2 Jan 2017

NZ WWII hero has died

5:01 pm on 2 January 2017

A New Zealander awarded the highest civilian decoration for bravery during World War II - the George Cross - has died.

An engraving of a WWII air attack on Malta in Italian newspaper La Domenica del Corriere in October 1942.

An engraving in Italian newspaper La Domenica del Corriere in October 1942 depicts an air attack on Malta. Photo: AFP / Gianni Dagli Orti / Art Archive / Picture Desk

John Gregson saved the life of a wounded shipmate when their merchant ship, the Deucalion, was torpedoed in the Mediterranean in 1942.

He died on Christmas Day at Tauranga Hospital with his family at his side.

Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy said he would be remembered for an act of extraordinary courage and, on behalf of all New Zealanders, she expressed her condolences to his family and friends.

His funeral is on Wednesday.

'Gallant and determined'

The Deucalion had been taking part in Operation Pedestal to bring supplies to British-controlled Malta, which was under attack by Axis forces.

According to a notice in the London Gazette on 2 February 1943, the ship was set on fire by the attack and orders were given to abandon it.

"One of the ship's gunners, however, was pinned under a raft. Apprentice Gregson immediately went to his assistance and, with help, freed him. The gunner had sustained severe injuries and, as it was impossible to get him into a boat or on to a raft, he was dropped overboard.

"Gregson dived into the sea after him, and, in the darkness, towed his helpless shipmate to a ship which picked them up, a distance of about 600 yards."

If it was not for Mr Gregson's "gallant and determined action, undertaken with complete disregard of his personal safety", his shipmate would likely have died, the notice said.

The operation involved 14 merchant ships guarded by 64 warships. While it was successful in bringing fuel and other essentials to the island, hundreds of those taking part were killed.

Source: London Gazette / BBC

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs