- Contributed by
- Hull City Libraries
- People in story:
- George Amyes
- Location of story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 21 May 2004
11th August 1942 13.15hrs HMS Eagle
I was standing in the shade of No.1 starboard 6" gun, fifty feet above the waterline. The Eagle shuddered with four distinct lurches. For some reason I thought we had hit a school of whales! The deck tilted under my feet and to my astonishment I saw a pair of seaboots flying through the air and disappear overboard. These were followed by other pieces of debris and as the ship began to list I realised that we were in serious trouble.
Loose fittings began to clatter around. Frightened voices shouted and men began to stream up from the lower decks to reach higher positions. Bodies were already floundering in the water below. And the wake of the Eagle had developed a distinct curve as the vessel pulled out of line. The rhythmic throb of the main engines died away and the ship slewed further around rapidly keeling over.
Looking over the side I was amazed to see that the green slimed bulge of the torpedo blister was above the surface of the water. (Designed to withstand a charge of 750 per square inch, the torpedo blister was supposed to deflect the force of underwater explosions and preserve the hull of the ship.)
I never did hear the order to abandon ship, but when I saw marines jumping from the flight deck, hurtling past the gundeck, and hitting the rising torpedo blister as the ship keeled over I really did begin to get worried. Less than two minutes had past, and the marines that had smashed themselves to jelly when they jumped had already slithered away leaving behind a blood streaked trail of slime.
I clambered through the rails, and suddenly I to was sitting on the torpedo blister. Two ratings were already there, terrified, they could not swim. An officer slid between the two ratings and shouted, "now is your time to learn," and with a rating beneath each arm he dived into the sea. I never saw them again.
Taking a deep breath I blew up my inflatable lifebelt which was a permanent part of our dress when we were afloat. Remembering our survival lectures, I hurriedly kicked off my deck shoes, pushed myself away and before I could think I was upside down 20 feet under the water and frantically holding my breath whist I looked around for a lighter colour in my surroundings that would indicate the surface. The next few seconds seemed like a lifetime and as I broke through to the surface my throat and chest seemed to explode with relief.
When I was able to think, I heard someone shouting, "get the charges". "Oh my God!" I thought. The depth charges for the aircraft, were they primed? My horizon from wave level was limited. Eagle was just a bulge in my vision. The she was gone. My throat filled with bile, and as I looked around my small watery world I saw other frightened faces and suddenly I did not feel quite so lonely. "Swim away from the ship, depth charges, suction, the boilers will explode!" All these things went through my brain, but where was the ship? Which was the way to swim? Swim! Swim! Swim! The sea suddenly boiled; an unbelievable crushing pressure stunned my senses, and I spun around in the water like a toy and when I could think again I was once more in my own little watery world. Something bumped into me from behind; it was "Stripey", the twelve year service man who was the "Daddy" of our messdeck, but something was wrong. His face was discoloured, his eyes staring, and he was flopping uncontrollably in the water. I grabbed for him, and my clutch slithered down his torso, and suddenly there was nothing but mush.
From the waste down he was just offal, sliced in half, and gone. Panic stricken I pushed him away and felt my stomache heaving uncontrollably. We drifted apart.
A ten feet length of timber came within my view and I kicked out for it and thankfully draped myself across its length. My relief was pathetic. A Carley float drifted close, it was filled to overflowing, but it was human companionship. I abandoned my length of timber and struck out for the float. As quickly as I swam the float was carried away even more quickly and again I found myself alone. SAometime after I saw another struggling figure in the water and made contact with him. He was weak and in great difficulty. I swam behind him, took him in my arms holding his head above water and tried to talk to him. His overalls were greasy and the buttons clogged. I was not able to get to his identity tags but I realised that he was one of the 'black gang' (an engineer. Gradually his struggles ceased and I wondered how badly he might have been injured. Clinging to him and trying to encourage him to make an effort we drifted away together.
Time seemed to standstill and have no meaning. Gradually I bacame aware that his struggles had stopped; I looked into his face, his eyes were rolled back until just the whites were showing, his mouth hung slackly open rimed with a green froth and as the sea washed over his face he made no move to protect himself. I would not believe that he too was dead; if we could be picked up now there might still be time for him!
Swim! Kick! Breathe! Spit! The actions became automatic. Look for the sun. What is the angle? How long have we been together? My own clothing was waterlogged! I could not strip off my overalls without loosing my lifebelt! I would not strip off my overalls because of the terrible stinging wounds that could be inflicted by jellyfish.
Eventually I reached over and released the valve on his lifebelt. I thought, he is dead now. If he can sink, at least the seagulls will not peck out his eyes. Once again I was alone and once again a spar of drifting wood saved me. Suddenly there was a second spar! How I managed I do not know but I heard my own voice laughing and shouting; a spar was under each arm crossed like a great V in front of me and I was layed between the two spars kicking my feet and legs up and down and plunging forward at great speed - to nowhere!
