- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Thomas McKinley
- Location of story:
- North Atlantic
- Background to story:
- Civilian Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 06 March 2005
On a dull, raw November day in 1942 our cargo vessel SS Barberrys joined a convoy sailing from Halifax, Nova Scotia.
I was 17, making my second trip as a merchant seaman.
Three days out, the convoy ran into a severe storm — the worst the Canadian coast had had in 80 years. For three days we hove-to, trying to ride it out. Waves smashed the boatdeck and carried away all but one of the lifeboats.
Our 60 year old ship could not stand much more of this, and the Captain, after consulting the Convoy Commodore, decided to make for the nearest port.
During that afternoon, as we pitched and rolled, a terrific explosion rocked the ship. A torpedo had found No.1 hatch. Steam pipes burst. Doors flew off. Our cargo, oil barrels and invasion barges, charged about the deck.
At the order to abandon ship I made for the only remaining lifeboat. And so did scores of others.
Suddenly, my eye caught a U-boat surfacing quite close. The conning tower opened and machine-gun bullets sprayed the decks.
The lifeboat by now was full of men and half-full of water. I leapt aboard. I knew it wouldn’t sink because of the floats on the underside. But, apparently, most of the others thought differently. They panicked and dived overboard. Just at that, the lifeboat shot away and the Barberrys began to sink.
Incredibly, all this happened in two minutes.
I thought a lot of the skipper, Captain Squires from Pollockshields. The next incident almost broke my heart. He came to the rails, looking strangely calm, and gave us a wave. He tossed a black box over the side then, to my horror, walked back into the wheelhouse.
Only the upper decks of the Barberrys remained in sight and they were swarming with figures rushing madly about.
Then she disappeared.
I counted seven in the lifeboat — apparently the only survivors out of a crew of 64. We all became violently seasick. The lifeboat was behaving like a cork in a boiling cauldron.
The U-boat surfaced again and came alongside with machine-guns trained on us. “Say your prayers” somebody said, “we’ve had it now”.
A hat-less, bearded head appeared from the conning tower and asked us our nationality. We took it to be the Commander. “Sorry we have no space for you”, he shouted. “Your position is 650 miles east of St John’s, Newfoundland”.
For five nightmare days we drifted. Everybody’s feet and hands were badly frostbitten. Several men were crying like children. One lad, from Milngavie, wearing only a singlet and dungarees, was particularly distressed.
On the afternoon of the fifth day, an American ship spotted us and we were landed at St. John’s. Three survivors, including myself, went into hospital, the other four got billets at the ‘Knights of St Columba’ hostel. They never left the hostel alive. Fire broke out and 100 men were burned to death, our four shipmates were among them.
Later I learned that another man had survived the sinking of the SS Barberrys. He was Harry Heinson, a Londoner, who clung to one of the invasion barges, living on a cabbage and two gallons of water for18 days, before being picked up and taken back to the United Kingdom.
I returned home with full pension, but I was too restless — and too stupid — to stay ashore for long. After a week’s rest, I signed on with the SS California, bound for the Mediterranean.
Among the passengers was a big contingent of Roman Catholic nuns and priests.
On the 11th July 1943, 200 miles off Lisbon, we were attacked by aircraft. Down came the bombs and the blast blew me 80ft, down a hatch.
The ship was sinking and 13 others were lying injured around me. I learned later that we had all been brought up on deck by the skipper, Captain Stormont.
Just before the ship went down, my bunkmate saw me lying unconscious on the deck. Thinking I was dead, he took papers and other personal documents from my pockets to give to my mother.
Then checking my life jacket, (just in case I had life left in me) he threw me into the water. My life jacket kept me afloat, but I must have been a sorry mess — head badly lacerated, a bit off my left ear and my arm shattered.
I drifted for seven hours until a wave washed me against one of the lifeboats. I seemed to regain consciousness for a moment, for I remember two sturdy arms reach down and drag me aboard.
The arms belonged to one of 40 nuns, the sole occupants of the lifeboat. I was unconscious for two and a half days.
The nuns’ boat was sighted by HMS Moyla and I landed in a hospital in Casablanca.
When I recovered, instead of staying ashore like a sensible young lad, I joined another ship. However, apart from a few bouts of malaria and a touch of the sun, the remainder of the war proved comparatively uneventful.
Thomas McKinley (81 yrs of age)
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