St Ives pensioner reunited with Suez Emergency comrades

NEARLY sixty years after fleeing from their blazing rescue ship, three veterans of the Suez Emergency have been reunited.

Ronald Hewlett, 79, was among 200,000 troops, described by former PM Tony Blair as ‘the Forgotten Army’, sent to the Middle East to defend British interests between 1951 and 1954.

They were deployed following a stand-off between Britain and Egypt, partly over demands to evacuate a major military base, which led to riots and anti-British violence by guerillas.

Mr Hewlett spent much of his deployment stationed in a radar unit in the desert. On one occasion, while out on patrol, he narrowly avoided being shot after his vehicle was ambushed.

On the homeward voyage on board Her Majesty’s Troopship Empire Windrush Mr Hewlett again found himself in serious danger.

In the early hours of March 28, just three days into the voyage and 30 miles off the Algerian cost, an explosion in the engine room killed four crewmen.

The resulting fire spread quickly and the captain gave the order to evacuate the ship.

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On board were 1,270 passengers - 1,000 were Army personnel, 160 women and children, with the remainder made up of Royal Navy and Royal Air Force personnel.

“I normally got up fairly early, as I did on this occasion, just after six o’clock,” Mr Hewlett recalled.

“I realised that the boat wasn’t moving so I looked out of the portholes, and sure enough we had come to a halt. Also, the lights were off. I got dressed and went up onto the deck. I could see the ship’s crew with hoses disappearing into the superstructure under the bridge. One of the officers told me ‘We have a fire, pass the word: boat stations.’

“I raced back downstairs to where all my pals were and gave the word.”

Because the electricity was off, the ship’s crew had to wind the lifeboats down by hand, while the fire raged around them. Some of the boats were smashed to bits after falling awkwardly.

Mr Hewlett’s lifeboat, designed to carry up to 40 passengers, ended up carrying almost 60.

He said: “We needed room to row and those that couldn’t fit in were hanging onto the ropes around the boat. I took a turn in the water – and that was the last I saw of my shoes.”

He continued: “I don’t think we were terrified but we were concerned. By now we had rowed away from the Windrush, which was really on fire. The reason we got away was we were expecting it to explode. That didn’t happen, although some of the rivets were popping out of the plates.”

The destroyer HMS Saintes was sent to tow the stricken vessel in but she sank the following day.

Mr Hewlett and his fellow passengers were picked up by a Dutch cargo ship, which took them to Algeria, from where they flew back to the UK.

Later that year, Mr Hewlett, who now lives in Tennyson Avenue, St Ives, took a post with the civil service and worked for the Ministry of Defence (Air) until his retirement.

Last month he attended a reunion at the Aviator Hotel in Sywell, Northamptonshire, where he was reunited with fellow veterans George Natt and Peter Dance.

It was the first time he had seen his colleagues since that fateful night. “It was a bit nostalgic,” said Mr Hewlett.