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Tanker 'British Sergeant' — Eric Pointon's War Storyicon for Recommended story

by davidpointon

Ready for action

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Eric Pointon
Location of story: 
Mediterannean, Indian Ocean
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
10 January 2005

This is the wartime story of my father Eric Pointon, who served in the Merchant Navy, in many theatres with distinction, and is dedicated to his memory.

In his opinion he felt that the role of the Merchant Navy in World War Two was more understated than in the other services, but they had a vital role to play in keeping Britain supplied. The Merchant Navy suffered a proportionately higher death rate from enemy action than any of the armed services.

After he had joined the Merchant Navy from school in August 1930 as a deckhand on 'SS Deerpool', he served his apprenticeship before joining the British Tanker Company in July 1939.

He joined the M/V 'British Sergeant', an oil tanker, in May 1940 as 3rd Mate at Abadan, then sailing to Alexandria. The 'British Sergeant' was assigned to oil supply and storage duties to the Royal Navy in the eastern Mediterranean. It was a particularly active theatre at a time that the Italian Navy was seen as a threat to British interests, and Nazi Germany was looking to expand their interests in the region. She plied routes sailing between Suez and other Red Sea ports before back in Alexandria, home port to the British Eastern Mediterranean fleet on 26 June 1940.

Following the surrender of the French fleet in July 1940, and after the debacle at Oran where the Royal Navy attacked the French fleet in harbour, the 'British Sergeant' was towed alongside four French cruisers to receive oil, but in my father's view this was to prevent their torpedo tubes from being used against the Royal Navy. In a painful, yet bloodless action the French fleet under Admiral Godfrey yielded to the Royal Navy.

In November that year, the 'British Sergeant' was part of a reconnaissance fleet sent to Suda Bay, Crete, to establish an advanced refuelling base for the Royal Navy. The island provided a base from which to carry out Naval operations in the central Mediterranean.

At the end of December the 'British Sergeant' set sail for Bombay and continued to carry out her duties sailing between Abadan, Aden and Trincomalee (Sri Lanka — formerly Ceylon).

The next actions of the 'British Sergeant' have a degree of uncertainty about them. The ship's records show that she was in the Persian Gulf and environs, however gaps and inconsistencies in these records may give credence to the fact that she was elsewhere. My father's recollections, not only to me but others, together with the accuracy of other information lead me to believe that the next episode is fact.

On 7 April 1941 the 'British Sergeant' was in a convoy on its way to Piraeus, Greece and was in time to see the port attacked by the Luftwaffe, effectively closing the port. He recalled a massive explosion from an ammunition ship in the harbour which had effectively closed the port, causing chaos, and the 'British Sergeant' returned to Suda Bay.

When Crete fell in early June 1941, the 'British Sergeant' was in nearby Alexandria. She continued to sail between the eastern Mediterranean ports for the rest of the year. She arrived in Alexandria on 18 December, just as the port was attacked by Italian midget submarines damaging the battleships HMS 'Valiant' and 'Queen Elizabeth' (18 December). In the words of my father 'they did not sink, but were a little lower in the water'.

At the end of December the 'British Sergeant' left for the Persian Gulf, and sailed to Aden, Abadan, Bombay and Trincomalee, arriving there on 7 March 1942.

In April 1942 the 'British Sergeant' was in the Indian Ocean serving alongside the British Eastern Naval Fleet. The Royal Navy's 200 years of supremacy in the Indian Ocean had ended. The arrival of the Japanese naval fleet of 5 carriers and 4 battleships, fresh from the victories at Pearl Harbour, and the first aerial sinking of two of the Royal Navy's finest battleships - the 'Prince of Wales' and 'Repulse', had scattered the British fleet. The Japanese felt that they had neutralised the two most powerful navies in the world.

Although a merchant ship, the 'British Sergeant' possessed an impressive armament, consisting of one 4.7' gun, one 12 pounder, 2 Marlins, 2 Lewis Guns and had a compliment of 59, including 3 naval gunners.

On 5 April the 'British Sergeant' was in Colombo harbour discharging oil, when there was an air raid by Japanese planes looking for the British Fleet in Colombo harbour, but the fleet had withdrawn to a base in the Addu Atoll, Maldives, which had been kept secret from the Japanese.

