Thanks to Keith Howes for letting us tell the story of his grandfather, George Dennis Howes from Hull. He had dedicated his life to the sea. As a boy he trained at Trinity House School, served his apprenticeship and became a Merchant Navy Officer.
George was a Second Officer on the S.S. Peterton.
This is in George’s words.
It was 1 September 1942 when the ship S.S.Peterton of Newcastle sailed from Oban in convoy destined for the Mediterranean. On the evening of 16 September after an uneventful voyage and some distance west of Gibralter, we received instructions to leave the convoy and proceed independently.
The vessel, one of 5,000 tons, carried a crew of 43 with a cargo of coal. The next day, 17 September with a tail wind, the crew thought we were out of the danger zone. Yet, we were no longer the lone wanderer that we thought. Our illusions were shattered when a terrific explosion occurred, the first of three direct hits. The first hit an engine room, killing eight of the crew. With intervals of only five seconds, the second and third hit us.
As Second Officer, I succeeded in launching my lifeboat. This was the only lifeboat we ere able to launch before the ship turned turtle. We saw her go down, completely submerged within six minutes of the first explosion. Four of us lowered the lifeboat as the rest of the crew had to jump into the sea.
The men in the water kept calm and we quickly picked up the rest of the crew and temporarily at least saved them from a watery grave.
But 35 men in a boat that was officially certified to carry only 28 meant it was so crowded that no one could sit down.
We knew then we had been victims of a lurking submarine. Our fate was in the lap of the gods, all we could do now was wait for it to surface. She eventually came up and our captain was ordered aboard and kept prisoner. The German commander was courteous, and kind. He asked of anyone was badly wounded. He verified our position, 250 miles northwest of Cape Verde.
In the distance we sighted another lifeboat which had floated clear of the S.S. Peterton as she sank. It was in good condition but full of water. Our chief officer decided to transfer himself and eleven men to this boat leaving me in charge of my boat with 22 men. This made it more comfortable if such a word can be used to describe this. It was decided we’d stay together by the aid of the stars, the sun and the moon to make for the Cape Verde Island.
After a quick assessment of the good and water I fixed a ration for 30 days. This worked out at two biscuits spread with pemmican, two Horlicks milk tablets and two small tablets of chocolate per man per day with one pint of water a day.
Day by day, and a week later on the 24 September at 4pm our hope ascended, and we saw a steamer approaching at last there was our last chance. It was obvious she had not spotted us, and the weather took a turn for the worse and our hopes were shattered as the ship passed us. The weather was so bad we had to bail water out of the lifeboat. Daylight spirits rose when we spotted the second lifeboat from the S.S. Peterton. It was empty. Had they been picked up? The irony is they had been picked up by the ship that had passed us the previous evening.
Another week passed and 1 October I had to conclude that we had drifted too far south and missed the island and had no choice but to carry on. On 4 October, I began to worry about our fresh water and on 12 October we consumed the last biscuit and chocolate tablet and were now reduced to milk tablets.
The worst was still to come, and a week later I had to issue the last of the rations on 20 October and on the 29 October, I had to cut the water ration and on 3 November I issued the last of the water.
Indeed, we were prepared to meet our fate and on the night of 4 November our prayers had been answered. We saw the shadow of a petrol vessel loomed ahead; it was the H.M.S Canna. That was on the 49th night after our vessel had been torpedoed.
For the last 15 days we had no food and when we landed at Freetown my own weight on being admitted to Lumley Hospital was a bare six stones. In those 49 days I had lost almost five stone and of the 22 men under my command in that little ship, only one had died and that occurred in hospital. He was an apprentice and the youngest on the boat at the tender age of 16.
Only now, if any of my colleagues read this, I tell them of the extra ration gave him when I saw the way he was going.
On 7 December 1943, George was awarded the George Medal for gallant conduct and devotion to duty in S.S. Peterton when the vessel was attached by the enemy and was also awarded the Lloyd’s Medal.