Memories From the Sunflower
John Dixon at Chatham
John Dixon at Chatham

That’s me on the left John Dixon (Jack) to my friends I was on HMS Sunflower the night HMS Firedrake was lost, and I will never forget it.
We left Londonderry on the 12th December 1942 to join the west bound convoy ON153 and 43 merchant ships bound for North America, we were part of the escort group which consisted of fore Corvettes and two Destroyers. The Sunflower which I was aboard built 1940. The Alisma and Pink also built in 1940. And the Loosestrife built in 1941. The two Destroyers were the Ripley a four funnelled American Destroyer, its original name was the USS Shubrick built for service in the first world war, and the Firedrake (H79).

It was on the evening of the 16th that the U-boat U211 attacked the convoy. One report is that the U-boat Fired a spread of four torpedoes into the convoy hoping to hit something in doing so struck the Firedrake. Action stations had been sounded, my station was the cordite supply to the 4" gun. I remember standing on the gun platform with cordite container on my right shoulder, ready to supply a reduced charge of cordite to the breach loader. The mountainous seas were coming over the bows and drenching the gun crew. It was freezing cold, a gale force wind was blowing, and all I had on was my socks, underwear, sand-shoes and overalls with a life belt around my chest. The order was given to load star shell and shoot.

After two or three shells had been fired and had burst high in the night sky, the stern section of Firedrake was sited at about midnight stand down from action stations was sounded, I was told to get some warm clothing on then with other ratings go down into the starboard well deck to put the scrambling net over the ships side. This net was there for the very reason that it was being used this very night. There was another net situated on the port side, I could just make out that some of the survivors were still on the stern section of what remained of the Firedrake, others were hanging onto a floating corked net approximately thirty yards off our starboard beam.

It was then one of our party, a Newfoundland rating by the name of Furey, with a heaving line tied around his chest, lowered himself down the scramble net into the sea. He then swam towards the floating cork net. When he got there he entwined his arms in the netting he became part of the "towing line". We then pulled the net towards and finally along side the Sunflower. Able seaman Furey remained in the sea to assist the men up the scrambling net on to our heaving deck. As this brave action was taking place, the starboard bridge communication signal lamp was being used to spot the other survivors in the water. It was being used intermittently, because of the fear of becoming another target for the submarine.

In the beam of light a rubber dinghy was momentary illuminated, with two men inboard. One of the men was stretched out, not moving, the other man had a small paddle which he was using in his attempt to make his way towards our ships side. The moment the light flashed on him I saw and heard him call out for us to help those men who were still in the water before rescuing them both. The two men were probably duty stokers from the engine room, as they only had vests and trouser overalls on. The hands of the man who was paddling were blackened and appeared to have been badly burnt, but he seamed to be void of experiencing pain.

We managed to get 27 onboard but my friend Ted Adderly wasn’t one of them, I was very much saddened; he was such a gentle young man. One of the men we got aboard was an able seaman named W. Kay but he was unconscious and covered in fuel oil. He was carried down aft and put in the Petty Officers tiled wash room where I assisted the sickbay rating to remove all his clothing .

We poured warm water over him to raise his temperature and at the same time clean off the "stinking" oil. But sadly he died before day break. Before we got to our final destination we lost two more merchant ships the Otina on the 20th and the Oropos on the 21st.
John and Renee today
John and Renee Dixon Today
The Wolf-pack "Raufbold" first sighted our convoy on the 15th December and consisted of 13 U-boats namely the U135, U203, U211, U365, U409, U410, U439, U600, U609, U610, U621, U623 and U664. They were responsible for sinking 70 merchant ships.

The Hero of 17th December 1942
Leading Seaman George J. Furey
George Furey

Leading Seaman George Joseph Furey
HMS Sunflower

Bill to some of his mates on board the Sunflower in 1942.
George was never issued a medal for his heroic action on the night the Firedrake was lost with 168 young lives, even though he did save the lives of 26 of the crew, but he was mentioned in dispatches.

The text of his recognition award is as follows:
" By the Kings order the name of Able Seaman George Joseph Furey, HMS Sunflower, was published in the London Gazette on the 23 of March 1943 as mentioned in a dispatch for distinguished service. I am charged to record his majesty's high appreciation" signed by A.V. Alexander, First Lord of the Admiralty.

