Indian Ocean Rescue – 16 days on a lifeboat
Written by and contributed to the BBC World War 2 Archive in 2003 by Norman Gibson
This is the story of my rescue, together with 46 other men, from one of five rafts in the middle of the Indian Ocean. It was in February 1944. My ship, SS Fort Buckingham had been sunk some two weeks earlier (the night of 20 January) by the German U-boat U-188, 500 miles west of the Laccadive Islands. The ship sank in less than six minutes, before any lifeboats could be launched. Thirty-eight men were lost as the ship sank, including all the officers other than the Chief Engineer.
As the days wore on the hopelessness of our situation became more and more real. We were becoming detached from the world at large. We really were in a world of our own and that world ceased at the horizon. We had been ignorant of the stalking U-boat. We did not know where we were. We could only speculate on the prospect of rescue. We wondered if anyone at all was concerned about our plight.
We were all desperately homesick. We chatted together only at morning and evening ration time. Our thoughts were of home and we dreamed of exotic food and drink. Feelings of religious fervour began to develop. We were convinced that we were entirely at the mercy of the Almighty. In spite of all the physical privation, I soon realised the ultimate battle for survival would take place in our minds.
Missed by mist
Our ninth day adrift (Saturday, 29 January) was cloudy, overcast and with poor visibility. It was on that day that a passing ship, the British freighter SS Moreby located a raft containing five of our gunners and two Lascar seamen. It seems certain its captain preferred to maintain radio silence and so sailed on to land our comrades in Western Australia. One might reasonably suppose, if the weather had been clear on that Saturday, SS Moreby would have seen all the rafts, taken us all aboard and saved us another week of anguish.
From my raft on the 11th day (Monday 31 January), we saw smoke on the horizon just after sunset. It was smoke from the MV Kongsdal, a Norwegian freighter. We were unable to attract the ship's attention but, unknown to us, she had sighted and picked up other shipmates from a distant raft. At risk to her own safety and possibly contrary to orders, the Norwegian captain broke radio silence and sent a radio message alerting naval authorities ashore to our plight.
Catalinas from Koggola
Within hours of receipt of the radio message from the Kongsdal, two Catalinas from RAF 205 Squadron and one from RCAF 413 Squadron were airborne; on their way from Koggola (in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka) to Kelai (at the northern end of the Maldive Islands) to commence the rescue operation. That was on 1 February, our 12th day adrift.
The flight time from Koggola to Kelai was a little less than five hours. Refuelling at Kelai was by floating out and manhandling 40-gallon drums of aviation fuel. Nevertheless, by midnight that same day, Catalina F-413 was on her way to find us. When she had flown 450 miles west from Kelai she was recalled and landed, having been in the air for 16 hours. (This was in the late afternoon of Wednesday 2 February, our 13th day.)
F-413 was immediately refuelled, but her radio was defective which meant she had to return to Koggola for repairs.
The omen of the shark
On the evening of our 13th day, a cuttlefish floated alongside the raft. It was immediately taken aboard and on it we were surprised to find a number of small crabs. Taffy (Richard Hughes-Jones) had been tirelessly but fruitlessly casting a hook over the side for the previous 13 days. Taffy put one of the small crabs on his fishhook, threw it over the side and immediately landed a baby-sized shark.
The Lascar seamen sprang to life and took control of the situation. One held its tail off the deck, another its head, while the third slit down its side from head to tail. One of them exclaimed, 'Today catch shark, tomorrow ship come!' The event clearly raised their spirits, as for the previous 13 days they had sat isolated and silent.
We later heard that on one other raft, at about the same time in the evening, an old boot floated alongside them. It was hauled aboard and again found to contain small crabs. With one of these as bait they also succeeded in landing a shark of similar size - this again their first success after 13 days of failure.
