HMS Firedrake
Peter Armstrong the coxswain
Chief Petty Officer
Peter Armstrong The Firedrake's Coxswain

Chief Petty Officer Peter George Armstrong BEM the coxswain of Firedrake. Joined the Navy as a boy at fourteen by getting his local vicar to sign his entrance forms, because his parents did not want him to join, Peter told the vicar his parents could not read or write so the vicar signed the forms. At thirteen years of age Peter was South East London School Boys Swimming Champion.

He was awarded the British Empire Medal for heroism when he went aboard the French destroyer Maillé Brézé to administer first-aid to the injured and dying following a torpedo exploding in her fo’c’sle on the Clyde, it had gone off accidentally running along her deck into the fo’c’sle the ship sank with twenty six still trapped inside. There’s a book by A. D. Devine entitled, Destroyers War, which tells of the incident.

Peters Wife Margaret (Peggy) was head waitress at the Cumberland Hotel in London before the war so Peter was often seen in the Cumberland which brings me to the next story.

When the Firedrake was in the Mediterranean on 18th October 1940, with the help of a Flying boat of 202 squadron RAF and HMS Wrestler, they bought to the surface and sunk the Italian submarine Durbo, before the sub went to the bottom the crew was taken prisoner, one of the Italian prisoners came running up to Peter and through his arms around him. Before the war this Italian had worked at the Cumberland as a waiter so knew Peter and his wife very well. He told Peter that when the war started he had gone back to Italy and been called up and had ended up on the Durbo. It certainly is a small world.

Reg Fergusson remembers the coxswain very well. He was coxswains mate for a time so they were often in the wheel house together. Reg remembers him as a very fair bloke who would always have time to speak to the men. Reg Remembers an incident before there was a doctor onboard, Peter was in charge of the sick bay, since he was trained in first-aid, so he used to sleep in there when he was off watch. Once when Reg was taken ill and had a temperature he was bedded down in the sick bay, to be kept away from the others just in case he had something contagious. This meant that Peter had to find some where else to sleep, but he left his possessions in there. Reg saw him putting his tot into a bottle, the men were not allowed to save there tots but POs were, obviously !!
Joe Curbishley remembers the coxswain as a very powerful and loud man; he used to shout his name in a very deep low voice with a break between the r and b of Curbishley; he used to say Cur-bishley; Joe remembers Peter as a nice bloke who had a sense of humour but who was firm and did not tolerate fools. Bert How remembers the time when some of the lads were caught playing cards for money by the coxswain, gambling was banned on any ship, so Peter stopped the game and confiscated the money, which went in the charity box . Everyone had a nickname onboard, Bert’s was Gibbly he never did find out why; in Bert’s mess they used to call the coxswain, horse, because of his size. He was a tall well built man, and known to be fair and respected by the officers and crew especially the captain.

When Peter was a boy he used to push his cousin Margaret in a pram. Both had fair hair and blue eyes. Peter was seven years older than Margaret. Eventually they became sweethearts. When he was fourteen Peter went to sea. Margaret became a waitress. She was often among those selected for Buckingham Palace garden parties. Thousands knew her smile, for at one occasion she had been chosen as a model in a toothpaste advertisement. In July 1937 Peter and Margaret were married.

In 1943 Margaret and her daughter Margaret Ann went back to Buckingham Palace, not as a waitress, but to collect Peters BEM from the King. Every time Peter was on leave Margaret asked him how he had won the medal, and he always replied "I’ll tell you about it at the Palace". Just before Christmas 1942, Margaret received a greetings telegram from Peter " Safe and Well, Love you Both" That gave her new hope and brightened up her Christmas, she said I thought there had been some mistake and that although he had been officially reported killed, he was safe and well so she went on hoping. She then discovered that Peter had left the telegram with a friend, with instructions to send it just before Christmas. It would appear that was typical of him. The day after he was killed, Margaret received a gold and pearl locket from him.

Photo Right: The photo that was in the Daily Mirror in 1943, Mrs Armstrong and her daughter Margaret Ann. Who still has the rocking horse to this day.

