A recently discovered diary belonging to an English woman who travelled to America by ship with her two young children during the Second World War describes an eventful journey that included an unscheduled stop in St. John’s.
John Bunting of Surrey, England, told The Telegram his sister Jennifer found the diary kept by their mother, Doris Bunting, while sorting through belongings in preparation for a move to Oregon to live closer to her daughter. It recounts the family’s journey across the Atlantic Ocean aboard the SS Baltrover.
“The school in St. Louis had offered to take 20 or so British children for the duration of the war,” said 79-year-old John Bunting, who was six at the time of the trip across the Atlantic.
“Of course, we didn’t know then how long it would last.”
On Sept. 17, 1940, a German submarine torpedoed the SS City of Benares, a ship carrying children who were supposed to attend school in Canada. Dozens of children died.
That event put an end to a refugee program operated by the British government to place children in foreign schools during the war.
As a result, Doris Bunting had to make her own arrangements to get her children across the Atlantic and accompany them herself. Jennifer and John would attend school in St. Louis, Mo.
The SS Baltrover left Liverpool on Oct. 25 as part of a convoy. A German Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor bomber attacked the convoy two days later, damaging the convoy flagship. That ship had no choice but to return to England.
“The bow was blown off,” said Bunting, who has some memories of the attack. “I’ve read since then that there were quite a few sailors killed on this ship. … We all, obviously, when the bombing started, were put below deck.”
He also remembers the storm his convoy encountered.
“During the storm, the convoy had to separate, so we were on our own in this little 4,000-tonner going about eight knots. I remember the big storm, which lasted about three days, and during the storm a German submarine was sighted, and the little merchant ship we were on had one little pop-gun at the back. They fired that a few times. The submarine obviously didn’t get us, probably because of the storm.”
Arriving in St. John’s
Engine trouble allegedly related to the ship being pushed too hard to avoid the submarine forced the SS Baltrover to dock in St. John’s on Nov. 8, 1940. Doris Bunting provides a detailed account of their arrival in her memoir.
“A wonderful experience, first sight of shores of another continent,” she wrote in pencil.
“Thought of pioneer’s feelings after their long hazardous journey and realized there were no fellow humans, no houses, no anything to welcome them. Fascinated with little coloured wooden dolls houses dotted along the cliff sides as we entered the harbour.”
She wrote favourably of her experience on land.
“Everyone pleased to see us and very friendly. Pleasant Irish brogue, polite, and gracious clerks in the shops. Extremely loyal to Britain in this oldest colony. Wonderful feeling to be ashore. Large powerful cars everywhere, plenty of petrol and LIGHTS!”
The ship also stopped in Halifax before eventually making it to Boston, after which the Buntings made their way to Missouri.
Jennifer Bunting eventually settled down with a man in Kansas and raised a family. John found work in America before getting a job transfer to England, where he has remained for more than 40 years.
The Buntings are now in the process of privately publishing Doris Bunting’s diary in the form of a memoir that will include newspaper clippings and photos.
“It’s the first time my sister and I had known about it,” he said of the discovery of the journal.
Jennifer Bunting still has a few keepsakes from the SS Baltrover, including the Red Ensign flag for the United Kingdom’s Merchant Navy that flew on the boat. John Bunting said the ship’s third officer gave her the flag.
According to the website wrecked.com, the SS Baltrover capsized in July 1965, by which time it had been renamed the SS Ionian.