"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.
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 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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