THE Battle of the Atlantic was a torrid affair.
From the very start of the Second World War, Germany pitted its U-boats against Allied merchant shipping, to try and prevent supplies from getting through to Britain.
Thomas Brannen was on board one such merchant ship, the 8,000 tonne SS City of Pretoria.
In 1941, she became one of hundreds of ships to be torpedoed during the Battle of the Atlantic. The direct hit left the ship floundering, yet Hartlepool man Thomas Brannen was determined to help his fellow crew.
Quick as a flash, he surveyed the scene and found two wrecked life rafts. Using some real ingenuity, he took the best bits from both rafts and made a new one out of them.
The lives of many men were saved thanks to him. Word soon got round about his heroics and he met the King to be honoured for outstanding actions.
Thanks to Thomas’ daughter Doreen Orbin, 80, the tale has been brought to life for the first time since the 1940s.
Mrs Orbin, now from Middlesbrough and formerly of Cornwall Street in Hartlepool, said: “My father never talked about it but I was very proud of what he did.”
It is only in recent years that Mrs Orbin, a mother-of-two herself who used to work at Roger’s tobacconists next to St Aidan’s Church in Hartlepool, has obtained all the documents to commemorate Thomas’s actions.
But she remembered her dad’s heroics and the time when he became a hero.
“He was on the Pretoria when it was torpedoed. The life boats had been damaged but he decided which were the best ones and put together a new one out of the old ones.”
Later that year, Thomas was back home with his family when word came through from Kensington Palace that he had been put forward for a “Medal of the Order of the British Empire for meritorious service”.
He had to collect the award from the King at Buckingham Palace on July 29, 1941 and was advised to wear either service dress, morning dress or civil defence uniform.
Mrs Orbin remembers the day the family discussed the travel arrangements to London.
Thomas and his wife Ethel (Doreen’s dad) would travel down and stay at a Merchant Navy house. They travelled without any other member of the family, thinking children would not be allowed at the investiture.
They were wrong and Mrs Orbin had missed her chance to see the King.
She said: “I was only about nine at the time and I had to stay with my auntie. But I was very proud of my dad.”
Thomas was a carpenter by trade and it was his skills which proved invaluable on board the SS City of Pretoria.
They were not the only time Mrs Orbin got to see her dad’s skills as a “chippy”.
“When I was a child, I always remember the days when he came home from sea. He would always have a big wooden box with him that he’d made.
“And when he opened it up, it would always be filled to the brim with bananas.”
That was a real luxury in the 1940s as bananas were a rare commodity during rationing.
Mrs Orbin remembered: “I used to walk down the street with a banana and everyone used to follow me because I was the only person with one, and they all wanted it.”
Thomas died on December 16, 1966 aged 70 - two years before his beloved wife Ethel passed away aged 69 on February 8, 1968.
His many pieces of memorabilia were passed on to his son Harold and then eventually on to Doreen, a mum of two herself to Kym Orbin, 54, and Mark Orbin, 51.
Our thanks go to Mrs Orbin for sharing news of her father’s heroics and we would love to hear more stories of heroism in the wars.
Contact Chris Cordner on (01429) 239377, or email firstname.lastname@example.org