Living with…Duke Ellington…for a week

(photo: original photo from 1942 of U-boat U156 and survivors of the Laconia)

Scenes from The Sinking of the Laconia

Scene One: In a dimly lit wartime living room a smartly dressed couple are dancing intimately whilst aware that their young children are watching contentedly from the sofa. Duke Ellington’s Take the A Train is playing in the background on the gramophone.  A sense of imminent departure for the man hangs in the air.  But now’s not the time for sadness, as they enjoy the moment.


Scene two: A cramped submarine cabin with a U-boat commander and the same man talking, formal but friendly.  The man looks worn – he is ragged and exhausted.  He leafs through a pile of 78s on the side and picks out a copy of Take the A Train and looks wistfully at it. The commander gives him permission to play the record and as the opening bars commence the camera captures the pain on the man’s face as he listens.

That was when I knew I wanted to spend a week with Duke Ellington…

“Hurry – get on now it’s coming
Listen – to these rails a-humming – all board”

Jim’s story

I’d never heard of the “Laconia incident” until I settled down and watched the BBC drama a week or so back at the personal recommendation of a neighbour.

Over a glass or two of red wine Jayne tells us about her father, Jim who had been on board the ship…

Jim Chappell departed for war the day before it officially broke out.  A Coventry lad from Broadway, Earlsdon he was one of four boys and had gone to King Henry’s School.  In September 1939, he was in the Warwickshire Yeomanry and set off through France with the regiment’s horses and down to Egypt.  Over the next few years he took part in campaigns in Syria, Iraq and Iran.  Sadly he was blighted with malaria three times and by the summer of 1942 at the age of 22 was consigned to a hospital in Durban, South Africa.  It was decided to send him home, hopefully a journey of a few weeks.

On August 29th, 1942 he boarded the RMS Laconia at Durban.  The retired cruise ship was full – laden with 1,800 Italian prisoners of war, Polish and British soldiers as well as quite a few civilians. The Italians were kept below decks in cramped conditions, and guarded by the Polish soldiers.  Like others, Jim would walk down and feed them bread from his provisions and developed a good relationship with a number of them.

The ship continued its journey around the west coast of Africa until a fortnight later, after 10pm on September 12th 1942 the Laconia was struck by a torpedo from a German submarine U-156.  When the torpedo hit, Jim was playing a game of whist with a 19 year-old Geordie lad.  They knew instantly what had happened, and together they headed to the top of the ship, their best chance of survival.

Whether from compassion or realisation that the ship was full of Italian POWs, the commander of the  U-boat then carried out one of the most remarkable acts of the second world war.  He went back to the Laconia and started rescue operations. The ship sunk within an hour and the U-boat captain Werner Hartenstein began to pick up surviviors – some crammed on the submarine, others towed in a strange flotilla of lifeboats.

Hundreds died that night, Jim survived.  He would tell his children and grand-children that the U-boat commander was a fabulous man who gave them cigarettes, and provided for their needs.  He recalled that the women survivors were allowed on the top of the submarine to walk and stretch their legs.  And Hartenstein insisted that they had a British soldier on guard so that they felt safe.

“The Germans were quite decent to us.  I fancy that that was because their commander was trained in the traditions of the old German Navy.  We had hot soup and water to drink and were given cigarettes.  The women spent the night in the submarine, but we had to return to our lifeboat”

The commander had signalled for assistance.  He now had over 400 survivors of the Laconia in his care.  The gun decks of the submarine were draped with the red cross, but there was no precedence for this type of rescue.  A few days later, an American B-24 bomber sent from Ascension Island to investigate totally misread the situation when it saw this strange collection of submarine and lifeboats in the Atlantic and was ordered to bomb. One landed among the lifeboats, and Hartenstein was forced to dive and escape.  Later that day, Vichy (German-occupied) French ships responding to the signal for help picked up the remaining survivors.

This was not the end of Jim’s journey.  He was now a prisoner himself and taken to Dakar in Senegal.  And from there quickly transferred to a prisoner camp in Casablanca.

Ten weeks later Casablanca was liberated by the Americans.  It was still unsafe to travel back to Britain so he was taken back to Norfolk, Virginia where he was kitted out in American uniform.  His parents back in Cheylesmore who had been told he was missing, presumed dead then found out he was alive.  By the end of the year he eventually returned home and on 6th January 1943, the Coventry Evening Telegraph ran a story on page 5 to mark the story of his incredible journey and return.

Ring of Luck

After the war Jim married Edna and they settled in Coventry having two children Richard and Jayne. He spent most of his working life at Parkside garage near the centre of the city as salesman and then general manager.  He died in 1999.

One memento from his adventure is still in use today.  A small ring was given to him by an Italian prisoner of war who he had befriended.  It is made out of part of a German Heinkel bomber and something within him felt it would bring luck.  He wore it on his finger or around his neck all his life.  Jayne now carries it and shares the luck that it brings with her family whenever they need it.

My thanks to Jayne for letting us share this incredible story…it’s why I chose Duke Ellington x

Take the A Train

The musical backdrop to the week has been Duke Ellington’s Ellington at Newport recording from the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956. Although some years after the war this is the album that revived his career and it draws on the music of his heyday, the 30s and 40s.

I instantly fell for the magical Take the A Train, with its trilling piano intro and gradual build-up to the infectious horn chorus.  It conjures up another era, when people dressed in suits and frocks to dance. As does the smooth I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good).

My jazz repertoire is limited – I discovered a few of the classic Miles Davis albums some years back but for the most part the rest is picked up from assorted compilations.  But even so I tried my best to enjoy more exploratory numbers such as Dimmuendo in Blue… even if the end did rather sound like a pained duck.  But I’m probably excused that comparison, this is the week they returned to the sunny warmth of Warwick.  A mention also for Skin Deep which outdoes any rock album for the audacity of its drum solo.  So all in all not familiar territory for me musically, but an enjoyable trip in a musical time machine.  Duke Ellington’s music reminds me of an era when people’s stories were different – stories that were harsher, dare I say scarey for us now.

I have a long journey this week, and anyone who knows me will know about lost luggage, missed boats and trains, unexpected airports, the wrong trains and extraordinary diversions (such as 300 miles to collect a missing passport).  Nothing though can match the travels of the Laconia survivors…and so this week is a tribute to them.

“If you miss the A -Train
You’ll find you missed the quickest way to Harlem”


Twotes of the week

(Twotes are things that have been wrote on Twitter, or Twitter quotes that have tickled my fancy this week)

@dearblankplease Dear Cat, Sorry for hoisting you into the air whenever ‘The Circle of Life’ plays. Sincerely, a Lion King enthusiast.

@CJWatt1: Swiss invasion of Stirchley RT @peteashton: Flugelhorn Alert upgraded to Alpine Ho… (cont)

@DannyLast: ʎɐqǝ uo pɹɐoqʎǝʞ ɐ ʎnq ı ǝɯıʇ ʇsɐן ǝɥʇ sı sıɥʇ

@Gary_Bainbridge: I’ve got a hole in my pocket. No change there, then.

Glee Watch : The week of the Bieber, which was inevitable.  Possibly one of the more camp episodes even with no Kurt, and that’s pushing some.  And what was that with all the talcum powder during Somebody to Love?