The Red Duster The Merchant Navy Crest

ss CITY OF CAIRO

A tribute to the British Merchant Navy - they also served!

The Ellerman Hall vessel ss CITY OF CAIRO torpedoed on 6th November 1942

The Journey of Lifeboats No.1 and 4

 No.1 Lifeboat (54)
(Chief Officer Sidney E.D. Britt)

Chief Officer Britt

Chief Officer Britt

At the same time as the rescue of some of the other boats things were getting desperate in No.1 boat. Chief Officer Sidney Britt collapsed that night and by the fifteenth morning he was among the dead, by the same evening Capt. Thomas McCall, a Master Mariner, who shared the navigation with Britt, was also dead leaving no one with any navigational qualifications left. Reduced in numbers by half, the survivors needed a new leader and Quartermaster Angus MacDonald took over. MacDonald was experienced in small boats and was assisted by Third Steward Jack Edmead and passenger Diana Jarman. As the days passed more of the occupants died.


Writer Jack Edmead

Wtr Jack Edmead

On 12th December, 1942 after 36 days at sea, 51 of their number had died, and only three were left alive, they were picked up by the German blockade runner RHAKOTIS. Kapitän zur See Jacobs told them they had come a long way past St Helena, five hundred miles to the northwest. The survivors were Quartermaster Angus MacDonald, Third Steward Jack Edmead and passenger Diana Jarman. Their elation at survival was short-lived with the death onboard the RHAKOTIS of Diana Jarman who had bravely shared their ordeal.

There was more to come, however, as the RHAKOTIS was due to rendezvous with U-boats around 27th December 1942. British Intelligence was also trying to find her, and on New Years Day 1943 the Rhakotis was attacked by the British Cruiser HMS SCYLLA. MacDonald and Edmead managed to get to different lifeboats before the RHAKOTIS sunk. HMS SCYLLA, fearing the U-boats, never stopped to pick up survivors.

The next day 2nd January, MacDonald was picked up by U-410 and survived a depth charging attack by British bombers. He was eventually landed and spent the rest of the war in Marlag and Milag Nord prisoner of war camp at Westertimke. Jack Edmead's lifeboat, in the charge of the RHAKOTIS' chief officer, landed in Corunna, Spain on 3rd January 1943.

Angus MacDonald and Jack Edmead were both awarded the BEM(Civ). Sidney Britt was commended for brave conduct.

Diana Jarman

Diana Jarman

Courtesy of Denis Ironside

Frank and Robert Ironside

Guardsman Frank Ironside and Quartermaster Robert Ironside

QM Angus MacDonald

QM Angus MacDonald

The photo above (middle) shows Quartermaster Robert Ironside and his brother Frank, a Scots Guardsman. Robert died on 19th November 1942 in No.1 Lifeboat.


When the Guards Armoured Divison overran Milag Nord Prisoner of War camp in May 1945, Bob Ironside's brother, Frank Ironside, was one of the men who cut through the wire. Hearing that one of the survivors was from the CITY OF CAIRO he sought the man out. Angus MacDonald still had his Quartermaster friend's Signet ring in safe keeping and he gave it to Ironside who recognised it at once and sent it home.

Angus MacDonald wrote his own account of the sinking Ordeal referred to by Alan Villiars as "the classic open-boat story of World Wars 1 and 2". There is also a survivors report No.1 Boat Log by Jack Edmead.

 No.4 Lifeboat (17)
(Third Officer James Allistair Whyte)

Third Officer Whyte

Third Officer Whyte

In No.4 boat with 17 onboard (10 Asians, 7 Europeans) Third Officer Whyte realised that he should by now (20th November) have sighted the island of St Helena. By Monday 23rd November all Whyte's Asian crew were dead and he decided to abandon the search for St Helena and turned west northwest for South America.

Now the Europeans started to die and the only woman on board, Margaret Gordon, an Australian, nursed them as best she could. Whyte also relied on her more and taught her how to steer the boat and use a compass.

On 27th December 1942, after 52 days at sea in an open boat, the Brazilian Carioca class minelayer CARAVELAS rescued Third Officer Whyte and Margaret Gordon the only two left alive. Since setting off on their own on 13th November they had covered over 2,000 miles.


Courtesy of Ozires Moreas

Brazilian Minelayer CARAVELAS

Brazilan minelayer CARAVELAS (C5)

Unfortunately, like No.1 boat, there was a sad ending to this account of enormous endurance and survival. Third Officer Whyte was hospitalised in the USA for a short time and then, after recuperating, he boarded the Ellerman vessel CITY OF PRETORIA as a distressed British seaman on his journey home. The ship, carrying munitions, disappeared without trace. Later from enemy records it was discovered that the ship was torpedoed by U-172 (Carl Emmerman) there were no survivors. James Allistair Whyte was awarded the MBE(Civ) backdated to the day before he was killed.

The photo to the right shows the Naval hospital in Receife where both survivors were taken on landing at Receife after an ordeal of 51 days in the lifeboat.

Margaret Gordon went to New York in 1943 and became a member of the WRNS. A year later, in Washington D.C., she was presented with the BEM(Civ) for her courage and service in the lifeboat.

Margaret Gordon

Margaret Gordon

Margaret Gordon BEM

British Empire Medal

Margaret and Crawford Gordon

Margaret and Crawford Gordon

I am very grateful to Kenneth Gordon - nephew of Crawford and Margaret Gordon and Sue Home - niece of Margaret Gordon - for the photos and press cuttings on this page.

medal presentation

MS13372. Margaret Ingham papers. Australian Manuscripts Collection, State Library of Victoria

press cutting

On 27th September 1944, in Washington D.C., the British Ambassador, Lord Halifax presented Mrs Gordon with the British Empire Medal for her gallantry during the ordeal. The citation reads: