The Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme

The wreck of the Johanna Thorden, by survivor Olof Pehkonen

The following article appeared in an edition of The Orkney View. Alistair and Anne Cormack, publishers of this magazine, have very kindly allowed us to reproduce it here.

In issue 40, Bill Sinclair told the story of the wreck of the Johanna Thorden, having researched in old newspapers and spoken to local people. Since then we have managed, with the aid of Mary Hatakka in Helsinki, to find one of the two survivors still living. Olof Penkonen has now given us his own dramatic account of the tragic loss of the ship in 1937.

 Our ship had, on its maiden voyage, after a very rough return crossing of the Atlantic, reached the Butt of Lewis in the Hebridies on the afternoon of January 11th. After a hard day’s work I went in the evening to my cabin amidships to play cards with a friend. The storm had calmed and the ship was almost steady.

Just after midnight on January 12th the bridge suddenly ordered the engine room to go full astern. We rushed out on deck and were shocked to see a high black cliff (Dunnet Head) we had nearly crashed against. As the shaking ship drew back just in time from this wall, I tried to calm myself and then went to bed.

Today I know that our skipper had never navigated through the Pentland Firth at night. There were some mistakes and confusion with lighthouses, so he had JT hove to for many hours between Dunnet Head and Tor Ness. However, about 5.20 a.m. both diesel motors were ordered to run forward with full speed. It’s also very likely that our Old Man didn’t know about the very dangerous, tidal bore when he ordered JT’s last course. This bore appears from the direction of Duncansby Head and passes by the Skerries on their east side. This might have helped to cause the dramatic fate of JT.

About 6.00 a.m. I was thrown from my bunk and could hear a terrible crash and shudder. I felt at once that JT had struck a rock or something else, and been broken in two pieces. That was confirmed to me by the first mate who passed my open cabin door, calling all hands on the lifeboat deck. Somehow I didn’t believe it really possible to row ashore, so I dressed lightly, believing that I might have to swim. Sadly I left all my better possessions in my cabin and made a last tour along the midship’s empty corridors, cabins and saloons. Then I went out and up to JT’s upper deck.

Up on deck I was met by total confusion. Men dressed in their best rushed to the portside lifeboat which already was turned outside and filled with crew, women and crying children. One of my friends shouted that I should come along, but I had a strange feeling not to join them. It was like a guardian angel had whispered to me, stay on board. Besides there was the starboard lifeboat which also had to be manned. Just as the first lifeboat was launched down without difficulty, the lights went off. I could see how our mates with a flashlight studied a seachart, after which the boat disappeared with the stream via our stern into the darkness. It was then 6.15 a.m.

Meanwhile I had also a chance to observe on the left side a low strip of land (Muckle Skerry) where a light was shining not so far away. Another light was seen, perhaps on Swona, miles away. The weather had suddenly changed, the visibility became poorer and the rising wind started to roll the broken JT dangerously. Later I was told that the Muckle Skerry lighthouse keeper had, about 6 o’clock, observed ship’s lanterns, but when he made his second round had seen only darkness, so he believed the ship had meanwhile gone by.

 Then we had a quick check-up on who was left for the second lifeboat, and the result was depressing. Only thirteen men including me could be seen. They were: Captain Lahja Simola, wireless operator George Moliis, 2nd, 3rd and 4th engineers Ilmari Laurila, Torsten Rehn and Urpo Soderling, carpenter Per Johans, A.B.seamen Hjalmar Blomqvist, Elis Cedergren and Atte Henttu, motorman Kalervo Pohjola, motor apprentices Edward Signell and Runar Strom, as well as myself, saloon waiter Olof Penkonen. Most missed was the second mate, who should have stayed with us. This was a typical result of a great ignorance regarding JT’s lifeboat manoeuvres, nobody knowing which lifeboat he belonged to.

