"John Lewis Jones"
1921 ~ 1986
The so-called ' glamour ' attached to shipboard life was certainly missing that day in April 1937, when I traveled from my home on the Llyn Peninsula to North Shields on Tyneside, a very 'green' sixteen-year-old ship apprentice with slightly apprehensive feelings about the career I was about to embark upon. The ship, a tanker called San Felix, lay in dry-dock where certainly no vessel ever looks her best! However, I was glad to stretch out in the upper bunk allotted to me that night, only to sit bolt upright with a bang on my head next morning when the vibrating sound of a hammer being used on the metal deck immediately above introduced me to shipboard life. Captain Goudie was the master under whom I first sailed, and I was fortunate that from him, and the officers on board at the time, I was given a good start to my training. The ship's company were entirely from Tyneside, and it must have been a month before I began to understand their version of English, and it probably took them longer to understand mine. It was hardly surprising if I was taken to be a Welsh-Geordie on leaving the ship in Birkenhead nine and a half months later. During that time I had visited Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo, Buenos Aires, transporting oil from the Dutch East Indies. Whatever I thought I knew about the sea was very quickly and correctly dispelled when I joined my next ship "San Demetrio" and reported to the Master, who enquired as to the length of time I had been at sea, whereupon I replied: ‘Nine and a half months, sir’ he remarked: ' Well, you won't be quite useless, then.' The name of this ship was the San Demetrio, and I was to remain with her for one year and nine months. We made numerous voyages from the West Indies and the Gulf of Mexico ports to the United Kingdom carrying petroleum.
My last voyage before hostilities commenced between Britain and Germany was to Baltic ports via the Kiel Canal. The hostile attitude of the young people on the canal bank as we passed through, seen shaking clenched fists at us, etc, was noted to be in contrast to the friendlier attitude of the older people there. Latvian and Estonian ports, which we called at, en route to Helsinki, now, of course belong to the U.S.S.R. It struck me as strange to see women performing heavy manual tasks such as discharging timber-laden ships and carrying out heavy road repairs at these ports. The public buildings and places of worship in the cities were particularly impressive. We were not to return through the Kiel Canal, as our instructions were to proceed to Falmouth via Skagerrak. Three days out of Falmouth we heard that hostilities were declared between Britain and Germany. As from this time, September 1939, life at sea took on a different aspect. My training was intensified, and like most young men of my age at that time, responsibilities had to be accepted earlier than before. During the first year of the war, the vessel made numerous voyages between the United Kingdom and the West Indies oil ports. Halifax, Nova Scotia, became our eastbound convoy assembly port, and as no cargo was carried out there, the few days at this port were always a much looked forward to event.
Those Atlantic crossings were not without incident; there were numerous attacks and alarms, but the San Demetrio avoided big trouble until November 1940, when we sailed in convoy from Halifax, Nova Scotia, escorted by H.M.S. Jervis Bay, an armed merchant cruiser. The fourth day after sailing, our engine broke down. It was sixteen anxious hours later before making an attempt to catch up the convoy. This we did on the evening of November 4th. In view of forthcoming events, it might well have been better not to have done so.
At 16.30 hours on November 5th, 1940, in position 50°30'N 32°W the convoy was attacked by a German pocket battleship, which we knew later to be the Admiral Von Scheer. Our escort opened fire, which was immediately answered by the enemy. Some shells were exchanged before I saw the Jervis Bay being heavily hit and on fire. The fire appeared to be controlled and the Jervis Bay continued to engage the battleship. Numerous shells again hit the Jervis Bay, a fierce fire broke out and the ship was silenced. The enemy now closed up and began to shell the merchant vessels. The Commodore ship was first hit, followed by the liner Rangetiki, which escaped by very good use of smokescreens. Other ships followed this example, but the smoke screens did not give adequate cover. A good moon ahead of the convoy gave the raider enough light to pick her ships, whereas we could only see gun-flashes. Although the San Demetrio was steaming away from the raider, we were still in the line of fire, and the Master, Captain Waite, decided to alter course to starboard and get clear of the main body of ships. At the same time, a ship on the starboard bow altered course to port and a collision appeared inevitable, but the seamanship and quick decision of Captain Waite avoided this fate, the ships sailing clear of each other and steamed on their original courses. Immediately after that the vessel was heavily hit by shells, and I could see her bow rising out of the water. She was close enough for us to hear screams of the injured across the water and one of her lifeboats ran out of control on the falls, with bodies falling into the water. We were the next ship to be heavily fired upon, and after numerous hits, fierce fires broke out amidships and aft, and owing to the volatile nature of the cargo the vessel was abandoned. My boat was the starboard forward one and was the first to strike the water. Before casting off, some hands from the port forward boat joined us, their boat having been swamped; we were also boarded by 2/0 Hawkins and some of his crew from the starboard after boat, which had not been lowered. Captain Waite ordered us to cast off, which we did, the time being approximately 17.30. As our ship left us astern, we were in brief contact with the after port lifeboat in the charge of the Chief Officer. His instructions were to row as hard as we could to windward of our ship as she was leaking petrol and likely to explode. We rowed for our lives. Vessels seemed to be coming at us from all directions. In avoiding being run down, we lost all contact with the other lifeboat, neither could we recognise our own ship from the other vessels on fire in our vicinity. The German raider continued firing until about midnight. The sound of gunfire had been receding all the time; taking into account the devastating effect of his attack up to our turn, I did not think many vessels had escaped unharmed.
