Herbert Pugh wins the George Cross

The Troopship HMT Anselm torpedoed on the 5th July 1941
Courtesy of Library of Contemporary History, Stuttgart and U Boat net

On the 5th July 1941 the troopship HMS Anselm carrying RAF personnel to Africa was torpedoed in the Atlantic. Only the day before passengers had been advised that they were ‘out of the danger zone’. The RAF chaplain Herbert Pugh went to the aid of men trapped below decks. The Air Ministry only looked into the incident in 1946 – after the News of the World had published several accounts of Pugh’s actions in its letters page:

I was one of the more fortunate members of the troops on board, and in actual fact came out the same hold as the one the RAF Padre entered.

I didn’t see him enter, although while in the lifeboat waiting to be picked up by the escorting Corvette I heard several members of the boat remark to the effect that they did see the Padre enter the hold containing the trapped personnel, he must have known full well that it was impossible to come out again alive, in view of the fact that the hold when I left was covered in at least five feet of water and was still gushing in, only a few moments after I left the Anselm it gave one definite plunge and passed below the water out of sight in few seconds, in view of this I doubt very much if the Padre could have survived more than a few moments in that hold of death.

Whilst I was scrambling out I passed literally dozens of screaming men with their heads fastened between the rungs of the connecting ladder, it was horrible to hear their screams and to pass them by, knowing full well that it was absolutely hopeless for them to get out alive.

Rev Sqdn Ldr H C Pugh RAF, a portrait supplied by kind permission of the Pugh family.
Rev Sqdn Ldr H C Pugh RAF, a portrait supplied by kind permission of the Pugh family.

His citation, for the George Cross awarded in 1947, reads:

The Reverend Herbert Cecil PUGH, M.A. (Oxon.), Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (deceased).

The Reverend H. C. Pugh, after seeing service in this country, was posted to Takoradi and embarked on H.M.T. Anselm, carrying over 1,300 passengers’, for West Africa at the end of June, 1941. She was torpedoed in the Atlantic in the early hours of the 5th July, 1941. One torpedo hit a hold on Deck C, destroying the normal means of escape.

Mr. Pugh came up on deck in a dressing gown and gave all the help he could. 

He seemed to be everywhere at once, doing his best to comfort the injured, helping with the boats and rafts (two of these were rendered unserviceable as a result of the explosion) and visiting the different lower sections where the men were quartered. When he learned that a number of injured airmen were trapped in the damaged hold, he insisted on being lowered into it with a rope.

Everyone demurred because the hold was below the water line and already the decks were awash and to go down was to go to certain death.

He simply explained that he must be where his men were.  The deck level was already caving in and the hold was three parts full of water so that, when he knelt to pray, the water reached his shoulders.  Within a few minutes the ship plunged and sank and Mr. Pugh was never seen again.

He had every opportunity of saving his own life but, without regard to his own safety and in the best tradition of the Service and of a Christian Minister, he gave up his life for others.

The Express and Star newspaper has another account by a survivor.

15 thoughts on “Herbert Pugh wins the George Cross”

  1. My Grandfather Harry ‘Norman’ Bowler was a royal marine on board HMS Anselm, he often told the story of the sinking of the Anselm and of the courage of Cecil Pugh, he also kept a cutting from the newspaper announcing the death of Cecil Pugh which my family still keeps.

    My grandfather survived by jumping from the sinking ship onto a makeshift raft, unknowingly landing in the sea as there was no floor to the middle of the raft which apparently caused great amusement whilst waiting to be rescued.

    He also told stories of how they gathered chocolate bars that were seen floating along with packs of cigarettes, he always laughed and said the chocolate was fine but the cigarettes were soaked and useless.

  2. My Father, SGT. George Frederik Thomas Burrows R.A.S.C. was one of those who went down with Padre Pugh. My mother already had 3 small girls and was expecting another when Dad was drowned. He was only about 31. We lived in Crossens Southport Lancs and his name is on St.Johns C of E church monument in Rufford Rd Crossens. I am 83 now and have never forgotten him

  3. My father was an RAF volunteer on board the Anselm when it was torpedoed. He survived but only spoke about his experience once. One afternoon when I was about fifteen years old he told me his whole story including the fact that he had seen Rev. Pugh going down to the injured men.
    It was the first and last time he ever spoke about it. Even my mother had no idea of the nightmare her husband had been through.
    Apparently, just before the torpedoes struck, Dad had been discussing communism with a fellow ‘erk’. Needless to say, they didn’t see each other after that. However, after the war they bumped into one another in Oxford Street London when the other chap said ” Hello Bob! We never did finish that discussion, did we?” ! My father was Robert (Bob) Adams.
    Reverend Pugh was an incredibly brave man and it is clear to me that my father thought so too.