The fish flesh was pure white, but far too tough and unpleasant to eat raw. Among the raft's emergency equipment were storm matches. With dry wood chipped from the raft we lit a fire. An old water container was filled with seawater and shark steaks. After ten minutes the fish was cooked and ready to eat. We did our best to swallow it, but with limited enthusiasm as our real and desperate need was for water. We had long ago lost any yearning for food. Needless to say we took little heed of the Lascars' optimism, and settled down for yet another uncomfortable night, ignorant of the vast operation already under way for our rescue.
Why was Catalina F-413 recalled so early, before reaching the search area? Disaster had befallen Catalina J-205. Soon after dawn on 2 February, she had crashed on take-off and her entire crew was dead. To avoid striking wreckage from the crash, it was essential for all aircraft to return and land in daylight. At the time of the crash, Sqdn Ldr Melville Jackson and his crew in T-205, having themselves just become airborne, looked on helplessly to see J-205 in difficulties as she failed to gain height, then crashed into the sea, her depth charges exploding on contact. T-205 flew west towards the search area but she was also recalled before reaching it, and so landed back at Kelai after an eight-hour patrol.
Reinforcements and results
Our 14th day, Thursday 3 February. J-205 had crashed and the radio of F-413 was defective. T-205 was the only operational aircraft remaining at Kelai to proceed with the search. Soon after dawn, Sqdn Ldr Melville Jackson and crew aboard T-205 resumed the search. Replacements for the crashed J-205 and the Canadian Catalina F-413 were on their way from Kelai to Koggola.
As far as we could judge it was about 3.30 or 4pm when one of the gunners on my raft claimed he could hear the sound of an aircraft. We scanned the sky, and sure enough saw a speck, but could not be sure that we had been sighted. We used the lids of ration tins to reflect the sun's rays and to flash in the direction of the approaching aircraft, hoping to attract attention.
Although the aircraft was not flying directly towards us, we were encouraged, as she seemed to be losing height. We were soon certain, as what was now clearly a Catalina flew over us at a height of not much more than 50 feet. The faces of some of the crew were clearly visible as they leaned out of the blister on the port side. They were as excited as we were. They used an Aldis lamp to signal to us, but with our limited facility at Morse and our excitement, we could not read it.
As we assimilated our good fortune at being found, the drama was heightened when T-205 dropped a number of depth charges some distance away. We could not believe she had sighted a lurking U-boat. Relief came when she lowered her wing floats and attempted to land on the sea. From our position on the raft we knew there was a considerable swell, which no doubt was not evident from the air.
After touching down, Sqdn Ldr Melville Jackson deemed the attempt too risky, revved his engines and climbed away. Next, T-205 flew straight at us and dropped a bag of provisions with quite remarkable precision - it landed no more than an arm's length from the raft. We easily recovered the parcel and opened it to find seven service water bottles, chocolate, biscuits, sweets and cigarettes. There was also a Very pistol and cartridges for use as distress signals. T-205 continued to fly around, but as the sun sank in the sky she flew off, leaving us to spend another night of isolation beneath the stars. With barely sufficient fuel for the return flight, T-205 relied on astro navigation to make a safe landing at Kelai in the darkness at around 9.30pm that night.
A veritable feast
Little thought was given to how much longer we would remain adrift. I suppose we were just overwhelmed at our good fortune and settled down to explore the 'manna from heaven'. It was an occasion for another bonfire. Our twilight feast comprised two varieties of hot soup and two varieties of hot Horlicks. The soup was made from water and beef pemmican. This was served as a consommé, but with the addition of ground up biscuits we were able to offer a thick soup as an alternative.
Likewise, with the Horlicks, we ground Horlicks tablets into boiled water to serve as a plain Horlicks drink, whilst ground chocolate was melted and added into this to create Chocolate Horlicks.
Hopes and fears
As we settled down for the night, the speculation revolved around what we might expect the next day. We assumed at least that at first light another Catalina would appear with a ready-prepared diet. The most popular hope was for chicken sandwiches and blackcurrant juice.
Alas, although we were soon greeted by the engines of Catalina M-205, her Thornaby bag dropped wide, beyond our reach, so that we were never to know what goodies it contained. We now began to regret the extravagance of our previous evening's indulgence, and looked with foreboding at our depleted reserves of water.
