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Malta Convoy - Chapter 5

by Roland Hindmarsh

Contributed by 
Roland Hindmarsh
People in story: 
Roland Hindmarsh
Location of story: 
Mediterranean
Article ID: 
A3764496
Contributed on: 
09 March 2005

Chapter Five : RESCUED

The carley float

I made my way round to where Lankester was hanging to a loop of rope and spoke quietly in his ear.
'We're not getting any nearer.'
He nodded, rather dispiritedly.
'But the men on the carley float over there are still paddling, ' I pointed out.
Lankester looked up at me.
'We could swim over to them,' I proposed.
He gazed across the surface of the water, smooth, glinting here and there. 'It's a long way.'
'Only about four hundred yards.'
'I'm not sure I can do it.'
'You've got your lifebelt. All you've got to do is keep going gently ... I'll swim by you.'
He studied my face. 'Promise you won't leave me then?'
'I'll be with you.'

He pushed away from the raft and began to swim, using an old-fashioned trudgeon stroke, quite vigorously at first, and then settling into a slacker style. I used the breast stroke, or lay floating on my back waiting for Lankester to catch up the few yards I had gone ahead of him.
'Where are you off to?' A voice called out from the raft we had abandoned.
Neither of us bothered to answer. I didn't want to reveal our intentions clearly in case others at the raft got the same idea, and the men on the float refused to let us hang on, out of fear for the float's capacity or buoyancy. I had not reckoned however on the fact that the float was moving inshore about half as fast as we were swimming. After twenty minutes we appeared to be still only mid-way between raft and float, and Lankester was plainly tiring.
'Take a short rest,' I told him. 'Blow some more air into your life-jacket.'

The life-jackets issued in the Navy then were primitive in their construction: they would not keep you afloat by themselves; you had to scissor gently with your legs to keep your head above water. They consisted of an inflatable rubber ring around your chest under the armpits, with a nozzle; the ring was covered with cloth and fitted with straps to tie on round your shoulders, with a loop round the back of your neck. On these inadequate air tubes now depended Lankester's survival, and possibly mine too.

After a couple of minutes we swam on again, very slowly reducing the distance between us and the carley float. I could see that it held many more men than I had reckoned from further off. A lot were inside, sitting on the inner edge, or simply standing on the wooden flooring that was suspended two or three feet underwater, held to the outer ring by rope netting.
'Ahoy!' I called out. 'Float ahoy!'
There was no response. Some of the men sitting at the edge of the float were using their hands as paddles making the float head towards the shore.
'Ahoy there!' I shouted again.
A couple of heads looked in my direction, and then turned away again without uttering any sound. I felt they were set on ignoring me, behaving as if they hadn't heard or understood.
I swam back a dozen yards to rejoin Lankester; his arms were by now lifting only sluggishly as alternately they performed a weary trudgeon.
'I'm going on to make contact with the float, and then I'll come back to you. I've got to get them to stop paddling for a while to let you catch up.'
He didn't reply; he seemed to be in a kind of mechanically moving stupor, as if these weary movements of the body were all his mind and body knew.
'I'm off to the float,' I repeated, 'and I'll come back for you.'
Still no signs of understanding.
I left, glad at last to be able to swim at my own speed. Within minutes I was only twenty yards from the float. This time several heads had turned, and were looking at me with glazed expressions.
'There's a weak swimmer out there,' I called out, gasping a little from my exertions as I trod water.
They just continue to stare blankly in my direction. I now saw that the whole float was ringed with men hanging on, up to their necks in water; many were grey with fatigue, and obviously unable to think outwards from themselves. Suddenly I feared I would not be able to get through into their minds. I swam on in a burst to the float, and grabbed a few inches of looped rope at its side.
'Look,' I said, 'There's a weak swimmer out there, he's my oppo, you've got to help him.'
'We've got all we can handle here now,' said one voice.
'Yeah, why did you leave your raft?' asked another.
'We were making no headway, and the current was taking us up the coast.'
'Best just stay where you are then,' murmured a third voice.
I looked up in desperation. A few pairs of eyes were now looking out across the water at Lankester. He was still trying to swim, but now even more sluggishly.
'You can see he's weakening,' I appealed. 'Just lay off paddling for a minute or two and I'll bring him in.'
'We can't leave him there, mates,' said a new voice, with greater strength. 'Let's give ourselves a spell.'
'Poor bastard, he's not got much go left in him.'
The swirl of water round the float ceased. I broke away, and swam back with renewed hope to Lankester, calling out to him that the carley float was waiting for him, that there weren't many yards to go, that he was doing fine ... His energy picked up for a little while, and then suddenly seemed to fail; he hung his head forward, and his arms stopped moving. Alarmed, I swam up close to him. His head lifted and he glared at me.
‘Shall I pull you in ?’ I asked. 'Lie on your back, and I’ll tow you.’
For answer he glared again, and recommenced his trudgeon. I swam alongside, glancing nervously at the carley float, now about fifty yards away, fearful lest they should find his progress too slow and begin paddling once more. To make sure contact was not lost, I swam quickly towards the float and then back to Lankester, encouraging him with my voice not to give up. Voices from the float then joined me, and I knew we were safe, provided he could make the last few yards without sinking. Once again he appeared to collapse, and then recovered. A minute later I guided his hand to a loop of rope on the float and he hung there by my side, totally exhausted.

