The story of Said Ismail Ali who sailed in two wars.
By Jim Dyer
First published in the South Wales Argus 1987
If things had turned out differently for Pill man, Said Ismail Ali, he might now be a cafe owner in sunny Berbera.
The sun-baked country of Somaliland lies on the north-east side of Africa. Devout muslim Said remembers his native British Somaliland and though he still has relatives there and his family visit, they have long since settled into the small and closely-knit Newport Somali community.
He was only twenty-years old when in 1939 he packed his kitbag, put his trust in Allah, and set-off for a seafaring life.
Said Ismail Ali as a young man
Said Ismail Ali as a young man.
From a photocopy of the original 1987 South Wales Argus article.
Today he stands proud at the annual Remembrance Sunday services recalling shipmates and the far-flung places he has voyaged to. Largely unnoticed, he sports a string of impressive medals joining other veterans at the cenotaph.
He and his Somali relatives were nomads scratching-out a meager subsistence living in their barren land. As a youth he went to work in his brother’s cafe in Berbera, the country’s chief port.
Times were hard then for a lad with little schooling, and with a world war approaching rapidly the patriotic Said became a merchant seaman. Today (1987) he is nearing his seventieth year; his English is not so good and memories are beginning to fade. Nobody, however, can deny his contribution to the war effort which the quiet and modest man treats with an inbred realism gained from his upbringing. ‘There was little work and I had a young family to raise. The sea at least meant a steady wage but I do not hold any romantic visions about it all. It was simply a job.’
Soon after going to sea he was ploughing the dangerous waters from Alexandria to the rest of the allied forces in north Africa, with urgent arms and supplies. His own country had been invaded by the Italian armies pushing eastwards from Abyssinia in 1942. It was only relieved six months later by British troops, but Said had been back and forth to Tobruk and other places several times.
It was on one such trip that his ship, he thinks named the Beaver, loaded with patrol cars and ammunition was caught and sunk. As a young mess-boy it was an horrendous experience – going overboard, taking to the lifeboats and struggling to secure his shipmates. He was shortly picked-up by the Royal Navy and landed back in Alex but not before he lost an old shipmate, Hussain Mohammed.
It was in the Med that he was to come to grief again making passage to Malta in convoy in late 1942. The island, as a pivotal base for the allies, was under constant attack by the Germans and Italians air and naval forces and supplies were needed desperately.
Said this time was aboard the Moss Hutchinson steamer ss Maroe carrying army supplies when it was attacked. ‘We were in convoy with other ships, some Norwegian and Swedish owned, and I was a fireman in the engine room. There was a terrific jolt when we were hit and I scuttled out as best I could. I was in a lifeboat with about twenty others when we were picked-up by a destroyer and taken to Malta.’
By the end of the war Said had done most jobs aboard – greaser, trimmer, storeman and donkeyman. It was on the Fort Ellone that he first arrived in Britain in July 1946, and before signing for his next trip on the Glasgow registered Fort Fraser at Barry, he was to make a decision which would change his life.
‘I had relatives in Newport and knew there was a small Somali community there. I decided to settle there and bring my family over.’
Said said that he had been treated well by Newport people and now retired he and his wife Adar have more time to spend with their family – four daughters, two sons and many grandchildren.
Said Ismail Ali continued to ply the only real trade he was used to and voyaged far afield on the big tankers and ships. Though reaching the end of his maritime adventures, there was still one more surprise. In 1981 he signed with the Royal Fleet Auxilliary’s oiler, the 37,000 tons RFA Olmeda.
A brand new chapter was to be written in the history books when in April 1982 the Argentinian President Galtieri, invaded the Falkland Islands after years of political wrangling about ownership.
Even the most modern fighting ship in the British task force had to be re-fuelled at some stage and Said’s ship was there to provide this essential service. He left the Olmeda at Plymouth in July 1982 surviving his last voyage and returning to a joyous family reunion in Capel Crescent, Newport and a well deserved retirement.
For his Second World War service Said was awarded the 1939/45 Star, the Atlantic Star, the Africa Star, the Italy Star and the War Medal. To this impressive display he has now added the South Atlantic Campaign Medal, a reminder of his splendid and loyal labour for his adoptive country.
Article originally published in South Wales Argus on 3rd August 1987