- CHAPTER 1 – ON JOINING UP
- CHAPTER 2 – THE BRITANNIA
- CHAPTER 3 – THE RAIDER
- CHAPTER 4 – ADRIFT 1st DAY
- CHAPTER 5 – ADRIFT 2nd DAY
- CHAPTER 6 – ADRIFT 3rd DAY
- CHAPTER 7 – ADRIFT 4th DAY
- CHAPTER 8 – ADRIFT 5th DAY
- CHAPTER 9 – THE CABO DE HORNOS
- CHAPTER 10 – SANTA CRUZ – THE CLINIC
- CHAPTER 11 – FIRST TRIP OUT
- CHAPTER 12 – FIESTA DE LA MAGOS
- CHAPTER 13 – FAIR MAIDS OF CADIZ
- CHAPTER 14 – GUEST AT ‘EL NYMPHA’
- CHAPTER 15 – SPRAGG’S HOTEL
- CHAPTER 16 – TROUBLE AGAIN
- CHAPTER 17 – NEWS OF HOME
- CHAPTER 18 – GIBRALTAR
- CHAPTER 19 – AND SO TO REST CAMP
- AFTERWORD – AT HASLAR HOSPITAL
- LINES FROM ‘ATALANTA IN CALYDON
(Alfred Warren was travelling to his first posting as an Air Fitter in the Fleet Air Arm when the Britannia was attacked. After five days at sea he was picked up by the Cabo de Hornos after being bitten by a shark when the ship was in sight. This account was written in the 1960s.)
PAIN FOR LEAVEN
*Lines from ‘Atalanta in Calydon’
CHAPTER 1 – ON JOINING UP
‘Before the beginning of years’*
The Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm requested, politely, but with full weight of authority that I present myself for service forthwith. To prevent any quibble as to my financial position they enclosed in the letter, a railway warrant and a postal order for four shillings. This was to provide the price of meals I might consume en route, in the manner to which they thought I was accustomed. A princely sum termed, with fine wit, subsistence allowance.
The journey to HMS Drake at Devonport was uneventful if tiring and in due course I, with faltering steps and a large suitcase, reported to the Officer of the Watch. He regarded me with an eye like an egg poached in blood, “Well ..?” I realised that it would be inopportune to say that I was not. “Alfred Warren, Sir, reporting for Fleet Air Arm training.”
There was a silence, then he uttered one word, “God!” He looked away into the far horizon, the word stayed for a full minute, then with no change of expression, but with diabolical ferocity, he shouted, “Messenger!!” There was a crash of boots in the guardhouse and a seaman hurled forth, “Sir?”
“Take this man to hut 13.”
We hastened from the presence of The Presence.
It was the 11th March 1940 and the beginning of a new life that was to affect the rest of my days. Hut 13 proved to be the reception centre for new entrants to the Fleet Air Arm. It was here that I first encountered the sailor’s friend – the Naval Hammock, I learned to enjoy its comfort. The following day I was told I should have to take a Trade Test. I had volunteered as a Fleet Air Arm Fitter (Electrical) and the Navy wanted to know my capabilities.
The Petty Officer in charge of our hut was a mine of information and reassuring to the timid among us. He had only one failing; he was a heavy smoker and fancied one brand, “Anybodies.”
I was fortunate enough to pass the Trade Test and was then advanced for basic training. Those of us who had succeeded were taken by Naval launch to Trevol, the barracks and rifle range where we were to be for the next three weeks. We were met by Petty Officer Heath, he was to be our Instructor in parade ground drill, Naval etiquette and the use of the rifle. As we progressed in our training I learned that PO Heath was the type of man on whom the Navy is built. With all of us, the foolish, the wise, the ignorant, the smart Alec, he was patient, firm, encouraging and kind. God only knows how the unending stream of untutored had failed to sour him. Our time on the basic course was alternatively hard work and good meals laced with plenty of fresh air. Being young, we thrived on the treatment and surprisingly when the course ended we all wished it had lasted longer. The Navy must have been short of men for we all got through our Passing-out Parade.
We were returned to HMS Drake and were told that we would, within the next few days, be sent home on leave. Leave was usually granted to trained men and also gave the Drafting Commander a chance to find a berth for all these eager young men.
We were three days in barracks and then fell an event that those of us left will always recall. We were sitting in the Drafting Master-at-Arms’ office waiting for our passes, a PO came out, a handful of Leave Passes and Ration Cards held before him, he began to read out the names …
“Potts, Warren, Wastell, Williams,” at this point he was interrupted by the Bosun’s pipe, “Do you hear that, do you hear that, all leave cancelled, all leave cancelled!” The voice of the Tannoy ceased, we besieged the PO in vain, he walked back into his office.
The main gates had been closed and parties of men about to go home were told to report back to duty, Hitler had invaded Norway. We stood paralysed for a few minutes and then started to walk back to our own block. As we came to the Parade ground a Leading Hand of some years service pointed, “Look there lad, a Naval Landing Party going out – God help them!”
In two lines there stood fully kitted all the seamen from Raleigh block. A Chief PO gave the order, “Number,” the front rank called out, the Chief paced as they numbered. When they came to eighty, there were three extra men on the end. The Chief passed his arm through the ranks, “You three, right turn, back to Barracks.”
Someone at the back of me said, “Lucky bastards.”
The Chief Petty Officer faced the waiting lines, “Form fours,” a pause, “By the left, right wheel, quick march,” and away they went, 160 men of the British Navy. A Naval Volunteer Landing Party.
We FAA ratings spent another three boring days hanging about and then were told that we were to go to Newcastle-under-Lyme for an electrical course, the Navy had commandeered a Girls High School for our lectures. There was of course the usual clot who wondered if the girls would still be there.
There was quite a crowd of us on the train to Newcastle-under-Lyme, I began to wonder if the Navy travelled only by rail. I also wondered when I should see the salt sea, my urge was to be sated in the fullness of days.
Another CPO met us at the end of our train journey and led us into trucks awaiting our arrival, in his hand he had a list and at intervals he halted the truck, took counsel at certain houses and called out the names of two or three ratings, we were being put into Civvy Billets. A Liverpool chap named Jack Stewart looked at me, “How about you and me for the next one?”
In due course our turn arrived; the PO took us to stay with Mr and Mrs Hope. We were accepted as members of the family and called Mrs Hope ‘Mother’, she was to prove to be a true mother. Her kindness to us and Mr Hope’s kindly understanding was to give us great pleasure in our days of study.
We spent many happy days at Newcastle-under-Lyme, it was while I was here that Vera and I decided to marry. Vera Cope was the girl I had left behind in Birmingham. We discussed the idea of marriage on the occasions on which I popped home for odd week-end leaves. We finally made the decision and I asked the Naval chaplain to announce the Banns.
Vera and I were married on November 2nd at All Saints Church in Erdington. The Rev Chute performed the ceremony; he had known us both from our younger days. Not long after we became man and wife my course finished and we were on our way to Lee-on-Solent. This was the main base of the Fleet Air Arm and we moved in to await draft chits. Once more we were in a hutted camp with the usual large wooden sleeping dormitories. There were one or two chaps already in the huts and we, who were new arrivals, were made welcome and soon settled in.
Jack Stewart and I were still together and visited the usual rounds of picture houses, pubs and cafes. As we were now fully trained in the Navy’s eyes we were allowed reasonable leave facilities and I managed to get back home to see Vera and the family on one or two long week-ends.
It was after returning from a week-end leave that I and one or two others in our hut heard our names called over the Tannoy with the usual addendum, “Report to the Drafting Office.” On arriving there we were told to report for a medical examination and to check our kit, then we were given chits to draw Tropical Kit. Expecting to be on the move pretty soon I chanced a rebuff and asked the Drafting Officer if I could take a few days leave, to my surprise he said that if those of us on draft would give in our names the Drafting Commander might well grant a week’s leave. I spread the good news and in due course we were home for a full week.
Vera and I spent a happy time together but the days passed too quickly and the Sunday arrived when I had to board the train back to Lee-on-Solent. I learnt on my return that our draft was for Dekelia, a Fleet Air Arm base in the Mediterranean. We waited for orders to move and we waited and waited, it was to be six weeks before we were to receive firm orders to go. I took as many opportunities as possible to get home to see Vera. The last week-end pass that I applied for, the Draft Officer said, “Be back here by midnight on Saturday.” I told Vera that this would be the last leave I should have for some time.
On return to barracks, Jack came to see me, he had asked the Draft Officer if there was room for him on the draft. The Officer had told him that he could be fitted in, but said that sometimes, a man who went to be with a mate, was often the one who suffered. Jack told me of this and asked my opinion, I agreed with the Draft Officer, I said, “Leave it Jack, we’ll meet again somewhere.”
We started on our way to board ship which was berthed at Liverpool, the hour was two o’clock on Sunday 9th March 1941. Once again journeying by train we headed north for Liverpool. Late that night we ended up in a quiet side station somewhere in blacked-out England. I never remembered the name of the place but it was here that one of our boys got out his cornet and played for us as we waited for our connection. We ended up by marching round the platform singing our heads off, the cornet leading the way. The surrounding towns must have awakened to our rendering of “Come and join us.” The arrival of our train silenced us and on we went.
We arrived at Liverpool in the small hours of the morning and we were soon at the docks where our ship the SS Britannia awaited us.
CHAPTER 2 – THE BRITANNIA
‘There came to the making of man’
We boarded the Britannia early in the morning on 10th March 1941, we were allocated cabins and a Canadian Volunteer called “Snowshoe” and I found ourselves bunked together in a very pleasant port side cabin. Having dumped our gear and selected our bunks we had a look round the ship. She was an Anchor Line and very comfortably fitted. I walked aft and watched the dockers loading ship and then to the rails and looked out over the Docks. Three or four of us strolled about making the usual investigations, where was the bathroom, the toilet, the shop and of course the bar. By the time we had covered our list of basic requirements of life we were ready for a snack in the dining-room and then awaited lunch-time.
It was a long day we spent aboard the Britannia, but eventually night arrived and Snowshoe and I slept the sleep of the tired and innocent. The new day brought us a native steward and a cup of tea, both were welcomed, also the realisation that we were under way. The Britannia headed down river, we left the grey shores, the mud flats and England. North we headed, past Ireland and then south for Africa.
The run out was pleasant and due to our escort, so far uneventful. The days grew warmer, the nights pleasant and star filled. I used to walk aft and look at our wake, creamy white and zigzagged with our course. The second day out I met up with George Nixon and his friend Frank, we fell to discussing gymnastics and various hand-balancing exhibits on the stage. I had been a keen gymnast for some years so Frank and I tried a little hand-balancing, with of course due allowance for the roll of the ship. It was while we were so engaged one day that an Indian Army Officer passed our group and the discussion became general. During our talk the conversation swung round to the question of fencing. The Officer fetched from his cabin a swordstick which he had purchased in London. It was decided that I would hone the blade for him. In true Navy tradition I always carried a sheath knife with me, remembering the words of Petty Officer Heath, “In the Navy lad, there are three you always have and you keep them sharp … your knife, your pencil and your wits.” To keep my blade keen I always carried a stone, so in the afternoon under an increasingly warm sun I sat and talked and honed the swordstick. In the mornings we fell in for boat drill and were allocated our stations. My boat I knew; how to get there and who would be with me; but its number I never remembered.
There was always PT in the morning before breakfast and the exercise and salt air gave me a hearty appetite for the first meal of the day. About the third day out there sprang up a fairly heavy sea, I enjoyed standing on the upper deck and watching the Britannia put her bows under, and rising, throw the seas through her scuppers. I used to watch our escort destroyer pitch and toss on the strident, heaving waters. One of them at least was an American four funnelled coastal craft that we had dearly paid for, here came to mind the Navy chant concerning them.
“Roll in the Hood, the Nelson, Renown,
This four funnelled bastard is getting me down.”
I, aboard the Britannia, lived in comfort, I had no envy of our lads who were bobbing like corks in those small craft. Astern of us there came another large craft, which, I was told, was called the “Themistocles”.
The storm passed and the sun grew fierce, by twos and threes many of those aboard changed into tropical white gear. My gesture to the sun was to don my topee, the light, white helmet of the Englishman abroad. We pressed on across the large Atlantic, heading south towards Africa, the sun became hotter and we sizzled gently, our pale northern skins turning red or brown according to our luck. I grew quite attached to my topee, bearing in mind the words of warning of one of the Officers who had told us one morning at boat drill, “If we have to take to the boats, bring your top coats, the nights are cold, and wear a hat, the sun sends men mad.” These words stayed in my mind, but at that time they had no deep significance, none of us anticipated that we would end up in the boats.
Our pleasant cruise went on in the ever increasing warmth, even to be on duty watch during the starlit sultry nights had its pleasures. On my duty nights I would watch the dark bulks of our escort and wonder if the phosphorescence of our wake would be guide to an enemy submarine.
There were days of loafing in the sun, a little hand-balancing with George and Frank and cheap plentiful drinks and cigarettes. I came on deck one morning to be told that the escort had left us, I looked around, the sea seemed large and the Britannia very lonely. Watches were doubled from here on and ships vigilance was increased.
Britannia plodded on alone, the sun was warm, the deck nearly hot enough to fry an egg. According to the usual lower deck rumours we were altering course to turn into the Cape and so another day passed and I went to my bunk looking forward to another sunny day’s cruise, and night passed bringing daybreak.
CHAPTER 3 – THE RAIDER
‘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.
CHAPTER 4 – ADRIFT 1st DAY
‘Grief, with a glass that ran’
Snowshoe and I were still straddling our baulks of timber and with one hand were hanging on to the hand lines of the raft. It was roughly the size of a medium sized kitchen table, the normal raft carried by merchantmen during the war, small but buoyant, not designed to carry more than one or two men and to allow a few more to hang on to the hand ropes until picked up, we were to hang on for a long, long time.
In fact interminable hours, our fingers chafed between the ropes and the side of the raft, our knees banged against the sides, the timbers on which we sat rolled from beneath us, we bobbed and flopped into the sea and struggled our again. This, times beyond number, for all the day and the hours of the day. There were no excitements of the day, no gay parties to break the fierce need to keep afloat, no small jokes to give us a laugh, only the scramble to once more keep ones head above water.
Day drew on and dusk came to give us herald of the night. The nights were to be the culminating terror of our time adrift. We had no eyes in the darkness to foresee a possible overturn of the raft, no pre-cognisance of an impending wave. We prayed for rest, but rest we dare not, one moment’s lack of concentration and we were in the sea. We were in the sea at all times, but the great fear was to be in the sea alone. Out of touch with a fellow being and above all, out of touch of the raft. Time held no import, the hours dragged on, we often saw what we believed to be the lights of ships and we cried out in the night, unheard, unseen. That which we thought to be lights was no more than the phosphorescence breaking on the waves, it would break against the raft and trickle down into the immeasurable depths in warm welcome.
Down and down we so grimly hanging on, I am sure that we were not always mistaken, but who in darkness could be sure? Who would hear the cries of night at sea and the sea so proud? That which the sea has, the sea holds, and the sea held us. The seas threw us, one against the other, so that one man became the burden of another. The salt taste was on our lips, yet we did not think to drink and so we bobbed and scrambled in the waves and at long last came the day, a thin streak of gold along the horizon, and so soon after the power of the sun.
Surely now would come rescue, we tried to imagine how far away from land we were, we hoped to work how soon a destroyer of our Royal Navy would get to us. All in vain, the Navy had other tasks and we were not service personnel. We had joined the Navy to take the risks of the Navy and the Navy knew us not.
The strains of the night had weakened us and there now arose a little bickering as to who could take a turn on the raft. Snowshoe and I clung to our timber baulks all night; I suggested that we all used our shoelaces etc. to tie the timbers to the raft. It was a puerile suggestion, but to me it was a gesture to solidify our little world. It seemed to me that the night had had a lowering effect on the Senior Naval Officer, Lt Commander Selby, he became a little querulous and complained that he was slipping off the raft.
