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The MV San Demetrio was a British tanker that was abandoned by her crew in mid-Atlantic during the Second World War. She was later re-boarded and successfully brought into harbour. She was the subject of a 1943 film, San Demetrio London, one of the few films that recognised the heroism of the Merchant Navy crews during the war.

Convoy HX-84

San Demetrio had loaded 12,000 tons of aviation fuel in Galvestonmarker and was bound for Avonmouthmarker. Her maximum speed was twelve knots. She joined Convoy HX-84 for the passage across the north Atlantic and left Halifax, Nova Scotiamarker on 28 October 1940, one of 38 ships. The convoy's sole escort was the armed merchant cruiser HMS Jervis Bay, a converted passenger liner that had been fitted with eight ancient 6-inch guns.

Attack by the Admiral Scheer

On 5 November the German pocket battleship Admiral Scheer found the convoy at and attacked immediately. Captain E.S.F. Fegen of HMS Jervis Bay steamed out towards the raider so as to delay the Scheer to allow the convoy to scatter and escape. The Jervis Bay was completely outclassed, but she fought for 22 minutes before she was sunk with the loss of 190 of her crew. Fegen received a posthumous Victoria Cross. Nevertheless, their sacrifice enabled most of the merchantmen from Convoy HX-84 to escape.

Scheer now tried to sink as many of the convoy as possible before darkness fell. San Demetrio was hit by several shells which left the upper deck in flames and destroyed the bridge and the poopdeck. Despite both the exploding shells and the resultant fire, the ship's highly flammable cargo did not explode. Nevertheless, her Master, Captain Waite, believed that the fire could set off the aviation fuel at any moment so he gave the order to abandon ship. Despite the ship remaining under fire from the Scheer, the crew escaped in two lifeboats. Scheer then turned her attention to other ships of the rapidly scattering convoy.

Re-boarding

The two lifeboats separated during the night and the lifeboat with the captain and twenty-five crew was picked up and taken to Newfoundland. The sixteen men in the other lifeboat, including Second Officer Arthur G. Hawkins and Chief Engineer Charles Pollard, drifted for 24 hours when they sighted a burning ship. To their surprise, they discovered that it was their own ship, San Demetrio. With precious few alternatives, the crew had to decide whether to risk death by exposure or to re-board and risk the fire. In the end they chose to remain in the lifeboat because the fire was too great and the weather too hazardous to attempt boarding, but after a second night aboard the little boat they regretted not re-boarding the tanker. At dawn the following day, 7 November, the San Demetrio was about five miles downwind and so the crew set sail towards her and re-boarded. They put out the fire and rigged up a steering system. There was no navigational equipment so they guessed a course from occasional glimpses of the sun. They then managed to sail the tanker across the rest of the Atlantic braving bad weather and the U-boats and after seven days reached the waters off Ireland from where they were escorted on to the mouth of the Clyde, docking on 16 November. They declined the offer of a tow from a tug because of the high cost.

Amazingly, despite the damage and fire only 200 tons of the original cargo had been lost. There was only one fatality, John Boyle, who had been injured jumping into the lifeboat after the original battle and gradually began to feel unwell. He was propped up in the engine room to watch the gauges but died of a haemorrhage after two days. He was awarded the King's Commendation for Brave Conduct.

Since the crew had not received any assistance from another vessel, in the following court case they were able to claim the salvage money from the insurers for the ship and cargo. The oil and freight cargo were valued at £60,000. The ship herself, almost new, was worth £250,000. The court awarded the claimants £14,700 salvage money: £2,000 of it going to Skipper Hawkins; £1,000 to the estate of Joe Boyle. Another £1,000 went to 26-year-old Oswald Ross Preston, an American seaman, because he played a "magnificent" part when the battle started. Hawkins was also given the tattered Red Ensign of the ship.

Later events

Second Officer Hawkins was awarded the OBE in recognition of his gallantry. San Demetrio was repaired and returned to service, but she was sunk by a torpedo from U-404 on 17 March 1942.

The story was made into a film, the San Demetrio London in 1943, starring Walter Fitzgerald, Mervyn Johns, Ralph Michael, and Robert Beatty. It was one one of the few films to recognise the heroism of the Merchant Navy crews during the war.

References

  1. [1] "Caithness Archives - HMS "Jervis Bay" Armed Merchant Cruiser."



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