Coastal Convoy under attack

British merchant ships in convoy as seen from the Depth Charge deck of a Corvette.

Second Engineer Gerard Llewellyn Turner and Second Officer Bernard Peter de Neumann won the George Medal on the 1st March 1941 for their actions on the SS Tewkesbury, part of convoy EN79 making its way up the east coast of Britain. One ship, the Atheltempar was already on fire from bombs dropped by German bombers and the Tewkesbury was next in turn, although her guns were credited with bringing one of the bombers down:

On the TEWKESBURY Gerard Turner in the engine room, was distracted by a noise above the din of the ship’s engine, and upon looking around for its source was startled to see a large grey painted bomb with badly damaged tail fins rolling on an engine grating. In He111s bombs hung vertically from a nose-lug in the bomb bays, and as the attack was from low altitude, it seems likely that the bomb struck the ship tail first. Turner could have fled the engine-room as quickly as possible, but he chose to grapple with the bomb and prevent it rolling off its precarious platform.

He sat astride it as on a horse, whilst contemplating what to do next. Just then Peter de Neumann, who was directing the guns, left the bridge immediately following the terrifying crash as the bomb hit the ship, and rushed to see where the bomb had gone. He entered the engine room, and saw Turner, far below, mounting the bomb. De Neumann immediately went to Turner’s assistance, and between them, using Turner’s trousers’ belt, secured the bomb temporarily to a stanchion. As de Neumann did not return to the bridge, Capt Pryse sent a crew member to investigate what was happening.

On learning the facts, Pryse had shear-legs rigged over the engine room skylight on the boat deck, and, possibly using the lowering tackle from one of the davits, prepared to lift the bomb. The dangers of moving it were immense, and exacerbated by the fact that TEWKESBURY was still under way using her engine , and avoiding the blazing ATHELTEMPLAR, less than a quarter of a mile to starboard, and likely to go out of control imminently. Meantime de Neumann and Turner made a sling to hold the bomb, and a rope was suspended through blocks into the engine room. On hitching up, Pryse supervised a working party up on the boat-deck, who pulled via the pulleys to lift the bomb. The bomb had to be lifted more than 30 feet, and guided past various obstructions in the dark – the attack was at dusk, more than an hour after sunset, and the disposal took more than an hour. It would have been extremely imprudent to use lighting. Naturally the bomb type was unknown to the two officers lifting it.

The officers concerned had to guide a 550 lb bomb suspended from hastily constructed sheerlegs from more than thirty feet of rope in a rolling ship, steering the bomb past obstructions and at one time had to balance on the dangerously hot cylinder tops of the (open) moving engine during one manoeuvre. The bomb effectively acted as the “bob” on a pendulum of period approximately 6 seconds. One nudge from the bomb in its swinging, or an inopportune roll by the ship, and they would have fallen to severe injury, or, more likely, painful death amongst the crankshaft, connecting rods, and main bearings of the engine. The bomb emitted distracting clicks and other noises throughout the disposal process. De Neumann, many years later, once said that the real danger was from the moving engine, the precariousness of Turner’s and his position on it, and the distraction and discomfort of both the intense heat and noise, and that if the bomb exploded then neither of them would know anything about it.

Read the full account at BBC People’s War.

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