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Gloucester in 1941 Rate this photo
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This is an extract from J.E. Price book, "Heels in Line ". The title refers to how the sailors left their shoes on the deck when they left the Gloucester for the last time. He was a gunner on the ship and spent the rest of the war in various POW camps in Greece, Austria and Germany . At the end of the war, he was in a camp in Poland and was freed by the Americans. He was suffering from frost bitten toes (which were amputated without anaesthetic). He was flown back to Britain suffering from Typhoid and was not expected to survive the journey. Eventually, he was de-mobbed back to his home in Exmouth where he became a postman and where he spent the rest of his life. He very patriotically died on Trafalgar Day in 1978 - a sailor until the end!
The book is out of print, but is well worth reading if you can get a copy.
THE DEATH OF A SHIP
On the bridge of HMS Gloucester the Officer of the Watch glanced at the compass in front of him and then spoke authoritatively into the voice pipe at his elbow. " Slow ahead port. Slow astern starboard. Wheel amidships."
Slowly the high slender bow of the cruiser swung round until it was pointing directly towards the narrow harbour entrance.
Four destroyers slid past her and quickly disappeared into the white mist that was only just beginning to lift outside the harbour.
"Slow ahead both engines. Steer one four two degrees." In the wheelhouse below the helmsman adjusted the magnifying glass on his gyro compass and after a little expert juggling with the wheel reported back to the bridge "Both engines showing slow ahead. Steady on one four two degrees, sir."
Clearing the boom defence with only inches to spare, H.M.S. Gloucester headed for the open sea.
From a loudspeaker on the upper deck a youthful voice with a strong Scots accent instructed the 4-inch guns' crews to close up immediately and to keep a good look out for hostile aircraft and enemy submarines.
We were a cheerful ship's company that left Alexandria on that May morning of 1941 because an hour before departure Captain Rowley had told us that the ship would be returning to England within the next few days.
"I know you will all be glad to hear this news," the Captain had said, "but before we leave the Mediterranean there is a small job that has to be done. The Greek island of Crete is being invaded by German parachute troops and sea-borne convoys operating from Athens. Our task is to destroy these convoys before they reach their objective and when this has been accomplished we shall be free to return home to England."
This was good news indeed because an increasingly large number of the ship's company were beginning to crack up under the emotional strain to which they had been subjected during the past eighteen months.
For the whole of this time H.M.S. Gloucester had played an exceedingly active part in the Mediterranean war zone and it was because of this participation in every major event that took place that she earned for herself the nickname of "The Fighting G."
Our naval losses in the area were rapidly mounting up but the Gloucester bore a charmed life.
Occasionally we joined forces with units of the Mediterranean Fleet when there were large stakes in the offing but as a general rule we hunted alone.
During these excursions we bombarded shore batteries and installations, escorted small but exceptionally valuable convoys across the Indian Ocean, chased enemy E-boats, often with captivating results, acted as decoy to the Italian battle fleet and shelled Tripoli at point-blank range.
On the credit side we had much to be proud of but there was also a debit side.
A bomb, released from an unseen Italian bomber high up in the clouds, landed on the bridge of the Gloucester, killing everyone from the Captain down to the Marine boy bugler.
More men were killed when the ship hit a floating mine during the night and there were an even greater number of casualties when a bomb exploded a few feet away from the ship's side, blasting a huge, gaping hole in the steel wall of the Marine's mess-deck.
It was only natural that we should be shocked by these tragic events but they did not scare us half as much as the air raids which we had to combat both day and night, week after week, month after month.
Those who were forced to remain below decks during these bombardments from the air suffered the most because they could never be quite certain what was happening in the world above them.
To them the sound of a bomb exploding in the water was magnified a hundredfold but each and every one of them had a job to do and it is to their credit that they stayed below and did it.
Six hours after leaving Alexandria the ship was attacked by Italian fighters and torpedo-carrying aircraft and no sooner had we sent the detested Wops scurrying for home than a squadron of German bombers appeared on the scene.
This was our first encounter with the Luftwaffe who had only recently established themselves in the Mediterranean and we emerged from the fray without a scratch and the satisfaction of being able to chalk up two very large swastikas on the enamelled surface of our gun shields.
One enemy bomber, with smoke pouring from its tail, plunged info the sea only a few yards away from the ship's side and we were able to catch a glimpse of the pilot's face.
He was grinning broadly and just before his machine hit the water he raised a gloved hand in a last mocking salute.
When once again the radar screen showed a sky clear of enemy aircraft we restocked our ammunition lockers and made preparations for the next air attack which we felt would not be long in materialising.
From the Gunnery Officer came instructions that the 4-inch guns' crews would remain closed up until further notice and that they were to be in a state of constant readiness to ward off air attacks that might follow each other in rapid succession.
"The next twenty-four hours are likely to be the most critical," he warned us and went on to say: "The Luftwaffe are now operating from Sicily and we are certain to get a warm reception when they discover our motive for being in the neighbourhood of Crete."
There was just time to smoke a cigarette and gulp down some hot tea when the next consignment of German bombers hove into sight.
They came in from behind the slanting rays of the sun, dropped their bombs and quickly disappeared into the protective cover offered by the drifting clouds.
There was sheer contempt in their indifference to our gunfire because each flight came over in perfect arrow formation without once deviating from their original course.
The guns on the 4-inch gun-deck were still blazing furiously when nightfall came to relieve the nerve-racking strain experienced by those men who had no major part to play in the defence of the ship.
