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

Gladys F.M. Usher (1890 - 1949)

On board CITY OF CAIRO were several missionaries. They included Gladys F.M. Usher aged 52, an energetic and warm hearted woman whose work in teacher training and in the service of women and girls in Bengal had proved her a selfless friend of India.



This is her story:

"Some who had Lost their All at Sea"

"When the fourteenth night was come...the shipmen deemed they drew near to some country....And so it came to pass, that they escaped all safe to land. And the people showed us no little kindness: for they...received us every one....And after three months we departed in a ship:...and when we departed, they laded us with such things as were necessary."

"THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES".


It was a lovely evening, calm and warm. As I had had my dinner (being in the first sitting, which was at the early hour of 6.30), 1 took my coat, lifebelt and small handbag and sat for a while on deck. There was the usual blackout inside the ship, but on deck the fading glow of the sunset lit up the calm waters and the evening star shone in the West.


My thoughts went back to India, to the girls and children I had left, and I wondered how my friends, Indian and English, were, and what they were doing. How far one seemed both from the beginning and from the end of the journey! Life at the moment was a dream-like existence quite detached from everything. It was difficult to realise that a gigantic war struggle was taking place in the world; we seemed to be so remote from it all.


I had decided, with the help of a young Welsh girl, to start a little school for the children. The next day the Purser had kindly given me permission to use the dining saloon for an hour every morning as there was no other suitable place. I therefore went into the lounge and sat down at a writing table to think out what we would do in our "School"


There were only one or two others sitting in the lounge - the majority being at the second dinner below in the dining saloon. Suddenly, CRASH, the ship shuddered, a sound of broken glass, and complete darkness. Not another sound, and then the ship seemed to go on smoothly as before. Someone said, "We've got it," and people silently began to grope their way out. I put on my coat and lifebelt, and, realising it was foolish to try to get to my cabin in the dark, as it was a good way off, I went straight on deck to my boat station. There was the sound of people running about on the boat-deck above, but no one to be seen at boat station No.7. A few emergency flares had been lit, and gradually people began to come out on to the deck. There was no panic.


I remembered my handbag, containing my money, passport, glasses and a few valuables, which I had left on the writing table. Deciding to go back for it, I started off, when a mother, who had two small children, asked me to hold one while she dressed the other, for all the children had been in bed. This I did until a friend of hers came up and took the child, and once more I started off. Then a mother and her daughter came up and the mother had forgotten her lifebelt, which she had left in the dining saloon in her hurry to reach her child, who was in bed. I offered to get it at the same time as my bag, but a young married girl, my cabin companion, would not let me do so, and went off herself. (She had been near the cabin at the moment when the torpedo struck us, and, as I found out afterwards, had not only brought along her own bag, but had also brought my torch and a shawl, which came in very handy later on.) It was brave of her to go off again in that way. She did not find the lifebelt, however, but got safely back to the boat.


As I was then going to the lounge to get my bag I heard our boat-warden cry out "All women and children to the boats!" So I gave up the attempt and went to get into the boat. It had been lowered too far and was swinging to and fro some way below the ship's rail. By sitting on the rail I managed to jump in, with the help of a man in the boat. Other women and children got in and we were slowly lowered to the water, the remaining men coming down the rope ladder. We sat as best we could, with the mast and sails and oars and boathooks taking up all the room down the middle of the boat. There was little room for our feet, and it was quite impossible to move. With some difficulty the men got the boat away from the ship, breaking an oar in the process, and then they rowed as hard as they could to get us clear. Another lifeboat was near us.


