War horror on the ‘Cruel sea’

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Many stories from the wars are hidden historical treasures simply waiting discovery - often by intrigued family members .

One such story has been uncovered about a Ballymena man who passed away 30 years ago this month.

Harry Ekins joined the royal navy in 1943 and served as a Seaman on HMS Brilliant, an anti submarine escort ship. After D Day HMS Brilliant escorted dozens of ships and thousands of troops across to Europe but by the middle of December 1944 Hitler had attacked weakened American forces in the famous ‘Battle of the Bulge’.

The need for additional troops became a top priority and on Christmas Eve, the SS Leopoldville, a converted cruise ship, was tasked with transporting the two regiments of the US 66th infantry to the continent. The escort group of warships served at the direction of HMS Brilliant with Harry Ekins aboard.

Just a few miles off the coast of Cherbourg, U-486, a German submarine fired on the SS Leopoldville, causing massive damage. While other escorts set off on a depth charge mission, HMS Brilliant, despite stormy seas, managed to steer alongside the sinking ship where the young soldiers faced certain death..

Knowing the torpedoed vessel was sinking, the crew of the Brilliant urged those on board to jump for their lives and set out their stuffed hammocks to break the fall. Trying to time the jumps was difficult and many who did make it suffered broken bones. Others mistimed or slipped and were crushed as the two boats came together. Still more fell into the cruel sea.

The scenes must have been nightmarish for the young Harry, who would have been on deck trying tohelp those who managed to reach the rolling deck of his ship. That night HMS Brilliant rescued 500 before Capt. John Pringle had to pull away for fear of his own ship sinking.

There was no-one to provide significant help and between around 850 young GI’s were killed - the worst loss of life by American infantry by submarine.

Wartime censorship came into play to cover up the many mistakes made that night - wrong frequencies, poor performance by the Leopoldville’s crew, lack of air cover etc.

Survivors were told to keep quiet. Amazingly, relatives of the victims received notices that their loved ones were Missing in Action, even though the U.S. War Department knew what had happened.

Later, the men were declared Killed in Action, but even then no details of their deaths were divulged to their families. After the war, the tragedy was considered an embarrassment to the Allies and all reports were filed away as secret by the American and British governments. Only in 1996-over 50 years later-did the British declassify documents relating to the sinking of the Leopoldville.

Harry Ekins died 30 years ago this month having never mentioned the horrific episode even though he talked at length of his days in the navy. One common joke was told that he couldn’t sleep unless his mother splashed water over the bedroom window. He would continue to serve after the war, including a posting to the vast aircraft carrier HMS Eagle. He left the senior service in July 1953.

Coming back to Ballymena he found work in O’Kanes, when the factory was on Church St. Harry died of lung disease in 1985, 11 years before the records of what happened that fateful night in 1944 were declassified.

His nephew Jackie McAuley said: “He never mentioned a thing about it. He told stories and tales, some of which we took with a pinch of salt, his mother and my mother, Francie, certainly did. None of us thought for a second he was a bit of a hero. He was a wild wee man.”