In the darkness we sponged out the guns and feloniously dropped the empty ammunition cylinders over the ship's side. Again the ammunition lockers had to be replenished and it was whilst this operation was in progress that we made the startling discovery that there was little more than five hundred rounds of ammunition left in the shell-room below. The Gunnery Officer was immediately informed of this unhappy state of affairs and it was assumed that he would pass the news on to the Captain who would in turn signal the unpleasant details to the Admiral in H.M.S. Warspite.
Quite obviously we would now be ordered back to Alexandria to embark more ammunition and as this evolution would take at least two days it was quite possible that by the time we returned to Crete all the invading German troops would either be killed or taken prisoners. We would then be able to set sail for England without any further delay.
Eight hours later, H.M.S. Gloucester was still steaming around in circles within easy striking distance of Crete, from which the Luftwaffe were now operating.
The German bombers were back on the job shortly after daybreak and it was obvious from the start that the pilots were out to get us at whatever cost to themselves.
Junkers, Messerschmitts and Stukas approached the ship from every conceivable angle and those of us who could see the great number of bombs that were exploding in the water around us, knew that survival was impossible under such a heavy bombardment.
With all our live ammunition gone, we loaded the guns with starshells and then with practice projectiles.
Apart from keeping the guns in action there was little advantage to be gained by firing these dummy shells, but the exploding starshells did cause something of a diversion.
It is possible that the Luftwaffe pilots thought that we were using some new type of secret weapon when they observed our starshell flares floating majestically down on the end of their white, billowing parachutes.
With her now-silent guns, H.M.S. Gloucester zigzagged desperately to avoid extermination; weaving a hazardous path through the "near misses " which tore great jagged holes in her side and deluged her decks with bomb splinters.
Within her thin, steel walls seven hundred men waited stoically for the death they now knew to be inevitable.
Cursing their inability to fight back, the guns' crews on the upper deck were forced to take cover as the Stukas roared low down over the ship, spraying her decks with machine-gun bullets and cannon shell.
The first bomb scored a direct hit on the after-director and a few minutes later a second bomb tore the port-after 4-inch gun clean out of its mounting and flung it spinning into the sea.
This was the bomb that proved the most devastating, because it destroyed our complete complement of boats and several useful carley floats.
The first-aid party was quickly on the scene but there was little for them to do.
Apart from a young seaman lying unconscious on the deck with an eighteen-inch splinter of wood embedded in his chest, and an elderly Maltese steward who was silently nursing a leg from which the foot was missing, the rest were beyond all human aid.
A Marine, standing beside the mangled body of his "opposite number," looked at his watch and then down at the still, silent figure at his feet. "Seven bells, old pal, but there will be no tot for you today," he said quietly and there was a twisted, ironical smile on his white, tortured face.
He straightened out the crumpled-up legs of his dead friend and then reverently covered his body with a strip of deck canvas.
I watched this ritual with a feeling of apathy and idly wondered how long it would be before it was my turn to shuffle off this mortal coil.
Suddenly there was a dull, muffled explosion which seemed to come from the direction of the engine-room.
The ship gave a violent shudder and we knew that an aerial torpedo had found its mark.
Another bomb crashed down on the ship and I heard someone say, quite calmly, "We've caught one up on the blasted bridge. The port hangar is on fire now."
Dense yellow smoke was pouring from the hangar and a great sheet of flame shot up as high as the mast.
I joined the fire party in an attempt to extinguish the fire but although surrounded by water there wasn't enough available to more than sprinkle the deck.
As I threw my canvas hose down in disgust a bomb exploded on the 4-inch gun-deck where such a short time ago I had been standing.
How much more punishment could this plucky ship take before she finally succumbed? How many more of her crew must be slaughtered before the water closed over her bloody decks to blot out the vision of this ghastly scene?
With her engines stopped and a slight list to port, H.M.S. Gloucester waited with traditional dignity for the final blow which would send her battered hulk slithering down below the surface of the blue waters upon which she had sailed so proudly in the past.
Five high-explosive bombs had demolished her superstructure, torn great gaping holes in her sides and an aerial torpedo had stopped the beating of her giant heart, and yet she still lived.
Her responsibility to the men who had served in her so joyfully in days of peace and who had, when war came, fought so valiantly to protect her from the explosive shells of the enemy warships, the menace of submarine attacks and aerial bombardment, only strengthened her determination to keep afloat as long as possible.
Men were now swarming up from below decks, tumbling over themselves in their anxious haste to escape from the doomed ship.
The two serviceable carley floats and all available pieces of timber were quickly thrown over the side and eagerly commandeered by laughing, cheering men.
For them the ghastly tension was over, to be replaced by fresh hope of survival and the buccaneering spirit of adventure.
Those who could swim, jumped into the water and struck out boldly for the large carley floats which the cruiser Fiji had thrown over the side as she steamed past us.
This was an exceedingly generous gesture on the part of H.M.S. Fiji because she was herself destroyed by a concentrated bombing attack later in the day.
The thirty-three men of the Gloucester's ship's company who were eventually picked up by a German rescue boat, owe their survival to the carley floats which the Fiji so unselfishly placed at their disposal.
Seventeen years have passed since that fateful day but we have not forgotten the great debt of gratitude that we owe to Captain W. William-Powlett, R.N., who was in command of H.M.S. Fiji at the time.
The bombs were no longer falling in our vicinity but now there was danger from within the ship itself. Owing to the intense heat from the burning hangar the pom-pom ammunition had become ignited and began to explode with terrifying results.
I stood by the guardrails for a little while, watching the macabre scene being enacted in the water below.
Along the whole length of the ship's side men were in the process of dying. Some died quickly and quietly, disregarding completely the conventional formalities generally associated with drowning. Others died slowly and painfully and with great fear. A few clambered inboard again, to stand pathetically on the upper deck for a few minutes before jumping back into the water again. For them, there was no escape. They believed death to be inevitable, as indeed it was.