Mr Mollis, who since the disaster had been working with fallen antenna, to try to send an SOS, had given up his hopeless struggle. He and some other men were now waving burning torches, hoping some lighthouse keeper would notice us. I never saw that any rockets had been fired as was later stated. Then we tried to make the starboard lifeboat ready for launching, but to our surprise it didn’t move an inch. Its lifting and lowering devices had been secured with wooden wedges during the previous storm. While the men were desperately trying to dig them out with knives, I went to the bridge to look around. It was still rather dark, but I could clearly see how JT’s foredeck was broken just under the bridge. The deck of the third hold was partly submerged and heavy waves were breaking over it. When I moved to the starboard end of the bridge and looked straight down, I could see a sharp black rock partly visible between the waves. What an awful sight!

Our captain – with whom I had sailed earlier on another Thorden freighter – seemed to be a broken man. He didn’t say much or take charge of the situation. Therefore our second engineer, Ilmari Laurila, took command. He also went down to the engine room about 6.30 a.m. where the inpouring water was not yet dangerously high. But the storm was increasing all the time with huge waves on the starboard side. Just after that, in the first light of the dull morning, JT’s forepart broke loose and was driven away by the swift stream. The visibility was at that moment very poor, about 200 metres, and it was really miserable to see that half-sunken bow disappear into the haze.

Now I went again to the bridge, looking down where JT’s bow had been a moment ago. The rising tide had now covered the Louther Skerry completely, and no sign of land could be seen. Big greedy waves were licking the steel wall protecting the engine room, and if it should break, there was hardly any hope of us surviving. Meanwhile our men had been able to dig out the wooden wedges, but we didn’t yet dare – due to the strong starboard wind – to launch the lifeboat. It would surely have been smashed to pieces.

We could only keep the lifeboat in some way ready for a fast launching, if the wreck suddenly should begin to sink. Somebody had been downstairs looking into the engine room again. The water level was now dangerously high and when suddenly JT’s stern turned in a little better position, we made a speedy decision and began launching our lifeboat. Carpenter Johans and seaman Cedergren stayed on the deck taking care of this hard job. It was also very difficult for us in the boat, as we had to soften with oars the heavy blows against JT’s hull. On one occasion we were swinging in almost a vertical angle and I thought it was the end for us, but somehow they got the boat in balance again.

When the boys glided down along the ropes, seaman Cedergren fell between our lifeboat and the wreck, but was luckily rescued, bruised and wet. We faced more difficulties when we couldn’t free the boat of the fastened ropes, but this problem was resolved with an axe. The strong suction kept us glued to JT’s torn hull, but we were able to free our boat by pushing and rowing as much as we could. At the tiller sat our experienced old-timer, seaman Blomqvist, thanks to whom I am alive today.

When we had rowed as far as 300 metres from the wreck, the stern of the JT rose almost straight up, and with tow shrill blasts of the whistle she sank in ten seconds, with the Finnish flag still fluttering aft, into the deep sea. Why hadn’t we fools used this loud whistle to signal SOS?

At that moment it was about 8.30 a.m., the wind was awfully strong and long high waves were splashing over us. Although the sky was clouded and showers were now and then pouring down, the visibility became at tie quite hopeful. Around us floated all kinds of cargo, such as king-size wooden tobacco barrels, crates, cases and loose radio lamps. The wind was blowing form south or south-east, and far north-west we sighted land which looked like a very high cape, maybe five kilometres away.

Lacking a compass and seachart we had no other choice than to steer towards this cape, because we didn’t know our exact position. But we knew that on our right side the cruel North Sea was very close and there we wouldn’t have much chance of being rescued. It was also very unusual not to see a single ship passing through the Pentland Firth that morning.

We had great help from the right wind and perhaps the stream too, and had to slow down our boat’s speed with the oars and drift-anchor. When we came nearer this cape we were horrified to see how the enormous waves whipped at the high vertical cliff of over a hundred metres. This was an awful sight that made me almost panic stricken. However, on the right side of the cliff we fund a small rock gulf (close to the Old Head), but it was a quite hopeless landing place. Thus we had to try further eastward, rowing like devils in the side wind. We even used our mast and rigged up a jibsail to help us look for a better opening on the awful coastline. After a while the mast broke and went overboard with sail and all, and we had to row again. After advancing about five or six kilometres along the rugged shore, keeping all the time a proper distance off it, we approached a very promising long bay (Kirkhouse Point) and behind it a small church (St Peter’s) and a graveyard surrounded by a low stone wall. Most of us would have let the boat drift with the big waves straight to this sandy beach, but seaman Blomqvist shouted that there we had no chance to survive at all, so we had to try once again to find a more suitable place in the bay, almost in line with the lonely church. We tried to row out again, but we had no strength left to fight against those terrifying high breakers. Then I heard someone say, “Let’s take the course against the church beach, and maybe God will be merciful to us.”

