By Angus MacDonald
This is a verbatim copy of an account by Quartermaster Angus MacDonald first written in 1953. I have highlighted three mistakes in the text and corrected them at the bottom of the page.
In a quite remarkable story MacDonald tells of the torpedoing and 36 days in an open boat. The story takes an unexpected turn though when his lifeboat is rescued by a German blockade runner being hunted by the Allies. Alan Villiers called it "the classic open-boat story of World Wars 1 and 2". Here are a couple of links to associated pages: The Journey of Lifeboats No.1 and 4.
See also a survivor's report No.1 Boat Log written by Jack Edmead.
The ship I served on board, the Ellerman Liner City of Cairo, left Bombay on the 2nd of October, 1942, homeward bound with a crew of Europeans and lascars and a hundred passengers. At 8.30 P.M. on the 6th November, five days after leaving Cape Town, she was torpedoed by a German submarine. 1Three passengers and eighteen members of the crew were killed by the explosion of the torpedoes or went down with the ship.
I was a quartermaster and had charge of No. 4 lifeboat. After seeing everything in order there and the boat lowered, I went over to the starboard side of the ship to where my mate, quartermaster Bob Ironside, was having difficulty in lowering his boat. I climbed inside the boat to clear a rope fouling the lowering gear, and was standing in the boat pushing it clear of the ship's side as it was being lowered, when a second torpedo exploded right underneath and blew the boat to bits. I remember a great flash, and then felt myself flying through space, then going down and down, When I came to I was floating in the water, and could see all sorts of wreckage around me in the dark. I could not get the light on my life-jacket to work, so I swam towards the largest bit of wreckage I could see in the darkness. This turned out to be No.1 lifeboat and it was nearly submerged, it having been damaged by the second explosion. There were a few people clinging to the gunwale which was down to water-level, and other people were sitting inside the flooded boat.
I climbed on board, and had a good look round to see if the boat was badly damaged. Some of the gear had floated away, and what was left was in a tangled mess. There were a few lascars, several women and children, and two European male passengers in the boat, and I explained to them that if some of them would go overboard and hang on to the gunwale or the wreckage near us for a few minutes we could bale out the boat and make it seaworthy. The women who were there acted immediately. They climbed outboard and, supported by the life-jackets every one was wearing, held on to an empty tank that was floating near by. I felt very proud of these women and children. One woman (whose name, if I remember rightly, was 2Lady Tibbs) had three children, and the four of them were the first to swim to the tank. One young woman was left in the boat with two babies in her arms.
We men then started to bale out the water. It was a long and arduous task, as just when we had the gunwale a few inches clear, the light swell running would roll in and swamp the boat again. Eventually we managed to bale out the boat, and then we started to pick up survivors who were floating on rafts or just swimming. As we worked we could see the City of Cairo still afloat, but well down in the water, until we heard some one say, "There she goes." We watched her go down, stern first, her bow away up in the air, and then she went down and disappeared. There was no show of emotion, and we were all quiet. I expect the others, like myself, were wondering what would happen to us.
We picked up more survivors as the night wore on, and by the first light of dawn the boat was full. There were still people on the rafts we could see with the daylight, and in the distance were other lifeboats. We rowed about, picking up more people, among them Mr Sydney Britt, the chief officer, and quartermaster Bob Ironside, who was in No.3 boat with me when the second torpedo struck. Bob's back had been injured, and one of his hands had been cut rather badly. We picked up others, then rowed to the other boats to see what decision had been made about our future. Mr Britt had, naturally, taken over command of our boat, and now he had a conference with Captain Rogerson, who was in another boat. They decided we would make for the nearest land, the island of St Helena, lying five hundred miles due north. We transferred people from boat to boat so that families could be together. Mr Britt suggested that, as our boat was in a bad way, with many leaks and a damaged rudder, and at least half its water-supply lost, all the children should shift to a dry boat and a few adults take their places in our boat.
When everything was settled we set sail and started on our long voyage. Our boat was now overcrowded with fifty-four persons on board - twenty-three Europeans, including three women, and thirty-one lascars. There was not enough room for every one to sit down, so we had to take turns having a rest. The two worst injured had to lie down flat, so we made a place in the bows for Miss Taggart, a ship's stewardess, and cleared a space aft for my mate, quartermaster Bob Ironside. We did not know exactly what was wrong with Bob's back. We had a doctor in the boat. Dr Taskar, but he was in a dazed condition and not able to attend to the injured, so we bandaged them up as best we could with the first-aid materials on hand. The youngest person among us, Mrs Diana Jarman, one of the ship's passengers, and only about twenty years of age, was a great help with the first aid. She could never do enough, either in attending to the sick and injured, boat work, or even actually handling the craft. She showed up some of the men in the boat, who seemed to lose heart from the beginning.
