Elva Trevelion – An Untold Story from Trove
This is a story about a story that, it seems, has never been properly told and an example of the value of Trove. Most family history researchers understand what a treasure Trove is – Trove being the project of the National Library of Australia to digitise the newspapers of Australia. Trawling Trove – yes, the alliterations will flow – often produces unexpected treasures. Some time ago, I recorded from Ancestry the passenger list references for my 3rd cousin (once removed) Elva May Trevelion in my Jones-Sexton tree. At the time, I merely noted that it was interesting that she was on a passenger liner during World War II. Then much later, searching family notices for the Trevelion family attributions and citations, I came across a death notice referring to Elva as being overseas. Recalling the earlier passenger list record, I set out to find more and came across a story about Elva Trevelion having served as a nurse aboard troopships. What a story! But – with an unsatisfactory ending as it seems a wonderful tale has been washed away in the tides of quite recent history. Hopefully, out there somewhere is another Trevelion descendant who has been able to put down the story of Elva in a more intimate and informed manner than I am able to here.
I have previously documented the Trevelion family in my Jones-Sexton tree but in a format way too detailed for publication on this blog. In summary, George Trevelion departed London 13 June 1849 aboard the Macedon and arrived at Port Adelaide 3 October that year. Three of George’s sisters – Eleanor, Jane and Mary – arrived at Port Adelaide three years later on 10 December 1852 aboard the Sea Park. Jane married James Sexton in 1853 and was my 2 x great grandmother. George’s great granddaughter Elva May Trevelion was born in Adelaide 3 February 1908 to Reginald George and Lottie (Ascough) Trevelion.
In 1937 on 2 April, Elva sailed to England on the Moldavia – she was recorded on the passenger list as being a nurse intending to reside at 194 Queen’s Gate, London (which still exists). In December 1942 she is listed, as a passenger, and as a nurse, on the Empire Grace arriving in New York. The Empire Grace was a refrigerated cargo liner built in 1942 for the British Ministry of War Transport and operated by the Shaw Saville and Albion Line. Following World War II, the vessel was purchased by the Line and renamed the SS Wairangi. While there are quite detailed records available for World War II shipping convoys, I am unable to locate a reference to the Empire Grace. Yet, this is a time when the North Atlantic convoys were being regularly attacked by German U-boat submarines and the sinking of merchant vessels including passenger ships was a regular occurrence. Possibly due to wartime censorship, there seems to be no available record of the arrival of the Empire Grace in Australia but Australians (many of them with military and diplomatic connections) were predominant on the passenger list. In July 1943, the Loxton Hospital Board announced that it had appointed Elva May Trevelion as its replacement Matron.
The Advertiser of 10 February 1937 in its column “The Social Round” carries a brief account of Elva Trevelion of Glenelg about to sail to England on the Moravia to attend the Coronation. This was the coronation of King George VI on 12 May 1937 following the abdication of Edward VIII to marry Wallis Hope Simpson. (Try this link to view a clip of the Coronation parade filmed six months after the establishment of the BBC Television Service http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q8tbUyeE2Kk )
Details of Elva’s career begins to emerge in 1940 with the following story in The Advertiser of 12 June 1940:
S.A. NURSES’S ESCAPE
FROM BOMBED SHIP
Vivid story of Hair-Raising Experience
A South Australian nurse who has been serving in transports since the outbreak of war had a hair’s breadth escape from flames recently, when a Nazi raider attacked a liner. She is Sister Elva Trevelion of Glenelg, who went to England in the Coronation year for six months holiday and decided to stay.
Today she told the following story:-
“After embarkation from France, our troopship anchored three miles from a port. Members of the crew were taking a siesta at 2.30 p.m. when the sirens on shore blew madly. We could here planes droning, and then a great crash caused the ship to rock.
“I was not troubled thinking we were so far from Germany and that blasting operations were going on. Then a violent explosion blew in the door of my cabin, instantly filling the corridors with flames and smoke.
“I was the only woman in the ship. The ship’s lighting system was out of action, and it was a long journey to the surgery, which was filled with badly-wounded men.