  4. My father was on the Anselm and was one of the marines who lowered the Padre into the hold. He didn’t speak much about it other than to say it was horrendous. When the ship went down my father’s head hit the water hard and in later life he suffered cruel illness as a result.

  5. My uncle, Lawry Mortimer, was killed, aged 18, on the Anselm.
    I never met him but we keep up the family tradition of honouring him every November 11th.
    I am so glad to know that Padre Pugh comforted these young men in their last minutes.

  6. My father, Neil McColl, was one of the lucky survivors from the Anselm. He had a long life and passed away 6 years ago. We still have several items that he brought back from his time in Sierra Leone. What a brave man Padre Pugh was! I am surprised there is not more known about him!

  7. My father, Harold Nicholas, was on the Anselm when it was torpedoed. He survived. At our wedding my wife and I discovered that my Father-in-Law, John Mackay, was also on the same vessel. Harold and John did not meet each other until a few days before our wedding. During their lives after our marriage they met each year but never spoke of that night. My father buried his memories. My Father-in-Law wrote about his experiences late in his life.

  8. I too have a signed menu as my father Robert Adgar was one of the RAF survivors.My mother often told the story that each of the poshly named courses on the menu, in reality came out of a tin. My father’s uniform was ruined by seawater and so he was given clothing by the rescuing sailors. The sea jersey which he still had when I was a child is now long gone but I still have the woollen seaboot socks which were provided and which my sister and I used as christmas stockings. You would be surprised how many apples, oranges, dates, wallnuts and the inevitable chocolate orange can be crammed into a seaboot sock.

  9. My Father Norman Tull was on board HMT Anselm and was rescued. I still have the menu for the commemoration dinner which was held on the 4th July 1942 for the survivors of that awful night. The back of the menu is signed by all those who attended.

  10. My grandfather, Don Tilley (RAF Radar) was aboard the Anselm when it as torpedoed and survived. He kept a newspaper cutting of Herbert Cecil’s GC announcement. my brother and I grew up knowing of the bravery of the padre. My mother has my grandfather’s log book in which he has recollections of the torpedoing and drawings of the ship.

    My brother recently found out the U boat that sunk Anselm is the one that Das Boat is based on.

  11. My granddad Thomas Edward Wells, a private in the RAOC was also on board the Anselm but sadly he didn’t survive. It is of some comfort though I think to my family that a man should as the Rev Sqdn Ldr H C Pugh GC was there giving comfort to the men who gave their lives in service of the Nation. We will never forget……….

  12. My uncle, Nathan Daren, a corporal in the RAF, was on the Anselm that day but was not amongst the survivors. He was 27 and single

    My grandparents and his siblings took great comfort from the Rev Pugh’s actions that day – we are Jewish. His actions were recalled each July on the anniversary of the sinking of the Anselm

    My grandparents lost another son, Sidney (in 1964) due to injuries suffered on active service in WW2 which he never fully recovered from.

    Nathan Daren’s name, and the other RAF men who died that day, is inscribed on the RAF memorial at Runnymede.

    skolnick@tiscali.co.uk

  13. My father, Stephen Agnew, was an RAF wireless operator aboard the Anselm at the time of its sinking. I have letters he wrote to his wife describing his own experience of this event. Fortunately, he was one of the rescued (uninjured) but it was undoubtedly a horrific experience. Due to wartime censorship letters describing the event for those back home could not be mailed until some time later.
    This correspondence forms a part of a pile of letters which Stephen wrote daily to his wife (my mother) during his 18 month tour of duty in Sierra Leone July 1941 – December 1942. She saved them all! They provide a fascinating picture of day to day life of a British conscript at that location.

  14. My father, 2nd Lt Jack Spencer RAOC, was on board Anselm and in his memoirs he recalls in the aftermath of the attack, that the Padre asked to be lowered to his men as the ladders had been destroyed in the torpedo attack. The Padre must have known full well he would not be coming back out. My father records it as a very brave and christian act. Given that the Anselm was a troop transport and appears from photographs to have been a cargo ship with some passenger accommodation it seems likely that most of the men were berthed in bunks built into the forward hold. My father recalls the torpedoes hit forward. She sank in 22minutes. Father was rescued and taken on board HMS Challenger.

    Whilst Padre Pugh’s bravery is not in doubt it appears certainly from my father’s account that it was far greater than has so far been recorded

  15. Cecil Pugh was my father’s brother and his bravery and our admiration has always had a special place amongst members of the Pugh family. We remain extremely proud of him.
    Marilyn Pugh Bentley

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.