Captain Mac Collier, who has died aged 95, took part as a merchant seaman in a daring boarding of a suspected enemy ship, and later became Chief Marine Superintendent of one of Britain’s largest merchant fleets.
At the outbreak of war, Collier was first lieutenant of Anglia, a 342-ton armed yacht which had been bought by the Admiralty for the little-known Contraband Control Service, a flotilla of small ships used to enforce the British blockade of the Strait of Gibraltar. Two other yachts of the CCS were commanded by their peacetime owners (both baronets, but content to serve as junior RNVR officers), while Anglia was commanded by Lt McCready, RNVR, who spoke Gaelic with most of his crew.
The Vichy French Admiral Darlan boasted of his success at smuggling grain, wine, peanut oil, meat, fish and other produce through the Strait, and when it became clear that these goods were reaching Rommel’s Afrika Korps in the Western Desert, it was decided that strong measures were necessary.
In early 1941 Anglia, showing no lights, entered Moroccan territorial waters and waited hidden under the cliffs west of the Spanish port of Ceuta. In the early hours a ship with no navigation lights (which all neutral ships were required to carry) was silhouetted against the lights of the port.
As the ship passed, Anglia closed stealthily; then Collier and a small party of armed seamen jumped on to the deck of the other ship. Lifting a corner of the canvas cover over the engine room skylight, Collier read a brass plate showing that she had been built in Germany.
On her present course she would soon pass out of territorial waters, so Collier sent one seaman to the engine room to see that the speed was not altered, and, leaving another on deck to deal with any emergency and to give the signal should any fighting break out, he and one other man crept up the ladder to the bridge.
Collier found the officer on watch peering through binoculars to seaward in search of British warships, and pressed a pistol into the small of his back while his comrade covered the helmsman. The ship, which had a Spanish crew, was searched, contraband of war was found, and she was seized and carried into Gibraltar.
Harold Malcolm Collier was born on March 16 1917 into a family which had worked in the shipping industry for generations. His father was Chief Customs Officer at Goole, and Mac (short for Malcolm) was educated at Goole Grammar School, leaving in 1933 to go to sea as an articled apprentice with Andrew Weir’s Bank Line. He spent two years on the Indian-African service in the MV Congella, then another two on round-the-world service.
After passing his Second Mate’s Certificate, Collier joined Associated Humber Lines of Hull, whose ships traded to the continent. He also joined the Royal Naval Reserve and undertook training in the battleship Iron Duke and the destroyer Antelope. In 1939 he obtained his First Mate’s Certificate, completed a gunnery course and joined the destroyer Brilliant.
After his time in Anglia, Collier served briefly in the carrier Argus, which delivered aircraft to the besieged island of Malta.
In 1942-43 Collier commanded the anti-submarine trawler Valse in the North Sea, and in 1944-45 the corvette Burdock on Atlantic convoys. On June 5 1944 he escorted a convoy of 12 tank landing craft and the fighter-direction ship FDT 216 to Gold Beach at Arromanches les Bains. He maintained crew morale by playing them Dinah Shore’s Give Me Something to Remember You By.
For the next five weeks he provided close anti-aircraft and anti-submarine support to FDT 216, until, on July 7 , FDT 216 was hit in a night torpedo attack by a Junkers 88. Five lives were lost, and she was scuttled. Collier rescued 250 men, including Squadron Leader the Duke of Newcastle.
He finished his war in command of the weather ship Rushen Castle, reporting from 200 miles off Cape Finisterre.
Back in civilian life, Collier worked for Associated Humber Lines (AHL), becoming a Master Mariner in 1949. In 1960 he was appointed Marine Superintendent in AHL and in 1966 became Marine Superintendent of British Rail Southern Region, responsible for the ferries operating from the southern English ports. He was Chief Marine Superintendent of Sealink for 11 years (effectively the “admiral” of a fleet of 72 ships) until his retirement in 1982 .