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.
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.