INDIAN OCEAN RESCUE
This is the story of my rescue together with 46 other men from one of five rafts in the middle of the Indian Ocean. It was in February 1944. My ship, S.S. Fort Buckingham had been sunk some two weeks earlier (the night of Jan. 20th.) by the German U-boat U 188, 500 miles west of the Laccadive Islands. The ship sank in less than six minutes, before any lifeboats could be launched. 38 men were lost as the ship sank, including all the officers other than the Chief Engineer.
As the days wore on the hopelessness of our situation became more and more real. We were becoming detached from the world at large. We really were in a world of our own and that world ceased at the horizon. We had been ignorant of the stalking U boat. We did not know where we were. We could only speculate on the prospect of rescue. We wondered if anyone at all was concerned about our plight.
We were all desperately "Home Sick". We chatted together only at morning and evening ration time. Our thoughts were of home and we dreamed of exotic food and drink. Feelings of religious fervor began to develop, convinced that we were entirely at the mercy of the Almighty. In spite of all the physical privation I soon realized the ultimate battle for survival would take place in our minds.
Missed by Mist
Our ninth day adrift (Saturday, Jan 29th) was cloudy, overcast and with poor visibility. It was on that day, a passing ship the British freighter S.S. Moreby located a raft containing five of our gunners and two Lascar seamen. It seems certain her captain preferred to maintain radio silence and so sailed on to land our comrades in Western Australia. One might reasonably suppose, if the weather had been clear on that Saturday, S.S. Moreby would have seen all the rafts, taken us all aboard and saved us another week of anguish.
From my raft on the eleventh day (Monday Jan. 31st), just after sunset, we saw smoke on the horizon. It was smoke from the M.V. Kongsdal, a Norwegian freighter. We were unable to attract the ship's attention but, unknown to us, she had sighted and picked up other shipmates from a distant raft. At risk to her own safety and possibly contrary to orders the Norwegian captain broke radio silence and sent a radio message alerting Naval Authorities ashore to our plight
Catalinas from Koggola.
Within hours of receipt of the radio message from the Kongsdal two Catalinas from RAF 205 squadron and one form RCAF 413 squadron were airborne; on their way from Koggola (in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka) to Kelai (at the Northern end of the Maldive Islands) to commence the rescue operation. The flight time from Koggola to Kelai was little less than five hours. That was on February 1st. our 12th. Day adrift. Refueling at Kelai was by floating out and manhandling forty-gallon drums of aviation fuel. Nevertheless by midnight that same day Catalina F413 was on her way to find us. When she had flown 450 miles west from Kelai she was recalled and landed having been sixteen hours in the air. (This was in the late afternoon of Wednesday February 2nd, our 13th.day) F413 was immediately refueled but her radio was defective which meant she had to return to Koggola for repairs.
The Omen of the Shark
On the evening of our 13th. day (Wednesday February 2nd.) a cuttle fish floated alongside the raft. It was immediately taken aboard and on it we were surprised to find a number of small crabs. Taffy (Richard Hughes-Jones) had been tirelessly but fruitlessly casting a hook over the side for the previous 13 days. Taffy put one of the small crabs on his fishhook, threw it over the side and immediately landed a baby-sized shark. Our Lascar seamen sprang to life and took control of the situation. One held its tail off the deck another its head while the third slit down its side from head to tail. One of them exclaimed, "Today catch shark, tomorrow ship come". The event clearly raised their spirits as for the previous 13 days they had sat isolated and silent. It transpired that on one other raft at about the same time in the evening an old boot floated alongside them. It was hauled aboard and again found to contain small crabs. With one of these as bait they also succeeded in landing a shark of similar size. This again their first success after 13days of failure.
The fish flesh was pure white but far too tough and unpleasant to eat raw.
Among the raft's emergency equipment were storm matches. With dry wood chipped from the raft we lit a fire. An old water container was filled with seawater and shark steaks. After 10 minutes the fish was cooked and ready to eat. We did our best to swallow it but really with limited enthusiasm as our real and desperate need was for water. We had long ago lost any yearning for food. Needless to say we took little heed of the Lascars optimism and settled down for yet another uncomfortable night ignorant of the vast operation already under way for our rescue.
Why was Catalina F413 recalled so early, before reaching the search area? Disaster had befallen Catalina J205. Soon after dawn, on take off, she had crashed and her entire crew was now dead. This was on Wednesday February 2nd. Our 13th.day. To avoid striking wreckage form the crash it was essential for all aircraft to return and land in daylight. At the time of the crash Sqdn.Ldr. Melville Jackson and his crew in T205, having themselves just become airborne, looked on helplessly to see J205 in difficulties as she failed to gain height then crash into the sea, her depth charges exploding on contact. T205 flew west towards the search area but she also was recalled before reaching the search area and so landed back at Kelai after an eight-hour patrol.
Reinforcements and Results.
