Thirteen Days in a Lifeboat
Eileen Simms was travelling with her young family: Mary, 12, David, 10, Lisa, 7, and Esther, 3.
You can read below the accounts of two of Eileen's children caught up in the torpedoing of the ship. Beginning with David aged 10 at the time and followed by his sister, Mary aged 12.
These accounts are courtesy of David Simms, RIP; I am very grateful to David for allowing me to put them on the site.
An account of the sinking
by David Simms
When the torpedo hit us I was lying in the bottom bunk reading. I remember hearing a deafening boom, so I jumped out of bed but I had only gone a short way before I remembered my lifebelt. I dashed back grabbed up my lifebelt which was behind the door, took up my coat which was hooked on the cupboard handle, and tore off a blanket from the end of the bed. When I got up to the next deck I found myself squashed between a crowd of grown-ups swaying with the motion of the ship. At last I got to the top deck and went towards our lifeboat which was No.8. In the middle I stopped to put on my coat and lifebelt and then hurried to the lifeboat. I had only been there a few minutes when some sailors started shouting "Mrs. Simms." After a time my mother came and we got into the boat with her up a ladder. As we were being lowered down my sister Lisa emerged from among a number of coolies crying something about two lifebelts, she had been asleep at the time the torpedo struck us and did not know where she was. When we got down to the water some men slid down the ropes unhitched them and rowed away. I remember seeing the dark form of the ship against the sky. When we got away from the ship we had to talk in whispers and the men could not smoke cigarettes because we saw the submarine, which was clear against the sky. In the distance I heard shrieks and shouts, as I was looking I saw an explosion where the boat was. I was told at that moment it was another torpedo, it looked as if the ship was blown to pieces but it had not although it sank soon after.
After staying up for some time I went under the seat with my Mother so I missed seeing a mother and two children being picked up but when the eldest, a boy of 16, sat above me and dripped water down on me I went to the top for the night. We signalled another boat with torches and came quite near but soon rowed away.
I had a very uncomfortable night and kept waking up because I was lying huddled across some oars and I did not know where the bits of the lifeboat were although there was a full moon. When I woke up in the morning I saw some red sails on the horizon and soon the lifeboats were all together. They all asked if certain people were on the other boats and found out that some hadn't escaped. Some Indians crowded into one of the boats and did not let anyone else get in but they forgot to put in the plug of the boat so it was sunk when it was let down. To one of the boats the submarine came and asked the weight, the name, the cargo etc.
Our first meal was a biscuit and 2 ozs of water. I remember sitting beside an Australian quartermaster and he told us to eat them very slowly and chew them well - we had competition to see who could eat the slowest. I did not drink the water as it tasted tinny, but I did not think so afterwards. We did not have our full rations then because we left out chocolate, pemmican and Horlicks tablets. There was a man who said that he had been to St. Helena and we all asked him if there were oranges, lemonade and water and we planned to rush to a bar and drink glasses and glasses of lemon and drink water as much as we could. The second night a man fell overboard and I think he was eaten by a shark. The day before I remember I sat beside him and I wonder what I would think if I knew that I was beside a man who was to be dead soon. When there was a hot sun we used to put our heads over the side and wet our hair by pouring water, with empty biscuit tins, over our hair. Sometimes we played games. One of the games was "My Aunt went to Town and bought a......"
On the thirteenth day someone sighted a ship on the horizon. Everyone was very excited and went for the water in the barrels. The man in charge of the boat put some round tins, which floated, and sent up smoke, on the water, to attract the ship's attention. Soon the ship came and let down rope ladders like nets. Some officers came and helped a few who had grown weak.
After we got on the boat we were given coffee which, although it had no sugar, tasted very sweet. In the cabin I drank so much water that I did not like it for a few days after. In about seven days we arrived in Cape Town and here we are now.
"CITY OF CAIRO"
Torpedoed Nov, 1942
Thirteen Days in a Lifeboat
On the night of the 6th November, I was sitting on the top bunk of a two berth cabin. There was a knock at the door, "Come in" we said and who should walk in but the steward carrying a tray of ice cream "Yum! Yum!" How lovely we soon tucked into them. When I had finished I climbed back on to the bunk and settled into Rudyard Kipling's "Jungle Stories". After a little while there was a dull thud and the lights went out. I knew we had been torpedoed and scrambled off my bunk.
