Lawrance George Billing was born at 49 St Thomas’ Road, Derby on 23 March 1898. This was his maternal grandparents’ home and next door lived his uncle William Billing and family. In 1901 Lawrance, his mother and his sister were living there with Joseph and Mary Bull while his father, George Billing, a Private with the Sherwood Foresters, was in South Africa.
Lawrance left St James Higher Grade School in Derby in 1913 with the School Leaving Certificate and began work as a Fitter’s Apprentice with the Midland Railway in Derby. This is no doubt where he learnt his joinery skills, which later came in very useful for making furniture.
He joined the army in 1916, aged 18, just as his father had, and served with the 2nd Leicestershire Regiment at Belgaum in India for about 6 months before transferring to the Royal Engineers' Inland Waterways and Transportation Division in Basrah. There are two notes in his service record about late return from leave. The first, in 1918, is rather a mystery and from what is legible it appears he may have been admitted to hospital rather than overstaying leave. The second, however, shortly after his return to England, is a clear-cut misdemeanour; he was 3 days late returning from leave in July 1919, for which he earned 8 days open arrest and forfeited 3 days' pay. He was based at Richborough, the Inland Waterways Depot near Sandwich, so it may not be too fanciful to suppose that this was around the time he met his future wife, Hettie Cooley, and she had something to do with it.
Demobbed in December 1919 as a Corporal, Lawrance married Hettie 8 months' later in August 1920 at Shardlow registry office in Derby, with his mother, Ellen, and his sister, Cilla, as witnesses. His occupation was given as ‘Musician – Picture House’ on the marriage certificate. He played the cello with the band at the Babbington Lane Picture House and eventually became leader of the band. He also played the piano and the saxophone. The advent of the 'talkies' ended that career and (according to his cousin Joseph) he set himself up in the radio business and had a shop at Chaddesden Lane End.
Lawrance and Hettie lived in Essex Street in Derby and had 3 children: John Anthony (Tony), born 5 August 1921, Christine Joy, born 24 December 1922 and Michael, born 2 April 1927. Mick remembered very little about his father but he was obviously impressed when once Lawrance bought a bagful of cream buns, gave one to Mick and then ate the rest himself on the walk home.
He was working as a temporary clerk and pay clerk in Derby Employment Exchange when he re-joined the Army as a 'Post-war supplementary reservist' in 1930, but moved on, in 1933, to be a solicitor's cashier and book-keeper. In 1935 he was working as clerk and relieving cashier in Derby Corporation Electricity Department, supervising 4 other clerks.
By 1930 he took education seriously and went to Derby Technical College ‘most winter sessions to 1939’ for Accounts, Spanish and Mercantile Law. He achieved Secretarial qualifications and an RSA 1st class pass in Advanced Spanish – written and oral. Both of his sisters, Cilla and Dolly, also studied Spanish, apparently, and travelled to Spain regularly in later life. Whether or not there was some connection with the Civil War there will probably remain a mystery but it seems significant that Lawrance began his Spanish studies in 1936.
He was mobilized in September 1939 to join the Hospital Carrier St Andrew – in a clerical/paymaster role - and he was on board throughout the evacuation of Dunkirk. By October 1940 he was a sergeant, in charge of pay. It was at this point that he was recommended for a commission. He was of 'exemplary character' with an 'exceptionally good power of leadership' but his medical category was B1, which "...included those who, while not attaining the standard of Grade I, were able to stand a fair amount of physical strain and were likely to improve if trained. Men in this Grade had to be able, when trained, to march six miles with ease. They had to have fair sight and hearing and have average muscular development". http://collections.iwm.org.uk/server/show/ConWebDoc.4431
Lawrance gave his first choice as the Intelligence Corps. He was posted to Heysham Towers near Morecambe to 168 OCTU in July 1941 but within 2 months was transferred to 163 OCTU Artists’ Rifles. His report on completion of officer training describes him as being a 'charming and engaging personality'. He was posted to the Wiltshire Regiment but in February 1942 was sent to Whitehall for an interview for the Royal Army Pay Corps. He was posted to the Regimental Pay Office in Leicester for 3 months’ probation, followed by several brief courses with illegible or obscure titles and then in early November 1942 he was posted to ‘port of embarkation’.
On the 6th Feb 1943 Hettie received a telegram saying he had been ‘reported missing at sea on or shortly after 1st December 1942’. In July 1943 Hettie wrote to the War Office, requesting a delay in the presumption of death, but a month later she had obviously realized that it could achieve nothing and she wrote to allow it to be recorded that he was ‘presumed to have been killed in action at sea on or shortly after 1st December, 1942’.
No-one in the family knew what ship he had been in or where it had been operating, and families of other men lost in this event were similarly in the dark. In his service record there is one mention of the ‘USSS Coamo’ in tiny writing in parentheses after ‘missing at sea’.
Exhaustive searching on the Internet eventually brought much of the story, and the efforts of Fred Breyer of Hadleigh, David Taylor, the son of Lawrance’s superior officer, and Philip Morgan of Barry, filled in all the missing details. The S.S. Coamo was an ocean liner that had been converted to a troop transport.
Lawrance, as part of OC Troops permanent staff, joined USAT Coamo on 8 November 1942 in Liverpool and then sailed to The Clyde where some 1,500 UK military personnel embarked. The vessel then sailed to Algiers where the troops were off-loaded as part of Operation Torch, which was the code name for the invasion of North Africa. The Coamo departed from Algiers on 25 November bound for Gibraltar and on November 26 left Gibraltar, joining a fast westbound convoy to Land’s End, a convoy transfer point.
On 1 December the British Admiralty decided to detach the Coamo (and one other ship) and ordered the master, Nels Helgesen, to proceed independently to New York via the Bermuda route, which was regarded as safer for ships travelling independently.
To go back a few days: on November 26, the German U-boat U-604 from 9-U Flotilla, under the command of Horst Holtring, departed the submarine pens at Brest, France, for the North Atlantic west of Ireland to join a group of seven other U-boats called the “Draufganger” (daredevils) that were planning an attack on a convoy to New York. However, when they could not locate the convoy, they spread out. On December 2, 1942, at 2018 GWT the U-604 was NNE of the Azores when it spotted the Coamo. Holtring manoeuvred his boat into a firing position and at 800 yards fired one torpedo which struck the Coamo just below the bridge. It sank rapidly and was gone in five minutes. The loss of the Coamo was the greatest single loss of merchant mariners (133) on a U.S.-flagged merchant vessel of World War II.
The details on the sinking of the Coamo are from the German war records.
The other British personnel included 4 other members of the permanent staff and 11 members of the RAMC.