South Shields sailors risked their lives to save others

Sailing on one of the Russian convoy ships.
Sailing on one of the Russian convoy ships.

Wartime produces so many heroes and heroines, yet their daring deeds are sometimes forgotten with the passing of time.

But thanks to the research of amateur historian Dorothy Ramser, two such heroes are remembered today in an article written by Dorothy.

It is the story of two South Shields seamen who courageously remained aboard their torpedoed ship to tend to injured comrades.

They were Percy Grey, the ship’s Chief Steward, of Edwards Street, South Shields, and First Cook Benjamin Coffey, of Marshall Wallis Road.

The ship was the River Afton, which was part of Convoy PQ17, made-up of 35 merchant ships, taking vital supplies to Russia during the Second World War. It was sunk on the July 5, 1942, by German submarine U-703.

“The River Afton, like the other merchant ships,” wrote Dorothy, “was filled to capacity with supplies for Russia and her decks were packed with large crates, tanks and aircraft.

“Convoy PQ17 sailed from Iceland on June 27, 1942, and their route was via the Barents Sea.

“The convoy was located by the Germans on July 1, and from that day on, was continuously attacked.”

Having lost the main strength of their Royal Navy protectors due to misleading intelligence (all that was left to protect these heavily laden ships were corvettes, minesweepers and armed trawlers), the merchant ships were forced to continue on “scatter”course.

“Constantly under attack from the air and submarine wolf packs, the seamen on board did as best they could without the benefit of military training,” continued Dorothy. “The attacks were to last for 48 hours and the explosives in the cargo made the ships beneath their feet into floating bombs.

“Just after 10pm on the evening of July 5, U-703 started its attack and the first torpedo struck the engine room of SS River Afton.

“Panic ensued as Captain Harold Charlton gave the order to abandon ship.

“Many of Charlton’s officers, however, ignored his order and were helping rescue men trapped below.

“Ben Coffey was on gun watch when one of the torpedoes hit the ship.

He said: “I was blown right out of the gun pit, but I managed to pick myself up all right.

“The second cook (Thomas Edward Waller, aged 19 of Whitby) was in the engine room helping an injured engineer and I went to get a stretcher. Just then the third torpedo hit us. I tried to get a raft away for the injured, but before we could do anything the ship sank like a stone and I was carried down with it.”

Percy Grey said: “The hero of our ship was a youth who was killed – Thomas Waller. He gave his own lifebelt to one of the crew who was hurt and afterwards went on to help another man.

“I saw him climb down into the shattered engine room and rescue one of the engineers and then go to another part of the ship. The last I saw of him was when he was standing near the point where the third torpedo hit us. I think he must have been killed by the explosion.”

Young Thomas was posthumously awarded the Lloyds War Medal for outstanding bravery.

It was every man for himself, said Dorothy, as the ship and men who were still on board plunged into the inky darkness.

Prior to the ship going down, when action stations had been called, Percy’s job was to care for any injured crew members – and he was determined to carry out his duty, whatever the cost.

“When this last torpedo hit us, the ship tipped up on end and the raft was washed away.

“The vessel sank so quickly we had not time to do anything, and were dragged under the water with the suction caused by it sinking.

“It seemed an eternity before I stopped going down, and it was only by struggling furiously that I finally reached the surface.

“When I looked around there was only an injured man and myself to be seen in the water. I could not swim but I had my lifebelt and by hanging on to an ammunition box I managed to paddle my way near to the injured man and I saw that he got picked up. Shortly afterwards the ammunition box sank, but I found a ship’s lifebuoy and kept afloat with this.”

l Dorothy’s account continues tomorrow.