Peter de Neumann

Captain Bernard Peter de Neumann GM (18 September 1917 – 16 September 1972) was a British Merchant Navy officer and convicted pirate (by the French Vichy Government).

Peter de Neumann
Capt Peter de Neumann MN, HMRC Vigilant, circa 1950
Birth nameBernard Peter de Neumann
Nickname(s)The Man from Timbuctoo
Born(1917-09-18)18 September 1917
Hadleigh, Essex
Died16 September 1972(1972-09-16) (aged 54)
Tilbury Dockside, Essex
Ashes scattered
Service/branchMerchant Navy
RankMaster Mariner
Commands heldex-Luftwaffe Flak Ship Hilde,
Empire Maymorn,
HMRC Vigilant
Battles/warsAtlantic, Sicily Landings, Italy Landings, Normandy Landings, Pacific
RelationsBernard de Neumann (son)
Other workHarbourmaster (Port of London, United Kingdom) Dockmaster (Tilbury, Essex)
George Medal

De Neumann's action-packed seagoing career included being sunk twice in the space of one month, being charged and convicted of piracy by the Vichy French, and being known as "The Man From Timbuctoo".[1][2][3][4][5]

World War IIEdit

De Neumann displayed exemplary courage during the Second World War being awarded both the George Medal and the Lloyd's War Medal for Bravery at Sea for removing a 250 kilogram bomb from deep in the engine-room of SS Tewkesbury and dropping it over his ship's side during a Luftwaffe attack off Aberdeen on 1 March 1941.[6][7] SS Tewkesbury was torpedoed and sunk by gunfire from U-69 on 21 May 1941. All of the crew survived and escaped in two boats; de Neumann's lifeboat was picked up by the American freighter SS Exhibitor. He was later transferred to HMS Cilicia. (SS Tewkesbury's other lifeboat was rescued by SS Antinous after 13 days.)

HMS Cilicia arrived at Freetown on 17 June 1941, and de Neumann volunteered as Second Officer aboard the Royal Navy prize vessel SS Criton (captured from the Vichy French). SS Criton sailed from Freetown for the UK on 19 June 1941, but was intercepted by two Vichy France warships, Air France IV and Edith Germaine, on 21 June and sunk by gunfire. Criton's crew were escorted under armed guard to Conakry, where the executive officers were tried and found guilty of piracy by a Vichy French naval court-martial and imprisoned in Timbuktu.[4] They managed to escape, and walked 640 kilometres (400 mi) up the Niger River before they were recaptured and returned to Timbuktu. De Neumann was eventually released at the end of December 1942, and arrived back in the UK aboard the armed merchant cruiser HMS Asturias in mid-January 1943.

De Neumann received the George Medal from King George VI for his bravery while aboard SS Tewkesbury in mid-February 1943.

In 1945 he captained the ex-Luftwaffe Flak Ship Hilde on a voyage to Leningrad, as part of the division of German ships amongst the Allies, returning overland by train and ferry to the UK. He then captained the Empire Maymorn on her delivery to Georgetown, British Guiana, returning to the UK as Captain of the Ariguani, which had formerly been HMS Ariguani, the very first Fighter Catapult Ship and a forerunner of the Catapult Armed Merchantmen. From 1947 to 1953, he captained HMRC Vigilant.

Port of London AuthorityEdit

De Neumann began developing thoughts on the potential for a port-control system while he was captain of HMRC Vigilant. These ideas followed on from considering such incidents as the accidental ramming of the submarine HMS Truculent by HMS Divina in 1950, the Norwegian vessel Baalbek's collision with the Nore Army Fort in 1953, and the disastrous North Sea flood that resulted in the flooding of Canvey Island, Foulness and the East Coast in 1953. In these and other situations, rescue and intelligence gathering were severely hampered by a lack of centralised command and control, which led to a lack of situational awareness.

