"Capt Sam K Williams"
After qualifying for a 1st Mate’s certificate, I attended a gunnery course which was very interesting. I was very keen and learnt all I could about the art of gunnery. In due course, I found myself back at sea again, but this time, having to face the grim realities of war., constantly alert, never knowing when the enemy would strike for a submarine could be lurking anywhere along our route. Submarine reports were received quite frequently. Some unfortunate straggler having become a prey, we would resort to all kinds of tricks to throw off the enemy. On our return from West Africa, we parted company with the convoy off the Bishop Rock, Scilly Isles, and three lonely ships proceeded to the English Channel unescorted. We had only a four inch, low angle, anti submarine gun and rifle ! The other two were similarly armed; fortunately, however, we reached Dover unscathed. There we dropped anchor to await further orders. After darkness, ‘Gerry’ was droning to seawards of us, presumably laying mines. Bright fingers of light stabbed the darkness from Dover’s cliffs and the ‘Moles’ searching for the intruder who was disturbing the peace of the night. Guns began to bark and chatter on the shore and bullets whistled above us scraping the mast tops. We couldn’t see the plane but the search lights and the guns were searching and probing for him. We lay helpless, silently hoping that ‘Gerry’ would not vent his spleen on us. Presently it became silent, the lights flickered and the sea murmured, peace prevailed again, ‘Gerry having probably accomplished his foul mission of laying magnetic mines which now patiently waited for the unwary ship to actuate their mechanism. The following morning anchor was weighed and we proceeded up the Downs towards Hull, our discharging port. Craft of all kinds and description were arriving off Dover laden with soldiers. The evacuation of Dunkerque was in full swing. The Goodwin Sands and the Downs resembled a graveyard for shipping. The evidence of war and its havoc was also very forcibly portrayed in the Thames estuary. Once proud ships lay in grotesque shapes and forms, jangled heaps of iron with projectiles here and there. On arrival off Hull, we had to anchor again while the River was being swept for mines. Eventually the all clear was given and we led the ships into port. All the hands mustered on deck wearing their life jackets in case we found a mine, which the mine- sweepers had missed.
At Hull, I was promoted to Second and Gunnery Officer for by this time I was quite proficient in the art of gunnery, both in heavy and light anti aircraft guns. It was a good thing, as the war was hotting up and we were continually involved in skirmishes with ‘E’ boats and aircraft on the East coast. The channel off Sheringham Shoals, Norfolk was known as ‘E’ boat alley. They used to lie in wait for us impudently tied up to our channel buoys. Then as the convoy approached, they would cast off from the buoy, roar at us at terrific speed, fire their torpedoes at us, and then scuttle off towards their bases in France. Guns were let loose, tracers lit up the night sky and the sea was churned up with projectiles. Sometimes the ‘E’ boats would get away unscathed, having successfully adopted the element of surprise. At other times aircraft used to attack the convoy, the aircraft’s presence or positions could be determined or ascertained by the fireworks spitting into the sky. The convoys on the East coast were endless and when they were under night attack, it appeared like a gigantic fuse, the fire creeping closer and closer as ship after ship resorted to its own defence and repelled the enemy. A brilliant spectacle, though perhaps a little grim! Such were the times and our experience on the East coast during the war. The southern part of the channel or the Dover Starits were now closed to shipping. From London, we had to go up North, through the Pentland Firth and down through the Minches again and into the Atlantic between Ireland and the Scottish Isles.
After frequent skirmishes and convoy casualties, I was beginning to believe that my ship was immune to attack. It was a comfortable feeling that a bomb or torpedo didn’t have my name on it. Ha, what a joke ! ‘Gerry’ was going to have a little fun at my expense as well.
We sailed form Leith on Friday 18th December 1942, we were bound for West Africa as usual and carried a full cargo of war material, consisting mainly of lorries and aeroplanes, both on deck and down below. The planes on deck were in wooden cases and stowed on top of the hatches, two planes per hatch. I had already carried hundreds of planes in such a manner, they were well lashed and withstood severe strains and stresses.
