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Discussion Starter #1 (Edited by Moderator)
  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 Background Information
  • 3 Report of interview with the Chief Officer, Mr T D Finch
  • 4 Another account by Mr T.D Finch
  • 5 Casualties
  • 6 Footnote
  • 7 External Resources
  • 8 Contributors

This entry is an account of the tragic loss of the tanker San Emiliano during WW2 as described by the Chief Officer Mr T.D Finch who was one of the few survivors.

Background Information[edit]

SAN EMILIANO - 8,071 Grt

Eagle Oil & Shipping Ltd.

  • 8th August 1942: Sunk by 2 torpedoes from German submarine U 155.
  • Passage: Trinidad to Cape Town with 12,500 tons of Aviation Spirit.
  • Crew: 48, including 4 Naval and 2 Military Gunners
  • Casualties: 36 missing, 4 subsequently died and 2 injured.
  • Armament: 4.7" gun, a 12 pounder, two Twin Marlins, two Hotchkiss, one Savage Lewis and four P.A.C. Rockets.
  • Confidential Books: Burnt with the ship.
  • Degaussing: Off.

Click on this link to see the main Guide entry on San Emiliano: San Emiliano

Click on this link to view the Guide entry containing a US Navy Department report about the fate of San Emiliano and the U-boat that sunk her:

San Emiliano - Summary of Statements by US Navy Department

Report of interview with the Chief Officer, Mr T D Finch[edit]

All times in Local Time+ 4 hours for GMT

We left Trinidad on the 6th August, 1942, and joined up with Convoy E 7. The convoy proceeded without incident until 0300 on the 8th August when it was dispersed, all ships sailing independently for their various destinations. We proceeded at 8 knots, zig zagging all the time until 1930 on the 8th when a Hospital Ship crossed our bows; as this ship had all her lights blazing we ceased zig zagging, altered course to the Northward, and continued at full speed to get away from her lights.

At 2130 on the 8th August, when in position 7º 30'N. - 54º 45'W., steaming at 13 knots on a course 130º (approx.) we were struck by two torpedoes. The weather was fine and visibility good but very dark, there was a slight sea and swell with light airs. The first torpedo struck under the bridge on the starboard side, followed about 20 seconds later by another torpedo which struck also on the starboard side in the pump room about 60ft. abaft the bridge. I was in my cabin at the time and heard a loud humming noise just before the first torpedo exploded, I thought we were being dive bombed, but on hearing the second explosion I realised we had been torpedoed. Both explosions were very noisy but I am unable to say whether any water was thrown up or if there was a flash. The first torpedo appeared to strike deep down, splitting the ship open and covering the decks with gasoline, while the second one set fire to the ship, and within half a minute the vessel was a blazing inferno from the bridge aft; the crew abaft the bridge had no hope of surviving. I managed to climb through the port on to the fore deck and a few of the crew succeeded in following me. I saw No.2 forward lifeboat was undamaged and the Wireless Operator volunteered to release this boat. This man crawled on his hands and knees through the flames and released the falls, jumping into the boat as she was still made fast to the ship by the forward painter. I was unable to release the painter but managed to swing the boat off from the ship. Actually it was lucky for me that the painter had jammed because, as the ship still had weigh on her, on releasing the painter we should have drifted into the flames.

Just as we managed to swing clear of the ship the seams opened and burning gasoline poured out over the water. I heard one man shouting from the forecastle head and looking back I could see a number of the crew leaping from the deck into the burning water without an earthly chance of escape, and I was powerless to help them. Four of the crew, including the Apprentice, immediately took the oars and rowed away from the ship, but even so the flames gradually crept nearer and nearer the boat. I took one of the oars and pulled like grim death, and as the ship lost her weigh we managed to get about half a mile from her, where we stood by in the hope of sighting further survivors. We picked up 4 men from the water but saw nothing of the men who were aft at the time of the explosions. There were now 12 of us in the lifeboat, including the Apprentice, 2nd Officer and 3rd Steward. Apprentice Clarke had been badly burnt and was almost unrecognisable, at the time we did not realise how badly he was injured, but when he ceased rowing I found he had been rowing with the bones of his hands, the flesh had been burnt off, I could not get his hands off the oars and had to use a knife to do so.

