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CONVOY HX 84 - Page 2
Page 1 - Cruising Order

Report of an Interview with Mr. Charles Pollard, Chief Engineer, and Mr. Arthur C. Hawkins, 2nd Officer of M.V. San Demetrio
Dated Nov. 20-1940 -
Received from Roger Griffiths. (His source: Public Records Office, Kew).

Mr. Pollard & Mr. Hawkins
"We were bound from Halfiax N.S. to Avonmouth in convoy HX 84, carrying a cargo of 11 200 tons of Gasoline. We were armed with a 4.7", a 12 pdr. and a Hotchkiss and were flying an ensign at the time of the attack. All confidential books were put into a weighted bag and thrown overboard. The number of the crew, including the Master, was 42. 23 survivors were landed at St. John's, Newfoundland from the S.S. Gloucester City, 16 of the crew, including the 2nd Officer, Chief and 3rd Engineer, were in the 2nd Officer's boat and landed at Greenock. One of the hands died, and there are two missing.

At about 16:30 on Tuesday the 5th November when in position 52 48N 32 15W, I was aft on the popp when I sighted, at a distance of about 12 miles, a battleship of the Admiral Scheer class. I went to the bridge to report and at that moment the Jervis Bay signalled a 40° turn to starboard, but before the convoy had had time to carry out the instruction the Commodore signalled to us to scatter. We increased to full speed, i.e. about 13 1/2 knots and altered away from the raider steering about E.S.E. We could not alter any more to the South'ard as we were baulked by other ships in the convoy.

The weather was fair, moderate sea, and wind Force 4. It was getting dusk but we saw the raider engage the Jervis Bay, after which he tackled the Rangitiki and then turned his attention to the Cornish City. Following this he commenced firing on the Trewellard and from what we could see she appeared to take a very heavy hammering.

I went aft and opened fire with the 4.7", but I only fired two shots because, the time being 17:15, it was getting dark and the firing was giving away our position, so the Captain ordered me to cease. We prepared four of the six smoke floats which we had on board and dropped them over the side, and they worked very successfully.

We now changed our course steering to E.N.E. and when I went on to the bridge I could still see the raider who was now on our port quarter, at a distance of about 8 to 8 1/2 miles, and consequently just a blurred shape. However, he opened fire on us commencing with a salvo which fell clear on our port side. The next salvo went right over our ship, but he registered a hit with the third shell which struck us on the bow about 2 ft above the water line. It was quite dark by this time, so, although of course we could see the shell fire, we could not judge how large the salvos were.

The Captain had already instructed the Third Officer to inform the crew verbally that at the first ring the ship was to be abandoned, and after the first hit the engines were put to stop and we prepared to lower the lifeboats. I was in charge of the starboard aft boat but as I was making my way there someone called to me that only the midships boats were to be manned. The shelling had become very heavy and shrapnel was flying around thick and fast, but I think the raider was out of range because at that particular time there were no direct hits on our vessel. I made my way to the Bridge and from there went to the midship starboard boat, but I continuously had to take shelter because of the flying shrapnel. I got 9 men into the boat, and then as there didn't appear to be anyone else wanting accommodation I climbed in myself, and was just about to lower away when someone shouted to me to hold on for a moment. I waited and then took another 6 men on board whom I believe were the overflow from one of the other boats. The Captain, who was still on deck, told me to carry on, and so I lowered away. At this time, although the engines had been stopped, the ship was still doing about 8 knots but we managed to get the boat into the water successfully. I was hailed by someone in the port boat who asked how many men were in my boat, and I replied 16. The shell fire was getting heavier and so we thought it best to get away from the ship and in doing so we lost contact with the other boat and never saw it again.

At this period, with the raider at a distance of only 5 or 6 miles, he registered a direct hit on our ship with a really heavy salvo and within 10 minutes of our abandoning her the San Demetrio was blazing furiously, but the raider continued firing. Whils in our boat we almost collided with another vessel which loomed up in front of us. I don't know the name of the vessel but it was the next ship to come under the raider's fire, and was soon blazing away. This made four ships we could see burning, including the Jervis Bay, and they were still on fire at midnight. We had drifted astern of the unknown vessel and consequently came in for quite a lot of the raider's gun fire.

About midnight the weather became much worse and there was a very heavy gale blowing. The raider commenced to fire star shells so we turned stern on and that was the last we saw of her.