The dawn drew on to day and the sun grew hotter, it was perhaps midday or a little earlier that we sighted another raft, we must have been close to each other all night and had possibly been answering each other’s signals. The waves would lift us up so that we saw the waste before us, in another second we would be in the trough and hidden from sight. We played this macabre game of hide and seek for a time and then realised that it was indeed a raft. We paddled towards her, then suddenly the will to combine our rafts seemed to dwindle. At this time Snowshoe lost the lifebelt that he had acquired. He turned and swam after it, I called after him, “Snowshoe, let it go!!” he called back to us and disappeared. There was no sign of why he went so quickly, one moment he was there and in an instant he was gone.
It was within moments of this incident that one of the Officers on the raft and I swam to the other raft, which had drawn closer, we clambered aboard. The new raft seemed to me to be part of the side of a wooden hut. The Naval Lt and I found a seat, there was a little more room on this raft, no one spoke on our advent aboard the new craft, the present occupants were concentrating on maintaining their seats, for now the waves seemed a little stronger. I attempted to see for myself how many there were aboard, as I remember they were as follows: a man in mufti (a tea planter), a Naval Lt (teacher), M Mynott (telegraphist RN), a DEMS Rating RN (young man), another DEMS Rating RN (an older man), “Ginger” (an FAA Rating from Coventry), Lt Drysdale (surgeon), a Naval Lt (name unknown) and me.
When I looked about me again the raft that I had left was drifting far away.
CHAPTER 5 – ADRIFT 2nd DAY
‘Pleasure, with pain for leaven’
We had not been long aboard the second raft, maybe two or three hours, when the man sitting on my left began to mumble something to me, he was a tea planter who was returning to India. I spoke to him and he raised his voice, “My glasses, where are my glasses?” I turned to the Naval Lt, “He has lost his glasses, did he have them with him?” The Naval Lt said he did not know. I turned to the tea planter and said, “Have you looked in your pockets?” He went through his pockets, “They’re not there,” he then fell silent for a while and we settled back into our routine of hanging on.
After a short lapse of time the old chap began again, “My glasses, I can’t see without my glasses!!” We were all I think a little indifferent to the older man’s need for the spectacles. Our hopes were set on rescue and not on the apparent minor needs of life.
At that time I too failed to realise that a blind man is dependent and that a newly blind man is terribly dependent. He began again, “I must find them.” I attempted to console him a little, I cannot remember the words I used but I have no doubt that they were as puerile as he considered them. The Naval Lt, who was a Medical Officer, said, “It’s no use, he has been taking his topee off and carrying it before you came.” I then realised more fully that the old man had been exposed to the rough and tumble of the sea for as long as me, and youth was on my side. Again there was silence and suddenly the planter made up his mind, “They’re in my cabin, I remember,” and he slipped over the side of the raft, I grabbed him, the MO said, “It’s no use, he’s going.” The old chap climbed back on the raft, I reached his topee out of the water and handed it back to him, “It’s all wet,” he said, and his petulance increased, he carried on mumbling about the stewards aboard ship, the ship now below us.
Then came his moment of decision, over he went again, I grabbed for him but the MO caught my arm, “Let him go, once they make their minds up, it’s no use.” The planter struck out, swimming wildly, God knows where he believed he was heading. The raft spun its eternal crazy orbit, and when I looked again he was gone.
We all sat shocked at this first loss and I felt a sense of shock at the MO’s acceptance of the madness of a fellow human being. Later I was to realise that it was impossible to restrain any man who wanted to go out. The tea planter’s topee bobbed on the waves some distance from the raft, I wished to God that it too would vanish, it was a grim reminder that we were in peril of being whittled away one by one.
I broke the silence, “I wished I had a cigarette,” the MO turned to me, “Any matches,” and he pulled from his pocket a sodden packet of “Three Castle” cigarettes. We surveyed them in apathetic silence and the MO with half a laugh tossed them into the sea. Again in silence we watched them soak up the sea and sink.
“Are you married?” the MO asked me, I told him that I had married about three months before and I wondered how Vera would react if she did not hear from me soon. The MO told me that he had been married just a fortnight and from his pocket he drew a photograph of a lovely blonde girl. I said, “She is worth going back to.” “I shall not see her again,” he answered and with the words he tore up the picture and tossed the scraps over the side. I resented this acceptance of defeat and thought of Vera, I considered how unfair it would be to leave a young widow in wartime Britain. To leave a single girl was, to my way of thinking, a reasonable thing, but not to leave a young bride to fend for herself. It may have been an egotistical idea that only I could care for her. Whatever the reason it was a sheet anchor in the days that were to come.
The day limped on, the seas seemed a little rougher, the waves broke against the raft and broke against us, the salt spray splashed into my eyes, I religiously spat away the salt water that trickled into my mouth. Our uniforms were drenched, our skins were soaked, we were one with the sea and the salt. The raft was rather heavy laden and the waves met us with good measure. The night crept up to us and we started into the tunnel of the night. We rolled and jostled against each other and were indifferent to the buffeting.
As the night settled in, the waves seemed to abate a little and we rolled a little less. The raft had no steerage on her and the seas played with us like a dog with a bone. The lessening of the waves gave us a better chance to look around, the skies had cleared and the stars were bright, before us the sea lay a dark heaving mass. I cannot recall how many times during that night we imagined we saw lights in the distance. We shouted, but to no avail, we had no signal lights to flash, we could only call, and listen, and hope.
Maybe we deluded ourselves, or were there indeed ships that passed us by? We never knew then and we were never to find out. There were moments when I dozed and woke rapidly to clutch the sides of the raft. Sleep was to prove a traitor to many of us, but we were tiring, no food, no water and the fear of drinking salt water made us hate the sea.
Though the sea was a little easier it still rolled heavily on us, I would often start with a blow from a wave striking me on the back and the spray wash over my shoulders. I would pass a hand over my face to wipe off the salt water, but eventually I tired of it, the seas in my face were interminable and my face grew sore. We saw lights again and again, we shouted and again no hope, no reply. So the night dragged on, pitch and toss and the never ending slap of the waves. When dawn came I do not remember – was I asleep and suddenly awoke to find the light, or did it come in quick surprise and I awake?
I looked around, there we were, still supported on our salt sealed world, near me was one of the DEMS ratings, I looked for the other one, the eldest of the two, I could not see him, I thought that we had altered our positions on the raft during the night, and turning to the chap near me I asked him, “Where’s your mate?” I was brought wide awake when he replied, “He went over in the night.” I sat and thought of this, I had heard no cry, there had been no turmoil on the raft, how had he gone and why?
I realised later that we had been adrift for some time, and without a meal or drink, it was reasonable that the older men suffered most. Weakness crept upon us and we had nothing to combat the constant strain on our strength. The sun grew hotter, and the day entered into its stride.
CHAPTER 6 – ADRIFT 3rd DAY
‘Summer, with flowers that fell’
The human mind is strangely adaptable and will accept as the norm those conditions that attain for a period of time, and being unchangeable for that time, are for that period the normalities of life.
The third day of being adrift I personally came to believe that the world was made of water. I had, over the preceding hours, been so conditioned by my circumstances that the concept that there was dry land was impossible to conceive.
There were the seas and only the seas, land was no more, land had never been. The seas were Gods and the Gods were seas and by the grace of Gods and seas there floated on the waters certain ships, one of which, if we were lucky, or beloved of the Gods, would rescue us.
So far as the eye could see, or the mind imagine, there were seas, that vast expanse of heaving water, it was about you and beneath you, for illimitable depth, for all time, for ever and ever. It was there before the coming of man, and after his going, and there we sat, a minute speck upon a vast and terrifying waste. Hope we had to keep us comfort and hope alone.
The sun was slowly frying our hands that clutched the sides of the raft, I noticed that the backs of my hands were swollen and red raw. The constant immersion in salt water had bleached my fingers and this with the reddened and swollen backs of my hands gave them the appearance of obscene spiders.
This I think was one of the terrifying things that affected all of us, this slow corruption of ourselves that once we had prided in, this small creeping to death. It was this knowledge that led some of the lads to go out, the desire to die clean, not foul with slow corruption.
One of the DEMS ratings, the younger one, wore round his waist a typical army type belt. The DEMS ratings were Naval ratings who manned the guns aboard Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships. This lad had acquired his belt from some army private, it was studded all round with the badges of many British Regiments and deserved admiration. I asked him where he had got it from and he happily gave me verse and chapter of where he had obtained the various badges.
We went on to talk of ourselves; he was a Liverpool man and like me he was in the Navy for the duration of the war only. He was unmarried and up to that time had enjoyed his Navy service. We exchanged a few more details about each other but slowly our talk lapsed into silence, we resumed our scanning of the horizon.
There were moments of oblivion, we were so tired that we had to doze at odd moments. I think that these periods of sleep varied, sometimes just a brief second, perhaps at other times for even minutes, never for long, a long sleep was a treachery to us.
We sat on the raft each with his hopes and we grew weaker, we had no food or water to give us a break in the hours of light and darkness. Those of us that weakness gripped first fell backward off the raft and drowned in the water that flowed over it.
I awoke at some time in the night, I had no recollection of dozing off, and lying beside me on the raft was one of the DEMS ratings, he was muttering and attempting to sit up, I pulled him to a sitting position and sat him between my knees. He had taken in a fair amount of sea water and was retching avidly, an empty stomach has little to reject. He seemed to recover a little and I, realising that I too was weak and could not support him alone, suggested that those of us still responsive sit back to back and support the weaker lads between our knees.
There was full support for this idea, Mynott and I sat back to back, Ginger and the Lt paired off, so we four in the centre held those that were left to us, and the night drew on. We stared into the darkness, the phosphorescence breaking against the raft and giving the illusion of distant lights.
The DEMS rating that I was supporting began to talk, “Do you know where my car is?” he asked, and then receiving no answer went on, “They borrow the bloody thing and never bring it back.” There was a pause, he resumed, “I’ll give you half an hour to get me a drink, I don’t care if it’s tea, coffee, beer …” The list was illimitable and he pursued it to the illimitable end. I hated him for his terrible memory, his unconquered dreams; he spoke of those things that I dared not let my mind dwell on, his tone of voice, his very attitude was horribly, horribly rational.
In that time I saw the picture of the next few minutes, I had no doubt that the half hour would be fairly measured. In the hours of madness only the mad keep faith. There was the time of waiting and then he spoke again, “They’ve left it on the Green again, I wouldn’t mind but they don’t even bring the keys back.” He turned to look at me for the first time. “I’ll take a walk down to the Green,” he said, “Don’t forget that drink, half an hour.” He went forward in one quick lunge and the darkness took him. There was an emptiness between my knees and a movement of my arms that was too late.
I try to remember long after if this was indeed the third night or the fourth, I cannot in all truth say which it was, I do not know. One thing I do know and that is that a man went out to his death. I held him in that last hour; the man, the place, will stay with me for all of my time. Time then did not exist as such, each second was twin to the next, each hour gave us the problem we had faced the previous hour and the sea, Oh God! the heaving, rolling, spinning, turning, skin soaking, lip cracking, eye blinding, soul weakening, body taking sea.
The lack of knowledge of time and place leads to a great boredom, the kind of boredom that leads to death. We had no idea of where we were or what hour or even the day, only the advent of night closed the day, only dawn ended the night. There was no purpose in estimating our rate of travel, for what was our direction, to what coast were we headed, what was our purpose?
To live is nothing, to die is less, but ones life must have a purpose and ones death a reason. Our present way of life was purposeless and those that died did so for no good reason. I believe it was this feeling in the hearts of some of our lads that led them to the end.
CHAPTER 7 – ADRIFT 4th DAY
‘Remembrance fallen from heaven’
As the day advanced the sun dried us out a little, the morning warmth was always welcome; it was the full heat of noon we hated.
It was on this day that I first really noticed the sharks swimming around us, I had noticed two at least as the Lt and I swam to our present raft. At that time the possibility of being attacked by them had not entered my mind. I had, up to now, been too busy trying to live to consider the possibility of death.
One of the Naval Officers broke into my reflections, “I don’t think there’s much chance of being picked up.” None of us, not even he really wished to believe the statement. One of the chaps said, “We got out a message before we had it!!” We fell to debating how long it would take a destroyer to get to us. We calculated speeds and distances and fell silent when someone asked, “Where are we?” That was the crux of the matter, we did not know where we were, did the Navy know, did anyone know? It was strange on reflection that after we lost a man, we that were left gathered a little closer, spoke to one another. It was I think an attempt to maintain a wall against the encircling death that awaited us.
We sat again for long hours and baked in the fierce direct rays of the omnipotent sun. The MO suddenly said, “I’m going to have a dip,” and he slid over the side, still hanging on to the side of the raft. He must have been a powerful man, for within a few moments after splashing about in the water, he clambered aboard again. He sat next to me again and seemed refreshed by his dip. “I don’t think I’ll go in again,” he said, and dipped his cap over the side and bathed his head in the salt water. I had no doubt that the action was cooling but I had tasted enough salt to last me a long time.
We had no distractions to break the day into sections, there was no pause, no half beat in the repetitive passing of the hours. If there was a watch among us then I never saw it, never heard its measure questioned. Everything we wore was salt impregnated, corroded with the action of the water. We had just two marks of the movement of the world about us, there was the night, the cold heaving mass of night, and there was day, the blinding, heaving day.
Another peculiar thing about our time on the raft was that no one complained of sea sickness, mal de mer, it was apparently a sickness of the comfortable ship. The urgency of life had no time for the pettiness of assumed complaint.
Distant struggling clouds often formed the pattern of smoke and we called out, not once or twice, but with every drift of sky born mist we had to hope. Once or twice I saw what appeared to be a man standing upright on a raft, I shouted and the others looked, they did not see anything. The raft spun about and in turning I saw this piece of flotsam again, “There it is,” I exclaimed. It was the MO who killed my hopes that I had spotted something, “There’s nothing out there,” he was looking at me as he spoke and I saw in his eyes the thought that I was partly deranged.
I fell silent and scanned the water again and there it was, but I held my tongue, to be mad is one thing, that the others should think so was unbearable. It may have been a bit of wreckage with some upright fixed to it, or even as I thought a man hoping to see some fellow humans, who knows? The sea has the answer.
It would be impossible to convey the unutterable boredom that wrapped us round, we all suffered the same discomfort, the same hopes, similar fears, what had we to communicate, there was nothing new under the sun. We were not new, old we were, old as time, for our time seemed close. We lived every salt-soaked, sun-drenched second; time was forever and death the only apparent release.
It was the MO again who broke the silence, “We shall be dried out without something to drink.” We pondered on this, “It’s the bladder that goes and then you pass blood instead of water.” I remembered then that sometime before I had passed water and because of the conditions I had not bothered to undo any buttons, I was terrified to look down, I was afraid that I might see bloodstains. I was more fortunate than I realised, being almost three parts immersed in water our skins acted as a slow filter and we absorbed a certain amount of fluid, this I think kept us going for so long. My skin was to suffer later for the duty it had served as a third kidney.
The day drew on, the MO went into the sea again and again attempted to climb aboard, I tugged at his arm and he sprawled on to the raft. He was obviously weakening and I feared he was losing control.
Twilight began to fall on us and the night called us on.
The coolness of the night was like a blow to our sun heated bodies, we shivered each time a wave struck us full on. Sometime during the darkness I was awakened out of a nightmare depth by the feel of a claw-like grip on my arm. The MO was in the sea again and trying to get aboard, I struggled to help him; he managed to get on and stayed still for a while. Then, “The water’s grand,” he said, “Coming in?” I refuted the idea, “I’m going for another dip,” he almost shouted and in he went. Someone said, “He’s been drinking salt water.” Meanwhile the MO had swum round the raft and was trying to get on the other side. Someone must have helped him for soon he was telling us all how good it was to have a swim.