Standing beside me was a man whom I had known for many years although the Gloucester was the first ship in which we had served together. He was gazing thoughtfully at the overcrowded carley floats which were now some three hundred yards from the ship.
Knowing his inability to swim, I wondered just how he was going to tackle this problem of self-survival, if indeed he had given the matter any thought at all.
As if in answer to my thoughts, he slipped off his life-jacket and flung it contemptuously into the sea. Slowly he clambered over the guard-rails and for a moment his eyes met mine, "Cheerio, Jack, I'll be seeing you," he said in a low voice.
I watched him drop into the water and disappear beneath the oily surface and found myself counting the seconds that elapsed before he reappeared. His eyes were closed and his face, calm and peaceful, upturned to the blue sky. There was movement only in his long, slender fingers which clutched feebly at the ship's side, to slide gently downwards until the water closed over them for the last time.
"What prompts a man to deliberately throw away his life in that manner? "There was a trace of bitterness in the voice that asked the question.
I turned to find the Padre standing behind me. "I find it very hard to believe that it really is the coward's way out," he said, shaking his head sadly.
"It may not be the act of a coward," I replied, "but the impulse of a very brave man."
The Padre placed his hands on my shoulders. "We are neither of us qualified to judge," he said gravely, "so we must leave the answer to that question to a very much higher authority." Mechanically my footsteps turned in the direction of the 4-inch gun-deck where I had spent almost every hour of the day and night since the beginning of hostilities, and where I had enjoyed so many happy hours of leisure before Hitler had set the world on fire and our pleasant, care-free days had become nightmares of fear and pain and death.
It would have been only natural to have felt deeply shocked at the appalling sight of the dead and dying men lying in grotesque heaps among the empty brass cylinders, but I experienced only a feeling of bitter resentment against the assailants who had so ruthlessly struck them down.
I found it hard to believe that their supreme sacrifice would not be in vain and that it was necessary for them to die so that others might live in peace and comfort.
Under the spiritual guidance of the Padre had we not prayed to God each morning to "preserve us from the violence of the enemy ?" Had we not also prayed "that we might return in safety to enjoy the blessing of the land, with the fruits of our labours and with a thankful remembrance of Thy mercies? "
Was this the way God had chosen to answer our prayers ?
I gazed into the white, distorted face of the youngest member of my gun's crew who, even during the most nerve-racking air attacks, when machine-gun bullets have been playing a deathly tattoo on the surface of his gun shield, when 8-inch shells have been screaming over his head . . . had not once been guilty of putting a wrong sight correction on his range dial or fail to repeat the many vital messages which are transmitted from the bridge to the gun. A bomb splinter had torn a great gaping hole in his stomach. He was still conscious, his earphones strapped to his head and all the agony of hell in his eyes.
Like Jack Cornwall, he too deserved the Victoria Cross for his bravery and devotion to duty, yet his only reward will be an injection of morphia, so that when the ship sinks beneath him, those pitiful, tortured eyes will be closed in sleep from which there will be no awakening.
I placed a rolled-up overcoat beneath his head. There was nothing else that I could do.
Near him lay the body of yet another of my gun's crew. I recognised John only by the blue hockey shirt and green football stockings which he always wore when closed up at "Action Stations" and which he relinquished only for a brief period when they were quickly washed and dried in the sun. Covering him with a blanket, I walked aft.
The quarter-deck was deserted except for a Marine who was seated on a bollard calmly smoking a cigarette. Both his legs had been smashed to pulp but what appeared to be so remarkable was the amazing fact that the Marine was quite unconscious of his terrible injuries.
He grinned and offered me a cigarette. "Nothing like a gasper to steady the nerves," he said cheerfully, tucking his cigarette case back into the breast pocket of his khaki tunic.
"How do you feel ? " I asked, and immediately regretted asking such a stupid question.
"Fine, just fine," he replied. I'm all set for a quick take off when the old girl starts to wobble."
I knocked the slips off the two lower guard-rails and unlashing a lifebuoy, placed it conveniently at his side.
"The wobble will probably start from this end," I warned him.
He smiled as I grasped his outstretched hand. "Don't worry about me. I'll be quite all right," he said quietly.
So he did know about those smashed legs, after all.
A stick of bombs exploded in the water off the starboard quarter, drenching us with thick, muddy water and for the first time I became conscious that my life was also in jeopardy and that something would have to be done if I wished to preserve it.
Yet I felt strangely reluctant to desert this grand ship which was struggling so heroically to remain afloat with her cargo of dead and dying men.
Dodging a hail of machine-gun bullets from three Stukas, I regained the 4-inch gun-deck where I was privileged to help a surgeon-lieutenant in administering morphia injections to those who were seriously wounded. It was good to know that the horror of drowning would not now be added to the suffering already experienced by these men.
This errand of mercy completed, we made our way to the forecastle, where some thirty-five men had congregated.
Many of them were diligently exploring their pockets in search of a hidden cigarette, whilst others, who had obviously completed this ritual without any apparent degree of success, were searching for discarded "dog ends " among the debris.
Each man had taken off his shoes and arranged them neatly alongside the guard-rail. Not a heel was out of line.
This group of men on the forecastle, who were waiting for the Captain's order to "Abandon Ship," included four officers, twenty-odd seamen and stokers, a Fleet Air Arm rating, a cook, two Marines and a Maltese steward.
"Blackie," the ship's cat was also present, cradled in the protective arms of a grimy-faced stoker.
The distant drone of aircraft had now become alarmingly audible and then from the bridge we heard the Captain's voice ordering everyone to "Take Cover."
