Evelyn Ashdown's Shipwreck 1943
On board CITY OF CAIRO were several missionaries. They included Evelyn Ashdown aged 54, and Celia Norris (61) from the St Stephen's Community of the Cambridge Mission in Delhi who were being repatriated at the end of their service.
I am very grateful to the family of Evelyn Ashdown who have given permission for this account to be shared on the site.
This is her story:
(15 Days in an Open Boat)
Member of St. Stephen's Community of the Cambridge Mission to Delhi
"Do write and tell us all about your voyage and everything that happened."
This is a quotation from so many letters that I have had and this pamphlet is a small effort on my part to record my experiences on my voyage home September to January 1942/3. But at the outset I must say, that now, so much of the detail of our adventure seems to be indescribable.
Bombay Docks in September, so many of you know them well in more peaceful days. First the wild rush to get through the Customs. Much to the annoyance of the officials, my companion had lost her keys, so to make up, every bit of mine was opened and searched. The climax came when the official extracted a very suspicious tin roll in which he was sure maps and plans were secreted. In triumph He opened it, and out popped an india rubber followed by my paint brushes. This was too much for the waiting crowd, who roared with laughter. That ended the search of my boxes! Before this we had deposited every scrap of paper and books and music with the censor, all of which were to be read and searched - a sad waste of time as we thought later when all our possessions were at the bottom of the sea!
Eventually we all got on board and settled down. My friend and I were delighted to find we had a cabin to ourselves. At sea we quickly found and made friends and spent our time in the usual way familiar to so many. There were about 100 passengers, of whom 19 were children. Many of the men were civilians and merchant service folk invalided home. Others were survivors from the terrible march over the mountains out of Burma, and others again refugees from Burma. There were comparatively few women. I mention these facts to show that the great majority were semi-invalids, and this accounts for the very large number of casualties. Most were not in a condition to stand up to any further hardships.
Black-out rules were very strict, and rather casual life-boat practices frequent, otherwise it was hard to believe there was a war on. Our voyage to Durban was uneventful. There we landed and shopped, buying warm clothes and presents for our home people mostly in the shape of food. The town was lovely, very like Delhi in winter. Avenues of jacaranda were in full bloom, bouganvilleas everywhere, and gardens a blaze of flowers. We then went on to Capetown and landed and shopped. One morning we went for a walk up the slopes of Table Mountain, and picked a lovely bunch of flowers, which we found created quite a sensation in the tram. On our arrival at the house of Padre Garabadian we realised our mistake. They told us that picking flowers on Table Mountain was absolutely forbidden, and penalties for doing so severe. Our hosts refused to have any, so we took them back to the ship, and on our table they were the envy of everyone else. The Garabadians had, in the past, both worked in the Delhi Mission and were keenly interested in anything we could tell them about the Mission. On parting we both laughingly expressed the wish that we should not see each other again. A wish that was not fulfilled.
On leaving Cape Town, we began to get more anxious about submarines, and I suggested to the First Officer that we should have full dress rehearsals for abandoning ship. Up to date we had casually strolled to boat practice just as we were, with nothing that we were likely to need. He did not agree, as he thought passengers would be frightened. However, at our table some of us decided to do it at the next boat practice. We were worried, as two days before we had passed two Italian Diplomatic ships, and many felt they would give our position and course way to the enemy. That evening, November 5th, we had a boat practice and three of us appeared in coats, hats and topies, carrying bags stuffed with all sorts of oddments in them, and our pockets stuffed with passports, money and other things. Everyone laughed, but later that day we were more than thankful. I realised that I should have my torch and some sensible shoes, so I added these to the pile on my return to the cabin.
