Tuesday, 5 November 2013

San Demetrio, London

mv San Demetrio (Crown Copyright)
In November 1940, although the Battle of Britain had officially ended, the people of Britain's towns and cities were settling down to a long winter of bombing that they would have to endure throughout the long nights of winter right through until the spring of 1941 when at last, Hitler's eyes would begin to turn eastwards to fresh conquests against his erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union.

Apart from the hardships brought about by the Blitz, the British public were starting to feel the pinch of the rationing of all sorts of products from foodstuffs to fuel. This shortage of petrol had already forced the majority of private cars off the roads and what petrol as could be imported was mainly reserved for the war effort. The fall of France in June 1940 had brought the major ports along France's Atlantic coast into the hands of the Germans and the vessels of the Kriegsmarine no longer had to make the perilous and fuel consuming voyage through the North Sea or the Greenland-Iceland-UK Gap in order to reach the rich pickings of the Atlantic convoys.

Prior to the fall of France, convoy after convoy had sailed safely across 'The Pond' without ever seeing a submarine or a surface raider but this had now all changed and the supplies to Britain and her Empire, at this time standing alone against the Nazi threat, were suddenly in danger of being cut off. 

Today, when asked about the Battle of the Atlantic, most people would imagine that the threat came solely from the U-Boats and to a great extent, this is true but in the early years of the war especially, there was also a substantial danger posed by surface raiders such as the so-called 'Pocket Battleships' of the Admiral Scheer class. One of these, the Graf Spee, had already been hunted down and destroyed in December 1939 giving the Royal Navy it's first major victory of the War. However, this victory had come after the raider had created havoc and alarm amongst British merchant shipping in the southern sea lanes. 

Now, another raider was at large; Admiral Scheer was prowling the North Atlantic in search of easy pickings in the form of either unescorted merchant ships, or the still woefully under-escorted convoys that were streaming across from Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Admiral Scheer (US Naval Historical Center)

One such convoy was HX84, which had sailed from Halifax on 28th October 1940 and by 5th November was well into it's voyage, which was intended to end at Liverpool around the 11th November. For these early convoys of the war, the close escort was pitifully weak and at this mid-Atlantic stage of the convoy, consisted solely of the Armed Merchant Cruiser, Jervis Bay, under the command of Captain ESF Fegen RN, which in spite of it's impressive sounding title, was basically a converted passenger ship of the Aberdeen Commonwealth Line, which had been requisitioned by the Royal Navy and hastily armed with seven 1898 vintage six inch guns as well as a couple of three inch anti aircraft guns from First World War stocks. It was intended to reinforce the escort for the final leg of the voyage into Liverpool but in the meantime, Captain Fegen and the remainder of the convoy waited anxiously in hope that there would be no fireworks on the 5th November.

As darkness fell, these hopes were dashed as the Admiral Scheer discovered the convoy and began approaching in the expectation of easy pickings. Despite being hopelessly outgunned, Fegen ordered the convoy to scatter under cover of a smokescreen generated by the Jervis Bay and took his weakly armed vessel into combat with the raider. It was a hopelessly uneven contest and the Jervis Bay was soon reduced to a blazing wreck by the eleven inch guns of the German raider. Out of a ship's complement of 254, only 65 survivors were later rescued by a neutral Swedish merchant vessel. Captain Fegen was not amongst them and he was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his gallantry in attempting to save the convoy.

Although the Admiral Scheer then moved amongst the scattering merchant ships and managed to sink five of them, the remaining ships of the 38 vessel convoy managed to reach Liverpool in ones and twos and so Fegen's sacrifice had not been in vain.

One of the merchant ships damaged in the ensuing melee had been the 12,000 deadweight ton tanker San Demetrio, owned by the Eagle Oil Company and carrying a precious cargo of petrol. She was indeed struck by an eleven inch shell and set ablaze, with her Captain wisely ordering the crew to abandon ship, for a blazing tanker was no place to be and in the circumstances, even the North Atlantic of November posed a better option for survival. One of the two lifeboats, the one containing the ship's master Captain Waite and 25 others, was quickly picked up by another merchant ship from the now scattered convoy but the other boat, containing the Chief Engineer Mr Pollard, the Second Officer Mr Hawkins and fourteen others was not so fortunate and spent the night in the cold Atlantic swell. The following morning, a ship was sighted and knowing that this might prove to be their only chance of rescue, the now exhausted men headed for it; amazingly, it turned out to be their old ship San Demetrio, abandoned, still ablaze but also still afloat. The men took the decision to reboard the ship and despite the rising seas, managed to do so. At first, it was intended to be a temporary measure until either the weather abated, or until they stumbled upon another ship but when the lifeboat was washed from the falls by a heavy sea, the men were effectively stranded on board their own ship.

San Demetrio arrives on the Clyde (John Lewis Jones)

An inspection of the engine room by Mr Pollard soon discovered that a diesel generator could be made to work, thus giving a means of providing pressure for the fire hoses and pumping the engine room dry, following which it was decided that the main engines were still serviceable and that the ship could eventually be made to move under her own power. This was a herculean task given the lack of manpower but it was achieved and three days later, the ship resumed her passage. All of the charts, compasses and other navigational equipment had been destroyed in the shelling and the ensuing fire but with the aid of a school atlas discovered in one of the undamaged cabins and some skilful navigation by Mr Hawkins, San Demetrio was soon heading homewards.

Food and drink for the men was also a major problem but some rum was found on board, as well as plenty of fresh water. Some tea being taken home as a present was also discovered and despite the enormous risk of lighting the galley stove - there were still petrol leaks and vapours in the air - the chance of a hot 'cuppa' lifted morale enormously. Hot food was provided by boiling vegetables in the engine room and although not ideal, proved sufficient to keep the men nourished.

There was one further casualty, when John Boyle, who had been injured during the initial battle, died from internal haemorrhaging two days into the voyage home.

 Poster for the film (Ealing Studios)
On 13th November, San Demetrio made landfall at Black Sod Bay, Eire and by now escorted but still under her own power, she at last reached the Clyde on 15th November, where her precious cargo was offloaded and the men who had salvaged their own ship were able to return to their homes.

The men were awarded salvage money as they had re-boarded and salvaged their own vessel without any outside assistance. The cargo of petrol was worth £60,000 at 1940 prices and the ship, being almost new, was valued at £250,000 and the award of salvage money was spread more or less equally around the men who had re-boarded their ship, including a payment to the estate of John Boyle.

San Demetrio herself was repaired and returned to service but in March 1942, the tanker finally succumbed to enemy attack, this time from a U-Boat and was torpedoed and sunk by U-404 whilst sailing independently to the UK from Baltimore. Sixteen of her crew plus DEMS (Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships) gunners were lost, although there were 32 survivors.

The story of the San Demetrio was a heart warming tale of ingenuity at sea as well as a triumph over adversity that was made into a film by Ealing Studios, simply entitled San Demetrio, London that was released in 1943 and which still gets shown on TV from time to time to this day.

Published Sources:

The Battle of The Atlantic - John Costello & Terry Hughes, Harper Collins 1977
The War at Sea - editor John Winton, Hutchinson 1974

Web Resource:

Arnold Hague Convoy Database 

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