Captain Thomas Horn is someone who I really wish had written a book about his experiences during the war. He was master of the Blue Star line’s Sydney Star. He was born in Amble, Northumberland in May 1899. He went to sea when he was fifteen and he obtained his second mates certificate in 1924 and his Master’s certificate in 1924, the year he got married. He took the Sydney Star on her maiden voyage to Australia in May 1936.
I discovered him and his ship in Ian Cameron’s Red Duster, White Ensign. Cameron evidently interviewed Horn for the book as there is a very full account of what happened to the Sydney Star during her eventful voyage to Malta as part of Operation Substance in July 1941. Thomas Horn and his ship have a poem to themselves in Convoy. He was awarded the OBE as a result of his actions, as was his chief engineer and other members of the crew also received awards as follows;
London Gazette 16 December 1941 - For services when the ship was torpedoed and damaged during Operation Substance - a convoy from Gibraltar to Malta in July 1941.
Haig, George - Chief Engineer - OBE(Civ)
Horn, Thomas Sydney - Captain - OBE(Civ)
Mackie, James Hunter Andrew - Chief Officer - MBE(Civ)
Knights, John Arthur Bamford W/50 - Leading Seaman RANR - Commendation
Roberts, John Wakeling W/303 - Able Seaman RANR - Commendation
Robinson, Anthony Jesse - Gunner - Commendation
Ungazetted award by Lloyd's
Haig, George - Chief Engineer - Lloyd's War Medal for Bravery at Sea
Horn, Thomas Sydney - Captain - Lloyd's War Medal for Bravery at Sea
Mackie, James Hunter Andrew - Chief Officer - Lloyd's War Medal for Bravery at Sea
London Gazette 4 June 1943 - Birthday Honours List 1943
Bones, Frank - Carpenter - BEM(CiV)
“Mealtimes were welcome breaks [from the claustrophobia of his cabin] during which all four of us RAF officers dined at the captain’s table, the latter a worried little man who was only occasionally joined by the Chief Engineer and one or two others, their empty chairs serving to cast an additional shadow over our halting conversation.”
The following morning the ship is bombed by a Ju88 without any consequences although this does raise the spirits and interests of the pilots.
“The Captain and several of his officers having joined us for the meal, it was obvious that the headman was in a nervous and unsociable mood – as well he might be! Much less concerned we joked about the attack, pointing out that the bombing had been as effective as the gunfire, which seemed to us all bark and no bite The gunners were hopeless, we opined. How could they expect to hit anything if they were ignorant of even the rudiments of deflection shooting? Being fighter pilots we knew all about such things, naturally; it was a pity the gun crews weren’t similarly competent. We laid it on pretty thick, aware of our hosts’ frowning and slightly injured silence.
Finally the Captain stood up and blotted his lips. Did we think we could do any better? We all exchanged exaggerated glances of surprise. Of course we could; it was just a matter of know-how and practice wasn’t it? He nodded then turned away. In that case when the next attack came, we could show him just how it was done. All right?
So as the next attack starts to develop the forty-two year old Captain does turn the tables on these twenty-something year old pilots, Neil, Cassidy, Harrington and Peter Le Fevre by summoning them to the bridge and pointing out the machine guns he expects them to use. According to Neil what followed was
“ three of the noisiest and most hair-raising minutes of my life, the engagement introduced by the crack of countless guns, the shriek of four and five inch shells as they ripped through the rigging above my head, the thud-thud-thud of the Bofors, the tearing rattle of cannon and machine-gun, the soaring curve of flaring incendiaries and the white streaks of smoking tracer as it whipped across the waves. But through it all, seemingly unscathed and with magnificent, even foolhardy, bravery, came the Savoias. Line abreast, a terrifying phalanx”
They and the ship survive the attack and continue on their voyage.
“Now about twelve hours sailing from Port Said, much of the tension had disappeared; it looked as though we would make it after all and even the Captain’s face was seen to crack into the occasional bleak smile.”
The Sydney Star reached Egypt on Tuesday 30 December 1941.