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'He said he had to save souls' The Echo recently retold the story of Cecil Pugh, the only clergyman ever awarded the George Cross for bravery. The story sparked memories for Thomas Rogers, 89, who was there when Rev Pugh opted to die with his men when their ship was torpedoed in 1941. Thomas, then a 19-year-old RAF man, shares his memories of the day with Abbie Wightwick.

WHEN the SS Anselm left Liverpool Docks in the summer of 1941 a young Welsh RAF man on board had premonitions of disaster.

Thomas Rogers, 19, from Gilfach Goch, wrote a letter in Welsh to his brother saying the vessel had been converted so badly to take troops that it was unlikely to reach its destination.

The letter was never sent. Days later, in the early hours of July 5, the ship was struck by a torpedo in the Atlantic, killing hundreds of men, including their padre Cecil Pugh.

Thomas, along with scores of other troops, was stationed down in the hold of the overcrowded ship.

When the torpedo struck, girders running across the ceiling, from which they'd slung their hammocks, collapsed, crushing men.

Staircases to the decks above crumbled, trapping those unable to pull themselves to safety inside the fast-sinking ship.

No precise figures were recorded but between 250 and 400 of the 1,300 men on board were reported killed in the 20 minutes it took the ship to go down.

Thomas, who will be 90 next month and now lives in Porthcawl with wife Anne, says he was lucky to escape relatively unhurt.

He says his life was saved because he found no room to sling his hammock - and because he'd befriended a 6ft Londoner named Danny Mahoney, who lifted him up through holes in the ceiling.

"The torpedo struck our mess just below the bridge," Thomas recalls.

"The ship just disintegrated and the girders along the roof collapsed, trapping everyone sleeping in hammocks. "Danny and I had been sleeping head to foot on a table. I was concussed, all the staircases had been smashed and the water was rising rapidly.

"We were lucky. Some boys were trapped by fallen girders.

"Danny grabbed hold of me and lifted me through the roof to the next floor, where I hung over and hauled him up with me.

"We did this until we reached the top deck."

Exhausted and terrified, they got to the deck to see they would now have to literally "walk into the sea".

They'd abandoned their life jackets as too big for the holes they'd climbed through and the lifeboats in this part of the ship had been torn apart by the explosion.

Thomas says he was shocked and enraged to see some officers escaping in lifeboats on the other side of the ship and making no effort to come around to save men from the lower decks.

The officers had been stationed on the upper decks and there had been no communication between them, he says.

"We could see the officers at the stern of the ship escaping but we couldn't reach that area because it had all been washed away."

As the pair were wondering what to do, they were joined by an older RAF man whose name Thomas can only remember as Steele.

Standing on top of the fast-sinking ship, preparing themselves to go into the icy waves, they were approached by Rev Cecil Pugh, the ship's Church of England padre.

They had not met previously, but he explained who he was and that he needed their help, Thomas recalls.

"Just before stepping into the sea, a padre came to Danny and the fellow called Steele and asked them to lower him down into the hold of the ship where most of the ship's company were trapped.

"We tried to discourage him but he insisted his duty lay in saving the souls of the trapped men.

"We refused to lower him down. "He was quite calm. He said 'You must, you must' and that it was his duty to save souls.

"We then left him and we walked into the water. We got everything that would float and just walked in.

"We could hear the screaming and shouting of people in the hold."

It was only when he picked up the Echo earlier this month and read Rev Pugh's story that Thomas found out what had happened to him.

"I wasn't aware of his story until then. I was surprised to read it," Thomas says.

Rev Pugh eventually persuaded some marines to lower him down to the hold, where he prayed with the dying men until they all went down with the stricken ship.

Rev Pugh, who had joined the Church after fighting in World War I, was posthumously awarded the George Cross for bravery.

Thomas admits that, as a 19-year-old desperate to survive a terrifying disaster, he thought Rev Pugh's request to be lowered down was "silly".

But later the selfless bravery made him question his beliefs.

"Danny, who helped save me, was a Catholic. I had been an agnostic, although I went to chapel as a boy," Thomas says.

"I assumed the padre was a Catholic and thought what a good example he was."

In the chaos and terror of being lost at sea, Thomas and Danny were separated.

Thomas now believes he spent about two hours in the water before he was picked up by a ship named the Starwort and later transferred to a Merchant Navy vessel called the Cathay.

He remembered Danny Mahoney with sadness when he later found pounds 8, which he had been looking after for him, still in his shirt pocket.

During Thomas' time in the sea, he was convinced he would die and spent the time "thinking about my wrongdoings and asking forgiveness".

Amazingly, his injuries were not serious, although his teeth were knocked out and he was bleeding.

Eventually Thomas was taken to Sierra Leone in west Africa, where he was then stationed.

More than 60 years on, he says he still cannot forgive the officers who fled the ship, leaving the ranks for dead.

"I hope those officers' conscience pricked. They made no effort to save us," he says.

Floating in the Atlantic, contemplating death, the Welsh teenager could scarcely have imagined he would live to have four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. After the war he married Edith, a WAAF, and later, after he was widowed, Thomas married his second wife Anne.

"I was lucky to escape. There's a lot of luck in life," he says, thinking of the men who never returned and never had children.


Former Royal Air Force serviceman Thomas Rogers with his wife Anne at home in Porthcawl Picture: Andrew Davies [umlaut] The doomed vessel SS Anselm and, right, RAF serviceman Thomas Rogers, who was on board when it was torpedoed
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Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Nov 30, 2009
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