Eynon Hawkins

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Eynon Hawkins, sailor, miner and rugby player: born Llanharan, Glamorgan 27 June 1920; GC 1943; died Bridgend 17 December 2001.

Eynon Hawkins was awarded a George Cross for his courage and coolness in saving the lives of the crew of the tanker British Dominion after it had been torpedoed. He was the senior gunner on the tanker, one of an inadequately guarded convoy of nine tankers that set out from the West Indies. They were attacked for 10 nights and only two ships made it to Gibraltar. The British Dominion was the last to be torpedoed.

Hawkins had witnessed the ship in front blow up and could hear the men screaming for help in the water, but, because of the presence of submarines, could not stop. He recalled:

We were the last to be torpedoed. I was lucky to be on watch on the four-inch gun right on the poop deck. We were hit by three torpedoes and because we were carrying benzene, we went up just like striking a match.

Hawkins swam away from the sinking ship but, as he did so, he heard a man cry out for help.

It was a man I used to call Maltese Joe. He was in a terrible state, and so was his lifebelt. I pulled him away from the ship and got my hands and face burnt in the process. I was trying to swap my lifebelt with Joe's when I heard someone else cry out. So I left him and pulled the other man over. When I got back to Joe he was dead.

The benzene on the surface of the water was burning fiercely and men were panicking. Hawkins with complete disregard for his own safety collected seven or eight survivors, kept them away from the fires and told them to stay together, as the escorting corvette would only make one rapid sweep and not hang around for stragglers. During the next hour and a half, Hawkins kept up the spirits of the men, who were further frightened by the constant sound of depth charges exploding around them as the corvettes sought out the submerged U boats.

This nightmare situation was relieved when the men saw a corvette approach. In their anxiety they all called out to it, but Hawkins told them to keep quiet in case they were heard by the enemy. He said:

I was very tired when I got on the ship. They wrapped us in blankets, we had a drop of rum and then we saw our captain. He was so pleased to see me. He had lost 36 out of a crew of 53.

For his courage and coolness under stress, Hawkins was awarded the Albert Medal (a medal given for outstanding bravery at sea). Later, when he was on a gunnery course, an officer told him that he was wearing his medal on the wrong side of his uniform. Hawkins replied "That's where he put it." "Who put it?" the officer snapped back. "The King," replied Hawkins. In 1971, all holders of the Albert Medal had their awards translated by Royal Warrant, and Hawkins received the George Cross from the Queen at Buckingham Palace in 1972.

Eynon Hawkins left school at 14 in 1934 and began work as a miner. He was working as a colliery foreman when he joined the Royal Navy in 1940. After training, he was drafted to a trawler patrolling the English Channel for nine months. He then transferred as a Seaman Gunner to the Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships and served on convoys in the Atlantic, Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean.

He played rugby union before the war for his home town, Llanharan, and for Bridgend and Glamorgan, and on his return, as well as continuing to work down the mine, played professional rugby for Salford, Rochdale Hornets and Belle Vue. He was proud of the fact that he won six Welsh rugby league caps and was part of the Great Britain squad.

He continued to work in the mines until his retirement 20 years ago. In his retirement he fought for the reopening of Llanharan railway station, which is planned to take place within the next few years.

Max Arthur