The thread about a charity shop book that lead to the story of Captain William Thomson Dawson and the loss of the Leith tanker “Peder Bogen”

I was recently fortunate to acquire this book on the history of the Trinity House in Leith at my favourite charity book shop (St. Columba’s in Canonmills, go visit them!), for a very reasonable price.

The History of Trinity House of Leith, by Dr. John Mason.
The History of Trinity House of Leith, by Dr. John Mason.

It is signed on the inside cover, not by the author as I first thought, but by a “Captain Dawson OBE, the Master of Trinity House”.

30th August 1968. With best wishes to Captain Kerr. From Captain Dawson OBE, Master of Trinity House.
30th August 1968. With best wishes to Captain Kerr. From Captain Dawson OBE, Master of Trinity House.

The award of the OBE piqued my interest enough to look up our Captain Dawson, and it did not take long to find him: William Thomson Dawson. This is why his signature reads “W. Thomson“. Captain Dawson was a local man, born in Leith in 1910, the son of Margaret Alexander and James Dawson – a merchant navy officer. He was named after his grandfather, a Leith shipmaster.

Our Captain Dawson was master of the Leith tanker SS Peder Bogen, a tanker owned by Leith’s Christian Salvesen shipping line. This steam-powered ship was 480 feet long, 62 feet wide and drew 37 feet (146 x 18.9 x 11.2m) with a gross tonnage (a measure of the carrying capacity of a merchant ship) of some 9,700 tons.


The Peder Bogen. © Edinburgh University Salvesen Archive. Coll-36 (2nd tranche. C1. Photographs, No.18)
The Peder Bogen. © Edinburgh University Salvesen Archive. Coll-36 (2nd tranche. C1. Photographs, No.18)

The Peder Bogen had been built in the Dutch city of Dordrecht in 1925 for the Norwegian whaling company Johan Rasmussen, being sold to the Salvesen’s whaling subsidiary The South Georgia Company in 1933, along with the base of Stromness on that island. She was a supply ship supporting the Salvesen’s whaling operations and fleet at South Georgia, carrying fuel and goods south and whale oil north, with the seasons.

When war broke out, the Peder Bogen found itself called up for convoy duty, bringing precious fuel oil east across the Atlantic, for which purposes she was given a token armament for self defence. She had made a number of such passages during the first years of the war until on 19th March 1942 she left Port of Spain in Trinidad, heading for Halifax, Nova Scotia, where she would join an eastbound convoy across the Atlantic. On board she had 11,000 tons of fuel oil for the Admiralty 52 crew (including Dawson) and a single passenger, the radio operator of the French tanker SS Melpomene, which had been sunk a few weeks previously en route from Belfast to Baton Rouge.

Peder Bogen, in New York, 1941. User upload to Ships Nostalgia
Peder Bogen, in New York, 1941. User upload to Ships Nostalgia

The journey north proceeded quietly for 4 days, until on the 23rd March she was hit without warning by two torpedoes from the Italian submarine Morosino, about 700 miles northeast of Puerto Rico and 745 miles southeast of Bermuda, in the position 24° 25′ 48″N by 57° 26′ 24″W.

Italian submarine Comandante Cappelini, a sister ship of Morosini
Italian submarine Comandante Cappelini, a sister ship of Morosini

The ship was holed, and with water pouring into her tanks and machinery spaces and the prospect of the 11,000 tons of oil (not to mention the ships own 2,000 tons of fuel) catching fire, Dawson assembled his crew on deck. He ordered the crew to take to the lifeboats, but asked for volunteers to stay aboard and form a skeleton crew to see if there was a chance of saving the tanker and its precious cargo. He and five others remained on the Peder Bogen, relit the boilers, raised steam and began pumping the water out. They fought a losing battle, and when there was 16 feet of water in the engine room had to abandon the fight and join the lifeboats too. The two little boats then retreated a safe distance to await rescue. For the second time in 3 weeks, the unlucky radio operator of the Melpomene found himself abandoning a torpedoed tanker.

Three hours later, the Peder Bogen had still neither sunk nor caught fire, so once again Dawson and his volunteers made the brave decision to board her and try to save her. The Morosini however had been stalking them, and as they made to do this she surfaced just a mile distant and opened fire with her two 4″ deck guns. The Italian’s gunfire was inaccurate, and it took them 40 rounds to score 5 hits, enough to set the tanker on fire and seal her fate.