George's sun Bill wrote to the association this year, this is his letter:
On the night the Firedrake was lost, my father went over the side with a rope tied around his waist.
He would swim out to a man in the water and hold onto him while his mates hauled him back onboard the Sunflower. He did this 28 times and saved 27 lives, the last man he brought to the rail of the Sunflower slipped from his arms as he was too exhausted to hold him any longer.
These were the only men saved from the Firedrake. My father was a very strong man with lots of courage who took this extraordinary action to save lives. Getting away from the side of a ship in 60 foot waves is quite a feat he did this 28 times.
One of the crew of the Sunflower a signalman, came to Newfoundland from England a few years ago to visit my father he was still amazed at the courage and strength of my father after 50 years.

George died in April, 1996, at the age of 87. He lived a full life and raised a family of ten children. While we knew that he had helped save 26 men during the war, we didn't know all the details. He was not one to talk about himself. Shortly before he died, I did talk to him about it. He didn't see himself as a hero but talked instead about the 27th man that he couldn't hold on to, due to exhaustion. He was sorry that he couldn't have saved more.

George's daughter Helen, also wrote to the association this is her letter:
Yes it is a truly amazing story. My father was a very humble man from a small outpost community.
He never spoke much about the Firedrake disaster. Towards the end of his life a gentleman from England wrote in a local paper that he would be coming to Newfoundland and wanted to locate a man "Fleury" who had saved the lives on the Firedrake.
Indeed he had got the name wrong but he was looking for my father George Furey. My mom responded and the Evening Telegram, a local paper ran an article on the reunion and the story of the rescue.
Many on board the Sunflower thought that my Dad had received a medal but he never did, and if you knew my Dad , well he certainly would not look for one. Newfoundland wasn't part of Canada at the time and the Newfoundlanders enlisted as part of the British Navy.
He reminisced at the end of his life that he should have rescued more of the crew and felt badly that he had not reach more of the young men in the water that cold night.

John Masters Editor writes:
That any were saved at all was a miracle in its self, a howling gale with force 12 winds and 60 foot waves crashing over the little Corvette Sunflower, and what was left of the Firedrake, this was a truly horrific scene with the chance of the Sunflower being torpedoed at any minute. Why George was never given the VC or a medal for bravery I will never understand.

Leading Seaman George Joseph Furey, MID

A night I will never forget
Peter Collins
Ord Sign  P. Collins at Malta On the night of 16-17th December 1942, I was an Ordinary Signalman aboard HMS Sunflower, a corvette in the middle of Atlantic escorting convoy ON153 to north America, in a force 12 storm, I night I will never forget. This was the night that HMS Firedrake the escort leader of the convoy was torpedoed and sunk by U-boat U211 with the loss of 168 young lives. We on the Sunflower knew many onboard the Firedrake, we used to go onboard her for games of Tomboler or bingo as it is called today.

We the Sunflower had been on the other side of the convoy when Firedrake had been hit so were not immediately aware of what had happened, we were attracted by the site of star shells being fired about five miles south of the convoy and when we tried to make radio contact with the Firedrake who was convoy leader and couldn’t we went to investigate, after sending up our own star shells and using binoculars the captain could see what had happened.
So we sped to the rescue, the Firedrake had been cut in two by the explosion with the bow sinking within a few minutes, so we couldn’t save anyone from that part of the ship, it had sunk before we got there, we onboard the Sunflower were at action stations and ready to take on the survivors that were still on what was left of the Firedrake, but the weather was atrocious with sixty foot waves crashing over our decks and force 12 winds, we couldn’t get close enough to it to get the survivors off what was left of the Firedrake, which was about two thirds of the ship, so the captain decided that it would be safer to circle the ship until daylight hoping that the weather may improve and then maybe setup a bosons chair and lift the men off that way.

At about a quarter to one in the morning on the 17th the Firedrake sank, those onboard took to the sea, some were in a carly float others were swimming in the freezing boiling sea, I shone my signal lamp on the survivors in the water so that one of our seaman, George Furey a Newfoundlander who had tied a life line around his waist and gone overboard into the icy sea, could see where the men were, so he could grab hold of them, when he had hold of one he would be pulled back to the ship where the survivor would be helped aboard, George managed to save twenty seven of the Firedrake’s crew this way but one died before daylight, these twenty six were the only survivors from the Firedrake on that terrible night I still see in my minds eye that horrific scene of young men putting their arms up, and slipping out of their life-belts so they would go under quicker because they knew that they were too far from the Sunflower to be rescued.

