The crew of the San Demetrio re-board their ship

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.

Oil tanker San Demetrio
Oil tanker San Demetrio
The tanker San Demetrio, battered by gunfire from the Admiral Scheer, finally makes landfall on the 13th November 1940. She had been abandoned on 5th November but was later re-boarded.

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.

SAN DEMETRIO arriving in the Clyde
Shipping losses: MT SAN DEMETRIO arriving in the Clyde after being torpedoed by U 404 on 17 March 1942. At the time of her being torpedoed she had already been shelled by the German pocket battleship ADMIRAL SCHEER, in 1940.

10 thoughts on “The crew of the San Demetrio re-board their ship”

  1. The boatswain was my great uncle, my grandfather’s twin Wal, W E Fletcher. My grandfather William was also merchant service in WW2. We always laugh when we hear all the Scottish accents as the bulk of the crew were from Kent.

  2. Re two brothers who were lost at sea following the second uboat attack. Norman Patterson was my great uncle – I am named after him – and his brother was John G. Patterson. I’m not sure what the G stood for. Norman married my great aunt Irene Atkinson and they lived in Addison Street, North Shields. Norman was the ship’s cook and I believe John was a steward. Norman’s Discharge Book has a final entry “Discharged at sea” and his wage was stopped immediately.

  3. The tanker representing San Demetrio in the film was the San Cipriano. She had just finished repairs on the River Tyne, and was used for a number of scenes. The engine room telegraphs were rung for the soundtrack by my father, Ken Kennedy who was 3rd Mate at the time. The scenes of San Cipriano getting underway were filmed as she left the river to join a convoy on the Clyde bound for the USA and another cargo of aviation fuel.

  4. My brother G.R.Knight (Ross) was Third Mate on ‘San Demetrio’ and survived the attack.He was in one of two lifeboats that were rescued by the ‘SS Gloucester City’ on the 7th. The survivors were landed at St.John’s N.F. on the 13th November. From there they travelled to Halifax then were shipped to the the UK.
    On the 28th August 1942 Ross was Third mate on the ‘SS San Fabian’ when she was torpedoed and sunk 25 miles south of Navassa Island in the Caribbean. Ross, and 25 other crew members were lost. 33 survived.
    The U Boat U-511 was commanded by Friedrich Steinhoff who committed suicide in a Boston USA prison in May 1945.

  5. I’m not sure the heading picture of the SAN DEMETRIO is accurately captioned. I seem to remember seeing the same photo with the bridge partially collapsed and “SOS HELP” painted across the front as the radio installation had been destroyed and the radio operators killed by the ADMIRAL SCHEER’s guns in November 1940. I think there is a nice model in the Imperial War Museum showing the same configuration. Many thanks for your continuing devoted work, it must be particularly satisfying to the descendants of those who participated in these world-altering events to see them remembered.

  6. My Mother lost two brothers on this boat. San Demetrio. 17/03/1942.
    Norman Patterson.
    I don’t know the christian name of 2nd. brother.
    Her father was killed on a convoy ship the following month.

  7. I have just finished watching the movie San Demetrio London, what a marvelous feat of bravery and ingenuity It was to bring that ship back home, I was born in 1937 and didn’t know much about It back then but i’m glad to have seen the movie 80 years on, If there are any crew members still alive I congratulate them.

  8. Our late Cape Horner Dorothy Laird SV PENANG 1938 and later awarded Churchill`s Silver Star for intelligence work in Sweden, was among the first aboard SAN DEMETRIO when she hauled into the Clyde she described her condition to me as dreadful all black, Richard Woodman wrote up the incident well in his book `The Real Cruel Sea’ the definitive work on the Atlantic Convoys p214 onwards.

  9. From the London Gazette:
    Arthur Godfrey Naunton Hawkins, Second Officer, OBE
    Walter E Fletcher, Boatswain, BEM
    Oswald Preston, Seaman, BEM
    Calum Macneil, Able Seaman, Commendation
    George Pears Wiley, Third Engineer, MBE
    John Lewis Jones, Apprentice, BEM
    John Boyle, Greaser, Commendation
    John Davies, Storekeeper, BEM
    Charles Pollard, Chief Engineer, OBE
    It is still to be established if other crew members received awards.

    John Lewis Jones was later awarded the OBE. My presumption is that it was later realised that he played a major part in he affair and his award was ‘regraded’.

    Crew who were killed:
    5 Nov 1940
    Ernest Lewis Daines, 20, Seaman
    William Ewert Sadler, 26, First Radio Officer
    Harry Bissett Milne, 18, Second Radio Officer
    11 Nov 1940
    John Boyle, 28, Greaser

  10. The ship was towed to the Kingston shipyard basin in Port Glasgow for repairs.

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.