Now the seamen on the float started to paddle again with their hands, and some of those in the water to kick. The ponderously slow movement in towards the shore was resumed.
After a while Lankester raised his head and looked at me. 'You bastard!' he hissed.
I looked blank. 'What the hell do you mean?'
'You bastard!' he whispered again. 'Leaving me alone like that1'
'But I told you,' I said. 'I had to contact the float or they wouldn't have waited.'
'You promised! His eyes were full of hatred and anger. 'You promised not to leave me. Remember?'
I was too hurt and too weary to reply. I simply pushed away from that part of the float and swam round it until I could find another handhold. My own span of attention had all at once shrunk, and I found that my mind could focus on nothing more than the rope I was holding, and the heat of the sun burning into my scalp, and the cruel glint of its rays on the wavelets in front of my face.

Destroyers

The daze I was in deepened, and for the first time I felt cold deep within my body. The passage of time seemed to stretch out into another dimension …
'The picket-boat's coming out again,' someone said. 'There's not many floats now between her and us.'
'Could be our turn, then?' another voice asked.
There was a stir of interest amongst the men. I tried to get sight of the craft, but had to wait several minutes before the float swung around enough for me to see a launch with a squat funnel about half a mile away, hove to amidst a cluster of rafts and floats. I thought I could just make out survivors being helped aboard. In the bright sunlight, the upperworks of the launch and its hull too seemed to be painted in a pinkish ochre, and to glow warmly and welcomingly.

'Two destroyers on the starboard beam!' The voice rang out with authority, breaking the daze into which we had all in varying measures succumbed. Heads stretched round to catch a glimpse of the ships reported.
'They're Eye-ties, lads!' shouted one seaman. 'Paddle for your lives!'
'How can you tell?' countered another. 'They're bows on!'
A furious argument broke out. Some men had begun paddling hard; others kept still. I swam round to get a proper look, for I had been hanging on the wrong side of the float. Two slim warships had rounded the headland and were making straight for us, a great bow wave frothing white against the blue as they drove ahead.
'They're not Eye-ties,' said another seaman. ‘Look at the superstructure, the radar in it. They're British destroyers!’
A half-hearted cheer went up, but many on the float were not convinced.
'Supposin' they’re Eye-ties, after all, though. Better be interned by the French than imprisoned. Let's make for the picket-boat, lads. At least we know what they are.'
'Yeah, that's where the rest of our mates have gone.'
'I've served in bloody destroyers,' protested the second seaman, 'and I’ve stared at their lines abeam, ahead and astern till I could draw them in my sleep. Those are British destroyers, I tell you. Don't you bloody want to be rescued? Don't you want to get home then?'
The picket-boat had picked up all the survivors round it and began to make towards us. The destroyers were now within a mile. Suddenly their guns opened up and the water near the picket-boat burst into little feathers of spray.
'They're ours!' bellowed the first seaman, switching his opinion. 'Make for them!'
As if in confirmation, the destroyers swung to port, showing their full lines.
Now there was no doubt; we could even see the white ensign at the stern. Everyone began paddling and kicking like mad towards the Royal Navy ships. Glancing back, I saw that the French picket-boat had turned tail and was making all the speed she could for the shore.

