'Time, with a gift of tears'
It was about seven o'clock in the morning and having finished our early morning PT we were about to enjoy our breakfast. I had just poured milk over the breakfast cereal when there was a loud crump, it sounded like a bomb exploding a couple of streets away. We all sat quiet for a second, there was a second crash, for some reason we, who were in the dining room, failed to see the urgency of the time. Maybe the bombing at home had given us the idea that if you heard a crash then you were not actually involved in it.
An Officer dashed into the dining room, "Upper deck, everyone on the upper deck." We rapidly went up the companionways to the events that awaited us, the promenade deck was crowded, I stood by the Britannia's Third Officer, "What's up," I said, he pointed astern, there on the horizon, a mere speck, was our enemy, as I watched, the three little bright dots appeared on the enemy's superstructure, another salvo was on its way to the lumbering Britannia.
The Third Officer shouted, "Down," and all of those who stood around him hit the deck in a jumbled heap of humanity.
This salvo also fell astern as had the previous ones, there was a lull, and we who lay on the deck stood up again, three red dots and again we hit the deck, this time with more practice and a better eye to spacing. We did this three times more, we were, unknowingly like puppets bobbing up and down in response to distant signals. We rose a fourth time and saw the change of pace set in, this salvo did not as the others had done, fall astern, this time the fall of shot was directly in front of our bows. It was the Third Officer who voiced my own convictions, "This is it," he said, "Get down everybody."
The next few moments were anxious ones and then it came, there was an almighty crash, the Nazi salvo crashed through the poor old Britannia's plates and burst into the First Deck cabins, which were luckily at this time empty. The explosion of the shells shook the Britannia but her engines carried her on. That first salvo as it exploded inboard sounded as if someone had dropped a mountainous pile of tin cans down a huge hole.
Crash succeeded crash, the enemy having dropped his first salvos astern and then his ranging shots over our bows, now proceeded to batter the Britannia into scrap iron. Most of the shells fell on the port side and we being starboard were reasonably safe from shrapnel. One or two of us stood up to see what was going on, better some action than inaction, it was at this precise moment that a shell landed on the four inch gun in the aft, most of the gun crew were killed outright. The four inch gun pointed futilely into the air, the Britannia was now unarmed. A number of the crew ran aft to assess the damage and to drop smoke floats as we hammered on across the Atlantic, unfortunately the Nazi overhauled us league by league.
The Britannia, old and past her prime, could at her best only reach fourteen knots and she was doing her best. The enemy, of more modern design and powerful engines, was reaching at least thirty knots.
There were a few more shells landed aboard and then the Captain signalled engines off and sounded the foghorn, this was a signal of surrender. Those about us realising that the battle was over began to stand up, I was not so sure that the Nazi had been so quick to appreciate our surrender.
There was on deck near me a ginger haired middle aged stewardess, I said to her, "Stay down," there was another great bang, the enemy had loosed another salvo before appreciating our giving-in signals.
The Britannia slowed down and the waves took the way off her, the enemy ceased fire and for a moment all was quiet. It was not until after the gunfire had died away that one could begin to understand what had happened to the ship and those who sailed aboard her, there were wounded lying aft. On the promenade deck the lifeboats on the port side were ragged hulks of timber, only those boats that hung in the davits in the starboard sides were reasonably seaworthy.
Someone shouted, "There's two blokes on the Boat deck above who are wounded." So Snowshoe, who was with me, and I went up the ladder and there by the boat davits were two of our lads, two Geordies from the northern shires, both were wounded, and nearby, a blazing oilskin locker. The same shell that had fired the locker had doubtless injured our boys. We carried the first one down the companionway and laid him on the deck, we then went back for the other lad.
Both were unconscious but in their subconscious and shocked state had stirred as we carried them past the blazing locker, the heat was intense, even we who were whole could feel the wild glare. These lads were wounded terribly, we were sorry to have to move them but fire is a terrible thing, a vile and awful death would have been theirs if we had left them.
We laid them on the deck and told the Doctor who was at that time looking over the rail at the boats being lowered. The word had been given to abandon ship. It was in these last few moments of the Britannia that I saw for a few seconds the whole picture as an entity.
