SS Britannia was built in Glasgow by Alexander Stephen and Sons as a passenger ship of the Anchor Line. The launch in 1925 can be seen on YouTube. During World War 2 she was operating as a troop ship, under the command of Captain Alexander Collie.
On the 12th March 1941 SS Britannia set out from Liverpool bound for Freetown, Durban and Bombay carrying service personnel, passengers and crew, on her last voyage.
The voyage began with the Britannia as a member of a convoy with an anti-submarine escort. By the 25th of March the rest of the convoy had disappeared and the Britannia was on her own. Early in the morning she was attacked by the German Hilfskreuzer (auxiliary cruiser) Thor, also a converted merchant ship, under the command of Kapitän Otto Kähler. The Thor was armed with six 5.9 inch guns and easily overpowered the Britannia with her single rear 4 inch gun.
After giving warning and allowing time to abandon ship, he shelled the Britannia on her waterline and she sank quickly.
The survivors took to the ship’s lifeboats and some threw baulks of timber overboard and used them as makeshift rafts.
Britannia’s radio operator had managed to get off an RRR (Raider! Raider! Raider!) signal with her location, which was acknowledged by Sierra Leone radio. The Thor picked up radio traffic which indicated that a Royal Navy warship was on its way at speed. In the light of this information, Kapitän Kähler did not stay to pick up survivors.
He heard later that no warship had arrived and that some of the survivors had spent several days on rafts and in lifeboats before being picked up by other ships that happened to be in the area. Many others had died at sea as they waited to be rescued.
Lifeboat Number Five carried about fifty survivors who were picked up by the Spanish ship Bachi.
67 were rescued by the M V Raranga and taken to Montevideo.
Four more survivors on another raft were picked up by another Spanish ship.
The Spanish ship Cabo de Hornos was in the area five days after the sinking and picked up 2nd Lt. Cox, Sub Lt. Davidson and Lt. Rowlandson from the ‘1st Raft’. On board the Cabo was a French Baroness who, with Lt Rowlandson, persuaded the captain to keep searching. They later picked up Spencer Mynott and Alfred Warren from the ‘2nd Raft’, survivors from another raft and two lifeboats, a total of 77, who were taken to the island of Tenerife.
After 23 days at sea, 38 survivors reached the coast of Brazil on Britannia’s Lifeboat Number Seven, having navigated across most of the Atlantic.
Official sources record 243 survivors out of a total of 492 who set out.