Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Why my Swedish great uncle is remembered at Tower Hill

Tower Hill Memorial, London, 17th February 2012
An obliging passerby took this picture of me in February at Tower Hill Memorial. This memorial, a couple of hundred yards from Tower Hill tube station, was erected in 1928, dedicated to merchant seamen who perished in the 1914-18 war. 

I went there to pay my respects to the memory my grandfather’s younger brother, Axel Vilhelm Åkerlund. In fact I could say, to be the first member of my family to be privileged to do this, for this reason. The discovery that Axel’s name is here was made only recently by my cousin Anders. My mother lived 22 years in England, and my grandfather Albert visited London in 1967, but they didn’t know about this memorial.

Axel Åkerlund was born 11 January 1897 in Luleå. This port at the top of the Baltic Sea is where my mother and Anders’s were brought up. Their sister Kerstin lives there still.  The family knew that Axel perished in 1917 on a British ship, but details were sparse until Anders’ recent research, which began in the archives of Luleå's cathedral and in the port's merchant marine office.

It turns out that Axel served on several Swedish merchant ships, a Russian ship and finally a British one: SS La Blanca, which was torpedoed in the English Channel on 23 November 1917. 

More in these pdf files.  Axel’s life and death at sea summarises what's known of his life as a seaman and his final voyage. Evidence for how he joined La Blanca and how the ship came to be sunk are to be found in the Agreement and Account of Crew and in a House of Lords debate in December 1917.

Axel Vilhelm Åkerlund, 1897 to 1917
Studio portrait by a Luleå photographer
Undated but perhaps taken in September 1914
The portrait of Axel has come down through one of Albert’s sisters, Berta (that would be a great aunt to me). Possibly taken when his ship (SS Torne) was loading iron ore in Luleå, with copies given to his three sisters and to Albert.

At Tower Hill Memorial

Bronze plates with the sailors’ names in relief cover the memorial’s pillars.  12 thousand names in all, according to Wikipedia. They are in alphabetical order by name of ship. La Blanca comes at the top of one list on Pillar 10. The ships in this list are:-.

La Blanca, Liverpool – 2 names: Akerlund A. & Stowe J. J.
Laconia, Liverpool – 6 names
Lodoga, Leith – 25 names (about)
Lady Ann, Sunderland - 11 names
Lady Helen, Sunderland – 6 names
Lady Ninian, Cardiff – 1 name
Lady Salisbury, London – 3 names
Laertes, Liverpool – 14 names
Lake Michigan, Liverpool – 1 name
Lampada, London – 5 names
Landonia, London – 15 names

Just around the corner of pillar 10 you come to Lusitania.

Being at the very top, La Blanca is hard to see from the ground, but I was helped by a photo that Anders had supplied.  As I stared up at the top of the pillar, avoiding being blinded by the sun which was right behind it,  and my eyes got accustomed to the light, I was at length able to make out my grandfather’s brother’s name - Akerlund A.

As a final detail, the U-boat commander was Heinrich Jeß and he lived a long life.

I'll close with the digression that my cousin’s husband Tom did research for his father who was on an American merchant ship that was sunk by a German torpedo during the Second World War.  He learnt that crew members from the American ship and German U-boat met up at several reunions in Germany in their old age.