Donald Clarke, GC

Donald Owen Clarke is the only Merchant Navy seaman to have been awarded the George Cross; the highest gallantry medal that can be awarded to a civilian.

Donald Owen Clarke was born on 5 March 1923 in Chester-le-Street, County Durham. He lived with his parents in Osborne Road, Chester-le-Street. Despite Clarke’s home being miles from the coast, the then school-boy Clarke went each weekend to the family’s seaside cottage at Embleton, Northumberland.

After the award of the George Cross had been announced, Clarke’s father, a newspaper publisher, told the Daily Mirror newspaper

Donald lived for those days by the sea. That and his home were his only interests. Sometimes, when they were out on sea trips we worried but Donald would always say that there was no need to worry.

The Daily Mirror newspaper, 21 July 1943.

When Donald Clarke became sixteen years old (5 March 1939), his father granted Donald’s wish and arranged for him to go to sea.

Donald Clarke was told to wait nine months. However, instead of changing his mind about going to see, he volunteered.

Before the sinking of the San Emiliano, Clarke had already received two gallantry awards. The first, the Lloyds Life Saving Award, was when Clarke rescued a Liverpool dock gatekeeper who had fallen into the water and was in danger of drowning. On the following day, an air raid had caused the dockside alongside Clarke’s ship to catch fire. In view of the cargo, the ship’s captain ordered all the crew ashore to safety. Clarke insisted in remaining with the captain. The gatekeeper, who Clarke saved the previous day, arrived and together with Clarke cut the mooring ropes, allowing the ship to swing away from the dockside to safety. For this act, Clarke and the gatekeeper received an award from the ship’s owners.


Donald Owen Clarke served as an Apprentice onboard the San Emiliano.

The San Emiliano was a 8,071 tons motor tanker, built in 1939 at the Harland & Wolff shipyard and owned by the Eagle Oil & Shipping Company Ltd, London.

On 29 July 1942, the San Emiliano left Curacao carrying 11,286 tons of aviation spirit. After calling at Trinidad on 6 August 1942, the San Emiliano started out on its journey to Suez via Table Bay (South Africa).

However, at 03:24 on 9 August 1942, the San Emiliano, which was separated from convoy E-7, was hit by two torpedoes fired by the German submarine U-155. The San Emiliano broke in two, burst into flames and sank about 450 miles west of Trinidad. The ignited aviation spirit quickly spread out across the sea. The submarine, which had mounted a surface attack, was forced to dive to avoid flames.


Only one boat had been able to be launched from the blazing San Emiliano before it sank. Due to the ignited aviation spirit spreading out across the sea, this single lifeboat was in immediate danger of being engulfed by the flames.

The following description of this very desperate situation is taken from the citation for Donald Clarke’s George Cross.

The ship, sailing alone, was attacked by the enemy and hit by two torpedoes. Fire broke out immediately, flames sweeping the vessel from bridge to poop. Apprentice Clarke was trapped in the accommodation and was severely burned. Despite this he made his way on deck and was one of those who got into the only boat which left the ship. The painter of the boat was kept fast and the helm put over and, as the vessel still carried some way, the boat was towed clear of the burning ship’s side. When the painter was cast off the boat drifted back and it was clear to all on board that a tremendous effort to pull it out of danger. Most of the occupants, however, were so badly burned that they were unable to help, but Apprentice Clarke took an oar and pulled heartily for two hours without a word of complaint. It was not until after the boat was clear that it was realised how badly he had been injured. His hands had to be cut away from the oar as the burnt flesh had stuck to it. He had pulled as well as anyone, although he was rowing with the bones of his hands. Later when lying at the bottom of the boat his thoughts were still with his shipmates and he sang to keep up their spirits. Next day he died, having shown great fortitude.

By his supreme effort, undertaken without thought of self and in spite of terrible agony, Apprentice Clarke ensured the safety of his comrades in the boat. His great heroism and selfless devotion were in keeping with the highest traditions of the Merchant Navy.

London Gazette newspaper, 20 July 1943.

In addition to the George Cross, Donald Clarke received the 1939-45 Star, Atlantic Star, Defence Medal and War Medal 1939-1945.