“Although we heard flames roaring down upon us, we were forced to attend to the wounded for half an hour before they were wrapped in blankets and taken on stretchers to the deck. A bomb had struck amidships. The wounded were taken off. I landed at the port penniless and without any possessions.”
Sister Trevelion is a daughter of Mr and Mrs. R.G. Trevelion of Broadway, Glenelg. She was educated at Norwood school, and received her training at Port Pirie Hospital. Sister Trevelion later passed a midwifery course at the Queen Victoria Maternity Hospital.
However, do not be taken in by the first-person account: The Advertiser has exercised some journalistic licence as the paper’s follow up story of 13 June reveals:
S.A. Nurse Serving in Troopships
Sister Elva Trevelion, a South Australian nurse, whose story of a narrow escape from flames when a German raider attacked a liner was related in “The Advertiser” yesterday has been serving on troopships since the outbreak of war. Sister Trevelion’s parents, who live on the Broadway, Glenelg, said yesterday their daughter had written regularly to them since she left for England in 1937 but her movements were uncertain because of censorship regulations.
“Most of Elva’s letters are written at sea” said Mrs Trevelion “and, of course, we do not know what ship she is serving in.”
In one of her letters to her parents Sister Trevelion stated that she was the only woman on board the troopship on which she was serving as nurse.
The sinking of the ship seems to be first reported by the New York Times 2 June 1940:
Raid South France
Germans Kill 46, Wound About 100 – British Ship is Struck
FACTORIES ARE STRUCK
District of Lyon Suffers Heavy Attack – Swiss Down 2 Invaders
By the Associated Press
MARSEILLES, France, June 1 – Germany’s air might fell heavily on Southern France today in one of the biggest aerial forays of the war, leaving a path of death and destruction in half a dozen towns and cities down through this rich industrial Rhone Valley.
At least 46 people were killed, thirty of them here and in the harbour of this second largest city in France. The wounded numbered around a hundred.
The attackers in their first raid on the South of France dropped two heavy bombs in this Mediterranean port. A cotton-laden British ship was sunk.
We do not learn the name of this ship until 13 February 1941 when the Nottingham Evening Post (the story being picked up by the Courier-Mail in Brisbane the next day) provides the necessary detail:
Figure 1: Nottingham Evening Post13 February 1941
Numerous references to the Orford can be found but most of them scant in detail. The ship was not actually sunk – the burn-out hulk was towed ashore and re-floated several years later before being finally scrapped in 1947. The date of 1 June 1940 is significant; this is the time of Dunkirk when the Allied forces were being forced to evacuate in face of the German advance across Western Europe. While the Orford could have been carrying cotton, it was already in use as troopship. There are references available that it had earlier transported Free French troops to Madagascar and that the Orford was on loan to the French Navy but it is also reported that it was in Marseilles to evacuate troops from there. Fourteen people died in the attack on the Orford; all of them were crew, indicative of there being no troops aboard, and they are buried in the Mazargues War Cemetery. The remainder of the crew were apparently transported to England via Cherbourg but no details of this journey have been found. It seems the sinking of the Orford was not officially confirmed until 13 February 1941 and the Chronicle article of 20 February reporting this fact also links Elva to the ship as well as claiming the ship carried 2 000 ‘native’ labourers from Madagascar.
Figure 2: Chronicle 20 February 1941 p.32:
The RMS Orford was built in 1928 as a liner of 20 000 tons for the Orient Steamship Company to operate between England and Australia and was a regular visitor to Australian ports. In 1934 the ship carried the Australian Cricket Team (Don Bradman and “The Invincibles”) to England for an Ashes tour.
Figure 3: Orford postcard autographed by the Australian Test Cricket team
The Orford was photographed in Sydney in 1930 during the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and was part of a procession of ships vising Sydney for the Bridge opening in 1932.
