Notable people of Preston: Sydney Knowles BEM, a Preston born hero

Posted on - 17th January, 2014 - 12:00pm | Author - | Posted in - Fishwick, History, People, Preston Locations, St Matthews

Part two: Sidney in World War II and beyond



Seaman Sydney Knowles

Seaman Sydney Knowles

The day is September 3rd 1939, World War II has broken out and Sydney Knowles has turned eighteen years of age. Sydney chose this day to join the Royal Navy, not knowing what life had in store for him. He spent the first years aboard various ships on convoy duty and U-boat patrols. The first ship he was deployed to was HMS Zulu, sailing in the North Atlantic. The Zulu was involved in the search for the German battleship Bismarck after it sank HMS Hood with the loss of over one thousand lives.
In 1940 Sydney was wounded in the chest and suffered a broken jaw, as soon as possible he was transferred to a Scottish hospital in Ballochmyle, north of Glasgow. On his discharge he rejoined his depot, HMS Drake in Devonport. Sydney never sailed on the Zulu again because she sank after striking a mine at Tobruck, North Africa.
The order came for him to report to HMS Lookout and along with its sister ship HMS Lafore they set out from the South of Ireland to join more ships in the convoy patrol “Harpoon” bound for Malta. The convoy underwent constant attacks from both Italian and German bombers trying to stop the supplies they were carrying from reaching Malta.

After many more dangerous supply runs in and around Africa under the name of operation “Pedestal” they sailed back to Gibraltar. On the ships notice board Sydney read a poster asking for volunteers to join a team of divers, he was interviewed by Lieutenants Crabb and Bailey, the bomb and mine disposal officers, and this began an important chapter in Sydney Knowles life.

Being part of the ” Royal Navy Underwater Party ” was definitely not a party and equipped with only trunks, lead weighted plimsolls and primitive underwater breathing apparatus, they were faced with the arduous task of removing and disposing of the mines placed on our ships by the Italian’s underwater saboteurs of Gruppa Gamma.

Sydney subsequently became the diving partner of Commander “Buster” Crabb and they formed a strong relationship that lasted for life.
In 1943 they were given the task of recovering the body of General Wladyslaw Sikorski, commander of the free poles; his aircraft had crashed off Gibraltar. The dive took several days to complete due to the visibility and the need to retrieve all sixteen bodies aboard and the documents that the General had been carrying.

When the allies landed in Italy Sydney and the commander were tasked with clearing mines and obstacles ahead of the US army. The last dive the two men went on before they left the Navy in 1950, was to search for the treasure -filled Spanish Galleon thought to be in the bay of Tobermory. In 1955, Sydney and the commander met again for a spying mission on the Russian Cruiser Sverdlov.

Sydney was awarded the BEM for his wartime exploits, there was also a film made of the frogman’s war off Gibraltar, aptly named “The Silent Enemy” (1958) with Michael Craig playing the part of Sydney and Laurence Harvey as commander Crabb. Sydney was married twice in his life, firstly to Joan Rowles in 1945, she predeceased him and he was remarried in 1995 to Frances Wearden, who is still alive today.

Sydney Knowles in 2009

Sidney Knowles in 2009

In 1986 when Sydney retired he decided to move to the little town of Calpe, Spain but sadly within twelve months his wife Joan died. For many years Sydney suffered nightmares relating to his war work.
Sydney died on 31st July 2012 at the age of ninety years but he will not be forgotten. In 2009 Sydney wrote and published a book of his experiences, the title being ‘A Diver in the Dark’; if you are interested in finding out more about this Preston hero then this book is most certainly worth reading.
More information and how to obtain the book can be found at the Woodfield Publishing website, it can also be obtained at many retail outlets and on-line websites.

If you missed part one and would care to read it then please click here

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