San Emiliano’s casualties (Tower Hill Memorial Panel 92).
San Emiliano’s casualties (Tower Hill Memorial Panel 92).
AndrewsHenryChief Cook
ArmstrongThomasJunior Engineer Officer
BennellCharles DraperChief Steward
BrennanDaniel PatrickCarpenter
Brown *JosephDEMS Gunner
ButterworthRudolph2nd Radio Officer
CaplinJohn CharlesSteward
ClarkeDonald OwenApprentice
DaviesThomas LutherGreaser
HancockCyrilAssistant Steward
HarcourtGraham Stanley2nd Cook
HopcroftBertram WilliamSeaman
HoustonDavid HuttonChief Engineer Officer
HudsonRobert Burton2nd Officer
HughesJacob AneurinSeaman
Jackson ^Henry HaigGreaser
JenkinsCharles Reuben JamesSeaman
Jones *Edgar ThomasDEMS Gunner
Jones ~Stanley GeorgeDEMS Gunner
Kiff *Denzil AlbertDEMS
LaneRaymond Thomas2nd Engineer Officer
MorganEvan Iorwerth RosserAble Seaman
Murphy ^William AlfredBoy
PattersonArthur WilliamAble Seaman
RichardsonRobert HallidayPumpman
RoachStanleyJunior Engineer Officer
Shand ^JamesFireman
Swift *LeslieDEMS Gunner
TozerJames WilfredMaster
WestJoseph3rd Engineer Officer
WilliamsJohn LewisSailor
WilliamsonStephen YoungJunior Engineer Officer
WoodwardAlan4th Engineer Officer
WollardErnestAble Seaman
Casualties from the San Emiliano.

All the casualties are commemorated on the Tower Hill Memorial (Panel 92) except those names marked

  • * Plymouth Naval Memorial.
  • ^ Halifax Memorial, Nova Scotia, Canada.
  • ~ Chatham Naval Memorial.


Only nine men, out of a crew of forty-eight, survived the sinking of the San Emiliano. One of the nine survivors died when serving on another ship.

BrownriggGeoffrey RonaldApprentice
BuckleyJackAble Seaman
DennisDonald WilfredChief Radio Officer
DraytonGranville Richard3rd Officer
FinchThomas DanielChief Officer
FranksPeter Albert3rd Radio Officer
HanhamKenneth GwynSeaman
HoskingThomas HenryPumpman
ToppingHughDEMS Gunner
Survivors from the sinking of the San Emiliano.

Kenneth Gwyn Hanham was killed when the British whale factory ship Sourabaya was sunk on 27 October 1942. Hanham is listed among the Sourabaya’s casualties on the Tower Hull Memorial, Panel 99.


The following gallantry awards were made to crew members of the San Emiliano.

BennellCharles DraperKCBC
BrownriggGeoffrey RonaldKCBC
ClarkeDonald OwenGC
DennisDonald WilfredGM
FinchThomas DanielGM
FranksPeter AlbertKCBC
GranvilleRichard DraytonMBE
HanhamKenneth GwynKCBC
HoskingThomas HenryKCBC
HudsonRobert BurtonKCBC
JacksonHenry HaigKCBC
TozerJames WilfredKCBC
GC: George Cross. GM: George Medal. MBE: Member of the Order of the British Empire. KCBC: King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct.

The citation of the award of the George Medal (GM) to Thomas Daniel Finch (Chief Officer) and Donald Wilfred Dennis (Chief Radio Officer) is reproduced below.

The ship, sailing alone, was torpedoed and set on fire.

The Chief Officer displayed courage and leadership of a very high order. When the ship was hit and set on fire he escaped through a 15 inch side scuttle on to the forward bulkhead and thence to the fore-castle, where he too charge of a party of seven men which got away in a boat and, in the face of great danger and difficulties, made efforts to rescue others. His bravery and leadership were an inspiration, while his judgment and skill in keeping the boat secured to the ship until way had been lost prevented the flames from reaching it. Throughout the night the boat stood by the ship, the uninjured caring for the others as best they could, but during the next day four died from burns. Shortly afterwards the boat was sighted by aircraft which dropped medical stores and later in the day the survivors were picked up. Undaunted by his grim experience, Mr. Finch at once volunteered to serve in another ship as soon as he landed.

The Chief Radio Officer volunteered to release the only undamaged boat. Although he was badly burned he crawled through the flames on his hands and knees and released the falls. Throughout he displayed outstanding courage and fortitude, and but for his brave act the boat would not have got away and there would have been few, if any, survivors.

The Third Officer displayed great courage and coolness, remaining on board until forced by the flames to jump overboard. Later he was of great help to the Chief Officer in the boat.

The London Gazette newspaper, 20 July 1943.

The Third Officer, Granville Richard Drayton, was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE).

The notices for the award of the King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct (KCBC) were published in the London Gazette dated 20 July 1943.