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William Smith

Notable Local Geologists: W. Stuart McKerrow

William Stuart McKerrow (1922–2004)

Professor Jim Kennedy writes, Mac was an Oxford geological institution with a life and career of distinction: a DSC in World War II at the age of 21, and an Oxford D.Sc 25 years later. Now read on...

Stuart Mckerrow was born in Glasgow on June 28, 1922.  He attended the Glasgow Academy, and Abbotsolme School in Staffordshire, before entering Glasgow University in 1940. Having completed two years at university, he was called-up in 1942, and commissioned as sub-lieutenant. Following general induction, he joined the river class frigate K232 HMS Tay, on convoy escort duty in the North Atlantic, working as a high frequency direction-finding expert.  It was during extreme bad weather that Stuart discovered that his receiver - a square cube weighing 51 kg (one hundred weight or so) was damaged - and its direction-finding abilities impared.  As German submarines or Unterseeboots (U-boats) remained submerged during bad weather, he had himself and the receiver secured with ropes, and held steady by a suitably robust seaman, spent six hours with a soldering iron carrying out repairs that would normally take ten minutes on dry land.  After some further hours of work, the receiver was reassembled and switched on. A U-boat was immediately detected on the surface and quickly destroyed.

  HMS Tay   


"Outstanding Skill and Duty"

In mid-1943, his escort group joined SC130 in thick fog east of Newfoundland and proceeded north-eastward. As the fog cleared the convoy changed course, and around twenty U-boats surfaced and radioed Germany to report the course change.Repeated course changes on Stuart's advice led to repeated surfacing and radio traffic, and detection of the location of the submarine pack.  Five of the six escorts were placed in the same quarter, repelling U-boat attacks with great success: the convoy landed in Londonderry without loss of a single merchantman.  Such was the confidence of Commander John Gretton in his high frequency direction-finding team.

From Londonderry, Stuart was summoned by the Admiralty in England, and driven northwards to Station X at Bletchley Park, where he gave the third lecture of his life to some twenty mathematicians and code breakers, who wanted to know why the U-boat radio transmissions had been so unusual the previous week.  

It was for the these two examples of " outstanding skill and duty" that his DSC was awarded.

In March 1944, his then escort group (B7) was disbanded, and the ships were reassigned to assist in the Normandy landings of June 6, 1944.  When Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945, U-boats in the North Atlantic were ordered to proceed to Loch Eriboll on the north coast of Scotland.  The 21st Escort Group (to which Stuart was now attached) was sent to greet them, and boarding parties sent to remove small arms, torpedo detonators and alcohol.  Much time was devoted to harvesting mussels and winkles from the shore of the loch to go with the recently acquired German wines.

Stuart finished his war in Australia.  He was demobbed on Friday November 16, 1945, and started geology classes back at Glasgow University three days later on Monday November 19. As a result he graduated in 1947, when qualified geologists were in great demand. Offered three posts, he accepted an offer from Oxford University, where he remained until his retirement, marrying his fellow Glaswegian Jean Stark Brown in 1949.  He followed a distinguished career as an academic - as Stuart to his colleagues and 'Mac' to the 42 generations of students he taught, and the twenty doctoral students he supervised.  It was, he said, the students that gave him the ideas and inspiration.  He was the author of 120 books and articles on a wide range of topics, from the fossils of the Jurassic rocks of southern England to the reconstruction and configuration of ancient continents and oceans through the last 0.5 Ga of Earth history.

...a founder member of the Palaeontological Association

He was a founding member of the Palaeontological Association, a group that led the renaissance of the study of fossils in the United Kingdom.  His contributions to science were recognised by the award of the degree of Doctor of Science by Oxford University in 1977, the Lyell Medal of the Geological Society of London in 1981, the Clough Medal of the Geological Society of Edinburgh in 1988, the Foumerier Medal of the Geological Society of Belgium in 1995 and the T.N. George Medal of the Geological Society of Glasgow in 1997.  He served as vice-president of the Geological Society of London and President of the Palaeontological Association.

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