Battle of the Atlantic veteran speaks of torpedo attack

Naval veteran Sam Pearson
Naval veteran Sam Pearson

This year marks the 70th anniversary of one of the longest continuous military campaigns of World War Two – The Battle of the Atlantic. Allied forces battled against the Germans for control of the sea in order to sustain a highway for the transport of raw materials, munitions, and troops. Buxton resident Sam Pearson is one of the few surviving veterans of the battle, in which his ship, HMS Woodpecker, was sunk. He tells reporter Christina Massey his story.

A thunderous boom resonated throughout the ship as the acoustic torpedo pierced its stern, allowing the icy water of the Atlantic to come gushing in. At that point it was only a matter of time before she sank.

Signalman Sam Pearson was in his hammock at the time of the hit – around 22.00 hours on February 20, 1944.

“There was only a glimmer of light,” he remembered, “ I managed to get my sea boots on. I always had my lifebelt on.”

Sam fumbled his way up to the bridge in the darkness.

Luckily no crew members were killed by the impact and they, along with the German prisoners on board the ship, managed to escape with their lives.

HMS Woodpecker was one of a crack team of Navy ships all named after birds called the 2nd Escape Group. They were charged with finding and destroying as many German U boats during the Battle of the Atlantic as possible.

Lead by the famous Captain John ‘Johnnie’ Walker – believed by many to be a Twentieth Century equivalent of Admiral Nelson – the group had startling success and the Woodpecker participated in sinking seven enemy vessels before being struck herself.

“Captain Walker’s HMS Starling attempting to take us in tow scraped down the side of us and we anxiously assumed we were capsizing,” Sam said.

Gradually the majority of the crew was removed to the safety of HMS Magpie and HMS Wren.

An ocean going tug called Stormking managed to tow the greatly damaged HMS Woodpecker with Sam and his fellow signalmen still inside.

“It was important that the signalmen remained on board,” he said, “but she was sinking the whole time.”

“The rest of the group set sail for Liverpool. As they left a signal was received saying ‘The War Cabinet wish to convey to you and escort group under your command their congratulations on the excellent performed by your group in recent distribution of U boats’.”

The tug was escorted by HMS Azalea and HMS Chilliwack. Commander H Pryse was in charge of the Woodpecker.

Hundreds of miles from mainland Britain, the tug began its arduous journey at four knots, pulling the sinking ship precariously behind it.

After five days, the vessels had travelled 600 miles and were nearly the Isles of Scilly.

“The weather forecast on February 26th 1944 gave winds force eight to nine in the afternoon,” Sam said. “Pryse, having been given orders not to take any risks, decided to clear the lower deck and abandon ship. There was nothing for it – it was every man for himself.

“I can honestly say I did not suffer fright or stress except when I found myself stood at the side of that wreck of a ship, which was heaving an rolling – groaning in that angry grey sea.

“I prepared myself to jump, but not before I prayed to God to save me. I know he did.”

The following day the mighty Woodpecker capsized and sank to the bottom of the sea.

Sam was later transferred to HMS Lark, on which he took part in two convoys to Russia before being moved again to the Far East. After Sam had left it, HMS Lark was torpedoed on February 17, 1945.

Despite dicing with death, Sam has gone on to live a long life. Now aged 92 he lives in Buxton, having retired from a career in the Post Office aged 61.