Figure 4: RMS Orford, Sydney Harbour 18 December 1930
Figure 5: RMS Orford and the opening of Sydney Harbour Bridge 19 March 1932
At the commencement of the War, the British Government commandeered most merchant ships and liners although the vessels continued to be operated by their original owners and crew. Elva seems to have been already serving aboard the RMS Orford which was given the designation HMT U5 and as part of Convoy US1, departed Sydney with the Australian Army 6th Division 10 January 1940 bound for Egypt. The Orford arrived at Ismalia on the Suez Canal on 20 February 1940 where the troops disembarked.
Figure 6: Troops boarding RMS Orford February 1940
Figure 7: 6th Division AIF departing Sydney aboard RMS Orford
We can be reasonably sure that Elva was on the Orford at this time as in a later 1943 interview with the Adelaide Advertiser she says that “she had been away from South Australia for six years except for half a day when her ship, then a passenger liner, called at the Outer Harbour.”
In this interview, published 4 February 1943, it is said that her final voyage was in a troopship carrying 3000 Americans and 1000 British Commandos as part of the “North African armada” and again that Elva was the only female aboard. This seems to be a reference to Operation Torch which was the British-American invasion of French North Africa. Prime Minister Churchill had convinced President Roosevelt that gaining control of North Africa and the Middle East was the better strategic option rather than have the United States engage in an early Western Europe campaign. Two convoys comprising 196 ships in total departed Clyde on 22 October 1942 (Convoy KMS1) and Liverpool 26 October (KMF1) and were on station by 7 November to deliver some 61000 American and British troops and materiel to Oran, Algiers and Bougie in Algeria. These actions, including landings at Casablanca by the US Task Force 34 and Convoy UGF1, were against the Vichy French. While the actions were short and successful, nevertheless the convoys were attacked as they neared their destinations and during the landings – at least three merchant ships were sunk.
Figure 8: Operation Torch Landing, North Africa
The National Library of Australia’s Trove project covers not only the Nation’s newspapers but also the Australian Women’s Weekly which published a story about Elva 27 February 1943 that adds some additional detail to the story as recounted this far. She tells us that she saw her relatives at Outer Harbour when on her first voyage with the Orient Company and when her ship reached Australia (without naming the ship). “Then her ship became part of the first convoy to leave Australian waters carrying Australian troops.” This squares with another family history account where the author’s father describes the Orford as being luxurious accommodation until the ship reached Fremantle where all the fittings were removed. Elva tells us that her ship (the Orford) reached Marseilles with French troops from Madagascar and that the ship was struck by a torpedo after disembarkation.
The Australian Women’s Weekly story tells us:
In all her miles of voyaging, in all seas and in all climates, Miss Trevelion has always been a good sailor.
Ï had a small suite,” she says. At times there would be plenty of work for me to do, nursing the officers or crew.”
Being the only woman aboard, she was looked on as something of a mascot. The only time there were other women was during the trip with the first Australian convoy when four Army sisters travelled.
Their names, and those of everyone who enjoyed hospitality in her little suite, are in a tiny autograph book which she values as the one written record of her trips.
Regulations about keeping diaries or cameras were so strict that happenings which are not written indelibly on her mind must be counted as lost.
Finally Elva described the Algerian invasion convoy as the most exciting time of her life and says:
I’ll never forget the scene there with the sea full of troopships surrounded by warships and circled above by protecting planes from the aircraft carriers.
We cannot be sure what ships Elva was serving on during this time but quite a number of the Orient Steamship vessels served as troop transports. The Orcades, Orion, and Otranto were together with the Orford in the 1940 US1 Convoy from Australia to the Middle East. Orion, Ormonde, Orontes and Otranto were each involved in Operation Torch so it is possible that Elva was serving on one of these. Life on a troopship was obviously hazardous given the Orcades was torpedoed off the Cape of Good Hope in 1942 as was the Oransay off Liberia having delivered French troops to Madagascar. The Orama had earlier been sunk during Operation Alphabet, the evacuation of allied troops from Norway, just a few days after the attack on the Orford. Elva says in the Australian Women’s Weekly article that she helped with the evacuation of women and children from Colombo, Palestine and Egypt.