About half an hour after leaving the ship's side a flickering light was observed on the port quarter of the ship, thinking this was probably the submarine I flashed an S.O.S. message with the torch, whereupon the flashing ceased and we saw nothing more. The 3rd Wireless Operator stated that he saw the submarine for a few seconds whilst running forward to abandon ship. We stood by the ship all night and at 0700 on the following morning, 9th August, the vessel appeared to melt amidships and break in two, the after end sank in a mass of smoke and flames, while the bow up-ended and remained afloat and blazing for another hour. At 0830 we approached the smouldering wreckage in search of further survivors but found none. We then hoisted sail and set a course Westwards to take advantage of the wind and current, towards the British Guyana coastline, which I estimated to be about 110 miles away. The Apprentice and 2nd Officer both died in agonising pain during the morning and before 1600 that day the 3rd Steward and Greaser had died from burns and injuries.

At 1100 on the 9th August we sighted an aircraft, this 'plane circled the burning wreckage several times. We signalled to him, he did not appear to understand, but finally came over and dropped a barrel of water which unfortunately broke on hitting the sea. Throughout the day the 'planes kept in contact with us and at 1830 one of them dropped a parachute with water, rations, medical supplies, cigarettes and instructions to proceed on a course of 190º (True) to Dutch Guyana Lightship, approximately 90 miles distant. They also flashed a message that help was coming and wished us good luck.

At 1900 on the 10th August we sighted the U.S. Army Transport "GENERAL GESSUP", this ship came alongside and picked up the remaining 8 survivors, landing us at Paramaribo at 1100 on the 11th August.I suggest that there should be an ample supply of morphia in lifeboats, especially in tankers carrying aviation spirits. If we had had even a small supply of morphia a lot of suffering could have been alleviated.

The Boat's Wireless set was kept in the wireless cabin and we were unable to reach it.

I would like specially to mention the great courage shown by Apprentice Clarke. Although very badly burnt with his hands almost devoid of flesh, he rowed as well as any of the crew. He remained cheerful throughout and although in agonising pain he never complained and was an inspiration to all in the boat. I would strongly recommend him for a posthumous award. Wireless Operator Dennis, although badly burnt, managed to crawl to the lifeboat and release the falls, thus saving the lives of the 8 survivors. This man was badly burnt but showed great courage and fortitude throughout.

Note: It is understood that there is an error in this account and that the ship that picked up the survivors was in fact the US troopship General Thomas S.Jessop however the original account has been left uncorrected.

Another account by Mr T.D Finch[edit]

This account features in External Reference #1 (see foot of this Guide) and is even more harrowing than the previous one.

We left Trinidad on 6 August 1942 in convoy, bound for the Cape and eventually Suez, fully loaded with a cargo of high octane gasoline in all about 12,000 tons. In the evening of 9 August the convoy dispersed. Round about 6 in the evening as dusk fell I noticed a ship coming up from astern with full navigation lights blazing, indicating a neutral vessel. By 7 o'clock she was a mile on our starboard beam and I noticed with the lights she was carrying that she was a hospital ship. By 8 p.m. when the 3rd officer relieved me of the watch she was well down on the horizon and disappearing. I've always had the idea that the U-boat must have been hanging around then, probably on the surface on that particular track and must have seen the hospital ship and more than likely saw us silhouetted against her lights ...