Once we were properly under way Mr Britt spoke to us all. He explained all the difficulties that lay ahead, and asked every one to pull their weight in everything to do with managing the boat, such as rowing during calm periods and keeping a look-out at night. He also explained that as we had lost nearly half our drinking water we must start right away on short rations. We could get two table-spoonfuls a day per person, one in the morning and one in the evening. He told us there were no passengers in a lifeboat, and every one would have to take turns baling as the boat was leaking very badly.
Before noon on that first day we saw our first sharks. They were enormous, and as they glided backward and forward under the boat it seemed they would hit and capsize us. They just skimmed the boat each time they passed, and they were never to leave us all the time we were in the boat.
The first night was quiet and the weather was fine, but we didn't get much rest. A good proportion of us had to remain standing for long periods, and now and then some one would fall over in their sleep. I was in the fore-part of the boat attending to the sails and the running gear, helped by Robert Watts from Reading, whom we called "Tiny" because he was a big man. He didn't know much about seamanship, as he was an aeronautical engineer, but he said to me that first day, "If you want anything done at any time just explain the job to me and I'll do it." His help was very welcome as we did not have many of the crew available for the jobs that needed to be done. From the very beginning the lascars refused to help in any way, and just lay in the bottom of the boat, sometimes in over a foot of water.
On the second day the wind increased, and we made good speed. Sometimes the boats were close together and at other times almost out of sight of each other. Our boat seemed to sail faster than the others, so Mr Britt had the idea that we might go ahead on our own. If we could sail faster than the others, and as we were leaking so badly, we should go ahead and when we got to St Helena we could send help to the others. Mr Britt had a talk with Captain Rogerson when our boats were close, and the captain said that if the mate thought that was the best plan then to go ahead. So we carried on on our own.
During the hours of darkness the wind rose stronger, and, as we could see the running gear was not in the best of condition, we hove to. As it got still worse, we had to put out a sea anchor and take turns at the steering-oar to hold the boat into the seas. We had a bad night, and two or three times seas broke over the heavily laden boat and soaked us all to the skin. It was during this night that we noticed Dr Taskar was failing mentally.Every now and then he shouted, "Boy, bring me my cofee," or, "Boy, another beer." He had a rip in his trousers, and in the crowded boat during the night he cut a large piece out of the trousers of the ship's storekeeper, Frank Stobbart. I noticed the doctor with the knife and a piece of cloth in his hand. He was trying to fit the cloth over his own trousers. I pacified him and took his knife, a small silver knife with a whisky advertisement on the side. I had the same knife all through the years I was a prisoner in Germany, and only lost it after the war while serving in another Ellerman liner.
At noon on the third day the wind abated, and we set sails again and went on. We had lost sight of the other boats now and were on our own. We all expected to see a rescue ship or plane at any time, but nothing turned up. On the evening of the fourth day the doctor got worse, and rambled in his speech. He kept asking for water, and once Mr Britt gave him an extra ration, although there was not much to spare. During the night the doctor slumped over beside me, and I knew he was dead. That was the first death in the boat. We all felt gloomy after this first burial, and wondered who would be next.
Later in the day I crawled over to have a yarn with my mate Bob, and he said, "Do you think we have a chance, Angus?" I said, "Everything will be all right, Bob. We are bound to be picked up." Bob hadn't long been married, and he was anxious about his wife and little baby in Aberdeen. He couldn't sit up, and I was afraid his back was broken or badly damaged.
Day and night the lascars kept praying to Allah, and repeating "Pani, sahib, pani, sahib," and they would never understand that the water was precious and had to be rationed out. On the sixth morning we found three of them dead in the bottom of the boat. The old engine-room serang read a prayer for them, and Tiny and I pushed them overboard, as the lascars never would help to bury their dead. The only two natives who helped us at any time were the old serang, a proper gentleman, and a fireman from Zanzibar, and they couldn't do enough to help.
We were getting flat calms for long periods, and we lowered the sails and used the oars. We didn't make much headway, but the work helped to keep our minds and bodies occupied. I know that doing these necessary tasks helped to keep me physically fit and able to stand up to the ordeal that lay ahead. There were a few Europeans who never gave a helping hand, and I noticed that they were the first to fail mentally. They died in the first two weeks.
