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Auction: 18002 - Orders, Decorations and Medals
Lot: 506

A Second World War ‘George Cross action’ G.M. group of six awarded to Corporal A. P. French, Royal Engineers, who displayed exceptional courage in rescue work during an enemy air raid on Tripoli on the night of 19 March 1943

In closing a fiercely burning ammunition ship - which was ‘showering tracer shells and other debris in all directions’ - his Eureka boat was so badly damaged that it was put out of action for a week

George Medal, G.VI.R., 2nd issue (2014046 Cpl. A. P. French, R.E.); 1939-45 Star; Africa Star; Italy Star; Defence and War Medals 1939-45, the first - a late issue - with contact marks and heavily polished, fine, the remainder rather better (6)

G.M. London Gazette 27 April 1944. The original recommendation states:

‘During an enemy air attack on the port of Tripoli on the evening of Friday, 19 March 1943, 2014046 Corporal Arthur Phillip French of No. 1020 Docks Operating Company, R.E., went out into the harbour in a Eureka boat during the raid in order to rescue survivors from the two ships which had been hit. Both ships were burning fiercely and one of them, Ocean Voyager, which was well known to contain large quantities of petrol and ammunition, was showering tracer shells and other debris in all directions. Corporal French, who, from previous experience of shipping fires in other Middle east operational ports, knew that there was every chance of a serious explosion in Ocean Voyager (which subsequently occurred), navigated his craft with great courage and utter contempt for personal safety, remaining on duty for many hours until ordered to hospital. His craft was so damaged by falling debris that it was out of action for a week. On one occasion, he brought his boat close under the lee of the burning Ocean Voyager to rescue five disabled seamen from a raft which was unable to get clear from the ship’s side. On another occasion during the night, French, single handed, brought in ten survivors, some of whom were seriously wounded. In addition, he performed useful work in the danger area, assisting the Sea Transport Officers.’

Arthur Phillip French’s gallant deeds in the port of Tripoli on the night of 19 March 1943 are inexorably linked to the G.C.-winning deeds of Ocean Voyager’s Chief Officer, Robert Stronach. As cited above, it was French who brought his Eureka craft close in under the lee of the stricken merchantman and rescued her survivors; Ocean Voyager’s Master and five members of crew were killed. In addition to Stronach’s G.C., Second Engineer Hotham was awarded the George Medal and Boatswain Gardner the B.E.M.

Events aboard the Ocean Voyager are best described in the citation for Stronach’s G.C.:

‘When the ship was lying in harbour, a severe aircraft attack developed and she was hit and at once caught fire. The vessel had a large consignment of petrol and ammunition on board, which was exploding heavily all the time and in spite of strenuous efforts which were made to fight the fire she had to be abandoned.

The Master was killed by the explosion and the responsibility for further operations devolved on the Chief Officer. He had been rendered temporarily unconscious but recovered almost immediately and went forward to look for survivors.

He found a number of the crew sheltering in the alley way and, braving the exploding ammunition, led them to a boat alongside which took them to safety. In order to provide for the transport of any other survivors who might be found, he then lowered another boat and brought it alongside the ship.

Although the vessel was now burning furiously Mr. Stronach made his way to the officers’ accommodation amidships. Finding a hose with a trickle of water coming through, he held this over his head and so kept himself sufficiently wet to protect him from the worst of the heat and flames.

With great difficulty he climbed into the collapsed accommodation and found one of the deck officers, unconscious and badly burned. Mr. Stronach pulled him clear and dragged him along the deck to the lowered boat. Returning to the accommodation, he began to remove the debris from another officer who was trapped. By almost superhuman efforts he dragged the man through the porthole and along the deck.

He then tied a rope around his waist and lowered him over the side to the boat. As the situation was becoming desperate Mr. Stronach ordered a man to take the boat to safety and once again he returned amidships where he discovered an officer who had been severely injured. Dragging him along the deck to the side of the ship, he tied a rope around him and lowered him over the side on to a raft which had returned to the ship in response to his calls.

Again Mr. Stronach continued his search for survivors and, taking a final look round aft, he saw a greaser lying unconscious in the scuppers. He dragged this man to the side of the ship, but finding there was no raft or boat alongside, put a lifebelt around him and threw him overboard.

When he was satisfied that there were no further survivors the Chief Officer jumped overboard and swam to a raft which, under his direction, returned to pick up the injured greaser.

In the full knowledge that she was likely to blow up at any moment Chief Officer Stronach stayed on this burning vessel searching for survivors for an hour and twenty minutes. His inspiring leadership induced a number of the crew to get away and so saved their lives and by his gallant efforts, undertaken with utter disregard of his personal safety, he saved the lives of three officers and a greaser, all of whom were badly hurt.

His action equals any in the annals of the Merchant Navy for great and unselfish heroism and determination in the face of overwhelming odds’ (London Gazette 23 November 1943, refers).

The same might be said of Arthur French in respect in the annals of the Royal Engineers.

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