At about 9 o'clock I decided to turn in for the night and was partially undressed when there was a terrific explosion from the starboard side which was immediately followed by another. I jumped out of the bunk, rushed to the cabin door, which came away in my hands, saw that the mess was ablaze, and started to run down the alley-way. I saw the apprentice running around and shouted to him "Quick, this way . . . follow me'. We rushed back into my cabin, smacked the door back into position to prevent the fire entering, undid the thumb-screws to the port-hole, opened it up, and pushed the apprentice through it, and I followed him, landing on the shelter deck, down the ladder to the fore-deck and ran to the focslehead which I judged to be the safest place, By this time the ship was ablaze from bridge to stern, the whole sky being lit up by the flames which must have been hundreds of feet high. I saw the starboard life-boat had crashed into the sea but the port life-boat was still hanging in the davits, so I shouted to the apprentice 'Come on ... quick . . . we've got two minutes to get that boat away. If we don't, we're dead'. As we were running along the fore-deck towards the bridge, this boat also crashed into the sea ... We had to jump from the shelter deck to the falls about 6 feet and slide down them. Three other men threw themselves into the boat in desperation. At this time I had let go the after painter and noticed men running round the poop who were on fire, throwing themselves into the sea which was itself on fire.

We were about 40 ft. from the ship's side when the 3rd officer came running along the fore-deck from the focs'le-head shouting 'Wait for me, wait for me!' He dived over the side and we picked him up. At the same time there was another man on the focs'lehead shouting, but there was nothing we could do because out of the 5 or 6 who got away into the boat, only 3 were able to row. Slowly the ship drew ahead of us whilst we struggled to keep clear of burning sea. We heard some screams for help and rowed over and pulled out of the water a fireman who was terribly burned, so much so that when we pulled him into the boat, the skin from his body and arms came off in our hands like gloves, and he was in a very bad way indeed.

Eventually we heard two other cries for help and found in the water an able seaman who was clothed and not burned.- Shortly after we picked up a pumpman in the same condition. We tried to pursue the ship, looking for survivors, but it was an impossible task because those in the boat were so gravely injured and collapsing, leaving only three to row against the wind and sea. So we stopped rowing and found the first apprentice terribly burned, so much so that his hands had to be freed from the oars with scissors. The third officer and I attended to the wounded and were horrified at the extent of their injuries. There seemed no further signs of life anywhere so we hoisted sail and set course for Trinidad. This time, the fireman who had been in such agony all' night, died, and within minutes the second steward who had suffered terrible abdominal wounds and burns also passed away. I went over to him and lifted the blanket covering him and noticed the whole of his stomach badly injured and exposed. He had been very patient during the night and the only thing he complained of was the cold. Both these men were committed to the deep. We had been sailing for an hour or two when the second mate called me. He had been badly burned and severely injured below the waist. He wanted water which I gave him, but even then I knew it was hope¬less and a few minutes later he passed away, and as I covered him up with a blanket I noticed that the senior apprentice's life was also drawing to a close. About mid¬day he died having been very badly burned all over his body; and had been so very brave trying to keep up the morale of the rest of the men by singing. The most pathetic thing about the whole tragedy was the extreme youth of these lads, which was uppermost in my mind as I committed them to the deep.

We continued our voyage, in utter despair and sadness. At about 1 o'clock in the afternoon we heard the hum of a plane ... He circled round several times, increasing height and then dropped a parachute, which held a cask of water but this broke on impact and so was wasted. I wasn't too concerned about water at that point as I reckoned I had enough to last us about 30 days. We proceeded and just before dark the plane returned. He dropped the second parachute and this time it was a churn, rather like a milk churn. It was a good drop as it landed about 30 to 40 yards away from us. We picked it up and inside was a flask of iced water, cigarettes, chocolates and soup and a message saying 'steer south, coast within 110 miles'. I had had a rough idea that this was so, but steering south for me was against everything, e.g. current and the wind. However I decided to try so we turned round and headed south as far as we could judge. Dawn broke, we tidied the boat as far as we could and had a few rations. About ten o'clock the plane appeared again and dropped another parachute and this time it wasn't food but a message saying 'Help coming'.

About an. hour after dusk we spotted a schooner sailing without lights. I grabbed a torch and signalled because I thought this was the help that had been sent, but as soon as he spotted the signal he turned away and went off into the night. About an hour and a half later the whole sky was lit up by flares, we heard a plane, and then the flares came down lighting up the whole ocean and we spotted our rescue ship which turned out to be the 'Admiral Jessop', U.S. Army Transport, He came along side and took the wounded off first, the rest climbed on board and then all were taken down to the sick bay and put under sedation. Before I was put under sedation the captain asked me what to do with the life-boat, and I told him to sink it as it had been such a boat load of misery, despair, and death, and I wanted no more to do with it. I learnt later that I could have sold it and with the cash I could have clothed the survivors.

Seven survived out of a crew of 48, but before the war was over I think another three of those saved at that time, lost their lives later. On this point I'm not quite sure but the senior wireless operator did die later ... I know that.

Those who got away in the boat were awarded one George Cross, two George Medals, one MBE, and three Lloyd's War Medals. Three were mentioned in despatches. The George Cross and two of the Lloyd's Medals were posthumous awards.

TOZER,James WilfredMaster (44) MN
ANDREWS,HenryChief Cook (32)MN
ARMSTRONG,ThomasJunior Engineer (22)MN
BASTOW,JackStorekeeper (26)MN
BENNELL,Charles DraperChief Steward (42)MN
BRENNAN,Daniel PatrickCarpenter (40)MN
BROWN,JosephAble SeamanRN
BUTTERWORTH,Rudolph2nd Radio Officer (18)MN
CAPLIN,John CharlesSteward (23)MN
CLARKE,Donald Owen GcApprentice (19)MN
DAVIES,Thomas LutherGreaser (35)MN
HANCOCK,CyrilAssistant Steward (20)MN
HARCOURT,Graham StanleyCook (23)MN
HOPCROFT,Bertram WilliamOrdinary Seaman (21)MN
HOUSTON,David HuttonChief Engineer (49)MN
HUDSON,Robert Burton2nd Officer (27)MN
HUGHES,Jacob AneurinOrdinary Seaman (19)MN
JACKSON,Henry HaigGreaser (23)MN
JENKINS,Charles Reuben JamesOrdinary Seaman (21)MN
JONES,Edgar ThomasAble Seaman (28)RN
KIFF,Denzil AlbertAble SeamanRN
LANE,Raymond Thomas2nd Engineer (37)MN
MORGAN,Evan Iorwerth RosserAble Seaman (39)MN
MURPHY,William AlfredMess Room Boy (18)MN
PATTERSON,Arthur WilliamAble Seaman (41)MN
PYMAN,HarryBoatswain (45)MN
RICHARDSON,Robert HalidayPumpman (44)MN
ROACH,StanleyJunior Engineer (19)MN
SAUNDERSON,HaroldFireman (22)MN
SHAND,JamesFireman (33)MN
SWIFT,LeslieAble Seaman (33)RN
THOMAS,EmlynSailor (22)MN
WEST,Rudolph3rd Engineer (48)MN
WHITTY,DanielFireman (39)MN
WILLIAMS,John LewisSailor (25)MN
WILLIAMSON,Stephen YoungJunior Engineer (20)MN
WOODWARD,Alan4th Engineer (30)MN
WOOLLARD,ErnestAble Seaman (21)MN


Donald Owen Clarke, aged 19, Apprentice on San Emiliano was awarded the posthumous George Cross and the King's Commendation for brave conduct. He was one of the very few Apprentices who were given awards during the war. Attached is the Citation which appeared in the London Gazette Gazette for 16th July, 1943

The m.v. SAN EMILIANO, sailing alone, was attacked by the enemy and hit by two torpedoes. Fire broke out immediately. Apprentice Clarke was trapped and was severely burned, but escaped, and was one of those who got into the only boat that left the ship. It required a tremendous effort to pull that boat clear of the burning ship, and Apprentice Clarke rowed for two hours without complaint; it was not until the boat was clear that it was realised how badly he had been injured, and that he was indeed rowing with the bones of his hands. The next day he died. By his supreme effort, undertaken without thought of self and in spite of terrible agony, Apprentice Clarke ensured the safety of his comrades in the boat. His great heroism and selfless devotion were in keeping with the highest traditions of the Merchant Navy.


External Resources[edit]
  1. Book: The World at War by Mark Arnold-Forster

  1. Original Guide entry created by SN Member Baltic Wal
  2. Additional material and reformatting by SN Member Benjidog
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