"Capt Hugh Roberts Report"

MV Athelknight. May 26th 1942.

Lat 28 O N Long 45 .40 W

At 22.15 hours, on 26th May 1942 vessel was struck by torpedo on star side under bridge, (No 6 tank and pump room and possibly No 7 tank).

I then ordered the boats be lowered at approximately 22.40 hrs. My own boat No 1 on star side of bridge caught on a bulge on the ship’s side just above the water and was later cleared, but as I feared it would be further damaged if left there ordered it to be hauled forward, clear of the jagged plating. The remainder of the boat’s crew and myself slid down the painter with the boat. As the boat was being lowered the submarine started shelling from ahead and as I went over the ship’s rail a shell passed through my accommodation and also through wheelhouse chartroom and wireless cabin. I found my boat to be full of water up to the thwarts but we managed to pull clear of the vessel, and when about 100 yds away, stopped and tried to bail, but the boat was water logged, apparently through damage received when it caught on the bulged plates when lowering. Meanwhile the submarine kept on shelling the vessel as well as spraying the sea on both sides with a large calibre machine gun using tracer ammunition, some of which passed over us. Later this shelling ceased and we closed the 2nd Officer’s boat and in doing so forgot the boat radio transmitter which was underwater in my boat. Some little time later the shelling ceased and the submarine was observed approaching on the surface. He hailed us and ordered us alongside. I was then ordered aboard by the Commander who asked if we were an American ship. When I said we were British he still maintained we were American and that we were from Freetown. After satisfying him we were British he said he was very sorry for us. He gave those in my boat about 12 loaves which in daylight we found to be full of green mould. Before he left I asked him if he would tell our other boats to get in touch with us so that we could place some more of our men in them. He said he would, but apparently he did not do so. When he left us he circled out of our sight at a fast speed and later resumed the shelling of our ship, causing the starboard side bunkers to catch fire which later enveloped the whole after end. This fire continued all night, we lost count of all the number of shells fired, but the number was considerable. We remained stationary after the submarine left us and later saw lights flashing. We closed this and found it to be the port bridge boat with five men in it, of whom two Gainsford and Mcgrath were dead from shrapnel wounds. Two seriously wounded Paulson and Moore, and AA Gunner Oliver with shrapnel wounds in the right forearm. These three were transferred to our boat as their boat appeared to be badly damaged by shrapnel.

 Paulson, a fireman, was found to have a badly shattered left shoulder and severe injuries to the left jaw. Moore O.S. had a shrapnel wound in the abdomen. These men were attended to by the Chief Steward Boniface who did all that was possible for them with the first aid kit in the boat. Their injuries were so severe that I doubt if any treatment could have saved them. Moore died during the forenoon of the 27th May and Paulson at about 8 pm. At dawn we thought we could see the other boat close astern of our vessel but we soon found this to be the submarine as he again resumed shelling the vessel. Later we saw a huge column of water on the starboard side abreast of the engine room and sound resembling a torpedo explosion. In about 3 minutes after this the vessel had gone under, stern foremost, the bow from the fore mast forward being completely out of the water for a few seconds before it finally disappeared. Soon afterwards we sighted out other boat, and when we came close we arranged to transfer some of our men into that boat leaving us with 23 men and the 2 badly injured. Previous to this transfer we had 39 in our boat. The Chief Officer informed me that he had had considerable trouble with his rudder during the night and that either the lower pintle or the gudgeon had carried away. I informed the Chief Officer that our best course would be S W x W True and that the distance to the Islands in the vicinity of Antigua was about 1150 miles. We had no navigation equipment other than the Boat Compass.

The first three days we were favoured by fair wind and had the other boat in sight astern, but after that time we did not sight them again, as the weather changed completely. The wind remained at about S. S. W. to West with squally rain for the next five days and I do not think we could have made any progress during this period. After this the wind backed to the East of South but at no time afterwards did it become much Eastward of S E magnetic.

This boat made considerable water during the first few days but the pump was able to cope with it and towards the end of the passage it was only necessary to pump out twice a day. The lifelines or grab lines of two and a half inch rope fitted from gunwhale to gunwhale under the keel at Barry were taken off because they slowed up the speed of the boat and were collecting masses of Gulf Weed that had to be frequently cleared. Later on we found that weed collected on the righting bars fitted to the keel, although fortunately these bars had remained throughout on a closed position.