One of the destroyers moved into the centre of the remaining rafts and floats while the other one patrolled swiftly to seaward of the survivors. We made for the stationary vessel as rapidly as we could, shouting 'Ahoy there! - perhaps in fear of being left behind if for instance enemy aircraft should suddenly appear and attack. The rescue destroyer now began moving from float to float, and very soon drew up within twenty yards of ours.
At once those hanging on the ropes round the float let go and began swimming for the destroyer's side, I among them. I could hear the re-assuring purr of the ship's machinery - a living vessel, as the Manchester had once been. The smell of diesel oil grew stronger as I approached the scrambling net that had been slung from the upper deck amidships to help us aboard.
'Throw us a line, then,' I heard from the direction of the carley float. Only a few yards for me to go. Four, three, two, one - and I had hold of the rough texture of the rope netting. The throbbing of the ship's engines re-verberated gently in the hull against my fingers.

'Watch it, then. Easy does it!' The words were followed by a shout of warning and a lot of splashing. I turned to see all the men still in the carley float being pitched into the water as the thing turned completely over. The weight of escaping men on one side had pressed one edge down too deep.
In the welter of thrashing bodies, a voice rang out among them. 'There's a non-swimmer - he's trapped underneath!'
Over my head a figure flashed - a seaman from the destroyer had dived in. Just a few strong strokes brought him to the float. He duck-dived. In seconds he had dragged someone clear.

The float now lay still; men were approaching the net, so I started to climb up. I managed to get half of my body out of the water, and then stuck. My legs refused to take my weight. Two destroyer ratings climbed down and dragged me up on board; I crawled towards the torpedo tubes on my hands and knees. The metal deck near them was warm no, hot. I crawled back on the wooden deckboards and looked back. Manchester seamen were coming inboard, amongst them Joner, with his rescuer. It was he who had almost drowned under the float.
Moments later the deck vibrated and we were under way. Now it was the turn of the other destroyer to pick up the rest of the survivors, while we patrolled. I sat on the deck, too weak to stand. The sun was gradually sending into warming shafts deep into all the parts of my body that had grown cold. The relief at being out of the water, and on board a British ship again, relaxed me: all I wanted to do was sleep. I turned my overall down to the waist, and tied the arms round me. Wearing only a singlet above the waist, I crawled up on the coconut matting spread over the torpedo tubes to protect them from the heat, and fell asleep at once.
On the destroyer

I have the impression that, as I lay there, I was shaken more than once in an effort to rouse me, but to no avail, for I refused to respond, and may even have grunted at whoever it was to leave me alone; I was too much in need of more sleep. In the end two sailors came and took my arms, one on either side, saying something about captain's orders. They persisted till they had lifted my shoulders up clear of the matting. The sunlight was still so much in my eyes that I could scarcely focus; but slowly I realised that an officer was facing me, and telling me to stand up. With the help of the two sailors I slid off the matting, but the moment I put my legs on the deck, they crumpled under me and I would have collapsed had I not been caught.
'Take him for'ard!' I thought I heard the officer say. The sailors threw my limp arms round their necks and dragged me along, my bare feet rubbing uselessly on warm wooden surface of the decking, and then, once in shadow, on the familiar linoleum of the messdeck. They laid me down athwartships, my head close to the hull, my feet pointing inwards, close to other Manchester survivors, of whose presence I became only dimly aware before falling asleep again.

During the night I woke up, feeling hot and feverish. My arms and shoulders, which had been exposed to the Mediterranean August sun while I lay spreadeagled on the tubes, burned painfully: I felt ill and confused. My throat was parched with thirst, so dry as to be painful. But the recollection of the torpedo striking the Manchester was still vivid in my memory, and I could not stop imagining a torpedo plunging into the hull at my head - exploding in a shattering noise, reducing the messdeck to debris, and causing the frantic, panicking rush of all those survivors jamming in the two small openings that gave out on to the open deck amidships. In my weak condition I knew that I couldn't make it; I would be shouldered out of the way. Yet the determination to survive, now that I had been once rescued, grew all the stronger almost because of my enfeebled state. So when one of the destroyer's crew came around with drinking water, I signalled urgently to him, and drank eagerly; it was the first matter of any kind I had swallowed since quitting the Manchester .

I must have fallen asleep several times, and woken again in various levels of feverishness during the remainder of the night. I remember being aware of the sound of the water tearing past my head on the other side of the hull, only a few inches from me. It gave a sense of power and menace, all the more when I recalled that the plates of the vessel were no more than an eighth of an inch thick. The destroyer was fast, and I reckoned fuzzily that we must be making about thirty knots: every sea mile we put behind us brought us that much further from the dangerous narrows near Sicily. But the sides of the vessel were thin, and offered almost no protection against shells or torpedoes, or against aerial bombing.

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