I was worried about Miss Taggart's sores, as they had now festered and we had nothing to dress them with except salt water. With her lying in the same position all the time her back was a mass of sores. Tiny knew more about first aid than the rest of us, and with the aid of old life-jackets he padded her up a bit. But on the seventh night she died and slipped down from her position in the bows. As she fell she got tangled up with another passenger, a Mr Ball from Calcutta, and when we got things straightened out they were both dead. A few more lascars died during the same night, and we had to bury them all at daybreak. The sharks were there in shoals that morning, and the water was churned up as they glided backward and forward near the bodies. Things were now getting worse on board, and a good few of the people sat all day with their heads on their chests doing and saying nothing. I talked to one young engineer, and told him to pull himself together as he was young and healthy and to take a lesson from Diana, who was always cheerful and bright. She had told us. "Please don't call me Mrs Jarman; just call me Diana." The young engineer did pull himself back to normal but within two days he dropped back and gave up hope and died. As we buried the bodies the boat gradually became lighter and the worst leaks rose above the water-line, so there was not so much water to bale out, although we had still to bale day and night.
Our own ship's stewardess, Annie Crouch, died on the tenth day. She had been failing mentally and physically for a time, and persisted in sitting in the bottom of the boat. We shifted her to drier places, but she always slid back. Her feet and legs had swollen enormously. Her death left only one woman among us, Diana. She was still active and full of life, and she spent most of her time at the tiller. Mr Britt was beginning to show signs of mental strain, and often mumbled to himself. If I asked him a question he would answer in a dazed sort of way. I worried about him a lot, for he was always a gentleman, and every one thought the world of him. On the twelfth day he was unable to sit up or talk, so we laid him down alongside Bob Ironside, who was also failing fast. Bob called me over one day, and asked me if I thought there was still a chance. I said certainly there was, and urged him not to give up hope as he would soon be home. He said, "I can't hang on much longer, Angus. When I die, will you take off my ring and send it home if you ever get back?" There were only a few able-bodied men left among the Europeans now, and Tiny Watts, my right-hand man, died on the fourteenth morning. He hadn't complained at any time, and I was surprised when I found him dead. We buried seven bodies that morning:five lascars, Tiny, and Frank Stobbart. It took a long time to get them overboard, and I had to lie down and rest during the operation.
On the fifteenth morning at dawn both Mr Britt and Bob were dead, also three other Europeans, and a few lascars. A few more lascars died during the day. One of the firemen said that if he couldn't get extra water he would jump overboard, and later in the day he jumped over the stern, He had forgotten to take off his life jacket, and as we were now too weak to turn the boat round to save him, the sharks got him before he could drown. The remaining survivors voted that I should take over command. On looking through Mr Britt's papers I could see the estimated distances for each day up to about the tenth day, but after that there were only scrawls and scribbles. When I checked up on the water I found we had enough only for a few days, so I suggested cutting down the issue to one tablespoonful a day. There were plenty of biscuits and malted-milk tablets, but without water to moisten the mouth the biscuits only went into a powder and fell out of the corner of the mouth again. Those people with false teeth had still more trouble as the malted-milk tablets went into a doughy mess and stuck to their teeth.
The boat was now much drier, and there was not so much bailing to do as we rode higher in the water and most of the leaks were above the surface. The movement, however, was not so steady as when we were heavier laden, but about the middle of the seventeenth night the boat appeared to become very steady again. I heard Diana cry out, "We're full of water," and I jumped up and found the boat half-full of water. I could seee the plug-hole glittering like a blue-light, and I started looking for the plug. I put a spare one in place, and a few of us baled out the water. There were two people lying near the plug-hole, and they seemed to take no interest in what was happening. About an hour later I discovered the plug gone again and water entering the boat. I put the plug back, and this time I lay down with an eye on watch. Sure enough, in less than half an hour I saw a hand over the plug pulling it out. I grasped the hand and found it belonged to a young European. He was not in his right mind, although he knew what he was doing. When I asked him why he tried to sink the boat he said, "I'm going to die, so we might as well go together." I shifted him to the fore part of the boat, and we others took turns in keeping an eye on him, but he managed to destroy all the contents of the first-aid box and throw them over the side. He died the next day, with seven or eight lascars, and a banker from Edinburgh, a Mr Crichton. Mr Crichton had a patent waistcoat fitted with small pockets, and the valuables we found there we put with rings and other things in Diana's handbag. Among Mr Crichton's possessions were the three wise monkeys in jade and a silver brandy flask that was empty.
