SS San Demetrio
Motor ship
A motor ship or motor vessel is a ship propelled by an internal combustion engine, usually a diesel engine. The name of motor ships are often prefixed with MS, M/S, MV or M/V.- See also :...

 San Demetrio was a British motor tanker
Tanker (ship)
A tanker is a ship designed to transport liquids in bulk. Major types of tankship include the oil tanker, the chemical tanker, and the liquefied natural gas carrier.-Background:...

, notable for her service during the Second World War
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

. She was built in 1938 for the Eagle Oil and Shipping Company
Eagle Oil and Shipping Company
Eagle Oil and Shipping Company was a United Kingdom merchant shipping company that operated oil tankers between the Gulf of Mexico and the UK. Weetman Pearson, 1st Viscount Cowdray founded it as the Eagle Oil Transport Company in 1912 and sold it to Royal Dutch Shell in 1919...

. In 1942 she was damaged by enemy action in mid-Atlantic, abandoned by her crew but later re-boarded and successfully brought into harbour. She was the subject of a 1943 feature film, San Demetrio London
San Demetrio London
San Demetrio London is a Second World War film about the Merchant Navy. It deals with the crew of a tanker and their struggle to deliver their cargo to England during the Battle of the Atlantic...

, one of the few films that recognised the heroism of the Merchant Navy crews during the war.

San Demetrio was one of several motor tankers of about 8,000 tons built for Eagle Oil and Shipping in the latter 1930s. She was built by the Blythswood Shipbuilding Company of Glasgow, who had also launched her sister ship
Sister ship
A sister ship is a ship of the same class as, or of virtually identical design to, another ship. Such vessels share a near-identical hull and superstructure layout, similar displacement, and roughly comparable features and equipment...

s San Conrado in 1936 and San Cipriano in 1937.

Convoy HX-84

San Demetrio had loaded 11,200 tons of aviation fuel
Avgas is an aviation fuel used to power piston-engine aircraft. Avgas is distinguished from mogas , which is the everyday gasoline used in cars and some non-commercial light aircraft...

 in Galveston, Texas and was bound for Avonmouth
Avonmouth is a port and suburb of Bristol, England, located on the Severn Estuary, at the mouth of the River Avon.The council ward of Avonmouth also includes Shirehampton and the western end of Lawrence Weston.- Geography :...

, England. She was one of 38 ships that joined Convoy HX-84
Convoy HX-84
HX-84 was a North Atlantic convoy of the HX series during the battle of the Atlantic in World War II. It consisted of 38 merchant ships which sailed eastbound from Halifax, Nova Scotia, for Liverpool, England, on 28 October 1940 and was escorted by the armed merchant cruiser HMS Jervis Bay-The...

 for the passage across the north Atlantic and left Halifax, Nova Scotia
City of Halifax
Halifax is a city in Canada, which was the capital of the province of Nova Scotia and shire town of Halifax County. It was the largest city in Atlantic Canada until it was amalgamated into Halifax Regional Municipality in 1996...

 on 28 October 1940. The and escorted the convoy out of Canadian home waters but once clear of the coast the convoy's sole escort was the armed merchant cruiser  — a converted passenger liner
Ocean liner
An ocean liner is a ship designed to transport people from one seaport to another along regular long-distance maritime routes according to a schedule. Liners may also carry cargo or mail, and may sometimes be used for other purposes .Cargo vessels running to a schedule are sometimes referred to as...

 that had been armed with seven outdated BL 6 inch Mk VII naval gun
BL 6 inch Mk VII naval gun
The BL 6 inch Gun Mark VII was a British naval gun dating from 1899, which was mounted on a heavy traveling carriage in 1915 for British Army service to become one of the main heavy field guns in the First World War, and also served as one of the main coast defence guns throughout the British...

s and a pair of 3 inch anti-aircraft guns.

Attack by the Admiral Scheer

On 5 November the German heavy cruiser
Heavy cruiser
The heavy cruiser was a type of cruiser, a naval warship designed for long range, high speed and an armament of naval guns roughly 203mm calibre . The heavy cruiser can be seen as a lineage of ship design from 1915 until 1945, although the term 'heavy cruiser' only came into formal use in 1930...

 Admiral Scheer found the convoy at 50°30′N 32°00′W and attacked immediately. Captain E.S.F. Fegen
Edward Stephen Fogarty Fegen
Captain Edward Stephen Fogarty Fegen VC, SGM was an Irish Victoria Cross recipient , by birth an English recipient of the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth...

 of HMS Jervis Bay steamed out towards the raider so as to delay the Admiral Scheer to allow the convoy to scatter and escape. Jervis Bay was completely outclassed, but she fought for 22 minutes before she was sunk with the loss of 190 of her crew. Their sacrifice enabled most of the merchantmen from Convoy HX-84
Convoy HX-84
HX-84 was a North Atlantic convoy of the HX series during the battle of the Atlantic in World War II. It consisted of 38 merchant ships which sailed eastbound from Halifax, Nova Scotia, for Liverpool, England, on 28 October 1940 and was escorted by the armed merchant cruiser HMS Jervis Bay-The...

 to escape and Fegen received a posthumous Victoria Cross
Victoria Cross
The Victoria Cross is the highest military decoration awarded for valour "in the face of the enemy" to members of the armed forces of various Commonwealth countries, and previous British Empire territories....


Admiral Scheer now tried to sink as many of the convoy as possible before darkness fell. She hit San Demetrio with several shells that destroyed the bridge and poop deck
Poop deck
In naval architecture, a poop deck is a deck that forms the roof of a cabin built in the rear, or "aft", part of the superstructure of a ship.The name originates from the French word for stern, la poupe, from Latin puppis...

 and left the upper deck in flames. Despite both the exploding shells and the resultant fire, the ship's highly flammable cargo did not explode. Nevertheless her Master
Master mariner
A Master Mariner or MM is the professional qualification required for someone to serve as the person in charge or person in command of a commercial vessel. In England, the term Master Mariner has been in use at least since the 13th century, reflecting the fact that in guild or livery company terms,...

, Captain Waite, believed that the fire could set off the aviation fuel at any moment so he gave the order to abandon ship. With the ship remaining under fire from the Scheer, the crew escaped in two lifeboats. Admiral Scheer then turned her attention to other ships of the rapidly scattering convoy.


The two lifeboats separated in the night and the lifeboat with the captain and twenty-five crew was picked up and taken to Newfoundland. The sixteen men in the other lifeboat, including Second Officer
Second Mate
A second mate or second officer is a licensed member of the deck department of a merchant ship. The second mate is the third in command and a watchkeeping officer, customarily the ship's navigator. Other duties vary, but the second mate is often the medical officer and in charge of maintaining...

 Arthur G. Hawkins and Chief Engineer Charles Pollard, drifted for 24 hours when they sighted a burning ship. To their surprise, they discovered that it was their own ship, San Demetrio. With few alternatives, the crew had to decide whether to risk death by exposure or to re-board and risk the fire. In the end they chose to remain in the lifeboat because the fire was too great and the weather too hazardous to attempt boarding, but after a second night in the boat and enduring a freezing North Atlantic winter gale, they regretted not re-boarding the tanker.

At dawn the following day, 7 November, the San Demetrio was about 5 nautical miles (9 km) downwind so the crew set sail toward her and re-boarded. They fought the fire, repaired the port auxiliary boiler sufficiently to restart the ship's pumps and dynamos and repaired the auxiliary steering gear. No charts or navigational instruments had survived so the crew estimated a course from occasional glimpses of the sun. Her radio had not survived either. They managed to sail the tanker across the rest of the Atlantic, braving bad weather and U-boats. After seven days reached the waters off Ireland from where they were escorted on to the mouth of the River Clyde
River Clyde
The River Clyde is a major river in Scotland. It is the ninth longest river in the United Kingdom, and the third longest in Scotland. Flowing through the major city of Glasgow, it was an important river for shipbuilding and trade in the British Empire....

, docking on 16 November. They declined the offer of a tow from a tug because of the high cost.

Despite the damage and fire only 200 tons of San Demetrios highly volatile cargo had been lost. There was only one fatality, John Boyle, who had been injured jumping into the lifeboat after the original battle and gradually began to feel unwell. He was propped up in the engine room to watch the gauges but died of a haemorrhage after two days. He was posthumously awarded the King's Commendation for Brave Conduct.

Since the crew had received no assistance from another vessel, in the ensuing case in the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division of the High Court
High Court of Justice
The High Court of Justice is, together with the Court of Appeal and the Crown Court, one of the Senior Courts of England and Wales...

 they were able to claim the salvage
Marine salvage
Marine salvage is the process of rescuing a ship, its cargo, or other property from peril. Salvage encompasses rescue towing, refloating a sunken or grounded vessel, or patching or repairing a ship...

 money from the insurers for the ship and cargo. The oil and freight cargo were valued at £60,000. The ship herself, almost new, was worth £250,000. The High Court awarded the claimants £14,700 salvage money: £2,000 of it going to Second Officer Hawkins; £1,000 to the estate of Joe Boyle. Another £1,000 went to 26-year-old Oswald Ross Preston, an American seaman, because he played a "magnificent" part when the battle started. Hawkins was also given the tattered Red Ensign
Red Ensign
The Red Ensign or "Red Duster" is a flag that originated in the early 17th century as a British ensign flown by the Royal Navy and later specifically by British merchantmen. The precise date of its first appearance is not known, but surviving receipts indicate that the Navy was paying to have such...

 of the ship.

