The Battle of the River Plate in the South Atlantic on December 13, 1939 was the first significant naval battle of the Second World War. The German pocket battleship the Graf Spee, engaged in ambushing merchant ships en route for Britain, was attacked by three cruisers, the Ajax, the Achilles and the Exeter.
However, prior to this battle, 300 British seaman, already taken prisoner by the Graf Spee, were transferred to the Altmark, a German fleet tanker.
The men should have been released into Norwegian custody when the Altmark sailed past Bergen, but in direct contravention of international law the prisoners were hidden below decks in storage lockers. Despite two searches by Norwegian officials, the whereabouts of the men was only detected when prisoners released from the scuttled Graf Spee informed the British government.
Among those on board HMS Cossack engaged in a daring raid to rescue the prisoners was a Swindon man, Edward Albert Head, the son of Francis and Winifred Head. Edward, known as Ted, enlisted on February 24, 1939, serving aboard the Cossack as an Engine Room Artificer.
In the summer of 1939 Ted returned home to Swindon where he married local girl Rose Hulme, but the couple were soon parted when Ted rejoined his ship. To be closer to her husband, Rose made her home in Dunfermline where Ted joined her when on leave.
On April 13, 1940 just two months after the infamous Altmark incident, HMS Cossack formed part of a convoy to escort the battleship HMS Warspite. The ships were on a mission to destroy German vessels left after the 1st Battle of Narvik.
During fierce fighting the Cossack was hit seven times, putting her steering gear out of action. Whilst undergoing running repairs during the battle the Cossack continued firing and managed to silence a field gun shooting from behind Narvik. Nine members of the Cossack crew were lost with 21 wounded, among them Ted.
Ted returned to Scotland and was nursed on the Ardgowan estate on the Firth of Clyde used as a military hospital during both the first and second world wars.
Ted and Rose’s son was born on July 30, 1941 but by the beginning of August Ted was at sea again, this time aboard HMS Tonbridge. Engaged in netlaying off the East Anglian coast, the Tonbridge was bombed by German aircraft. The engine room took a direct hit and 35 men, including Ted, were killed.
The telegram informing Rose of her husband’s death was sent to her parent’s home at 188 Drove Road where she and Ted had begun their married life together. Her sister and brother in law travelled to Scotland to break the news to her.
Ted died on August 22, 1941, the day after his 26th birthday. His son William Edward Frank was just 23 days old. Ted had seen him once.
Ted’s name appears on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website. He is also one of 25,000 sailors from both world wars commemorated on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial, situated on Southsea Common overlooking the promenade. A copy of the Memorial Register is kept at the Civic Offices in Guildhall Square.
In 1949 Rose received a financial entitlement accrued during Ted’s naval service - £8 5s residue of wages; £16 2s War Gratuity and £6 6s Naval Prize Money.
Ted & Rose pictured on their wedding day in the garden of 188 Drove Road
Ted (front row, far right) recovering at Ardgowan
Damage sustained by the Cossack during the 2nd Battle of Narvik
Many thanks to Louise Liddell, Ted’s granddaughter, for access to family records and photographs.