Suddenly came an explosion and a burst of steam-the second torpedo had struck our ship twenty minutes after the first, and her boilers had burst. In a minute she had gone. Immediately there were the cries of those in the water. Some must have jumped in when the ship sank, and we learnt afterwards that No. 1 lifeboat had been upset by the blast of the torpedo, which had passed under it, and everyone in it had been thrown into the water. Then a dark shape loomed up behind us, and someone said "The submarine! Don't say a word or they may see us." We wondered what our fate would be. The captain of the submarine came out by the conning tower and, speaking in English to those in the other boat, which was quite close to him, asked the name of our ship, where we were bound for, and if we had any prisoners of war. He told us that the island of St. Helena was our nearest land, 464 miles away, and then gave us our bearings. The ship's officer to whom he spoke said "Thank you, Sir," and then the submarine submerged and we saw it no more.


At once wreckage began to come to the surface and we had to keep clear of this. We saw an old Indian, who turned out to be a cook, sitting in a stunned condition on a raft. We rowed to him and took him on board, and then, hearing cries for help, rowed on and found the ship's Purser, an elderly man, in the water almost done for. With difficulty he was hauled on board. Next we sighted our Captain, also on a raft, and took him in. He had gone down miles with the ship. We rowed round for a while but found no one else, and the other boats had also done the same.


By flash signals the other boats were told to keep together on the spot that night. (We were some distance from each other, but all through that night signals were flashed, and so we kept together.) Then a great silence. Nobody talked; we were, I think, feeling dazed. What we had been prepared for had really happened. There we sat, while the stars shone in great brilliance overhead.

A lovely night it was, but, like Paul, we "wished for the day."


As dawn broke, the boats gradually collected together, and we saw that six out of the eight lifeboats were there. It was only as the days went on that we found out who were missing. A fine Presbyterian Padre, who had been serving with the Forces in India, had gone down with the ship. He had gone to help others, and in helping them, had lost his life. The husband of a young Australian woman had gone to look for missing ones, and was on the rope ladder when the second torpedo came; he was seen no more. An Englishman who had been doing some special work in India, and was on his way home to see his son, was also missing. The invalid husband of another woman, and the wireless operator, who had been sending out his S.O.S. till the last, and a number of the crew, all had lost their lives. In the boats there were about 230 women, children and men. We wondered if help would come in answer to our wireless message, but we were so far from land that it did not seem possible. Fortunately, we did not realise what lay before us, and that for many of our number, even of those safe in the boats, this was to be their last putting out to sea.


The Captain now took charge of this little flotilla which, with the red sails, looked something like the Brixham trawlers. Orders were given to start off in the direction of St. Helena, and the course was set. All the boats except one had compasses. The one which had had its compass smashed, fortunately had as a passenger a Guide Commissioner, who was also a Doctor. She wonderfully exemplified the motto of the Guides, "Be Prepared," for to the delight of her shipmates she produced from her pocket a Guide compass, and on testing it with the Captain's, it was found to be correct. That boat, steering all the way by that compass, and for one week all alone, was making straight for the island when it was picked up by a merchant ship. But that is another story, so beautifully written by Mr. Miller in his booklet "A Ship! A Ship!" Only one boat had a sextant whereby we could tell our position, and it was therefore necessary that we should all keep together. The boat with the wireless apparatus had gone and only one boat had a motor fitted to it. The Captain gave orders that that evening at 5 p.m. all the boats should tie up and go no further that night.


And so we set forth on our voyage to the island. This first day being hot and windless, the men had to row it was no use putting up the sails. The oars of a lifeboat are heavy and it takes three men to an oar. It seemed the height of optimism to start to row those 464 miles to the nearest land. The men soon got hot and tired, and frequent changes had to be made in the rowers. The Captain had announced that as we had had good meals the day before, we should not need to eat this first day, but we were allowed 4 oz. of water in the evening. Thus, our rationing began.


At five that second night we tied up together, and as darkness came on we tried to sleep. The blankets, with which each boat is provided, had been given out but were not sufficient to go round. We used our lifebelts to sit on and to put between our backbones and the sharp edge of the side of the boat. There was no room to lie down. We did not feel afraid and we did not lose hope. It seemed that we were helped to endure all that came, and it is a merciful thing that the senses become somewhat dulled and numbed as one gets weaker, though to some the agony of thirst was very hard to bear.