That evening we had the most glorious sunset I have ever seen on sea or land. For a long time many of us stood gazing at it spellbound. I remember thinking that l had heard people say that sunrises at sea are even more beautiful, and I made up my mind to get up early and see some. I little thought that I should soon have plenty of opportunity to watch the sun rise. After dinner that night as we sat at table talking over our coffee, came a BANG as of a large bomb exploding. The ship shuddered and listed badly, simultaneously all lights went out, and all glasses and crockery slid off the tables and pantry shelves making an appalling din. The last thing l saw was the vase of flowers the remains of what we had picked on Table Mountain, descending into my lap. There was no need to ask what had happened, officers called out "Get to the boats". In pitch darkness I started to grope my way out, and realised I had left my life-belt on my chair, and I felt my way back to it and put it on. I remember feeling quite sick for a moment, and thinking we certainly should not be home for Christmas, a point we had just been discussing. When I got out of the room I had to decide whether or not to go down to my cabin. How long should we have? However, I knew that most of the children were down our passage and they would have to be fetched, and thought I might be able to help. Some Mothers had several small children to fetch in the dark. So down I went, found my torch, clothes and bag and helped to light people up the stairs. Once on deck I kicked off my evening shoes and put on the other pair and scrambled into my siren suit. By that time a quartermaster was calling us by name to get into the boat. I climbed in, and was thankful to find my friend already there, as in the darkness one could not see or keep in touch with any one. Soon we were all in the boat lowered (an anxious moment when it tilted and we seemed likely to be thrown out) then down the ropes slid the two quartermasters and some sailors; oars were got out and they rowed away from the ship as quickly as possible, and we lay waiting and watching. When our eyes got accustomed to the starlight we could see the ship, and before long we saw the long outline of the submarine emerge, and were terrified that they might fire at us. We heard later that they had stopped us using an emergency wireless, and had told the Captain our position and course for St. Helena which was our nearest land four hundred and seventy miles away. It then submerged and put another torpedo into the ship, and shortly after she reared up and sank - a tragic sight - and after she had gone one felt very lonely and homeless! Then we rowed in among the floating wreckage, pushing things away with our hands. We had heard a good deal of shouting and feared there might be people in the water. After a time several Indians scrambled on board, and after more than an hour we picked up Lady Almond (Sir James Almond, Judicial Commissioner, North West Frontier Province of India since 1937) with her eldest boy and little girl Susan. The last remarked indignantly "You nearly ran over me though I was shouting as loud as I could!" No one knew what had happened to her other two boys, or to the baby of another lady we had picked up. Next day the boys and the baby were found in other boats, and the lady joined her baby. In the end we were more than fifty in our boat, which had seating capacity for thirty. We were so crowded that no one could move, and the only possible change was to change places. That night we just waited for the dawn, hoping then to get in touch with other boats and get orders from the Captain. It was a long night. When dawn came, we found that there were six of our eight life-boats, the other two had been damaged and upset. We quickly got together and did our best to hold an informal roll call. All the children were there, but several men were missing, including some ship's officers.
The first officer, who should have been in charge of our boat, had charge of another boat, so a first officer of the Bibby Line, who was a passenger volunteered to take charge of our boat, and he was transferred from the Captain's boat. Unfortunately he was not in uniform and was not armed, which was a serious drawback in facing the troubles we had later on with Indian stewards who got quite out of hand. We were also given two more Indians from the Captain's boat, a gift for which we did not thank him as were already so overcrowded compared with other boats, and they were the ring leaders in the troubles we had later. That made us 30 Indians (mostly stewards and deck passengers), 6 children, 5 women and 9 men, some of whom were old and injured. I think the officer was horrified when he realised the motley crew for which he was responsible. He himself was injured, one hand having been injured in lowering the boats. One curious thing was that we found that five of us and all the children belonged to Delhi, so we felt quite a family party. The number of Indians is approximate, as owing to the crowded state of the boat every time we counted the result was different!
Our officer, Tommy Green, was magnificent; all through that terrible fortnight his spirits never flagged. I sat next to him and I knew how terribly anxious he was. We used to try to clear a little space for him to sleep, and often he could not and we used to spend the time quietly talking. He was ably supported by two grand quartermasters, both Scotch and veterans of the last war (1914-18). One used to entertain us with tales of the E-boats and mystery ships in which he had served. I shall never forget the sight of Mac at the helm at night: how I longed to be a painter and to be able to put him on canvas.
The Captain told us all to make for St. Helena and as far as possible to keep together, and that we were to tie up together at night. Then we hoisted our sails and started off. Luckily it was fairly calm, but even so it took me some time to get over the anxious feeling that we could not possibly get over the next wave; also it was not comforting to see that the boat was being followed by ever hopeful sharks. One difficulty was that owing to the crowd in the boat we all had to help wherever we were. To begin with the officer had to translate his orders into something we could understand, but we quickly learned the difference between port and starboard, sheet and cleat, etc. One good result of our experience for me has been that I now thoroughly enjoy sea stories, and under happier circumstances, I can imagine nothing more lovely than roaming about the Atlantic in a sailing boat. The colour of the sea has to be seen to be believed, the vast expanse of sky, and the brilliance of the stars at night, will be a never forgotten memory - a real "Joy for ever".
