In 1946 the Jewish Marine League, then affiliated to British ORT, acquired the Cutty Sark, a recently decommissioned war ship (not to be confused with the famous clipper ship).
The League was founded in 1934 with the aim of training boys for careers in a future Israeli merchant navy. Together with British ORT they intended to use the Cutty Sark as a training ship. The ship was in an unseaworthy condition when purchased, requiring repairs and conversion. To raise funds for the enterprise, the League held a concert of Jewish Music at the Royal Albert Hall on 5 February 1946 with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Anatole Fistoulari with Max Rostal (violin), Anthony Pini (cello) and vocals performed by mezzosoprano Gertrude (Gila) Holt.
Previously, the Cutty Sark had an interesting life which is worth exploring. She was first built by Yarrow & Co. Ltd., from plates originally destined for a WWI S class destroyer, for Major Henry Keswick of the Jardine Matheson trading conglomerate and was launched on 18 March 1920. Her maiden voyage was a round-the-world trip to visit Major Keswick’s company interests in the Far East during 1920-1921.
In 1926 the Duke of Westminster acquired the Cutty Sark, cruising her from Norway to the Red Sea. Known as the Duke’s floating gin palace throughout the late 20s and 1930s, she was a familiar sight at Cowes, Biarritz, the Mediterranean and the west coast of Scotland, hosting many of the period’s celebrities. So much so that she gets a mention in Noël Coward's play, Private Lives, set on the Riviera. Famous guests included the Churchills, Coco Chanel, and the Prince of Wales and Wallis Simpson in September 1935.
On the outbreak of war in September 1939 the Cutty Sark was requisitioned by the Admiralty and sent to Southampton to be fitted out and armed as an Anti-Submarine vessel. In 1940 she was converted into a submarine supply ship and attached to the 3rd Submarine Flotilla. Her war service was mainly routine escort work. But in May 1940 she was ordered to Dunkirk, but then diverted to Saint Malo to successfully destroy some radio masts. While there she was dive bombed, her sides blown in, causing flooding to the engine room, forcing a tow back to Devonport, Plymouth for repairs. In 1941 The Duke of Westminster sold the Cutty Sark to Cdr Mack, the ship’s commander at the time. In October 1942 the Cutty Sark was once more scrambled from Holy Loch to rescue the crew of an RAF bomber which came down in the Bay of Biscay.
The ship was eventually acquired by the Ministry of War Transport in 1942 and was manned by the Royal Naval Patrol Service until August 1944. By then the need for requisitioned vessels had diminished, and HMS Cutty Sark was laid up at King’s Lynn and used by the Sea Cadets until her acquisition by the Jewish Marine League.
Following in-depth discussions between the Marine League and British ORT, she was converted into a training ship capable of accommodating 60 boys in 1946. The conversion was carried out at Kings Lynn, Norfolk, and the ship was towed to Grays, Essex and re-named Training Ship "Joseph Hertz" in honour of the late Chief Rabbi (1872–1946), President of the Jewish Marine League. As the Marine scheme got under way, 21 boys—17 of whom had experienced life in concentration camps— were on board, under the command of Commander Neil. F. Israel, D.S.C.
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The boys learned a variety of maritime skills, including navigation, signalling, rigging, diving, salvage work and boat operation.
Jewish culture was also a part of the students’ life on board as well as sports activities and recreation. In September 1946 Rev. Solomon Lipson – Senior Jewish Chaplain to the British Forces during WWI, minister and superintendent of the religion classes at Hammersmith and West Kensington Synagogue and later Jewish Chaplain to the Mental Health Service – was appointed Chaplain of the Joseph Hertz. He visited the ship to provide the trainees with spiritual guidance and also provided Captain Israel with a form of daily service, which was used on board. In addition, Rabbi M. Fabritz from the Norwich synagogue had also visited the ship and reported favourably about his visit and the small synagogue on board.