The boats were about 28 ft. long, and in our boat there were 8 women, 6 children and 44 men, including many Indians. That first morning before setting off we had taken on board two women with their three small children who had been flung into the water when the second torpedo had upset their boat. They had lost practically all their clothes through the blast. One woman had been given a man's warm coat and trousers. The other had her own slacks but no coat, and her blouse was in ribbons. Both had lost their shoes. The children were also very scantily clad. Later on I helped one of these mothers with her twins, Michael and Peter, aged 2 1/2, such fine children. I learnt afterwards that one of these children had got separated from his mother when thrown into the water, and another woman, who was also in the water, hearing him cry, had swum to him and got him back to his mother who had been picked up by another boat.


The Ship's Surgeon was in our boat and he took charge of the rations. He and the Captain calculated the amount to be given each day. All the food was in tins in lockers, and the water in barrels and in two tanks fitted to the boat. Twice a day we were to be allowed 2 small Horlick's tablets, half a square inch of chocolate and a ship's biscuit, with some dried meat extract called pemmican and 2 oz. of water. The water was dipped out of the barrels with long round enamel dippers on chains, and these held 4 oz. We had to drink our share out of the dipper. Rather an anxious business when one was the first and had to drink half of it and did not want to take more than one's share. Later on we begged the empty pemmican tins from the Doctor and each kept our own, putting our share of water into it, and thus we were able to spin out the drinking of the precious liquid. On these rations it was reckoned we had enough to last us for three weeks. It subsequently turned out that this very concentrated form of food was impossible to eat with so little water, and after a week of it the biscuit tin was passed round instead of carefully doling out the portions, as very few could eat it at all. The children were the ones who seemed able to eat best, and they kept on at the biscuits long after we others had given them up as too dry to eat; we couldn't swallow them or the Horlick's tablets. The tablets of chocolate were the most popular.


The second day there was some wind and we were able to sail. From that time on we sailed all the time. It was not easy to keep the course, as the wind and tide were sweeping us towards the West, and sometimes the boat would swing round, and then the oars had to be got out and it was a tough job to get her right on her course again. Eventually we found we had sailed altogether 100 miles out of our course. As this tying up at night hindered our progress, the Captain decided that we should sail at night also, tied to each other by long ropes. This we did.


On the fourth day we ran into a storm and the sea was very rough. No rain came, but the wind lashed the waves into white horses which broke over the boats again and again, and that night was the worst we had. We threw out the sea anchors to enable us to drift with the wind and tide, and there was constant danger of bumping into each other; in fact, two of the boats had to cut adrift. Then we heard a shout from the boat behind, "Man overboard!" The Captain had to decide what to do. In such a storm and in the darkness it would have been impossible to save him, and so the Captain said," Keep on." How sad that made us feel! We heard afterwards that the man was a fine old Scotsman who had been in Mr. Miller's boat. That night most of us were sitting in water all the time, as the waves kept on coming over us. In spite of getting constantly wet, none of us caught cold, and in spite of the rough weather and the rocking of the boat, no one was sea-sick.


After this night we did not tie up together, but every day at 5 o'clock we waited for one another and then started off again, keeping together at night by means of flashes from torches, different people taking turns at this. In our boat there were three men who took their turn at the tiller, a job needing skill and vigilance; to them we owe much. Each morning at 10 o'clock our bearings were taken by means of the sextant and we were told the day's run and how much further we had to go. We were all the time in the S.E. trade winds, and that made it difficult to keep on our course. Some days we travelled 60 or 70 miles, but were disappointed to hear that we were only 10 miles or so nearer to the island. On the fifth day we had still 329 miles to go and it looked as though it would take a very long time to reach land. For six days the six boats kept together, and at dawn every day we would scan the horizon for the other boats. We were often miles apart, and it was a joy when we were able to count five sails.


