Chief Petty Officer
Peter Armstrong The Firedrake's Coxswain
Chief Petty Officer Peter George Armstrong BEM the coxswain of
Firedrake. Joined the Navy as a boy at fourteen by getting his
local vicar to sign his entrance forms, because his parents did
not want him to join, Peter told the vicar his parents could not
read or write so the vicar signed the forms. At thirteen years
of age Peter was South East London School Boys Swimming Champion.
was awarded the British Empire Medal for heroism when he went
aboard the French destroyer Maillé Brézé to administer first-aid
to the injured and dying following a torpedo exploding in her
fo’c’sle on the Clyde, it had gone off accidentally running along
her deck into the fo’c’sle the ship sank with twenty six still
trapped inside. There’s a book by A. D. Devine entitled, Destroyers
War, which tells of the incident.
Wife Margaret (Peggy) was head waitress at the Cumberland Hotel
in London before the war so Peter was often seen in the Cumberland
which brings me to the next story.
When the Firedrake was in the Mediterranean on 18th October
1940, with the help of a Flying boat of 202 squadron RAF and
HMS Wrestler, they bought to the surface and sunk the Italian
submarine Durbo, before the sub went to the bottom the crew
was taken prisoner, one of the Italian prisoners came running
up to Peter and through his arms around him. Before the war
this Italian had worked at the Cumberland as a waiter so knew
Peter and his wife very well. He told Peter that when the war
started he had gone back to Italy and been called up and had
ended up on the Durbo. It certainly is a small world.
Reg Fergusson remembers the coxswain very well. He was coxswains
mate for a time so they were often in the wheel house together.
Reg remembers him as a very fair bloke who would always have
time to speak to the men. Reg Remembers an incident before there
was a doctor onboard, Peter was in charge of the sick bay, since
he was trained in first-aid, so he used to sleep in there when
he was off watch. Once when Reg was taken ill and had a temperature
he was bedded down in the sick bay, to be kept away from the
others just in case he had something contagious. This meant
that Peter had to find some where else to sleep, but he left
his possessions in there. Reg saw him putting his tot into a
bottle, the men were not allowed to save there tots but POs
were, obviously !!
Joe Curbishley remembers the coxswain as a very powerful and
loud man; he used to shout his name in a very deep low voice
with a break between the r and b of Curbishley; he used to say
Cur-bishley; Joe remembers Peter as a nice bloke who had a sense
of humour but who was firm and did not tolerate fools. Bert
How remembers the time when some of the lads were caught playing
cards for money by the coxswain, gambling was banned on any
ship, so Peter stopped the game and confiscated the money, which
went in the charity box . Everyone had a nickname onboard, Bert’s
was Gibbly he never did find out why; in Bert’s mess they used
to call the coxswain, horse, because of his size. He was a tall
well built man, and known to be fair and respected by the officers
and crew especially the captain.
Peter was a boy he used to push his cousin Margaret in a pram.
Both had fair hair and blue eyes. Peter was seven years older
than Margaret. Eventually they became sweethearts. When he was
fourteen Peter went to sea. Margaret became a waitress. She was
often among those selected for Buckingham Palace garden parties.
Thousands knew her smile, for at one occasion she had been chosen
as a model in a toothpaste advertisement. In July 1937 Peter and
Margaret were married.
In 1943 Margaret and her daughter Margaret Ann went back to Buckingham
Palace, not as a waitress, but to collect Peters BEM from the
King. Every time Peter was on leave Margaret asked him how he
had won the medal, and he always replied "I’ll tell you about
it at the Palace". Just before Christmas 1942, Margaret received
a greetings telegram from Peter " Safe and Well, Love you Both"
That gave her new hope and brightened up her Christmas, she said
I thought there had been some mistake and that although he had
been officially reported killed, he was safe and well so she went
on hoping. She then discovered that Peter had left the telegram
with a friend, with instructions to send it just before Christmas.
It would appear that was typical of him. The day after he was
killed, Margaret received a gold and pearl locket from him.
Photo Right: The photo that was in the Daily Mirror in
1943, Mrs Armstrong and her daughter Margaret Ann. Who still has
the rocking horse to this day.
Mrs Armstrong and her daughter Margaret Ann
Chrysanthemum called Firedrake
Slack Stoker 1.
K.I.A. 16th December 1942.
Ron photographed here on his wedding day to Iris in August 1942
just three months before Ron was killed. He was very keen on cycling
and once attempted to cycle from Kent to Derby.
Prior to joining the Royal Navy Ron had been attending college
at Ashford Kent to become a chef. While he was on the Firedrake
he used to do a spot of fishing from the stern of the ship. Photo
right the award of merit
the war Ron’s father-in-law Joe Johnson who was an accomplished
chrysanthemum grower in Derbyshire, produced a new flower in honour
of the ship and of his son-in-law Ron. It won the gold medal and
an Award of Merit at the Royal Horticultural Society show in London
in September 1945 so he named the new flower Firedrake. In the Chrysanthemums
catalogue of 1947 it gives the description as: a real beauty for
cutting and for vase work; not a large bloom, but a very effective
shade of light terracotta throughout the whole of the flower; a
good even grower on upright stems, small foliage. A.M.. J.E.F.C.A.M.,
Wisley. 2˝ft. September.
Wednesday 6th September 1939 at 07.30 in the morning three days
after the start of world war two, Firedrake was heading north through
the English channel, the Asdic operator below reported with a sudden
urgency of a submarine contact. On the bridge they heard the indications
repeated on the loud speaker, instantly they turned towards it.
In peace time they had done this a hundred times, racing at imaginary
targets, thrusting at the invisible buffs (the little red fisherman's
buoys towed by a target submarine).
But this was war, somewhere under the grey water there was an enemy
ready and waiting, they came closer and closer, soon they were over
the target. In the ordered ritual of the attack, the quiet urgent
orders were given, and the pattern of depth charges was dropped.
They raced on, then astern of them, across the broad white roadway
of their wake, the sea broke suddenly in a great explosion. Under
their feet the ship jerked a little, and again the sea broke first
a shuddering dislocation of the surface, then the sledge hammer
blow of the explosion, then the enormous uprushing thunder of the
spray... The attack went through its appointed course. When it was
done there was a patch of oil upon the water, oil that spread, and
with the movement of the tide trailed slowly in a long and shining
pathway on the surface of the sea. They saw no wreckage, they recovered
no bodies. So they do not claim that submarine. But Germany a little
later, admitted the loss of U12 at about that time, and in approximately
those waters. By A.D.Divine D.S.M.
joined the Navy in 1940, he survived the sinking of HMS Firedrake
on the 16/17th December 1942, was picked up by HMS Sunflower and
taken to Argentia Newfoundland, after a brief rest, John went back
to Chatham and was there for a while, then he was posted to the
Naval Base at Reykjavik (Iceland) and there he stayed till the end
of the war. After the war he went back to living in Tollcross Glasgow
in Scotland and lived there happily with his thirteen grandchildren
till he was 78 years of age. Photo right: American soldier
in the mud of Reykjavik.