching, came ashore and was found during the night. It landed undamaged on the sand at Haskie, blown almost directly there from the Mim by the strong south-east wind. The starboard lifeboat, which is not mentioned by Maisham, was presumably un-launched, as it came ashore in pieces after the ship broke up.
Before I complete this saga of the sea, I should mention that during the summer, one of the Mim’s survivors, Olaf Solheim, visited North Ronaldsay along with his son.
At the time of the accident he was galley boy aged 17. Interestingly, he seemed sure that he along with other crew members came ashore in their own lifeboat.
Memory could play tricks in the darkness and confusion of that winter’s night; this would seem so as his recollection differs from the general recorded version and local memory. Yet, Olaf was certainly there experiencing those dramatic events. Olaf was greatly taken with his visit to the island, and on asking about any relics from the Mim he was delighted to receive a small memento from John Cutt when he visited Gerbo. Olaf later told me how he continued to sail during the war under the watchful eyes of the German occupation troops. After the war he sailed as ship’s engineer ending up in South Georgia on a whale catcher.
As for the Mim, on the next day the ship split apart with a loud explosion, due most likely to the expansion of thousands of tons of wet wheat. And within three days, exposed to the full fury of the sea, she had completely disappeared except for her funnel. Great quantities of wheat came ashore, along with all kinds of wreckage, and no doubt some houses will still have a memento or two of the Mim. Her remains lie scattered among the rocks and crevices that shear away in deep water behind the reef.
Above her grave powerful tides hurtle past, and often great breakers cover the entire length of the Reef Dyke.
Over 63 years later, very few of either the Mim’s crew or the naval boarding party can be left alive, and the valiant crew of the post boat on that memorable night have long since passed away.
Acknowledgements: James Thomson: maps, moon/tide phases. Sydney Scott: Mim¹s file. Billy Muir: Lighthouse information. Bobby Leslie, Kirkwall Library: local newspaper reports. Lighthouse Board, Edinburgh. RNLI Poole, Dorset. Stromness Lifeboat Station. Bergen Museum Archives and Bjorn Kahrs, Norway, and many other North Ronaldsay folk who still have vivid memories of the Mim.