How often during the night he went over the side and disturbed us all getting back on again, God alone knows. I must have been awakened from my dozing on many more occasions by his clutching at my arm, I had to help him or he would have had me over. I turned to the others, “Give me a hand,” a voice from the darkness said, “Let him go.” Suddenly the swimmer turned and clutched his way round the raft, “Have a drink chaps, it’s lovely,” there was a pause, “I’m off to England, I’ll tell them where you are,” and away he swam into the night. I thought that across the waters there came one cry in the darkness and then all was still.
Was he terribly mad or horribly sure? Who knows what he saw that called to him from his half remembered dreams. I believe there came to us all in turn a little sleep and a small forgetting, an escape from the actualities of wakefulness. They were happy breaks, I was back in pleasant surroundings among those I loved and those that loved me. It was peculiar how on wakening, it was being on the raft that was a dream and the dreams reality.
‘We see things, and dream things
And plan while we’re sleeping,
We wander forever,
And dream as we go.’
Those of us that were left were weakening rapidly, our fine strength had left us, the spark of life was draining from us. Our brains were dimming, as in a dotage we crept back to remembered things. I must have dozed off more often this night for I seem to remember waking suddenly whenever the raft lurched. I do not remember any excitement at the hope of ship’s lights, hope had died a little with each man that had gone out.
We went on through the darkness, more tired, more sore, less hopeful. Where once we sat, we now slumped. It was an effort to lift a head, any movement was painful, we did not move, we did not speak.
The first light of day brought but another threat and no promise of cure. I looked around the raft as best I could and found that one more of us had gone, a Naval Lt, one of the quiet ones amongst us. No one had seen him go, no one had heard a sound, perhaps asleep, he had rolled off the raft, or we were all asleep and he the only one awake, had decided to leave this raft of the half dead. There were now but four of us, a young Naval Lt Teacher, Mynott, Ginger and me.
CHAPTER 8 – ADRIFT 5th DAY
‘And madness risen from hell’
Half sitting, half lying back to back, supporting each other merely by our inability to move very much, we rode the waves, a little higher now owing to the lesser load we carried but nevertheless the waves still broke against us and the higher waves still drove into our faces and momentarily blinded our eyes. There was a silence upon us; we waited, for death or rescue and rescue seemed so remote.
The heaving, rolling, salt stained hours passed, it was the Lt who first voiced our innermost thought, “We have no chance now, they’ll never find us.” We were too tired to protest, we had no strength for argument, our brains and will had been washed away in the sea’s surge.
The Lt spoke again, “I’m packing in.” We resented the dwindling of our numbers and we attempted to dissuade him. He sat with us for a little longer, or it may have been for hours, then, “It’s no use chaps,” he half leaned over and then slid over the side. The three of us that were left could make no effort to save him, we were too weak and the strength to live was leaving us fast. I now sat with my back against Ginger and Mynott, they supported me and I supported them. We sat in silence, our hands clutched the sides of the raft, they were alternatively soaked in salt water and burned by the sun. Swollen and raw they epitomised to us our slow decay, and time dragged on, and the sun and the sea and the thirst. The great all blinding, overwhelming thirst, and the sea and the sun.
The next decision was made by Ginger, he said something to Mynott and then he placed a hand upon my shoulder, “So long Brummie, I’m giving in.” There could be no argument, only some small gesture against acknowledged defeat. I said, “Hang on Ginger, we’ll all pack in at nightfall.” Mynott agreed with me, there was no purpose beyond the hours of darkness, but Ginger was adamant, “No, it isn’t worth it, so long mate.” I half turned and touched his hand, “Goodbye Ginger.” He cried out, “Mind my hand,” our hands were raw and parboiled by the sun, yet this incident stayed with me for all my days, for all the years to come, that a man going to his death resented in his last hour the pettiness of pain.
Ginger half stood, half rolled and went to the sea, we two who were left envied his hour of decision. He stayed for a moment in the sea’s embrace and then was gone, there were but two of us, each facing his small sight of the watery world, back to back, as men in dire need must always be.
Up and down, round and round, wet and salty dry, and surely pitiful in the eyes of God and man. Would man ever set eyes on us again?
There were small oblivions, a moment’s sleep within the pressure of the need to live. I think that there were times when Mynott and I withdrew from the world that loved us no longer. We lived other days in dreams, days that loved us and that we loved, and there was a sleep and a small forgetting. In this sleep we saw the things we longed for, the loveliness of other days and other times. We were fast coming near to madness and madness bade us welcome.
We dozed and woke, each I believe in his turn, unconsciously, unwittingly, unknowingly. Nightfall was approaching and as we had told Ginger, “Wait ‘til night and we will all go.” Night was now coming to claim the promise of the day.
I awoke and it being one of my more lucid moments I scanned the horizon and suddenly I saw smoke. All the days and all the nights there had been smoke or drifting clouds or figmented hopes, we had shouted and waved and looked with dry eyes to see them fade away, they had not waved back nor signalled, these vague half-formed dreams.
This time it really was smoke, there was a ship, she was heading away along the far horizon, I watched, fascinated, knowing she was too far away for me to bother to signal. I was at this moment that I first experienced the full depths of despair.
Then suddenly the ship came about, she came around in another tack and I knew she was looking for us. I shook Mynott, “A ship, look!” Mynott awoke and looked about him. Owing to the raft having no control we spun haphazardly in the waves and I feared for a moment that I had once again been seeing things, but no, it was Mynott who now spotted her, “She’s coming towards us.” “Hold me up and I’ll wave,” I said. With great difficulty Mynott held me by the legs, I leaned one hand on his shoulder and waved my topee with the free hand as the raft spun in crazy circles.
I slid down on the raft again and Mynott got up, I held his knees and in a short time he too sat down. We had very little strength but to let the ship go past without any effort on our part was too much to demand.
“Let’s try and paddle towards her,” I suggested. I took off my topee and, slipping my legs over the edge of the raft began to use it as a paddle.
I had paddled for but a few moments when all of a sudden it happened. As I looked down I saw rising from the depth a dark and menacing hulk, I realised that a shark, seeing my legs over the side, had come in to the attack. Even before he struck I yelled, “He’s got me!!” and within seconds he had. I snatched my legs out of the water; the shark rose after the bait, his head came up, large, dark and omnipotent. His teeth closed on my right leg, he would have sheared it off at one snap but as he rose I beat repeatedly on his nose with my topee. It was a confused and fast blur of action, the shark dragged the leg down and I felt his teeth saw at the bone but at long last I managed to snatch my legs back on to the raft. During the momentary struggle Mynott had attempted to use his knife which had been stuck in the raft hilt uppermost, it was fortunate he did not manage to retrieve it. Had he joined me on the one side of the raft our combined weight and the drag of the shark would have certainly tipped us both in the water. We would never have managed to get back on the raft and with the scent of my blood in the water the sharks would have made a very quick kill.
I sat on the raft and looked at my leg, I could not see how badly it was torn, the tattered leg of my uniform obscured my view. A thin trickle of blood was running off the raft and I was amazed to realise that I still had my foot. At any moment I expected sharks to attack us again and drag us under.
I was in complete despair and for the first time was ready to give in. Mynott supported me as best he could but my strength was leaving me in a thin red trickle. I told Mynott, “I’m done for.” He said, “Hang on, the ship is coming.” I waited for a moment, then said, “Where is she?” Mynott lifted my head, “There she is,” and sure enough there she was.
Looming large out of the water was a liner, the Cabo de Hornos out from Rio de Janeiro, she looked like the Grand Hotel afloat. I gazed at this wonderful sight, the rails were lined with passengers and crew. I heard long after that they lowered a rope ladder for us to climb but one of the crew shouted, “Tiburen, la Tiburen,” this being the Spanish for shark. They then lowered a boat; I remember being swiftly lifted into it and then being slid up the ship’s side in a sling. There was a confused blur of faces and long drawn-out Spanish “Aiee-es” as they saw the torn leg, then I was carried to a cabin and put into snow-white linen sheets on a bed. This seemed but a dream, this cool comfort and kindness; I would soon wake and find myself back on the raft. I tried to keep my eyes open, to take in all this wonder, all this comfort and the eager well-wishers.
The ship’s Doctor came in and with him an English speaking steward, who asked me when I had been bitten and how long it had been since I had had a drink. When they learned that it had been five days, the Doctor refused to let anyone give me a drink. Gaspar the steward was told to wet a pad of cotton wool and moisten my lips and then to squeeze a little moisture between my lips. I tried to grab the pad but being extremely weak I was easily restrained. I knew the Doctor was too wise to give me a big drink and that it was all for my good, but dear God what would I not have given for one good swig.
CHAPTER 9 – THE CABO DE HORNOS
I had not been long in my new and comfortable surroundings when the Doctor returned. He spoke to his assistants who accompanied him, the bedclothes were turned up from the bottom of the bed and someone held my leg firmly. The Doctor spoke to me, but he having no English and I no Spanish, we could not communicate. I think he was trying to tell me that he must do something to my leg. I felt the stitches go in and before stitching, the wound being washed. Eventually the wound was bandaged and I could relax.
Gaspar, an English speaking steward pointed to the head of the bed, “There is a bell-push, if you need me, ring.” Gaspar had volunteered to stay awake all night to look after those of us who had been picked up.
It was soon after the Doctor had gone that I dozed off and the reaction set in. I think that the comfort of the hour released the fears of the days that had gone before. Every relaxation that closed my eyes, awoke my mind and I fought back to consciousness. In the days that had passed, to sleep too long was to die. How often in the night I woke and rang for Gaspar I do not know. The night was as other nights, a thing to drag oneself through.
With the new day came another visit from the Doctor, I was still only allowed small sips of water, on his instructions. I think I was slowly recovering a little strength for I was able to look about me a little more.
I could not sit up, it was agony to move and so I just lay there and during this time I had a visitor, a lady of some apparent authority; I later learned that she was a French Countess. She wanted a coin as a souvenir; I was unable to help her on that score.
The Doctor’s staff brought me my jacket and from the pocket drew my wallet, he laid upon the bed the photos which were now salt stained around the edges. There was one of Vera, “Sus Myer,” (your woman), “Yes, that was my wife.” How long had I been married? “Not long, about three months.” “Aiee-ee,” the ejaculation of Spanish sorrow for the young wife.
Then she turned to the photograph of my father in boxing kit, “Who was this?” “My father,” “Sus Padre, El boxeo, una champien,” and then she saw one of me as a gymnast, “Ah el gymnastica, mye fuerte!!”
The entry of the Doctor scattered the visitors like chaff, I was to be allowed rest and quiet. The Doctor was right, I felt exhausted after my attempts to keep pace with their bright questions.
I was later visited by the stewardess who was by me when the Britannia was shelled. She made a fuss of me, saying that I had helped her aboard the Britannia when I had advised her to stay down when we were under fire.
It was an eventful and tiring first day aboard the Cabo, I was to pay the price of my mental activity in the nights that followed.
Information later gave me to understand that the Cabo was fourteen days out from Tenerife. I did not count these days, the first day had a certain clarity but the following days were filled with sleep and delirium. My temperature rose and with it came a return to the raft. I remember waking at times to turn bewildered eyes around the cabin and wonder at the change in the raft.
In these days I can remember no pain from the leg, it was no part of me and I was grateful. I was not to know until later that gangrene had set in; I think that subconsciously I had already accepted the fact that the leg was forfeit. I wanted only to give the rest of myself some peace and God only knows what I would have given for one long restful night.
I remember waking once in the dim lit cabin to find the Doctor, Gaspar and a stewardess at my bedside. Had I cried out or had Gaspar, worried at my appearance, called the Doctor? I was beyond caring; I fell off into oblivion to awake again later and see Gaspar by the side of my bed, nodding off in the chair.
How long the time of being but half myself lasted I do not know, I remember odd times when the Doctor gave me an injection and a blur of mixed minor events.
The day the Cabo drew near to Tenerife was the day I came nearer to normality. This day too had its milestone, I was allowed to suck an orange, but Gaspar, ever vigilant, on Doctor’s orders, would not allow me to bite the fruit. Apparently to eat, even now, was a danger to me.
When the Doctor came in he had me propped up a little on pillows, this was indeed an improvement. I asked for a handkerchief and the Doctor wanted to know what I required. On my request being granted, I blew my nose which felt stuffy. I regretted the action, the handkerchief filled with blood and I could feel the warm trickle down my chin and on to the bedclothes. The Doctor immediately applied ice to the bridge of my nose, cool cloths were placed at the nape of my neck and I was laid flat on the bed again. I was kept quiet for the next few hours. The Doctor’s concern over my nosebleed was flattering but also worrying, luckily the incident ended well; there was no repetition of a similar nature.
It seemed but soon after this event that there was a stir and bustle along the ship’s passageways, eventually into the cabin came a party of brown-uniformed men. I realised that they were Spanish Army stretcher bearers. I was loaded on to a stretcher and carried along the companionways, to end up among a row of stretchers on the quayside. I lay there, wondering what next, when suddenly the canopy which covered the stretcher was lifted, a girl’s voice asked me in English, “Are you alright?” I was so surprised that I hesitated to reply. The canopy was lowered and not long after we were aboard ambulances and winding our way along a devious route to somewhere.
CHAPTER 10 – SANTA CRUZ – THE CLINIC
We arrived eventually at what I thought would be a hospital, it later transpired that it was Dr Tomas Seraldo’s private clinic. I was unloaded from the ambulance and, feet first, carried upstairs. There was another stretcher ahead of us and this was the one that carried Lt Cox, who was in a bad way.
The stairs were narrow and not designed for stretchers; as I was carried up, the tightness of the bend brought the man at the foot of the stretcher jammed between the handles of the stretcher facing me. The toes of my damaged leg pressed against his face and the carrier at the head of the stretcher pushed forward. The pressure on my leg was unbearable and I let out a hearty groan. The poor innocent chap at my feet apologised profusely in Spanish, I think he would have belted the other one if circumstances had permitted.
We came to a small side room, with a clean and comfortable bed and all the appearances of a private room in a clinic. I was put to bed, then the Spanish Army stretcher bearers, with true Spanish courtesy, wished me well. I settled back and hoped to sleep, but this was not a night for sleeping. There came in to see me a very charming Red Cross nurse, Mary Golding, it was she who had spoken to me on the quay. “Would you like a drink,” she asked, I nodded, she brought me a glass of orange juice. “The Doctor will be in soon to see you.” Then in came a stout middle-aged Spanish nurse, she was introduced as Maria.
There was much bustling about in the passage-way outside as the Doctor went from room to room checking our lads. At last he came in to me, a handsome middle-aged, polished man with a presence. Maria drew back the sheets to expose my leg. Dr Tomas Seraldo said, “I am sorry lad, I shall have to have a look at it.” I knew that he had a job to do and the sooner he started the better. Maria stood by the bed holding my leg and Mary stood by the instrument trolley. At the foot of the bed was another woman who I was later to know as Mrs Golding, Mary’s mother.
Dr Seraldo cut through the discoloured bandages and peeled them off. I was watching his face and I did not care for what I saw there. He gave me a quick look, “I shall have to open it,” he said. There could be no argument, no debate, Dr Tomas was stating as kindly as possible that an unpleasant job had to be done.
I was not surprised; the leg had been feeling a little queer in my waking moments. Mary handed Dr Tomas a pair of forceps, one by one he removed the stitches that the surgeon of the Cabo de Hornos had put in. I felt them come out but it was not very painful, the pain came when the torn muscle was turned back.
When the leg had first been sewn up, there must have been some small particles of uniform cloth and bone splinters in there. The probing and scraping seemed to go on for a long time but all things have an ending, at last the Doctor started bandaging the leg. I had been waiting for him to stitch the muscle again, this was not to be. Dr Seraldo did not wish to subject me to too much exploration in one night and to stitch the wound would only seal in any poisons.
The Doctor bade me goodnight and I again looked forward to a rest. It was a vain hope, the excitements of the day and probing of the leg had awakened me beyond an easy rest. I lay back into the pillows and slowly the aches came and all my aching joints forbade me rest.