At the end of the third week there were only eight of us left alive in the boat:the old engine-room serang, the fireman from Zanzibar, myself, Diana, Jack Edmead, the steward, Joe Green from Wigan, Jack Oakie from Birmingham, and a friend of his, Jack Little. Two of them had been engineers working on the new Howrah bridge at Calcutta.
There was still no rain, we had not had a single shower since we started our boat voyage, and the water was nearly finished. Only a few drops were left on the bottom of the tank. About the middle of the fourth week I was lying down dozing in the middle of the night when the boat started to rattle and shake. I jumped up, thinking we had grounded on an island. Then I discovered a large fish had jumped into the boat and was thrashing about wildly. I grabbed an axe that was lying handy, and hit the fish a few hard cracks. The axe bounded off it like rubber, and it was a while before I made any impression,but when it did quieten down I tied a piece of rope round the tail and hung the fish on the mast. It took me all my time to lift the fish, as it was about three feet long and quite heavy. I lay down again,and at daybreak examined the fish closer. It was a dog-fish. During the struggle with it I had gashed a finger against its teeth, and as we now had no bandages or medicine all I could do was wash the cut in seawater before I proceeded to cut up the fish. I had heard and read about people drinking blood, and I thought that I could get some blood from the carcase for drinking. I had a tought job cutting up the fish with my knife, and only managed to get a few teaspoonfuls of dirty, reddish-black blood. I cut the liver and heart out, and sliced some of the flesh off. By this time all hands were awake, although every one was feeling weak. I gave the first spoonful of blood to Diana to taste, but she spat it out and said it was horrible. I tried every one with a taste, but nobody could swallow the vile stuff. I tried it myself, but couldn't get it down. It seemed to swell the tongue. We tried eating the fish, but that was also a failure. I chewed and chewed at my piece, but couldn't swallow any dand eventually spat it into the sea.
The day following my encounter with the big dog-fish my hand and arm swelled up, and Diana said I had blood-poisoning. The following day it was much worse, and throbbed painfully. I asked Diana if she could do anything for it, as we had no medical supplies left. She advised me to let the hand drag in the water, and later in the day she squeezed the sore, and all sorts of matter came out. I then put my hand back in the water, and that seemed to draw out more poison. At intervals Diana squeezed the arm from the shoulder downward, and gradually got rid of the swelling, although the sore didn't heal for months, and the scar remains to this day.
There was no water left now, and Jack Oakie, Jack Little, and the Zanzibar fireman all died during the one night. It took the remainder of us nearly a whole day to lift them from the bottom of the boat and roll them overboard. The serang was now unconscious and Joe Green was rambling in his speech. There were a few low clouds drifting over us, but no sign of rain, and I had lost count of the days. I had written up Mr Britt's log-book to the end of the fourth week, but after that day and night seemed to be all the same. Diana had the sickness that nearly every one in turn had suffered:a sore throat and a thick yellow phlegm oozing from the mouth. I think it was due to us lying in the dampness all the time and never getting properly dry. The sails were now down and spread across the boat as I was too feeble to do anything in the way of running the boat. Against all advice, I often threw small quantities of sea water down my throat, and it didn't seem to make me any worse, although I never overdid it.
One night Joe Green would not lie in the bottom of the boat in comfort, but lay on the after end in an uncomfortable position. When I tried to get him to lie down with us he said, "I won't last out the night, and If I lie down there you will never be able to lift me up and get me over the side." The next morning he was dead. So was the serang. Two grand old men, though of different races. There were only three of us left now. Jack Edmead was pretty bad by now, and Diana still had the sore throat. But we managed to get the bodies over the side. The serang by this time was very thin and wasted, and if he had been any heavier we would not have managed to get him over.
By this time we were only drifting about on the ocean. I had put the jib up a couple of times, but discovered we drifted in circles, so I took it down again. One day I had a very clear dream as I lay there in the bottom of the boat. I dreamed that the three of us were walking up the pierhead at Liverpool, and the dream was so clear that I really believed it would happen. I told Diana and Jack about the dream, and said I was sure we would be picked up. There wasn't a drop of water in the boat now, and the three of us just lay there dreaming of water in all sorts of ways. Sometimes it was about a stream that ran past our house when I was a child, another time I would be holding a hose and spraying water all round, but it was always about water. Jack was getting worse, and was laid out in the stern, while Diana was forward where it was drier. Sick as she was, she always used to smile and say, "We still have a chance if we could only get some rain."
