senior surviving officer
John Dampier was born in Blackheath in 1920 son of Admiral Cecil
Frederick Dampier. Who for a time commanded the Dover Patrol, soon
after his birth his father retired from active service and in 1925
the family moved to Bishops Waltham, where they lived until 1950.
Denis attended St Ronan’s preparatory school where Mr. Harris, the
headmaster, who was a devout Christian, made a lasting impression
He went onto attend Wellington College and entered the Royal Navy
in January 1939.
Denis always seemed an unlikely candidate for a naval career, his
nature being mild and considerate. His interests tended towards
pleasures such as sketching and angling and could play the piano
to a reasonable level ( the Introit piece - Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring
) was one of his favorite. Nevertheless he felt it was his duty
to join the Royal Navy.
and achieved a successful career in the service during and after the
war, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Commander. After the war he
never showed any bitterness towards the Germans despite his experiences.
He joined the naval training ship Frobisher in Portsmouth on 1st January
1939, in September 1939 the war broke out, and then in April 1940,
Denis joined HMS Fiji, which went to Bermuda, patrolled the Straits
of Florida, to the Bahamas and then went on to Scapa Flow.
On leaving Scapa Flow they were struck by a torpedo, but managed to
get back to the Clyde. He was then transferred to HMS Berkeley one
day as she was returning to Chatham she set off an ‘acoustic’ mine
which fractured the feed pipes to the turbines.
Early in 1941, whilst approaching the Thames Estuary, they saw a yellow
Blenheim type aircraft crash into the sea ahead of them. A boat was
dispatched to investigate and search for survivors, but nothing was
found, except for a suitcase with a label saying the property of Amy
Johnson nothing else was recovered. Having seen the incident so close
he could never understand the press speculation of her mysterious
disappearance and the rumours of her probable survival.
1941, Denis joined the Prince of Wales and passed the exams to become
an acting sub-lieutenant so his pay increased from 5/- to 9/- a day.
In January the following year, he was on board HMS Trinidad when she
was ordered to escort convoy PQ8 to North Russia, it was then that
he was involved in an extraordinary incident which was later related
to in a book entitled "The Ship That Torpedoed Herself". It was bitterly
cold and at one point the stars were visible for 36 hours.
At the end of March the convoy was engaged in battle by German destroyers,
the torpedo officer of the Trinidad fired their port-side torpedoes
but only one left the iced up tubes. It ran alongside the ship and
turned inwards, torpedoing the Trinidad herself amidships. The damage
control crew did a magnificent job, the ship undercover of darkness
managed to steam back to the Kola inlet, Murmansk, where they spent
four weeks being repaired. Then she sailed for home, on this voyage
they were bombed and set on fire so had to abandon ship. The crew
were saved from going into the sea by another destroyer that maneuvered
alongside so that the crew could clamber onto her, no one would have
survived in that freezing Arctic sea for more than a few minutes.
was the first of three occasions in which Denis had to abandon a ship
shortly before it sank. The second occasion was his very next ship,
HMS Firedrake, which was lost with 168 of her crew in the Atlantic
in December 1942, of which he wrote an article for the Seagoer in
the 1950s called "North Atlantic Rescue" that article will follow
He later trained as an Aircraft Direction Officer (Navigator) and
got his pilots license whilst learning to fly a Tiger Moth, something
he was very pleased to have achieved.
after the war he went on a good will tour of Australia. And in the
early 1950’s he was on active duty under the United Nations Flag in
the Korean War, and was away from home for over 18 months.
1954, after the war was over, more drama was to come. The troopship
Empire Windrush, in which he was returning home, caught fire in the
early hours of the morning. The crew were unable to extinguish the
flames and the ship lost all power. The order to abandon ship was
given, this was the third time he had had to abandon a ship just before
it sank. All the life boats had been filled with women and children,
so the men had to slide down 60ft ropes into the sea. In the dark,
Denis clung onto a piece of driftwood until he found a lifeboat. Later
they were picked up by a tramp steamer and landed in Algiers, amazingly
only four lives were lost.
modest about his experiences he very rarely spoke about what he had
seen while serving in the Royal Navy. The latter days with the Navy
were happier, he was loaned to the New Zealand Navy for 20 months,
where he had one of the most enjoyable periods of his professional
life, touring not just New Zealand but also Japan, the Philippines
and other places around Asia. On this trip he won the Rangitoto squash
In 1963 Denis exchanged his naval life for family life. He married
Jean on 2nd February at St James in Piccadilly, after a short time
in London they moved to Chipperfield in West Clandon where they stayed
for 35 years. He secured a job in the Naval Intelligence Division
of the Ministry of Defence where he stayed for more than 20 years.