We could still see our own ship burning about 5 or 6 miles away, but at about 01:00 we lost sight of her and assumed that she had sunk. We lay to sea anchor, putting up a canopy for'ard for shelter, and all took turns on watch. Everyone in the boat behaved splendidly, and magnificent assistance was rendered by one member of the crew who had previously been a Shetland fisherman and who knew more about sailing than all the rest of us put together.

At about 09:00 on the 6th November we sighted a vessel about 4 to 5 miles away. I think it was the Swedish vessel out of the convoy. We signalled to her several times, but receiving no reply assumed that she was abandoned, and soon lost sight of her in a rain squall. After this the weather moderated a little, and an hour later we sighted a tanker 6 miles away so we got all hands to row and steered a course in her direction. We caught up with her at 17:00 and to our amazement it turned out to be the San Demetrio. She was still burning furiously and there was a lot of oil on the water, so I decided that, due to the fierceness of the fire, it was unsafe to board her that night, hoping that the fire would have abated by morning. We were all feeling a bit under the weather as everyone had been sea-sick, but there was a little opposition to my decision to wait until the morning before boarding the ship, everyone being anxious to get on board at once. However, we pulled up to windward and decided to lay to until morning.

At 03:00 on the 7th November there was a terrific burst of flame from aft of the vessel and she started to go down a little by the head, and at daybreak we had lost sight of her again. Needless to say I was not very popular. The wind was Force 5 so we hoisted sail and about 6 1/2 hours later we sighted our vessel again. We decided to board her immediately, and in drawing alongside we shipped quite a lot of water. We had to secure our boat because there was no other on board the San Demetrio, and so all hands fell to the task, using an old luff tackle. However, this was not strong enough for the job as it carried away and we lost our boat.

The stern of the vessel was still blazing so we all started on that first in an effort to get it under control. The Chief and 3rd Engineer, Storekeeper and one Greaser went below to see what possibilities there were of starting the engine. They found the port boiler out of commission and immediately commenced to repair it. She had shipped a lot of water on the damaged side and the engine room was flooded up to the plates, but fortunately the auxiliary engines were undamaged.

I made a survey of the vessel, and found that amidships was still smouldering and all the metal work was red hot, so we immediately started throwing buckets of water on it. All the accommodation amidships had been gutted by fire, and the Chief Engineer's cabin had been badly shelled. The deck was covered with petrol, but although the structure was white hot it hadn't caught fire, and the major part of our cargo of petrol was intact. The fore part of the crew accommodation was still blazing furiously so we put into use the 6 extinguishers which we had on board, for which we had 36 refills. We had a hard struggle, but finally put the fire out. We had to break away the insulation because it was cork. After we had put out the fire we discovered four cases of eggs which had been baked, and a joint of beef which had been cooked. The egg shells were of course blackened by the fire, but they proved to be edible, and after cutting off the outside of the beef we ate that too, and enjoyed it.

All day long we were exceedingly busy, but everyone worked with a good will, and it was surprising how they all adapted themselves.

At 17:30 there was 80 of lbs of pressure in the boiler which enabled us to run the dynamo, pumps, etc., although we had to work under great difficulty. The fire had been over the bunkers which of course made it very hot for us, but at least the shell holes gave us a certain amount of ventilation. Fortunately, the main engines were found to be intact and so far as these were concerned I felt satisfied that we were ready to proceed. We then started to rig up the auxiliary steering gear which had been badly damaged by fire. Whilst this operation was in progress a series of lamps and switches were rigged up to enable the Engine Room to take orders from the deck, and at 02:30 I gave instructions to put the engines ahead at 120 revolutions a minute. We decided on this reduced speed because of the damage to the fore end of the ship.

The weather had not been too bad during the day but the wind had freshened and a heavy gale was blowing. We had managed to find a steering compass and after we had started the engines I set course 125° allowing for about 30° compass error. However, at night I came up and found she was steering due South, and it was still showing 125° on the compass. I brought her back to East true, and the compass still showed 125° and so we gave it up after that as a bad job.

Things looked a bit bad particularly as she was shipping a lot of water in the fore hold which was originally empty. The wind was force 8 and she was rolling very badly and was down by the head. Every time she rolled petrol came gushing up on deck as the petrol tanks were badly holed. Luckily, I had No. 6 tank empty and so decided to run petrol from for'ard and so throw her head up a little. The Chief Engineer and the apprentice went down to the pump rooms which were full of gas and we ran the petrol from No. 9 which gave her a starboard list and lifted her head considerably. She rode much better after that and shipped much less water.