In less than ten seconds thirty-odd men had disappeared as completely as if the deck had suddenly opened up and swallowed them.
Three German bombers were approaching the ship from the bows and flying so low that I could easily distinguish the markings on the fuselage. Strangely fascinated, I watched the bombs streaking downwards and in those few seconds I knew that complete annihilation was inevitable if those bombs exploded on the forecastle.
They did explode, not on the forecastle, not on the ship at all, but among a group of men swimming in the water about twenty yards off the starboard bow.
A ghastly feeling of nausea swept over me as three huge columns of water shot up high into the air signifying the wanton destruction of some twenty defenceless men.
Slowly, the Gloucester began to heel over until she lay at an angle of forty-five degrees. Fearing that the doomed ship might be ready to take the final plunge at any moment, Captain Rowley gave the order to "Abandon Ship."
Removing our outer garments, which were neatly folded up and placed in neat piles on the sloping deck, we lit a final cigarette and walked down the side of the ship into the water.
The Gloucester's bow gradually rose higher and higher as if invisible wire hawsers were pulling it right up into the sky, until at last it was raised in a perfectly upright position over a hundred feet in the air. For ten minutes, almost as if she was giving us time to get well clear of the suction area, H.M.S. Gloucester remained at this absurd angle and then slowly began to settle down by the stern.
I watched her from a safe distance, watched the Union Jack still fluttering proudly from her jack-staff, until at last it disappeared beneath the surface of the water. Then came a violent explosion. Her last agonised gasp for breath.
"Good-bye, Gloucester," I whispered, turning away from the great patch of oily water that was gradually creeping towards me.
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Gloucester sinking Rate this photo
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IN THE WATER
Owing to a shortage of oil fuel and ammunition, our tiny force of cruisers and destroyers had been compelled to withdraw to the south, and if our hearts were heavy at the thought of being deserted in our hour of need, we still managed to raise a cheer that lacked nothing in warmth and understanding as they steamed reluctantly away.
To have remained in the vicinity under the existing conditions would have been suicidal, but we knew that they would return, under cover of darkness, to pick us up.
The ship had gone down within sight of land, because from the forecastle of the Gloucester it had been possible to see the white foam of the waves as they broke up on the rocky beaches of several small islands in the distance. This knowledge had a decidedly heartening effect upon me because, being a fairly strong swimmer, I felt convinced that I could reach one of the islands before nightfall.
The water was warm and calm, the sun was shining and the cloudless blue sky unmarred by the presence of hostile aircraft. Discarding my life-jacket and tropical shirt, I tied my knife-lanyard securely around my waist and started swimming at a steady pace in the direction of the nearest island.
My progress was arrested, however, by a hail from Captain Rowley. With his face peeping out from under the hood of his duffle coat and his pipe clenched tightly between his teeth, he still retained that calm, unruffled appearance that had never failed to inspire us when we had been subjected to the danger of minefields, dive-bombing attacks, submarine scares, bombardment from shore batteries, and the many engagements with units of the Italian Fleet. Captain H. A. Rowley had taken over command of the Gloucester in July, 1940, and had quickly earned both the respect and the affection of the entire ship's company.
H.M.S. Gloucester had but two commanding officers in her short span of life.
Her first, Captain Garside, was killed when a bomb dropped by an Italian aircraft exploded on the bridge. This had not been our first acquaintance with the tragedies of war, but it was our first experience of a great and very personal loss.
They carried him down from the bridge and laid him on a stretcher in the port hangar.
His face, unmarked by the violence of the explosion, still retained that kindly expression which had so plainly reflected the depths of his generous nature.
One by one the ship's company came and stood for a few minutes beside the body of their dead Captain, not to gaze at him out of morbid curiosity, but to make some expression of their sorrow and regret.
A burly and bearded stoker came and gently touched the Captain's cheek and as he turned away I could see the tears glistening in his eyes.
Many came and touched his hand as one touches the hand of a very dear friend.
One man came and, bending over him, whispered, "God bless you, sir! "
A young South African Reservist came and voiced the thoughts of each and every one of us, "We're sure going to miss you, sir."
When the last man had paid his final tribute we reverently covered the body of our Captain with the White Ensign. Captain Rowley had proved himself a worthy successor, and as he beckoned to me in the water I felt confident that the courage and tenacity which he had displayed in the past would enable him to circumvent any ordeal that the future might hold.
He spoke quietly, "The destroyers will return during the night to pick us up. Tell the men to organise themselves into large groups and keep close together after dusk."
This was sound advice indeed, but the task Captain Rowley had set me was quite an impossible one to fulfil. Some five hundred men were scattered over a wide expanse of water and, judging by the actions of a group of men in the near vicinity, it was obvious that they were not likely to be influenced by the Captain's suggestion.
About thirty of them had formed a circle in the water and were playing "Ring-a-ring of Roses." In the centre of the ring a fellow was methodically hitting on the head anyone who came within striking distance of his carley float paddle. The game appeared to be a highly amusing one, because everyone was laughing and cheering wildly.
Even those who received a resounding whack on the head laughed as loudly as the rest. Someone yelled to me that there was plenty of room to join in the fun, and another voice assured me that there was no reason to feel shy as "we're all in the same boat here."
They definitely were all in the same boat and a pretty crazy one at that.
Ahead were the carley floats, now packed to their utmost capacity and completely surrounded by struggling men determined to gain a foothold, whilst those on the carley floats were equally as determined to prevent them. High up in the sky nine Stukas were flying in arrow formation and as I watched them they suddenly screamed down on us in an almost vertical dive.