Then one night rain came. I was lying down half asleep when I felt the rain falling on my face. I jumped up shouting, "Rain, rain," but Jack wasn't able to get up and help me. Diana was in pretty bad condition, but she managed to crawl along and gelp me spread the mainsail to catch the water. It was a short sharp shower and didn't last long, but we collected a few pints in the sail and odd corners of the boat. We didn't waste a drop, and after pouring it carefully into the tank we sucked the raindrops from the woodwork and everywhere possible. Diana had trouble swallowing anything as her throat was swollen and raw, but I mixed some pemmican with water, and we had a few spoonfuls each. The water was very bitter as the sail had been soaked in salt water for weeks, but it tasted good to us. We all felt better after our drink, and I sat down in the well of the boat that day and poured can after can of sea water over myself, and gave Diana a bit of a wash. She was in good spirits now, although she could only speak in whispers. She told me about her home in the South of England: I think she said it was Windsor, on the Thames. She was very fond of horses and tennis and other sports, and she said, "You must come and visit us when we get home," which showed that like myself she had a firm conviction that we would get picked up.
The three days after the rain were uneventful. Diana was a bit better, but Jack was in a bad way, and lying down in the stern end. On the third day I had another shower-bath sitting down in the boat, as it had livened me up a lot the last time. Afterwards I set the jib and tried to handle the main sail, but couldn't make it, so I spread the sail and used it as a bed. I had the best sleep in weeks. In the early hours of the morning Diana shook me, and said excitedly, "Can you hear a plane?" I listened, and heard what sounded like a plane in the distance, so I dashed aft and grabbed one of the red flares and tried to light it. It didn't go off, so I struck one of the lifeboat matches. It ignited at once, and I held it up as high as I could, and immediately a voice shouted, "All right, put that light out." It was still dark, but on looking in the direction of the voice we could see the dim outline of a ship, and hear the sound of her diesel engines. The same voice shouted," Can you come alongside?" God knows how we managed, but manage it we did. Even Jack found enough strength to give a hand, and with Diana at the tiller he and I rowed the boat alongside the ship. A line was thrown to us, and I made it fast. A pilot ladder was dropped, and two men came down to help us on board. They tied a rope round Diana, and with the help of others on the ship hauled her on board. I climbed up unaided, and the men helped Jack. The first thing I asked for was a drink, and we sat on a hatch waiting to see what would happen. We thought we were on a Swedish ship at first, but I saw a Dutch flag painted across the hatch. Then I heard a couple of men talking, and I knew then we were on a German ship, as I had a slight knowledge of the language. I told the other two, and Diana said, "It doesn't matter what nationality it is as long as it is a ship."
A man came to us soon and asked us to go with him and meet the captain. Two of the crew helped Diana and Jack, and we were taken amidships to the doctor's room, where a couch had been prepared for Diana. The captain arrived, and asked us about our trip in the boat and inquired how long we had been in it. I told him our ship had been torpedoed on the 6th of November, and that I had lost count of the days. He said this was the 12th of December, and that we were on board the German ship Rhakotis, and we should be well looked after. I remembered the bag of valuables in the boat, and told the captain where Diana's bag was. The bag was found and passed up, and given into the captain's charge. It was probably lost when the ship was sunk three weeks later. The lifeboat was stripped and sunk before the ship got under way again.
We were given cups of coffee, but were told that the doctor's orders were for us not to drink much at a time, and only eat or drink what he ordered. Diana was lying on the doctor's couch, and when the three of us were left alone for a while she bounced up and down on the springs and said, "This is better than lying in that wet boat." Later Jack and I were given a hot bath by a medical attendant, and my hand was bandaged, as it was still festering. We were taken aft to a cabin, and Diana was left in the doctor's room. The crew had orders not to bother us and to leave us on our own, as we had to rest as much as possible. When I looked at myself in the mirror I didn't recognize myself with a red beard and haggard appearance. There didn't seem to be any flesh left on my body, only a bag of bones. Jack looked even worse with his black beard and hollow cheeks.
We had been given some tablets and injected, and were now told to go to bed. Before I did so I asked one of the crew to fetch me a bottle of water. Although this was against the doctor's orders the man did so, and I hid the bottle under my pillow. Then I asked another man to bring me a bottle of water, and in this way I collected a few bottles and I drank the lot. Jack was already asleep when I turned in after drinking the water, and I turned in on the bunk above him. We slept for hours and when I awoke I found I had soaked the bedding. Later I discovered I had soaked Jack's bed too. He was still asleep. I wakened him and apologized, but he only laughed. The steward brought us coffee at 7 A.M., and when I told him about my bladder weakness he didn't seem annoyed, but took the bedclothes away to be changed. It was over a year before I was able to hold any liquid for more than an hour or so.