In July 1995, I went to Newfoundland to visit George Furey, the meeting was covered by the local news paper the ‘Evening Telegram’, the story got the front and inside page’s with photos and told of George’s heroism, George always wished he could have saved more and would have done if it hadn't been for the weather and extreme cold.

Peter Collins at signal lamp in Canada.
The photo on the left is Peter Collins standing at the signal lamp on the corvette that is preserved in Canada.

The photo on the right shows Peter Collins and George Furey at the meeting in Newfoundland in July 1995, together again after 52 years
Peter and George in 1995

Stan Clark Remembers

Able Seaman Stan Clark. Stan Clark was part of the gun crew on the Sunflower on the night the Firedrake was lost, he will never forget that night.
There was a raging storm, we were tossing about like cork in a whirl pool, it was in the evening of the 16th December 1942, when our radio operator had reported to our captain that he couldn't contact the Firedrake, we could see star shells exploding in the sky about five or so miles south of the convoy but couldn't leave our station which was on the west of the convoy of forty three ships on their way to Canada, after several hours of our sparks trying to contact the Firedrake the captain decided to see what was was happening south of the convoy, so we were called to action stations and steamed at full speed to where the action was, as we got closer the captain thought he could see a U-boat on the surface.
So we were ordered to load with "HE" high explosive, then waited for the order to fire, as we got closer he could see that it was not a U-boat but in fact the remains of the Firedrake which had been cut in two, only the stern was still afloat, we were ordered to unload "HE" and reload with Star Shell and fire above the wreck, the first round we fired failed to spark up, so we fired another which did light up then we all could see the smashed wreck of which was the Firedrake.

There was men in the water but the whether was so bad with mountainous waves crashing down on us that we couldn't get to them, we could see there was men working on the wreck and she looked as if she would stay afloat, so our captain decided to circle the wreck till day light hoping that the storm might subside, we had scramble nets over our sides still trying to rescue those in the water, but we felt so helpless.

Then just after midnight we could see that she was going down, and the men on board were taking to the water, one of our crew a chap from Newfoundland tied a rope around his waist, with two others holding the other end he also went into the water, he swam out to the nearest man grabbed hold of him while the two on the other end of the rope pulled him back to the ship, they managed to get twenty seven on board the rest were lost it was a terrible shame but we did the best we could, in the night one of those they had got aboard passed away so the total saved was twenty six.
Below some of the many photos that Stan has, and looks at from time to time, Left: Stan with two of his mates on the Sunflower in 1943, in the Centre wearing an American hat. Middle: Stan wearing his own hat. Right: A Christmas card he sent home in 1944. Bottom Left: The Sunflower football team. Bottom Right Stan and Angela, his niece today in September 2003.
Stan centre wearing an American hat.

More from the Sunflower
Reg Barton
Photo left: Reg Barton
Was also on the Sunflower and remembers vividly the night Firedrake sank, he also helped get men out of the water, He as very kindly sent some more photos of the Sunflower and her crew and some very interesting bits of information.

Photo right: Cpt Treasure Jones
Was the skipper of the Sunflower on the night of Firedrake's sinking.
He also skippered the Mauretania and the Queen Mary.
Cpt T. Jones
HMS Sunflower Crew Photo Left: This Photo was taken aboard The Sunflower, there are three arrows pointing at various people from left to right, Phil Reg's mate the next arrow is Reg himself and then the third arrow is pointing at Syd Jarman. The rating with the beard second from the right at the front sitting down is Peter Hammond who later became an Anglican Priest and is pictured on the right with one of his sons in 1958. Peter Hammond
HMS Sunflower Crew Photo left taken aboard the Sunflower, Reg is behind the officer with the cat. The sailor on the extreme right is Fred Garner who was transferred to the Firedrake as a leading stoker so was lost when the Firedrake was sunk.
Photo Right: Cpt Thomas Fanshawe he was the first lieutenant on the Sunflower, he had served on the Royal Oak, Iron Duke, The Jervis Bay the River class frigate Rother, his first command was the flower class corvette Clover.
Cpt T. Fanshawe

Three different Pictures of the Sunflower
HMS Sunflower 1941
HMS Sunflower 1944
HMS Sunflower 1947
This taken 1941. From the Imperial War Museum Archives.   This taken at Belfast after a refit 1944, note the pennant No. was changed from K41 to K524.   This taken at Hayle Cornwall waiting for the breakers torch 1947.

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. The Coxswain and the Chrysanthemum 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.