Filling my lungs with air, I quickly submerged, but even below the surface of the water I could hear the horrible whining of the machine-gun bullets and the agonised screams of the men into whose bodies the explosive bullets had penetrated. The overcrowded carley floats must have presented an admirable target to the German pilots and a golden opportunity to obliterate a few more of the detested British.
Again and again they dived, killing, wounding and striking fresh terror into the hearts of those who survived. For the first time in my life I knew the meaning of fear in all its ghastly intensity. Each time the Stukas dived I waited for the bullets to rip into my flesh, and each time I became more terrified. In the water there is no protection and no escape. There is no doctor to bandage a wound from which one's life blood may be slowly ebbing away, no injection to blot out the pain and the awful fear of dying. There is only the water and the sky above. Two of the three carley floats which had been cleared by the ferocity of the Stukas' attacks were now rapidly filling up again, but of the third carley float there was no sign. Loss of life resulting from the machine-gunning had not been quite so heavy as might have been expected, but its effect upon many who survived had repercussions that would have made death preferable. Men who had once been rational human beings suddenly became violently insane and their only motive in life appeared to be the destruction of their fellow-creatures.
Unfortunately, it was those who had retained their mental equilibrium that these demented men sought to exterminate. It was a grim sight and a pitiful one. There can be no condemnation for the atrocities these men committed because insanity had been forced upon them by the horrors of war, and the terrific mental strain under which they had been labouring during the past twenty-four hours. With a grim determination to rid myself of the awful sensation of fear that seemed to be clutching at my senses with icy-cold fingers, I struck out blindly for the islands that now seemed a million miles away. The Stukas were now but a speck in the sky, but how soon would others return to complete the task they had so ruthlessly started ?
A small carley float paddled past me and among the occupants I recognised a member of the canteen staff, who was waving an enormous wad of Treasury notes in the air and gleefully shouting, "This is what you want." In happier circumstances I could not have agreed with him more, but I doubted if the money he held in his hand was going to prove beneficial under the present conditions. They should have reached the islands long before nightfall, but the occupants of that carley float were never seen or heard of again.
If they reached one of the islands, and there is every reason to assume that they did, what fate awaited them there? Had they been less fortunate than another small group of survivors who had been temporarily beached by the German crew of the ship who rescued them, promptly sentenced to death by the German occupational troops on the island and later reprieved ?
The oil fuel which covered a large area of the water through which I had been swimming had saturated into my skin, dyeing it a rich, chocolate colour. Several pints of the evil-smelling liquid must have found its way into my stomach, because I experienced an urgent desire to vomit. Ramming my fingers down my throat proved a successful remedy and I felt a great deal better afterwards.
My watch, fortunately a waterproof one, established the fact that I had been in the water for only two and a half hours, but already my strength was beginning to fail. Realising the impossibility of reaching the islands before dusk, it occurred to me that the most sensible plan would be to equip myself with a large-sized piece of timber which might serve as a raft. After a long search I located a piece of wood about eight feet long and nicely cushioned on one side. As I was gloating over my discovery my attention was drawn to a man who was thrashing his way madly through the water towards me. Although he was some fifty yards away his voice was plainly audible, and the words he spoke left little to the imagination regarding his intentions once I was within his grasp.
"I'm coming after you. I'm going to kill you." That he was hot on my trail was perfectly obvious, but his reasons for selecting me as the most likely victim for his murderous intentions were most decidedly obscure. A hasty retreat was clearly indicated, because a life-and-death struggle in the water with a man completely off his rocker wasn't my idea of fun and games.
Exerting every ounce of strength that remained in my body, I ploughed my way through the water with a speed that was truly amazing. Yet, in spite of my remarkable progress, I knew he was rapidly gaining on me.
The distance that separated us was now only a matter of feet, and then Fate intervened on my behalf. My would-be assassin had suddenly given up the chase and the arms that had been nailing the water so vigorously were now quite motionless, his head moved, slowly from side to side, as if performing some simple neck exercise. The hoarse voice that had been shouting abuse was now whispering words of endearment to a loved one that only his eyes could see. Then, he covered his face with his hands, as if to blot out the brightness of the day that he knew must soon be extinguished for ever. Slowly, his head fell backwards, his hands clutched feebly at the rosary around his neck and the water gently trickled into the open mouth.
In the blue cloudless sky above, the sun still continued to shine. In the water, fear and death stalked hand in hand together. Giving the nearby carley floats a wide berth and watching every swimmer that came within hailing distance with the utmost caution, I paddled my way towards a boat that lay half submerged in the water.
Swimming strongly, the Padre passed me with a gay wave of his hand and the shouted information that land lay right ahead. The Padre was a man of splendid physique and an Inter-Services swimming champion, so I felt sure he would experience little difficulty in reaching terra firma. On reaching the derelict boat I witnessed an act of bravery that for sheer heroism can have no equal.
For almost five hours Lieutenant Brooks had been holding up an unconscious man in the water. This constituted not only a remarkable feat of endurance but an act of self-sacrifice that deserves only the highest praise. It was impossible to identify the unconscious man. The flesh of his face had been so terribly burnt that the jaw and cheek bones were plainly visible. There was a great jagged wound in his shoulder, and his right hand had been severed at the wrist. That he still lived seemed almost a miracle. Instinctively, I felt that it would have been an act of kindness to have allowed him to die, to sink peacefully down into the cool, cleansing depth of the water.
Enlisting the aid of several swimmers in the vicinity, we managed to capsize the partly submerged dinghy and after many attempts succeeded in draping the wounded man over the keel.