Now to come back to facts; First water. After careful calculations we decided that we could allow four ounces a day; that is an ordinary medicine glass-nearly full twice a day. After the first few days this seemed nothing, but we dared not allow more as some of our casks were not full. It was a serious problem, and the Indians could not understand the need for rationing. One night they even bored holes in a cask and got some water out. On the other hand, one Indian gave some of his to a small child, till this was forbidden. The children managed pretty well on their water supply. It was the adults who suffered severely, and surreptitiously we had to give the officer and quartermasters more to keep them going. Owing to the shortage of water we found we could not swallow the food of which we had plenty to last for three weeks. This gave us 2 biscuits, 3 tablets of horlicks, 2 teaspoonfuls of pemican morning and evening. Occasionally we had a tablet of specially prepared chocolate which we could always swallow, but we kept that as a last reserve, only giving it to the children every day. The children ate their rations and much of ours when we could not swallow them, so they suffered less in the long run.
Our first disaster was to find that our compass had been put out or order by the explosion. Luckily Mrs. Miller, a Girl Guide Commissioner, had one in her pocket. This we checked by the Captain's compass and used all the time, with my torch at night to read it by. We next found that our mast was badly cracked and that had to be spliced with broken oars, and was a perpetual anxiety. Once it crashed down altogether, injuring one of the few able bodied men.
My bag of oddments was invaluable. It became the safe of all our valuables such as water dippers, matches for rockets and flares, and anything else the officer wanted to keep safe. Miss Norris, and I were the only ones with big coats, others were in semi-evening dress; children and some men were in pyjamas. Those we had picked out of the water had nothing till their clothes were dry. Having a coat I could be outside the tarpaulin which covered our legs at night. I lent my warm scarf which was worn by people in turn. The officer had my topi to protect his eyes which soon became inflamed. My long stockings went to Lady Almond, string was used for every conceivable purpose, and my comb was passed round till one of the children dropped it overboard. At night I was cold in all the clothes I had, and I cannot imagine how the others survived. Children and some others got under the canvas at the bottom of the boat, but the atmosphere was indescribable. The second or third night we were roused by frightful yells and howls, and discovered we had an additional passenger in the shape of a huge ginger tom cat. The general feeling was that it would be unlucky to put it overboard, so one of my duties was to feed it and give it the drips from the water dippers which we caught as they were taken out of the casks. It was sad that when we were picked up pussy was too wild to be caught, and he went down with the boat when it was scuttled.
We soon settled down to a regular routine, rousing up at dawn, rolling up the canvas, attending to the sick, washing in sea water, and giving out the food and water rations. Water and rations took about two hours each time as everything had to be passed from hand to hand as no one could move. We all had to share the little enamel medicine glass passed carefully round to each in turn. At first we played some games with the children but that was soon given up, as no one had any energy. All old food tins were precious and used as balers, and we spent much time pouring sea water over each other which seemed to be comforting. With the first aid box scissors I cut off the long hair of the women, and we used it to mend our clothes. For this a sailor managed to produce an enormous needle. Some of our clothing was in a parlous condition from catching on nuts and bolts and broken oars. A quartermaster tore up some old canvas and made hats for everyone.
The sun was powerful by day and we suffered a good deal from the glare. Many of us took off underclothes and hung them wet round our heads. Altogether we were very busy, and time did not fall heavy on our hands. Nights were another matter - a real nightmare - especially the first two nights when we tied up together and sailed along in a line. We always seemed to be on the point of crashing into the boat in front, or the one behind was crashing into us, necessitating constant rowing and manoeuvring. After two nights we gave this up, it was too dangerous and a man had fallen overboard from our boat and, being tied together nothing could be done to pick him up. He was such a nice elderly Scot who had walked out of Burma.