By this time, I had obtained my Master’s certificate and I was sailing on the ship as an extra Chief Officer as far as Lagos, Nigeria, where I was to join one of our coasting ships as Chief Officer for a period of 18 months. I didn’t relish the idea, but it was the ruling of the company. On this fatal voyage, I didn’t used to do the navigating in the Chief Officer’s watch while he ‘conned’ the ship, and if we were at ‘Action Stations’, I used to go to the guns with the Second Officer. For the first week or so, the convoy sailed placidly along. Then the presence of submarines was suspected. By this time, boisterous weather conditions prevailed and we fervently hoped that the marauders of the deep would not strike in foul weather. Within twenty four hours it became evident that we were being trailed. Action Stations were frequently sounded, usually after sunset. Grimly we waited behind our gun sights. On the third night when action stations sounded, we were beginning to think that it was game in order to keep us on our toes. However it soon became grim reality. The right flank of the convoy was under attack. Two ships were torpedoed in quick succession. Snowflake sockets burst in the sky and the whole convoy and the surrounding sea was lit up. The escorts fired their star shells and night turned into day. Hundred of pairs of eyes, many never to see another dawn, searched the sea for our attackers. They were on the surface but even then a submarine is difficult to detect. Yes the fun had started and we were under attack. That evening we had been allotted a new position in the convoy. Our number had been changed from No 32 to No 13, which meant the third ship in the first column on the left flank of the convoy – a very vulnerable position. When the fun started, we felt naked and unprotected; fortunately, however, the storm, had abated and the sea was fairly calm. In spite of the attack and decimation of its numbers, the convoy gallantly steamed on. As each ship became a victim and fell out, another took her place and filled up the gap. Training and discipline manifested themselves on this grim occasion. The rockets whooshed and the snowflakes burst into great brilliance, the star shells thundered in the distance as our escorts vainly sought our assailants. Our wake was littered with rafts and lifeboats and men fighting for their lives. Presently the attack switched over to our side of the convoy. Our leading ship was torpedoed – a proud defiant ship, majestically caressing the billows, suddenly torn asunder by a violent explosion. Another torpedo had failed its mark. The ship buckled and shuddered to a stop. We altered course to pass her. Men were lowering the boats for she was doomed and they knew it.
Our vigilance was intensified, if such were possible. I stood by the 12 pounder gun which was loaded in readiness to blast a submarine out of the ocean, given half a chance. We had hardly got over the shock of the sinking of No 11, when No 12 met with a similar fate. There did not appear to be any protection from the calculated and determined attack the rockets and flames were intended to spot the submarine who benefited. All the ships were a perfect target. Each ship was picked off with unnerving accuracy. The convoy by this time was surrounded by a Wolf Pack.
The attack was its height I was certain I had seen a submarine and was in the act of raising my binoculars to have a better look when the torpedo struck her right in her vitals, the engine room. The explosion was terrific. Every component part shook and trembled and the stern on which I stood, was whipping about in a crazy and demented manner. The gun crew had disappeared, discretion being the better part of valour, they had made for the boats. I quickly followed. The decks were awash. I waded along but the boats on the port side were completely shattered by the force of the explosion. The only existing boat was already in the water and filled to capacity. There was no room for those of us who were still left on the ship. The rafts were our only hope of salvation, I proceeded to the Main Mast rigging followed by six others, only to find that the releasing gear had jammed. We worked like Trojans in a frenzy of desperation to release the raft. After a mighty effort, it slid over the side, followed by a splash. Then we followed by lowering ourselves into the icy waters of the North Atlantic.
The struggle for survival completely eliminated any sense of suffering. We were fully clad and wearing kapok lifejackets to which was attached a small red light. I struck out boldly for the raft and reached it in record time. I felt quite fresh and clambered on to the raft; a young lad followed and joined me. We could see little red lights that represented our shipmates bobbing up and down in the water. I shouted encouragement and slowly one by one they reached the raft. We heaved them on board and they lay exhausted on the bottom. There were two brothers among them. One was the Chief Engineer of the ship; and the other was also a Chief Engineer going out to West Africa to join the same ship as myself. The Chief Engineer was the last to be hauled aboard our raft our refuge from the might and fury of the Atlantic Ocean.