Five hours later Lieutenant Brooks was seen, still patiently tending the unconscious man on the dinghy. It was five o'clock and in another four hours it would be dusk. The destroyers would have refuelled and very soon their lean grey shapes would be merged into the blackness of the night, heading swiftly towards us on their errand of mercy. Only a few more hours! An attack of cramp in both legs made swimming a difficult operation, but after floating on my back for an hour the cramp became less painful and I was able to propel myself through the water with the minimum amount of discomfort. Without any clear conception of where I was swimming, it was a matter of luck that I managed to avoid a head-on collision with the Commander. Automatically my hand went up to an imaginary cap in a salute that lacked nothing in smartness and perfection in performance.
The Commander smiled, partly in acknowledgment and partly, I imagine, in amusement at the absurdity of my action. Not to be outdone in this delicate matter of service etiquette, the Commander removed his pipe from between his clenched teeth and gravely returned my salute. He seemed very confident that the destroyers would return under cover of darkness and that we could look forward to an appetising breakfast of eggs and bacon. "Good luck," he said, "and keep clear of those carley floats." Silently, we shook hands.
After a lengthy reconnaissance I located the cushioned seat which I had previously been forced to abandon. Slowly the hours passed. With the disappearance of the sun below the horizon, the sky and sea had become quickly shrouded in a blanket of darkness.
With the setting of the sun a stiff breeze had sprung up, which soon developed into a violent squall. The sea had become so rough that I found it extremely difficult to retain possession of my cushioned seat. Several times an extra large wave lifted me bodily in the air and dumped me unceremoniously back into the angry green water. The squall was of short duration, however, and by midnight the wind had completely died away and, apart from a slight swell, the sea was quite calm. All around me I could hear the whispered voices of men in the process of dying. Many floated past me, unconscious of everything except the image or the memory of the person to whom their messages were dedicated.
These men died without fear or complaint. There was no evidence of despair, no clutching at the inevitable straw, only the whispering that ceased abruptly as the water closed over their still-moving lips. Many floated past me who had already crossed the dividing line. The voices of the men in the carley floats were clearly audible and I derived a little comfort from the knowledge that I was not alone. Shortly before two o'clock the darkness of the night was shattered by the broadening beam of a single searchlight that swept the sea in a continuous arc. Now a whole series of beams were criss-crossing each other and fresh bursts of cheering greeted each beam as it travelled slowly around on its prescribed arc. The destroyers had come back to pick us up. Then we heard the unmistakable sound of gunfire and simultaneously the searchlights were snapped off. We continued to shout until our voices cracked, consoling ourselves with the thought that the destroyers had spotted us and were making their way cautiously in our direction. Hope does not die easily, but after nearly two hours had passed without any sign from the destroyers we were forced to the conclusion that they had abandoned the search and were now steaming at full speed back to Alexandria.
For the second time in less than twenty-four hours we had been deserted in our hour of need, left to fight alone against overwhelming odds, to die like rats in a sewer. To many, this proved too bitter a pill to swallow in silence. They cursed the Admiralty from the First Sea Lord down to the most junior Sub-Lieutenant. They cursed Hitler and Mussolini and the Luftwaffe. Above all, they cursed the sea. This was not the moment for sober reflection. Fear and despair walked hand in hand and death smiled invitingly.
We did not know that we were well outside the radius of the searchlight beams, which would have accounted for the fact that we were not spotted by the destroyers. We did not know that five hundred and seventy-three survivors from H.M.S. Fiji had been plucked from a watery grave by the destroyers Kingston and Kandahar in the desperately short period of time allocated to them. Had we known, I doubt if we should have found any consolation in the knowledge.
THE FORTUNATE FEW
For the past two hours the wind had been steadily rising, but now it was blowing directly from the north-east. Waves, which were rapidly increasing in size continuously, swept over me as I struggled to retain a horizontal position on the flat, slippery surface of my miniature raft. Bitterly I reproached myself for having so foolishly avoided all contact with the carley floats. At the time I thought this was a very clever and practical move on my part, but it was obvious now that the most sensible plan would have been to keep the carley floats within sight, and then to have occupied one of them when the storm became imminent. How easy it is to be wise after the event.
Little time remained to be wasted in idle speculation. An effort had to be made to reach the carley floats before my brain, already numb with weariness, ceased to function altogether. But the carley floats were no longer visible and I did not know in which direction they lay. Perhaps the wind and tide had carried them far beyond my reach! Panic seized me as a huge wave swept the raft away from beneath me and then a feeling of despair as I found myself sliding down between two high walls of green water. For long, breathless moments I fought my way to the surface, only to be dumped unceremoniously back into the trough of the next wave. How could anyone possibly survive under such conditions? Was it really my own voice that I could hear, recording the thoughts that passed through my distorted brain? "Death is inevitable. You cannot fight against it. You are a fool to keep trying. Give up now and just close your eyes." Treacherous thoughts, traitorous voice! Desperately I fought against this state of acceptance into which I was so rapidly drifting. It had to be fought and conquered. Perched for a few brief seconds, high up on the crest of a wave, I could see a carley float in the distance. That was all the encouragement I needed. It is not possible to describe how I managed to reach the carley float in that sea of mountainous waves. I cannot even give a rough estimate of the period of time that elapsed before eager hands reached down and lifted me out of the water. All that my memory registered on reaching the raft was a feeling of elation, of personal triumph.
Regaining consciousness, I found myself in the centre of the raft, surrounded by men who were vigorously engaged in either punching or slapping me, or a combination of both. According to an elderly, grey-bearded stoker, who was acting as part-time referee in this one-sided battle, this slapping business had been necessary to arouse me out of the deep coma into which I had fallen, and the most competent method of restoring circulation. Curiosity tempted me to ask why they had gone to all this trouble to save my life. Apart from one or two isolated cases, I had not seen anyone making any attempt to save or even prolong the life of a comrade during the past twenty-four hours. As far as I could remember, the general idea had been to kill each other just for the mad fun of it. The answer I received in reply to my question was simply this: "We couldn't very well let you peg out after watching you fight those waves." It was as good a reason as any, I suppose.
