John Boyle was born in Greenock to Patrick and Susan Healy Boyle around 1912. He served as a greaser aboard the Scottish built mv San Demetrio, launched in 1938. The ship was part of the “Jervis Bay” Atlantic convey carrying a vital cargo of petroleum when the convoy was attacked by gunfire on 5th November 1940 from the Admiral Scheer. The escort ship Jervis Bay and four other ships were sunk. The crew of the San Demetrio had to abandon ship as there was fear of an explosion as they were under continuous gunfire.
The lifeboats drifted for some time and when the weather calmed down a little one of the lifeboats came near to their abandoned ship. When daylight came the crew decided to risk boarding their badly damaged ship which was still on fire. This was despite several of the survivors being injured – including John Boyle. As they boarded their life boat broke adrift. Much of the ship was badly damaged but the crew managed heroically to extinguish the fires though a careful watch was kept as other fires would break out spontaneously. Conditions aboard were apparently horrific, the ship being little better than a hulk but despite all the problems the crew eventually managed despite terrible weather to navigate their ship to near the south of Ireland where they were sighted by aircraft reconnaissance and a tug was sent to escort them to the Clyde. The ship was escorted to the Clyde but sailed under her own steam to Rothesay Bay. She was towed to Port Glasgow for repair where there was amazement that such a small crew could have saved their ship. Salvage was awarded to the crew as they had re-boarded the ship without outside assistance. Most of the cargo was saved and the ship was repaired and continued to serve on the Atlantic convoys. Accounts of the award and the heroism captured the public imagination and in 1943 a film was made called “San Demetrio – London”. It is still available today and comes up on TV now and then.
Tragically during the journey to safety John Boyle died – he had been injured when leaving the ship. Despite being in severe pain he managed to keep watch until his death, believed to be from an internal haemorrhage. The crew buried him at sea on 11th November remembering what they could of the burial service. John Boyle was described in one account as an “undersized little greaser with the heart of a lion, a heart that not only sustained him in great danger, but kept him faithful to his duty in pain and exhaustion and the gathering shadows of death”. John Boyle’s parents received John’s share of the salvage – £1,000.
John’s name is on the Tower Hill Memorial to merchant seamen.
The San Demetrio resumed service but was sunk in 1942.