John Lewis Jones was an apprentice on board the tanker San Demetrio, part of the convoy HX-84 escorted by the Jervis Bay. He and his fellow crew members watched helplessly as the Jervis Bay was sunk by gunfire and the Admiral Scheer turned her guns on the remaining ships in the convoy.
In turn the San Demetrio was hit and, fearing an imminent explosion of her petroleum cargo, the order was given to abandon ship. Lewis Jones was in one of two lifeboats that got away, rowing furiously to avoid the fire of the Admiral Scheer which continued to hit surrounding ships until around midnight on the 5th November:
In the early hours of the 6th November the wind freshened from the southwest and blew a full gale, with very high seas and swell by daybreak. Our efforts now were just survival as the seas swamped the boat often, and we bailed for our lives. A few hours after daybreak we sighted a cargo vessel about four miles to windward. We attempted to attract her attention with red flares, but were not successful. A brief period of depression followed, which we soon realised was a luxury we could not afford, and the fight for our lives was resumed.
During the afternoon the weather moderated and we saw another vessel to windward. This was a tanker: she was drifting down towards us and on fire. It took a while to recognise that it was our own ship. We hoisted a fully reefed main sail and jib and sailed to cut her off, arriving close to her before dark, intending a re-boarding attempt. It was obviously an unacceptable risk to attempt to re-board at that time, the vessel rolling heavily and shipping heavy seas over her main decks, and daylight was running out; we would likely lose the boat and also many if not all our lives in such an effort, and it was decided to lay off on her weather side until the next morning.
At dawn, the 7th November, San Demetrio was about five miles to leeward. Sail was set and we were again close alongside at about noon. She was still on fire, but no one objected to re-boarding, which was soon successfully accomplished. Anything was better than remaining in the lifeboat, and it was obvious that further time spent in the boat was going to be a futile attempt to survive. We were only partially successful in recovering our lifeboat, which was left hanging in the falls about six feet clear of the sea. From the boat it was seen that the ship was badly damaged; after boarding, the damage found was appalling.
A shell had entered the port bow just above the waterline, exploded, and splinters had holed our collision bulkhead, resulting in our fore-hold making water, which was settling the vessel by the head. The bridge and all midships accommodation was a mass of twisted steel, the main deck under the structure was buckled with heat from the fire, which had been so intense that the brass and glass of the portholes had melted and fused, resembling icicles.
Part of this mess was still burning. The main deck abaft the bridge had a number of splinter holes, and the petrol cargo was flooding from this as the ship rolled. All the after accommodation on the port side had been destroyed, also the decks. This area was still on fire. These fires were attacked with fire extinguishers and buckets to begin with, and with fire hoses when the Chief Engineer raised sufficient steam to operate the pumps. The fires were extinguished in about five hours.
It was now dark, and as nothing further could be accomplished, watches were set for the night. Four cabins were intact and all enjoyed a few hours of luxurious sleep. The weather worsened during the night and the in-secured lifeboat was lost. The fire aft broke out again, but was extinguished by the watch on deck. Now that our lifeboat had gone, we had no choice but to remain aboard.
Lewis Jones was later awarded the OBE for his part in saving the ship. His full account can be read at Rhiw.com.
The story became the Ealing Studios film San Demetrio in 1943. Several versions of the film are available to see online.
The San Demetrio was a lucky ship – this was not the last time she would survive an enemy attack.