I think that up to the present time I had been too busy trying to live to have much time for pain, now that I was being cared for all my muscles and bones gave way to comfort and the reaction set in.
There was a bell-push at the top of my bed and when the pain of lying in one position was too much, I would start the long fight to inch my way up the bed to ring for help. Maria was a grand nurse; never in all those long nights did I ring that bell in vain. She could not speak a word of English, but would by signs inquire which way I wished to be turned. So a little rest and then the performance to be repeated. Sometimes I would ring for a drink of water, the second time I asked for water, Maria pointed to the carafe which stood on the locker, “Aqua,” she cried, I repeated after her, “Aqua.” She gave a big smile, “Si, si, aqua,” I never referred to it as water from then on.
It was a long night and though it seemed that I did not sleep I must have dropped off at times. Sometimes I awoke to find Maria at my bedside, maybe I had cried out or perhaps she had come to see if I was alright.
I know that I had a fear of lying down and going to sleep, it was through falling asleep and drowning that we had lost so many of our lads.
The light of day gave me to wonder what new was to come to me. With morning, Mary Golding arrived, she busied herself giving me a fresh supply of water, washed my hands and face, then visited Lt Sangster who was also in the clinic; also there was Ltd Cox who was on the first raft when Snowshoe and I got to it.
Later on in the morning I heard Dr Tomas arrive, he came in to see me. “How are you this morning?” I had to respond to his confident air of efficiency, “I’m OK, Sir.” “Splendid, I will be back to have a look at that leg soon.”
It was not long before Mary came in pushing the instrument trolley, I was to learn to hate the sight of that trolley before many days had passed.
The Doctor then came in and once more began to search my leg for bad flesh. As I was gaining in health so my awareness of pain increased, nevertheless the probing ended and my leg was bandaged once more.
After the Doctor had gone, Mary had a little time to give me a few details of where I was and in whose care.
The Cabo de Hornos had brought all the survivors she had picked up to Santa Cruz, the main port on the island of Tenerife. Dr Tomas Seraldo was a man of authority on the island and was also General Franco’s personal surgeon.
There was also on the island a large English colony and the boys and I were not to lack for all that our compatriots could provide. Due to the fact that we were at war and Spain was a neutral nation, only our civilian survivors were allowed leave the island, which they did on the next passenger ship. Those of us who were in the armed forces were provisionally interned, but our internment was to be an easy one, we were to be allowed the freedom of the town, but permission had to be given to leave its confines.
Following on my little chat with Mary I was happy to have a few visitors, George Nixon and his pal Frank, these two lads were to visit me regularly and we became firm friends. George and Frank gave me details of what our chaps were doing, Commander Spurgeon RN was the senior naval officer in charge, and Lt Cox RN was second in command of our survivors. There were quite a number of them and they had been split into two parties, one half were boarded at Spragg’s Hotel, run by Mr and Mrs Spragg, both of whom I was to meet later. The other survivors were at the Pino de Oro Hotel (Hotel of the Golden Pine).
My visitors left and I took the opportunity to rest for a while. As lunchtime approached I had my big thrill of the day, Mary came in to say that the Doctor had given permission for me to have chicken broth and a little chicken meat for my mid day meal; this was an epicurean feast indeed. Up to this time I had only been allowed water, orange juice and more water. The broth was delicious and when Mary asked if I wanted more I was amazed that my stomach would only take one serving.
I dozed off again, Mary came in as I awoke and asked me if her family might visit me, I gladly assented, I owed much to the kindness of Mary and her mother.
I had the opportunity to see Mary as a member of a family. Mr Golding was of medium height and very pleasant, being a man he soon got down to the essentials. “How are you fixed for cigarettes, do you want anything to read, is there anything I can do?” he asked. I was not yet in a fit condition for smoking but I said I would like a book to read at odd moments. I next chatted to Peter, the son of the Golding family, a schoolboy of a mature and responsible nature. Mr Golding, an Englishman who was the representative of British companies in Spain and the Canary Islands, had married a Belgian girl of good family. Mary and Peter had inherited from their parents: charm, intelligence and a liking for their fellow humans, they were a close and happy family.
CHAPTER 11 – FIRST TRIP OUT
I was surprised at times at the behaviour and reactions of those who I consider, and who are considered, and consider themselves, intelligent. I am thinking specifically of Lt S…, during the period when those of us who were wounded or suffering from exposure, if not both, were in Dr Seraldo’s clinic.
I myself, when recovering somewhat from my wounds, chose for reading matter those light, bright, effervescent stories of PG Wodehouse, who painted a picture of the gay inconsequentialities of the bright young things of the 1930s. They were a champagne bubbling stairway to escapism and I happily took it. The escapades of Bertie Wooster and his friend Algy, allied to the imperturbability of Jeeves, was a balm to fretted nerves and I bathed in it. The innocence of Bertie Wooster’s world and ménage opened a door to a world far from war, in this gay fantasy there were no rafts, no suffering, food was in plenty, gaiety held sway, I opened this door and double-barred it behind me, I unwound and healed.
Lt S… in another side ward in the clinic, suffering from exposure and a sick man, for some obscure reason, preferred to read Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”, a volume of weight, with many words, deep meanings and involved phraseology. Whether this was a perverse desire to prove his erudition, or a narrow knowledge of library shelves, I do not know. After a prolonged mental strain one needs to relax mentally, the human system has a habit of cutting off from worldly things when it has had enough and the time of cutting off can be unfortunate. Lt S…’s strivings to go on as before paid him back fourfold, he would wake up in the night raving deliriously. He could not unwind; the smallest pinpricks of the day roused him to a petulance that was unbecoming to his rank and age.
I could not condemn him, I sympathised with his problems, but it was his own insistence that aggravated his troubles. I believe that it was his inherent manhood that, trying to regain normality too soon, only retarded hid recovery.
For myself, I was sick and wounded; I relaxed and for a time desired no problems and I think created none. I was complacent and being so, resented nought that was done for me, or even against me. In the latter case I remember the morning dressing of my wound, the sooner they began, the sooner they were over, I recall saying as much to Dr Tomas.
Mary Golding came in one morning with the dressing trolley; Dr Tomas was already taking the bandage off my leg, as Mary came through the door I said, “I’m glad to see that thing come.” Dr Tomas expressed surprise, “Do you enjoy having your leg scraped?” “No sir, but the sooner that trolley comes in the sooner it goes out!”
Such was the nature of Dr Tomas that from there on my dressing was done earlier. I think that previously he had visited his other patients first, now my wound was scraped and probed and re-dressed earlier than previously and I could relax for that extra hour.
It was Mr Golding, Mary’s father, who had emptied his library shelves for my avid reading of Wodehouse. He had I believe also attempted to interest Lt S… in the same type of book, but to no avail. Lt S… left the clinic before I was fit and before he was too, from hearsay he was a sick man for a long time.
I feel that his suffering had been impressed more deeply on his soul by heavy reading, a little escapism would have given him release from that which he will not escape from for all of his days.
To be ill in bed is the time to find out who has a thought for their fellow human beings. George and Frank were my daily visitors, without fail these two came to see me. There were others also, of happy memory.
I recall with the deepest appreciation and pleasure the visits of Corporal Arkinstall and his friend. He was a tall blond, moustached RAF Corporal of droll wit and a wide experience, his friend no less worldly wise. They came to see me regularly and their visits were a delight. I would be regaled with the events of the day, incidents of note and the latest news of the war. All this nonchalantly, humorously but nevertheless truthfully.
Quite often on the occasion of their visits the RAF boys would lift me out of bed so that Marie could remake the ruckled clothes. On the first few times that this happened I would beg them to mind my leg. Arkinstall the irrepressible, corrupted this saying of mine into, “Mind my bite.” This of course in the fashion of Jack Warner, the famous actor and comedian, whose wartime catchphrase was “Mind my bike.”
Arkinstall commemorated these incidents in a cartoon sketch with the daily scene depicted in his own inimitable manner. I still have that cartoon, a constant reminder of two good men, good friends.
It was Arkinstall who told me of the incident at the Capilla Protestante, this was the name given locally to the Protestant Church. It was here that Commander Spurgeon RAN, the senior officer held morning parade each Sunday. It appeared that on the Sunday just gone everyone had turned out as usual and as the war survivors gathered there, it was noticed that someone had pinned to the church door a notice written in Spanish and in red paint. It said, “Muerte la Inglesia, ariba España,” which translated means: “Death to the English, Spain Arise.” The Commander unpinned the notice, folded it up and tucked it under his arm; Church parade went on as usual. When the ceremony was over the Commander, notice under his arm, went to see the Military Governor of the island. It transpired that the resulting interview solicited apologies from him and a promise that there would be no repetition of a similar nature.
The whole event was due to the Phalangists, the Spanish fascist party. There were other occasions when the Phalangists were to display their dislike of Englishmen and of those who supported them. There were times when they would hold noticed parades and at these times we were warned quietly by the British residents to keep off the streets.
My first venture into the outside world and the light of day was made in the company of Arkinstall and his friend. With my increased improvement I had for many days begged the Doctor to allow me out into the town. As I progressed on my crutches he eventually gave permission.
Arkinstall arranged that the three of us should be picked up by taxi at the Clinic and have a drive down town to the Café Atlantica. The day arrived, Arkinstall, his mate and I, limping, went down the stairs, boarded the taxi and were on our way. After my long illness this was, for me, a great adventure indeed.
I do not remember where the taxi dropped us but we strolled down the shopping area. Such is the natural politeness of the Spanish that I was greeted at almost every yard with the phrases which were to become commonly accepted by me.
Spaniard: Good day, sir … Bueno dias, senor.
Self: Good day, friend … Bueno dias, amigo.
Spaniard: Are you well? … Usted bueno?
Self: Yes, friend, I am well … Si! Bueno y usted.
Spaniard: Good. Good day to you … Bueno senor, muy gracias.
This exchange of common courtesies was repeated times beyond number, the Spanish are a courteous race and enjoy the ceremonies of greeting each other and wishing God speed on parting.
The advent of our party of survivors on the island was of course a thing of some note in their lives. In my case I of course drew a little attention, I was the man who had been bitten by a shark and therefore somewhat of a curiosity. Their enquiries after my health were sincere and well intended.
As we progressed towards the Café Atlantica various passersby would pause and wish us the usual polite “Usted bien?” (You are well?) After the umpteenth enquiry, Arkinstall would, with a beaming smile, reply in English, “Of course he’s well you silly b ….,” this without a change in his apparent air of respectful geniality. The Vera Cruzians would go on their way no doubt thinking how polite and appreciative we were. This play of ours was amusing for a little while but we realised that it was not and never would be a proper response to genuine solicitude and moreover, what if we were to meet an English speaking Spaniard?
We arrived eventually at the Café Atlantica, which faced out across the bay and, sitting in the open under the bright awning, one could watch a little activity going on in the harbour. It was here that our boys used to foregather for their morning drink and gossip. George and Frank were already at the café and the five of us sat at a table well out on the pavement. I was delighted to be out and about, this being my first trip into the world of movement again, everything was a feast to my eyes, nothing offended.
Frank advised me to try the coffee, this he said was drinkable, the consensus of opinion was that it was unwise to ask for a cup of tea. The request for “Te con leche,” – this was tea with milk – evoked a cup of hot water into which was immersed a small tea bag, when the liquid turned a pale sepia the whole thing was drowned in milk. The result was an off white repulsion that made one sympathise with the Boston Tea Party.
The Café Atlantica was not only the meeting place for the British survivors; here also the German consul came for an occasional coffee. Italians too used the place, none interfered with the other, there was a wary neutrality. We all had to respect the neutrality of Spain or suffer the consequences.
My arrival at the Atlantica was once more the signal for the proprietor, the waiter and innumerable customers to start the usual, “Esta bien.” I was rather embarrassed to be the centre of such attention. “Let’s go,” I said to Arkinstall. “No!” he replied, “You’ve got to face it, you’re a nine day’s wonder, so face it out and they will leave you alone then. Anyway, they mean well.”
He was right of course, once you move among people you must accept them as they accept you. I learned to appreciate the Santa Cruzians, their kindness and their courtesies. Many of our lads found friends amongst the Islanders as well as amongst the British residents.
The Island of Tenerife had long had strong British ties, many residents had been or were representatives of British firms. Many had retired on the Island, loath to give up the warm sun and reasonable standard of living. The war had separated them from England physically but their hearts never wavered. When we came amongst them, we were a living representation of England’s fight for survival; we were Britain’s warriors even though we had suffered a setback.
They spared nothing to help us, the men folk found us suits and clothing; the ladies invited us to tea. They feted us and we thrived on it, all they wanted from us was news of home and “Were we going to win?” and of course we were!
CHAPTER 12 – FIESTA DE LA MAGOS
It was night, the same as any night on the Island, warm and sultry and still. I had eaten my last meal of the day, my visitors had long departed and I lay in bed reading. The hour was not late, about 8 o’clock, when suddenly I heard in the distance the faint sound of music and singing. It came closer and as I listened I knew that whoever it was would pass beneath my window.
The cavalcade came on, the creaking of bullock carts, young voices laughing, singing, the strumming of guitars and mandolins could now be distinctly recognised. It was frustrating that I could not look out to see what was going on. The Doctor would still not let me out of bed on my own even though I was improving greatly in strength. I could contain my curiosity no longer, I pressed the bell-push at my bed-head, Maria came within seconds, “Si Don Alfredo,” I gestured towards the window, “Que es Maria?” (What is it?) She crossed to the window and looked over the balcony, she turned smiling as she said, “It is the Fiesta de la Magos.” Bit by bit Maria managed to convey to me the facts; apparently every year the peasants from the hills and valleys gathered for the Fiesta and, dressed for the event, they boarded the bullock carts and singing and playing they came to the town to celebrate.
I managed to get the gist of the story, Maria’s English was nil and my Spanish very poor. Barely had she given me the main story when suddenly she said, “Una momento!” (Just a moment), and vanished. I assumed she had remembered a kettle on the boil or something of equally urgent nature and so I resumed my reading.
A few moments passed and as swiftly as she had disappeared so she reappeared and with her were three lovely girls, they were typical of young Spanish female beauty, olive-skinned, large dark brown eyes, delicate features and beautiful figures. Each one of them was lovely enough to arouse the admiration of any beholder and three such lovable creations were indeed a picture of delight.
They each wore a gay coloured silken kerchief over their hair, surmounted by a small round straw hat carrying a black band. White blouses with long sleeves over which they wore a little bolero jacket, red, green and gaily fringed. Their skirts came to below the knee and were bright stripes, red, green and white. To finish the gay ensemble they wore white socks and black shoes, and this was the costume of the Magos.
The girls pirouetted for me and brought something of the evening’s gaiety into my sickroom, I was indeed very pleased and grateful. The girl in the middle spoke in fluent, liquid Spanish, Maria attempted to translate but it was very difficult for her. The following day I had the full story from Mary Golding.
Apparently the girl who had been trying to tell me something in her own language had a brother in the Spanish Navy, and during the Spanish Civil War he had been aboard a Spanish warship in the harbour. He had fallen overboard, could not swim, and a British Naval rating aboard a British cruiser, which was also in the harbour to protect the British residents, had dived in and rescued him.
When Maria had gone out to find someone to bring in for my benefit, this young lady and her friends had volunteered, she had felt that it was but a small gesture of kindness in return for her brother’s rescue.
Maria must have told them of the condition of my leg, their three innocent faces puckered for a moment with compassion. “Aiee, Aiee,” they murmured softly. The leader of the group fixed me with her large brown eyes, “Marinas Englishia es muy valiente,” it was a sincere belief on her part, “English sailors are very brave.” To her this was a statement of fact, had not her brother been rescued by one Marinas Englishia, was she not visiting one who had suffered the perils of the deep? I hoped her faith would never have reason to falter. They wished me goodnight and with gentle courtesies were gone.
