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The Great War (1914-1918) Forum

Remembered Today:

My Grandfather

Ian Underwood

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My Grandfather is one of 6 relatives of who's Great War service I'm attempting to research, but he's the one I'm most stuck on (and also the one with the most resonance for me). It's become a bit of a family mystery that I'm determined to solve and need the help of the Pals.

*Apologies in advance to the 'pongos' out there, but they're mainly Navy related questions....I just can't find any answers elsewhere.

The background:

John Edward Underwood enlisted in the RNVR, Royal Naval Division, (London Division) in Sept 1915 at the age of 16 and half. 3 months later he was "discharged under age". Apparently his mother had him recalled, thus missing out completely on the Western Front. I have his attestation paper and a one sheet detailing his single posting to "Victory VI'.

When he turned 18 he re-enlsied and was put to sea. The only clues to his 'second' service are his Medals which are stamped MFA for 'Mercantile Fleet Auxilary' and a receipt for loss of effects on the HMS Otranto. Which was a troopship that sunk off Scotland with the loss of 431 men (mainly American soldiers), when it collided with HMS Kashmir in the fog. There's family oral history to suggest he was sunk a second time as well.

That totals the extent of my factual knowlege.

My Questions:

1. If a man was discharged underage, could he re-join the same unit/organisation? and if so did he join as a new entity, or did he just resume under his old records/official number? My Grandfather's RND papers have "True copy from Admiralty Records 21/6/21" up the top, so I guess we can assume that he did'nt return to the RNVR, or if he did...the subsquent pages have been lost.

2. Men of the Mercantile Fleet Auxilary...were they drawn from the RNVR or the Merchant Marine? My reseach has shown that both were crewing on the Otranto. Also, what actual records in the PRO relate to men of the MFA? Medals Rolls etc.

3. Lastly, my father and his sister remember in the house as they were children growing up, there was a reproduction of a painting or etching of a ship going down and sailors jumping off into the water. This was referred as 'Dad's ship'. Of course its long been lost, but I wonder if this rings a bell with anyone, as the're no artworks in the Maritime museum online database that relate to any of the larger Fleet Auxilaries lost in WW1.

There's nothing here that a good few days in the PRO would'nt cure, but seeing that I'm in sunny Australia, that's not an option right at the moment...so a few gentle prods in the right direction would be grand!

Cheers, Ian.

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Guest Hill 60
1. If a man was discharged underage, could he re-join the same unit/organisation? and if so did he join as a new entity, or did he just resume under his old records/official number?


I can't really help you with your research, but this might help.

One of my great uncles joined the Army in 1914, underage, and was wounded in 1915. His gran showed the Army his real birth certificate and they discharged him, only to call him up a little while later when he was of age. He rejoined the Army, although a different regiment and went on to be killed in 1918.

Incidently, although he was wounded (gassed & shot) in 1915 but was not allowed to have the 1915 Star.

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1) If a man was underage, discharged as a result, and then re-enlisted there would have been nothing to stop him from rejoining his original unit in principle. However, it would be unlikely for him to join the exact same unit - he would instead be posted to where he was most needed. He would re-join as a new entity, but probably with reference to his previous service. The exception would be that if he were discovered to have been underage on enlistment after coming of age, then he would most probably face a reprimand for a false enlistment but would remain with the same unit.

2) Merchant Fleet Auxilary = equivalent to todays Royal Fleet Auxilary. These men were technically part of the merchant navy but manned vessels that were aiding the armed forces during hostilities. For example onboard transport ships, or supplying vessels of the fleet at sea. During peace time the vessels these men served aboard mainly undertook civilian activities.

After the outbreak of hostilities the nature of Fleet Auxiliaries changed as the admiralty purchased extra vessels etc. But pre-war the accepted arrangement was that the admiralty paid part of the vessels construction cost, and in return could use the vessel in times of need. During wartime the Admiralty paid the wages of MFA seaman if they were on military service and were not generating revenue for the parent company.

