Birtwistle, Herbert Joseph
Birtwistle, Herbert Joseph

Herbert Joseph Birtwistle was born in October 1920 in Lostock Hall.  His father was Herbert Birtwistle (born 1881 in Billington, near Whalley), a licensed victualler.  His mother was Mary Isherwood (b. 1883 in Blackburn).  Herbert and Mary were married in Blackburn in 1907 and they had 4 children: Mary (b. 1908), Mark (b. 1909), Frederick Austin (b. 1918) and then Herbert Joseph.  In 1911, Herbert snr was landlord of the Ram’s Head at Longton but by the time Herbert jnr was born the family had moved to the Railway Hotel on Watkin Lane in Lostock Hall.

Birtwistle, Herbert Joseph

Railway Hotel, Watkin Lane

I don’t know the precise details of Herbert’s service but we know he was aboard the M. V. Abosso when she was sunk by a German U-boat on 29 October 1942.  Abosso left Cape Town for Liverpool on 8 October 1942, with 393 people on board including 210 passengers: 149 military and 61 civilians, including 44 internees, 10 women with children and two or three British distressed seamen (the official term for abandoned seamen away from home without a ship for various reasons).  Among the military personnel there were 44 newly trained pilots fresh from No 23 Service Flying Training School, X Flight, Advanced Training Squadron, at Heany, Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia (40 for the RAF and four for the Fleet Air Arm).  So Herbert was one of these RAF servicemen.

Birtwistle, Herbert Joseph

M V Abosso

Abosso sailed alone and unescorted, despite having a top speed of only 14.5 knots (26.9 km/h).  Among the passengers was a commander of Dutch submariners; he objected beforehand that this was an unreasonable risk to take, but British authorities overruled him.  At 22:13 on Thursday 29 October 1942 Abosso was in the Atlantic about 589 nautical miles (1,091 km) north of the Azores when German submarine U-575 fired four torpedoes at her. One hit Abosso's port side abaft her bridge. The ship's engines stopped, all her lights failed, and she started to list heavily to port.  As Abosso settled in the water, she temporarily righted herself, but almost immediately after this, U-575 fired a torpedo from one of her stern torpedo tubes, which hit Abosso at 22:28 forward of her bridge.  At 23:05 hrs Abosso sank bow first. The submarine then surfaced, approached the débris area, and scanned the boats with her searchlights. The submarine commander did not attempt to assist any survivors.  A small number of survivors were picked up two days later by a passing convoy, but 362 of the original 393 passengers and crew lost their lives, including Herbert Birtwistle, who was 22 years old.

The casualties are commemorated in a variety of different locations.  Of the RAF casualties, 21 (including Herbert) are commemorated in Singapore and 19 in Egypt.

Rank: Flight Sergeant

Service Number: 569393

Unit/Regiment: Royal Air Force

Date of death: 29/10/1942

Age: 22


Memorial Reference: Column 413.

Additional Information: Son of Mr and Mrs Herbert Birtwistle.