Commander Donald Holmes Swift: [Heath 1924–?]

Donald Swift in naval uniform holding a dog
Donald Swift

An officer who assumed command, and rescued survivors, of a stricken minesweeper and later provided cover off Omaha Beach on D-Day.

Commander Donald Swift, who has died aged 91,1 was awarded a DSC and Bar for minesweeping and navigation during the Second World War, then worked in the East Coast fishing industry.

On April 30 1940 Swift rescued survivors from the sinking, off Yarmouth, of the First World War Hunt class minesweeper Dunoon, after a rogue mine blew up under her bridge, killing the captain and two officers. Swift, who had just gone to supervise work on the sweep deck, assumed command and gave the order: “Abandon ship.”

After checking that everyone who could enter a boat or life raft did so, he searched her as she was sinking rapidly, and only after being thoroughly satisfied that no one was left alive between decks did he slip into the water and swim away from the wreck. Several minutes later one of the boats returned to pick him up, and eventually all the survivors were rescued by a destroyer.

Swift said nothing about his role in the rescue, but one of his sailors attested: He acted like a hero. Fifty-two men, including seven who were badly injured, were saved. They presented him with one of Dunoon's lifebuoys as a token of their respect, the only possession he saved from the sinking. He was mentioned in dispatches.

Swift served a short time in the minesweepers Bangor and Cromer and, before leaving minesweeping to specialise in navigation in November 1941, was awarded the DSC for his courage, resolution and skill.

Donald Holmes Swift was born at Halifax, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, on March 8 1915; he was the grandson of George Swift, whose engineering works made a fortune manufacturing cat’s eyes, though the business collapsed when his father died.

Donald left Heath Grammar for the merchant navy training ship Conway. Between 1933 and 1936 he served his apprenticeship in P&O's flagship Viceroy of India, then transferred to the Royal Navy. In Conway he passed out second; with P&O he obtained one of the best Second Mate Certificates; and, in the Navy, he gained first class certificates on all technical subjects, including navigation.

In 1943 Swift joined the newly built anti-aircraft cruiser Bellona in Fairfield's yard at Govan, Glasgow. In Bellona Swift participated in several Arctic convoys, always accompanied by his pet dog, Troy.

Swift also acted as flotilla navigator on several Channel patrols when Bellona was accompanied by up to seven destroyers, a formation known as “Snow White and the seven dwarfs.” By day Snow White anchored in Plymouth Sound to provide air defence, and at night, under cover of darkness and in wireless silence, Swift would navigate the force at full speed to the French coast to attack German ships.

On D-Day Swift positioned Bellona off Omaha Beach to provide anti-aircraft cover for the American battleships Arkansas and Texas and, as the armies advanced, he took her close inshore at night to fire at land targets spotted by forward observation officers. In July 1944 Bellona took part in the Fleet Air Arm raids on the battleship Tirpitz in the Norwegian fjords before returning to the Channel, from which he attacked German convoys off Britanny and in the Bay of Biscay.

Swift was mentioned in dispatches for his work during the Normandy landings and, in November 1944, he was awarded a Bar to his DSC for courage and determination in a series of successful attacks on enemy shipping in the Channel.

Bellona had been fitted with a jammer against German radio-controlled flying bombs, and, in 1945, Swift was sent to the Admiralty Signal and Radar Establishment to pass on his knowledge of operating this secret equipment.

Next he was navigator of the light fleet aircraft carrier Vengeance during her post-war deployment to the Far East, which included repatriating members of the Australian army from Labuan, off Borneo, to Sydney. A series of staff appointments ended with his being given command of the newly converted anti-submarine frigate Wakeful.

Swift's reports in the Navy showed that he was a splendid officer who should do very well, and he was praised as reliable, likeable and humorous. But he retired in 1958, and became general manager of Kingston Steam Trawling.

He also gathered other appointments such as the directorship of the Hull Fishing Vessel Owners’ Association, recalling with pride that his arrival was like a fresh breeze blowing through the fish docks; however, he did not survive a hotly contested takeover battle by two brothers.

He became managing director of a company which imported Norwegian wooden houses, but, stubbornly refusing to accept any position with reduced pay or responsibility, he resigned in 1963.

He then became assistant to the chief executive of the White Fish Authority, but when this job also did not develop as he envisaged, resigned from that post too in 1965. From 1967 to 1970 he was secretary of the Scottish council of King George’s Fund for Sailors, before retiring to the East Riding, where he was chairman of Manpower until 1978.

Swift, who died on June 18, settled at Scarborough so that he could be close to Headingley cricket ground.

Donald Swift married Katherine Furneaux Bryden, a WRNS whom he met in Orkney in 1945. She and a daughter predeceased him, and he is survived by two sons and a daughter.

Daily Telegraph

1 The obituary gives his birth year as 1915 whereas the Heath Grammar School register gives his birth year as 1913.