Second Officer Hawkins was awarded the OBE
Order of the British Empire
The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire is an order of chivalry established on 4 June 1917 by George V of the United Kingdom. The Order comprises five classes in civil and military divisions...

 for his gallantry. Chief Engineer Charles Pollard and Deck Apprentice John Lewis Jones each received the Lloyd's War Medal for Bravery at Sea
Lloyd's War Medal for Bravery at Sea
The Lloyd's War Medal for Bravery at Sea is one of the four Lloyd's Medal types bestowed by Lloyd's of London. In 1939, with the coming of World War II, Lloyd's set up a committee to find means of honouring seafarers who performed acts of exceptional courage at sea, and this resulted in the...

. San Demetrio was repaired and returned to service.


On 14 March 1942 San Demetrio sailed unescorted from Baltimore
Baltimore is the largest independent city in the United States and the largest city and cultural center of the US state of Maryland. The city is located in central Maryland along the tidal portion of the Patapsco River, an arm of the Chesapeake Bay. Baltimore is sometimes referred to as Baltimore...

, Maryland
Maryland is a U.S. state located in the Mid Atlantic region of the United States, bordering Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia to its south and west; Pennsylvania to its north; and Delaware to its east...

 bound for the UK via Halifax, Nova Scotia with a cargo of 4,000 tons of alcohol
Ethanol, also called ethyl alcohol, pure alcohol, grain alcohol, or drinking alcohol, is a volatile, flammable, colorless liquid. It is a psychoactive drug and one of the oldest recreational drugs. Best known as the type of alcohol found in alcoholic beverages, it is also used in thermometers, as a...

 and 7,000 tons of aviation spirit. On 17 March she was northwest of Cape Charles
Cape Charles (headland)
Cape Charles is a headland, or cape, in Northampton County, Virginia. Located at the southern tip of Northampton County, it forms the northern side of the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay....

, Virginia
The Commonwealth of Virginia , is a U.S. state on the Atlantic Coast of the Southern United States. Virginia is nicknamed the "Old Dominion" and sometimes the "Mother of Presidents" after the eight U.S. presidents born there...

 when the German U-boat U-404 torpedoed and sank her. 16 crew and three DEMS gunners were lost and six crew wounded but survivors managed to launch two lifeboats. Two days later the US tanker SS Beta
USS Hisko (ID-1953)
USS Hisko was a tanker that served in the United States Navy from 1917 to 1919.- Service history :SS Hisko was built for the United States Shipping Board by the Chester Ship Building Company, Chester, Pennsylvania, and launched 15 October 1917. Acquired by the U.S. Navy for World War I service,...

 rescued the Master, 26 crew and five DEMS gunners and took them to Norfolk, Virginia
Norfolk, Virginia
Norfolk is an independent city in the Commonwealth of Virginia in the United States. With a population of 242,803 as of the 2010 Census, it is Virginia's second-largest city behind neighboring Virginia Beach....

. The Master, Conrad Vidot, was awarded the Lloyd's War Medal.


The ship's part in Convoy HX-84 was made into a film, the San Demetrio London in 1943, starring Walter Fitzgerald
Walter Fitzgerald
Walter Fitzgerald was an English character actor.Born Walter Fitzgerald Bond in Keyham, Devon. Married 1st Rosalie Constance Grey in 1924.1s .2nd Angela Kirk in 1938. 3 sons 1 daughter....

, Mervyn Johns
Mervyn Johns
Mervyn Johns was a Welsh film and television character actor. He was a mainstay of Ealing Studios.Among his dozens of film roles were Walter Craig in Dead of Night , the Church Warden in Went the Day Well? and Bob Cratchit in Scrooge...

, Ralph Michael
Ralph Michael
Ralph Michael was an English actor. He was born in London, United Kingdom.His film appearances include: A Night to Remember, Children of the Damned, Khartoum, Grand Prix, The Assassination Bureau, and Empire of the Sun.Television credits include: The Adventures of Robin Hood, Dixon of Dock Green,...

, and Robert Beatty
Robert Beatty
Robert Beatty was a Canadian actor who worked in film, television and radio for most of his career and was especially known in the UK.-Career:Born in Hamilton, Ontario, Beatty began his acting career in Britain in 1939....

. It was one one of the few films to recognise the heroism of British Merchant Navy crews during the war.
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