The crew were all safe however, and spent a rather unhappy night watching the remains of their ship and its cargo on fire. The next day the two lifeboats set a course for the Virgin islands before becoming separated. They were well equipped for their journey, with food, water and survival gear, and the weather was favourable, so their chances were good. After 4 days rowing against the winds, Dawson’s boat was sighted by the “Clyde-built” Spanish ship Gobeo, which took all aboard. The Spaniards were sympathetic to the plight of the British merchant mariners and treated them well. They landed them in Lisbon, Portugal, 3 weeks later. The men of the other boat, carrying the remains of the Peder Bogen’s crew under First Officer Duncan were picked up the following day after becoming separated. The Argentinian ship Rio Gallegos took them to New York, where they landed 4 days later on March 31st.

On April 14th 1942, The Scotsman reported the happy news to Leith that all onboard the ship had been saved. A table at the bottom of this page lists the names, home towns and ranks and roles of all of the men, as reported by the paper.Captain Dawson was awarded the OBE in 1943 for his part, having “showed splendid courage, resource and leadership and made determined efforts to save his ship in circumstances of great difficulty and danger “. Three of the engineering officers were awarded the MBE and two Firemen recieved the BEM.

Dawson was made Master of Trinity House in 1964, a position he held until 1977. His medals, cap and ephemera were sold at auction in December 2022.

Captain Dawson's medals, hat and ephemera
Captain Dawson’s medals, hat and ephemera

The Morosini was lost at sea on August 8th 1942 with all hands, to causes unknown. In a curious twist to the tale, Captain Dawson’s father, Captain James Dawson, was almost certainly the Captain James Dawson of Leith who was master of the steamer Fingal when she was sunk by a torpedo or mine in the North Sea in March 1915. Six of the crew lost their lives that day. James Dawson, father to the 5 year old William, did not abandon his ship until it slipped under the water but survived.

London & Edinburgh Shipping Co. postcard featuring the Fingal, from 1906
London & Edinburgh Shipping Co. postcard featuring the Fingal, from 1906

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These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur

NameRank / RoleHome
J. E. S. CookChief OfficerEdinburgh
J. Short3rd MateEdinburgh
J. S. Cutt2nd Radio OperatorEdinburgh
D. G. RobertsonCarpenterGovan
J. SwanneyAble Bodied SeamanNorth Ronaldsay, Orkney
A. DuncanSailorGranton
T. RussellOrdinary SeamanEdinburgh
A. C. PeacockOrdinary SeamanDunbar
A. FoxOrdinary SeamanGlasgow
D. EvanDeck Hand
T. BarrasDeck Hand
L. AmphlettDeck Hand
G. ClarkDonkeymanGlasgow
F. S. SteeleChief StewardEdinburgh
C. ClinchCookGrangemouth
J. McFadyenCabin BoyRothesay
Paul BrodskyMess-room StewardEdinburgh
J. D. ElderGalley BoyEdinburgh
G. MortensenAble Bodied SeamanDenmark
J. GrayRadio Operator, Melpomene
W. M. DuncanFirst OfficerAberdeen
J. C. Gibson2nd MateGranton
W. Hayes1st Radio OperatorAustralia
E. McPheely2nd Radio OperatorEdinburgh
J. R. PetersonBo’sunLerwick
F. CowieAble Bodied SeamanLerwick
A. MannAble Bodied SeamanMid Yell, Shetland
J. MurrayAble Bodied SeamanEdinburgh
J. H. TaylorAble Bodied SeamanNottingham
W. McGregorSailorLeith
E. MeyerSailorLeith
S. PorkimGlasgow
J. D. WoodEyemouth
J. DryburghChief EngineerLeith
T. McKinnell2nd EngineerGlasgow
R. Beattie3rd EngineerHawick
J. D. Reid4th EngineerDundee
W. G. McEwan5th EngineerMusselburgh
J. McKeeDonkeymanMilngavie
T. PricePumpmanGlasgow
H. McKennaGreaserGlasgow
B. BradyGreaserKilmarnock
W. AitkenStirlingshire
S. ElliotFiremanBo’ness
E. McDonaldFiremanGlasgow
M. DohertyFiremanCoatbridge
J. MelvinFiremanGlasgow
R. CrombGlasgow
J. Ker2nd CookBelfast
D. BrownFiremanBo’ness
W. A. EllerlyDeck Hand
J. McDonaldDeck Hand
Capt. W. T. DawsonMasterLeith
Survivors of the Peder Bogen, as reported in The Scotsman, 14th April 1942

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