The Story of Seaman Ronnie McAngus Hart.
1923 – 1956
Beneath a grassy mound on a hillside graveyard in Wales lie the remains of a brave young Scotsman. In the year 1956, after succumbing to the after affects of ingesting ship’s fuel oil in October 1939, the body of Donald John McAngus Hart was laid to rest, nearly five hundred miles away from the place of his birth in the village Hilton of Cadboll in Ross-shire.
In order to understand both the tragedy and the triumph of Ronnie Hart’s life, his passing at an early age, we must travel back through the mists of time to the Summer of 1938. Across Europe the storm clouds of war were gathering and once again the men and boys of the Highland regions began to enlist in the colours much as their fathers and grandfathers had done before them.
Ronnie’s story begins in the coastal region along the Moray Firth. His birth place in the village of Hilton is linked to the chain of three such small villages that lie facing Eastwards across the Firth to the North Sea. Hilton, being the most northerly with Balintore then Shandwick forming this trio of tiny fishing villages. Inland, some two miles lies the village of Fearn whilst another three miles sits the small town of Tain nestling alongside the waters of the Dornoch Firth.
The coastal villages have long been associated with the sea and apart from some farming the main industry has been fishing in the cold unforgiving waters of the Moray Firth. Ronnie was a Hilton boy, born in the January of 1923. Raised as were his kinfolk and friends, on this windswept coastline where men and women had fought for centuries to win a living from the sea in the harsh and often hostile environment.
Like many of his school friends, Ronnie became a keen swimmer, often taking to the water in the school lunch break when the weather permitted. This was to be something that later would save him from a fate that would afflict so many of his shipmates and friends. But for now, young Ronnie Hart grew into a sturdy if lithesome lad, an enthusiastic footballer who would gain much acclaim for his ball skills playing in the local team.
In the February of 1938 Ronnie Hart had enlisted in the Royal Navy at fifteen years of age as a “boy” sailor. Like many of the other lads from Ross-shire, he found himself at HMS Caledonia, a training establishment.
Training over he was first posted in October to Dunedin, then on the 7th of June 1939 to HMS. Royal Oak, a twenty two year old battleship lying at anchorage at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys. Young Ronnie was neither the youngest nor the only boy sailor on board that ill-fated ship. Amongst the complement of some nine hundred and sixty plus officers and men were one hundred and thirty three boy sailors, a remarkable number never to be repeated again on a warship in time of war, but then at that time, no war had yet broken out.
Little is known of Ronnie’s time on spent on HMS. Royal Oak, history however, records the ship’s movements and duties up until October of 1938.
In the early hours of the morning of the 14th of October, a date called by some as “Black Saturday”, the Royal Oak was struck a number of mortal blows, still at anchor and with most of her crew off duty, she suffered catastrophic explosions which within minutes saw her capsize and sink to the bottom of Scapa Flow.
There had been no time to launch life boats and the lighting had failed almost immediately, those men and boys who managed to get clear of the sinking ship found themselves in darkness, in freezing water with black glutinous fuel oil coating the surface of the sea.
The chances of survival were slender, there were no near vessels which could aid the sailors in the water, there had been no chance of getting distress signals off before the ship went down. Now the sea around the site of the sinking was alive with men desperately trying to stay afloat and survive. Ronnie Hart was among those men, who for long hours in the cold and freezing water managed to stay afloat. Then, eventually with a handful of others against impossible odds, managed to reach the steep shoreline still in darkness. Eight hundred and thirty three sailors, officers and men were lost that night. Of the boy sailors only some pitiful thirty three survivors answered the roster when the lists were called.
Ronnie Hart did not come out of the water un-scathed that night, he and many others were victims of the fuel oil that had spilled into the sea when the ship went down. Hard even to imagine what it would be like in calm conditions, on the surface with the slop of the waves, it was near impossible to avoid either swallowing or breathing in the oil and its fumes. For many of the survivors treatment in hospital would be a drawn out period of recovery, whilst physical injuries, burns, broken limbs and a host of other grave conditions were visible, not so the mental anguish of those who had
survived the loss of their ship and their shipmates only to have to deal with the trauma of still being alive. In Ronnie’s case he had swallowed diesel fuel, much coughed and retched up that night, but other more insidious damage had already done by the thick oil in his stomach and digestive system. Ronnie Hart was just weeks from his seventeenth birthday.
