Saturday, April 21, 2007



If you were to write a novel in which the hero lived to a ripe old age thanks to a series of similar coincidences, it is unlikely that any publisher would accept it. In real life, though, some people are remarkably fortunate, as an obituary notice in yesterday's Daily Telegraph reminds us.

Chief Petty Officer Gordon Selby, who has died aged 87, served in submarines in the Royal Navy during World War II. In September 1940 he was appointed coxswain of the submarine Upholder, and during 13 months he survived 24 patrols at a time when one British submarine a week was being lost in the attempt to cut supply lines to Rommel's army in North Africa.

Upholder disappeared in 1942, but a few weeks earlier, Selby had been drafted to the submarine P-39.

On the outbreak of war he should have joined the submarine Oxley, but his place was taken by a more experienced man; Oxley was lost.

On P-39 he escaped injury when the submarine was wrecked during a Luftwaffe attack on the submarine base at Lazaretto, Malta. With other survivors he was evacuated in the submarine Olympus, which struck a mine about six miles south of Malta. He was one of only seven survivors of the 90 persons on board.

In 1943 Selby arrived in Algiers to join the submarine Sickle, which after patrols off southern France, was lost with all hands, but Selby was not on board, having been selected to join the submarine Storm.

After the War he became coxswain of Truculent, which he left in 1949 when his 12-year engagement expired. The folowing year Truculent was lost in a collision in the Thames.

He was re-engaged to continue his Naval career and the most amazing coincidence occurred on the afternoon of 15 April 1951 when he was due to sail in the submarine Affray. He had already settled into the boat when, as president of HMS Dolphin's chief petty officers' mess, he was called ashore to attend to some last-minute mess business. He became ill and was admitted to hospital half an hour before the submarine sailed. That night Affray was lost in the Channel with all hands.

"Sailor, rest your oars", the American tribute to each of our brothers as they pass along.

As a retired, post WWII U.S. Naval Submariner, I salute all of the "smokeboaters" of that era. They passed on to us a tradition and legacy that may never be equaled. In this world that would have us believe that there are no heroes, it is good that we hear stories like this and can pass on to our grandchildren so they can hear of the heroes of the past.

My uncle, a WWII U.S. Submariner, regaled me with stories of his experiences. He also told my Mum that if I were to go into the service, it was to be the Navy and to the Submarine Force. I did that and wear the Dolphins with great pride of accomplishment, but still in awe of the WWII men it was my pleasure and honor to serve with when I first arrived from the destroyer force. To all of the mariners of our allied forces in WWII, thank you from the bottom of my heart for your love of country and the love of your fellow citizens. No greater love has a man. . . ." My afore mentioned uncle's son was killed during the battle of Okinawa at age 19y, 5m.
Re coincidences:
Some coincidences seem extraordinary at a first reading, then become a bit less so when you stop and reconsider. However, the one you relate is certainly a rarity. The one I like best is one recounted by J.E.Littlewood (mathematician) which appears in Warren Weaver's book "Lady Luck" (Pelican Books 1977) in a chapter entitled "Rare Events, Coincidences and Surprising Occurrences". It is a bit too long to give here, but Littlewood described it as "genuinely remarkable" in his notes. He experienced it first hand at a boarding house in London. I should add that he considers odds of 1 per million as "a mere trifle".

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