Friday, 4 February, passed with no sign of a ship but with modest reassurance as Flight Lt Levack and his crew in M-205 circled relentlessly until the early evening. Records show that Canadian Catalina D-413 (Flight Lt Grandin) was scheduled to relieve M-205, but failed to rendezvous and returned to Kelai without locating us.
Safe at last
Saturday 5 February was our 16th day adrift. We were beginning to wonder just how much longer it would be before a ship arrived. Our concern increased with passing time, as there was no sign of even a Catalina. From time to time we heard the faint sound of engines, but it was well on in the day before things started happening.
The Norwegian tanker MV Ora was some 400 miles to the north of us when she was first alerted to our plight. On that Saturday morning she was approaching our position and so T-205's priority was to locate her. For the rest of the day, T-205 shuttled too and fro, leading Ora towards us.
At long last, the Ora appeared on the horizon. She was low in the water, fully laden with aviation spirit. She steered straight towards us and stopped her engines. With the great efficiency for which Norwegian seamen are known a boat was lowered under the command of the third officer. When it was within hailing distance our first question was, 'Where are you bound?'
We rejoiced to hear the answer, 'Australia.' You see, we had fantasised about our treatment upon rescue and were very clear that Australia was the best place to be landed. We had heard of the generosity with which Australians, especially in the western ports, treated Allied seamen. Later events conspired to make this a false hope.
As we drew alongside Ora, darkness was beginning to fall. The tanker was so low in the water that it was not difficult for us to scramble aboard. The ship was as steady as a rock on the smooth sea, but so distorted was my sense of balance from 16 days of the rocking raft that the deck seemed to heave, forcing me to collapse onto it. With assistance I was soon able to walk on the deck and was immediately invited by the fourth engineer to occupy his cabin in the after part of the ship.
In the engineers' mess room I was presented with a roast meal, including pork chops, but first I drank seven cups of coffee. I felt sure that to break my fast with pork chops was unwise. Surely one should have an invalid diet like bread in milk or porridge. So overwhelming was the hospitality that I felt obliged to make the most of the feast and was unaware of any serious after effects.
Once we were aboard Ora, she immediately steamed off towards the raft under the charge of the bosun, Mr MacPherson, who with his companions were soon taken aboard. Physically they appeared in a condition similar to my immediate companions, but I noticed that Mr MacPherson had a rather wild look in his eyes to suggest he had had a harrowing time.
In the gathering twilight Ora then located a third raft. We were quite unprepared for the sight of these survivors as the third mate steered the lifeboat towards us. I was unable to recognise any of these men, so wasted were their bodies. After the war one became familiar with the sight of released prisoners from the Japanese camps. These people resembled some of the worst examples. Sadly, one of their number had died the previous day and had been cast over the side of the raft. Another was dead when hauled onto the deck of the Ora.
Silent under a moonlit sky
By this time Catalina T-205 had left the scene and, low in fuel, was returning to Kelai. It was assumed there were survivors from the remaining two rafts yet to be located. Nothing more could be attempted until morning light. Ora's engines were stopped and the ship remained motionless on a smooth sea under a bright moonlit sky. Regardless of having had almost no sleep for 16 days, I found little rest. With our cargo of 10,000 tons of aviation spirit we were a sitting target for any lurking U-boat. As I tossed and turned in my bunk, in my mind I went repeatedly through all the events of the last 16 days from the point when the torpedo struck until I was safely aboard Ora.
Back to Bombay
Early on Sunday morning, 6 February, two Canadian Catalinas D-413 and F-413 arrived and circled. At this point we survivors were ignorant of the fate of the men on the two rafts, which had drifted out of our sight early in our ordeal.