Having advanced about 200m towards the stony beach, our lifeboat suddenly turned crosswise and fell to the bottom with a hard ban, just second before a sky high breaker swept over us. All I could feel was an enormous weight pressing me down, then I whirled round and round very deep under the surface. Although I was equipped with a lifebelt and was a good swimmer and diver, it took quite a long time before I, almost out of breath, reached the boiling surface. There I could see our liefeboat floating bottom up, some swimming men, and then a massive breaker hit me again. Now I glided forward like a cannonball towards the rising shore. Between those awful breakers I had to crawl with all my remaining strength against the returning water flow, trying to avoid colliding against treacherous stones. Thus I somehow, as the firs of us, managed to get closer and closer to the shore. When I lay in the shallow water face down embracing a stone, I was sure I had made it. In spite of the cold water, wet clothes and strong wind I ran upwards, where I stopped upon the green brink, turned around and saw faraway our lifeboat floating to and fro in the bay. I saw only seven men crawling up the slope, so I guessed the other five must have drowned.

The drowned from our lifeboat were: Captain Lahja Simola, carpenter Per Johans, seaman Elis Cedergren, motormen Kalervo Pohjola and Runar Strom. The survivors from the Johanna Thorden pictured on their return to Helsinki. From left: Signell, Pehkonen, Rehn, Laurila, Hentuu, Soderling, Blomqvist and Moliis

There we huddled together close to the church wall, wet and miserable, looking for some help and shelter. We observed a lonely farmhouse about 400m inland and began strolling in that direction. It was a very hard stormy march over an absolutely naked field before we came to the backyard of this house. There we at last found the first living human being, an elderly man who was chopping wood in an open shed. When we all cried out “shipwrecked sailors” he, gaping, cropped his axe, and it was almost a minute before he understood our message. He was told all necessary details about our shipwreck and where we had reached the shore. “This is South Ronaldsay, one of the most southern isles of Orkney,” he said, and ushered us kindly into his chilly house. One small oil stove was burning in the middle of his living room. It didn’t give us much warmth, but half a bottle of Scotch did something to our guts. Thereafter our benefactor went out to raise the alarm about the wreck. His big clock on the wall showed 11.30 a.m.

 Half an hour later he returned with a small bus, some men and to my surprise a real living policeman. They brought us quite a lot of dry clothes, underwear and shoes which I believe very soon found the right sizes for us. It was really a wonderful feeling to get rid of our wet clothes and notice how well organized our helpers were for this kind of aid.

Lifeboat from the Johanna Thorden, courtesy of the authorAmong the local men were also some officials who questioned Mr Moliis about the shipwreck. I am afraid he told them the happenings only from his own point of view, and the newspapers perhaps added their own ideas not quite corresponding with reality.

It was about 2.00 p.m. when the `Bobby’ came back from the beach, telling us that two bodies had been found and would someone kindly come along for identification purposes. The wind was still blowing very hard when I, Mr Laurila and Mr Moliis went back to the field strip between the church and beach. There, lying side by side, were our captain Lahja Simola and motorman Kalervo Pohjola, both pale and liefeless. As we stood looking at the deceased, an airplane flew over us. I supposed it was looking for the missing second lifeboat. I never knew how the flier was able to fly in such weather conditions.

We returned to the house and in a while the bus drove us over the hill to the tiny town of St Margaret’s Hope, to be divided in small groups and placed in private homes. I and seaman Henttu stayed at Mrs Arabella MacDonald’s house, Viewfield. She was a very nice person who took motherly care of us. In the evening she served a very strong and tasteful supper before I and Mr Henttu hit the sack upstairs under many blankets with hot water bottles. Mr Henttu also got some medicine for his nasty cold. I felt quite healthy when I lay awake thinking about the sad events of this day, listening to the gale whistling against the single window panes.

