"M.v. Athelknight"

May 1942

At the end of April 1942 I was appointed to the Athelknight, then in drydock at Barry, and we sailed eventually in convoy for Trinidad. This was a convoy of vessel bound to the Mediterranean, South Africa, South America and Westwards, and having left it somewhere westwards if Gibraltar we proceeded on our own, on a track contained in our sealed orders. On the 24th May 1942 about 180 miles South of our original track and this we did.

At about 1030 pm on May 26th 1942 we were hit by a torpedo on the starboard side amidships, the position was Latitude 28 N Long. 45 40 W, Mid Atlantic. At the time I was reading a book in my room, a thing I rarely did at sea in time of war. The engines were stopped and orders given to abandon ship. The boats were being lowered when the submarine began to shell the vessel, and no gun flashes could be detected. One of the first shells hit the ship’s side above the 3rd Mate’s boat and the boat fell into the water with only five men in it. I had to haul my boat forward as jagged plates where the torpedo had hit were damaging it. When I went over the side into the boat I found it full of water, it had been badly damaged and obviously would not keep afloat very long. Shells were constantly pounding the bridge. Sparks, or the Radio Officer had sent out the SOS message but he could not say if it had been successful, and anyhow, no one was likely to come near. We managed to pull clear and contacted the 2nd Mate’s boat and we all got into that one. Our boat went under in no time at all. Some time later the submarine approached us, spraying machine gun tracer bullets over us but none hit the boat and he came alongside. He asked for me, and he told me to come on board. He asked where we were from and where bound, and the name of the ship. He apparently did not believe me when I said we were British, but kept repeating, “ You are American”. I insisted we were British, and apparently satisfied, he asked if we had provisions, I said yes, but could do with more, whereupon he gave some orders, and a bag containing half a dozen loaves of bread were passed into the boat. During the interview on the submarine’s deck I was fully aware that a man stood behind me with a Tommy gun. When he ordered me back to the boat, he also remarked that he was sorry for us, and I replied that he could not possibly be sorrier for me than I was for myself and all ahead of us. The nearest land was Barbuda in the West Indies, and this was nearly 1200 miles away. The Azores were also about the same distance away, but prevailing wind would favour the West Indies. During the night he kept shelling the ship and eventually one hit the oil fuel tanks, which burst into flames.

The ship’s poop was 140 feet long and the whole length was a blazing inferno in a couple of seconds, and remained so until the sunrise the next day. At that time we saw the submarine send another torpedo into the engine room and in a couple of seconds the stern went under, the bow at the same time standing like a massive pillar out of the sea which very slowly sank beneath the waves, leaving just three comparatively small blobs on the vast surface of the ocean, our boat, the Mate’s boat and the submarine. After being ordered back into the boat the previous night we came across the lifeboat that had been cast adrift in the first shelling, and found two of the men dead, two badly wounded and one with two wounds in his forearm. We got the wounded on board and could do nothing for the already dead except leave them in the nearly sinking boat. The two badly wounded men were given morphia from our small first aid box and their wounds dressed as well as possible. After the ship sank the enemy left us and steamed Westwards. We contacted the Mate’s boat and found it necessary to even up the number of men in the two boats, we were left with 25 men, including two badly wounded and the other boat had 26 men. These boats had the following provisions :- two dozen tins of small biscuits about 2” square, specially made as lifeboat rations, 1 case, 48 tins condensed milk, about 24 by 14 ounce tins of Pemican, some Horlicks tablets and bars of Rowntree’s chocolate, and four ten gallon tanks of fresh water. On this occasion the ration of water was fixed at 2 fluid ounces early morning, one at mid – day, and another two at sunset, this procedure lasted until the 24th day when all the biscuits and pemmican were exhausted. We kept on sailing the whole distance and were fortunate enough to land on St Bartholomew, a Vichy French Island 60 miles from our intended destination on our 28th day in the boat, when we landed in a small cove. On our second day the two badly wounded men died of their wounds, the other wounded man had recovered, except for a slight swelling in the arm.

The boat was fitted with a canvas cover, which could be used as protection against wind and weather, sun and rain, but with the latter, it also helped to gather small quantities of rain water to quench the thirst. We tried fishing with a line but could catch nothing. One small fish about half pound weight was jabbed with a sheath knife and shared out and eaten raw. Flying fish, were also found and eaten raw. Flying fish, especially the small ones which landed in the boat were very rarely reported, and quite a few must have been eaten by those that were lucky enough to have them land against him in the dark. The general topic used to be, the first meal they would have when they made the Islands, none expected to be picked up by passing ships, anyway we saw none during the whole 28 days, nor did we see any smoke. We could see our other boat during the first four days but after that we saw nothing more of them.

What bothered me most was the heat of the sun, and when we sighted the Islands at dawn on the 23rd June 1942 my strength was fast ebbing. I now realise, that following a major operation for the removal of the Gall Bladder I was not in a fit state to do such a journey as this. At times it became necessary to warn all the men against drinking sea water. Some pretended to wash their mouths out only, but this had to be prohibited. The youngest on board was only sixteen, and the eldest, an old Kinsale seaman was well over sixty five. When we touched the beach at Bartholomew, the Islanders did not come near until we were actually ashore. The boat’s crew with the exception of myself and the Kinsale man managed to get over the side of the boat and crawl ashore. We had to be carried and were laid down inside some boat shelters where we were given coffee. It was about noon when we landed and two hours later a Police Boat arrived and we had to re enter our lifeboat to be towed to the harbour about four miles away. We stayed there for two days, some, like myself in a hospital under the tender care of a very old Breton nursing sister, others in Hotels. A small Dutch West Indian schooner then took us all aboard for the sixty miles trip to St Kitts. On our arrival, the Port Medical Officer came on board and examined us all. Most of us were prevented from moving hand or foot, and the ambulance had a busy time bringing us up the hill into the hospital at Basseterre, under the care of Dr. Steddefer, the hospital Superintendant, who had fled from Hitler’s Germany before the summer of 1939.

In this hospital, the man whom we thought had bullets in his arm was found to have two pieces of shrapnel which were removed. It was found that I had lost 54lbs weight on the 28 day boat trip, I was in bed for ten days and when I was allowed up, had to be assisted to my chair. We had to leave hospital to make room for another ship’s crew who had been 13 days in their boats. The reminder of my time on the Island was spent at the Doctor’s home. Seventy shipwrecked mariners eventually left the Island by a Cuban ship for San Juan, Puerto Rico, where an American Naval store ship took us to Newport News, then by rail to New York. We eventually left there by rail for Halifax where about 280 of us boarded the Trooper Strathmore, landing at Glasgow before the end of September. In New York I received a cable from the owners informing me that the Mate’s boat had been picked up by a South African bound ship after 24 days adrift, at that time they were 350 miles behind us so they were extremely lucky, as I understand that most of their stores had been used up.

"February 3rd 1943, at Buckingham Palace"

The Chief Officer was D.J. Davies of Glanfa, Dinas Cross Pembrokeshire. We both received the O.B.E. from His Majesty King George V1 at Buckingham Palace February 3rd 1943. I was told by the Naval People that we had used our provisions in a manner not recommended by their medical advisors, this was that we should have given at least 10 fluid ounces of water the first day and to have reduced this and the other rations as we went along. This would have been a task, which would indeed be most difficult to carry out.

Captain's Report Athelknight

British Consulate Letter              Athelknight Survivors List on 23 July 1942

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