Lt Cdr Peter Davis, who has died aged 91, led an apparently charmed life while serving in a Motor Torpedo Boat during the Second World War.
On the night of February 14/15 1944, Davis was first lieutenant of MTB 444, commanded by the fearless Antarctic explorer Derek Leaf. Leaf, leading a flotilla of five MTBs, had dashed across the North Sea at 38 knots before cutting his speed and closing the breakwater at Ijmuiden, on the Dutch coast. After waiting in a stationary position for nearly three hours, Leaf’s flotilla ambushed a German convoy as it attempted to enter the harbour, sinking or damaging all the enemy ships and escaping unscathed.
However, as Leaf led his flotilla in a circle to press home the attack, he in turn was ambushed by German E-boats. Suddenly, in Davis’s words, “all hell broke loose”, and within seconds MTB 444 had been reduced to a smoking wreck. Leaf was dying, the only other officer was seriously wounded, and Davis took command. In the melee which ensued at close range, MTB 444 became detached from the rest of the flotilla, which withdrew under fire to its base at Lowestoft.
Davis’s boat was now on its own, wallowing close off the enemy-held coast. Assessing the damage, he found that he could restart the engines and he determined to use the last few hours of night to reach Lowestoft. He nursed his boat through the darkness and entered harbour some four hours later.
In the grey morning light he saw that the wooden hull was still smouldering. The risk of a fire and explosions fed by fumes from the boat’s 100-octane fuel was so great that, after the dead and wounded had been taken off, it was scuttled in the harbour.
Davis reflected that “it was not funny or fun or exciting”; rather, “it was perfectly dreadful, ghastly, unspeakable”. But there was one more ordeal for him to undergo: to write to the next of kin and to visit Leaf’s young wife and newborn baby.
Davis’s view was that he had done no more than his job, and he was surprised, a month later, to learn that he had been awarded a DSC.
MTB 444 was later refloated and refurbished. Davis put in command, but almost a year to the day of its first sinking, on February 14 1945, there was a fire and explosion in the harbour of Ostend. His boat was one of more than a dozen which were destroyed with their crews, though Davis was ashore at the time. He appreciated that he had enjoyed several “cat’s lives” in the war, but considered that the pyrotechnics set off on VE-day in the Orwell and Felix hotels in Felixstowe were as dangerous as anything in the conflict.
Peter Richard Davis was born on August 12 1923 at Portishead, the son of a soldier who had fought in both World Wars before becoming a senior executive with Imperial Tobacco .
At Sherborne School, Peter was an outstanding sportsman, and before he had reached the sixth form he volunteered for the Navy. His first recollection of training was witnessing the return of survivors of the raid on St Nazaire, and the realisation that the casualties even of a successful attack could be horrendous. Following a year serving in a destroyer in the Atlantic, he joined HMS King Alfred as a midshipman.
After the victory in Europe, Davis was briefly lent to the Royal Indian Navy, based in Bombay, and on demobilisation he joined a subsidiary of Unilever as a plantation manager in Nigeria, with a workforce of several hundred covering more than 3,000 acres which he inspected on a 500cc motorbike. One day, finding a boa constrictor stretched across the track, he ran it over and accelerated away.
Davis spent several years in Africa, often in remote and lonely stations. When he married, he judged that his wife would not enjoy the rainforests of Africa; his knowledge of palm oil and rubber harvesting helped him find work at Fort Dunlop in Birmingham. He went on to enjoy a successful career in the paper industry.
Peter Davis married, in 1951 (dissolved 1994), Evelyn Richmond, with whom he had a son .
Lt Cdr Peter Davis, born August 12 1923, died August 21 2014
© Telegraph Obituaries 2nd October 2014