The next morning when we came downstairs after a rather sleepless night, the storm had calmed down, and all the other survivors gathered there as well as local officials and reporters. We were told that yesterday, late in the afternoon, they had found a third victim at the Kirkhouse Point. He had been identified as our carpenter Per Johans. The almost sunken forepart of JT had been found on the Tarf of Swona and the other lifeboat, including only three bodies, on a lonely beach at Deerness.

Thus we had lost all hope that some of the twenty-five persons could have been saved from the other boat. I myself felt very sorry about the loss of the women, children and my old hometown friend, messboy Aulis Paivarinta, whom I, by a mere chance, had helped to get his very first job at sea.

That day we walked along the narrow lanes and streets of St Margaret’s Hope, viewing its surroundings and small picturesque houses. The harbour and pier in a well protected bay could have been reached by us, if we had only known of its existence earlier. In the afternoon we were all invited to a nice family in the harbour district and had an enjoyable five o’clock tea party. When it grew darker the worst storm of the winter was over and we went by a big motorboat over Scapa Flow to the Mainland and forward by bus to Kirkwall. We were told that all important and official matters could better be handled there. But first we were taken to the local morgue to identify those three men found early that morning at Deerness. It was a very gruesome moment for us to see our boatswain Nador Osterman, steward Uno Westerholm and 2nd cook Oskar Westerlund lying there, red raced and wrapped like mummies. I had a feeling that they hadn’t drowned but had died of exhaustion and other unknown causes. After this very sad visit, we found quarters at Mrs Laird’s boarding house in the centre of Kirkwall. This small and cosy residence became our home for the time being.

All the Orcadians were warm-hearted, friendly and generous people. They took us sightseeing all over the Mainland’s historical sites, to entertainments, hotels and many private homes, thus trying to keep the dreadful events as far as possible from our minds.

We also had the best possible assistance when Mr Bell Jr, of shipowner Thorden’s main agency, arrived from London on January 14th to take care of all our difficulties. He was the main agent’s son, a sympathetic, smart young fellow.

During our stay in Kirkwall only three more bodies of JT’s crew were found and identified by us. They were messboy Aulis Paivarinta, seaman Denis de Roussier and motorman Kosti Laaksonen.

By Monday January 18th we were getting rather frustrated and wanted to go home, as no more corpses had been found. The officials had asked tow or three of us to stay in Kirkwall for a longer time. However, they were satisfied with our very accurate and convincing identification list covering all possible details about the missing persons and we were free to leave.

On the morning of January 19th we said goodbye to our new friends and sailed from Stromness to Thurso. From there our journey continued by train to Hull via Edinburgh and York. At Helsinki we and the bodies of nine shipmates arrived by the Finnish passenger ship S.S. Aecturus on January 25th 1937.

Olof Pehkonen, with `Ara' MacDonald, on a return visit to Orkney in 1950. Photo courtesy of the author.After our departure from Kirkwall the following corpses had been found and sent home for burial: Electrician Harry Forsman, first mate Bertel Lindfors, second mate Leo Nygren, seaman Nils Eriksson, guarantee engineer Hugo Jorgensen and his wife Gudrun both from Copenhagen, all identified in accordance with the list we had given the officials. Later on three further corpses had been found, so badly mutilated that they couldn’t be identified. Two of them were buried at South Ronaldsay and one at Longhope. This means that twelve victims were never found.

Readers will note that the main difference between Olof Pehkonens account of the stranding and that reported in the newspapers at the time was where the JT actually grounded. A section of the vessel was fund on Swona and most local folk thought that was where she went ashore. Mr Pehkonen, however, maintains that they struck Louther Skerry, and that after the ship broke in half there, part of it was washed up on Swona. As Bill Sinclair pointed out in his article, the new light on Tor Ness could have caused confusion on the ship’s bridge as to their true position. We have been checking and have discovered that on January 12th 1937, at the time of the grounding and beak up, of the vessel the tide would have being flowing east.  Thus it seems unlikely, though not impossible, that if the ship had in fact stuck Louther Skerry, part of it would have been found on Swona. Fifty-five years on, however, we shall never know for sure. Other slight variations in the accounts show that memories inevitably differ over this length of time.