Second World War hero in search for former comrades

A former postman from Selkirk has told of his pride after raising the Merchant Navy’s Red Ensign at Scottish Borders Council’s headquarters this week.

But 95-year-old Stephen Taylor Smith would gladly have given that honour up for the chance to see one of his former wartime colleagues perform the function in his place.

Stephen helps David Parker raise the Red Ensign

Stephen helps David Parker raise the Red Ensign

It’s believed Stephen, now a resident at Waverley Care Home in Galashiels, might be the last surviving member of a group of Royal Navy personnel who volunteered to act as gunners aboard merchant ships during the Second World War.

However, the former Bannerfield resident, who ran the Ashkirk post route for 34 years, has not given up the dream of meeting another DEMS (defensively equipped merchant ships) seaman gunner.

He said: “I had always wanted to go to sea, ever since I was a young lad, so I did.

“And being a part of the DEMS is something I am very proud of, and I was proud to be asked to help raise the flag at Newtown this week.

Councillors and veterans of the Merchant Navy at the civic reception at Newtown.

Councillors and veterans of the Merchant Navy at the civic reception at Newtown.

“But genuinely, one of my most dear wishes is to find others who served in the DEMS.”

As well as holding firm against heavy bombing raids, manning the guns against enemy aircraft and U-boats and helping to keep Britain’s fleet moving, Stephen and his cohorts also had some other tasks on board ship.

He said: “I remember having to go down a hatch in the pitch dark. When I switched the light on at the bottom, there were rats left, right and centre. It was our job to kill as many as we could. We were supposed to get paid for that, but I was taken off the ship before I was paid.

"I also remember saving the ship once, when there was a fire in one of the ventilators.

Stephen Taylor Smith with the book which was published a couple of years ago,

Stephen Taylor Smith with the book which was published a couple of years ago,

“A ball of material had caught fire. I don’t know what the skipper was doing at the time, either drunk in his bunk or womanising, but I put out the fire.”

Stephen’s exploits were recounted a couple of years ago, by an author who was a friend of the family, Captain BP Parker ... and that book has been added to the collection at the Imperial War Museum.

On Monday, September 3, a special civic reception was held at the council’s HQ at Newtown, with Stephen helping council convener David Parker hoist the Red Ensign, whic h is flying over the building all week to mark Merchant Navy Day.

Mr Parker said: “I was delighted to be able to host local ex-Merchant Navy personnel and their families and hear some fascinating stories about their time serving their country.

“Meeting the likes of Stephen Taylor Smith was an honour, and I am proud the council will fly the Merchant Navy flag above our headquarters this week.”

Councillor John Greenwell, the authority’s armed forces and veterans champion, added: “The Merchant Navy has provided an important service for the last century to Britain, providing vital supplies to the country particularly at times of war.

“This ceremony is a small thank-you to Borderers who served in the Merchant Navy for their considerable efforts over a number of years.”