A HEROIC sailor from Taunton has told how he and a colleague saved the lives of 27 crew from a blazing transporter ship off the coast of France.

Leading Seaman David Groves was in charge of a small boat that struggled for four hours on towering seas to rescue every man aboard the stricken car/container ship Grande America

David, 29, was serving on the Royal Navy frigate HMS Argyll on its way home to Plymouth after nine months in the Asia-Pacific region, when a mayday came through from the 28,000 merchant ship 150 miles south west of Brest back in March.

He and shipmate Able Seaman Alex Harvey volunteered to carry out the rescue, even though it was on the absolute limit of safe boat operations.

Their decision saved lives and has now earned David the Queen’s Gallantry Medal, while Alex, 25, from Hull has won the Queen’s Commendation for Bravery.

David said: "One minute you could see a ship on fire, the next it was hidden by a wall of water. And the closer we got, the more engulfed we were in the smoke."

When he and Alex reached the merchant ship, they faced a lengthy wait as the crew struggled to launch the lifeboat.

When it eventually launched, it hit the water with such force that it left the vessel impossible to manoeuvre.

But David managed to bring his boat nose-to-nose with the lifeboat and with Alex on the bow judging the right moment as the two craft moved up and down, four of the merchant crew jumped from a small hatch into Argyll’s boat.

Alex said: "When the first guy jumped I had to grab him to prevent him going overboard. I thought to myself, 'This is a bit hairy'.”

Next the pair tried towing the lifeboat, but the line parted in the heavy sea, so they decided to nudge the boat towards the frigate “like a bumper car, or pinball”, said David.

They then had to pin the lifeboat against the frigate’s side so the Grande America’s crew could climb the scrambling net or be hauled up in a hoist.

David added: “They were cold, tired, suffering from the effects of fire, smoke, shock and they’d been bobbing around in the sea for a couple of hours – they were exhausted."

David, who is marrying his fiancée Leanne Barratt in September, has previous experience of rescues – a sunken fishing boat in the Channel and saving migrants in the Mediterranean while serving aboard HMS Enterprise.

He said: "It's always good to be recognised for the work you do, but at the end of the day this is what we’re trained for. That all kicked in on the night.

"We saw the crew the next day and they were really grateful for what we’d done for them. That was as much recognition as we’d expected."