Donald Clarke – Pride of the Red Duster

Donald Clarke GC – 

born: 05/03/1923 Chester le Street, Durham. died. 08/09/1942 at sea.

DATE AND PLACE OF George Cross Action: 08-09/08/1942 off coast of Trinidad.

Donald Owen Clarke GC was born on 5th March 1923 in Chester le Street, County Durham. He was the son of Thomas and Bertha Clarke and had one sister. He attended Chester le Street Secondary School, and at the age of 16 enlisted with the Merchant Navy. Prior to the actions which led to his George Cross, he saved a dock gateman from drowning during the Liverpool Blitz.

On the night of the 8th-9th August 1942, Clarke was serving on board the tanker “San Emiliano” when it was hit by two torpedoes and her cargo of petroleum burst into flames, turning the ship into an inferno. Clarke was trapped in his cabin but fought his way out on deck and boarded the only lifeboat that was still intact. It was full of burnt and wounded men, and he himself was badly burnt on the face, hands and legs. When the boat was lowered onto the sea, it started to drift back towards the flaming tanker and it was evident that it would require a tremendous effort to pull it out of danger. Most of the occupants, however, were so badly injured that they were unable to help. Despite his injuries, Clarke took an oar and pulled heartily for 2 hours without complaint, and only when the boat was well clear did he collapse and then his hands had to be cut away from the oar as the burnt flesh had stuck to it. He had pulled as well as anyone although he was rowing with the bones of his hands Later, when lying at the bottom of the boat his thoughts were still with his shipmates and he sang to keep up their spirits. Next day he died having shown the greatest fortitude. 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

Donald Clarke’s body was buried at sea off the coast of Trinidad, though he is remembered on the San Emiliano panel on the Tower Hill Memorial, London. His medal is held by the Chester le Street Council’.



Medal citations tend to be sanitised and anything distressing removed. This one is different. The senior surviving officer Thomas Finch added the following sentence to his report to the Eagle Oil Co. It speaks volumes about this ordeal:

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.’ .

Also Donald Clarke had earlier won an award for his courage at Liverpool Docks. [‘His first opportunity to show his character came when the m.v. San Emiliano lived through two dive-bombing attacks on the Mersey Docks on May 5 and 7 1941. Tied up alongside Dingle oil jetty, which was a mass of flames, it was imperative to work the tanker away to safety. Captain Tozer, the Master, and one of the finest officers in the fleet, had ordered the crew away. But Apprentice Clarke volunteered to stay. Fourth Engineer S. A. Bone also volunteered to stay to keep the engines working. Clarke, regardless of the danger, helped to cast the ship off so that she could manoeuvre to safety. Next day, when the gateman Taylor fell into the dock, Clarke, although he could not swim, swarmed down a rope and helped Taylor to safety. For this he received the Silver Medal from the Liverpool Shipwreck and Humane Society and also a monetary award from the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board’.]

He was clearly an exceptional young man by any standards.. Interestingly there is or was a bed endowment in the RVI Newcastle in his name, complete with a plaque, in Ward 19 paid for by the Eagle Oil Company who owned the Tanker.

This is the American official report on the loss of San Emiliano 

Report on San Emiliano

Owners: Eagle Oil & Shipping Co. London, England. Operated by British M.o.W.T
Report of interview with:Thomas Finch
Sunk by: Torpedo without warning from submarine at about at 0130 GCT on August 9th, 1942.
Position: 07.30N 54.45W :
Voyage: Trinidad to Capetown
Cargo: 11,500 tons of 100 octane aviation gasoline
Draught: 27ft 7ins forward 27ft 4ins aft
Confidential books: Burnt with the ship
Crew: 48
Casualties: 40 killed

The ship immediately caught fire, and burnt violently for approximately 10 hours, then sank, stern first. The tanker was on course 100°(T), speed 11½ knots in 60 fathoms, radio silent, not actually zigzagging at the moment of attack as the Master was on the bridge, was using all possible speed to clear himself from the Red Cross Ship, Newfoundland, which, fully lighted, had just passed close aboard, crossing the San Emiliano’s bow from the port side. Previous to this time the ship had been using zigzag diagrams numbers 9 and 37 during daylight hours. One look-out was stationed on top of the bridge, while three gunners were at their post on the after gun platform. The ship was being conned by the Third Mate, who had the watch, but the Master was on the bridge. The weather was clear, slight sea running, wind East force 2 to 3, visibility good, no moonlight. At the time of attack the lights of the Red Cross Ship Newfoundland were visible, about 10 miles distant on the starboard bow.

The first torpedo struck on the starboard side of numbers hold, 15 feet below the water line. The explosion seemed to split the ship in two, and gasoline was thrown over the entire ship. About 30 seconds later a second torpedo hit in starboard in number 3 hold and ignited the gasoline which had been strewn over the ship which immediately became a raging inferno. The first torpedo made a hissing noise as it approached the ship. No distress signals could be sent. There was no opportunity to offer a counteroffensive as the aft gunners were enveloped in flames.

The crew numbered 48 and all but 12 were burnt to death before there was any opportunity to abandon ship. One lifeboat was launched with eight survivors, and four other members of the crew dived overboard, were picked up by the lifeboat; but were so severely burned these four died within a short time. The eight survivors were picked up by the General Thomas S Jessup on August 10th, and landed at Paramaribo on August 11 th. Planes of the U.S Army Air Force dropped supplies and medicine to the survivors and directed the rescue vessel to the lifeboat.

The sub which was seen only for a moment, was over 800 feet long, painted a dark blue, with a light grey conning tower, which had a dark blue band near its top.

The Tanker San Emiliano

Note: The U.S Naval Observer at Paramaribo commented that the San Emiliano was the most valuable of 20 ships that left Trinidad in convoy, bound Gibraltar, Capetown, Brazilian ports and Paramaribo, and “That is seems logical to deduct that the enemy knew what cargo the San Emiliano had aboard and where she was bound, also exact information as to where and when the convoy would disperse, for the ship was attacked about 18 hours after dispersal of the convoy by a submarine that apparently was waiting for her, as the ship’s speed of 11½ knots seems somewhat above reported speeds that the submarine could make submerged had she attempted to trail the ship”.

First Officer Thomas Finch of San Emiliano gave this interview the the team making the World at War series back in the 1970s. For me this account has always summed up the unassuming courage of the British Merchant Navy. Most of the crew was from the NE 

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 ½ a mile on our starboard beam and I noticed with the lights she was carrying that she was a hospital ship. By 8 PM 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 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 foc’s’le head 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 the 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. Captain Tozer, badly wounded at the first torpedo explosion refused to allow the lifeboat to endanger itself by coming back alongside the burning tanker to take him off. With him to the fearful end stayed Chief Steward C. D. Bennell who chose to remain and die with his Captain. 

We were about 40 ft from the ship’s side when the 3rd officer came running along the fore-deck from the fo’c’sle 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 fo’c’sle head 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 open and his intestines 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 hopeless 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 midday 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 tided 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 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”.