I never knew my paternal Grandmothers brother, my Great Uncle John. I heard but one brief mention of him as a child. One year on the lead up to the Armistice commemoration, my father set about making at home, a small wooden cross, for the life of me I can’t remember what he wrote on it or why, that year and no other prior or thereafter, but he painstakingly cut, sanded & varnished this little cross, wrote his message upon it and affixed it with a blood red poppy. On ‘Remembrance Sunday’ we went into George Square in Glasgow to the Cenotaph where he planted his little cross in the garden or remembrance and ever so briefly mentioned that it was for his Uncle… simply that, and no more.
It wasn’t until some 30 odd years later that I discovered just who he planted that cross that day in remembrance of.
John Davidson Shennan was born on 25th September 1924 at 14 French Street, Dalmarnock, Glasgow… until recently a dilapidated area of the City which is presently undergoing somewhat of a re-boot in preparation of the forthcoming 2014 Commonwealth Games. He was the 11th of 13 children of which only 7 survived past infancy.
Come the Second World War John answered the call & joined the Royal Navy where at the beginning of August 1943 he was sent to the Shetland Islands and stationed at HMS Fox, Lerwick serving aboard a Motor Torpedo Boat (MTB 686) seconded to the Norwegian 54th Flotilla.
The next couple of months would appear to have been quite eventful for John & his shipmates on MTB686 -
- In September, MTB’s 618 and 626 torpedoed the German vessel Anke. On that occasion they were towed a part of the way by the whaling vessels Risør and Horten. The same whalers towed three MTBs on the 17th of September, but MTB686 suffered an engine failure, and Risør had to tow her back.
- October 23rd; MTBs 553, 688, 686 and 699 torpedoed and sunk the German ship Kilstraum at Bessakerholmen, north of Trondheim. Afterwards, they were spotted and attacked by three German fighter aircraft. On MTB688 five men were wounded and one man was killed in the first attack. The planes came back, and MTB699 caught fire. The crew had to leave the boat, but were picked up by MTBs 688, MTB’s 686 & 653 had taken another course and fortunately were not attacked.
However on November 22nd tragedy struck; an explosion occurred on MTB686 while it was moored at the Anglo – Scottish Quay, at North Ness. Fuel and ammunition caught fire, and the fire spread to the adjacent Norwegian vessel MTB626 and massive explosions reverberated through the town. 42 families were evacuated from the waterfront, roads were closed as a safety precaution & there was considerable damage to windows throughout North Ness as they were shattered by the third explosion.
It was impossible to take control of the fire, and the decision had to be taken to open fire on the 2 boats and sink them, to prevent the further spread of the fire, the Navy ships in the harbour fired upon and eventually sank the two burning vessels tied to the wharf in North Ness. During the incident machine gun bullets and tracer fire ricocheted through town. Apart from the three documented explosions, the incident culminated with a great flash of blue lightening and immediate clap of thunder that at the time, many wrongly interpreted as a fourth explosion.
Seven British and one Norwegian crew members lost their lives. In addition to those who lost their lives, there were many seriously wounded on both boats.
The names of the dead crew members were :
From MTB 626 :
Oskar Bastian Grunnevold
From MTB 686 :
W. P. Allan – L. R. Clarke – J. M. Gray – J. R. McNeil – F. Sullivan – S. G. Small & my Great Uncle, Ordinary Seaman John Davidson Shennan.
According to the Len Reynolds book “Dog Boats at War”, the cause of the explosion was as follows:-
“…Two day’s later on 22 November  686 was alongside at Lerwick with 626 outside her. [Boat] 686 was commanded by Lt A McDonald and had been the first of Gemmel’s 58th Flotilla to arrive at Lerwick. The boats were loaded with extra fuel in petrol cans on the upper deck and the crews were making their final checks. Somehow or other, an Oerlikon gun on 686 was accidentally fired, the petrol cans ignited, and the fire spread like lightening to both boats. There were massive explosions as ammunition and the main petrol tanks went up, and both boats were destroyed. There was near panic on Lerwick, but no other boats were caught up in the disaster, which left 686 with four of her crew dead and 626 with one…..”