We were well looked after and well fed on the German ship, and from the first day I walked round the decks as I liked. Jack was confined to bed for a few days. We were not allowed to visit Diana, but the captain came aft and gave us any news concerning her. She couldn't swallow any food, and was being fed by injections. When we had been five days on the ship the doctor and the captain came along to our cabin, and I could see they were worried. The captain did the talking, and said that as the English girl still hadn't been able to eat, and couldn't go on living on injections, the doctor wanted to operate on her throat and clear the inflammation. But first of all he wanted our permission. I had never liked the doctor and had discovered he was disliked by nearly every one on board, but still, he was the doctor, and should know more about what was good for Diana than I could. So I told the captain that if the doctor thought it was necessary to operate he had my permission as I wanted to see Diana well again. Jack said almost the same, and the captain asked if we wanted to see her. We jumped at the chance, and went with the doctor. She seemed quite happy, and looked well, except for being thin. Her hair had been washed and set, and she said she was being well looked after. We never mentioned the operation to her, but noticed she could still talk only in whispers.
That evening at seven o'clock the captain came to us, and I could see that something was wrong. He said, "I have bad news for you. The English girl has died. Will you follow me, please?" We went along, neither of us able to say a word. We were taken to the doctor's room where she lay with a bandage round her throat. You would never know she was dead, she looked so peaceful. The doctor spoke, and said in broken English that the operation was a success, but the girl's heart was not strong enough to stand the anaesthetic. I couldn't speak, and turned away broken-hearted. Jack and I went aft again, and I turned into my bunk and lay crying like a baby nearly all night. It was the first time I had broken down and cried, and I think Jack was the same. The funeral was the next day, and when the time came we went along to the foredeck where the ship's crew were all lined up wearing uniform and the body was in a coffin covered by the Union Jack. The captain made a speech in German, and then spoke in English for our benefit. There were tears in the eyes of many of the Germans, as they had all taken an interest in the English girl. The ship was stopped, and after the captain had said a prayer the coffin slid slowly down a slipway into the sea. It had been weighted, and sank slowly. The crew stood to attention bareheaded until the coffin disappeared. It was an impressive scene, and a gallant end to a brave and noble girl. We had been through so much together, and I knew I would never forget her.
The Rhakotis was bound for Bordeaux, and was due there about New Year's Day. We had a good Christmas at sea, with all sorts of food, and as I had regained my normal appetite by then I was able to take my share of everything. The butcher had killed two pigs, and we had as much roast pork as we could eat. I am sure we got a better Christmas as prisoners on the Rhakotis than many seamen had on British ships.
There was great excitement on board on the 31st of December, and word got round that we had a rendezvous with four U-boats who would escort us into port. We stopped at 7 P.M. that evening, and within a few minutes the subs came close alongside out of the darkness. Nobody stopped us looking over the side at them, and we saw a couple of officers come aboard and meet the captain. They didn't stay long, and within half an hour we were on our way again. The subs disappeared, but they must have been somewhere in the vicinity. At 4 A.M. on New Year's Day Jack woke me up and said, "Look at the yellow light out on deck." The whole ship was lit up, and when I went outside I saw a flare floating above the ship. Then I heard the drone of a plane, and the anti-aircraft guns opened up. The plane dropped a load of incendiaries and some bombs. A few incendiaries landed on the ship amidships, but I don't think they did much damage. After a time all went quiet again, and we turned in. Jack remarked that this was a good beginning to the New Year.
We were having a special dinner that afternoon at 4.30 P.M., when I heard an explosion I guessed was gunfire. Immediately loud alarm bells sounded, and armed guards appeared at the door. I asked one of them what was the matter, and he said simply, "English cruiser." We could hear the gunfire plainer now, and then we felt the ship being hit. The noise was terrific, and there were loud crashes not far from where we waited. An armed guard ran down the alleyway calling out, "To the boats." Others were unwinding a coil of electric flex and setting a box against the ship's side. This was a time-bomb to scuttle the ship after we got clear, but it was not required as the ship was on fire all over and badly damaged by direct hits. I didn't know from which side the shells were coming, so I picked the port-side boat, and no sooner got there than I saw the British cruiser a good way off on the port side. She was firing salvoes, and I could see the flashes and hear the shells screaming past. The weather was bad at the time, and a large sea came along and partly submerged the boat. I had nothing to do with the handling of the boat as the Germans were all at their proper stations, but I helped to push it clear with a boathook. We were just clear when there was a shout from the Rhakotis, and we could see two men waving and shouting for us to come back. The ship had a big list, and was a mass of flames from stem to stern, but the boat was turned back, and the two men jumped into the water, and were dragged into the boat.