For his next actions he was decorated, and his commendation, written in true wartime style of understatement is as follows:

"A ship (the Ben Ledi) was hit during a Japanese air raid on an eastern harbour. Third Officer Pointon, of another ship, was sent to inquire whether assistance was needed, and he found that the magazine had burst open and was on fire. In spite of the immediate danger of an explosion, the third officer at once entered and dragged some cordite cases away from the flames and out on deck. Although he was later helped by others in putting out the fire, it was undoubtedly his initiative, cool courage and disregard of personal safety which prevented a more serious situation developing."

The Ben Ledi's cargo at the time consisted of ammunition, high explosives and incendiaries. The crew of the Ben Ledi had already left the ship, and on approaching the Master had been told to 'get out while the going was good'. The ship's starboard magazine was on fire and despite imminent danger to himself, and without hesitation, he started to drag cases of cordite from the magazine.

The Ship's Master, inspired by his actions, started to help him drag cases of cordite from the ship. This was not an easy task, as by now the cases had become 'warm and were difficult to handle', but he carried on until all the cases of cordite had been removed and thrown overboard. Next he started to drag cases of shells out of the magazine, but the magazine sprinkler system became operative and owing to the steam and smoke he was forced outside. After being given a smoke helmet he returned to the magazine and continued to remove the shells. Fire hoses were brought into play and by the time the magazine had been emptied the fire had been put out. It had been made all the more difficult as shrapnel from a nearby warship (HMS 'Tenedos') which was sunk by the same air attack, was peppering the ship. The 'Ben Ledi' and her cargo had been saved, perhaps as well as the port of Colombo.

For this action he was awarded the MBE, and also the Lloyds War Medal for Bravery at Sea, one of only 523 such medals bestowed upon men of the Merchant Navy in cases of exceptional gallantry at sea in time of war. The captain of the 'Ben Ledi' presented a bottle of Scotch, which was much appreciated by the crew!

The next day the 'British Sergeant' left for Trincomalee to load fuel oil. On 8 April with an air raid imminent, the 'British Sergeant', along with the carrier HMS 'Hermes' and others, was ordered to sea for open waters and safety. With the air raid over, they turned for port.

However, about 5 miles away they saw Japanese planes (Val — aka Aichi D3A1) attacking the carrier 'Hermes' and a destroyer. The Captain ordered the 'British Sergeant' to alter course for shallow water at utmost speed.

Six Japanese bombers attacked the 'British Sergeant', the first bomb of which tore open the side of the ship causing it to list 35 degrees. The bomb from the second plane hit the deck on the starboard side and the foremast; bombs from the third and fourth planes penetrated the deck, breaking the back of the ship. Although the attack lasted only 90 seconds, throughout it the ship's guns continued to fire, and succeeded in bringing down 2 of the Japanese planes.

The 'British Sergeant' had been badly damaged, split in two and sank. Also lost in the same action were the carrier 'Hermes', an Australian destroyer, a corvette and another tanker. Before the 'British Sergeant' sank, my father remained on board to save his sextant and collect some books from the radio hut which he put into a suitcase, which he towed behind him whilst swimming to the lifeboat. He was the last off the boat.

During the attack my father manned a Lewis gun, and was instrumental in preventing several crew members from being injured. The only injuries was one man injured by rope burn marks as he left the ship.

His bravery under fire and subsequent actions earned him a further commendation. He returned home, and at the same time studied for his Masters Certificate, which he passed at the end of October 1942. On 3 November 1942 he went to Buckingham Palace to receive his MBE from the King.

His war did not end there. In December 1942 he returned to sea on the M/V 'British Fortitude' as 2nd Mate. On 23 February 1943, while sailing in a convoy bound for Curacao, she was torpedoed in the mid-Atlantic. Three tanks were split open, but the vessel remained upright and had settled by the stern. The engine room had been partially flooded, but for the actions of the crew the vessel would have been lost. They reached Guantanamo Bay, before repairs were carried out in Tampa, and then returning home.

His war did not end there, as he continued serving with the British Tanker Company until the end of the war. In August 1943 he saw support service in Sicily transporting gasoline before returning to Middle Eastern routes until the end of the war.

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