Heroes of the sea hailed for their courage after saving countless lives

Peter Dukes, from Poringland in Norfolk.

Peter Dukes, from Poringland in Norfolk. - Credit: Keith Whitmore

Over more than six decades he has saved countless lives along the Norfolk coast and maintained levels of fitness which led to an amazing recovery from cancer.

Arthur Woodhouse, from Sprowston in Norwich.

Arthur Woodhouse, from Sprowston in Norwich. - Credit: Keith Whitmore

Peter Dukes, now 84, was diagnosed with skin cancer three years ago but within weeks of his operation was back in the water swimming.

During 12 hour surgery to remove a lump the size of a golf ball from near his ear, he had a quad muscle removed from his leg and inserted into his face, and 47 lymph nodes removed to stop the spread of the disease.

Mr Dukes, from Poringland, was later fitted with a prosthetic ear attached by magnets, and a bone conductor hearing aid. He underwent an intensive course of radiotherapy.

He is now one of four people in the Against All Odds category of the Charles Holland Awards for Brave Britons. The winner will be revealed at a ceremony in London today.

'I do not feel I have done anything out of the ordinary to deserve this,' he said. 'There was quite considerable trauma caused after the operation but, after a couple of weeks, I was back in the water swimming. I used to be a swimming coach and did 40 years with Norfolk County Council adult education teaching stroke techniques and life-saving skills.

'I am still a lifeguard now on Lowestoft beach, and have been there for years.'

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Mr Dukes is a founding member of Lowestoft Volunteer Lifeguard Corps in 1952, and helped set up a voluntary lifeguard group in Norwich.

He is the holder of a long service award and medal of honour from the Royal Life Saving Society.

'I have never enjoyed it more,' he said. 'I have been a lifeguard for 63 years all along Norfolk. I have always enjoyed my swimming, and when I first started lifeguarding there had been one or two drownings. I thought I would try to get myself some training so if something ever happened I would know what to do.

'In 1967 we had a lot of drownings, including several at Mundesley. The council asked if people could get together to help form a band of volunteers, so that is what we did.'

While he has rescued many people from the water, Mr Dukes likes to think a word of advice is just as useful.

'The idea of lifeguards and lifesaving is to build on preparation and guidance,' he said. 'Education is one of the biggest things we have in our work. 'When I tell people about tides and currents, and the various problems that can occur, I think I would have helped save a life. It is not always about pulling people out of the water.'

Mr Dukes' doctors described him as a 'phenomenon' and put his speedy recovery down to his fitness. He swims approximately 6000m a week – the equivalent of four miles.

'They thought my recovery was so fast was because of the years and years of being a fitness fanatic,' he said. 'I take 10 to 12 different vitamins every day my whole life. I used to do a bit of weight-lifting and I have home gym I use.

'They call me the old man of the sea. I just love being by the sea and I love people. If I can keep it up until the day I pop my clogs, that would be great.'

The Against All Odds Award goes to a member of the public who has overcome adversity to take on an exceptional challenge.

A former merchant navy seaman who spent the Second World War crossing some of the world's most dangerous shipping lanes and helped pull dozens of survivors out of the sea has also been named as a finalist.

Arthur Woodhouse, from Sprowston is one of four people in the Outstanding Military Bravery category of the Charles Holland Awards for Brave Britons.

Mr Woodhouse, 96, who joined the Merchant Navy when he was just 15, travelled to Africa, North and South America and Southern Europe as part of the crew of the Fort George, and had a narrow escape when the boat next to his was destroyed by German bombers in Sicily.

The Fort George was leaving Syracuse harbour alongside another ship, the Fishpool, when the Germans struck, killing almost all those on board.

'There was a war on and that was it,' he explained. 'We had to just get on with it - no messing about. We had a long trip to North Africa from New York round to the Panama Canal, past Cape Town and through Suez before we got to Alexandria where we supplied the Army with all the equipment they needed for the invasion of Italy, with ammunition and tanks.

'When we landed our troops in Sicily we steamed around to Syracuse and Jerry started over us dropping bombs on us. We had three ships there and one was totally destroyed, with the men aboard.

'That was that; we just had to carry on with it.'

Born in Great Yarmouth, Mr Woodhouse joined up with the merchant navy in 1936, and was soon aboard a training ship on the Thames.

'Because I was born in Yarmouth it a choice of either fishing, coasting, or deep sea,' he said. 'I chose deep sea.'

Later, on a long voyage to the US to load military cargo, Mr Woodhouse took part in a dangerous rescue mission when two life rafts were spotted in high seas off the Cape of Good Hope.

Despite the risk of attack from submarines, Arthur and his fellow crewmen rescued more than 50 men from one of the life rafts, taking them back to the safety of the South African coast before continuing their journey to the US.

'We were coming out of Durban and we picked up these two boat loads of survivors. It was only moments after their ship had been sunk, and a Japanese submarine must have sunk her.

'We just spotted them on the horizon and we took the chance and went straight over.

'There was one boat we couldn't find and the sea was getting rough so we knew that was lost. We were very lucky to have been there at the time.'