Obituary: Douglas Henderson, last remaining survivor of the Beaverdale, who spent ten days in sea after attack

Born: 16 August, 1916, in Lydd, Kent in 1916. Died: 15 December, 2011, in Peterhead, aged 95

A remarkable war hero who survived ten days on a liferaft after a torpedo attack on his ship has died at the age of 95.

Douglas Henderson was the last remaining survivor of the Beaverdale, which was torpedoed by German submarines during the Second World War.

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The merchant seaman and fellow crew managed to scramble into liferafts when they came under attack in the North Atlantic in 1941. Around 20 men died, but Henderson and 31 shipmates survived over a week of freezing conditions and were eventually rescued by the Icelandic trawler Gulltoppur.

He had always wanted to thank the skipper, Halldor Gislason, who rescued him, and was delighted to have finally tracked him down. But he could not afford to travel to Iceland. The skipper had celebrated his 100th birthday in 1999 so he told his family he wanted to buy him a nice bottle of whisky instead. His daughter suggested a visit to a distillery to get a bottle and Henderson turned up to find Noel Edmonds and his crew waiting to fly him to Iceland for a reunion that was shown on a Christmas Day TV special. The skipper passed away seven days after the pair were reunited.

Henderson recently celebrated 60 years of marriage to his wife Marriete, whom he met during VE celebrations in Belgium. They were married two years later to the day on 10 May. The Hendersons then moved to Cheltenham, where they worked for about ten years as joint managers of a sports club. They moved to Peterhead when they retired.

Henderson was a staunch supporter of Merchant Navy Day. He persuaded the local council to fly the red ensign above its Buchan Headquarters in Peterhead’s Broad Street every year on 3 September. The day commemorates the sinking of the Athenia, which was attacked by a German U-boat off the west coast of Scotland in 1939. A total of 98 passengers and 19 crew died. Henderson saw the flag as a fitting tribute to more than 40,000 merchant seamen and fishermen who died during the war.

Douglas Henderson was born in Lydd in Kent in 1916. He was the youngest of nine children, two sisters and six brothers. His father worked as a dentist from the family home and his mother worked as his assistant. He went to live in an orphanage when he was seven after his father died of cancer. He joined the Merchant Navy as soon as he left school.

His daughter Michelle Emslie described her father’s career as “the love of his life”. She said: “He travelled back and fore from New Zealand then went on to join the Canadian Pacific shipping company. That took him on to the Beaverdale ship which sunk. Thirteen of his comrades were killed when it was targeted by the German U-boat. The other 32 managed to get on to two or three lifeboats where they stayed for ten days sharing just a few crumbs of food between them.

“By the time they were rescued, many of them were suffering from frostbite. They were taken to a hospital in Reykjavík then transferred to a war hospital in Greenock in Scotland.”

Douglas spent several years in Essex and worked as a transport manager in London. But he was proud of his Scottish ancestry – his parents and grandparents were Scottish. So when his son Clive decided to relocate to the Peterhead area 36 years ago, the retired couple decided to move to be closer to them.

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The keen gardener is survived by his wife, son Clive, daughter Michelle, three grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

His daughter said she hoped Aberdeenshire Council would carry on the tradition that her father had fought so hard to maintain.

She said: “The flag was placed over Dad’s coffin for his funeral service, but it will be stored away and, hopefully, the council will continue to fly it on Merchant Navy Day. “It’s certainly what he would have wanted.”