Trove gives up a further reference to Elva Trevelion. The Avro Lancaster B1 bomber, serial number WX4783 – otherwise known as “G-for-George” – was operated in Britain by the RAAF 460 Squadron. After completing some 90 bombing missions over Europe, the aircraft was returned to Australia in 1944 for conservation purposes. Early in 1945, the aircraft toured various provincial towns in the Eastern States in connection with the Third War Victory Loan fund raising. Arriving in Loxton on ANZAC Day 1945, “G-for-George” was used to provide flights for official guests including Elva May Trevelion.
Figure 8: “G for George” on the Victory Loan Tour April 1945
Elva made a further trip to England in May 1957 aboard the Strathaird, itself a former P&O troopship that also participated in Operation Torch, and then she disappears from the public record. Elva died in 1990 aged 82 years and is buried in Adelaide’s Payneham Cemetery.
Figure 9: Elva May Trevelion 1908-1990
- 1937, “The Social Round”, The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA: 1931-1954), 10 February, p.10, viewed 19 October 2013, http://nla.gov.au/nlanews-article 41619689
- 1940, “Raid South France”, New York Times, 2 June 1940, p.2, viewed 19 October 2013, http://www.frepublic.com/focus.chat/252387
- 1940 “S.A. Nurse’s Close Call When Ship Bombed”, News (Adelaide, SA: 1923-1954), Tuesday 11 June 1940, p.5, viewed 10 Dec 2013, http://nla.gov.au/nlanews-article 132004606
- 1940 “”S.A. Nurse’s Escape from Bombed Ship”, The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA: 1931-1954), Wednesday 12 June 1940, p.10, viewed 10 December 2013, http://nla.gov.au/nlanews-article 47197819
- 1940 “S.A. Nurse Serving in Troopships”, The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA: 1931-1954), Thursday 13 June 1940, p.7, viewed 10 December 2013, http://nla.gov.au/nlanews-article 47197819
- 1940 “People in the News”, The Mail (Adelaide, SA: 1912-1954), 15 June, p.7, viewed 10 December 2013, http://nla.gov.au/nlanews-article 54810566
- 1941, “Orford: Nazis’ Belated Claim””, The Nottingham Evening Post, Thursday 13 February 1941, British Newspaper Archive, Findmypast.com
- 1941, “Liner Orford Reported Sunk”, The Courier Mail, (Brisbane, Qld: 1933-1954), 14 February, p.5, viewed 2 November 2013, http://nla.gov.au/nlanews-article 44883623
- 1941, “Orford Was Sunk in June at Marseilles” News (Adelaide, SA: 1923-1954) 14 February, p.5, viewed 30 December 2013, http://nla.gov.au/nlanews-article 131427944
- 1941, “Liner Orford Sunk”, The Chronicle (Adelaide, SA: 1895-1954), 20 February, p.32, viewed 19 October 2013, http://nla.gov.au/nlanews-article 92415144
- 1943, “Only Woman in African Convoy”, The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA: 1931-1954), 4 February, p.5, viewed 19 October 2013, http://nla.gov.au/nlanews-article 48900261
- 1943, “”Australian Nurse only Woman in Algiers Convoy”, Australian Women’s Weekly (1933-1982), p.16, viewed 29 December 2013, http://nla.gov.au/nlanews-article 469443468
- 1945, “G for George at Loxton”, Murray Pioneer (Renmark, SA: 1942-1950), 26 April, p.1 and 7, viewed 19 October 2013, http://nla.gov.au/nlanews-article 109411622
- UK Incoming Passenger List 1890-1960, Ancestry.com Operations Inc. 2008
- New York Passenger Lists 1829-1957, Ancestry.com Operations Inc. 2010
- UK Outgoing Passenger List 1890-1960, Ancestry.com Operations Inc. 2008
- Britain: outbound passenger lists 1890-1960, Findmypast.com
- Cunningham, Sir Andrew, Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean, The Landings in North Africa: Operation “Torch”- Report of Proceedings, London Gazette (Supplement), 23 March 1949, Pp 1509-1525, HM Stationery Office, London.
- A Family History Scrapbook www.kevincurrie.com.au
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