Crew members of town’s adopted Second World War escort ship remembered

AS The Last Post rang out on an unusually warm March afternoon, a small section of Saffron Walden fell silent.

Councillors stood dressed in their robes, military veterans saluted and flags were held aloft as the crew members of a Second World War escort ship adopted by the town were remembered.

In 1945, on the morning of March 20, 158 of the 219-man crew aboard HMS Lapwing lost their lives when the ship was torpedoed by a German U-Boat.

It had been at the head of a convoy of Allied ships less than six miles from their destination at the Kola Inlet, in northern Russia.

On the quarter deck as the ship went down was the town’s coat of arms – placed there after residents helped raise more than �250,000 to sponsor it as part of the Government’s War Week.

Also at the remembrance service was 89-year-old Tommy Jess. He was the only surviving crew member able to make it to the emotional ceremony, and afterwards he spoke to reporter Sam Tonkin to share more about that fateful day.

“We thought we were safe when we reached that point because the German U-Boats were only interested in stopping the supplies getting to Russia,” Mr Jess said.

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“By the time we got close enough, or if we were on our way back, they weren’t interested. I remember the guys were looking forward to their 11 o’clock rum ration when the torpedo hit, and I was on my own on the upper deck at the time.”

“The blast lifted me off my feet and threw me about 10 or 12ft across the deck. It took the skin off my knuckles but that was the only injury I had.”

Mr Jess, 22 at the time, said he waited before an order was given to abandon ship – which he later found out was delayed because the captain had been knocked unconscious during the blast.

“We were told ‘every man for himself’ so I jumped 40ft over the side into the freezing cold water.

“I was not a strong swimmer but fortunately I had my life belt on me. I never took it off unless I was in my hammock – and there is no doubt it saved my life that day.”

The Second World War veteran – who was on a convoy ship during the D-Day landings at Omaha beach – said he paddled as fast as he could away from the ship, afraid he would be sucked under when she went down.

He was then hauled into one of the life rafts along with 16 other men rescued from the water.

Less than 10 minutes after the blast hit, and with snow falling around them, Mr Jess said he remembered seeing only the hull of the ship poking out of the water.

“All I was thinking when I clambered into the lifeboat was my parents hearing the news that I was gone,” he said. “There was definitely someone looking out for us that day.”

In fact, Mr Jess said he was only able to send a telegram when he arrived back in Greenock in Scotland, a letter his mother treasured and which she passed on to him when she died.

At this point that Mr Jess finds it difficult to hold back the tears. “I counted 16 people in that lifeboat and by the time we were rescued by the HMS Savage there were only seven of us left. They just kept falling over the side. The cold was terrible.

“One chap in particular I will never forget. He was a bit younger than me and it was probably his first convoy. But he didn’t make it. They couldn’t save him.”

Mr Jess never went back to sea after he returned to his native Northern Ireland. He has made the trip to Saffron Walden for the memorial service held every two years since 2006. “It is always a great occasion and Les Edwards, chairman of the Lapwing Association, does a fantastic job organising it.

“But it is very emotional for me, especially when I hear names I recognise being read out.

“The people and the town are great though – they are so friendly – and, god willing, I will be back again in two years.”