During the next few days one of my many visitors was a young seaman rating who had been in the lifeboat with George and Frank. He was a rather feminine looking chap and had moreover one or two rather feminine little gestures. One, that of course all noticed, was the typical girlish habit of patting his hair when being addressed.
The resulting comments from his male companions can well be imagined.
On the day he visited me he was feeling somewhat depressed, the attitude of his fellow survivors had lowered his morale. He was in the mood to talk and talk he did.
He was the only son in a family of seven and all his sisters were hairdressers. This simple statement alone gave a clear picture of the influence under which he had been reared. The girls had pampered him and also used him as a model for their hairstyles. These conditions had attained for long enough to condition him to this female environment. The end result: a man suspect by fellow males.
We talked for some time and I had no doubt of his inherent manliness, only the minor gestures gave any reason for doubt. Eventually he left, as he went out Dr Tomas came in and, looking after my departing visitor, he said, “Have you been talking to that boy, Sharkey?” I told him of our conversation, Dr Tomas nodded, “I’m glad you talked with him, he’s a much misunderstood lad.” Then he went on to tell me that this boy had, during the action aboard the Britannia, received a large piece of shrapnel in his right buttock.
It was days after that the Doctor, having attended to all the other wounded, had his attention drawn to the youngster who had great difficulty in sitting down. The lad was X-rayed and Dr Tomas spotted a piece of shrapnel very deeply lodged in his flesh. Without anaesthetic the doctor probed for it, this he had to do four or five times before he managed to extract the metal. The lad’s tight-lipped, uncomplaining attitude under this ordeal had earned great respect from Dr Tomas.
I thanked the doctor for telling me, one hates to hear of cowardice and feels respect for the courageous. I took the earliest opportunity that presented itself to repeat the story, I thought it was about time the lads had new thoughts on our young friend. I’m glad to say it had the desired effect.
For some little time now I had been the only Britisher in the clinic, Lt S… the only other of our party had long since departed into the world. I awoke one morning to find that there was a new patient, the captain of a British tanker; there were also new additions to the list of British survivors on the island of Tenerife.
The Captain’s story was typical of the hazards facing our merchantmen during the war. The ship had been torpedoed in the early hours of the morning two days before and had been holed in one tank. The Captain had re-ballasted ship, increased his speed and evaded the Nazi submarine. That night the submarine caught up with them again and put another four torpedoes into the ship.
The Captain told me that one of the torpedoes must have struck under the bridge; he remembered nothing until he became aware that he was in a lifeboat with his crew. Having knowledge of where they were sunk, and realising that the Canary Islands were the nearest landfall, he had navigated the survivors until they sighted Gemera, one of the smaller islands in the group of seven. From Gemera they had been brought to Santa Cruz.
The Captain’s belief that a torpedo had struck beneath the bridge was borne out by the fact that his right leg was black from toe to the top of his thigh. It was apparent that the shockwave had travelled through the deck; it was a wonder that his legs had not been broken by the explosion. Having to sit for a prolonged period in the ship’s boat, unable to move or lie down, the ruptured blood vessels had congealed and stiffened his leg in a bent position; it looked to be in a bad condition.
Dr Tomas had instructed Maria to massage the Captain’s leg each morning. Maria’s duties were many and varied and of course her time as a masseuse was limited.
I was now able to get about on my crutches and I would visit the Captain each morning for our elevenses, then after morning coffee I would carry on where Maria had left off and massage the skipper’s legs for another half an hour. He was a dour Tyneside man and unhappy at being tied to a bed.
One morning Dr Tomas came in as I was trying to get a little more movement into the Captain’s leg, he voiced his approval. “The more often those legs are massaged the better.”
In exchange for my amateur nursing attendance the Captain taught me to play crib and each day after morning and afternoon coffee the Captain and I played cards.
We both progressed and eventually graduated to the balcony and looked out on the passing scene. One day we were on the balcony enjoying the sun, when there passed below a small group of children, they called up to us and we responded. They enquired after our health and we joked with them, suddenly I remembered that Mary Golding had brought me some sweets to eat, I fetched them and one by one dropped them into their eager hands.
Our little interlude of fun was halted by the arrival of Maria, “Avante, avante,” she cried to the wee ones below and off they scurried. Maria then turned her attention to us, we listened shamefaced, we too were children again. Maria was voluble and vehement and on her departure we grinned at each other.
The Captain’s leg made good progress and the day eventually came when he was allowed out. We ordered a taxi and went on a little tour, ending up in a small park, there we sat enjoying the sun and swapping yarns with each other.
During the Captain’s convalescence his crew had been shipped out, but before leaving had come to visit him. I was there at the time and one of the younger members of the crew said he knew Birmingham and would be visiting there. I asked him if he would take a message to my wife, he said he would be delighted to do so. Amazing though it may seem there was not, amongst the crowd of us, a large enough piece of paper to write a message on. The embarrassing conclusion to our search was that my message was conveyed on a square of toilet paper. The means were poor, the intention sincere; Vera laughed about the incident when I eventually returned home.
Among the merchant survivors was a young lad who was but fifteen years of age, I have a photo of him taken with the rest of the crew. I asked him how he felt about being torpedoed, he grinned, “I didn’t expect that on my first trip out,” he went on to say though that he would stay in the Merchant Marine.
Fifteen years of age and already a man; when Nelson died he must have left much of his spirit behind.
The day came when the Captain also had to move on, I missed him, I had a great respect for him, his typical merchant spirit, his desire to get back to a ship and get on with the war.
CHAPTER 13 – FAIR MAIDS OF CADIZ
Towards the end of my stay in the Clinic the leg was, I thought, progressing well. I was to be disillusioned, Dr Tomas on one of his morning rounds, inspected the wound and raised his eyebrows. Turning to Mary he asked her if my temperature has risen during the past twelve hours. Mary said she did not know and immediately pushed a thermometer under my tongue. The result proved that I was harbouring an infection; poison from the wound was creeping along the severed tendons. The doctor dressed the leg and warned me that he might have to make an incision further up the leg to draw off the sepsis.
The following morning Dr Tomas’s assistant, a young Spanish Army doctor came in place of Dr Tomas. My temperature was again taken and the result considered by the Doctor, he shook his head and, translated by Mary, told me he must incise and probe the point the sepsis had reached. I was given an injection in the leg to kill the pain and he started, I grasped the top bed rail with both hands as the knife went in and he probed the spot, I could have yelled. Mrs Golding, who was also present, caught hold of one of my hands, it did not lessen the pain but it was a comfort to know that someone cared. The doctor finished eventually and I relaxed, sweating profusely, he was most surprised that I had felt everything he had done. It was my opinion that my leg was so full of sepsis that it had overcome the effects of the pain killing injection, this I told him, he nodded agreement and patted me on the shoulder, “Muy Valiente,” he said, and left.
This new addition to my discomfort was to continue for another six days or so, Mrs Golding would hold my left hand and I would grip the top rail with my other.
Then one morning I was visited by three very lovely young ladies, their father was an Englishman, originally from my home town of Birmingham. He had married a beautiful Spanish girl and these three radiant creatures were the result of the union. They brought me cigarettes and introduced themselves, if I remember rightly the eldest was Joan, blonde and quiet, the next was Helen, a lithesome lovely brunette and last came the youngest, whose name I cannot recall, she had an ethereal beauty that was beyond description. Frank who was also present could not take his eyes off her. Just then Dr Tomas came in, “Come on, Sharkey, let’s get this leg done.” My visitors moved towards the door, the last one was the youngest of my fair visitors. “Just a moment,” said the doctor, “this young man will need you to hold his hand.” Obediently she turned back; on this island the young obey their elders.
My hand was held gently by her small frail hand, I demurred, I could not seize this delicate hand, when the probing began I would grip whatever I held, the light bowl above the bed would appear to swell and diminish, I would grit my teeth and whatever I held I would squeeze until my hands were numb. I loosed her hand and gripped the bedrail but Dr Tomas would brook no defiance of his orders. “Let her hold your hand, this won’t be very pleasant.” He waited until she had taken hold of me again and then he started.
I tried not to squeeze too hard, but I must have unconsciously gripped tight for during a pause in the doctor’s probing I felt her slide her other hand in to ease the pressure of my grip. At last he finished and bandaged my leg, silent and erect the lassie passed through the door to her waiting sisters. George and Frank came back in, Frank had a distant look in his eyes, “If that girl would hold my hand, they could take my leg off up to the elbow,” he murmured. He was a presentable chap, quiet but handsome and one who was admired as much as he admired the opposite sex, and the girl who had just left was lovely enough to move the heart of any man.
The end result of this little incident was that when the lassie, who had almost fainted outside my room, told her father about it he said that if she had found it so painful how then did I feel? Helen told me afterwards that she would rather it had been herself as she had done a little nursing at the military hospital, whereas her youngest sister had always been protected from the unpleasant things of life. To be present at the treating of my leg as her inception to nursing was a bad beginning, my leg was not a pretty sight, it had been completely in the shark’s mouth, its teeth had torn the muscles downward and the leg was torn all round. The wound was also still raw, added to this the probing and my tensed apprehension would have upset stronger nerves than those of this sheltered maid.
The father of the girls sent me, from his cellars, a bottle of fine brandy, this to act as a remedy to the probing. Later we, that is George, Frank and I, were invited to dinner at the house of the three lovely maidens.
Slowly the poison abated, the probing ceased and one morning, after the doctor had removed the dressings, I had a look at the damaged leg; it was cleaner looking than when I had first seen it. Where the doctor had put in the tubes to drain the pus and plugs to clean the inside of the muscles, it looked like a trimmed hambone. Dr Tomas expressed his satisfaction at my progress. I too was happier now, I felt stronger and more able. The nights of dreaming that I was back on the raft were behind me, I now spent them in pleasant and restful sleep.
I had been at least two weeks in bed and hoped soon to be allowed to get up, my leg was slowly healing, my strength returning. I was now allowed more visitors and among my regulars were Mr and Mrs Davy. Mr Davy was large, handsome, jovial and wise; Mrs Davy was a beautiful balance to the power of her husband. She was a lady of soft voice, gracious charm and unsurpassed kindness. She was a member of a well-connected family of which more anon. They were a devoted middle-aged couple who had carried their love and understanding of each other on into their maturity.
Davy came to see all of us who were in the clinic and as each of the other boys departed he still continued to visit me. From the first he had called me ‘Sharkey’, his wife had remonstrated but to no avail, the name stuck.
One evening he told me that I was to be their guest, that was until I had returned a little nearer to normality. “When?” I asked, Davy smiled, “Tomorrow.” Dr Tomas who was present nodded his head in agreement.
I spent that night wondering what it would be like to be out of the clinic, also that night I was presented with a silken dressing gown so that I might be respectable around the house.
Davy fetched me by car the following morning, it was an enjoyable drive to the Davy home. The house was large and white, in Spanish style, nestling at the foot of the volcanic mountains which ran into the island, and surrounded by a pleasant garden. I only had a moment to take in the general picture and we swung into the drive. The gardener opened my door and Davy introduced us, we then went into the house to be welcomed by Mrs Davy.
I was shown over the lower rooms, the dining room and the lounge. On the walls of these hung various arms, signs of Davy’s time as a District Officer in Malaya.
“Now,” said Davy, “If you can face the stairs we will show you to your bedroom.” It was a pleasant room, the windows led out onto a balcony. Antonia, the maid, had just finished tidying the room and according to Davy’s orders every morning she was to bring me breakfast in bed, this until I became more adept at the stairs. I was next introduced to the cook, I could see I was to be well cared for during my stay at my new abode.
We were then summoned to lunch, the meal was delicious and most enjoyable, the standard of all the meals at the Davys’.
The name of the house was ‘El Nympha’, they did tell me why they had given it this title but I have forgotten the reason.
Davy suffered from diabetes and every day had to give himself an insulin injection, this I only found out by accident, he would never have told me; he was a man I respected, the epitome of all that a man might be.
Many mornings I would dress myself, a great venture this, lever my crutches down the stairs and read until lunchtime. The verandah was my favourite spot but the noonday sun would drive me to the shade of the lounge.
When Davy arrived home in the evening from the business of running his plantations, we would sit on the lawn and drink our ‘Sundowners’, a nice nip of whisky topped with lemonade and a large chunk of ice. The drink tasted all the better for the company in which it was taken.
There were mornings when many of the officer survivors would visit ‘El Nympha’, to partake of gin and bitters: Commander Spurgeon, Lt Cox RN, who acted as second in command, Lt Sangster and others. Then there were afternoons when tea would be taken on the lawn, a little bit of English ways, far from home.
One morning one of the officers announced that he was throwing a party at the ‘Pino de Ora’ hotel and he invited the Davys. Mrs Davy, who sat placidly knitting, said without looking up, “It will depend on whether the doctor will allow Sharkey to go out.” Quietly and gently she had made it obvious that no one was inviting them out unless their guest went too. So the invitation was extended to cover me also and to the party we all went. I was amused that evening when we arrived at the ‘Pino de Ora’ to see the faces of my friends as the officers, Sharkey in their midst, entered into the private lounge.
They were idyllic days at ‘El Nympha’, Davy would tell me of his experiences in Malaya some twenty years before, and of their experiences at ‘El Nympha’ during the Spanish Civil War. Of how, when the noise of firing grew too loud, Mrs Davy would gently draw the curtains. There were apparently bullet marks on the walls, not fired at the Davys, but just a little of the haphazard shot that flew about.
One morning Davy and I were listening to the news and we heard that Hess had flown in to see the Duke of Hamilton, in a wild attempt to halt the war. “By God!” exclaimed Davy, “You wait until my wife comes down.” I asked the reason for his amused anger, “Didn’t you know old boy, she’s a Hamilton.”
A short while after, Mrs Davy joined us in the lounge; she was greeted with, “So I married a fifth columnist,” she turned her serene gaze on the husband, “Pardon dear.” He told her of the news on the wireless; she turned to me for confirmation. “How strange,” she murmured, and so saying put the entire thing into its correct perspective.
Davy of course had to repeat the tale at the gathering for gin and bitters; he was delighted at the chance of a leg-pull at his wife’s expense. I think he loved to try to flaw her imperturbability, she for her part knew her man too well. They were grand couple.
CHAPTER 14 – GUEST AT ‘EL NYMPHA’
I appreciated Davy as a man, as a humanitarian, as one who knew his fellow men and women. On the first morning in his house, he came to my bedroom, “How did you enjoy your breakfast, Sharkey?” he enquired. I told him that it had been most pleasant and that there had been nothing to return to the kitchen. Antonia had been most keen that cook not be offended by my small appetite. Davy was most interested, “Tell me old man, what did you have?” I ran through the gamut of the breakfast plate, “Egg, bacon, a little bit of ham, oh and there was a bit of kidney, I liked that.” Davy nodded, “You’re being well looked after old man, that was the cook’s breakfast you had, we just had the bacon.”
I was aghast, “I ……. ,” I began, Davy roared with laughter, “Don’t let it bother you Sharkey, if the cook can’t look after the ones she cares for it’s a pity. You must realise that she has a position to maintain, she is the only woman on the island who is cooking for the man who was bitten by a shark.” His entire attitude was one of amused tolerance. As he left the room he turned to say, “I didn’t know that animals had kidneys anymore.” He was irrepressible.
Mrs Davy suggested that I be taken for a run up Tete Pico, the volcanic mountain at the rear of the house. Permission had to be first obtained from the Military Governor of the island, for all the survivors were confined to the town. Davy obtained the necessary permission, he had the air of a man who got things done.
We started the trip, with Davy driving. We stopped at the best view points to look over the bay; from the heights the scenery was magnificent.
While on our journey there came round the corner of the road a vision of pure joy, a girl, a native of the island and obviously of Moorish origin. She moved with the inherent grace of the water carrier. As a stag may move, she walked. Her dark tinted skin was livened by two large merry eyes. She was sandal footed and clothed in a bright red dress that clung to her with the knowledge there was nought between to prevent such close embrace. She twirled a parasol and walked the road as proud as a call of bugles, wooed by men, envied by women. Davy slowed the car to a halt, “I say Sharkey, how do you like that?” I had not been unaware of this vision of pure femininity; there was about her an aura of essential woman. My knowledge of my own awareness prompted my retort, “You need not have stopped on my account, sir.” Mrs Davy supplied the necessary truth, “Don’t worry, he wanted to have a good look at her himself.”
Meanwhile this Helena of the heights, knowing she was admired, turned and for reward gave us a gleaming white toothed smile. We went on our way to Orotava.
It is said that all men dream of a desert island, wherein they find a dusky princess who, bathing in a pool, rises naked from the waters, arms outstretched in longing welcome. Such was our island nymph that a hydrophobic would have been tempted to at least try the dog paddle.
If I remember rightly, it was on the second night of my stay at my new abode that I experienced the only few bad moments I had at ‘El Nympha’. With my increasing strength and the sense of wellbeing invoked by the careless ease of the Davys, my nerves had begun to relax and the following sequence of events caught them unawares.
I was lying in bed and at peace with the world, I would not sleep for some time yet, having to keep awake on the raft had set its own pattern. As I lay there I could hear in the distance a dog bark and as an echo the cough of a monkey on the plantation on the hill. This was followed by the rattle of a loose piece of tin in the night wind and after this came the tap of a twig on the window. This was just the symphony of the night and brought no fear to anyone, yet here I failed my native senses, for I began to listen for this repetition of sound. The next time it was the rattle of the tin which came first, then the dog barked, the twig tapped and the monkey? … where was the monkey? … then at last he coughed.
Here it was that I failed myself, for I listened even more intently in the hope that I had heard right the first time. Once more the pattern of darkness began and this time even more disjointed, I listened again and again and again, the uncouth repetition mocked me, then it was that fear touched me and I was afraid.
In later days I was to wake in the night due to pressure on my leg and dream for a moment that the shark had his teeth around it once more, or I was to awake suddenly and grip the sides of the bed in the half waking thought that I was back on the raft and to fall asleep was to drown. These were just the instant reactions to survive and had no part of fear. This at ‘El Nympha’ was a man’s primeval enemy and I, as many an ancient before me, panicked. I failed to reason my path back along the way I had wandered, I was terribly alone, out there amongst the night sounds, it was a slow crawl back to the lighted bedroom and the night followed me there and stood in silent menace at the foot of my bed and dared me to move.
I needed help, for the first time in many years I could not respond within myself. The bedroom next to mine was Mr Davy’s; he would be there, if only I could make it. Davy was a man, in any collection of the male sex he would stand out, here was strength, power of purpose, a fundamental integrity against which night itself would batter impotently.
With the greatest effort I reached for my crutches and almost fell in my haste to stand with them. Having once found the strength to move I dare not pause or I would be chained to that room all night and that I could not bear. I managed to open my door, two paces and I knocked on Davy’s door, not daring to pause I opened it and went straight in. Davy must have been awake for as I stood in the door he was already swinging his feet out of bed. He looked at me, “What’s the matter Sharkey?” I tried to speak but the sight of a fellow human overwhelmed me with shame at my own weakness. Tears were in my eyes and I could not face him, I turned and hurried as fast as I could back to my own room. As I sat down on my bed Davy was by my side, “Tell me about it old man.” I managed eventually to get the story out. His very presence was a comfort and he was big enough not to ridicule my foolishness.
Later I said I would be alright and Davy found a bottle of sleeping tablets, he gave me two and asked me to promise him that I would not take any more that night as they were pretty powerful. I hesitated whether to even take those two but he explained that two would be alright, and so after taking them I relaxed on my pillow and knew no more till morning.
The following night Davy came to my room and again brought the bottle of tablets, I asked him to take them away, “I am leaving them here Sharkey, but I expect to see as many in the bottle tomorrow as there are tonight.” I could not argue for I had a momentary fear that I may have need of them, fortunately all went well. The following morning Davy came into my room and picked up the bottle, he said, “I will not count them, if you tell me that you have not taken any then that is good enough.” It was a forward step for me that I could look at him and say, “Count them if you will but I slept without them.” Davy was the type of man you either told the truth to or kept silent.
Loath as I was to leave, the day eventually arrived when I was fit enough to rejoin my friends in one of the two hotels which housed our survivors.
I was given a good send off from ‘El Nympha’, first of all Mr Davy, Mr Carr the consul and I went to a football match, back to tea and then on to a Spanish championship boxing match. The Spanish champion boxed an exhibition bout with the local champion. The other bouts were keen if bloody, one of them brought roars from the crowd. A short stocky cruiserweight faced his opposite number, who was six inches taller. Mr Carr fancied the taller man, I fancied the shorter. I wished we had bet on it, my man won.
After the evening’s boxing we returned to Davy’s for supper, there we were joined by Dr Tomas. The ready laid table was a picture, cook had excelled herself, Antonia had arranged everything to appeal to the eye and Mrs Davy, after seeing that everything was in perfect order had gone out, leaving the four of us to enjoy ourselves.
We wined, dined and talked. Davy proposed a toast to Dr Tomas, “I think we must congratulate him for saving your leg Sharkey.” I agreed. The doctor responded by saying that he had had a good patient. After this exchange of mutual respect Davy went on to tell me that I would be going to Spragg’s Hotel, this was where George, Frank, Arkinstall and others that I knew were already staying.
CHAPTER 15 – SPRAGG’S HOTEL
It was only right that I should eventually rejoin my fellow survivors and say farewell to my little life of luxury and good living.
I arrived at Spragg’s hotel at a time when the rest of the lads were out and about town. I was met at the gates by Mr and Mrs Spragg and welcomed most warmly, then I was conducted to a ground floor room which looked most comfortable. I was introduced to Maria, the cook and housekeeper, aunt to the three young Spanish girls who acted as maids.
After a look around the rest of the hotel I sat in the garden and to my pleasant surprise Mr Spragg joined me there with two glasses of Canary sack, this is a golden wine, sweet and very pleasant to the palate. This was to become a morning routine during my stay at Spragg’s.
My host told me that on the day I left my crutches he would open a bottle of champagne. I learned during my first conversation with Mr Spragg that he kept a good cellar and a good table.
George and Frank then arrived and came to find me in the garden, immediately they started to make plans for a visit down town. Dinner interrupted our scheming and we trooped in to the food that awaited us. I spent the rest of the day relaxing in the sun and reading in the library.
Evening brought together all the survivors who were staying at the Spragg’s. I was surprised to find Lt Cox there, he had been on the first raft that I had clung to after leaving the stricken Britannia. He invited me to finish a bottle of wine with him and told me of his experience aboard the raft after I had left. Apparently, the day before they had been rescued he had seen a ‘Portuguese-man-o-war’ nearing the raft, this was a type of jellyfish that would extend above the water a membranous balloon to catch the wind, this was its means of propulsion. Below water it extended hundreds of tentacles with which to sting and kill its prey. The length of these sting feelers could be up to four feet across.
Cox, in an attempt to drive away these new perils had splashed wildly at the water, in so doing some of the tentacles had wrapped round his hand, the Portuguese-man-o-war then sheared off but left a reminder of his visit. Cox attempted to remove the stinging jelly-like traces from his hand, in his weakened condition the pain was agonising. He wiped his hands on his clothing and even in his hair in a frenzied attempt to ease himself. This latter move was the worst thing he could have done, the poisonous jelly slid down his face and a little even worked its way into his mouth and eventually to his stomach. He told me that his stomach felt as if a giant hand was crushing it. He began to lose control, he felt madness overtaking him, how long he was in this condition he had no recollection. The arrival of the Cabo de Hornos was the only thing that saved him.
I could then well understand why Dr Tomas had attended to Lt Cox first on our arrival, he must have been in a terribly bad state. While he talked to me he was in a rather excited frame of mind, like a man released from a death sentence. I could see this in another man, but I think we were all in a similar state. For myself, I know that life was very sweet, all colours had a new brilliance, all men and women were handsome or beautiful. The sun had a new glory, the nights were balmy and romantic, it was a rebirth, a new look at an old world, a chance to start again. It felt good, very very good.
He also told me of the steward who was attacked and killed by sharks, and after the many battles for survival three of them survived to tell the tale.
This first night at my new abode, although very exciting and a little saddening, gave me a good night’s sleep, maybe the sherry and vino blanco may have helped.
The following day, George, Frank and I took a taxi to the favourite meeting place of our lads, the Café Atlantica, this was where they, and now I, took morning elevenses.
To ask for a cup of tea was a bilingual feat. Tea called ‘te’ was easy, but for tea with milk and sugar I was soon to learn to ask for: ‘Te con leche y sucre’. The result was a pallid sugary mixture that even my starved stomach could not happily accept. I joined the majority and drank coffee interspersed at intervals with ‘Anis’, and bright conversation.
Our gathering at the Atlantica was strengthened by the Indian Army Officer who had been aboard the Britannia and whose swordstick I had honed.
One morning at parade, held in the Protestant church, next door to Spragg’s Hotel, the Commander had found pinned to the church door the notice which said, ‘Muerte la Inglesia, ariba España’, this translated meant: ‘Death to the English, Spain arise’. The Spanish Phalangist party, akin to the Nazis, were beginning an anti-British campaign.
The Commander advised us to stay off the streets and conduct ourselves in a British manner, we therefore didn’t go to the café that morning. We marked time playing Monopoly, then George, Frank and I decided to take a short stroll as far as the Plaza de Zapetos just beyond the Hotel Spragg. It was on this saunter along the Avenida that George told me of certain events which had occurred while I was still in Seraldo’s clinic.
It appeared that on one occasion one of our lads had negotiated with an American ship to embark for a passage to America, the news had reached the ears of the Military Governor; he had immediately ordered that all the service survivors be moved to a concentration camp, which normally housed communist prisoners.
The Spanish Army trucks had arrived outside Spragg’s, the lads had been shepherded aboard and then Ted, a large dark-haired cockney lad expressed the British attitude to trouble. He turned to one of the armed guards, who with fixed bayonets stood at the rear of the truck, fingered the keen blade and looking the sentry straight in the eye, said, “You want to watch out mate or you’ll be hurting some poor bugger.” The Spaniard, unknowing, merely grinned a sympathetic acknowledgement.
Another of the boys, tapping his pockets, realised that he was in for a prolonged incarceration without the aid of tobacco, so with an “Excuse me,” to the guard, he left the truck and returned to the Hotel for the cigarettes and matches. His return prompted enquiries, leading to a stream of others who needed soap, towels, razors and various articles. This story, as I heard it, painted an amusing picture of a poor Spanish private on guard not knowing whether to shoot, spit, cry or laugh. The British abroad bewilder everyone else and even themselves.
It was Mr Davy who was the prime mover in having the whole affair quashed; he and Mr Carr, the British Consul, approached the Military Governor and paroled all our boys.
The sunny days passed and the clear air and good food made me recover my strength at a good pace; there were many happy hours spent at the Atlantica and along the Avenida.
Most mornings were spent at the café and then we used to return to play cards in the sun loggia and await dinner. Mrs Spragg was most motherly in her attempts to see that our meals were appetising. After our meal it was routine to gather in the Spragg’s study to hear the news, we were avid listeners, what was happening to the war in our absence was most important to us.
It was on one of these nights that we were in the study as usual and at the end of the news we rose from our seats to leave, Mr Spragg motioned to George, Frank and me to stay. When we were re-seated he opened his wine cupboard and poured us a glass of fine sherry. He next produced a box of Havana Habana cigars and we relaxed and enjoyed the smoke and the sherry. Spragg entering into the spirit of the hour drew from the cupboard a bottle of brandy, this he told us was eighty-five years of age and he only used it on special occasions. He turned, bottle in hand, to the cupboard, “Blimey, he’s putting it back,” said George. Whether Mr Spragg heard this aside I do not know but he put the bottle on the side table and drew from the cupboard four brandy thimbles. He then poured the elixir carefully into the glasses, reverently he handed them round and as reverently we took and tasted the priceless drink. It justified his praise, smooth, warming, gentle to the palate. We bent fond glances on the bottle, but it was not to be, he replaced it carefully back in the cupboard.
He then gave us a lesson in the art of lighting and enjoying a cigar, we were being taught by a master and we were willing pupils.
Another evening when we gathered in the study listening to the news we heard of the sinking of the ‘Hood’. The news was a shock to us all, the Hood was the mightiest of them all, to the Navy, indestructible.
The following morning the Commander told the boys to put on a good face, as he put it, “It’s a big ship, but we have a bigger Navy.” The lads went out in force to the usual rendezvous, the Atlantica. The Germans were there too but they were celebrating, we were merely putting on a show. The Italian consul was also there, basking in the reflected glory of his masters.
Every night after this we listened avidly to Spragg’s wireless, the news was good, bad, indifferent, and we fluctuated with it. Nevertheless the news we awaited eventually came, the ‘Bismark’ had been sunk, the Hood had been avenged.
Once more the Commander gave us words of wisdom, “The Navy was bound to get the Bismark, go out and celebrate but treat it as if it was a foregone conclusion.”
So, forth we sallied to the Atlantica, the Indian Army wallah, Jack Easton, Ted the cockney, George, Frank and I. We sat at our usual table and to our surprise there arrived a large salver filled with brimming glasses. I asked the waiter, “Que es?” he turned and looked across the café, three or four tables away there rose to his feet a giant blond male. The waiter said, “El Norge,” he’s Norwegian. We rose to our feet and raised our glasses, we drank and never was a drink sweeter. It must have been bitter to the watching Germans, but to give them their due they did at least show up.
The Italian consul came shambling along later like a guilty schoolboy, he doubtless had received orders to turn out.
The night drew on to a riotous conclusion, we rolled back to the Hotel, happy, relieved and more than a little drunk.
CHAPTER 16 – TROUBLE AGAIN
Each morning I would breakfast with my fellow survivors and, being wounded, I would be excused showing my face at morning parade. During their absence I would sit in the sun loggia and read or play patience and every morning Spragg would send out Maria. She would arrive with a salver on which sat a glass of Canary sack, the same as that which I’d had with Mr Spragg on my first morning. Pirates drank it, Nelson drank it, so why not I? Some mornings there would be two glasses, at such times I would be joined by Mr Spragg and it was at such times that I learned more Spanish than the phrase book could possibly give.
In the Hotel was an English resident who gave lessons in English to the Spanish who wanted to extend their knowledge of foreign languages. On many mornings as I sat in the shade, there came from the Hotel a young Spanish senorita. Unusual though it may seem, she was a blonde, very rare in a Spaniard and by this virtue more attractive. She was blonde, nubile, attractive and young and each morning as she passed me on her way to the gates, I would give the British “Good morning,” in response she would give the conventional, “Bueno dias senor.” This continued for many days, then came the morning when I tired of this conventional response and said, “Bueno dias senorita,” to my amazement, surprise and delight she replied, “Good morning, sir,” the final thrust lay with her, I laughed quietly to myself.
The blonde beauty had barely passed through the gates when they opened to admit Dr Tomas; he was dressed for some ceremonial event, frock coat, striped trousers and top hat. Across his chest were displayed many decorations and across his shoulder to his waist, a sash of a distinguished order. Dr Tomas, who was nothing if not a man, glanced at me, looked over his shoulder at the gates, turned about, opened the gates and watched the blonde poppet vanish down the road. When he came back he said, “Who was that Sharkey?” Who it was I did not know; what is was and why it was I could guess. I gave Dr Tomas verse and chapter, “H’m,” he murmured when I had finished, “Pity you’re on crutches,” he was right of course.
The doctor was due to attend an official parade, hence the decorations, but he had thought to visit Sharkey first. I was able to give him a good report, “Soon,” he said, “You can dump those crutches, we’ll try you on walking sticks.” This was quite the best news I had received for a long time and I looked forward to the day.
After Dr Tomas’s visit the boys returned from their morning parade and rounds, and while awaiting the gong for our midday meal we all played cards or Monopoly. One of our circle was a Petty Officer Telegraphist, his knowledge of cards and games was illimitable and as we played he would regale us with tales of his experiences in the Navy. The gong always rang just as he reached the climax. Good timing, on whose part I never discovered.
Our stay on Tenerife was not all drama or unpleasantness; there were many moments of great pleasure, of kindness and pure fun. For instance, there was the party we held on the roof of Spragg’s Hotel. Some parties are reputed to lift the roof, this one held the roof down by sheer weight of numbers and by the fact that the others were dancing on it.
For days before the party all those able to do so had brought in odd bottles of various drinks that were to be found on the island. Some of these drinks had all the menace of Red Biddy. There was one bottle in particular that riveted my attention; it was labelled in flowery Spanish as rum. It was pale red in colour and on holding it to the light it gave forth a wicked glint that foreboded ill for those who tried it. There were also two bottles of Hock, these at least were presentable and I hoped that they would be treated with due respect. To add bulk to the liquid refreshment we also had a good store of the local produce, Vino Tinto and Vino Blanco.
The party was purported to be in celebration of one of our survivors’ twenty-first birthday in conjunction with another’s son’s second birthday. These then were our excuses, our reason, to let off steam.
As the evening approached so the preparations advanced, more and more bottles were produced and a huge cocktail was prepared in a large jug. I was horrified to hear that the two bottles of Hock had been submerged into this alcoholic miasma. My only chance of tasting the hock was apparently to absorb a large quantity of the jug and bottle cocktail and hope to retain a percentage of the hock, the risks were imponderable.
At last the hour was nigh, I was helped up the narrow stair to the roof by George, Frank and our Petty Officer Telegraphist. On the large cool roof of the Hotel was laid a long table, on it was piled a vast amount of cakes and other alcohol absorbents. The place of honour in the centre of the table was held by the omnipotent jug. We elected as President of the Mess our Petty Officer Telegraphist. By common consent I was to be excluded from any penalties incurred by not drinking all the toasts that were to be called for, my pace was to be my own as I was still under the Doctor’s orders. Moreover I had visions of descending the stairs with two crutches and a load of high octane alcoholic fuel.
We toasted the King, followed by loved ones, followed of course by the usual bloke who asked for a particular friend to be remembered (I hope she was pretty). After this display of mutual goodwill the President suggested that we settled down to play Admiral Puff. This drinking game has, after three or four rounds, terrible penalties, unbreakable rules and by the light of the next day, awful misgivings. Admiral Puff held court and we who were just minions obeyed the dictum of his rule. It was Frank who first broke the Admiral’s spell, “I’m boiling hot,” he shouted and, leaving his seat, he dashed to the nearest water tank and proceeded to hurl water over the entire gathering.
This of course was the open sesame to a rooftop Water Carnival, within seconds a twenty-four hour supply of water had been generously distributed amongst those present. By some queer fortune or individual good favour I was amazingly well protected, but George the ever ready and always sensible, suggested that I go below. Sense prevailing, I went. A little later George and the Petty Officer came to my room to finish the night in a more sedate manner. We polished off the remains of a couple of bottles.
There were many incidents that night which came back to mind later, but in that night there was too much of the inherent fun of the native British to recall it all at one time.
“Death is not much, but young men think it is and we were young,” the poet has it so well. All relaxations, to those of us who had survived the terrors of the seas, were a gesture of defiance to death and a rude gesture at that.
This coming back to a full world could be dangerous to someone who did not think and I was foolish. Wine was to be my danger; a bottle of wine on the island was cheap, too cheap.
One evening George, Frank and I were polishing up our use of the Spanish language and constantly we asked Pepita to bring us another bottle; for reading old, dusty Spanish primers was thirsty work. Also the day’s sun had drunk our perspiration and we were refilling. Our capacity was good and we tested it to the brink and stayed sober. There was nothing in this that threatened my recovery but I did not stop there, the following morning on our rounds we met some of the lads and thence to the Café Atlantica. The wine was as good in the morning as it was at night, I imbibed again. The next day as I swung out of my bed I noticed my injured foot was swollen, the swelling ran over the ankle and into the torn muscles. As it happened it was the morning for a visit from the Spanish Army doctor so I stayed in bed until he came. He examined the leg and, looking at me reproachfully, said, “Malo, malo, muches vino!!” “It is bad, you have had too much wine.” I felt rebuffed and vowed that from then on I would take things a little more sedately.
The doctor advised that I bathe the foot in hot and cold water alternately to reduce the swelling. This I had to do religiously for a week before my foot returned to normal. I had learned my lesson, the hard way.
One night after this little episode George, Frank and I were taking our usual walk through the Plaza de Zapetos and along the Calle when, as we passed the trees and entered into the Plaza, we saw gathered in the centre and in our path a large number of men seemingly dressed alike. There were approximately twenty of them, all wearing white shirts and, in the evening light, what appeared to be dark trousers. They were all dark haired and olive skinned and I took them for a group of young Spaniards gathered for some purpose best known to themselves.
It was George who voiced the truth of the matter, “Italian survivors.” Later I was to learn the full story: apparently when we arrived on the island there had been in the harbour four German merchant ships and six Italian merchantmen. During my stay in hospital, and therefore not being fully acquainted with all that went on, two of the German ships had sailed out to try and return to their home port. They had been immediately sunk by a British submarine which had been lying in wait for such an attempt. Three of the Italian merchantmen had taken the same risk and suffered the same fate. The group who stood across our path were the survivors of the third ship.
Frank on my left, George on my right, me in the centre, swinging along on my crutches, we were still moving along the Plaza. “Are we turning back?” asked Frank, without breaking pace, “How do you feel, Alf?” said George, without taking his eyes off the group in front.
I had not been on my crutches long enough to be nimble with them and I was sure I was not adept enough to do a smart about face. My crutches swung forward at the same rhythm and I am sure it was of their own motivation, I am also just as sure that it was a shorter swing.
“What if they start something?” this from George. Frank hunched his shoulders a little, “We’ll do ‘em.” His tone was emphatic, his posture aggressive, there was no doubt about Frank when the issue showed clear.
George was his usual confident capable self, I was the weak link, I was their concern, they would protect me at all costs. The distance between the two groups shortened, I suggested that if trouble ensued I should prop myself on one crutch and whirl the other around at high speed. If George and Frank managed to push a few of the I-ties into the magic circle then I might succeed in shortening a few of them between neck and shoulder.
The idea tickled Frank, he laughed. George, more serious, considered the suggestion and decided that it had merit. We were still chuckling as we came up to the Italians who were standing in a circle, one more swing of my crutches and they would be poking some Italian in the heels. We could not stop, we were committed, we must go on, we must have been mad.
My foot felt and held the ground, my crutches swung forward, one of the I-ties, back towards us, looked quickly over his shoulder and touched his companion on the arm, they parted and the group opened up. The three of us swung into the circle and on across, the far side of the group opened with a side shuffling movement, we went on and out.
About thirty yards further up the Calle, George said, “I think we’d enjoy a fag,” we paused in a tight bunch to light up. George lit mine first, he paused before lighting his own, “Look round, Alf, not too obviously,” his tone conveyed an awareness and so I did as he suggested. Twenty yards behind us followed a Spanish Civilia Guardia, a rifle slung over his shoulder.
We resumed our walk pensively. At the Café we sat over our drinks and asked each other, if a bother had started who would the Civilia Guardia have protected? Spain was not at that time very friendly towards Britain and, moreover, had commitments with Italy and Germany. The Civilia Guardia were also a trigger happy lot, it was therefore lucky for us that the question had not arisen.
The days progressed and I with them, my strength and confidence returned. Then came the morning when Dr Tomas arrived and placed on the table in the loggia a pair of walking sticks. “Now then Sharkey, let’s see you start running.” I rose with the aid of the crutches and, standing, I exchanged them for the sticks. So far so good but move I could not. Maria, who had come out to watch, was called, she stood on one side of me, Mr Spragg on the other and Dr Tomas in front, a few paces away. He called me towards him and he was insistent, I had no alternative but to make the attempt. I found it difficult to move the injured leg normally, it had been a passenger for a long time, nervously I forced it forward in the first pace. It worked and so I did another one and a third. Spragg was as jubilant as me, “Champagne,” he cried and Maria dashed off for the bottle and glasses. George and Frank arrived at this auspicious moment and back in the loggia we emptied the sparkling drink down our yearning throats.
This,” said Spragg, “Is only a taster, tonight after the news we’ll open a good bottle.” He was as good as his word, that evening he poured champagne for all the officers and men who crowded his study. George, Frank and I were invited to stay on after the others had gone and we finished off the rest of the champagne.
After a pleasant chat with Spragg and a fair addition to our Spanish phraseology, we went on to the Atlantica, once more we celebrated, it was pleasant to see how many of our lads, and Santa Cruzians too, were glad to see my progress from crutches to walking sticks. I was moved and grateful. My movements were enlarged and more agile, even though not yet normal, this would follow in course of time.
CHAPTER 17 – NEWS OF HOME
There were many incidents during our stay on the island, political, romantic, warlike and uncanny. One such incident that stays in my mind and which George and I discussed when we met many years after, occurred at nearly the end of the internment.
I was sitting alone in the garden of the Pino de Oro sipping a drink and enjoying my solitude for a brief moment, George and Frank had gone out for the evening with a Spanish friend named Perre whose company they had cultivated during our internment. Perre was a man of some wealth, bequeathed to him by his parents, he possessed a flat in Tenerife and a large house in Madrid. A few days before he had dashed off to Madrid on a family matter and had to cancel an appointment he had made with George and Frank, now on his return he had hastened to make good his promise to take them to dinner at his club.
At approximately 9.30 that evening I was therefore surprised to see crossing the gardens towards me, George, Frank and Perre, they all appeared to have something on their minds.
“I thought you were out for the evening,” I said. “We were, but we would like to tell you something that has happened, for I know you’ll be interested,” answered George.
Perre told the story, corroborated by George and Frank at intervals. The reason Perre had been called to Madrid was that his only sister had died and he had to see to the duties thus entailed. Having returned and explained this to my mates at dinner, George had asked Perre if his sister was the girl he had seen sitting in the passage in Perre’s flat a few days before, in fact the night before he had dashed off to Madrid. This had aroused a startled enquiry from Perre as to whether George would recognise the young lady again. On George stating that he could, Perre immediately asked him to accompany him to the flat. So the three of them had gone to the flat and Perre had asked George to point out the spot where he had seen the girl. George indicated the chair facing towards a window at the end of the hallway.
Apparently George had seen her sitting in the chair, looking out of the window and she had been wearing a white dress as was the custom on the island for young girls. He had refrained from mentioning this incident to Perre because of the standards of behaviour that were usual on the island.
It had now come out in the course of conversation, during their dinner, that George, recognising a photo that Perre had of his sister, must have seen her on the night she died, and she had died in Madrid.
The question arising from this episode, and which they expected me to answer, was why had the apparition appeared to George and not to Perre, her brother, who loved her dearly and whom she had equally loved?
There is of course no rational explanation, pure science balks at pooh-ing these odd occurrences. The only reason I could give, and which at the time seemed most acceptable, was that George, being in a more delicate state of health and mind than Perre, was in a more receptive state for any outside influences, this on the basis of the Yogi fasts and the Llama physical cleansing meditation.
A peculiar incident, but nevertheless mystifying and very disturbing. For days after we discussed it but never arrived at a suitable explanation.
The days continued to speed by and one day as we sat lazing, the sun warm on us and the ten o’clock breeze gently blowing across the Plaza, Frank the ever watchful gave a soft, “Aah.” George and I looked up; crossing the Plaza towards us came Joan, Helen and their younger sister. Joan spoke first; she brought us a message from her father: would we three care to accept an invitation to dine at their home, their father would like to meet me, and my friends would also be welcome. I looked forward to meeting the man who had sent me the reviving brandy. I accepted the invitation on behalf of the three of us and said that tomorrow evening would be splendid.
The girls went on their way and George and I made a check on the number of pesetas we could muster between the three of us, we found we were alright, we could afford a taxi. So on the following evening we set forth to our dinner. The father of the three girls was a man of position and considerable wealth, his house was a large typically Spanish well-to-do residence.
The door was opened by a maid and we were announced in proper style, to be greeted by the man of the house who was a well-built mature man of pleasant looks, but the one who really drew our gaze was his wife, here was the reason for such lovely daughters. She was slim, erect, gracious, a real Spanish beauty, she eclipsed even the young beauty of her girls. The maid appeared with a tray of glasses and the sherry decanter, and we sat and talked. We were in a room that was used as a study and games room. A full sized billiard table sat in the centre; we decided to play a four hand of snooker. A pleasant half hour ensued and so the time came for us to dine, a delicious meal was enjoyed by all. And so the evening drew to a close, we wended our way back to the Spraggs’.
There had been many delightful incidents during the evening, one in particular which Frank reminded me of, was when the younger daughter had asked me some question and I had begun to answer at the exact moment her mother had addressed her. Before I could complete my answer the eldest girl said to her sister, “Mama spoke to you.” The younger girl immediately turned from me, “Yes Mama.” Her mother addressed her in fluent Spanish of liquid cadence. Her daughter then turned back to me to hear the completion of my answer to her question. This showed the standard of respect that existed on the island, a vast and sincere respect for their parents and elders.
We were constantly reminded of this, if we were out and about in the town, we would be ignored by those we knew, unless recognised by the elder of those present. Children would not cry ‘good-day’ to us; they would first draw the attention of their parents to us passing by. If the senior of the family then gave us a greeting the children would follow suit with happy faces. Should the elders not notice us and pass on the children would follow silently. We learned to respect this admirable protocol and we embarrassed no one by addressing the younger out of turn. This standard of behaviour was general about the island; it was delightful to see families so united and Old Spanish.
Sometimes on Saturdays we three would go to the Avenida, this was the widest street in the town, tree lined and for two way traffic, in the centre a wide walkway. Each Saturday the girls, resplendent in their finery, would walk up the length and back again. This they did in pairs or threes, arm in arm, chatting demurely together. The boys would line the sides of the walk, talking quietly, admiring greatly. No boy approached the girls, they did not mix, this was not the way of Old Spain, the approach to these maids had to be made through a member of the family. This was carrying the mediaeval over into the twentieth century.
Almost from our first day on the island there had been constant rumours that we would be taken off by a British ship. These rumours had gained momentum and then failed with the passage of time, now they had started again.
Behind the scenes and far from the islands political manoeuvres had been going on; Sir Samuel Hoare, the British Ambassador in Madrid, had been trying to free us and many more British who were interned in Spain. Spain on her part had been trying to raise a loan from Britain. The situation was made for a straight deal but there were other factors to be taken into account. The Germans tried at all costs to prevent the release of British personnel, they were allied in this way by the Italians of course and so negotiations dragged on.
I think we were all amazed when one day we were told to be ready to move on the morrow. I don’t think that we really believed it was true, but true it was. A British merchantman had arrived in port; I believe she was an Elder Dempster boat.
I busied myself that night packing up the odd presents that I intended to take home, made sure I had enough cigarettes for the journey and then had a good night’s rest. The new day dawned and we were ready to go. It was to be early afternoon before we were to go aboard; this delay gave us time to say our farewells to our good friends on the island.
Eventually there arrived a number of cars and taxis and those of us who were at Spaggs hotel said our last farewells to Mr and Mrs Spragg. There were tears in Mrs Spragg’s eyes as she wished me a safe voyage and wished me well for the future. She had been like a mother to us lads and had seemed especially loving and kind to me, always making sure that my meals were tempting and tasty, I was sorry to see that our going caused her grief.
We boarded the taxis and were on our way to the quay, many of the Spaniards who we passed en route waved to us, for the word had gone round that we were leaving. On arriving at the quay I was surprised to see a large number of the islanders waiting to see us off. The Military Governor had issued instructions that there was to be no demonstration on our departure, whether this was directed at the Phalangists, the populace or ourselves, I do not know.