In the weeks that followed the survivors of the Royal Oak sinking were sent on to depots and other ships across the length and breath of the country. Many of those men would never serve together again in a same ship’s company. The fortunes of war touched each one of them differently. Ronnie was at first, then again later in his career in the Navy, admitted to a sanatorium for treatment for his condition.
This, probably was at Invergordon though no records seem to have survived from this period. He then found himself posted to HMS Victory on the 15th October, then on again to HMS Manchester in the beginning of November. So it was for the remainder of his years as a naval rating. The years would see him serve on a variety of Royal Naval and American built vessels from escorts to an aircraft carrier until eventually, due to his deteriorating physical health, he was “invalided to shore” on the 26th March 1947.
Ronnie’s postings had seen him serve in several areas where conflict had taken place on the high seas, these alone would merit a book ranking the exploits of ordinary seamen who survived the bitter years of the war at sea.
Of the twelve years of the service Ronnie Hart had signed on for, he had served six during the years of conflict, the remainder had seen his time being spent at training establishments schooling naval cadets until his eventual discharge from the services. In 1944, he had met his wife to be, he and Gladys were married at St. Helens in Lancashire whilst he was on shore leave. With the war over yet still with Ronnie in service, the couple had their home with Gladys’s parents in St. Helens. Their first child, Malcolm was born in 1947 a little before Ronnie’s discharge. Then, in the February of 1949 Patricia a daughter arrived. It became clear that the couple would now need to find a new home for their growing family, and Ronnie, now out of the navy, to seek work to support his wife and young children.
The austerity of the post war years saw families move to where work could be found, for Ronnie this saw him taking the McAngus Harts to live in the Conway area of North Wales. Ronnie became employed as a steel worker on the new bridge at Conway then under construction. The family found a home in St. David’s Avenue near to his place of work and in here 1951 a second daughter Esther, was born.
For most families this would be the time when, the children growing and healthy, work steady and with future prospects, when a young family could breathe and begin to enjoy the fruits of their hard work and the pleasures of their growing family. This, so very sadly, was not to be. The tragic events of October the 14th 1939 revisited the Hart family and Ronnie despite his youthful thirty three years succumbed to the affects of marine oil and the ravages of the cold waters of Scapa Flow. Admitted to hospital he was operated on for the symptoms of a stomach ulcer, a week later his condition deteriorated and infection set in.
Ronnie John McAngus Hart passed away on the 27th July 1956. His mortal remains laid in the cemetery of St. Agnes outside the medieval town walls of Conwy. His widow, Gladys, with the three young bairns of Ronnie Hart to bring up alone was left to fend for herself and try to explain to small children that which defies explanation. Money being short and the times being still hard in the post war years, no marker was placed over Ronnie. Something his daughter Pat has vowed to rectify in the very near future. Gladys had married again in the years after Ronnie’s death and was to become mother again to three more children. The years had passed and the lonely grave in St. Agnes’s graveyard became un-tended, until now.
Stumbling upon the website dedicated to the Royal Oak, his daughter Patricia, found the stories of other young men who had lived or died that night so many years before. Each with its own tale of humanity, of sons and fathers caught up in the fortunes of war. Of losses, of lives unlived and of others scarred emotionally or physically by surviving against incredible odds. Ronnie McAngus Hart was one of them, a story amongst so many others yet personalised and deepened by the tragic loss of a young father whose passing remained un-marked these fifty four long years.
This was a son of Ross-shire, his memory at last coming home to his family, and those who knew him still living in the town of Tain and the village of Hilton of Cadboll on the Moray Firth.
In memory of my father.
Ronnie John McAngus Hart.
Patricia James. (Nee McAngus Hart). October 2011.