Our 14th. Day, Thursday February 3rd. J205 had crashed and the radio of F413 was defective. T205 was the only operational aircraft remaining at Kelai to proceed with the search. However soon after dawn Sq. Ldr. Melville Jackson and crew aboard T205 resumed the search. Replacements for the crashed J205 and the Canadian Catalina F413 were on their way from Kelai to Koggola.
So far as we could judge it was about 3.30 or 4.0 p.m. when one of the gunners on my raft claimed he could hear the sound of an aircraft. We scanned the sky and sure enough saw a speck in the sky but could not be sure that we had been sighted. We used the lids of ration tins to reflect the suns rays and to flash in the direction of the approaching aircraft hoping to attract attention. Although the aircraft was not flying directly towards us we were encouraged, as she seemed to be losing height. We were soon certain, as what was to us, now clearly a Catalina flew over us at a height of not much more than 50 feet. The faces of some of the crew were clearly visible as they leaned out of the blister on the port side. They were as excited as we were. They used an aldis lamp to signal to us but with our limited facility at morse and excitement we could not read it.
Crew of Catalina T205
Sgt.Walter Womersley, Sqdn.Ldr.Melville Jackson, W/O.Bernard Palmer, F/O.Jeff Alt
W/O.Joe Moss, F/Sgt.Tubby Cole, F/Sgt.Harry Arnold, W/O.Frank Millner
As we assimilated our good fortune at being found the drama was heightened when T205 dropped a number of depth charges some distance away. We could not believe she had sighted a lurking U-boat. Relief came when she lowered her wing floats and attempted to land on the sea. From our position on the raft we knew there was a considerable swell which no doubt was not evident from the air. After touching down Sq. Ldr. Melville Jackson deemed the attempt too risky, revved his engines and climbed away. Next T205 flew straight at us and dropped a bag of provisions with quite remarkable precision landing no more than an arms length from the raft. We easily recovered the parcel and opened it to find seven service water bottles, chocolate, biscuits, sweets and cigarettes. There was also a Very pistol and cartridges for use as distress signals. T205 continued to fly around but eventually as the sun sank in the sky she flew off leaving us to spend another night of isolation beneath the stars.
With barely sufficient fuel for the return flight T205 relied on astro navigation to make a safe landing at Kelai in the darkness at around 9.30pm that night.
Little thought was given to how much longer we would remain adrift. I suppose we were just overwhelmed at our good fortune and settled down to explore the "Manna from Heaven". It was an occasion for another bonfire. Our twilight feast comprised two varieties of hot soup and two varieties of hot Horlicks. The soup was made from water and beef pemmican. This was served as a consommé while by the addition of ground up biscuits we were able to offer a thick soup as an alternative.
Likewise, with the Horlicks, we ground Horlicks tablets into boiled water to serve as a plain Horlicks drink whilst ground chocolate was melted and added into this to create Chocolate Horlicks.
Hopes and Fears.
As we settled down for the night the speculation revolved around what we might expect next day. We assumed at least that at first light another Catalina would appear with a ready prepared diet. The most popular hope was for chicken sandwiches and blackcurrant juice. Alas, although we were soon greeted by the engines of Catalina M205, her Thornaby bag dropped wide, beyond our reach, so that we were never to know what goodies it contained. We now began to regret the extravagance of our previous evenings indulgence and looked with foreboding at our depleted reserves of water.
Friday (Feb.4th.) passed with no sign of a ship but with modest reassurance as Flight Lt. Levack and his crew in M205 circled relentlessly until the early evening.
Records show that Canadian Catalina D413 (Flight Lt. Grandin) was scheduled to relieve M205 but failed to rendezvous and returned to Kelai without locating us.
Safe At Last.
Saturday February 5th. was our sixteenth day adrift. We were beginning to wonder just how much longer it would be before a ship arrived. Our concern increased with passing time, as there was no sign of even a Catalina. From time to time we heard the faint sound of engines but it was well on in the day before the events became clear. The Norwegian tanker MV Ora was some four hundred miles to the north of us when she was first alerted to our plight. On that Saturday morning she was approaching our position and so T 205's priority was to locate her. For the rest of the day T205 shuttled too and fro leading Ora towards us.
At long last the MV Ora appeared over the horizon. She was low in the water, fully laden with aviation spirit. She steered straight towards us and stopped her engines. With the great efficiency for which Norwegian seamen are known a boat was lowered under the command of the Third Officer. When it was within hailing distance our first question was "Where are you bound?" and we rejoiced to hear
2Australia". You see, we had fantasized about our treatment upon rescue and were very clear that Australia was the best place to be landed. We had heard of the generosity with which Australians, especially in the Western ports, treated Allied seamen. Later events conspired to make this a false hope.
As we drew alongside Ora darkness was beginning to fall. The tanker was so low in the water that it was not difficult for us to scramble aboard. The ship was as steady as a rock on the smooth sea but so distorted was my sense of balance from sixteen days of the rocking raft that the deck seemed to heave forcing me to collapse onto the deck. With assistance I was soon able to walk on the deck and was immediately invited by the Fourth Engineer to occupy his cabin in the after part of the ship. In the Engineer's mess room I was presented with a roast meal including pork chops but first drank seven cups of coffee. I felt sure that to break my fast with pork chops was unwise. Surely one should have an invalid diet like bread in milk or porridge. So overwhelming was the hospitality that I felt obliged to make the most of the feast and was unaware of any serious after effects.