How long! It did not matter! Just plunge along and when you are too tired just lie between the two spars and sleep until you cannot wake. My eyes were sore with salt water. I layed my head on my arm, my legs dragged behind me and I began to slip away. Voices! It was only a dream! Voices again! I looked up! There were other people in the water. They were all looking in the same direction and waiving! What was it? Another Carley float? A lifeboat perhaps - no it could not be a lifeboat - everything had happened too fast! No one would have had time to launch a lifeboat. Perhaps it was one of the cork survival nets!
When I could focus again I saw a small ship. It was almost stopped, scrambling nets were over the sided and willing hands were pulling in survivors. Stimulated into action I began to propel my two spars towards the ship; I tried to steer towards the bows of the ship, and when I thought the time was right I abandoned the two spars and weakly swam for the ships side. One rope went past, a scrambling net went past, and I tried to swim more quickly. I was almost exhausted. The weight of my clothes dragging me back and under - it was all in vain - I was going to be left behind. A rope was thrown from somewhere amidships - the ship was slowly moving forward; slow as it was the rope screamed through my hands as I grabbed. Frantically I hung on and was swung alongside the vessel. I was almost into the rudder before I realised that I had a chance. Hand over hand against the force of the moving ship I pulled myself forward. Suddenly I was almost straight up and down and tears of frustration filled my eyes as I realised that I had no strength left to haul myself up the ships side.
There were encouraging shouts from the ship; I passed a loop of rope over my shoulders and around my waist and suddenly I was being hoisted up out of the water. Like a hooked fish, I was hoisted over the rails, uncoiled from the rope and roughly pushed to one side. Half carried. Half dragged. I was thrown amongst a heap of coughing, retching, vomiting humanity. How it happened I do not know but suddenly someone pushed a mug into my hands, "gulp this down at one swig; it will get rid of the oil in your gut." A mug of neat navy rum is a powerful purgative and soon I wished I was back in the comparative peace of the water.
This little ship was the tug 'Jaunty'. Armed with one obsolete three inch gun and two unofficial machine guns she almost capsized with the weight of the survivors clinging to her upperworks. One observer later said, "I could not see the ship - just a mass of bodies." This plucky little ship was later credited with shooting down a Junkers 88 when she rejoined the convoy.
Overcome with weakness after vomiting up the contents of my stomach I slumped down among some of the wretched survivors. Smothered in oil, blood, vomit and human excretia, totally unaware of my condition or whereabouts. Buckets of sea water were sloshed over us and we gradually became aware that we were required to move. A destroyer loomed over the little tug, scrambling nets draping her sides, and the half conscious victims were harried, bullied, cajoled and persuaded to scramble as best they could from the tug to the destroyer. How many fell between the two vessels I shall never know! On board the destoyer 'Laforey' I found a clear space on the 'iron deck' amidships and again slumped down in semi-conscouisness. The heat from the deck penetrated my overalls, and seared the skin from my legs. (From that day to this my legs have been as hairless as an adolescent virgin.) It was nightime before I really recovered. 'Laforey' and a second destroyer the 'Lookout' were returning to Gibraltar.
During the night, the survivors were shocked into wakefulness by a tremendous crashing sound, followed by sounds of wild confusion. In my half dazed condition I thought we had been torpedoed again. As daylight arrived it was seen that the destroyer which should have been on our port side was missing but a crippled destroyer was struggling out on our starboard side. The crippled destroyer was the 'Wolverine' who with 'Kepple' had been escorting the aircraft carrier ' Furious'.
'Wolverine' had rammed and sunk a surfaced Italian submarine, the 'Dagubar'. It was believed that the 'Dagubar' was on the surface recharging depleted batteries and could not submerge. There were no survivors. 'Wolverine's' bows were severly damaged.
'Lookout' our original companion had sped ahead to replace 'Wolverine' as escort to 'Furious'. Meanwhile 'Laforey' had taken on the role of sheepdog, and was forever circling the crippled 'Wolverine' as the two vessels made their tortuous way back to Gibraltar.
At Gibraltar I was given 24 hours to clean the clothing I was wearing - clean myself of oil, slime, blood and filth; and draw a minimum of essential clothing - in my case one pair of deck shoes - pass the medical officer - and if we could breathe we were declared fit for duty - report to administration, and be assigned to our new station.
THE CREW OF THE EAGLE NO LONGER EXISTED.
72 hours after being hit by Helmut Rosenbaum's torpdoes, which had been so skilfully discharged by Heinz Matejke, (a man who was later to become a close friend), I was hard at work on the old but faithful aircraft carrier 'Argus'. Damaged aircraft which neede major repairs were being shipped back to England, and I was to make the voyage back working to salvage as much as possible.
This was to be one of the only four times that I was able to enjoy the company of my wife during the 8 years of my service with the Fleet Air Arm.
NO HEROES DEATH FOR THOSE WHO DIE
IN BOATS WHERE NONE CAN SEE.
NO WREATHS, NO FLAGS, NO BUGLE CALLS -
JUST PEACE, BENEATH THE SEA
In memory of all who died under, on and over the sea.
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