Then it was decided that each boat should take its own course, and if any got to St. Helena they should try to send help to the others. At first those who had torches flashed to each other at night, but gradually we all parted company, and we were left behind as our mast was very shaky and our jib blew away. Before this we had taken in Lady Almond's other two boys, and gave an able bodied men "Freddy" to their boat as they were more short-handed than we were. Mrs. Gordon too came to us as she was the only woman on their boat, but when she found how crowded we were and that we had Mrs. Miller, a lady doctor, she decided to go back and look after the men in the other boat as she was a nurse. She is now the only survivor of that boat, which after six weeks was picked up somewhere off America with herself and one officer. The officer was torpedoed and lost when returning from America to England. The last we saw of that boat was Freddy ostentatiously combing his hair, as with him went our last comb; and of Mrs. Gordon waving us a cheery farewell.
After the evening rations we settled down for the night, as many as possible with their legs under the tarpaulin. We leant on top of each other, or curled up somehow. When breezy we often got a good splashing, and the boat would keel over dangerously as the Indians tried to fling themselves away from the waves, so we had to fling ourselves towards them. Then often the wind would change, and over would flap the sail, and it was often long before oars could be extracted from under us, and men roused to man them and struggle to get the boat back on her course. Meanwhile we sailed gaily back over the precious distance we had gained by day. Later men became weak to row, and the officer said he dared not take the sail down as no one had strength to hoist it again.
As far as I know we had six casualties, but it may have been more as it was difficult to tell what happened at night among the Indians. Mr. McNeil as I said before fell overboard. He had led our impromptu service on the first Sunday in the boat. We had not had one of our own padres on the ship, but there were several of other denominations who had taken services in the saloon. I have vivid memories of Sunday after Sunday having read to us, or the text taken from, the story of St. Paul's shipwreck. We felt it was very depressing, and I am afraid that our hopes that if anything happened to us we should "All come safely to land" were not fulfilled. Other casualties were at least four Indians, who died of exhaustion or of drinking sea water. A Chief Engineer who was being invalided home with heart trouble was very ill all the time on the boat, and died the day after we were picked up. Somehow we had made room for him to lie down, but he felt terribly being ill and obliged to take up so much room. He was with difficulty restrained from throwing himself overboard. We were lucky in having Dr. Miller, though we had no drugs, only a bottle of brandy which had to be doled out secretly to the sick, as it nearly caused a riot when it was produced openly. Mr. Miller too was invaluable with his knowledge of Bengali which the Indians spoke. He too was convalescing after an illness, and I must say a crowded lifeboat is not the best of convalescent homes!
Days and nights passed somehow, and gradually we began to realise that our chance of survival was getting very small. l think we were helped by having children with us. We had to keep up our spirits and sense of humour for their sakes, though we did not think of this consciously at the time. With them we spent much time arranging what we were going to eat and drink when we got to land, it was a never failing subject of discussion, encouraged too, as it was said to make our saliva flow. I never noticed that it made any difference to mine! After a week of this, nerves began to get rather frayed, and small disputes frequent. We were all suffering from lack of sleep and room to stretch ourselves. We did lie down in the day in turn at the bottom of the boat while others took children on their laps. One could stretch out, but was very liable to be kicked in the face, or stamped on when those above tried to move. Indians became very restless and we had a lot of trouble, we often feared they would upset the boat, or rush us for water. Later we became almost dazed, and the lack of food did not worry us at all. Water we longed for, and the little we did get seemed to make us want it more. We saw many distant rain storms and hopefully steered for them with every tin we had in hand ready to catch the precious drops, but we never arrived in time.
Every day we kept our spirits by saying we must be picked up tomorrow, and one evening I took a careful timing of the sunset for the officer in charge, and privately we discussed it in the night and decided we were very far from St. Helena and our chance of survival small; On the other hand that day Mr. Miller had asserted that he would want his shoes tomorrow, (we had all taken off our shoes to avoid kicking other people) he was quite certain that we were going to get somewhere.
