- Contributed by
- Arnold Whitehead
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 29 July 2003
In June 1942, HMS Barrymore sailed out of the South African city of Cape Town towing a damaged corvette, HMS Bellwort. Our destination: Durban, on South Africa's east coast. I was a signalman on board the Barrymore, but little did I know what lay ahead.
We, the crew, soon began to realise that the Cape of Good Hope in the southern hemisphere in wintertime could be rather an unpleasant place. A really tremendous storm was brewing up. The seas were becoming mountainous walls of water, and during the night the Bellwort slid down one side of one of the wave mountains and we slid down the opposite side, away from the Bellwort, which was helpless, of course, without rudder and no engines running. The six-inch steel hawser snapped like a violin string, the end attached to us striking our stern a frightening blow. We were left with the almost impossible task of trying to get the hawser reconnected to the corvette while looking to our own survival in what was now a raging hurricane. The wind in the ship’s rigging was making a fearful wailing noise, which was quite spirit-numbing.
During the night the skipper told us that the Barrymore was designed to withstand a roll of up to 45 degrees each way, and we had been rolling 50 degrees. The skipper’s detailed information was hardly likely to inspire confidence!
The situation aboard the Bellwort was grave in the extreme, with her crew all wearing inflated lifebelts on deck and ready to jump. The Barrymore turned on her searchlight to illuminate the scene while the end of the hawser attached to us was winched aboard.
It was at this point in the rescue attempt that I witnessed the most astonishing event I have ever seen. The seas were estimated to be 60 feet high. Torrential rain was also a major hazard, and we wondered if we would survive. The ship’s logbook recorded the conditions of the sea as 'precipitous', which was the worst of all on our graduated scale. In the midst of all this, a seaman was washed overboard. Within moments, by some miracle, the next giant wave brought him back on board, apparently none the worse for his ordeal!
By dawn the seamen had done a wonderful job in winching aboard and coiling our end of the hawser, and spent the whole of the day trying to get a line aboard the corvette to act as a lead tow for bigger ropes, followed finally by the six-inch hawser. At sunset we had a line across which we sent by rocket, and this led through a series of thicker ropes to the hawser being fed across the two ships and secured.
We were on our way to Port Elizabeth, our position 80 miles from Port Elizabeth, 35 degrees south, 25 degrees east, and we were wondering if we would ever make it there.
On Sunday, 5 July, we arrived at Port Elizabeth. The Mauritania II was in the harbour as I remember. Awaiting our arrival at Port Elizabeth was the Commander-in-chief South Atlantic, who sent up a signal saying, 'Well done Barrymore. Congratulations.' We felt not a little pride on this occasion. Enough to say that the crew of the Bellwort was extremely grateful and insisted on buying the drinks whenever they met us ashore. To be involved in such an experience and especially to witness a miracle makes one feel a little humble and realise that sometimes we are inclined to overdo our complaining.
Our mission was completed when we finally towed the Bellwort into Durban dockyard. This had been accomplished even though we were hearing reports that Japanese submarines were active in the area. We, with a ship in tow, would have been sitting ducks. This was confirmed when we received a signal on our wireless-telegraphy, 'ssss attack on SS Phemouis. Torpedo missed.' Thirty minutes later, 'ssss attack on SS Phemouis. Torpedoed and sinking.'
We also had messages that an armed enemy surface raider was operating and two more merchant ships had been sunk, so all in all we were more than grateful that we had arrived without any loss of life. It seems that it was just our good luck to survive.
The Movietone News Bulletin at a cinema we visited was largely about the worst hurricane around the Cape of Good Hope for at least 14 years. The film showed damage that had been done to Cape Town and neighbouring townships around the Cape, quite extensive damage, too. We felt a little taller having achieved what we had done.
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