Shells were exploding all around, and I expected any minute the boat would be hit. The cruiser kept firing until the Rhakotis was on her beam ends, then turned and went full speed away. She must have known there were U-boats in the vicinity. I was very disappointed, as I was so sure they would have picked us up. As their ship rolled over and went down slowly the Germans took off their caps and gave her three cheers.
We were now alone in the Bay of Biscay, and in darkness. The starboard boat was not in sight, and it was many years before I learned that Jack Edmead was in her, and that she managed to reach Spain. From there poor Jack was sent home, 3only to join a ship that was lost with all hands. There were thirty-five of us in the port boat, including a few prisoners. I was the only Britisher. Sitting beside me were two young Danish boys, only fifteen years of age, whose ship had been captured in the Indian Ocean. These boys had been good to Jack and me on the German ship, and they turned up at the prisoner-or-war camp where I was placed. After their release they sent me a few welcome parcels of food.
The boat was in good condition and well stocked with water and large biscuits. Although there was a tremendous sea running, she was fairly steady, and only once or twice did she take any water on board during that wild night. I had no hat on, and as it was New Year's Day and cold I looked round for something to put on my head. I could see a beret sticking out of one of the Germans's pockets, so I quietly drew it out and put it on. He was wearing a sou'wester and did not miss the beret.
The following morning the wind had died down a bit, but there was still a big sea running. The officer in charge took a chance and set sail for the nearest land on the French coast. We each had a handful of biscuits and a glass of water for breakfast, and we were quite happy. About eleven o'clock some one shouted out, "U-boat," and I could see the periscope coming up out of the water close to us. The conning-tower appeared, and then the sub itself showed up. The hatch opened, and the commander shouted to the officer in charge of our boat, giviing instructions on how we were to transfer to the submarine. We took the boat as close as we dared without touching the sub, as bumping would have capsized us, and as the nose of the sub rose to the sea one man at a time grabbed a wire and was pulled on board. It took a long time to get us all transferred, and once on the sub we all threw our life-jackets away and went below. It was only a small submarine, returning to port after fourteen days hunting the Atlantic convoys when it was ordered by radio to find the two boats from the Rhakotis. As soon as we got below each man was given a large mug of steaming coffee laced with rum, then shown to a spot where he had to lie. The submarine was cramped enough with its own crew, and now with thirty-five extra men it was like a sardine-tin.
We were only submerged fifteen minutes when a harsh alarm bell rang, and the nose of the sub diped as she crash-dived. A few seconds later there were three tremendous explosions. The first shook us, the second was worse, and the third must have been very close, for the whole sub shook, and we were thrown about. I fell off the bunk I shared with another man and landed on the two spare torpedoes on the deck. The engines were stopped, and we were ordered not to speak or move. The sub was now on an even keel, and there didn't seem to be anything seriously wrong. Later we were to learn that a British plane on anti-submarine patrol had sighted us from a distance, and dropped depth-charges over the spot where we had been. After lying motionless for about an hour the engines throbbed again, and we went on our way. One of the crew told me we were bound for Bordeaux.
The air was getting very foul, and we were told that as we wouldn't surface until after dark we must lie still and keep quiet, as the air was used up by unnecessary movement. We had a good meal of bread, cheese, and coffee during the afternoon, and then lay down to await night and fresh air. During the afternoon a voice speaking English came through the loudspeaker, saying that anyone caught touching any of the machinery would be thrown overboard. As I had no wish to stay longer in the submarine than I had to, I had no intention of doing it any damage. The order to keep still was very hard on me as my bladder was still very weak, so I asked one of the officers if I could speak to the commander. On explaining my predicament he took me amidships, and I had a talk with the commander. He was only about twenty-five, though he was the oldest member of his ship's company, and he, like the rest of the crew, had a beard. He spoke perfect English, and had a talk with me about the trip in the boat. He told me that as Bordeaux was blockaded by British planes he had decided to carry on to Saint-Nazaire, and we should be there in a couple of days. He said that as the midships portion of the submarine was too crowded to let me relieve myself he would give me a case of empty beer bottles to use.
