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The Fallen of Kirkby

Gilbert Parker Johnson

  • Son of Parker and Elizabeth Johnson of Wall End, and younger brother of Ben.
  • Merchant Navy Commissioned Electrician, serving on Armed Merchant Cruiser HMS Rawalpindi.
  • Died when sunk off Iceland, 23rd November 1939, aged 43.
  • Also commemorated on the Liverpool Naval Memorial, Panel 3, Column 2. (The only ‘Commissioned Electrician’ named on that memorial – see below for Navy/Merchant Navy relationship.)

Parker Johnson senior worked at the quarry and is described extensively as a bit of a character in ‘Burlington Blue Grey’.

According to Stanley Geddes, Gilbert Parker Johnson’s father was a natural clown, small of stature and affecting a goatee beard. Kirkby people will know what I refer to if I say it was Parker who carved messages on the barn opposite The Ship public house, and on the bridge at Wreaks’ End. (He used to ‘take drink’ and be prone to acting the fool, or perhaps I should say goat.) Maybe it was this habit that prevented him from securing the office of public hangman, which he always claimed to have applied for. Parker Johnson senior retired in 1929, but he had not spent his whole working life in the quarry: according to Mr Geddes, he had a shadowy past in the Merchant Navy, as an engineer, and perhaps influenced Gilbert to follow a similar career. Gilbert Johnson is said by the same source to have been “well spoken” with a “permanent grin”.

SS Rawalpindi, as her name suggests, was a P&O ocean liner on the London-Bombay run, which was requisitioned by the navy and converted into ‘Armed Merchant Cruiser’ HMS Rawalpindi, very early in the Second World War. As a passenger ship she carried 307 First Class and 288 Second Class passengers in some luxury; as an armed merchant cruiser she was fitted with eight 6 inch, World War 1 type guns and two 3 inch guns, and sent out on Northern Patrol around Iceland with a crew of 308, half of whom were merchant seamen, who signed on for the duration of the war.

(Fifty seven such converted passenger ships were deployed in WW2, of which 15 were lost.)

On 23rd November 1939 HMS Rawalpindi came into contact with the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau – two of the most powerful German battleships – which sank the Rawalpindi in 40 minutes.

Captain Kennedy had known that his position was hopeless, but chose to fight rather than surrender: he was among the 260 men who died, another of whom was Gilbert Parker Johnson of Wall End.

Thirty seven British sailors were picked up by the German ships, and 11 by another British converted passenger ship.

Gilbert Johnson is the only Commissioned Electrician named on the Naval Memorial at the Pierhead, Liverpool. The Johnsons lived opposite the Sprys in Wall End; Billy Spry (q.v.) was much younger, being only 22 when he was killed in 1944.

The Rawalpindi, seen here after her conversion to Armed Merchant Cruiser
The Rawalpindi, seen here after her conversion to Armed Merchant Cruiser

In both World Wars Britain was dependent on supplies reaching the home country by sea: in spite of the “Dig For Victory” campaign, not enough food could be produced. It was recognised that the convoy system would be vital to Britain’s survival, and the Atlantic and North Atlantic shipping routes had to be protected if Hitler’s plan to starve the country out were to be defeated, since half our food and all of the oil arrived by sea.

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