At dawn next day shouts arose in the bows of "A ship, a ship". We hardly dared to breathe in the anxiety of wondering whether it would see us or not. Shouts from the bow "She's coming" and then "She's turning away" sent our hopes rocketing up and down. Hastily I produced the matches and the officer threw out all our remaining smoke flares. The sail was between us and the ship and we could see nothing. Later the Captain told us that he had been ordered to alter course that morning, and so crossed our path. First he thought we were a native fishing boat, as he could only see Indians, and then he feared a submarine trap and turned hastily away. Then he saw our smoke flares and realised the situation. It was marvellous what energy we produced, rowers rowed like mad. Casks were opened and we drank every drop of water, and amidst joyous cries from the children we put on our shoes. The first I saw of the ship was the enormous hull looming above us. We quickly got alongside and secured the ropes thrown to us. Nets and ladders were let down the side, and we could see the whole ships company ready to receive us and some scrambling down. Yelling with joy the Indians vanished like magic up the nets. Then men came down to us, and those of us who could, climbed slowly up the pilot's ladder. An officer came up beside me on the net. It was quite easy really provided one did not look down, but when we reached the top we were too weak to get over. I was lifted over by a huge Scotch quartermaster and carried like a baby to the hatch. I was the first lady to get up and the Captain took me up to the saloon, by which time I was so giddy I just lay down on the floor. I heard him say "She has fainted, what shall I do?" I remember feebly waving my hand and saying that I was only giddy. I soon got up and sat down and was given a large cup of steaming hot coffee. I am sure that never again shall I drink anything so good as that coffee! We found that the ship was a large cargo boat S.S. "Bendoran" full of kindly Scotch under Captain Wilson. They were marvellous, in no time they had cleared out of their cabins, fitted us in and did all they could for us. They nursed us, lent us clothes while they washed and ironed ours, and fed us out of their rations, which were getting short at the end of a long voyage. They did their best to stop us drinking too much water. I shall never forget the first night when Miss Norris and I lay with a large can of water between us, bathing our heads and drinking alternately. It did not worry us at all in the morning when we were told on no account were we to drink the water in our cabin. For the first few days they fed us on soup porridge and cornflakes, but we soon began to get really hungry and tried bacon and eggs, corned beef and other things which promptly laid us low again! Gradually we regained our legs, and were soon joining in the sing-songs the officers held every evening on deck for the children. The first officer was grand, he had an inexhaustible fund of songs and stories assisted by his own accompaniments on a guitar. We also played bridge, and the first time solemnly discussed what we should play for, then I mentioned that as most of us had no money the problem could not arise!
The Captain told us that the ship was bound for Simons Bay, (Cape Town), and that when he picked us up we were dead on our course for St. Helena, but still 200 miles away. In one day on the Bendoran we were beck over the water we had covered with so much toil in 13½ days. In six days we arrived outside Cape Town. The Captain had wirelessed to Simon's Town for instructions, and was told to go to Cape Town and given priority over all the ships there waiting for their turn to dock. So, much to the Captain's pride, we sailed in style past all the lines of waiting ships. There we said goodbye to our kind hosts, all lined up to see us off. All we could say was "Thank you", and how feebly it expressed our feelings! In such circumstances words seem to be very inadequate.
Officials of the City Line met us eager for all the news we could give them of the end of the Cairo. We heard that one boat had reached St. Helena, the day before, and that was the first news they had had since one S.O.S. which got through before the U-boat captain stopped messages being sent. Next day we heard that two more boats had reached the island.
In Cape Town we were quickly taken in hand, and received with marvellous kindness. Special buses took us to a hotel, where we were given night attire and put to bed. Then a very nice Dutch doctor took us in hand, and we all needed him in one way or another. The Red Cross followed with tooth brushes, washing things and other oddments. The S.A. equivalent to the W.V.S. provided us with necessary clothes and help of every kind. After three or four days mostly in bed, hospitality was provided for us all. Miss Norris and I went to the Sisters of Bethany at Plumstead, where we had a most peaceful and happy three weeks. How we enjoyed S.A. fruit and vegetables, for which we still craved. Gradually we regained our strength and went for little walks, and were introduced to various people. What struck us most was the appalling cleavage between white and coloured folk. Coming from India, it horrified us, and we were thankful it had not been our lot to work in S.A. We felt we could understand and appreciate the attitude of Gandhi-ji and G. F. Andrews in a way we never had before. Soon we were able to go into Cape Town and replace lost glasses, and start the formalities for Miss Norris to get another passport. We were also making preparations for Christmas, then only a week away. Again we had lunch with Mrs. Garabadien and told them of our adventures, and that the shipping company had no hope of our getting another boat for at least six weeks. This was a great surprise to Miss Norris, who had told me that morning she was sure we were moving she could feel it, so she could not understand our rebuff at the shipping office. While at lunch the telephone rang asking for me, and I was told we were to be at the office complete with luggage at 4 p.m. that afternoon. No time to go back to Plumstead, so we telephoned the Sisters who packed our meagre belongings in boxes they wanted taken home, and the Sister Superior met us at the office with them shortly before 4 p.m. We said a hasty goodbye to her and sent messages to the other sisters who had all been so kind to us. Then a naval car took us to the docks and we soon found ourselves once more on board, this time on a Dutch Merchant Service boat "The Straat Soenda", which had escaped from Batavia. There were 12 passengers, 10 of whom were from our life boat. We were sorry to leave S.A. in such a rush, people had been so kind and our memories of S.A. will always be happy ones. All the same we were glad that we did not live there; if possible its problems, racial and political, seemed to us to be more complicated than those in India.
