Search for family of Sunderland Dunkirk hero honoured for bravery in helping rescue British troops

The MV Coronia pictured as she is today.
The MV Coronia pictured as she is today.

The crew of a little ship which saved troops during the evacuation of Dunkirk has launched a search for the family of a heroic officer born in Sunderland.

The MV Coronia operated under the HM Tender Watchful when she was requisitioned by the Royal Navy to serve from Great Yarmouth at the outbreak of the Second World War.

An image of Lt Alexander Harper Turner.

An image of Lt Alexander Harper Turner.

In late May 1940, she was one of the first to answer the call for a small inshore vessel to help in the recovery of soldiers stranded at Dunkirk.

During Operation Dynamo, Watchful helped many hundreds of troops reach larger ships waiting off shore and in the final days, helped rescue hundreds of men from the beaches on three cross-channel trips.

It was for such efforts during the mission that Alexander Harper Turner, a Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for Bravery by the King in 1940.

Now the team restoring the Hartlepool Marina-berthed boat, who have plans to join in the 80th anniversary Dunkirk crossing in 2020, is searching for his relatives as they piece together his story.

The Merchant Navy ticket issued to Lt Alexander Harper Turner.

The Merchant Navy ticket issued to Lt Alexander Harper Turner.

One of the key details they have is that he was born in Sunderland on October 21, 1900, joined the Merchant Navy aged 15, and that he became well-known for taking a photo in 1920 from the Garthsnaid’s mast during a storm off New Zealand.

He joined the Royal Navy at the outbreak of the Second World War and had been promoted to become a Commander by July 1944, continuing to work as an active photographer up until 1950.

Dickie Banks, a retired Petty Officer who served in the Royal Navy from 1975 to 1999, said: “We have some information on him but not a lot, but we do know he came from Sunderland.

“We have his Merchant Naval ticket from the National Archive, which shows that was where he was born.

The boat pictured in 1930s in Great Yarmouth.

The boat pictured in 1930s in Great Yarmouth.

“We found a book published in 1986 which mentions his granddaughter Sue Turner, so we know he must have had a son.

“He played a really big part in our ship’s history and we really want to know more about him.

“We would like to find out if any one in Sunderland or surrounding area is related to him and can give us any more info about his life and war time service.

“We’ve looked and looked and just can’t find anything.”

Inside the MV Coronia.

Inside the MV Coronia.

After Operation Dynamo, Watchful returned to Great Yarmouth, where she had been built in 1935 as a pleasure cruiser called Brit.

She was handed back to its owners, the Longfield Brothers, and she became a tourist vessel.

In the 1950s she was sold to a new owner in Scarborough and was renamed Yorkshire Lady, continuing to work as a tourist boat.

She was given her current name in the 1960s and continued to work in the resort’s harbour until 1985, when she was sold and sent to Gibraltar, returning to Scarborough in 1991, where she worked until 2010.

She was saved from the scrap yard by new owners Graham Beasley and Pauline field and brought to her new home at Hartlepool last year.

The boat has had a had a new funnel fitted and deck replaced, with a survey underway ahead of work to its wheel house as efforts to continue ahead of the 2020 anniversary sailing.

Anyone with information is asked to email hmtwatchful@btinternet.com or get in touch via the Coronia’s Facebook page.