- Contributed by
- Norman Date
- Location of story:
- Told to me & verified
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- Contributed on:
- 31 October 2003
`D` Day, the 6th June 1944 found Dougie homeward bound from Port Said, arriving in London to be greeted by Hitler's new V1 rockets. Following this excitement and a spell of leave, Dougie was appointed as 2nd Officer of the SS Portia joining her at Tilbury in early 1945. By this time the allies were pushing the German forces out of Northwest Europe and the SS Portia was engaged in taking military supplies to Ostend and other ports until Antwerp was liberated and convoys to this port could be undertaken.
The entrance to the river Scheldt was still dangerous as the Germans were using bombers and `E` Boats from the offshore islands to try and stop this traffic. The SS Portia formed part of a twenty ship convoy carrying military stores and steel for the depleted shipyards of Belgium, when whilst waiting for pilots to guide the ships safely into port, the large oil tanker “Goldshell”, which was steaming nearby was rocked by a terrific explosion.
She had hit a mine and such was the force of the explosion that to everyone's horror the bridge structure was blown clear of the ship and exploded in a ball of flame. The SS Portia was immediately stopped in order to prevent damage to herself, which then gave Dougie and four more volunteers the opportunity to launch a lifeboat and search for any survivors who were trapped in the flames.
Captain Hughes of the Portia was heard to remark that he would not see these chaps again, but he did, for about a half hour later the lifeboat returned with five survivors who were all members of the tankers gun crew, and who had been blown clear of the ship by the explosion. These survivors were well tended by the crew of the Portia and eventually handed over to the Naval Authorities at Antwerp.
Dougie will always remember Captain Hughes of the Portia waving at them as they rowed the lifeboat into the flames, and to this day wonders whether this was a gesture of “Goodbye” or “Come back you idiots”, whatever it was it was well meant and this heroic action by the lifeboat crew saved the lives of five seamen who otherwise would have died a horrific death in the flames.
Dougie and Captain Hughes went to see the Marine Transport Officer in Antwerp, and he was amazed to recognize him as being Captain Manesse, who had been the master of the Belgian ship “President Franqui” which Dougie had joined in New York after being torpedoed in the “Empire Mica”. Eventually Dougie paid off from the “Portia” and joined an old tramp ship bound for the West Indies for a cargo of sugar. He continued his sea career until the 1960`s and he tells me that he must have had a charmed life at sea as in the first month of the war he had helped to rescue 98 people from the Dutch ship “ Simon Bolivar” and he reckons that he must have made at least 20 North Atlantic voyages, witnessing ships blown up with explosives, tankers set on fire and iron ore ships sinking in less than a minute, whilst with the one exception of the “Empire Mica” every ship he was on came through unscathed..
Dougie also completed a few voyages in the Bristol City Line ship SS Toronto City, which was sunk with the loss of all hands in July, 1941, he did a run to the river Plate aboard the “Treworlas” to bring home grain, she was commanded by Captain Stanbury of Knowle, Bristol and was torpedoed off Trinidad with the loss of all but six of her crew.
The aforementioned ship “President Franqui” was sunk the voyage after Dougie had left her, and although serving throughout the war, Dougie literally “never got his feet wet”.
On the 23rd May 1947 for this selfless display of courage and leadership, Dougie was awarded the MBE (Member of the British Empire) and was surprised to by greeted by his late wife when next he returned home, with the news that a packet had arrived by post for him, containing the medal and citation.
The tanker “Goldshell” lost 32 crewmembers out of 56 and 3 of her 8 gunners. Captain Hughes Master of the “Portia” also received an MBE on the 26th June 1946 for the part he had played in the rescue.
In 1945 Dougie received the following letter from a survivor (Extract)
From Gunner J Holt, Rochdale, Lancs
“I want to thank you all for saving my life as you did, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. I can never repay you for all you did for us. I shall never forget you and SS Portia will always be a name in my heart. I hope and pray that wherever you go you have plain sailing and all the very best of luck in the world. God bless you all, I remain always in debt to you all.”
The MBE was accompanied by this letter from King George the Sixth
“I greatly regret that I am unable to give you personally the award which you have so well earned. I now send it to you with my congratulations and my best wishes for your future happiness.”
Sadly Dougie passed peacefully away in March 2001 and was never able to see the completed Bristol Merchant Navy Memorial. All the members of the Association and his many friends will remember him as a true gentleman and a credit to the Merchant Navy.
From: Norman Date / Hon Secretary/ Merchant Navy Association Bristol UK
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