MFA men may have a Board of trade registration card (place of birth, nationalty, full name, job and a photograph) for the Merchant Navy. MFA medal rolls should be in ADM records.

hope this helps,


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Guest Ian Bowbrick


Speaking as a former pongo but not a rupert :lol: I wouldn't usually reply to a fisherman's sorry watery enquiry :lol:

However merchant seaman's 'pouches' (as they are called) are kept under BT 372 at the PRO. Use the PROCAT to find the reference for your man.


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Guest stevebec

I don't know if the British Army (or Navy) had this but the AIF had the following.

I have a soldier who enlisted under age by a false permision paper from perents.

He was RTA and discharged but a year later reenlisted again as he became 18 and now had his perents permision.

He went back to his original unit because he had a relative in that unit and he claimed him.

It was common in the AIF for Family members or mates to Claim each other so they could be together.

It was also done in WWII but no longer used.


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Thank you all, I feel I'm slowly closing in on the events and circumstance of my Gandfather's service. This is a fantastic forum by the way, you all deserve a pat on the back.

I thought some might be interesting in this excerpt from a document on the sinking of the HMS Otranto. It paints a picture of great tragedy and heroism off the scottish coast only a month before the end of the war.



"On 6 Oct 1918 the convoy sighted land, but due to appalling weather, the ships had got disoriented. Some of the ships thought the land was Ireland, and some thought it was the Scottish mainland, and they turned in opposite directions. In fact, it was the Isle of Islay, and in the confusion, the Kashmir suddenly appeared out of the waves and landed on the Otranto, tearing a massive hole in the latter. The Kashmir didn't realise how much damage she'd caused, and headed for the Scottish coast, leaving the Otranto taking in water. After an hour or so her engines died and she drifted towards Machir Bay on Islay.

Her SOS was answered by the destroyer HMS Mounsey, and in an effort to effect a rescue, the captain of the Mounsey brought his ship alongside the Otranto, even though the sea was raging. Four times she came alongside the Otranto, smashing into her side, and each time men leaped from the stricken ship to the destroyer, sometimes landing uninjured, but often breaking bones on the deck, being washed overboard before they could grab onto anything, or just falling into the gap between the two ships.

The captain of the Otranto was last seen on the bridge, and was never found, and the following morning 150 bodies had been recovered from the shoreline and placed in a local church. 431 persons had been drowned, including 351 US soldiers"

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Thanks for those links, I had been to both of them previously, but on a second visit found links to extra information that I had neglected hidingat the bottom of the page, including a facinating and horrowing eye-witness acount from a American soldier on the Otranto.

I've previously thought that my Grandfather being discharged from the RND for being underage probably saved his life, but he was also one lucky to soul to have survived the sinking of that ship.

My thoughts go out to the 400 or so poor souls who probably could'nt swim and stayed on the ship awaiting rescue as she smahsed herself to pieces on the rocks off the Isle of Islay, of these men only 18 survived the swim to shore.

cheers all


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  • 4 weeks later...

This is from 'Shipwrecks around Britain - a diver's guide' by Leo Zanelli:

Armed Merchant Cruiser OTRANTO

Dimensions: 535.3 x 64 x 38.6 Feet

Tonnage: 12,124 t.g.

Built: 1909

Location: Latitude 57 Degrees 47 Mins North

Longitude 6 Degrees 29 Mins 30 secs W. (exact)

Depth at bottom 60 feet

Formerly an Orient Steam Navigation Co. liner, she was requistitiobed during World War 1 and given an armament of 4 x 4.7" guns. While carrying troops from the USA it collided with the P&O liner CASHMERE, drifted ashore and was a total loss.

Sub-Aqua survey reported that the wreck was still in the same position and substantial .e. minimal break-up.

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Thanks for the scan, I have a few photos and images of ther ship now, but I had'nt seen that one before. A nice shot of her as a dirty, armed merchant cruiser. A far cry from her glory days as a liner in this postcard I bought this morning off ebay.


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