Family ‘adopt’ Sunderland sailor killed by German torpedo

ALWAYS REMEMBERED: The memorial featuring Thomas King, with the poppy laid by the King family.
ALWAYS REMEMBERED: The memorial featuring Thomas King, with the poppy laid by the King family.
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MEMORIES of a fallen Wearside hero will live on - thanks to an act of kindness by strangers.

East End-born Thomas Henry King was just 18 when he drowned on January 6, 1941, after his ship - SS Empire Thunder - was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat.

ENEMY ACTION: German u-boat 124 - which sank SS Empire Thunder in 1941. The submarine was sunk with all hands lost west of Portugal in 1943.

ENEMY ACTION: German u-boat 124 - which sank SS Empire Thunder in 1941. The submarine was sunk with all hands lost west of Portugal in 1943.

Now the King family of Kingston-upon-Thames have “adopted” the young sailor - despite not being related - and plan to honour his death each Remembrance Day.

“Last year I visited the exhibition of poppies at the Tower of London, marking the 100th anniversary of World War One, and found it very moving,” said social worker Simon King.

“I persuaded my wife to take our five-year-old son Archie the next day, and asked her to visit the nearby merchant seamen memorial as well, choose a name and place a poppy next to it.

“Archie picked out Thomas King completely at random, and we now intend to make him the focus of our attention each November - remembering his sacrifice with a poppy.”

Thomas, son of Richard Hedley King and his wife Priscilla Rock, was born within the shadow of the workhouse, at 13 Trinity Place, in 1922 - the fifth of ten children.

His father, a ship plate riveter, had fought with the Bedfordshire Regiment during the Great War - until invalided out in August 1918 with a gunshot wound to the thigh.

Sadly, history was soon to be repeated. As Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, so Thomas joined the merchant navy, while his older brother Dick served in France.

“Once Archie picked out Thomas’s name, we started to research which ship Thomas had served on and found out it was the 5,965-ton SS Empire Thunder,” said Simon.

“This was a cargo ship built by William Pickersgill & Sons, for the Ministry of Shipping, and launched on August 6, 1940. Sadly, it was torpedoed on its maiden voyage.”

SS Empire Thunder left the Wear in November 1940 en route for America but, within a month, had sent out an SOS after its main engine was left disabled by strong gales.

Little, however, could be done for the stricken ship and within days Thunder was “a straggler” in convoy OB-269 - making it an easy target for U-124 on January 6, 1941.

The German submarine, which carried the nickname Edelweisseboot, torpedoed and sunk the ship just off the west of Scotland. Nine men, including Thomas, were killed.

A further 30 survived the blast - some from Sunderland - and were rescued by HMS Kingston Onyx, which dropped them at Stornoway, in the Hebrides, on January 8.

Thomas’s death was much-mourned by his close-knit family, who placed several moving tributes in the Echo - including touching poems and personal messages of love.

Sadly, however, with about 31,908 merchant seamen killed during the war - roughly 25 per cent of 130,0000 employed - Thomas’s tragic story was not to be a unique one.

“I would like to trace Thomas’s family and let them know he hasn’t been forgotten - that a complete stranger and his five-year-old son now remember him,” said Simon.

“Obviously, it is more than 70 years since his death, but hopefully he still has family alive. Perhaps I could email them a photo of Thomas’s name on the war memorial.

“It makes me sad to think of how many people on that memorial wall have no-one to remember them. At least now this brave sailor from Sunderland will be remembered.”

•Are you a member of Thomas’s family? You can contact Simon by email via

Also killed when SS Empire Thunder was torpedoed:

l Charles Deny: Fireman and Trimmer, aged 46.

l Charles Docherty: Gally Boy, aged 16.

l Edward Dury: Fireman and Trimmer, aged 37.

l Edward Chilton Milburn: Able Seaman, aged 26.

l Robert Reed. Able Seaman, aged 21. Son of Thomas and Sarah Ann Reed, of Sunderland.

l Sydney Richardson. Able Seaman, aged 21.

l Norman Stranger. Cabin Boy, aged 19.

l Andrew Wardropper Wake. Fireman and Trimmer, aged 20.

King family facts:

l Thomas served as a fireman and trimmer aboard SS Empire Thunder. He was born on May 16, 1922, at 13 Trinity Place - but also lived at 71 Church Walk for a while.

l Thomas’s parents Richard and Priscilla married at St Cuthbert’s Church in Monkwearmouth in 1916. Their first home was at 44 Huddleston Street, Monkwearmouth.

l Richard King was just 18 when he signed up to fight in World War One. He was jailed for desertion after disappearing at around the time Priscilla lost a baby boy.

l Richard suffered a gun shot wound to the thigh while fighting on the frontline on August 22, 1918. He received a War Badge for his injuries and was invalided out of the army.

l Richard and Priscilla had around ten children, including Bryce - who was born and died in 1917 - Dick, Ernest, Thomas, Priscilla, Gladys, John, William and Septimus.

l Thomas is today remembered on the Tower Hill Memorial in London.