Captain John Sedgwick Gregson 1924-2016


A master mariner whose heroic wartime actions 74 years ago earned him a place in the history books has died at Tauranga Hospital.

John Gregson, 92, passed away on Christmas Day after a short illness, leaving behind a life that family say had been well lived.

He was awarded the Albert Medal for saving the life of a shipmate when their British Merchant Navy ship Deucalion came under attack during the famous 1942 convoy to the besieged Mediterranean island of Malta, known as Operation Pedestal.

The attack on August 12 off Tunisia by German and Italian aircraft ended when an aerial torpedo found its mark, flames spread rapidly and the order was given to abandon ship.

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Mr Gregson, then an 18-year-old apprentice officer, spotted a gunner pinned under a life raft that had not been launched.

He freed the gunner who had a broken leg, got him to the side of the ship and dropped him over. Mr Gregson then jumped in and, in the darkness, towed his helpless shipmate about 550m before they were picked up by the navy ship, HMS Bramham.

Interviewed in 2007, Mr Gregson told the Bay of Plenty Times he was knocked unconscious in the final successful attack and when he came to, found the ship's deck clear of people except for his injured shipmate.

He had vivid memories of the blaze on board.

''I can still see the flames now, right up to the top of the mast.''

Mr Gregson received the Albert Medal for gallantry at sea from King George VI at Buckingham Palace in 1943.

The medal was discontinued in 1971, with surviving recipients invited to exchange it for the George Cross. Mr Gregson chose not to exchange his medal, deciding to keep it because it had been given to him by the King.

His son Peter Gregson said although his father opted to keep the Albert Medal he was officially credited as being a George Cross holder and attended many reunions of the Victoria and George Cross Association in Britain.

Peter said several books and a movie had been made about the convoy because it was do or die for Malta.

Only five of the original 14 merchant ships got through, but it was enough to restock the island's meagre food and fuel reserves and fight on.

The strategic island of Malta could have been lost otherwise.

''It was a very beleaguered spot,'' he said.

His father was only 16 when he left Pangbourne Nautical College to join the Merchant Navy in 1940, with his first ship attacked soon after he joined.

It set the pattern for the rest of the war, including surviving a German U-boat torpedo attack in the Gulf of Mexico in 1942. They drifted for four days in a lifeboat before being picked up.

Mr Gregson continued to serve as a seaman after the war, progressing into passenger ships until a day in 1951 when he met a young New Zealand woman called Mary who was returning home after her OE.

They corresponded until he made the decision to join her in New Zealand in 1952.

By then he had his skipper's ticket and worked New Zealand's coastal tanker fleet until getting a shore-based job as a harbour pilot with the Port of Tauranga in 1961.

''It was one of the best decisions he ever made.''

Mr Gregson returned to sea in 1977 where he stayed until coming ashore for good in 1987.

Part-time work soon beckoned, starting with kiwifruit packhouse jobs and then working around New Zealand ports as a marine surveyor who independently verified how much was being unloaded from ships.

He was active in the community, playing social tennis at Mount Maunganui Tennis Club until age 83 and was a member of the Mount Lions Club and the Mount RSA.

Mr Gregson was foundation chairman of Mount Maunganui Intermediate and regularly attended St Mary's Anglican Church.

Mr Gregson remained active and independent until shortly before his death, only moving to Ocean Shores Retirement Village two years ago from the Wells Ave family home where he enjoyed views of the port.

''He was a determined walker until he went to hospital.''

Peter remembered his father saying he had lived a long and interesting life and had no regrets.

''Dad lived a very full life.''

He is survived by his two children David and Peter, their wives Connie and Lorna, five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. His funeral is at Jones and Co's Mount Harbour Chapel on January 4 - the day he would have turned 93.