"Where was my life belt", I thought. Oh yes, I had left it in Mummy's cabin. (It is funny but I did not think of it at the time I did not say anything to David, my brother.) I managed to feel my way to Mummy's cabin only to find the door shut. However it opened soon. "Is my lifebelt here?" I asked. "Shall I wake Lisa and Esther?" "No" Mummy answered, "I think you took it back to your cabin. I can manage alright about Lisa and Esther. Get up on deck quickly." I ran back to my cabin and fumbled around for my lifebelt - "There it is in the corner" I thought to myself as I saw a dark mass. Yes, it was. I quickly took it up and ran to the deck, our life boat was at the end of the deck and I made my way through the mass of people. The lamps on the deck were lit and it was quite easy to get to No.8 boat. David was already there and I saw Mummy coming with the other two. Our life boat was already alongside the deck and the women and children bundled in first. When everyone was in, the boat was let down but we soon stopped with everyone shouting "Have we put the plug in". We tried to find out but it was very hard because there were a lot of oars and things in the way so we hoped for the best and were lowered on to the water. After a lot of trouble we managed to get out a couple of oars and row away from the ship. As soon as we stopped everyone managed to produce some cigarettes from somewhere and began smoking. After about twenty minutes from the first torpedo another one struck. There was a lot of smoke where the ship had been, and, when it had gone there was nothing left of the ship. Suddenly we saw a dark mass rising out of the water a little way away. "Put out your cigarettes. It's the sub." Everyone put out their cigarettes and were silent. I could just make out the outline of the sub. Everywhere else there were lights flashing and people screaming. I thought that they must be mad attracting the sub like that. However nothing happened and it moved away. When it had completely disappeared we rowed towards the lights - Mummy and the others had gone below - and I was wrapped up in a blanket David had saved an overcoat. I had my head on Mrs. Miller's lap and feet across Miss Ashdown but I did not go to sleep. I soon sat up and watched us getting nearer the lights. Suddenly we stopped and I looked over the side and saw some funny looking people swimming in the water. I recognised one as Basil Almond and with a lot of pulling and pushing they managed to get him aboard. I didn't see the others coming aboard but I soon recognised one by her ladida voice as Lady Almond. Another lady, Mrs. Qunk (we did not know her real name but she called her son Qunk) and Lady Almond's daughter Susan. I gave up our blanket to Mrs. Qunk as she was soaked to the skin. It was very calm that night and I saw shooting stars. After a long time I managed to go to sleep. When I woke up my toes were frozen. It was still dark and I sat up to see what was happening. Someone was still rowing. Then a man called Andy Marshall got a heart attack or something and he asked if he could lean on my back. I said "Alright" and he leant back. He grew heavier and heavier until I thought my back would break - then he slipped off and took up all the room and I was squashed up till dawn. Everyone woke up at the first sign of light and I was sent up aft and I vomited over the side. That morning I was ravenously hungry and at about eleven we all welcomed the biscuits that were handed out. Mrs. Miller told us to have a race as to who could finish the biscuit last. Esther was very good the first day and did not cry at all. When the water came I did not want any. That day it was boiling hot and I stayed under the shelter of a rug, Basil Almond produced a thriller which he had in his pocket. I was dying to read it but I did not get a chance as everyone used it as toilet paper. Once or twice someone suggested playing some game but as it was so hot we were in very bad tempers and the games soon stopped. The heat was becoming unbearable so Susan Almond and myself and a few others went forward under the shadow of the sails. All the boats were sailing along with their red sails in the sunlight. Six out of eight had got away and only one passenger was missing. Soon it began to get chilly forward and we moved aft again. The rations were handed out - 2 tablets of Horlicks milk, a spoonful of pemmican, 1 tablet chocolate, a biscuit and 2 ozs water. We had these two times a day. That night it was quite calm and we slept as well as we could squash up in the bottom of the boat, we used our lifebelt as mattresses but the water in the bottom of the boat managed to seep through. The next day the swell was rising and the boat was rocking to and fro. That night it was breaking over the sides and we were frightened that we may bump into another boat but nothing happened so it was alright. The next morning the waves came over a lot and we were absolutely soaked. We had begun to feel the thirst already and Esther howled most