The biscuits were strictly rationed from the beginning. 1 biscuit and 2 spoonfuls of condensed milk at daybreak with 2 ozs water. 1 biscuit 1 spoonful of pemmican and 1 oz of water at noon, 1 biscuit 1 spoonful of pemmican at sunset with 2ozs of water. In between we were issued Horlicks Milk Tablets and chocolate.

During the period of squally weather some rainwater was caught with the aid of the rubber suits and from the sail, the latter being much coloured by the dye in the sail, but otherwise quite fresh. We could not save any of this as we had no empty tank to put it in and we did not like to mix it with any of our water. When we had an empty tank we could get no rain at all.

Around the 18th day I and some others experienced considerable difficulty in swallowing the biscuits and pemmican, but we could manage the Horlicks and chocolate quite well. A few however managed quite well by pounding the biscuits into a powder with the aid of a small canvas bag and the hammer and then mixing it with the pemmican.

The biscuits and pemmican were exhausted on the day before we landed at St Barts, we still had a few days supply of Horlicks and chocolate as well as 8 galls water, and about 20 tins of condensed milk. Oliver the AA Gunner, although he must have been in considerable pain with his wounds was never once heard to complain and by the time we landed these wounds were healed. In the hospital at St Kitts the X-ray showed that there was still something in the arm. An operation was performed and three small pieces of shrapnel were removed.

Soon after leaving the vessel the Donkeyman J Smith seemed to have something like a whitlow on one finger. Everything that could be done under the circumstances was tried but the pan continued, and on arrival at St Kitts this finger was amputated as gangrene had set in.

It is very doubtful if many of us would have survived were it not for the protection afforded by the canvas hood during the day. The only drawback being that the hood did not afford the man who happened to be on the tiller any protection at all, as it only covered just over two thirds the length of the boat from forward. The sides of the hood were doubled in under the overhead part to make an awning only and this allowed free passage for whatever breeze might be around. After twenty eight days the sails showed very little signs of wear. The sea anchor was tried out during the period of squally weather mentioned earlier on and I again found that it would not hold the boat head to sea with 23 men on board. It always seems to drift at the same speed as the boat itself. It appears to me that a sea anchor out aft and with the jib sail set, is the best method to adopt in rough weather.

On 23rd June we sighted land and the boat was beached on the S E end of St Barts at about noon. By this time I could not stand up and was therefore carried ashore where we rested under the boat shelter for a couple of hours. The inhabitants did what they could for us and one of them took the 2nd Officer and Chief Steward by boat to the harbour some five miles west of where we landed to report to the French authorities. Later in the day a motor launch arrived and took our boat in tow with all of the crew on board and finally brought into the harbour, where about half of us were accommodated in the hospital and the rest in the town.

We were placed on board a Dutch W I schooner on the evening of the 28th and landed at St Kitts on the morning of the 26th June. Thirteen of us including myself were placed in hospital and remained there until the 9th July and on that date we had to leave the hospital to make room for other survivors just landed. Everything that could possibly be done for us was attended to by the European inhabitants in St Kitts.

The submarine appeared to be similar to the 750 ton type with one gun forward of about 4” caliber, another abaft of the conning tower appeared to have similar bore but a much shorter barrel. There also appeared to be a machine gun of the Oerlikon type on the after end of the conning tower. The upper part of the hull was painted a very light grey forward and much darker colours at the after end. This was noticed at daylight next day. We had very bright moonlight on the night of the 26th May and on one occasion before daybreak the submarine passed us about 200 yds away, but nothing of the hull could be seen. The noise of the exhaust was clearly heard and the wash of the sea at bow and stern were clearly seen. The submarine went away on a Westerly course after the vessel sank.

The Commander appeared to be about 26 to 28 years old, about 5’10” in height and slim. He wore greenish khaki shirt, shorts with a cap of similar material. He appeared to be a German, but it is possible that the crew may have been Italian from what I saw of them. One of the crew armed with a tommy-gun stood by me whilst I was on the deck of the submarine.

 

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