In the early hours of the 6th November the wind freshened from the southwest and blew a full gale, with very high seas and swell by daybreak. Our efforts now were just survival as the seas swamped the boat often, and we bailed for our lives. A few hours after daybreak we sighted a cargo vessel about four miles to windward. We attempted to attract her attention with red flares, but were not successful. A brief period of depression followed, which we soon realised was a luxury we could not afford, and the fight for our lives was resumed.
During the afternoon the weather moderated and we saw another vessel to windward. This was a tanker: she was drifting down towards us and on fire. It took a while to recognise that it was our own ship. We hoisted a fully reefed main sail and jib and sailed to cut her off, arriving close to her before dark, intending a re-boarding attempt. It was obviously an unacceptable risk to attempt to re-board at that time, the vessel rolling heavily and shipping heavy seas over her main decks, and daylight was running out; we would likely lose the boat and also many if not all our lives in such an effort, and it was decided to lay off on her weather side until the next morning.
At dawn, the 7th November, San Demetrio was about five miles to leeward. Sail was set and we were again close alongside at about noon. She was still on fire, but no one objected to re-boarding, which was soon successfully accomplished. Anything was better than remaining in the lifeboat, and it was obvious that further time spent in the boat was going to be a futile attempt to survive. We were only partially successful in recovering our lifeboat, which was left hanging in the falls about six feet clear of the sea. From the boat it was seen that the ship was badly damaged; after boarding, the damage found was appalling. A shell had entered the port bow just above the waterline, exploded, and splinters had holed our collision bulkhead, resulting in our fore-hold making water, which was settling the vessel by the head. The bridge and all midships accommodation was a mass of twisted steel, the main deck under the structure was buckled with heat from the fire, which had been so intense that the brass and glass of the portholes had melted and fused, resembling icicles. Part of this mess was still burning. The main deck abaft the bridge had a number of splinter holes, and the petrol cargo was flooding from this as the ship rolled. All the after accommodation on the port side had been destroyed, also the decks. This area was still on fire. These fires were attacked with fire extinguishers and buckets to begin with, and with fire hoses when the Chief Engineer raised sufficient steam to operate the pumps. The fires were extinguished in about five hours. It was now dark, and as nothing further could be accomplished, watches were set for the night. Four cabins were intact and all enjoyed a few hours of luxurious sleep. The weather worsened during the night and the in-secured lifeboat was lost. The fire aft broke out again, but was extinguished by the watch on deck. Now that our lifeboat had gone, we had no choice but to remain aboard. During the forenoon on the 8th November all hands were employed in plugging the splinter holes in the main deck and salvaging any food, etc., remaining. We had ample potatoes and onions and a little condensed milk. The freezer was full of ready-cooked meat, thanks to the fire, but inedible as it was found to be contaminated with ammonia. Three bottles of rum were also found, a most welcome discovery. During the afternoon the Chief Engineer announced that his engines would operate. We had nothing left to navigate with, but if we shaped a course to the west we were bound to make the coast of the United States or Canada and safety. This would entail heading into the weather, and with the damage forward it was considered the ship would probably sink. This left no alternative but to head eastward, hoping to reach the coast of Ireland or Scotland, running with the weather on our stern. Our progress eastward began during the afternoon. We navigated by rare glimpses of the sun and stars, but mainly by keeping the wind astern. The 9th November to 12th November we proceeded approximately eastward in very heavy weather, the vessel labouring and becoming very sluggish. To relieve the situation, cargo was gravitated from the forward tank to amid-ship, and this helped. Though the weather was causing grave concern regarding remaining afloat, it was so bad that submarines would not be active had we been sighted in the poor visibility. In this respect the weather was in our favour.
On the 13th November, land was sighted in the forenoon. We hoped it to be Ireland, but it could easily have been occupied France. We sighted a bay, entered and stayed there the night. Early on the 14th November an aircraft flew overhead, and soon a vessel approached which was a British tug. Later the destroyer H.M.S. Arrow came to our aid. At 18.30 we proceeded towards the Clyde escorted by the destroyer, which was later joined by others; we were also given continuous air cover during daylight. I doubt that any single merchant ship had up to that time enjoyed such a strong escorting force. The San Demetrio anchored in the Clyde on the 16th November. The greatest satisfaction to Mr. Pollard, our Chief Engineer, was to be able to discharge the cargo through the ship's pipes with her own pumping equipment and that 11,000 tons of the original 11,200 tons with which she had sailed was saved. Compared to present-day cargoes of 500,000 tons, perhaps not a large quantity, but every drop was precious at that time. I left the vessel a few days later. Similar incidents were often to be repeated during the next five years, particularly in 1943 when the Battle of the Atlantic reached its climax. Further ships in which I served and left, and hundreds more, San Demetrio among them, were later lost. Many friends of mine were lost with them. I consider myself very fortunate to have survived the war years and been able to continue with my sea career until 1971, latterly in a relieving capacity, whereas many friends hardly got the chance to begin theirs.
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