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Remarkable story of wartime survival remembered thanks to Portsmouth sailor

9 May 2023
Two remarkable sailors who endured 50 days in a life raft have been honoured in their hometowns thanks to a sailor from Portsmouth Naval Base.

Seaman Colin Armitage from Hull and Kenneth Cooke, the ship’s carpenter from nearby Bridlington, were not the only survivors when their steamer, SS Lulworth Hill, was sunk by an Italian submarine in the South Atlantic at the end of March 1943.

Fourteen men – roughly one third of the crew – scrambled into a life raft when the merchant vessel was torpedoed, 600 miles northeast of St Helena and 800 miles off the coast of Angola.

But one by one the survivors succumbed either to wounds or starvation and exhaustion, until just Armitage and Cooke remained, living on the most meagre of rations, while sharks circled the raft in anticipation.

They were eventually picked up in early May by the crew of destroyer HMS Rapid as it escorted a convoy off Sierra Leone; the raft had drifted more than 1,500 miles in the intervening seven weeks.

Kenneth kept a diary written on a piece of sailcloth which would eventually turn into a memoir of the tragedy and went on display at the Imperial War Museum.
Kenneth, who became a gamekeeper in his native Yorkshire post-war, was also featured on popular TV show This Is Your Life.

His fellow survivor was not so fortunate. The ordeal in the raft wrecked Colin Armitage’s health and he died aged just 28 in 1950, leaving a young widow with three children.

Both men were awarded the George Medal and Lloyds Medal for Bravery. As the years passed, their celebrity and the fame of the act of the survival gradually faded.

But when weapons engineer Petty Officer Richard Jones stumbled across Kenneth’s story while researching World War 2 in his hometown of Bridlington, he decided to bring his and Colin’s deeds back into the public eye.

The senior rating has made it his mission to champion and honour forgotten or overlooked disasters, from writing a slew of books, to seeing memorials erected, including one in Bridlington to a former pleasure cruiser lost in action.

“I was working on a book about Bridlington during the war and came across the story of Ken,” says Richard, who serves with the Fleet Support Unit in Portsmouth Naval Base.

“When I found out Colin was from Hull it soon became apparent that I was able to put a blue plaque up for each person to honour them in their hometowns.” 

He was joined by Kenneth’s family, Bridlington RNA and Submariners' Association for the unveiling of a plaque by the town’s harbour, and by Colin’s family for the dedication of the waterfront memorial in Hull.

Pictures courtesy of Ian Ellis

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