On the sixth day the First Officer asked the Captain's permission to sail on alone. His boat was leaking badly and he thought he could make for the island more quickly if on his own. The Captain reluctantly gave his permission, though as they had no sextant it was taking a risk; and away they went. We wished them good luck as they waved good-bye to us, and very soon they were out of sight. Of that boatload of 50 people only three survived to be picked up by a German blockade runner, which story has been told by John Edmead, the sole ultimate survivor of that boat. That day before we all got separated, the officer in charge of No.8 boat, whose story Mr. Miller has told, called out to the Captain "My mast has cracked; if I fade out of the picture you'll know what has happened." How anxious we often felt about that boat and how glad we were, when on the island, to receive news of their safe arrival in Cape Town ! Then there was the little boat No.4, with only 17 people in it. It could not keep up with us, but was always far behind. That boat, after 51 days, was picked up off the coast of Brazil with two survivors in it, one being the brave Mrs. Gordon, whose husband had gone down with the ship.


Each boat had its own particular atmosphere or special characteristic. One boat always seemed to have a line of washing hung out. The occupants of another had rigged up for themselves sun hats made out of the cover of the sail. The rudder of another had gone and at first they had to steer with the blade of an oar, until someone cleverly made a new rudder and actually got into the water to fix it on. Once the Doctor went over to another boat to see a sick man, and another time an exchange of passengers was made to distribute the numbers more evenly. One day a bright little boy called out to the girl of 10 in our boat "Sheila, you won't be able to go to school now." A little Welsh girl in another boat, who had been very keen on joining the proposed school, and had, on the night of the torpedoing, collected her pencils together, said to her mother "Is Auntie going to have her school?" One small boy said he didn't think much of this boat as there was no deck to play on.


It was wonderful how the time slipped by and how there was often something to do. The days were hot and we cooled our heads by hanging them over the side of the boat and getting a neighbour to pour the cool sea water over our hair. There was a communal comb, which was passed round, and we even tried to keep our nails clean with a communal nail file. Of course we could use no soap, though someone actually had a cake and offered it to me to smell! One woman had brought in her bag some face powder, and that came in handy for the pump, which got so greasy that it would not work, and the powder did the trick! Sometimes we let the twins paddle in a bucket of water, which they enjoyed. All the time, at intervals, pumping had to be done, and when the pump would not work, baling had to be done by hand. I cut from my shawl small pieces for head coverings to protect us from the sun, and the remainder went to put round the shoulders of the twins' mother. When more little pieces were needed I begged it from her and cut off some more, for so often we lost our bits; eventually this shawl, or the remainder of it, floated away. Things kept on dropping into the bilge or getting wet with sea water, and it was not easy to find a place to dry them, though we sometimes hung them to the mast. We all got browner and browner, and beards began to appear on the faces of the men.


The nights were cold and uncomfortable and no one could stay in one position for long. All the bolts and nuts with which the boat seemed to abound stuck into one, and the list on the boat kept those on the starboard side continually slipping down off the seat on to those crouched below. We slept so little at night that we often dozed in the day in the warm sun and, as the days went on, we got more listless and weary and did not talk much. At night one would hear such remarks as "Here, that's my head," "What are you doing with your feet?" Once I heard "Just shine that torch here; I want to see where my legs are." Sometimes we thought of the good things we would eat when we got to the island. I remembered the lovely box of chocolates I had bought at Cape Town to take home, and all the other good things with which I had filled a suit-case. The fishes were enjoying them now. All that could be shared round was given out, such as extra clothing and cigarettes. The Indians had some cigarette paper and tobacco, and this was also shared. When the supply was almost gone, a stump of a cigarette would be passed round, and everyone took a whiff as it went by. The non-smokers came off best at this game


The Doctor was busy most of the time attending to one and another, giving out first-aid things as required, dressing wounds, for some had bad hands and feet, and giving brandy or sal volatile if required. He had, fortunately, brought with him his emergency bag with some dressings and medicines, and these came in very handy, for lifeboats are only fitted up with first-aid appliances and no drugs. The Doctor also sometimes took one of the twins at night, and they seemed to like sleeping in his arms. He had the difficult task of deciding to whom it was necessary to give a little extra ration of water.


