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15 October 2014
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The Sinking of the HMT Britannia

by Jack Arkinstall

Contributed by 
Jack Arkinstall
People in story: 
Jack Aarkinstall;Brian Pearce;Jock Dunn;Cpl Nicholls;Ginger Brooks;Lucky Leach;
Location of story: 
The Atlantic(Doldrums)
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
A4123513
Contributed on: 
27 May 2005

In 1940 I was a corporal with six years service with the Royal Air Force with a wife and young daughter, when I was seconded to the Royal Naval
Air Service formally known as the Fleet Air Arm HMS Daedalus Lee-on Solent, Hants.
In the summer of that year we were visited by ‘a squadron of Stuka dive-bombers’ fortunately for me it was lunch time and I was having lunch with my wife and daughter. As soon as the siren sounded we took refuge in the Anderson shelter in the garden.
As soon as the all clear was sounded I made my way back to the station;
I was horrified by the devastation that the bombers had caused. Worse, many of the civilian workers and servicemen lost their lives on the beach where they were eating lunch, many aircraft namely sharks and swordfish were damaged beyond repair.
Soon after, my name appeared on the preliminary warning role (PWR)
This was posted on the station notice board.
In February 1941 I was granted two weeks leave prior to being posted overseas.
Our instructions were to proceed to Liverpool docks by train, thereafter reporting to HMT Britannia an Anchor Line Steam Ship of about thirty thousand tons. In the event the departure was delayed until the 13th March. March 9th was our wedding anniversary which we had already celebrated. Frankly I was afraid to face the tears and upset of my earlier farewell. I mentioned this to a corporal colleague and he invited me to stay with him and his wife and family. They made me most welcome and I had a lovely weekend. We returned to Liverpool on the 12th March ready for sailing the next day. Many of the passengers had their friends and family to say goodbye to them. Apart from this the departure was uneventful.
We were soon joined by other ships to form a convoy proceeding into the North Atlantic. We were sailing under sealed orders; we could only guess that we were sailing to the Far East. The passengers were a mixed bunch male and female, naval officers and ratings, army officers and nurses, the RAF were in the minority, only 5 NCOs; Corporals Pearce, Dunn, Nicholls, Brooks and me. There was a holiday spirit and we were all looking forward to ‘Crossing the line’ ceremony on the26th March.
On the 25th March a small ship was sighted flying the Japanese flag, on our starboard, seemingly taking a parallel course with Britannia, this raised no concern as we were not a war with the Japanese until Pearl Harbour. The next day while Cpl. Pearce and I were having breakfast there were a series of explosions; we rushed up on deck and discovered that the Japanese had been transformed into a German raider.
Guns blazed and shells landed. I had been appointed Officer in charge of the rear gun. When I got there most of the crew were dead and the gun had been smashed. The same thing had happened to the forward gun. I heard Petty Officer Heath shout “People are jumping overboard there are rafts on the top deck” I got to the top deck and the next thing that I knew is when I came round and found dead and dying round me; for a moment or two I sat fascinated with a naval rating propped up against a bollard and holding onto his intestines. It was time to leave. As quickly as my wounds would permit I made my way to No 12 lifeboat station which had been allocated to me. The lifeboat was beginning to pull away so I jumped for the davit rope, but it slid through my bloodstained hands but I managed to get down into the sea. Those in the lifeboat pulled me in and then I passed out. When I recovered I found myself in the arms of the night stewardess, as I learnt later, and the Britannia was beginning to sink. A sad moment. The end of what had been our home for the last two weeks.
I cannot recall very much for the next twenty-four hours or so, but I was conscious of people bailing out. I learnt afterwards that the lifeboat was only kept afloat by its buoyancy tanks. There were forty seven of us in the twenty five man lifeboat! A Naval signalman said that he had sent several signals to the effect that we had been attacked.
The tropical sun got to one or two of us. The Senior Officer present an Australian Naval Commander by the name of Spurgeon took charge. A sail was rigged up. We had no food or water and the threat of sharks was ever present. Despite our predicament I felt no sense of fear, I have no idea why.
Later a solitary figure was sighted on a raft; it turned out to be an RNVR sub lieutenant by the name of Leach who later described himself to us as ‘Lucky Leach’. I learnt that two other naval rating had been picked up from another raft; I recall that one was called Warren whose legs were very badly mauled by a shark and was rescued from certain death by his raft mate, a leading seaman.
Every few hours Commander Spurgeon would give the instruction to take up oars and row. I don’t know whether he had a compass and was hoping to make land, I rather suspect that it was a form of occupational therapy.
We were in fact in an area of the Atlantic known as the ‘Doldrums’.

A lady passenger aboard the liner the ‘Capo de Hornos’ insisted to the Captain that she had seen something; apparently that something was us.
A search light from the Liner was raking the ocean and focused on us.
We were taken aboard, some used the Jacobs ladder but those me included could not climb on our own and were hoisted aboard in a Bo ‘suns chair.
Under the International rules of war the Skipper was obliged to take us to the nearest port which in this case was Santa Cruz de Tenerife in the Canary Islands. Later we learnt the Liner only crossed this point every ten weeks between Spain and South America.
The Spanish authorities allowed all the civilians to return home; we four RAF Corporals, sadly, Cpl. Nicholls didn’t make it. Together with a couple of RNVR Naval Officers and a couple of naval ratings were housed in Spragg’s English Hotel. The rest of the servicemen and Commander Spurgeon were housed in another hotel. We were treated very well by the Spanish. However, it took several months of negotiation by the British Ambassador in Madrid Sir Samuel Hoare to get us released. It was only on the understanding that we would never be used in a ‘theatre of war’.
NB; Cpl Nicholls was the colleague referred to earlier, who, so generously took me back to his home and family when the Britannia sailing was delayed for a weekend. I was never able to write to his family as I never took note of the address. I have a vague idea that it was a village somewhere near Rochester Kent.
Jack Arkinstall.

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