At the beginning of the Second World War the anchorage in the Downs was full to overflowing with ships awaiting inspection from naval officers of the Contraband Control. Neutral vessels had their nationality and countries flag painted upon the side of their hulls – this hopefully deterred the Germans or the British from attacking them on the high seas. Allied merchant vessels had their companies colours painted out with black paint to confuse the enemy of their origin.
The Mahratta had started her voyage from Calcutta at the outbreak of the conflict, and had received her paint job at a quick stopover in Gibraltar. Even after the long passage, she was still obliged to anchor up in the Downs for inspection from the Contraband Control. This was an unpopular duty for the skippers, as they were always in a hurry to either complete or start their journeys. For the pilots who escorted the Allied ships through the British minefields, or to their destination, their painted out colours made it a nightmare to identify them amongst the other vessels in the anchorage.
In the late afternoon of October 6th, 1939, the Mahratta’s master, Captain Hill, had received orders that, on the arrival of the Trinity House pilot, he was to proceed to their destination. However, his impatience cost him his ship.
Captain Tod Carlton was the 37 year old Pilot that had been assigned the job of shepherding the Mahratta out of the Downs and to the London docks. He was looking forward to re-visiting the Mahratta, as he had spent time aboard her when he worked for the Brocklebank Line as a deck apprentice. Unfortunately, Captain Hill had already up-anchored and was slowly proceeding through the maze of ships. As he eased the helm to the east, to clear the tightly packed anchorage, he ran his vessel aground on the Goodwin Sands. With the calm sea and the ship’s slow speed the Captain thought the Mahratta’s halt was due to engine failure.
Whilst this was happening, Tod Carlton had been searching for his charge in the darkness of that autumn evening. He found the Mahratta hard aground on the edge of the sandbank, north-east of the anchorage. Shortly after boarding her, he reminded the captain of the dangers of the Goodwin Sands, and requested that he took all precautions to alleviate the situation. Over the next few days six tugs and the help of the Deal boatmen could not assist in the Mahratta’spredicament and, eventually, when the weather became inclement the ship’s hull split in half.
If only the captain had waited for the pilot, this disaster possible would never have happened.
A few years after the war, Tod Carlton settled in Kingsdown and in his later years opened an antique shop in Ringwould. Before his death, at the age of 94, he could be found prawning among the rocks at low tide. His knowledge and memories of the Downs, as a Cinque Ports pilot, were outstanding.