The hours passed slowly and in our minds was the questioning thought of how it was all going to end? How long could we survive without food or water? What chance did we now have of being rescued? Every possibility which might lead to an escape was discussed freely, and many weird and wonderful methods of repatriation were devised by our imaginative brains. We visualised the lean, grey shape of a destroyer gliding swiftly through the water towards us, davits swinging outboard, boats hastily lowered. A submarine surfacing a few yards away, hatches springing open. Helicopters hovering in the air above us, rope ladders dangling within easy reach. Sunderland flying-boats taxiing across the surface of the water, the cheerful wave of the pilot's hand. The appearance of an adventurous fishing boat, a tow-line whistling through the air. Even the possibility of being washed up on one of the Greek islands had not been overlooked. Rescue by enemy surface craft and subsequent internment in a prisoner of war camp for the duration of hostilities was an event so completely remote and unorthodox as to be unworthy of a place in our mixed bag of possibilities. It was common knowledge that in these waters, Italian destroyers and E-boats had become conspicuous only by reason of their absence, and as there had been no evidence of German naval units operating in this area we had no fear of molestation from either source.
In the air it was a very different story. The superiority of the Luftwaffe had already become an established fact and as a grim reminder of this we were subjected to machine-gun attacks from Stukas twice during the morning and again in the afternoon by an Italian reconnaissance plane. Owing to the bad weather conditions and possibly poor visibility, these attacks were not severe and there were no casualties. Fear, however, had returned with renewed intensity and once again the crooked finger of Death beckoned invitingly. Two men died miserably in the raft and then, one by one, another twelve slipped quietly and unemotionally over the side to die unseen in the dark waters that surged over them. Forced to watch, this slow procession of death was a morbid and bitter experience. It was morbid because of its very complacency, bitter because of our inability to keep alive in these men that vital spark of life. Heaven only knows we tried hard enough. What mysterious and sinister force had been, responsible for this wanton destruction of life? Why had Fate denied to these men that nameless something which inspires us to hold on grimly to life even when faced with the inevitability of death? There was no reason for these men to die. They were not physically incapacitated whereby death might have been a release. They were not mentally deranged to such an extent that they did not know what they were doing. Yet, these men sought death willingly, calmly and without regret. We have been led to believe that only when the balance of the brain has become seriously disturbed has a man the courage deliberately to end his own life. Is this completely true, I wonder?
It would be wrong to deny that many men did die whilst of unsound mind, but there were many others whose death cannot be attributed to mental incompatibility. Over five hundred men had perished during the past twenty-four hours, but even in death the sea still held them in its merciless grasp dangling them like puppets from the height of its white-crested waves. A corpse is always an unpleasant sight to the eyes. To be constantly surrounded by them is enough to upset the constitution of even the most callous individual. They circled the carley float, grinning hideously as they bobbed up and down in the heavy swell. Nearer and nearer they came, hands outstretched as if to embrace us, and on their faces a mocking smile of welcome.
We reached down and cut away the inflated life-jackets. Others came to take their place. Only eight men now remained in the carley float and two of these, the elderly grey-bearded stoker and a young Marine, were patiently waiting for death to creep up on them. Each died as the others had done, quietly and without emotion.
"Give Mum my love and tell her I couldn't make it," whispered the young Marine as he gently pushed away my encircling arm. There was an expression of bewilderment on his face as he knelt down in the carley float. A deep sigh escaped his lips.
The elderly stoker had a wife to whom he wished us to convey a message. "Tell her," he pleaded, "that I was thinking of her all the time." He died alone because it was his wish.
I wondered how long this ghastly process of elimination was likely to continue. Who would be the next victim? Taking stock of my companions, I realised for the first time how important a part this "will to live " had played in their struggle for survival. There was Bill Salter, short and stocky, grey-bearded and a veteran of the First World War. His ability to smile in the face of adversity and his cheerful disposition and optimistic outlook on life had been an inspiration to all of us.
George Friend was short and stocky too. He also possessed a beard but its colouring was of a much more vivid hue. The son of a Devonshire farmer, he had inherited the dry humour of the West Country and not a little of its stubbornness. He had joined the Navy as a boy and, with twenty years' service to his credit, now belonged to that exclusive body of three-badge men who are the backbone of the Royal Navy. George was a good man to have as a friend.
Len Bowley and George Lofthouse were both young men. They had been tireless in their efforts to comfort their less-fortunate comrades and, to my way of thinking, that was an act of courage worthy of praise.
The fifth man was a young able seaman who had recently qualified as a Telegraphist Air Gunner. He died in rather peculiar circumstances. Announcing that he had suddenly thought of a brilliant method of escape which must be put into operation immediately, he dived over the side of the raft and disappeared. A few minutes later he was back again shouting excitedly that he had located it.
"Located what ? " I asked, puzzled.
"The underwater aerodrome, of course," he explained. "I have examined the aircraft in the hangar and everything is ready for a quick take off."
At first he pleaded with us to follow him, and then finding that we were not very enthusiastic about the idea he became extremely violent. His repeated attempts to capsize the raft might easily have succeeded if Bill Salter had not stepped into the breach.
"Are you quite sure this aerodrome really exists ? " he asked. "Of course it does! " was the truculent reply. "That's fair enough," agreed Bill, "but as you are the only one with any technical knowledge of aircraft, it might be a good plan if you had a routine check-up on the petrol consumption and seating capacity."