Peggy and daughter Ann
Mrs Armstrong and her daughter Margaret Ann


The Chrysanthemum called Firedrake
Ron and Iris Slack

Ron Slack Stoker 1.

HMS Firedrake
K.I.A. 16th December 1942.
Ron photographed here on his wedding day to Iris in August 1942 just three months before Ron was killed. He was very keen on cycling and once attempted to cycle from Kent to Derby.

Prior to joining the Royal Navy Ron had been attending college at Ashford Kent to become a chef. While he was on the Firedrake he used to do a spot of fishing from the stern of the ship.                      Photo right the award of merit

Award of Merit
After the war Ron’s father-in-law Joe Johnson who was an accomplished chrysanthemum grower in Derbyshire, produced a new flower in honour of the ship and of his son-in-law Ron. It won the gold medal and an Award of Merit at the Royal Horticultural Society show in London in September 1945 so he named the new flower Firedrake. In the Chrysanthemums catalogue of 1947 it gives the description as: a real beauty for cutting and for vase work; not a large bloom, but a very effective shade of light terracotta throughout the whole of the flower; a good even grower on upright stems, small foliage. A.M.. J.E.F.C.A.M., Wisley. 2˝ft. September.

U12 Never Claimed
On Wednesday 6th September 1939 at 07.30 in the morning three days after the start of world war two, Firedrake was heading north through the English channel, the Asdic operator below reported with a sudden urgency of a submarine contact. On the bridge they heard the indications repeated on the loud speaker, instantly they turned towards it. In peace time they had done this a hundred times, racing at imaginary targets, thrusting at the invisible buffs (the little red fisherman's buoys towed by a target submarine).
But this was war, somewhere under the grey water there was an enemy ready and waiting, they came closer and closer, soon they were over the target. In the ordered ritual of the attack, the quiet urgent orders were given, and the pattern of depth charges was dropped.
They raced on, then astern of them, across the broad white roadway of their wake, the sea broke suddenly in a great explosion. Under their feet the ship jerked a little, and again the sea broke first a shuddering dislocation of the surface, then the sledge hammer blow of the explosion, then the enormous uprushing thunder of the spray... The attack went through its appointed course. When it was done there was a patch of oil upon the water, oil that spread, and with the movement of the tide trailed slowly in a long and shining pathway on the surface of the sea. They saw no wreckage, they recovered no bodies. So they do not claim that submarine. But Germany a little later, admitted the loss of U12 at about that time, and in approximately those waters.  By A.D.Divine D.S.M.

Survivor John Starrs
John Starrs (stoker) joined the Navy in 1940, he survived the sinking of HMS Firedrake on the 16/17th December 1942, was picked up by HMS Sunflower and taken to Argentia Newfoundland, after a brief rest, John went back to Chatham and was there for a while, then he was posted to the Naval Base at Reykjavik (Iceland) and there he stayed till the end of the war. After the war he went back to living in Tollcross Glasgow in Scotland and lived there happily with his thirteen grandchildren till he was 78 years of age. Photo right: American soldier in the mud of Reykjavik.

Other Pages Below
HMS Firedrake Page 1 The history of HMS Firedrake. The history of HMS Firedrake. HMS Firedrake details. Survivor Donald Coombes Survivor George Walker Joe Curbishley and John Bridge Bert How & Bill Aldous Topsy & Scouse Cliff Vincett, Wiggy Bennett & Reg Furgusson. Stanley Humphries and Henry Timpson. Memories from the Sunflower Some of Firedrake's last crew. Some more of Firedrake's last crew. Robinson, Waliker and Liberty. Capt. S. Norris. DSO. DSC. and Comm. E.H.Tilden DSC. RN. The Mailli Breze Tragedy and J. Wallbank. Adopted by Tynemouth. Edwards, Sym and Pattison. The U39 and Durbo story Dr John Aldren's story Peter Kelly Remembers Lt D.J.Dampier. Survivor Leonard Browne & George Dougal The "F" Class Destroyers Ken Neale OBE. FSA.