Denton a village in South Norfolk, England

Ronald Sturt "Tim" Thomas, June 12th,1923 - 9th, September 2020.

From the Parish News – November 2020

The funeral and memorial service for “Tim” Thomas took place at St. Mary’s Church on September 30th. Once again Covid-19 restrictions allowed only a small congregation to attend. The Rev. Chris Hutton officiated, assisted by Christopher Whipps. Tim's son Christopher gave the Eulogy and his daughter Jennifer the Bible reading.

Ronald Thomas, who was known as “Tim” throughout his life, having been called “Tiny Tim” by his father as a child, came to Chapel Hill Farm, Denton in 1955 with his wife Hilda and their two year old son Christopher. The couple took over this seven acre farm with a very dilapidated farmhouse, no electricity or “Mod Cons”, with a desire to fulfil one of his two ambitions, one was to be a farmer, the second a sailor.

This dream as a young child began as a 10 year old boy living in Bromley, Kent, when his mother would give him the fare to travel by train and tram to the docks in the Pool of London. There he would observe the hustle and bustle of the dock-workers, learning to recognise the flags of the different companies and of the countries of the ships and tugs plying their trade. Quietly taking it all in before timing himself to catch the trams and train to be back home in time for tea. Quite an achievement for a lad on his own.

At this time in his life Tim had developed a strong friendship as a five year old pupil at primary school with a boy called Ron. They would cycle around the country lanes together observing the countryside, farm, and nature, not only developing a love for country life, but a very strong friendship with each other. This friendship was to last throughout their lives; they communicated with each other throughout the war years while serving their country in completely different ways. Ron, who was a bachelor all his life, visited Denton regularly becoming almost part of the family, until the last few years of his life when poor health prevented it. He died at 97 years of age, two days after Tim.

Tim left school at fifteen and secured a place at the Sir John Cass School of Navigation located in Jewry Street in the City of London, to begin his career as an apprentice officer in the Merchant Navy. A year later, in 1939, his first voyage took him down the East coast of America, through the Panama Canal calling at ports up the West coast. While at San Francisco they heard war was declared, so they proceeded to Jamaica to join a convoy to return to Manchester. This was the first of over 20 Atlantic crossings he made in convoy, all facing extreme danger being hunted and torpedoed by the Nazi “U-Boats” as Hitler tried to destroy the lifeblood of supplies to Britain. On his third voyage his ship was torpedoed and sunk off the Isles of Scilly. It went down quickly with all his possessions. Fortunately, the lifeboat he boarded was spotted by a Dakota DC3 aircraft and he and the “lucky ones” were rescued. Within a fortnight he was commissioned to another ship and he was back on the convoys.

One particular convoy, the “HX42”, in which he was involved had an extremely difficult passage which became the subject of a book. Tim was contacted by the author to help recount the events. The convoy of 42 ships had little protection as a Royal Navy cruiser had been called away leaving only one destroyer and a patrol boat in defence, when they were attacked by a group of six enemy submarines. The ships were sailing in nine columns, Tim was on-watch on his ship, the SS Pacific Grove, which was the third in a middle column when the ship about 600 yards ahead, the SS Contessa, was torpedoed and exploded. At that moment Tim heard a rush of water at the stern and turned round to see a U-boat had surfaced just behind them. With ships going down all around them, they were not allowed to stop to pick up survivors from the Contessa. The horizon was ablaze with burning ships as the enemy picked off many more vessels. The remaining ships scattered and zig-zagged to make their escape. The Pacific Grove, whose cargo was partially aviation fuel - much of which was in forty gallon drums stored on deck, was fortunate to escape and headed on for Northern Ireland. Some 24 hours later, Tim and his crew-mates spotted a twin-engine plane approaching. Their discussion as to the identity was soon to be settled when it opened fire with machine guns. They quickly had to scatter to take cover in the ship's armoured wheelhouse. Nobody was hit but the plane circled and dropped two bombs one of which landed on the boat deck. It did not explode but passed through the officers’ accommodation and came to rest against a bulkhead discharging a white powder. Tim rushed to the bomb and, with the help of another crew member, carried it on deck to drop it overboard. Meanwhile the gun crew managed to fight the plane off, but there was a lot of damage. All the lifeboats were holed; fortunately, the aviation fuel was still intact. This was Tim's worst voyage; 11 ships were sunk with 144 lives lost. Also, 100,000 tons of supplies together with 40,000 tons of fuel.

Tim completed his apprenticeship in 1942 and became a ship's 2nd Officer, responsible for navigation; in those days this was done with sextant and chronometer, no GPS and satellite navigation. He then joined the Royal Fleet Auxiliary serving mainly on “Oilers”, refuelling naval ships in many parts of the world from Scapa Flow to the Indian Ocean, visiting ports in India and Ceylon. When the war ended in 1945, his ship was working on the Burmese coast, supporting destroyers and other naval ships in the Rangoon area. After returning to Britain he joined the RFA ship Eaglesdale, working in the Near East and East Indies until he was paid off in 1949.

Tim then had the very much deserved opportunity to follow his original love of farming. He took advantage of a sponsored farming training scheme in Derbyshire and Suffolk before he returned home to his parents who had moved to Little Horkesley near Colchester in Essex. Here he met Hilda whose grandfather farmed close by. They married in 1952 and together cultivated a small plot of land owned by Hilda's father until their search for a smallholding brought them to Chapel Hill Farm which they bought for £1,800. Here they established a small herd of Jersey cows and a flock of 1,500 laying hens. But, with the addition of daughters Rosemary and Jennifer to their family, Tim found he had to supplement his income and worked for Douglas Cobbald at Low Farm.

He later worked at the Beccles Artificial Insemination Centre visiting the many dairy farms in the area at the time. In due course the Beccles Centre was cut back and Tim was able to combine his two passions when he was employed as a River Inspector with the Gt. Yarmouth Port & Haven Commissioners. Needless to say his boat was always kept immaculate and in his smart naval uniform he plied the rivers Waveney and Yare, keeping order over the rapidly expanding Broads tourist traffic and often carrying out minor rescues for holidaymakers in trouble on the river.

It must have been a great disappointment, but they had to accept that the smallholding was too small to be viable in the modern era. However, Tim and Hilda found real happiness in Denton. In 1960 Tim's mother came to live with them in an annexe built onto the house. She became close friend to many of the village folk, entering into the community life of the village with the rest of the family as they grew and flourished. They became involved in almost every aspect in the community. For 27 years Tim went to the top of St Mary’s Church tower twice weekly to wind and maintain the clock. And for several years, acting as verger, spent many hours tending to the church paths and the churchyard, as well as keeping a beautiful garden at home.

Sadly, Tim suffered with a back injury for his last few years which caused him a lot of pain and anguish as walking was very difficult. He had to spend his final year in Culrose House Care Home at Dickleburgh where, tragically, he fell and broke his hip. He never recovered.

Our condolences go to his widow Hilda, children Christopher, Rosemary and Jennifer with their families including their grand-children and great grand-children. We will all remember Tim as a very quiet man whose modesty hid his amazing courage and endurance, whose life brought a feeling of warmth and love to all who knew him.

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