We sailed almost at once, and were very relieved to find we were in convoy. Most of us had cabins to ourselves with plenty of space, a fact we all appreciated. Next morning, on coming up on deck, we were very upset to find we were alone, not another ship in sight. Before long the cruiser in charge appeared and there was some rapid signalling, she rounded us up and full steam ahead we soon rejoined the convoy. We heard later from the Captain that he had not understood the order to stop zig-zagging during the night, hence we had got ten miles behind the rest of the party! So for the third time we sailed over much the same bit of the S. Atlantic and admired the majestic flight of the many albatrosses circling round us. We celebrated Christmas not at all, except for Christmas greetings and a service with Xmas hymns Mr. Miller took for us in the lounge. On New Year's Eve we arrived at Freetown, which had just been re-opened after the French at Dakar had joined us. There we met a huge convoy of troops and many other ships, some being the largest afloat, but we were not supposed to know them or anything about them! At midnight there was great excitement, for five minutes all blackout rules were relaxed and search lights from land and sea were a magnificent sight. Everything at sea and on land that had anything that would make a noise simply let fling, the din was terrific. We stayed a few days but no one was allowed to land. Further north, after leaving Freetown, we were joined by a huge convoy returning from N. African landing. It was like a naval review to watch the ships approaching and all swinging round into their places. The sea seemed to be covered with ships as far as one could see. Their destroyers and corvettes joined with our guard. Our cruiser "The Zebra", as we called her from her striped camouflage, had an aeroplane on board, which every morning and evening flew all round looking for submarines.
Then came a climax, a terrible storm arose and we had to stay behind to repair some damage to the ship. For some time a destroyer stayed with us, then signalling "Goodbye and good luck" it steamed away and left us. The storm steadily increased in violence, the wind up to hurricane force. Again we had to turn back and were driven with the wind. Later the Captain and officers said they had never experienced such a storm. It was the celebrated storm of January 1943. Cooking became impossible, when hungry we ate biscuits and sandwiches out of tins. At first we tried to sweep away the water out of our cabin and passage, and mop up what we could with towels. We soon gave that up as port-holes were broken and the Atlantic seemed to be coming in. When it was over the first officer said he would never forget the scene of us trying to mop up the Atlantic with brooms and bath towels, and for the rest of his life he would laugh whenever he thought of it! We shall never laugh about it. It really was a terrifying experience for landsmen. The ship rolled so much that it seemed she would never right herself, and even the naval gunners on board told us later they expected her to go over any minute. The noise of the wind and waves is quite beyond my powers of description. Furniture became unfixed and was flung about everywhere. Every morning when we struggled up we found more damage had been done, and what worried us considerably, our life boats were washed away one after another, their frayed ropes left hanging like the hair of Bluebeard's Wives.