A gentle, but cold wind made us realise how wet and cold we were. We busied ourselves in making conditions more comfortable and tolerable on the raft, The canvas dodger was rigged to keep off the wind and we took stock of the situation. The lifeboat lay nearby. We kept in touch by shouting across to each other.
Presently, a dark shape loomed out of the darkness, we silently watched and wondered. It began to assume a definite form. By jove, yes, it was a submarine, silently gliding past us. A faint ripple was discernable where her bow should be and her conning tower was boldly sticking out of the water, whether we had been observed or not we couldn’t say. She was proceeding in the direction of the convoy that was lit up on the horizon like Piccadilly Circus. The shells and the rockets were still being fire. We hoped that one of our escorts would catch her but I never did hear if any of the submarines had been sunk. That night, we lost seventeen ships out of forty. How many seamen perished that awful night is hard to say. We lost four of our crew. The raft heaved and groaned to the moderate swell throughout the night. Sleep was out of the question. Rescue was paramount in our thoughts and we were mainly silent, each man preoccupied with his own thoughts. The dawn would perhaps sole our problems. The dawn had hardly broken when a British destroyer came in sight. We signaled SOS, which she acknowledged with a welcome OK. In no time, we found solid decks under our feet again. We had been rescued, and were on board HMS Milne, a fine new destroyer with twin 4.7’’ guns in turrets fore and aft. We were a motley crowd, which was swelling all the time as survivors from other ships were being picked up; and so ended a night of terror and destruction with the U boats getting all their own way.
I was in a terrible state. My clothing was stained with fuel oil. I managed to borrow a shirt and a pair of trouser, then tried to clean and dry my own clothes. We were sent below to the Officer’s Ward Room, and made quite comfortable. The ship’s officers were gentlemen and treated us in an exemplary manner. We now felt safe and relaxed, but the U boats must have been boldened by their success the previous night. I was suddenly thrown across the Ward room. The ship was steaming at great speed under plenty of helm. Loud explosions were heard which we thought was gun fire. A gentle whine could also be heard among the cacophony of sounds. We were in blissful ignorance of what was going on. Much later in the day when her 1st Officer joined us at dinner, the story he had to tell was very exciting. Apparently, the destroyer’s captain (whom we never met) sighted two torpedoes staring their run towards us. He immediately ordered full speed and put the helm hard over, thus avoiding the torpedoes, then started dropping depth charges which sent the U boat scuttling for safety in deep water. They were the explosions we had heard and mistook for gunfire. The whining noise, was the depth charge hoist feeding the throwers as they spewed the depth charges overboard. The hunter was now the prey. I don’ think we caught him, but he must have got a severe shaking.
Another destroyer joined and we steamed in company into Ponta Del Gada in the Azores. What a wonderful sight it was to see land again. A Corvette berthed alongside us and I learned that she was bound for Freetown, Sierra Leone. The Chief Engineer and I requested a passage on her. Our request was granted providing we were willing to sleep on the Ward Room settees. It was wartime, and we didn’t mind roughing it.
"King George V inspects the crew, Sam is fourth from left"
She sailed that day with us on board. The following morning a signal was received and we were diverted to Gibraltar. We spent a pleasant time on board; she was called HMS Petunia of the flower class. An Italian submarine a short time previously had mistaken her for a battleship and had fired two torpedoes at her. They were set to strike their target at four fathoms, deep enough to penetrate below the armour plating, which was a good thing for Petunia, as they passed clean under her. Had they pierced her hull, she would have been blown to smithereens. The Italian submarine commander reported having sunk a battleship and was duly decorated by Il Duce.
In due course, we arrived in Gibraltar where we had to go ashore. We were fitted out with survivors kit and spent a pleasant evening listening to Spanish music. It was soothing and relaxing after our struggle for survival in the Atlantic. Life was sweet!
(footnote) The vessel Sam was torpedoed on was the SS Zarian, convoy ONS 154.
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