The shattered four inch gun, the wreckage of the hatch covers, the dead and the wounded. Snowshoe and I went to our lifeboat station but the boat had gone, it may well have been one of those that were shattered by gunfire or full of survivors and badly holed, now laboured with the waves.
We toured the deck to see what were our chances of survival, there on the after deck I saw a Chief Petty Officer tying a Senior Naval Commander onto a raft. Leaning against the Promenade bulkhead was a man I took to be an Indian Army Officer in mufti, "Are you taking to the boats Sir?" I asked him. He took a cigarette from his case, "I don't think there's much chance of a boat laddie," he said and we left him there. Those boats that were usable had all gone and as we wondered how we were to make our escape, so the Nazi sounded off his siren, this we realised was our warning to leave the ship, the enemy was about to make an end.
Snowshoe and I carried two baulks of timber that had been blown off the hatches, these timbers were very similar to railway sleepers and each one would support a man easily. We laid them on the deck and Snowshoe went to find a water container to take with us. I had, in my short time in the Navy, always carried a knife in my belt and so while Snowshoe was below I cut a piece of a spare hawser that was among the debris of the battle. Snowshoe then came back with a metal cased carafe that was usually kept in the cabin.
The timber baulks were fifty feet forward along the deck, we tied the rope to the ship's rail and Snowshoe was the first to go over the side. He slid his timber over the rail, raced aft and slid down the rope to drop on his little raft as it came by. I followed suit and we both drifted astern. By lying face down on our strip of timber and paddling with our hands we could steer with a reasonable chance of direction. We were drifting close to the screw and rudder gear, and were, for a short time, scared that we would be trapped there.
Snowshoe and I managed to keep close together and now he told me that in climbing down the ship's side he had banged the carafe against the hull; as proof of this he shook the container and I could hear the glass lining rattling in shattered confusion.
I had no fancy to drink powered glass and Snowshoe was tired of carrying the carafe. I would have had it from him, but the idea of glass in the water was enough for both of us; Snowshoe let it go, we were to think of that water in later hours, for some reason we had not thought of drinking it through a handkerchief. There was another underlying reason in my mind as to why we need not save water that was suspect, I had a genuine belief that the enemy ship would take us all prisoner. I was wrong, I heard stories later that may well be true, one was that the Nazi ship has swung out her davits and then not picked up anyone.
George Nixon had told me a long time after that the telegraphist had managed to get out the RRR signal – "Raider, Raider, Raider" – this was the signal that all merchantmen send out on sighting a surface raider. The enemy was not so foolish as to hang about if there was a chance that one of our warships had heard our message.
Meanwhile Snowshoe and I drifted towards one of the merchantman's rafts, on which were Lt Davidson RN, Lt Cox, Army Lt Marks RN, a ship's steward, Lt Dyer, Lt Rowlandson, Lt Drysdale and now Snowshoe and I. We managed to hang on to the raft lines and for a small space were glad to be among our fellow humans.
We now had time to look back at the Britannia and her enemy. There she lay about two hundred yards away, surrounded by the wreckage of lifeboats, rafts and members of the crew and passengers all struggling in the water. In the distance one of our lifeboats was making off under sail.
Meantime the Nazi raider had drawn closer to the helpless Britannia, even as we spun helplessly around the raft, the enemy opened fire on our old floating home. Spinning as we were at the whim of the waves, I did not see the enemy gun flashes, the rapidity of the fire sounded like a roll of drums, the enemy ship must have exercised all his gunners to sink the Britannia.
There was a silence and the raider, under full steam, headed off into the open waste. It appeared for a short space of time that the Britannia was unharmed and then, as we watched, she slowly went down by the head, steeper and yet more steeply, until her stern stood at a high angle out of the sea, she held this for a moment, the blazing oilskin locker being her last torch to the open seas and then she plunged with a cry of steam from her funnel and a great bubbling of air, to leave behind her a blazing oil patch. Down she went to make her name with Davy Jones. We were adrift – ten men on and around a small raft.