The name Geoffrey Charles Purslow ought to be better known in the area of his birth. As an example of self sacrifice it stands comparison with the death of Maximilian Kolbe at Auschwitz or Capitan Oates in the snowy wastes of the South Pole. Purslow was born in Cheddleton in 1916. His father was killed in the trenches when his son was 2. His mother re-married a Mr Gwynne and was living at “Fairways”. Geoffrey was educated in Shropshire. He was highly intelligent and studied Medicine at Birmingham, graduating in 1940 and joined the Merchant Navy as a surgeon beginning work on SS Laconia in December 1941. The Laconia formerly a liner had been converted to a troop ship.
On 12th September 1942, at 8.10pm, the Laconia was hit by a torpedo whilst sailing in the Atlantic. A second torpedo struck and the ship quickly sank. The order to be abandon the vessel was given and women, children and injured aboard the troop carrier were placed in life boats.
Over three thousand passengers, including some 1,800 Italian prisoners of war, experienced explosions, chaos and a listing ship. Many of the lifeboats had been destroyed by explosions, too few for the survivors, many were struggling in the ocean. At this point the U-boat which fired the two torpedoes, the U-156, surfaced. A further two U-boats came to assist, along with the Italian submarine Capellini.
Despite showing a large Red Cross flag, an American bomber attacked the submarines forcing them to dive to safety. The lifeboats that were alongside the submarines were cast adrift and the survivors were left to fend for themselves.
In November 1943 the local newspaper included an extract from a pamphlet“Atlantic Torpedo” written by a survivor Doris Hawkins. She recalled at first the role that the Doctor in navigating the lifeboat and distributing rations until illness struck.
Doctor Purslow developed a deep infection of his left hand and arm and of his right foot and leg..His glands began to swell, and red lines streaked his arm and leg. He felt ill, and we were anxious....One morning, about nineteen weary days after the ship was torpedoed, I heard voices, and after a while realised that one was his, although I could not hear exactly what was being said. I gathered that, realising that he was a potential source of infection to the rest of us, Doctor Purslow had come to a great decision .
He was quite conscious, and in a voice stronger than I had heard from him for many days, he said: "As I cannot be of any further help, and if I am now a source of danger to you all, it is better that I should go." As he heaved himself painfully up the side of the boat, I found my voice, and said: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." He said: "Goodbye", and with a long look, he took that final step backward. The sea closed over him.
Of Laconia’s original complement of 2,732, only 1,113 survived .The majority who died were Italian POWs.
Purslow is commemorated at his old school in Shropshire, at Birmingham University and at the Merchant Navy Memorial at Tower Hill in London.