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The 'San Demetrio' at the 'Jervis Bay' action, 5 November 1940

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Object ID BHC1615
Description This painting forms part of Norman Wilkinson's ‘The War at Sea’ series, depicting the work of the Royal Navy, Merchant Navy and RAF Coastal Command, of which 53 were exhibited under that title at the National Gallery in 1944, and the full set of 54 presented by him to the nation via the War Artists Advisory Committee (this item's WAAC number being LD 4316). For details of the slightly complex history of the acquisition see BHC1590, the start of the set by modern NMM catalogue number. The MV 'San Demetrio', a motor tanker, was one of the ships in Convoy HX84 out of Halifax, Nova Scotia, which was attacked in mid-Atlantic on 5 November 1940 by the German surface raider 'Admiral Scheer', when under the sole escort of the armed merchant cruiser 'Jervis Bay'. Captain Feigen of the 'Jervis Bay', though totally outgunned, attacked the German warship to give the convoy a chance to scatter: 'Jervis Bay' was sunk with 129 dead including Feigen (who was awarded a posthumous VC). The 'Scheer' then tried to pick off as many of the convoy as possible before nightfall. 'San Demetrio' was hit and set on fire. Fearing her cargo of aviation fuel would explode, Captain White ordered the crew into the two lifeboats, which became separated in the night. His was picked up but not the one holding the second officer, Arthur Hawkins, Chief Engineer Charles Pollard, and 14 other men. Some 24 hours later they sighted a burning ship in the distance which, to their surprise on approaching, was their own still afloat. Faced with the choice of probably dying in the boat or taking their chances back on board, they re-embarked - as Wilkinson shows them about to do - managed to put out the fire which, miraculously, did not reach the explosive high-octane cargo - and raised enough power to pump out water and get slowly under way. Though without navigational equipment and charts (destroyed in the fire), they then sailed the ship alone across the Atlantic to the coast of Ireland where they found escort to take them into the Clyde -refusing a tow to get in there, mainly because of the high cost. As a result, they were awarded the full insurance and salvage value of the cargo and ship - £60,000 for the freight and fuel cargo and £14,700 for the ship. Only one man, John Boyle, died (during the voyage back) from internal bleeding from earlier accidental injury: £1000 went to his family and another £1000 to Oswald Prescott, a young American seaman in the crew for his 'magnificent' part when the ship was attacked: Hawkins received £2000 and was awarded the OBE, while Pollard and the deck apprentice, John Lewis, were awarded the Lloyd's War medal for Bravery at Sea. The 'San Demetrio' was repaired and put back into service but in 1942 was torpedoed and sunk by U-404 off the US east coast , while making her way unescorted from Baltimore to Halifax, NS, to join another Atlantic convoy. The wartime feature film, 'San Demetrio, London' (Ealing Studios,1943), was a good and successful dramatization of the 1940 episode and the only one solely focusing on the role of the Merchant Navy in the war. Two models of the ship (one made to shoot the film) are in the Imperial War Museum, with another painting by Wilkinson showing the crew reboarding her. For her bell see EQA0481.
Date made circa 1942

Artist/Maker Wilkinson, Norman
Credit National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1947
Materials oil on canvas
Measurements Frame: 925 mm x 1178 mm x 66 mm;Painting: 762 mm x 1016 mm
  • The 'San Demetrio' at the 'Jervis Bay' action, 5 November 1940 (BHC1615)
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