"He told the Royal Marines to lower him, so he could pray and die with his men. Where my men are, I have to be."
We sailed from Loch Ewe [Scotland], I think it was around the 26 June, 1941. But, unfortunately, we had an engine breakdown and had to return to Loch Ewe where they very quickly repaired the vessel and we left again, one ship escorted by the HMS Challenger. She was a survey vessel which had been working on the rivers in Africa. The [HMS] Starwort, STARWORT, [HMS] Petunia, [HMS] Lavender, they were all corvettes [lightly armed escort vessel] of the flower class [anti-submarine escort vessels]. So those four were circled around our ship and off we went. The idea was we would sail to Sierra Leone in West Africa where we would discharge the pilots and the crew of the aircraft who would then be flown over Africa to the Middle East to join the push against [German Field Marshal Erwin] Rommel, at El Alamein [Egypt], which was due to start some time in that period.
We got five days out and at 5:20 in the morning, we were torpedoed by the U-96 [Unterseeboot: German submarine]. One of Hitler’s star pilots, a man called, it’s in my figures, [Heinrich] Lehmann[-Willenbrock], who eventually appeared in one of the most famous books written about the war called Das Boot. He was portrayed in his correct function as a U-boat captain. The ship went down in 22 minutes and the torpedo, one hit into the troop deck and injured or killed something like 300 of the troops.
I had a job as senior cadet officer to collect the code books, place them in a weighted bag and throw them over the side of the ship, so they wouldn’t fall into enemy hands. I then had four lifeboats to take charge of, to get the wounded or anyone in and save them, whatever we had to do. So eventually, I walked into the water. I got into one of my boats later and got the crew to pull, the troops to pull to a ship called HMS Challenger, which was lying about half a mile away. We scrambled up nets on the side of the ship. Those that couldn’t, in the bottom of my lifeboat, were three men dead with intestines hanging out of their mouths. We didn’t take them onboard, we cut the boat adrift and let them go because there’s no point in… We had enough to do onboard.
A padre, a congregational minister who was born in South Africa, by the name of Reverend Cecil Pugh, PUGH, came down to the side of the hold where the men were swishing around backwards and forwards in the seawater. The ship was partly submerged at this stage and [he] demanded that he be lowered on a rope. He told the Royal Marines to lower him, so he could pray and die with his men. Where my men are, I have to be.
He’d never been seen again. That’s 22 minutes later, the ship took the wounded and the crew, and Reverend Pugh disappeared as well. We eventually were transferred. We saw a ship called the HMS Cathay and we got onboard there and I was made an honourary member of the gun deck there as one of the midshipmen. And we sailed from there into Sierra Leone, which was maybe four or five days sailing. When we left the ship, the remainder of the troops gave us three cheers.
When the troops came back after El Alamein and after the battle through Italy, and various statements were made to the press in particular the News of [the World] and the [Daily] Express. This information was relayed to his majesty, King George VI, who posthumously awarded, six years later, the Reverend Pugh, the George Cross [civilian decoration for bravery, equivalent of the military’s Victoria Cross] for his bravery. He gave it to his wife, Amy, at the church, six years later, where the parson was preaching before he joined the services.