Our Century

Astonishing heroism by padre

Dave EverettDave Everett of Penn, pictured right, Wolverhampton, was torpedoed and sunk in 20 minutes in the Atlantic in 1941. He witnessed the astonishing heroism of a Midland padre - and later met a misguided convert to Catholicism.

It is one of those extraordinary war stories that shows how fact can be stranger than fiction:

"Our troopship SS Anselm left Glasgow escorted by the destroyer Challenger," recalls Mr Everett.

"I remember scanning the bulletin board, six days later: For the attention of all servicemen,' it said. Pyjamas can be worn now that we are out of the danger area.' A matelot with a stiff beard behind me growled: That must have been written by a U-boat commander. Is there a safe place anywhere in the Atlantic?'

"My pal Andy and I were both in the boxing team at our last station and to keep ourselves in trim we were up at 5am trotting arund the deck. Saturday morning, July 5, was no exception.

"We had just completed one circuit when the torpedo struck. From then on it was a nightmare. The alarm sounded. By instinct we headed for the lifeboat station. I witnessed chaos and panic beyond anything I could imagine. Despair and hopelessness was written in everybody's face.

"I heard scream and howls from guys trapped down below. I watched guys fighting with each other, seemingly for no reason at all. The destroyer Challenger had nosed in towards the back of the ship, catching servicemen dropping from the stern.

"Padre Pugh, the first padre at the RAF Bridgnorth station, was haggling with a couple of erks (aircraftmen) to lower him down so that he could bring solace to the doomed erks trapped below. His last words were: My love of God is greater than my fear of death.'

"The ship went down within 20 minutes. The reports of casualties ranged from 250 to over 400. Someone, somewhere made a cock-up with their sums.

"Years later I read that Padre Hugh had been awarded the George Cross posthumously for his bravery."

There was a curious footnote. Dave Everett recalls: "I recently met another survivor who had converted to Catholicism having witnessed this RC priest sacrificing his life.

"The irony was that it was a mistake. Padre Pugh was CofE. But he shared a cabin with a Catholic priest. In the pandemonium, each had donned the wrong tunic."

The Rev Herbert Cecil Pugh (1898-1941) was awarded the George Cross posthumously in April 1947. The official citation says he was last seen "kneeling with the men in prayer as the ship sank."

Bomb damage in Wombourne
Bomb-damage in Wombourne. The main force of the explosion was in the garden. Fortunately the occupants escaped injury.

The death of the Bismarck: A young Wolverhampton marine was in at the kill after taking part in the dramatic chase and the eventual sinking of the famous German warship, the Bismarck in June.

Geoffrey Kitchen, aged 18, from Hordern Road, was so thrilled by the action that he said later: "I was disappointed that it didn't last longer." His ship, the Dorsetshire, went in and finished off the Bismarck with torpedoes, after the chase.

Kitchen, the youngest marine on the ship, described how his captain received orders to cut off the German vessel, then speeding for home after sinking the Hood.

"We were up all night watching for her, and when dawn broke we were cold and tired and thought she was never going to show up. But about 8.30am we heard gunfire and saw flashes on the horizon.

"The Bismarck was firing at some of our destroyers. We immediately engaged her and she replied, but her shells passed overhead.

"We closed in immediately and some more ships came up to support us," he went on. "We did most of the firing and got several hits. We saw one salvo blow the Bismarck's forward gun turret clean off the ship, and another hit the after turret, and left it hanging over the side. After a few more salvos she was blazing amidships."

The youngster said that by the time his ship closed in on the stricken vessel, its guns were silent - and the Dorsetshire then got orders to go in and finish her off.

"One of our torpedoes hit her amidships," said young Kitchen. "There was a terrific explosion and the next thing I saw was the Bismarck heeling over.

"The next time I looked I could just see her hull with men on it - and other men and wreckage and oil in the water.

"In another two minutes she had gone. We all cheered as she went down. But it was not so good seeing the men in the water, some of them badly wounded.

Marine Kitchen said they picked up some 80 survivors and helped them all they could.

Princess cheers sick: Cheering up sick soldiers was the mission of Princess Mary, the Princess Royal, when she visited a West Midlands auxiliary hospital in May.

The royal visitor made an extensive tour of the wards, kitchen, dining hall and stores - and even watched a group of wounded and sick soldiers as they organised an impromptu game of football.

The Princess also visited a Red Cross hospital for wounded officers and a village recreation hall which had been turned into an auxiliary hospital.

Highlighting war work skills shortage: Training women for war work industries was the mission of Wednesbury County Technical College.

Barmaid making Shell components
Barmaid Elsie Dale at work turning out AA shell components in October 1941

When an Express & Star reporter joined them for a day in May she found there were women from all over Britain learning new skills for the war-effort.

But she added: "I was singularly ashamed that our own West Midlands was so poorly represented."

She said she was at a loss for words when a Scots girl asked her what the region's girls were all doing.

Most of the women on the course had previously been hairdressers, dressmakers, waitresses and clerks.

John Ogden
... the Woodcock's Well School dinner ladies' meat and potato pie was the tastiest meal in the history of school catering...

ATS ad calling women to arms