Plaque remembering Brian James Winter

You may have noticed a plaque in the South transept on the South wall in Poynings church remembering Brian James Winter.

You may be interested in the historic event lead to his death exactly 71 years ago.

His mother Winifred Pollard grew up in the terraced row of Duke of York Cottages in Sayers Common. She was the daughter of a miller’s labourer, descended from a line of farm workers and gardeners who had lived in the Hurstpierpoint area for over a century.

When she married Arthur James Winter in 1923 she was marrying into a similar background. Going back over the generations his family had been farm labourers in Poynings.

The couple’s son, Brian, was born in 1927.
He trained to be a radio mechanic, and it was as a Leading Radio Mechanic that, in 1946, he sailed into the Mediterranean onboard HMS Saumarez.

In May 1946, when two cruisers, HMS Orion and HMS Superb, were fired on by Albanian shore batteries whilst steaming south through the Corfu Channel (the narrow point in the north east of the island where Corfu and Albania are only a mile or two apart), a recognised international waterway. It was subsequently decided by Whitehall that ‘right of passage’ should be established by example, and four ships, Mauritius, Leander, Saumarez and Volage, were sent to prove the point.

After a five-day stopover in Corfu, at 14.00 in the afternoon of 22 October, the ships set off on their mission. Rear Admiral Sir David Scott, a lieutenant at the time, was on board the Volage. This is his account of events:

At 14.47 the silence on the radio telephone was broken by Mauritius ordering a routine alteration of course to port to bring us onto the final leg of our passage through the Channel. At the time I was looking through my binoculars at the Mauritius and the Saumarez, and I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw the Saumarez engulfed by a sheet of flame and black smoke. Then the radio telephone came to life again with a signal from the Admiral saying ‘Volage, proceed to the assistance of Saumarez.’

‘The Saumarez was burning fiercely and down in the bow to the extent that the water was actually lapping her foc’sle. She had many casualties, both killed and wounded, and scarcely had enough hands to take our tow. The tow was eventually passed, and we set off back towards Corfu at about four knots, towing Saumarez stern first, as her bow was so deep in the water she couldn’t be towed ahead.

‘All went well until at 16.15 an enormous explosion occurred at Volage’s bow. The ship was brought to a stop, and for over an hour we fought the fires and the flooding. It soon afterwards became apparent that our boiler rooms and engine room were intact and that we could still steam. While we were deliberating on this, the whole ship shuddered and a sixty-foot section of the bow fell off the front and sank. Fortunately, the water tight bulkhead immediately behind the devastation held firm, but it was clear that the Volage could not steam ahead. However, we could steam astern, so once again we approached the Saumarez and we passed a tow over what remained of Volage’s bow. Then, with both ships proceeding stern first, we headed back to Corfu.

A total of forty-four men were killed, and a further forty-two injured. The dead were buried in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Kolokotroni, near Corfu town, and can be visited there today.
Winifred visited the grave in Corfu 45 years later and recalled that a young naval officer visited two days after they received the telegram. ‘But I wasn’t home so I couldn’t speak to him, and he didn’t come back. No-one else from any official body ever called back.’ It was forty years later, through the Corfu Channel Association, that she learned from a shipmate that blast had killed her son instantly, and he had not suffered.

It is comforting to know that every year the local community in Corfu hold a short service in remembrance.

With thanks to Britain’s Small Forgotten Wars website

and Hilary Paipeti in Corfu