During a slight lull which we had when the wind moderated a little I put four A.B.'s on plugging up the holes in the petrol tanks, on deck and elsewhere. One of the A.B.'s was an American sailor and although he was up to his neck in water most of the time whilst he was plugging the holes he was infectiously cheerful the whole time and did much towards keeping up the spirit of the men.

All this time we had been unable to have any hot food because there was still a lot of petrol gas hanging around and it wouldn't have been safe to light a fire, so we had been living on tinned food. However, whilst I was on the bridge at 20:00 on the night of the 9th, I could smell food cooking, and when I went to investigate I found that the Chief Engineer had cooked onions and potatoes by injecting steam into a bucket. We had a plentiful supply of both these vegetables, and also quite a number of loaves which the Cook had baked the day before we were attacked, and so we were all right for food after that.

I should like to mention at this time that the Greaser, Boyle, who was a member of our crew, although he worked very hard right up till the Saturday morning, the 9th November, complained of not feeling well. I told him to take things easy and I would try and manage the work without his assistance. He became gradually worse so that the Storekeeper had to take a couple of extra hours watch for him. I think he had injured himself when he was jumping into the boat. He suffered a great deal of pain, and we did everything we could for him, but not knowing exactly what was the matter we couldn't administer the correct treatment. He died on the Monday morning the 11th November, at 04:00 and after he was dead we discovered that he had been suffering from bad haemorrage.

Related external link:
Greaser John Boyle - Age 28, commemorated at Tower Hill Memorial, Panel 92. Awarded King's Commendation for Brave Conduct.

Despite the fact that we had no compass, and were steering by the wake and wind, from my calculations I had expected to make land on the evening of the 12th November, but much to everyone's disappointment we didn't sight land. However, our American sailor kept everyone in good spirits by remarking that there was no need to worry - we were bound to make a landfall somewhere between Narvik and Gibraltar.

However, we sighted land on the 13th November. The fact that we had no compass made it very risky, and I heard the Bo'sun say that it was the first time he had seen a ship steered by the wind and the wake. Our greatest risk was the probable presence of mines but we just had to trust to luck, although we didn't relish the idea of trying to land without the assistance of a boat, and we only had a very small boat that had been holed badly by the raider's gunfire. We knew it was Ireland, and made for Black Sod Bay to make anchorage, but the water was looking suspiciously broken and so we moved a little further down. We thought if we could carry on until night time we would put the holed boat over the side and try and attract the attention of the keeper of the lighthouse which was visible in the distance. We waited until night-fall and signalled with our torch but, getting no reply, decided to cruise around in the bay for the remainder of the night.

At daybreak we sighted the tug Superman, but declined her offer to tow us in because of the high cost. We then sighted the Destroyer Arrow which I believe had come in response to our S.O.S. which we had painted on all sides of the ship. The Destroyer signalled that he would escort us to the Clyde, but we indicated that we did not want to proceed that day because of the fore end of the ship being so badly holed, so they arranged for several ratings to be sent aboard to assist. Temporary repairs were carried out and I would like to mention that the adaptability of the men was simply wonderful. I had an idea that they hadn't had very much to do with Diesel engines before, but the way they tackled the job was simply marvellous. Normally one has to go round and inspect what work has been done, but in this case, after having seen their first efforts, I didn't bother any more because they were so efficient. Assistance was also rendered by members of the crew of the Destroyer, and she also sent over watch-keeping Officers, Lt. Aikin, Sub. Lt. Curd, and one Merchant Officer R.N.R. in addition to 6 Engine Room Ratings. I cannot speak too highly of the Officers and men sent to help us from the Destroyer, they were simply wonderful.

The Arrow led us right into the Clyde where the San Demetrio is now discharging the 11 000 tons of Gasoline which we managed to save out of our total cargo of 11 200 tons.

The Bo'sun had several times complained of pain and he was told that he had indigestion or wind, but on being examined by the Destroyer's doctor it was found he had three ribs broken. In spite of this he carried on the whole time most cheerfully. He is now in hospital.

I would like to mention that the 3rd Engineeer was very brave; carrying out all duties that were requested of him, despite the fact that he had very bad trench feet. The Bo'sun, the American sailor, John Boyle (deceased), and the Storekeeper were also outstanding in their behaviour.

I would like to pay tribute to the wonderful action of the Jervis Bay who in my opinion no doubt saved the whole convoy from destruction, and to see her dashing up in front of us all was a grand sight - just like an old hen guarding her brook of chickens." (See Page 1 for links to more information on her loss).

The story of San Demetrio was later made into a movie.

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