of the time. The men were missing their cigs already and they used all take turns at one cig. It was still rough the next night and we thought we would sink. The pumps were kept working most of the time. The next day it cleared up and was hot again. All the boats decided to part so we all left each other. Our boat's compass was broken so we used a pocket compass belonging to Mrs. Miller. The next few nights I got hardly any sleep and in the day time I lay at the bottom of the boat. One morning I tried to make myself feel sick so that they would give me a little medicine in some extra water but to my horror they put it in my ordinary ration. The only thing I ever ate was chocolate and as soon as I had finished it I wiped round my mouth so that I could taste the water ration much better. Everyone else rinsed their mouth out with salt water in empty pemmican tins. They said that they spat it all out but I used to watch Sir John Dane and he swallowed most of it, afterwards he was very ill and had to have an operation. One man, Mr. Scaife, an engineer, who was going back to England got quite a few heart attacks and he tried to throw himself overboard. Everyone thought the Indians were stealing water so the water barrel was moved to where we slept. This took up a lot of room and we were very squashed. The days were beginning to get very hot and I used to wish I could have a swim but we were afraid of sharks. We often used to discuss what we would do when we got to St. Helena (the island we were making for). I thought we would land on the beach and run to the nearest cafe and get a lemonade and some ice cream and then we would go and buy some clothes. Sir John one day suggested that the boys could go up forward and dip their heads in a bucket of water. Soon everyone leaned over the sides and bathed themselves with biscuit tins. Quite a few women with long hair decided to cut it off. We found a cat in the locker and every night it made an awful noise. Some people wanted to drown it but a man, Mr. Green, who we elected Captain, said it would bring us luck. There was always a puzzle which was Lisa and which was the cat for they both went "aoooiun" or some noise like that - the former for her bites. Several times we expected rain but no such luck. There were quite a few sick people and they had to be down - we were more squashed than ever. Four Indians died because they drank salt water. On Sunday evenings Mr. Miller said prayers but usually we could not hear him because Esther was crying so much. It was very uncomfortable at nights and we were all squashed up against the water barrel. On the twelfth night I decided to keep my water ration in my pemmican tin and sip it every now and then. This proved a good idea and whenever I woke up I took a little sip. That night I was sure that someone was tapping at the water barrel but when I told another man he just said "Rubbish", but I was sure the next morning there was a little hole in the water barrel and I was sure someone was trying to get the water out like that. The Indians were getting very cross and we thought that they would have another mutiny. They had one before and threatened to throw the Captain overboard. Mr. Green (the Captain) had a very sore hand, he had jammed it between two ropes but he did a lot of work. Everyone decided to cut their hair, Mummy, Esther and Lisa among them.
On the 13th morning the Captain decided to give us our water ration early and we all sat waiting for it. I was going to sip it out of my pemmican tins as I had done that night.
Suddenly I heard someone shouting "A ship! A ship!" Everyone was very excited and they left off giving us our water ration. I could not see anything as I was at the bottom of the boat. The Captain sent up some rockets. I think the ship started to come near and everyone was screaming for more water. Someone gave me a cup full and I drank it up greedily and asked for some more but I didn't get it. I was sitting at the bottom of the boat and tried to get up through the squash and see the ship. After a lot of pushing I managed to get up and I could see a ship quite near to. When the lifeboat got nearer to it we saw that they had thrown rope ladders over the side. Suddenly someone shouted out "The mast is catching in the ship" but it was freed however and we decided to let the Indians go up first. They all swarmed up the rope ladders then Mr. Scaife was carried up because he was sick. The officers of the ship came down and carried us up on to the deck. When I got up I begged to be allowed to walk but when I tried to, I wobbled in all directions and they carried me to the saloon, Mr. Smith, 1st Sparks, gave us all sips of coffee but it did not satisfy me, I wanted to stuff all the food on the table into my mouth (the sailors were just about to have breakfast when we were picked up). Mr. Scaife died that afternoon.
That is the end of the story of how we were torpedoed and saved. Seven days after we were picked up. We arrived thin but happy in Cape Town.