In our boat was a poor old lady, over 80, who was out of her mind. Her daughter and son-in-law were in another boat, but we managed to get them into ours, and they looked after her until, mercifully, she became unconscious and lay in the bottom of the boat and quietly passed away. The Captain asked us, when committing her body to the deep, to repeat the Lord's Prayer. Then one Indian died, a Moslem, and we again said the Lord's Prayer as his body was put into the water. He, too, had gone to meet his Maker, whom he knew as Allah and we as Our Father in Heaven. The Indians, on the whole, felt the exposure and lack of water more than the Europeans, and some even drank the salt water, and so died. Later on two more died in our boat. The Purser had been very ill all the time, not able to eat anything, and lying in the bow of the boat. The day we sighted land he too died, and we committed his body to the deep.


We had three more sad casualties after we reached the island. The husband of the woman with two small children suddenly died the day after we got there. He had been very queer on the boat the whole time and looked very upset, but we did not realise he was so ill. It was a shock to us all and to his poor wife, who was ill in another part of the hospital when he died. Two engineers of other ships were in our boat. One was such a cheery soul, who took charge of the pump, which was always going wrong, and I sometimes helped him, as I was sitting next to him part of the time. Suddenly one day his leg went numb, as had the leg of the other engineer. The Doctor did all he could and I helped a little with massage, and we thought we had saved the leg of at least one of them. but gangrene set in, and they were not in a fit state for operation. After some weeks of pain, bravely borne, one died; the other had his leg amputated later on, but his life was saved. These two men were wonderfully brave and patient. The one who died said to me one day, when I was telling him how sorry I was, "It will all come out in the wash." For him it has all come out, all the pain and discomfort of those days: he has left it all behind. He was buried with military honours in the cemetery high up on the hill on the island, a beautiful spot.


To return to our voyage. On the seventh day, after a stormy night, we found we were alone, but during the day we caught up with the boat with the sextant and the motor, and from then on we kept together but saw nothing more of any of the other boats. When we knew we were not far off the island, the boat with the engine towed us for some way, but they felt they must keep some petrol for the final dash into port. The island being so small, a mere speck on that great ocean, the Captain thought we might easily pass it by, but having the sextant with us gave us hope.


On the fourteenth night the Captain lit our flares in the hope that some ship would see them and come to our rescue. It was a beautiful night, calmer than it had been for a long time. The moon was nearing her full, and I thought what a perfect night for a sail if one had been in more comfortable surroundings. As it was, I was sitting all night on a narrow plank with a restless child on my lap, trying to keep him warm with my coat and somebody's skirt, which eventually fell into the bilge. That night we did no baling, and my feet were wet all night. When at last dawn came, it was seen that the mother of the twins was very weak; she had been so brave and uncomplaining and patient; the Purser was dying; and a young boy of 18 had bad fever and was a bit delirious. There was only a drop of brandy left, and that was given to those most needy. The man sitting on the bench by me had collapsed into the bottom of the boat; he had been most energetic over baling up till then, but he had almost reached the end of his strength. We were all feeling the worse for wear. Suddenly someone cried "Land!" and there, on the horizon, very faint in the morning greyness, was the outline of land. We could hardly believe it was true. The Captain asked the Doctor, who was standing up by the mast, what the shape was like, and when told that there seemed to be two peaks he said it must be St. Helena.


Shortly after this we sighted a big ship some distance away, and we and those in the other boat, which was a little distance ahead, threw lighted red powder on the water as a signal that we needed help. The ship came nearer and told us to stand by, and first took on board those from the other boat. With difficulty we pulled up to her, for there was a sea on and our men were weak. Getting up on to the gangway was not easy owing to the swell, but with the help of the men, who pulled and pushed, we got off one by one; some had to be carried. What a joy it was to sit in a chair, drink tea, eat bread and butter, and suck oranges (they had crates of Cape oranges on board, which they opened for us). How good the officers and men of this merchant ship were to us, giving us the use of their cabins, where we sank down on the floor or bench or bunk and slept! We then learnt that early that morning they had picked up a third boat and now had about 150 survivors on board.