Smiling happily, the young man agreed that it would. "I'll have you back in Blighty before you even have time to wring the salt water out of your pants," he promised. With a gay wave of his hand, he plunged into the water. We did not see him again.
The force of the wind had lessened considerably and although a very high sea was still running, the waves had lost their savage ferocity. It was Len Bowley who first sighted the sailing ship. With growing excitement we watched the vessel slowly drawing nearer and then with feverish anxiety as it altered course away from us. At times we lost sight of the ship completely and then it would suddenly appear from quite a different direction. The suspense of waiting became so unbearable that I decided to make a bold effort to reach this elusive craft without wasting any more precious time. Bill Salter tried to persuade me against embarking upon such a wild goose chase but I had made up my mind and nothing was going to stop me. Reluctantly, he let me go.
Four times I managed to get within a few hundred yards of the sailing vessel only to see her bows swing round as she darted off on a fresh course. I cursed soundly and blindly, using every blasphemous adjective in the sailor's dictionary of swear words. I spat a mouthful of salt water in the direction of the departing vessel. There wasn't much else I could do. On one occasion I managed to get so near to the sailing ship that the name "Argus" painted on her stern was plainly visible. It did strike me that this was not an appropriate name because there appeared to be so little connection between this graceful ship with its white, billowing sails and that Greek mythical creature with its hundred eyes. A more suitable name would surely have been Orestes, condemned by the Furies to wander forever over the face of the earth.
No matter how frantically I waved my arms or how loudly I shouted, the crew of the Argus gave no indication that they had either seen or heard me. The carley float which I had so recklessly abandoned had disappeared from sight and the white sails of the Argus now but a distant blur against the greyness of the sky. I was left with no alternative but to continue swimming and hope, if the age of miracles had really passed, that the agony of death would not be unduly prolonged. A sense of nostalgia swept over me. How sweet life had been in the past. How little I had appreciated its sweetness. It seemed now that there were so many things to be grateful for. I wanted to remember them all. The future had held a promise of even greater happiness. If only that sailing ship had come just a little closer! If only I had remained in the raft! What a pity the islands were so far away.
The islands! What a fool I'd been to forget their existence. There might still be hope of survival. The fact that the islands were not visible or that I did not even know in which direction they lay appeared to be of little consequence. Unlike the Argus at least they were stationary and did not all roads lead to Rome? The first hour or two passed slowly and then time stood still. I had forgotten the carley float, the Argus and even the islands. I was conscious only of the water that continuously slapped against my face, the raucous cries of the gulls and the vague knowledge that my life was slowly drawing to its close. Self-preservation existed only in the automatic function of my arms and legs. Then, audible even above the whistling of the wind, I heard a voice calling my name. It was the voice of a woman whose affection and loyalty I had never ceased to cherish. Recollection, which had vanished like snow in the sunshine now returned with increased vigour. Life was no longer a void.
Hallucinations are the product of a distorted mind, but although perfectly conscious of this fact I failed to convince myself that the sound of Elizabeth's voice was but a figment of my imagination. Excitedly, I called to her, waited impatiently for an answer. It came, as if from a great distance "Don't worry any more. You are safe now." At that moment something struck me lightly on the head. It was a small, white canvas bag attached to a length of rope. I tried to knot the rope around my waist but my fingers were so numb that I had to be content with just winding the rope around my wrist. It was not until the side of a ship loomed up in front of me that I realised it was a heaving-line skilfully thrown from the Argus which had been responsible for my mysterious transportation through the water. Two members of the crew were shouting instructions in a language most decidedly foreign. That they wished me to perform some simple experiment with my end of the rope was perfectly obvious but the exact specification of the manoeuvre entirely escaped me. With keen interest I watched a tall, fair-haired sailor strip off his jacket, pick up a coil of rope and dive neatly into the water. He surfaced a few feet away from me and before I had time to congratulate him on the sporting nature of his performance, a running bowline had been slipped expertly over my head and shoulders. A few minutes later I lay stretched out on the deck of the Argus. At last I could close my aching eyes and sleep.
Later, I opened my eyes to find the sailor, who had been instrumental in saving my life, bending over me. Pushing a pillow beneath my head, he smiled and said "Englander nicht kaput." These were words of German origin! Slang words which implied that I had not come to a sticky end. Rescued and captured by the enemy. Was it possible to be grateful and resentful at the same time? The fair-haired sailor again appeared, bringing with him blankets and a large glass containing brandy. I tried to utter some words of gratitude but the swelling which had former in my throat made articulation both difficult and painful. My lips were badly swollen and split wide open in several places This did not worry me so much as the knowledge that I could not move any part of my body. If this fact became known to the Germans they might be tempted to throw me back into the sea. This was only a temporary paralysis I assured myself, but would my captors share this belief ? My fears were ill-founded Sympathetically, the German sailor spooned the brandy down my throat and then covered me with the blankets over which he spread a large tarpaulin. Within a few minutes I had dropped off into a deep, intoxicated sleep.
I awoke to find myself in a comfortable bunk and to my amazement the other bunks were occupied by the four men I had left in the carley float. They had been picked up less than an hour after I had deserted them. On the deck lay a man whose identity completely mystified me. He introduced himself as Frank Shipley, survivor from the destroyer Glowworm.
The crew of the Argus were most considerate in their attitude towards us and everything that could be done for our comfort was executed with a willingness that lacked nothing in sincerity. Delicious lemon-flavoured coffee appeared whenever we asked for it and because of my inability to swallow any solid food a specially prepared vegetable soup was introduced to the menu.