Heartbreak still painful as brave hero honoured in East Yorkshire

The service of dedication of the retiring Standard of the Merchant Navy Association and Thanksgiving for the life of Colin Armitage. Picture: Bruce Rollinson
The service of dedication of the retiring Standard of the Merchant Navy Association and Thanksgiving for the life of Colin Armitage. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

IN the tiny handbag she had as a child, Wendy Robinson treasures all the loving messages and drawings her father sent her 75 years ago.

Little did she know that when she waved goodbye to the SS Lulworth Hill from Hull Docks in 1942 she would never see him again. She was just six.

WWII hero Colin Armitage.

WWII hero Colin Armitage.

Chief Officer Basil Scown was the first to die on a life raft packed with men which was torpedoed off the coast of West Africa by a German U-boat the following year.

Eleven other men succumbed, leaving just two survivors, Colin Armitage and Kenneth Cooke, who were picked up by the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Rapid, after a hellish 50-day ordeal drifting under an equatorial sun in shark-infested seas.

The pair, who were later awarded the Lloyd’s Medal and the George Medal, eventually returned Chief Officer Scown’s gold signet ring to Wendy’s mother, honouring his dying wish.

The men’s sacrifice was remembered yesterday as the national standard of the Merchant Navy Association was laid up at All Saints’ Church in North Ferriby, where Mr Armitage was married and buried after dying, aged 28, in 1950.

His youngest daughter, Jane Leng, said: “He obviously suffered ill health after coming off the raft.

“He had nightmares, he could never get over it.

“If it was in modern times you would have called it post traumatic stress syndrome.

“They were burned and blistered and so thin they were like skeletons. My mum was a remarkable woman to bring up three kids with no benefits. She had three or four jobs. She worked damned hard.”

Mrs Robinson has lived with the loss of her father all her life.

A poignant verse he wrote her said: “Don’t forget your Daddy, Whilst he’s on the sea, For he’ll always think of you, His darling one – Wendy.”

She said: “He was a wonderful man. He organised the food on the raft. It came full circle with Colin bringing back the ring to my mother.”

Mr Armitage’s granddaughter Louise Beech who wrote a novel, How To Be Brave, inspired by his exploits, said: “When my own daughter got ill I told her his story to help her through – I feel like he has always been with me.”

His niece Vivien Foster, national president of the Merchant Navy Association, told the congregation: “Our second standard is being laid to rest at All Saints’ for a very special reason.

“When it was dedicated in part it was to enhance that ‘special breed of men’, our merchant seafarers.

“My family had three such men. My father, who was awarded the Lloyds Medal and the MBE for rescuing 13 men after his ship was bombed, his youngest brother Stanley was lost on his second trip in the Atlantic convoys and Uncle Colin – his was one of the greatest sea survival stories of WW2.”

A well-travelled standard

The Merchant Naval Association second standard has travelled far and wide in the 17 years since it was first dedicated.

Ceremonies include the 60th anniversary of the Second World War where it was the lead marker for the parade of 728 standards and was placed on the Drumhead with Armed Forces standards in the presence of the Queen.

It also helped mark the 25th anniversary of the Falklands conflict and the commemorations of the Battle of the Atlantic in Liverpool.

It was also at the D- Day remembrance events held at Arromanches, Caen, and the US Memorial at Omaha Beach.