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A Marine on HMS Fidelity

by John Kinross-Purser

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Archive List > Royal Navy

Contributed by 
John Kinross-Purser
People in story: 
Denis Panter, John Purser.
Location of story: 
United Kingdom, Atlantic.
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
15 December 2005

Denis Panter,in uniform. Enlisted 26th August 1941.

As it is coming up to Christmas, I know there is a memoriam note to HMS Fidelity that always appears in the Telegraph and the poignant part about this is that I was named after one of the Royal Marines that was lost with the ship as he was my fathers best friend at school and up to the sinking of the ship.
When my father died in 2004, I came across a dozen or so letters from Denis to my father and they paint a picture that ties up with books already written of the ship HMS Fidelity. Here I try to capture the story and the letters of the last sixteen months of my dads best friend life Denis Panter born 3rd July 1923.

30 December 1942, HMS Fidelity (formally known as Le Rhone (Le Rhin) and The Royal Marines Commando ‘T’ Company 40 Royal Marine commando. Lost off the Azores.

This ship ( built in 1920) and its crew have an intriguing story to tell. A story from the Second World War which has had many books written about the life of the ship and its company, and of the Royal Marines of ‘T’ Company that sailed on her fateful voyage.

HMS Fidelity was known as Le Rhone or Le Rhin first and the crew were a mixed bag of French Belgium, Arabs and anyone else the chief officer could lay his hands on.
When they left Gibraltar for England. The captain, Costa (A Corsican) had already got rid of many of its original crew as Costa only wanted those personnel that would fight against the Germans and axis armies.
One example of this is that of a French plane that crash into the sea near Gibraltar. Costa went out rescued the pilot and co-pilot and they became members of Le Rhone’s crew. The ship had arrived from Indo-China, with a totally mixed cargo, as well as a top secret explosive. The explosive was code named ‘Plastic’ that had been smuggled out of France and that Costa was to bring to England.

Eventually the Royal Navy in Gibraltar gave permission to let the Rhone sail to England. Rhone entered port at the Barry Docks in South Wales. Whilst here Costa handed over the Plastic, and through his negotiations was able to persuade the Royal Navy and the British Government to agree to the crew and the ship to become part of the British Navy and so HMS Fidelity was born.

HMS Fidelity was a merchant ship or freighter, but Costa had great ideas for the ship with the help of the Royal Navy, and would become a ‘Q’ship.
Now that the ship was part of the Royal Navy it meant that the crew had to have British names or ‘noms de guerre’, Costa became Langlais others (Madeleine Guesclin ) Barclay, ( Soigné) Pat O’Leary .
(Pat O’Leary on one expedition to France was left behind after an incident and eventually would be known for setting up the escape routes for escapees back to England).

The Royal Navy did have a few problems with some of the crew, since they wanted to be called Nelson or Marlborough but the Upper Lip Navy would not allow such names to be taken. HMS. Fidelity would also be the only ship that would have the only serving female officer Madeleine Guesclin who became known as Barclay who served under the Royal Navy White ensign.

The Fidelity went into dry dock and was overhauled and armaments fitted and became a ‘Q’ ship. Her roles were to sale to the French coast and drop of and pick up personnel on clandestine and secret missions as well as picking up escapees and return them to England. It was a hard life as during these sorties in the middle of the night the crew would have to repaint the ship and make modifications to make it look like a Spanish or a Portuguese freighter. On one occasion the ship past itself, as they sailed past the original ship they were mimicking.

June 1941 a young lad, Denis Panter, from Wellingborough who had gone to Kimbolton school in Huntingdonshire (Cambridgeshire) wrote to his best friend.
The letter addressed to John Purser at Stanwell (Middlesex) talks about going back to school for another term and visiting Stanwell but then goes on to say ‘Waiting for the Bloody Marines to send for me, They seem dammed slow’.

Denis was eventually called up trained down in Devon, moved Gosport before eventually heading east to Deal.
North Barracks at Deal, where they were issued with revolvers 45’s ‘Nice and Big’ he writes.
At this time he describes that the letters are all to be censored and only three letters a week. Here they learned unarmed combat, route marches and swimming every night.
When there was and air raid, by the German, who’s Junkers used to come over to bomb the convoys, the Marines were not allowed down into the air raid shelters! This was to get them battle hardened. Eventually they moved to Scotland for more arduous training.
Whilst in Scotland, Lieutenant Tod, was summoned to London for a special briefing. On his return to Scotland he was to handpick, Only the best Officers, NCOs and men and these Marines would form ‘T’ Company 40 Royal Marine Commando.
The date 23rd April 1942. As a group they were never to return to the main unit of the Royal Marines. They went for specialist training and the name ‘T’ company was never to reoccur in 40 Commando’s War Diary.

‘T’ company trained all over Scotland and in May 1942 moved down to Pengelly near Tenby. Denis did not think much of the Welsh hospitality whilst here and wrote to John accordingly saying, ’The people up in this place seem mighty mean brother, mighty mean!’ and then says , ‘tho the beer in Scotland was pretty good’.
Here they were training with motor bikes and Denis then writes, ‘ feel pretty tired -out on motor bikes most nearly all day and it shakes you up some-especially rough riding. Anyway its plenty interesting and the time is going quite fast.’
Denis would always sign off with ‘Till hell freezes’.

June 1942 ‘T’ company was officially now part of HMS Fidelity. This the Corsican Langlais had always wished for and had persuaded the Admiralty to act in his favour to assist in his master plan.

The Marines and Denis then moved to their final training ground on the Isle of Wight address ‘Chine View Cottage, Chale.
Denis slept under canvas, two marines sharing a oneman tent and they also had to provide for themselves.
Now they became part of Langlais plan and training was intense, Barclay an explosives expert also trained with the men.
By this time Fidelity was refitted, and now had two landing craft two motor torpedo boats and two aircraft, as well as bristling with all manner of guns and explosives.

Time was short and soon the men embarked on their fateful mission following out with a convoy.
As they neared the Azores the convoy came under attack and soon many merchant ships were being sunk by the German U-boats. The rescue ship was one of those and so Fidelity was requested to become that ship.
Finally HMS Fidelity succumbed to a torpedo attack by U-435 on the 30th. December 1942. Most of the crew the marines and the people they had saved were all lost around 400 men and one woman. The crew of one of the torpedo boats that had been launched earlier to look for survivors and had broken down with engine failure were to be the only survivors of HMS Fidelity.

After the death of my father last year2005, I came across letters that Denis had written to my father which tell as a snapshot the last 18months of his life.
As well as talking about the training and drinking in the letters he mentions about the great times they had when Denis would come to stay at Town Farm East in Stanwell and the parties. When Denis came to Stanwell he used to sleep on a stone floor to get used to sleeping rough.

Twenty-eighth of December 1942 John wrote to Denis, which was two days before the ship went down. John wrote again 23 January 1943, ‘ I hope your keeping fit and as I have not heard from you since before Christmas. Were have you got to bro’, as you havn’t written for over a month, anyway hope your ok’.

These two letters appear to have been opened by Admiralty Service and returned with a third letter that has never been opened with a label that states,
‘ It is with deepest regret you are informed that the addressee is missing on active service.’ Stamped Royal Marine Post Office Portsmouth Division. 6/4/43.

Finally the actual destination where HMS Fidelity and the Royal Marines of ‘T’Company were heading was to the Far East and to carryout raids against the Japanese, a mission that would probably not have seen them return.

Two books where part of the historical information gained that follows Denis’s letters.
‘Fidelity will Haunt me till I Die’ by Peter Kingswell.
‘HMS Fidelity’ by Marcel Jullian.

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