In 1953, de Neumann resigned his command of HMRC Vigilant following the Spithead Review and transferred to the Port of London Authority. He then put in place a feasibility study of a port-control system which he oversaw throughout its development and ultimate installation at Gravesend, which was completed in 1960.

He served as Harbourmaster, and, after his health deteriorated owing to his earlier imprisonment in West Africa, Dockmaster at Tilbury.[8]


De Neumann was commended for his handling of the rescue attempt following the sinking of the Tug Sunfish under Tower Bridge on 12 March 1960. The Sunfish was aft and the Sun VI forward of the Ellerman Lines' Palermo, dragging through Tower Bridge inward bound in the Upper Pool, when the Sunfish was dragged on the Northern Buttress of the bridge. Her stern struck, rolling her over, and she sank with the loss of her Chief Engineer. She was raised the next day, refurbished, and returned to service.

Another commendation came for his part in rescuing the crew of the Tug Kenia when she sank in the New Lock bellmouth, Tilbury Dock, on 25 August 1964. The Crested Cock and the Kenia were undocking the Maashaven from Tilbury Dock New Entrance. The ship started her swing to starboard in the Bellmouth and the Kenia was on the port bow when coming around, the Maashaven went ahead and pinned her to the upper dock head before she cleared the ship's bow. The Kenia was cut from the deck to the keel in the after end of the engine room starboard side. A line was passed to the pier head and secured, and all crew rapidly taken ashore, before she sank. Kenia was raised by the PLA Salvage Department and scrapped.

He was also commended for his valiant attempt at saving the life of a crane driver injured when his crane toppled across the open hold of a ship in Tilbury Dock on 10 March 1966. The crane driver died before he could be released.


Never far from the action, just a few days before his death, he was involved in another incident with a toppled crane at Tilbury. This time the driver survived. De Neumann was killed in an accident at Tilbury Docks on 16 September 1972 just 2 days before his 55th birthday. His ashes were scattered on the River Thames in Gravesend Reach.[9]

Museum piecesEdit

Three items Capt de Neumann brought home from Timbuktu were on loan to the Imperial War Museum in London and displayed in the Survival at Sea Exhibition.[10] They were:

  • A copy of the New Testament, with a diary of the movements the prisoners made whilst in captivity
  • A Red Cross label from a parcel addressed to Peter de Neumann in Timbuctoo
  • The tumbler he made from the bottom of a Perrier water bottle by half-filling it with water, binding paraffin-soaked twine around it at the water level, and igniting it, making the glass crack at the water-line


  1. ^ Lacey, Montague (10 February 1943). "The Man From Timbuctoo". Daily Express. London. p. 1. Retrieved 4 November 2010. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  2. ^ Meridian (November–December 2004). "When 14 PLA Staff Were Awarded the George Medal in the Space of 7 Weeks" (PDF). Port Community News. 2 (78). Gravesend, Kent, UK: Port of London Authority. pp. 2–3. Retrieved 4 November 2010. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)[permanent dead link]
  3. ^ de Neumann, Bernard (1974). "The Man From Timbuctoo". The Dog Watch (31). CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  4. ^ a b Edwards, Bernard (2005). Death in the Doldrums: U Cruisers off West Africa. Pen & Sword Maritime. ISBN 978-1-84415-261-2.
  5. ^ Woodman, Richard (2005). The Real Cruel Sea: The Merchant Navy in the Battle of the Atlantic, 1939–1943. John Murray. ISBN 978-0-7195-6599-1. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  6. ^ Masters, David (1960). In Peril on the Sea: War exploits of Allied seamen. London: Cresset Press. ASIN B0000CKRBZ. OCLC 6231313.
  7. ^ "Obituary". The Times. London. 22 September 1972.
  8. ^
  9. ^ "The Man from Timbuctoo". Rochford district history. Retrieved 30 November 2019. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  10. ^ de Neumann, Bernard. "Amateur Naval Historian". WW2 People's War.[permanent dead link]