Once we were aboard Ora she immediately steamed off towards the raft under the charge of the Bosun, Mr. MacPherson, who with his companions were soon taken aboard. Physically they appeared in a condition similar to my immediate companions but I noted that Mr. MacPherson had a rather wild look in his eyes to suggest he had had a rather harrowing time. On his raft the proportion of Indians to Europeans had been greater than on my raft so that he was weighed down by a greater sense of isolation and responsibility.
In the gathering twighlight Ora then located a third raft. We were quite unprepared for the sight of these survivors as the Third Mate steered the lifeboat towards us. I was unable to recognize any of these men, so wasted were their bodies. After the war one became familiar with the sight of released prisoners from the Japanese camps. These Indians resembled some of the worst examples. Sadly one of their number had died the previous day and had been cast over the side of the raft. Another was dead when hauled onto the deck of Ora.
Silent under a moonlit sky.
By this time Catalina T205 had left the scene and, low in fuel, was returning to Kelai .It was assumed there were survivors from the remaining two rafts yet to be located. Nothing more could be attempted until morning light. Ora's engines were stopped and the ship remained motionless on a smooth sea under a bright moonlit sky. Regardless of having had almost no sleep for sixteen days I found little rest. With our cargo of ten thousand tons of aviation spirit we were a sitting target for any lurking U-boat. As I tossed and turned in my bunk, in my mind, I went repeatedly through all the events of the last sixteen days from the point when the torpedo struck until I was safely aboard Ora.
Back to Bombay.
Early on Sunday morning (Feb. 6th) two Canadian Catalinas D413 and F413 arrived and circled. At this point we survivors were ignorant of the fate of the men on the two rafts, which had drifted, out of our sight early in our ordeal.
Numerous radio messages were exchanged with the authorities ashore until it was concluded there were no more survivors to be picked up. At this point we were informed that we were to be taken off the Ora and returned to Bombay. The reason given to us was that Ora had insufficient provisions to feed us during the long voyage to Australia, but on reflection, I believe it was due to concern for the condition of the sick Indian survivors. One more Indian died during the night. A Royal Indian Navy Mine Sweeper the Rajputana had sailed from Cochin to rendezvous but in the early afternoon we were taken off by the destroyer HMS Redoubt that was escorting the troopship SS Mooltan from Australia to Bombay. I have a lasting somber memory of the scene as we stepped from the deck of the Ora to the lifeboat. On the after deck of the Ora, ready for committal to the deep were the two Indian bodies stitched in canvas bags. We had an audience of several thousand ANZAC troops as we were taken by lifeboat from the Ora to the Redoubt, while the Mooltan circled at full speed. The troops were so moved by the sight of this mid ocean drama that they took up a collection on our behalf, a very pleasant surprise for us to receive on landing.
Aboard Redoubt we were separated according to rank. The Chief Engineer Ted Greenway, Hubert Steele and I were entertained in the Ward Room, The Bosun and Chief Steward went to the Petty Officers Mess and the remainder to the Lower Deck. A number of the Indians were put on drips by the Doctor in the sick bay but sadly before reaching Bombay two more died.
The first night aboard Redoubt was again sleepless. My mind repeatedly went over the events of the last seventeen days. It was not until the ships doctor gave me a sleeping draught that I began to relax and enjoy my first full nights sleep for nearly three weeks.
Raft No.1 Picked up by S.S.Moreby and landed in Western Australia.
Petty Officer A.Collings, Gunners J.Jones,
R.Morrison,T.Beaney,T.Dwyer,J.Ashton and two Lascar seamen
Raft No.2 Picked up by Norwegian ship MV.Kongsdal heading for the
Cape of Good hope.
L.Sargeant J.Blagden(subsequently awarded the the British
Empire Medal and the Lloyds medal for saving life at sea)
Gunner C.Ashton and five Lascar seamen.
Raft Nos. 3,4&5 found by Catalina T205 Serial number W8406, picked
up by the Norwegian Tanker MV.Ora, transferred to
HMS Redoubt and landed in Bombay.
Raft No.3 Chief Engineer E.Greenway, Apprentices N.Gibson & H.Steele,
Purser W.Hamilton,Gunners S. Savage,R.Hughes-Jones,
G.Clewlow,R..Mitchell and three Lascar seamen.
Raft No.4 Boatswain D.MacPherson,GunnersT.H.Steel,J.Metcalfe and eight
Raft No.5 Fifteen Lascar seamen of whom five subsequently died from
Killed or Drowned
,2nd.Engineer N.Lambert,3rd.Engineer A.Coverdale,4th.Engineer H.Paterson,
Ch.Radio Officer M.Egan,2nd.Radio Officer G.Fraser,3rd.Radio Officer R.Herford
Twentyone Lascar seamen