"M. v. Athellaird"

July 1940

In February 1940 I took over the Mv Athelmonarch for one trip to Cuba and back, and then transferred to the Mv Athellaird, making one trip to Cuba and Everglades in Florida, and returning to Liverpool, sailed again on the 29th June. We were in convoy until 7pm on the 2nd July, when it dispersed, and from then on until dark the ships were in all directions at 10.20 pm I was on the bridge arranging the course to be steered during the night, when a torpedo struck the vessel abreast of the fore mast on the port side, her stern came out of the water, and she became difficult to manage, so it was decided to stop and leave her in two out of four lifeboats, and then if she were not attacked again, we would come back. There was no point in risking the lives of those in the Engine Room unless we could be certain of help, and escort vessels were very short at that time. At 1040 we were clear of the ship in the two boats, and about 300 yards away from her. In our boat there was some difficulty about clearing the sea anchor rope, and I moved into the middle of the boat to help clear it with the aid of my torch. Then suddenly there came a whirring noise under the very middle of the boat, and my first thought was that the submarine was passing right underneath us, but I suddenly saw the phosphorescent track of the torpedo, which made us all rather scared. I do not believe that the submarine had fired a torpedo at that boat knowingly, but in the dark had seen a light and then fired. If fired at the ship it was wide of the mark. 

We could still see the ship until 2 am at which time a terrific explosion occurred abreast of the engine room, and we lost sight of her soon afterwards. Our position at that time was about 600 miles W.S.W. of Landís End. When dawn came we could not see the other boat, but later he spotted us and came closer to discuss the position. These lifeboats were 25 feet six inches long, of 8 foot beam and 3 feet 4 inches depth, and were certified to carry 20 persons. We had heavyweights and the other boat had 23 not so heavy men on board. Our provisions consisted of 20lbs biscuits in ten airtight tanks, two by ten gallon kegs of water, one case condensed milk, and four 7lb tins of corned beef, boiled beef and mutton. We both decided to keep together and to head to the North East as we had no desire to be set East or South East which would have landed us in occupied France. Our first issue of water and biscuits was made on Wednesday evening, and afterwards these were given out at 5 am and 10 am, 3 pm and 8 pm, if the weather permitted us to open the bread tanks and water barrels. We also had a few cigarettes and a good supply of hard tobacco and matches. These biscuits were the circular ones usually carried in lifeboats at that time, one biscuit with a teaspoon full of condensed milk was issued at 5 am and 3 pm, a small portion of corn beef replaced the milk issue at 10 am and 8 pm, and about an ounce of water was issued at the above times. In these boats we also had eighteen grey blankets, which were issued to those people who had only thin clothes, and even when soaked through with water, they kept wearers reasonably warm. We did not do any rowing in our boat but relied entirely on the lug-sail and jib. The Bosun, an old Finn, domiciled in Hull for many years, and myself took turn about on the tiller. The greatest difficulty in these boats is to find space to lie down, so all had to rest as best they could sitting down. One man, a fireman and cleaner, was caught putting a dirty old sweat-rag down the bunghole of the water cask at night in order to quench his thirst, so the water casks were brought right aft. Our Radio Officer also began to act curiously and one night threw our only bucket over the side, but he soon settled down. I discovered that he was very shy, and found it difficult to do everything he had to do in front of all on board, but he was all right soon afterwards. He was not the robust type and he died about eighteen months after this experience. On Thursday night it came on to blow rather fresh and we had to lay to our sea anchor. At dawn next day, we could not see our other boat but at noon he was sighted coming up astern and we could see him until we got into a calm on the Sunday.

"Capt Hugh Roberts"


"The Mate's Lifeboat"


"Photographs taken by the Radio Officer on Sunday the 7th July 1940"

He then rowed across and I found that his stores were not ekeing out as well as ours, and as he was faster than we were, owing to our heavier load, we decided that he should carry on without bothering to wait for us. We lost sight of him on Sunday evening. Monday night was our worst night with strong wind and heavy rain, and at 2 am we had to lower the lug sail, leaving only the jib standing and with the sea anchor dragging behind to try and prevent the boat being thrown broadside on to the sea, just before daybreak however our sea anchor was cut, a clean break close to the canvas, and thereafter we had to use our heaviest oar to keep the boat stern on to the sea. I had to get more help to work this oar over the stern on to the sea as the Old Bosun and myself were very tired. At about 10 am we were able to hoist a double reefed lug sail, and were going through the water at the fastest rate so far, we were able to do this as the sea was truer in direction, but the weather was too bad to allow us to open the biscuit tank or water barrel. We could steer with the rudder now and I was constantly scanning the horizon in case someone should come our way, and at about 1230 I thought I saw a pole jutting up above the waves, a little later I saw two poles, but I did not say anything in case I was mistaken, however, when I saw several more, I fully realised that we were heading for an outward bound convoy, and when I told my boatís crew it was difficult to make them sit down, as they could easily have caused the boat to capsize in that sea. We now shook out the reefs and cracked on in earnest, but, we were not spotted until we were less than a mile from the nearest escort vessel, which turned out to be the sloop H.M.S. Sandwich. Commander Yeatman R.N. She stopped and allowed herself to drift down on to us, and when we got alongside, it was comical to watch the antics of my crew trying to climb on the boarding net. When my turn came, I realised, that they had not the strength to climb up, and I myself was very unceremoniously grabbed by the seat of my pants and by the neck and landed on deck, where I slumped like a sack of potatoes. I could not stand up, and after a bath I was put in the Commanderís bed where I slept for twenty four hours with the aid of a few sleeping tablets given me by the shipís doctor. Whilst we were in the boat I insisted on everyone wearing his socks and boots or shoes, and was therefore able to avoid having any of the men suffering from swollen feet, a complaint that troubled most boat crews. When we were picked up we still had 13 gallons of water, 30lbs biscuits, 30 tins of milk and 3 tins of meat. Our Brandy bottle was in tact, and about 5lbs hard tobacco still remained. H.M.S. Sandwich was on escort with an out bound convoy when she picked us up, but by the next day she had left them to meet an inward convoy. She eventually landed us at Greenock on Sunday morning, the 14th July 1940. We had sailed our boat 350 miles and were about 60 miles south off Queenstown when picked up.

The other boat had been more fortunate having been picked up by the vessel on the Liverpool to Limerick run on Monday morning, off Fastnet Rock, South West corner of Ireland, some of that boatís crew had badly swollen feet and legs. The Chief Officer was Capt Vincent, who has been for many years on the staff of the Board of Trade (Ministry of Transport) at Liverpool as an examiner.

Having traveled overnight we arrived at Liverpool at about 3 am on the 15th July, and had to proceed to the Admiralty on Wednesday 17th to give details of the occurrence. At that meeting I was informed that my message was the first received of an attack by submarine in the particular area at that time, but they knew that two ships had been sunk by the same submarine on the previous day, but these ships had been alone and not able to broadcast any warnings. Following this incident the Chief Officer and myself received Commendations from the Admiralty.

Captain's report on loss by Enemy Action


North Atlantic Convoys

1940 ~ 1941


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