Caernarfon Ddoe/Caernarfon's Yesterdays header


One wonders how many Gwynedd people are aware of the history of a young man who received his early education at the Boys' School, South Penrallt, Caernarfon. His photo can be seen above the cross in the front row of Class 3A in the year 1930/31.
John Lewis Jones at the Boys' School
A copy of the photo was given to the author by Mr. Tom Glyn Griffiths, 16 Gelert Street (he is the fifth from the left in the middle row) and we can all be extremely grateful to him for bringing to our notice that which happened in the middle of the Atlantic on Guy Fawkes Day in the year 1940.

John Lewis Jones lived with his parents and brother, Leonard, in Wynne Street, Caernarfon in the early 1930's and, according to Tom Griffiths, he was a promising artist even in those days. His father was a member of the Police Force and was posted to Nefyn in the mid 1930's and the family settled down there, John Lewis having to leave the Caernarfon Grammar School and attend a Pwllheli School.

At the age of 16, in the year 1937, he decided on a career in the Merchant Navy and joined his first ship, a tanker named San Felix as an apprentice in Navigation. That ship became his home for nine and a half months and she transported oil from the Dutch East Indies, visiting ports such as Rio De Janeiro, Montevideo and Buenos Aires. Then, in 1938, John joined another tanker named San Demetrio and, according to his own testimony, he learnt more about the work during the next 21 months than he would have normally. He was on this ship when the Second World War broke out on September 3rd 1939, and from then on, as in the case of many other young men, his training intensified and he had to take on responsibilities far sooner than in peace time.

The San Demetrio was in a convoy of ships and escorted by the British Destroyer HMS Jervis Bay and at half past four on the afternoon of November 5th 1940, they were attacked by the German Battleship Admiral von Scheer. Although the Jervis Bay fought very bravely there was little she could do against the fire power of the larger ship. The battleship then attacked the Merchant ships at will thus creating havoc. The San Demetrio was struck several times by the guns of the Admiral von Scheer and she caught fire. It was then, at half past five, that Captain Waite gave the order to abandon ship and make for the life boats. Jack Lewis, as he was called in the Boys' School, found himself on one of the life boats and as one of the boats could not be launched due to being full of water, the Second Officer and his crew joined them. They observed another boat with the First Officer in charge. He had been given instructions to row as quickly as possible away from the San Demetrio lest she should explode. Jack Lewis's crew did likewise, but by then they had lost contact with the other life boat.

Sometime during the afternoon of the following day, November 6th,
The San Demetrio
a ship was sighted on the horizon and the life boat set sail in her direction. As it drew near it became apparent that the ship was the San Demetrio, but due to the rough sea it was not possible to board her. The following day, however, the sea was a bit calmer and they succeeded in doing so. The ship was still on fire and all the crew worked exceedingly hard to extinguish it. The next day it was decided that the priority would be to attempt to get the engines in working order and the Chief Engineer and three volunteers, who included the apprentice, John Lewis Jones, risked their lives to go down below, where there were toxic gases that could have overcome them at any time and there they remained for some considerable time, opening valves and attending to the boilers.

During that same afternoon, the Chief Engineer announced that the engines could then be restarted, but they had no means of navigating the ship, due to the compasses having been damaged by the fire. They then had to make a decision as to whether to return in the direction of North America or to continue on an easterly course for home. The weather report, however, was eventually the deciding factor, bad weather being expected to the west.

Jack Lewis took his turn at the wheel alternately with the Chief Engineer and they relied upon the sun during the day and the stars at night to guide them towards Europe. On November 13th they sighted land on the horizon, but that which caused them concern was the location. Was it Ireland, a neutral country or was it the coast of Occupied France? Fortunately, it proved to be the former and a Bay on the West Coast of Ireland. From there they were escorted by a naval warship all the way to Greenwich on the Clyde where a tremendous welcome awaited them. The Chief Engineer and his small crew had succeeded in repairing the pumps and the cargo of 11,000 tons of oil was safely discharged, with only 200 tons having been lost due to the damage.

Several members
John Lewis Jones in later years
of the crew, including the Chief Engineer Charles Pollard and the apprentice John Lewis Jones were duly honoured for their bravery. Both of them received the Lloyds War Medal for valour and on February 21st 1941, less than four months after the attack by the Admiral von Scheer, the apprentice John Lewis Jones was awarded the B.E.M. In addition to this, all those who had taken part in the re boarding of the San Demetrio after the attack, received a share of the Salvage Money of £14,000 for their part in safeguarding the cargo.

As a result of this remarkable episode in the history of Word War 11 a film called "San Demetrio London" was produced by Ealing Studios in 1943.

The ship was repaired and was back in service for some months afterwards. However, on St. Patrick's Day, 1942, it was sunk by a torpedo fired from a German submarine, the U404, and all 48 lives on board were lost.

Fortunately, at that time, John Lewis Jones was serving on another ship and survived the war. He remained in the Merchant Navy, sat the appropriate examinations and ended his career as a Captain. He was, however, forced to retire through ill health, aged 50, in 1971. He returned to Nefyn where he spent the rest of his days in retirement and took an active interest in the Porthdinllaen Life boat and spent much time painting, the hobby he was stated to have been attracted to as a child. He died in 1986, aged 65.

Thanks to Meic Massarelli for the photograph of John Lewis Jones in later years, and to Gwenllian Jones, both of Lleyn, for the photograph of the San Demetrio after she arrived in Ireland.

© T. M. Hughes 2010