Over the next ten years his family increased with the birth of Gerald,
James and Cecilia and later to include two daughters-in-law, Wilma
and Catherine and a granddaughter Eleanor.
an active figure in the parish, a member of the Parish Church Council
and church warden for nine years. Together with Jean they raised money
to build the village tennis court where annual competitions are still
held. After retirement he took an active interest in various charities
and was treasurer of the Surrey branch of the National Garden Scheme
for several years.
He taught his two boys to sail and enjoyed holidays. "Swallows and
Amazons" style in the family dinghy. His main hobby on leaving the
Navy was drawing and painting, particularly local churches. He was
asked to illustrate 9 churches for the Guildford Cathedral Trail guide,
and his work was also featured on a local calendar and magazines.
When Denis was younger he used to enjoy riding, so when his daughter
Cecilia became keen, he agreed to let her have her own pony, this
meant that on occasions, he had to look after it, mucking out, changing
rugs and with Jean taking it to competitions.
became more difficult as Denis developed Parkinson’s Disease. He very
rarely complained and bore the gradual loss of mobility with amazing
patience, his last year was made considerably easier by moving to
Sadly Survivor D.J.Dampier died on Christmas day 1999 after suffering
briefly from pneumonia.
On behalf of the members of the HMS Firedrake Association please can
I pass on our condolence’s and take this opportunity to thank Mrs.
Jean Dampier for submitting this biography.
of the HMS Firedrake association members at the cenotaph 16.12.2001
1942 HMS Firedrake was the leader of an escort group covering a westward
bound convoy to Canada. For two or three days after leaving Harbour
the convoy had proceeded without incident into strong westerly winds
increasing hourly, with a rapidly falling barometer. On the 14th it
became apparent for various reasons that the convoy was being shadowed
by an enemy submarine. During this and the succeeding day sufficient
evidence was obtained to show that this U-boat was being supplemented
by others to form a wolf pack, and the naval escort was consequently
disposed in such a way as seemed best to meet the threat of attack.
the morning of December 16th, one of the escorting warships made contact
with an enemy submarine ahead of the convoy. This corvette, together
with the destroyer HMS Chesterfield, were immediately detached to
investigate and to attack. This left four escorts directly guarding
Meanwhile the wind had in creased to three quarter gale force, with
rain and heavy seas, making the work of the lookouts very difficult.
At this time the convoy was making good about five knots in a straight
About five o’clock in the evening a ship in the forefront of the starboard
line was torpedoed and sank rapidly there were few survivors. An hour
later an oil-tanker on the port-side vanished in a great red mushroom
of smoke and flame.
The attacking submarine could not be detected and by seven o’clock
it was completely dark except for a half-moon sending fleeting rays
of silvery light across the wind-swept sea.
time Firedrake was in a position well out to starboard of the convoy,
with heavy seas spraying her decks all remained quiet until a few
minutes past ten when the ship lifted and shuddered to a violent explosion.
She heeled over to starboard, and there came the hard grating sound
of loose, torn metal. As she righted herself, those in the after part
of the ship picked themselves up from where they had been thrown by
the explosion and dashed up on deck to see, with horrorstricken eyes,
the fore portion of their ship drifting away vertically, stem uppermost
into the night. Firedrake had been cut in two one faint light flickered
for a minute or so in the forecastle head, before the torn-off bow
section dipped in the trough of a wave and vanished beneath the raging
witnessed this appalling spectacle, those in the after part of what
a few minutes before had been a live and a happy ship stumbled across
the black, storm-swept decks to their own rafts. It was only after
a brief interval they realised that the stern section was floating
buoyantly on an even keel. A roll-call showed that there remained
only thirty five men on board, consisting of the after guns crew the
depth-charge parties, and a small number of stewards and officers
sleeping aft. None of these however, had any clear idea of the ships
position. The commander and the navigating officer had gone with the
bridge and bow section of the ship. At first it was felt certain by
all onboard that someone in the convoy would have seen the explosion,
but when nearly half an hour had passed it was realised that this
could not have been the case. Also it was found that the emergency
wireless equipment was not workable and that no distress rockets were
available in the floating portion of the ship a feeling of helplessness
and despondency assailed the survivors.
this time however, someone remembered there were a few rounds of ready
to use star-shell illuminate ammunition for the small 3 inch AA gun
situated behind the remaining funnel. It was on this gun that discovery
and rescue now depended with renewed hope, but in an atmosphere of
considerable tension, the gun was aimed at what was thought to be
the general direction of the convoy. However after the first shell
had been dispatched the weapon jammed, this gun had fired several
hundred rounds under differing and often severe conditions in the
past few months, and never before had there been a failure, there
was no time for retrospection now, the Warrant Gunner who was amongst
those on board, immediately got down to the job of getting it repairing.
meantime an inspection had taken place of what were now the forward
compartments, and in an attempt at shoring-up was made, as the foremost
complete bulkhead was lying consistently head on into the heavy seas,
which were being violently pounding against, blinding and bitterly
cold showers of spay crossed the upper deck, immense waves swept down
the sides of the broken ship their crests reflecting white in the
moonlight, busting in turn into clouds of spume and spindrift, to
vanish in the darkness astern.