After three days of this, the wind gradually abated and we could go up and see the waves. I have read of Atlantic rollers like mountains, now I have seen them, and it was like the Himalayas let loose. The Captain had a choice of three courses, to return to Freetown, to try to make Gibraltar, and to try to make for England. He chose the last, so we turned round and headed for home, feeling very lonely without our escort and the other ships we had got to know quite well. After a day or two came an air raid alarm, but it was one of our own Catalina's, who signalled enquiring who we were and what we were doing. After this they visited us every morning giving us instructions. Then we had orders to go round the north of Scotland and land in some western port. Our Captain said that his ship was damaged and lifeboats lost, he felt he could not do it. Next day we had orders to make for Belfast. You can imagine how thankful we felt when at last we anchored outside Belfast. There we were told the ship was to be repaired, and we were to be given new lifeboats, after which we were to carry out the original orders. At this we all struck, we had had more than enough! In no uncertain tones we explained this to the Captain and some naval officers (including a high W.R.E.N.) who came to see the Captain and inspect the damage to the ship. In the end, as we were shipwrecked folk, the Admiralty relented and under guard we were taken up the loch past all the hush hush shipbuilding yards having been sworn to secrecy. We were sorry to say goodbye to the Dutch officers who had seen us through so much. They had families in Rotterdam and the Dutch E. Indies of whom they had not heard a word since they had been overrun by the enemy.
At Belfast the shipping company again took charge of us, and after a grand supper of Belfast herrings, we were put on the night boat for England. We arrived at Hailsham next morning at 5.00 a.m. in complete blackout. Thus our homeward journey lasting from September 29, 1942 to January 18, 1943 came to a happy ending for us. Before landing the City Line agents met us, eager for what news we could give them. We quickly realised that after all we had been the luckiest party. The survivors of the three boats were stuck at St. Helena, and did not reach England until May. Of the remaining two lifeboats, one as I said before had reached [S] America with two survivors and the other after six weeks was picked up by a German boat running the blockade, with only three survivors two men and a woman. The woman died on the German boat though they did all they could for her. Then they were caught and sunk by a British patrol. The surviving officer landed in Spain with a boat-load of Germans and had great difficulty in proving his nationality! The other survivor, a quartermaster I last heard of in a prison camp in occupied territory. Most of this information we only received later, but at Hailsham we were shown the passenger list and realised that only about half had survived. It was rather a subdued party that finally separated to go to our various trains.
I now know what ordinary people in England and elsewhere only dimly realise, how much we owe to the gallantry of our Merchant Service and their naval escorts. They, year in and year out, brave such perils. Often they lose everything through "enemy action", yet as soon as possible off to sea they go again. I know too how desperately they need "comforts" and books. Not one of the ships I was on had had any "comforts", they say there are not enough to go round. In one case the gunners on watch in the most exposed positions were sharing one or two coats. Of gloves, scarves and sea boots they had not had a glimpse. Everywhere I now go in England, I speak of this, hoping to stir up people to do more for them.
I am often asked what we thought about during the long days and nights on the lifeboat. Curious as it may seem we were very busy, and crises often arose demanding all our attention. I found that the things I thought about were very few and simple. I thought of people and places I knew and loved, and there seemed to be no distinction at all between the living and the departed, if anything one seemed nearer to the latter. Death one did not fear, but one did fear that the circumstances of it might be unpleasant to say the least of it. I did fear being ill and a trouble to others. I had fever for two days, and I began to consider seriously whether it would be ones duty to slip overboard at night. We tried some corporate prayer at first but it was soon given up. We could not hear each other, and our memories let us down badly. Out loud we could not get through any familiar prayer, and even the versicles and responses of Evensong came to hopeless grief. Privately I needed very little, the Lord's Prayer, the Anima Christi, a few well known collects, and above all the Psalms as sung in King's. To these I added a Palestrina Kyrie, some Anthems from Isaiah and some Bach Fugues. In fact it was the lovely and beautiful things of life that were a standby. I remember when at Cambridge often hearing Ps 48 sung in King's College Chapel, and thinking then that all my life I should remember the triumphant ring of "For this God is our God for ever and ever, and He shall be our guide unto death." I little thought then under what circumstances they would sustain me. The beauty of everything around us was a great help, one just absorbed it, and it took ones mind completely off the often petty and sordid difficulties of our life in the boat.
Familiar poems too were a help, but were worrying if one could not remember properly. One of Yeats thus eluded me, and I have since looked it up. I quote it here in the hope that it may be a like inspiration to others. It helped me though I could not remember the exact words, as it always helps to have an ideal to aim at however far short one may be of realising it:
"Him who trembles before the flame and the flood
And the winds that blow through the starry ways,
Let the starry winds and the flame and the flood
Cover and hide, for he has no part
With the lonely, majestical multitude."