At about 2.30 p.m. we reached the island of St. Helena. Passengers for the island have to go off in small boats, so we all had to be helped down the gangway again and into the small boats. The Governor of the island only heard of our existence when the ship arrived, but he was wonderfully prepared. When we got to the landing stage, a motor ambulance and cars were there ready and we were driven off at once to the military and civil hospitals. Everything was ready for us clean beds, clean clothes, and the V.A.D.'5 of the island. Our garments were taken away to be washed, and we were washed and fed and cared for. The Salvation Army took charge of the Indians. How kind everybody was! Chocolates, biscuits, cigarettes, toothbrushes, toothpaste, hairpins, magazines and other things were given to us by the people of the island and the military staff. The wife of the Governor made a collection of clothes for us, and these were distributed. Most of us stayed in hospital about a week. Then accommodation was found for us in various houses scattered over the island. The people of this island are of many nationalities, African, West Indian, American, French, Portuguese, Chinese and English, yet living as one family under the British Crown, and worshipping together in their Christian Churches, of which there are four, with a Bishop as their Head. It was a great experience to worship with them. For three months we were on the island, where we experienced great kindness and hospitality. We wanted to leave behind some token of our gratitude for all that had been done for us, and so we all subscribed and were able to leave behind enough to buy a wireless set for the hospital with earphones for all the beds. A scroll was also written in which was an account of our experiences and all our names, and this was to be put into the archives of the island.


Of course, we visited the two most famous spots on the island Longwood, where Napoleon lived, and his empty tomb. This patch of the island has been given to France and a Frenchman lives there as guardian. Apart from this the island now has very little importance, but it had become a haven of refuge for some who had lost their all at sea.


The first to depart were the Indians, and they were taken back to the Cape, all except one poor Bengali Moslem from Calcutta who developed T.B. and gradually faded away and was buried there. I had been to see him more than once, and he had been glad to hear Bengali again. Then the Captain and the Officers went, leaving the ship's Surgeon to look after us. Twice we were told to get ready to leave, but the ships did not come, and we spent Christmas on the island after all and had a party for the children in our house.


The Bishop of St. Helena gave some of us Bibles before we left the island. On the ship coming home from there I read in a book out of the library the prayer of Pharaoh Akhnaton, which was found written on gold-leaf at the foot of his mummy, and I copied it on the fly-leaf of my St. Helena Bible.

"Call thou upon my name unto Eternity and it shall never fail."

Also his epitaph, written by himself.

"In the journey upon which I now set out, I ask that I may hear Thy voice. Take Thou my hand, that I may walk beside Thee, that in the land whither Thou leadest me I shall not ever fall but keep mine eyes upon Thee and rejoice."

After three months a ship came to take the rest of us away. We had been given flour sacks in which to put the few things that we had collected while on the island, and some warm clothes which had been sent for us from the Cape. It was strange to be travelling again on a big ship and to have no belongings, nothing to unpack or pack. The voyage to England was not without incident, as when in convoy we were attacked by submarines and our ship narrowly escaped. The journey was rather an anxious time, especially for the mothers with children, and we never undressed fully at night. What joy it was finally to arrive at the end of our journey.


Now, safe in England, I am not sorry to have had all this experience, and I am more sure than I ever was before of the truth of Whittier's words:

"I know not where His islands lift
Their fronded palms in air:
I only know I cannot drift
Beyond His love and care."


Easter Day, 1943.


Copyright © Council for World Mission
Reproduced from London Missionary Society/Council for World Mission Archives, SOAS Library.
See Acknowledgements page

Gladys Usher died suddenly on the 21st March 1949, aged 59. She had served in India for 30 years and was to have retired at the end of the year.