The next most important job was to get rid of the depth charges, men
in the water have been killed frequently by the explosion of primed
depth charges, immersed when carried down by a sinking ship, all on
board therefore were made safe and dropped overboard, the torpedoes
also were fired as an addition to getting rid of dangerous material,
this also had the effect of eliminating unnecessary upper deck weight
which might tend to make the ship unstable, this job was completed
in just under an hour and almost at once the gunner shouted triumphantly
above the roar of the wind, that the gun was again working.
order was given to fire a star-shell in the direction of the convoy
every ten minutes. The time was now twenty minutes past eleven.
Shortly after midnight it was estimated allowing for the fact that
Firedrake may have been anything up to five miles on the starboard
side of the convoy at the time of being hit, that the convoy might
well be fifteen miles distance off the port bow, and receding rapidly
into the night, it seemed extremely improbable that with only five
escorts left to guard fifty merchantmen there could be any hope of
rescue under the prevailing conditions.
However the half ship, thanks to the quality of British shipbuilding
was still afloat, and everyone onboard was determined to keep it seaworthy
until the last possible moment, though there was no fresh water, there
were tinned provisions, and several crates of beer in the wardroom.
waning something occurred in the blackness of the storm which set
all hearts beating, at first with renewed hope and a second later
with the chill of apprehension, at twenty minutes past midnight a
star-shell burst right overhead, picking out the wreck in brilliant
light, at first it was thought that an enemy submarine had arrived
to finish off its half completed task, because simultaneously another
star-shell landed in the water close beside the ship, in considerable
anxiety one of the crew climbed as high as possible on the after superstructure,
a minute later he reported excitedly a British Corvette on the port
The warship circled the wreck suspiciously, but a frantic S.O.S. was
flashed across the sea with torches the only means of signalling and
with some rapid morse the situation was quickly clarified.
a fortunate mixture of good luck and good judgment the broken Firedrake
had been discovered, there had been little radio contact during the
voyage, owing to the normal enforcement of wireless silence, but it
transpired that exactly two minutes after Firedrake had been hit one
of the escorts had occasion to call her on the R.T. and getting no
reply had called HMS Sunflower the next senior ship of the escort,
informing her of Firedrake’s silence. No action was possible at that
moment but the seed of doubt had been sown in the mind of the Sunflowers
Captain, at twenty minutes past ten one of the lookouts in Sunflower
first star-shell, and this confirmed her Captains impression that
"something was up". Turning towards the distant light he proceeded
After steaming for an hour he could find nothing, he put the helm
over to rejoin the convoy, just as the ship was swinging over a lookout
observed the next star-shell on the horizon, fired exactly an hour
after the first, when the Firedrake’s gun had been repaired. Turning
again the Captain of Sunflower went on to investigate and picked up
a small echo on his radar, he approached cautiously not knowing what
to expect, and when the Corvette was in suitable range, about twenty
past midnight he opened fire with a star-shell, one of these failed
to explode but, illuminating in the brilliance of the others he saw
what appeared to be a small ship, with one funnel and one mast not
unlike another Corvette apparently hove to in the gale.
as the light of the star-shells died away the yeoman of the signals
on watch, spelt out Firedrake’s SOS It was too rough for the Sunflower
to come alongside and take the survivors off, as they were deciding
on the best course of action Firedrake gave a sickly lurch and boiling
seas washed across her deck, it was obvious that the half ship was
sinking, a final signal was successfully flashed to the Sunflower
as the survivors launched and clung desperately to the rafts amid
the giant seas.
In the darkness and the gale twenty seven men were picked up one of
which died before day break. The wind continued to blow with full
gale force, and at times with hurricane velocity during the next four
Even with a life-belt, no one could have lived in that sea for very
long, once the solid structure of the half ship had sunk there could
have been no hope of detection by radar or visual means, until the
sea had abated, had Sunflowers arrival been delayed only ten more
minutes there would have been no story to relate.
There's no flowers on a sailors grave
No lilies on an ocean wave
The only tribute is the seagulls sweep
And the tear drop on a loved ones cheek
We shall remember them.
D.J.Dampier RN Senior surviving officer HMS Firedrake 17th December