Reminiscences from Keith Davies (Friend)

Charles was a wonder.  A unique individual. A blessing to so many who had the real privilege of knowing him.   He was a man of solid unwavering faith- certainly dogmatic but that was a fundamental part of who he was.  I will never forget the pleasure of being in his company and hearing his deeply held convictions on lots of subjects that people today can sometimes be rather spineless about. 

Charles’ dry wit and his awareness of the humour that he would see in everyday events made him a wonderful house guest and we loved having him stay with us in Toronto a few years ago. He brought with him a small suitcase with the basic necessities and what he regarded as the real essentials-his table tennis bat and a set of paint brushes for any opportunity he might find to paint one of his astoundingly lifelike oil portraits. Indeed one of his oil paintings has pride of place in our living room in Northern Canada and I'm sure there are homes in the UK, Holland Belgium and France where there are magnificent portraits by Charles Davies.

I went once went to Belgium with him on an unforgettable short term mission trip with a group that Charles was involved with. It was to the people in a town called Herentals. It involved contacting many people- including British army personnel- through door to door witnessing, open air meetings and evening meetings in the  marquee we put up in the town centre. Charles always had a great love for Belgium and Holland and his short mission trips developed into much longer residential stays with his family and which became an important part of his life’s mission.

Everyone grows old and it seems sad indeed that we cannot continue to enjoy his wit and to hear his voice encouraging us and by just being there for us. We all loved him, but life in this present world is finite for all of us. Charles believed that one day he will participate in the great Resurrection Day and I am looking forward to meeting Charles again.

The Life of Charles James Davies

Charles James Davies was one of seven children born in 1921 near Pontypridd, South Wales. In 1937 at age 16 he joined the Merchant Navy at the Cardiff Shipping Office as a galley boy and embarked on a long 2 year voyage on the 'SS Dalveen'. He became a leading seaman and finally a bosun in 1946. His service with the Merchant Navy lasted 10 years, during which time the Second World War broke out. During the war he had a number of amazing experiences on the high seas. Once, when he was on watch, he spotted a torpedo trail heading straight for the ship and after giving the alarm he braced himself for the explosion, but fortunately, at the last moment, the ship rose with a heavy swell and the torpedo went under the hull of the ship and carried on into the distance.  

On 3 separate occasions Charles had to abandon ship due to enemy action. A number of merchant ships carried anti-submarine guns on the bow for basic protection and Charles was trained as the bow gunner. He often told us the story of how one of the ships, on which he was a gunner, was badly damaged due to enemy aircraft. He'd been firing the gun defensively and had the heavy gun re-loaded and primed but couldn't get it back on target because it wasn't designed for anti-aircraft and the vessel was also listing badly. The order was given to man the lifeboats, after which the vessel quickly sank stern first. As the men helplessly watched their ship go down, the pressure of the water hitting the bow gun made it go off with a dramatic bang as though it was the final salute before heading to the bottom of the ocean. On this occasion the men were quickly and safely picked up by a friendly ship.  

In the June of 1942 Charles signed-up to take part in an important Arctic convoy, code named PQ17, also dubbed "the worst journey in the world" by Sir Winston Churchill. The Arctic convoys were tasked with providing vital aid to Russia as they had become allies in repelling the German invasion of their country. The convoy initially grouped off the coast of Scotland and then headed for Archangel in Russia via Iceland. On the 5th July 1942 several ships in the convoy were attacked by German JU88 aircraft based in Norway. Charles was on the 'Paulus Potter', a Dutch merchant ship that had been requisitioned by the British government. The ship's steering was damaged by the torpedo bombs, the engine room rapidly flooded and the men were finally ordered to abandon ship in the Barents Sea inside the Arctic Circle. Although it was summer, the harsh conditions and exposure to the elements for 10 days in the open lifeboats caused some of the men to suffer badly with frostbite and hypothermia. Charles described hallucinations of having porridge to eat, when in fact there was nothing to eat. The men developed a safety strategy against frostbite by taking up positions opposite each other and placed their feet under each other’s coats to benefit from the other’s body warmth. Eventually they landed on an Island called Novaya Zemlya and managed to make a fire to cook some wild ducks for food. They then continued to row southwards in their open lifeboat and were finally picked up by a Russian whaling vessel. They were then transferred to a British ship called the 'Empire Tide' which was part of a smaller convoy also heading for Archangel to the North West of Russia. Of the 35 ships that made up the doomed PQ17 convoy, only 11 ships survived which at the time was a shocking defeat for the allies. In 2006, Charles along with other merchant seamen was belatedly awarded the 'Russian Arctic Medal' for his contribution working on the convoys bringing aid to their country.  

Charles's son Joe had a memorable moment several years ago when Charles was age 80. The World Wide Web had started to grow in popularity, so Joe who works in the IT business sat Charles down and explained the benefits of the internet and demonstrated a few things that could do be done with it. Charles was asked what he'd like to look at, he immediately asked to find something about the German U-boats he'd encountered during the war. Charles had not long returned from a community twinning visit to France and had experienced an emotional visit to the old U-boat pens of La Rochelle. The first link that appeared in Google was for www.uboat.net which was duly clicked on. Joe entered the name of one his abandoned ships, the 'Paulus Potter' and lo and behold up came the full history of the ferocious attack on the PQ17 convoy, including the story of what happened to the crew of that stricken ship. Charles was close to tears as he read the account and saw a photograph of his abandoned ship taken by Reinhard Reche, the captain of U-255. It transpired that the 'Paulus Potter' had been drifting for 5 days after it was abandoned and the U-boat captain was given instructions to sink it because it had become a collision hazard to the German Navy.  

After the war, Charles married Betty (née Joseph, belonging to a farming family from Bryn and Pyle) and worked self employed as a talented portrait artist and sign writer. Due to his earlier service on a number of Dutch merchant ships he developed a close affinity with the Dutch and Flemish people. Between 1950 and 2012 he lived for periods of time in Baarn (Holland), Ghent (Belgium) and also Sas Van Ghent (Holland). He has also lived in Nottage, Porthcawl, Pontardawe, Ilminster (Somerset) and finally ended his days in Bridgend. In each town he made many friends and faithfully served the Lord in the local churches as a lay preacher.  

Most mornings Charles and Betty would have a quiet time of prayer with the Lord Jesus and constantly submitted themselves to the providence of Almighty God. The importance of doing this became quite apparent to the family on the night of 6th March 1987. Charles had been visiting friends while on business in Belgium and was due to return to the UK on the night ferry crossing between Zeebrugge and Dover. His Belgian friend managed to persuade him not to travel overnight but to go at a more sensible time during the day. Charles obligingly rearranged his schedule to an earlier time and continued safely back home. To our horror we discovered the following day that the ship on which he had originally planned to return was the 'Herald of Free Enterprise’ which through human negligence had capsized with the loss of 193 lives. How ironic it would have been had that ferry boat claimed Charles's life in peace time, having survived the horrors of World War 2. So again Charles escaped death for which he would give glory to God and continued in good health to the grand age of 91; he died peacefully after a short stay in hospital. His solid faith in Jesus Christ, his moving stories and dry sense of humour endeared him to a great number of people who will miss him dearly, especially his sons Godfrey, Joseph and Noel, daughters Ruth and Elizabeth, his sister Betty and brother Douglas.

For those interested in the PQ17 Convoy the following link gives a lot more information. PQ17 Convoy 

Charles was caught up in an awful episode of maritime history and amazingly survived 10 days in an open lifeboat, exposed to the harsh Arctic elements. Click the following link to watch a documentary about the infamous PQ17 Convoy.