The 10-year-old great-great-grand-daughter of a Darlington man who was killed 80 years ago in the Battle of Greece has been presented with his war medal by the Greek government to recognise his sacrifice.

Gunner George Welsh, 32, drowned along with 1,000 others in the Myrtoan Sea on April 27, 1941, when a convoy carrying rescued Allied troops came under attack from German dive bombers.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Gunner George WelshGunner George Welsh

His death left his wife, Margaret, with three boys under the age of seven to bring up in King Street, in the town centre, and because his body was never recovered, he was listed as “missing” and so she got none of the financial assistance given to widows whose husbands were officially “dead”.

“They had to live on church and Salvation Army hand-outs, and Margaret had to do multiple jobs just to get by,” says his great-grand-daughter, Tracy Stephenson. “The two surviving lads, although they are well into their eighties, still carry these scars today from their childhood.”

Darlington and Stockton Times: The Second World War medal awarded to Gunner George Welsh's familyLayla, 10, is presented with her great-great-grandfather's campaign medal

Gunner George was born in Valley Street in 1908 to Annie Welsh and her partner, George Saint. When Annie died young, Gunner George and his brother, Robert, were brought up by “Granny Saint”, who ran the family grocery stall in the covered market. Robert went on to run the stall, but George joined the army in 1926 and by 1939, he was in the 106 (Lancashire Hussars) Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment which was sent to northern Africa.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Robert Welsh, brother of Gunner George, and his wife on the grocery stall in Darlington marketGunner George's brother, Robert, and his wife, Annie, at the family stall in Darlington covered market

On April 6, 1941, the Germans and Italians invaded Greece, and pushed the 60,000 Allied soldiers – British, Australians, New Zealanders and Greek defenders – southwards. The British launched Operation Demon to rescue them, sending all available hands from north Africa to help.

Darlington and Stockton Times: HMS Wryneck, probably in Egypt shortly before going to GreeceHMS Wryneck, probably in Egypt in 1940

George was attached to HMS Wryneck, an old warship completed on the Tyne on the last day of the First World War, as a rear gunner – the RAF had lost control of the skies so it was inevitable that the ships would come under attack from the Luftwaffe and his anti-aircraft skills would be vital.

On April 25, 1941, Wryneck reached Piraeus, the port of Athens, and rescued 647 Aussie soldiers who hadn’t eaten for three weeks. Wryneck sailed them 250 miles south to the safety of Port Souda on the island of Crete, coming under almost constant attack from the skies – Wryneck’s guns managed to bring down one enemy aircraft.

It was a quick turnaround, because another 3,000 Allied soldiers had reached Nauplia on the Greek mainland and were also in need of rescue.

Darlington and Stockton Times: The Second World War medal awarded to Gunner George Welsh's familyThe medals waiting to be handed to the families of me who served in Greece during the Second World War

Wryneck was part of a convoy of a dozen ships, led by the cruiser HMS Calcutta, which went to their aid. As they neared Nauplia, a German air raid destroyed the convoy’s one landing craft so the soldiers had to be transferred from the land to the ships by small boat. It was very time-consuming, and at 3am Calcutta ordered that all ships should sail – they needed to be as far as possible from the mainland when dawn revealed their position to enemy eyes.

But Tjalling Luidinga, the captain of a Dutch troop ship, the SS Slamat, didn’t heed the order. There were up to 2,000 men on land who still needed rescuing and the Slamat had space for 500 more, so he waited for more and more small boats to ferry handfuls of men to him.

Winston Churchill, in his history of the Second World War, called Slamat’s actions “gallant but misguided effort”.

At about 4.15am on April 27, Slamat finally turned from the shore at Nauplia and, full speed ahead with more than 600 on board, tried to catch up with the rest of the convoy heading for Crete.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Layla Henderson collects her great-great-grandfather's medal from Greek officials at the embassy to London just before ChristmasThe citation from the Greek government marking George Welsh's wartime exploits

But at 7.15am, Stuka dive bombers discovered her lonely position and hit her with such ferocity that she caught fire from bow to stern.

HMS Diamond and Wryneck were sent to her aid, with Diamond picking up about 600 survivors before firing a torpedo at the wreck so it sunk. This enabled the two warships to look for more survivors clinging to flotsam and jetsam for dear life.

The dive bombers returned to base, refuelled and then returned to the Myrtoan Sea, between the Greek mainland and Crete, for another killing spree.

Coming out of the sun at 1.15pm, their first bombs hit Diamond which sank within eight minutes, spewing Slamat’s survivors once more into the sea.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Gunner George Welsh on the rightGunner George Welsh on the right

On the bombers’ next run, three devices hit Wryneck, one going through an open hatch into the engine room and exploding. Almost immediately, Wryneck capsized to port, and those who were still alive jumped onto the lifeboat and the Carley life-floats.

But only 27 of Wryneck’s crew of 106 survived, some of them taking many days on their floats going around the Greek islands before they found sanctuary.

Total official losses for the Wryneck, Diamond and Slamat – known as "the greatest disaster in Dutch Merchant Navy History" – are 983, although probably more than 1,000 died that morning.

Darlington and Stockton Times: King Street, DarlingtonThe family home was in King Street, which has since been demolished. Now a car park off Gladstone Street is on its site

The lad from King Street, Darlington, was among them, although his body, and his “dog tag”, was never recovered so he was regarded as “missing” – without evidence of his death, the officials may have thought he could have been washed up alive on a remote island. He is still listed in the book of remembrance in the Memorial Hall as “presumed dead”

It was only when his grand-daughter Tracy researched her family history that she discovered his story and that he was entitled to the 1940-41 Campaigns Medal from the Greek government. She got in touch with the Greek embassy which, just before Christmas, invited her and her daughter, Layla, down to London for a presentation ceremony involving three other British families who had discovered that their ancestors should also have been recipients of the medal.

Tracy and Layla went down on behalf of George’s two surviving sons, Joseph, 87, and Robert, 85, who both still live in Darlington.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Layla Henderson collects her great-great-grandfather's medal from Greek officials at the embassy to London just before ChristmasLayla Henderson, 10, receives the medal from Greek officials

“The Greek officials gave a very moving speech about how the English and Greeks had worked together and how they will honour the lives that were lost for generations to come,” says Tracy. “They expressed their appreciation and gratitude for what he had done, so it was very emotional, but it was also a huge honour and privilege to be part of it and to receive the medal on behalf of the family.”

Darlington and Stockton Times: The Athens war memorial and cemeteryGunner George Welsh's body was never recovered so his name is on a monument in Athens cemetery (below)

Darlington and Stockton Times: Gunner George Welsh's name on the memorial in Athens