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Two brothers have travelled more than 300 miles to lay a wreath over the remains of the SS Aska, a ship which sank off the coast of Cara 80 years ago, with their merchant seaman uncle, John Martin, onboard.
Michael and David Martin travelled from Teesside in the north east of England to visit the site which became the final resting place of John, a Newcastle native who was aged just 22, and the 11 other men who died when the Aska was bombed by German aircraft in 1940 during the Second World War.
The Aska was a cruise liner owned by the British India Steam Navigation Company which was hired into government service to be used as a troop carrier at the outbreak of war in 1939.
The ship left West Africa in September 1940, bound for Liverpool, carrying 50 British troops, 300 French troops, nine other passengers, and a crew of 184 mostly Indians, as well as 600 tons of cocoa but she was bombed at 2.30am on September 16, when between Rathlin Island and Maiden’s Rock.
She drifted on fire, finally settling on the reef off Cara where her wreckage can still be seen at low tide.
To mark the 80th anniversary of the sinking, Michael and David arrived on the neighbouring island of Gigha on September 15 and were due to lay a wreath over the wreckage on September 16 but, due to bad weather, they were forced to postpone the ceremony until September 17.
After an appeal to the islanders of Gigha, a plastic-free, biodegradable wreath was created by Bryony White, head gardener at Achamore Gardens, and the pupils of Gigha Primary School, using flowers and foliage from the gardens.
In addition to the placing of the wreath, a bottle of brown ale, brewed just a few yards from where John was born in the Ouseburn area of Newcastle, was sunk over the wreck site using a stone bearing the names of all the merchant seamen who died when the Aska sank.
‘I am sure John will pass it on to them,’ Michael said, ‘because he did not drink!’
Following the ceremony, Michael and David delivered a socially distanced presentation to Gigha’s schoolchildren after which they visited Gigha and Cara church to view a ceramic poppy that had been placed there in memory of John and the Aska disaster.
During their visit to Gigha, the brothers were shown a deck door salvaged from the Aska which served as the front door to a home on the island until a few years ago. It is hoped that it can be publicly displayed on the island in the future.
They were also presented with the glass – the only remaining part – from another salvaged door by 88-year-old John McNeill, on behalf of the Gigha community.
Michael said: ‘Mr McNeill also accompanied us out to the wreck site on the day, in his own boat which he still uses to haul creels on occasion. He is a remarkable man who remembers seeing, from the island’s south pier, the fire and smoke from the SS Aska when it ran aground and continued burning. He would have been around nine years old.’
The brothers were also shown one of the gantry crane strain arms that formed part of the Aska’s lifting equipment, used to load and unload cargo, which was salvaged and is now used as a gate post on Gigha.
Michael told the Courier: ‘The whole Gigha community was great and gave us unreserved support in our task.’
He explained that the visit was fulfilling a promise he made to his late father, David William Martin, John’s younger brother, who was aged just 14 when the ship sank.
‘In my father’s last few months with us, I promised that at some future date I would travel up to the Isle of Gigha, and find John’s final resting place,’ Michael said. ‘I had shown him on a map exactly where that was several years before.’
As part of the 80th anniversary memorial arrangements, Michael prepared a document for his family’s archive in which he shares John’s life story as well as the history of the Aska and its sinking.
In it, he wrote: ‘For many years, and even more so while I have been putting this document together, I have found it increasingly difficult to try and reconcile the fact that the wreck of the SS Aska was never given ‘war grave’ status, because it undoubtedly is… it is the final resting place of John Martin and the majority of those that were killed on September 16 1940.’
Michael added: ‘The visit to the islands of Gigha and Cara, the offering up and laying of a wreath, fulfilling a promise made to my father several years ago, and the writing of this document has gone some way to ease my own mind.’