We surfaced soon after this, and we could hear the mechanism of the sub working as we rose. After assuring themselves that the coast was clear the Germans opened up the conning-tower, and fresh air poured in. Air was pumped all through the vessel, and the diesel engines started up and kept going until nearly daybreak. The cook set his fire going, and made a hot meal for all hands, which he couldn't do when the sub was submerged. It was much more comfortable now with the fresh air, and every one was happy and looking forward to going on shore. In the early morning we submerged again, and the submarine ran on batteries. It wasn't too bad, as occasionally, if the coast was clear, the commander would surface for short periods, and we could get fresh air.
About noon on the third day of January the warning bell went again, and the Germans dashed to their stations. I was lying alongside the spare torpedoes and quite close to the torpedo-tubes, and could watch the men waiting for orders. The sub would rise a few inches at a time, then submerge a bit, and it sounded just like being in a lift on shore. This went on for a while, and I asked one of the Germans what was going on. He said it was a British destroyer.
You can imagine how I felt lying there and knowing we were stalking one of our own destroyers. Everything was deadly quiet, and then all of a sudden the alarm bell clanged out harshly. Immediately the nose of the sub went down at a terrific speed as she crash-dived. She semed to be standing on her head. The suspense was terrible, and I could see that even the men standing by the torpedo-tubes were looking a bit drawn, as though waiting for something. Then came the first depth-charge, and the sub shook with the force of the explosion. We were still going down, but the angle was not so steep, and gradually the submarine came to an even keel. Then came the second and third explosions, and we were thrown all over the place. The sub seemed to jump and then rolled from side to side. The lights went out, and all the escape hatches were closed. She seemed to bump a bit a few seconds later, and I could only guess that we had hit the sea bottom. We could hear depth-charges going off, but they seemed to be farther away each time. There wasn't a sound now in our compartment, and I thought to myself that after coming through what I had I was to finish up like this, suffocating in a submarine at the bottom of the sea. A voice in the darkness told us to lie still and not move from where we were, which was rather hard to obey as we were all lying over each other. I lay across the spare torpedoes with a big German lying on my legs. Nobody in our compartment knew what damage had been done, but no water was coming in at our end. No orders were coming through, so we could only guess something had gone wrong amidships or aft. We lay for hours, the air getting foul, and drops of moisture falling on us from the deck head. I was choking and could hear the heavy breathing of others, and knew they were suffering as much as I was. The under-officer with us warned us not to speak or move as we would use up what air was left. I didn't think I should last long the way we were, and just lay feeling the drops of moisture dripping down in the darkness.
It seemed hours later when we heard a tapping from the other side of the bulkhead. Some one on our side tapped back an answer. They must have had some sort of code worked out beforehand, for the tapping went on for some time, until eventually the watertight door was opened, and one of the crew came through with a torch and some small square boxes which he placed on the deck. One of the men told me this was a way to test the condition of the air. I could hear a lot of hammering going on in the after section of the submarine, and a few men were working by torchlight on some mechanism in our compartment. It was early morning before the lights came on again, and the commander spoke through the loudspeaker and told everyone to stay calm, and the damage to the after end would be repaired. We were all gasping for air, as the thirty-five extra men had used up the air sooner than would the normal crew.
The submarine got under way about daybreak and rose slowly to the surface. The hatches opened, and fresh air gushed in. We had no more incidents during the trip to Saint-Nazaire, which we reached about noon on the 4th of January. We slid slowly into the submarine pens, and the Germans all went ashore where a military band played on the quay and a number of high-ranking officers welcomed them. The remainder of us, all prisoners, stood on the deck watching everything, and wondering what was going to happen to us. Later in the afternoon I was taken on shore for interrogation, and then placed in a cell on my own. I remained there until the following day, when a guard came to take me to a truck bound for Nantes, and the train to Wilhelmshaven and captivity. I was sent to the Merchant Navy prison camp at Milag Nord, where I remained until the British Army arrived to free us in May 1945.
1Four passengers and two crew members were killed in the initial explosion.
2Lady Tibbs was infact Lady Almond.
3MacDonald gets some facts mixed up. It was Third Officer Whyte who was lost on his next trip.
Angus MacDonald went back to sea after his release from 28 months captivity at the Milag Nord PoW camp and sailed out of Liverpool for the next twelve years. In 1957 he took a shore job as an official of the National Union of Seamen in Manchester. He was made redundant in 1974 and died the following year at the age of 62.