Numerous radio messages were exchanged with the authorities ashore until it was concluded there were no more survivors to be picked up. At this point we were informed that we were to be taken off the Ora and returned to Bombay. The reason given to us was that Ora had insufficient provisions to feed us during the long voyage to Australia, but on reflection, I believe it was due to concern for the condition of the sick Indian survivors. One more Indian died during the night. A Royal Indian Navy minesweeper, the Rajputana had sailed from Cochin to rendezvous, but in the early afternoon we were taken off by the destroyer HMS Redoubt, which was escorting the troopship SS Mooltan from Australia to Bombay.
I have a lasting sombre memory of the scene as we stepped from the deck of the Ora to the lifeboat. On the after deck of the Ora, ready for committal to the deep, were the two Indian bodies stitched in canvas bags. We had an audience of several thousand Anzac troops as we were taken by lifeboat from the Ora to the Redoubt, while the Mooltan circled at full speed. The troops were so moved by the sight of this mid-ocean drama that they took up a collection on our behalf, a very pleasant surprise for us to receive on landing.
Aboard Redoubt we were separated according to rank. The chief engineer, Ted Greenway, Hubert Steele and I were entertained in the ward room, the bosun and chief steward went to the petty officers mess and the remainder to the lower deck. A number of the Indians were put on drips by the doctor in the sick bay, but sadly two more died before reaching Bombay.
The first night aboard Redoubt was again sleepless. My mind repeatedly went over the events of the last 17 days. It was not until the ship's doctor gave me a sleeping draught that I began to relax and enjoy my first full night's sleep for nearly three weeks.
Crew of Catalina T-205
Sgt Walter Womersley, Sqdn Ldr Melville Jackson, W/O Bernard Palmer, F/O Jeff Alt, W/O Joe Moss, F/Sgt Tubby Cole, F/Sgt Harry Arnold, W/O Frank Millner
SS Fort Buckingham crew list
Raft No 1, picked up by SS Moreby and landed in Western Australia: Petty Officer A Collings, Gunners J Jones, R Morrison, T Beaney, T Dwyer, J Ashton and two Lascar seamen.
Raft No 2, picked up by Norwegian ship MV Kongsdal heading for the Cape of Good Hope: L Sargeant, J Blagden (subsequently awarded the British Empire Medal and the Lloyds medal for saving life at sea), Gunner C Ashton and five Lascar seamen.
Raft Nos 3, 4 and 5, found by Catalina T-205 serial number W8406, picked up by the Norwegian Tanker MV Ora, transferred to HMS Redoubt and landed in Bombay:
Raft No 3: Chief Engineer E Greenway, Apprentices N Gibson and H Steele, Purser W Hamilton, Gunners S Savage, R Hughes-Jones, G Clewlow, R Mitchell and three Lascar seamen.
Raft No 4: Boatswain D MacPherson, Gunners TH Steel, J Metcalfe and eight Lascar seamen.
Raft No 5: 15 Lascar seamen, of whom five subsequently died from exhaustion.
Killed or Drowned:
Captain M MacLeod, 1st Officer H Carr, 2nd Officer L Nelson, 3rd Officer J Willoughby, 2nd Engineer N Lambert, 3rd Engineer A Coverdale, 4th Engineer H Paterson, Ch Radio Officer M Egan, 2nd Radio Officer G Fraser, 3rd Radio Officer R Herford, Gunners R Madeley, F Newton, H Laverick, J Taylor, R Greenhall, J McLaren, R Matthews and 21 Lascar seamen
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What was meant by Lascar?
A lascar was a sailor or militiaman from South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Arab world, and other territories located to the east of the Cape of Good Hope, who were employed on European ships from the 16th century until the middle of the 20th century. Generally by 1939 this would have meant Indian seaman.
The men from Ratnagiri were often referred to as Lascars and 8 of them died on the Fort Buckingham. These are their names and ages.
Hasssan AYOOB (36)
Ebram BABA (31)
Adam EBRAHIM (39)
Ali MOHAMED (23)
Dawood MOHAMED (41)
Abdoola MOHMAD (37)
Hamail Oosman (21)
Mohides Oosman (22)