We were welcomed aboard by the First Officer and crew, the Captain was on the bridge, keeping an eye on things. She was not a big ship, covered in the usual wartime grey and carrying, I believe, a four inch gun. I was to hear later that her gunner had beaten off the attack of an enemy submarine sometime previously, true or not it gave us confidence in our rescuers and we were content.
Shortly after boarding we could hear the engines start to turn, the order to cast off was given and we were under way. One of the ship’s officers cried, “Come on lads, we can’t go out like this. Let’s give them ‘There’ll always be an England’,” and he started singing. A little self-consciously we joined in and were eventually roaring it out at the tops of our voices. The crowd on the quay, now very large, waved us off but the crew of the last German merchantman in the harbour lined the rail and silently watched us go.
Now that we were on board ship again we had to carry out shipboard routine, the lads were formed into watches, but this was merely a gesture to reintroduce service discipline, the ship was already very well organised.
The rest of the lads were bedded down in the hold, I was fortunate, I was bunked in one of the officer’s cabins. In the same cabin were two Naval Lieutenants and an Army Officer. The officer and one of the Lieutenants were always up at the crack of dawn patrolling the decks, the Britannia had been caught in the small ours of the morning. These two had been asleep in their cabins at that time. They had no intention of being caught a second time with their pyjamas on. Neither were they the only two on the alert, there were quite a few extra, unofficial, lookouts.
It had been decided that I could not clamber about the companionways or ladders, so I had my meals in the galley with the ship’s cook; accordingly I dined well. The cook of course ate the best and as his guest I lived ‘high up the pig’.
I was able to get about the ship on my walking sticks but my progress about the rolling decks was after the style of a four-legged crab, lively if not beautiful.
On the first day out, the bosun came to see me, “You’ve nought to worry about lad, should we be attacked or sunk, there are men detailed to see that you get safely into a boat.” The crew were typical of British merchant seamen, unassumingly efficient and with a fine disregard for the threat of Nazi submarines or surface raiders. In fact I got the impression that the crew were spoiling for a fight, fortunately for us the opportunity did not arise.
It was on the second day out that Commander Spurgeon saw me in my cabin and enquired after my wounded leg. He had not seen a shark-bite before and after seeing the scarred muscles he said, “You’ll be discharged wounded with that laddie.” After talking for a little while he wished me well for the future and left to prepare his report. We were now close to Gibraltar and the next day would bring us into the harbour.
CHAPTER 18 – GIBRALTAR
We were dropped on the quay near the old wooden hulk of the ‘Cormorant’, I was the last of the crowd to go over the side and George and Frank were waiting to wish me farewell, for they were to go to barracks and I was bound once more for hospital. The lads would soon be taken back to England, I was to await a Medical Officer’s report before I could hope to see home again.
I sat on a bollard to await the ambulance and I felt very lonely, all those who I had known were now as far away as if a thousand miles separated us. The ambulance was not long coming, just enough to allow me to think, no longer would I be the only wounded one among a group of survivors, I was now one of the thousands of war-wounded and would filter through the hospitals. Sic transit …
Such is the protocol of the reception of wounded in the services that I was not even allowed to walk up the quay to the ambulance, oh no! I had to lie on a stretcher and be duly carried, I should now be sent to bed until permitted by the MO to use my legs again.
Already inside the ambulance were a corporal of Marines and a Naval rating, the corporal due for treatment for cartilage trouble and the rating for the removal of his appendix.
It was the corporal who told me that there were some ships in the harbour due to return to England, I realised that I would be lucky if I saw George, Frank or Arkinstall again.
It was nearing dusk when we arrived at the main Military Hospital, the duty Officer was a Major Crawford, tall, well-built, ginger-haired and very pleasant. While a clerk took the usual particulars: name, number, rank, etc., the Major chatted to us. He wanted to know why I was in civilian clothing, when I explained to him that I was a survivor he, of course, wanted to know the whole story. Halfway through the yarn he took out his cigarette case, extracted a cigarette and offered me the case. I was dying for a smoke and accepted gratefully.
When I had finished the tale, Major Crawford asked the others if they had ever seen a man go mad, they all said they had not, “Neither have I,” he said. Turning to me he said, “You’ve had an experience few men go through.” He went on to say that he doubted if I should be operated on while in Gibraltar, he expected that I would be sent home to England and in due course invalided out of the Navy. The decision to send me home had to come from Major D’Abreu, who was apparently the senior surgeon.
A sick berth attendant came in with a wheelchair and I was quietly whisked away to the now darkened ward, only the pilot light gave a dim glow as I was shepherded to a bed. In the bed on my left lay a prone figure, moaning and muttering. I asked the attendant what ailed this patient. “Oh he’ll go quiet about two o’clock,” he replied. He was right, I woke up in the night to see quiet figures lifting the now silent form onto a trolley and wheel it away, he had died in the early hours. He had been a Chief Petty Officer in the Royal Navy, torpedoed while in convoy, he had been in the water for a little while and had swallowed some diesel oil. The result was inflamed lungs and eventually death. These details were furnished by the occupant of the bed on my right.
Early next morning, after Sister had done her rounds, I was visited by a Catholic Padre; he wanted to know if I needed anything. I felt bound to tell him that I was not of his faith, he grinned at me, “It won’t worry me if it doesn’t worry you, old man,” and away he went to bring me toothbrush, soap, cigarettes, razor and blades and a Gibraltarian pound note. He also left a message for the Church of England Padre, who came later in the day; I wished afterwards that I had settled for the Catholic.
Later the same morning Major D’Abreu examined my leg, and passed judgement, “I suppose you fancy going home laddie,” he said, looking at me quizzically. I did not wish to appear too eager, on the other hand I did not fancy spending months incarcerated in hospital, so I gave some hopeful reply and he continued on his rounds. It was the following morning the Major gave me the good news, he told me they were sending me home for further operations on my leg. This of course was my official release from my recumbent posture. I was in this ward for a further fortnight and therefore able to move around and chat to some of the other men.
Three days had passed and many of the beds were empty, men had improved and left their sickbeds for other patients to use when needed. It was late one afternoon when Sister and her assistants started bustling round, preparing and tidying beds. One of the lads who was a long term resident said, “Some convoy has run into trouble.” Sure enough he was right, late that night they were brought in; there had been six empty beds, now there were none. As I was able to move around I visited the newcomers to see if any of them were awake. One who most impressed me was Billy Bell, a Glasgow lad. He lay in bed, stiff, maimed, his right arm broken in two places, his lower left leg also broken as well as the upper bones of his right leg. His greeting was typical, “Got a fag?” I lit one for him and placed it in his mouth. He could move his left arm and after a few hefty draws on the cigarette he removed it from his mouth. I then went to the kitchen to get him a drink, Sister met me at the office, “Who have you been talking to?” she asked. I told her and said that Billy was having a fag, she smiled approvingly, “He’ll be alright,” she said and poured him a large glass of glucose.
When I returned with the drink Billy told me of his adventures. He was the gunner aboard a corvette, they had been in escort to a convoy, Nazi torpedo bombers had attacked them and brisk action had taken place. Their corvette had been struck by a torpedo and the hit had been directly beneath Billy’s gun platform, the shock had knocked him unconscious. The order was given to abandon ship, someone in their attempt to take to the side had trodden on Billy, the pain brought him round and he had struggled along the deck and slid over the side. It was not until he had been dragged into the long boat that he realised he was injured, but he was now in hospital and content. Billy did not regard himself as possessing courage, there was a war on and boys acted the part of men and men admired.
We who were British were not alone in the battle against Nazism, it was not we alone who suffered, also in the ward there arrived a Dutch submarine Petty Officer, his name was Piet de Klerk. I first noticed that the Doctor, on his rounds, seemed to be having a little trouble making himself understood. He was talking to Piet in German, which most Dutch understand perfectly. Eventually a Dutch Officer was brought in and the Doctor was then able to make his diagnosis.
It later became known that Piet understood German perfectly but would not converse in that language, the Dutch had sworn never to use the German language after the invasion of Holland. Piet’s hatred of the Nazis was equalled only by his contempt of the Italians. It appeared he was suffering from appendicitis and his unwillingness to talk to the doctor may well have cost him his life.
As was often the case with our allies, Piet had picked up quite a little stock of English words. Unfortunately ninety percent of them were swear words, our conversations therefore were spicy if not progressive. There would be times when Piet would give vent to a phrase and then ask, “Is it a good word Alpret?” He never did learn to pronounce my name correctly.
Piet was a member of the crew of the Dutch naval submarine O.24, this sub and the O.20 were stationed in the Dutch East Indies and on the invasion of Holland had sailed for England. They were now based in Gibraltar, their sub had sunk one or two Italian ships and they were happy to be in action.
The British Admiralty, ever cautious, had asked for proof of the sinkings so, the next journey out, the O.20 had sunk another Italian vessel and unusually picked up survivors. On return to Gibraltar they had sent a message that they had proof of a sinking. When the officials arrived to check they found the Italians dead, the smell of cordite still in the air. The Captain had kept them alive until they reached port, he did not want dead bodies on his sub, on the other hand he had no intention of keeping Italians alive for too long. The Admiralty did not ask for further proof of any sinkings.
In hospitals one is constantly surprised at the ability of young bodies to recover from the most terrible wounds. I was to see during my tour of various hospitals the many types of patient the nursing profession has to deal with. The quiet suffering types, the nervy ones, the brave and the unbrave, and in this ward I was to see one of the brave. I had now been moved out to the verandah which ran along the one side of the ward, about halfway down. In the bed by the doors there was a Petty Officer RN, he was in a pretty bad way, he had been aboard a destroyer which had been torpedoed and he had had to swim for it through blazing oil. He now sat propped up in bed, his face once bearded and moustached was now cindery black, his chest burnt by oil, matted and suppurating, his eyes had a dead flat look to them and he never moved.
I thought of him as a man already dead, the nurses fed him with spoons of white pulp and dashed on to their next patient. I would go along to him and brush the ever present flies away and draw down the gauze screen. Then one day his bed was empty, he had been moved to another ward, one that we referred to as the “Death Cells”. According to popular belief those who went in did not come out alive. Imagine my amazement some weeks later seeing an apparently young PO enter the ward and approach me. Introducing himself he was my badly burned Petty Officer. His burns, untreated due to his low condition had healed wonderfully, his scars had peeled away, leaving beneath a clean, pink baby skin, only his elbows were cracked and these would heal in time.
I was delighted to see him; he told me that he had been determined not to die and for proof here he was. “I remember you,” he said, “You were the bloke who kept those damned flies off me.” We grinned at each other and shook hands. His awareness of me while he had been far gone was strange and astonishing but not unusual; Billy Bell had been aware of the events aboard the corvette, even though his shipmates had thought him to be dead. I too had recollected that George and Frank had visited me on the Cabo de Hornos, though George swore afterwards that I was delirious and could have recognised no one. I think that in times of severe illness or injury some other perception comes to the fore, even though sight and other senses are dimmed.
One morning while we still lay in bed, there was a hustle and bustle going on, the ward orderlies dashed round straightening beds and tidying everything in sight. The reason was apparent in a very short time.
Through the top entrance came the Colonel, the Surgeon in Charge of the hospital, and with him a red-faced man in the uniform of an Admiral of the Navy.
“Blimey,” said the chap in the next bed, “Admiral Somerville,” and indeed it was. Somerville, the sailor’s Admiral, bluff, tough and always spoiling for action, here was the man who loved fighting ships and all the men who sailed them.
He spoke to the man in the next bed and then came to mine, “So you were bitten by a shark, eh?” He waited for me to fill him in with the details and when I had finished he said, “By God boy, you’ll have a tale to tell your grandchildren,” and away he went to talk to some of the other chaps.
Soon after the Admiral’s visit a photographer came to see me, he was the official photographer to the hospital. My wound was to be entered in the official records; apparently it was the first of its kind known so far. I was tempted to ask the photographer for a copy, but why did I need a copy if I had the original?
CHAPTER 19 – AND SO TO REST CAMP
The doctor had decided that I was now merely waiting transit back to England, I would be sent to a rest camp to await my berth aboard ship. The section of the camp that I was moved to was for those of us who were recovering either from wounds or operations.
It was here that I met with Piet de Klerk once again; he remembered that I had seen to his cigarette supply while in the main hospital and duly became a good friend.
Three or four Italian merchant seaman survivors were also stationed at the camp and, as before, Piet conceived a real hate for them. Seeing them just walking down the road was enough to raise his hackles.
One day he borrowed one of my walking sticks and strolled after the Italians during their midday saunter, I could foresee the events of the next few minutes and called for him to come back, but he pretended not to hear me. Fortunately the camp doctor saw him and ordered him back to camp. Piet confessed afterwards that his intention had been to get as near as he could to the I-ties and give them a little corrective stick work. I kept my sticks close to me after that.
One of the characters of the camp was a Liverpudlian, by name of Tanzy. He was up to all the tricks by which a serviceman might enlarge his income. He came to my bed one night; I had not long turned in. “Hey Sharkey,” he called, “I’m in trouble.” Knowing Tanzy this was sure to be a fact.
He told me his story: he had bought a bottle of Aquadiente, the Spanish firewater, from one of the Spanish workmen. It was a major offence for British servicemen to posses this fiery liquid; Tanzy really was in trouble. He had hoped to take it back to England with him, which was a foolish idea as apparently the senior sergeant of the camp had got wind of the scheme and was on Tanzy’s trail. I advised him to drop the bottle onto the rocks outside the hut, then, when the sergeant checked, Tanzy would not have the incriminating evidence. He hesitated, but I pressed the argument. He still hesitated because he hated to part with anything without making a profit. I pointed out that possession of a bottle of Aquadiente was liable to get him ninety days in the glasshouse. Tanzy was eventually convinced and a few moment after he left me I heard the shatter of glass against rock; I heaved a sigh of relief.
Later I heard the sergeant lecturing my errant friend, he was satisfied on seeing the spilt liquid, but warned Tanzy to watch his step in future. It was a chastened but relieved man who greeted me the following day.
Piet de Klerk and I filled in the days by polishing up his English, and when fellow members of his submarine visited him and brought tinned fruit and cigarettes he would share them with me. To my eventual relief the Italian survivors were moved. Piet now relaxed, his vigilance over them was ended. We both vowed to write to one another but, like most wartime promises, the vow was broken. I often wonder if Piet came through the war safely.
After many days of lazing about, chasing the Gibraltarian lizards, throwing stones at the large repulsive looking spiders which haunted the rocks, we were told to be ready to move.
Army lorries conveyed us to the docks, there in the harbour were the ships HMS King George V and HMS Edinburgh, with many smaller craft in attendance. Our party, which was quite a large one, was split up and I was detailed to the Edinburgh. The Master at Arms found me a spot in one of the mess decks, number seven to be exact; this was to be my home for the passage to England.
The leading hand was, like me, a Birmingham man and he and my new messmates had to hear my yarn. After I had finished relating my story to them the leading hand, naturally called ‘Hookey’, said, “You’ll be alright here mate.” I knew I had found a good mess.
The Edinburgh was packed to overflowing with passengers returning to the UK. Many of us slept on the deck, this was no discomfort, the thought of returning home was all the compensation we needed.
That first night I slept like a log and when I woke we were heading out through the Straits of Gibraltar. The Edinburgh sailed alone, she was bound for England and home and her turbines were working at full speed. She seemed to sense our urgency, nothing would stop her.
We passengers were kept busy trying to keep out of the way of the crew, who were forever bustling about, with a ship as full as this one there was plenty to do.
The Edinburgh turned into the Bay of Biscay and, meeting heavier seas, she began to roll. Many of the Army personnel began to feel the effects; some of the Navy also had delicate stomachs. I noticed there were fewer seated for meal times.
On the following day, with the ship still pitching and rolling, we sat down to a typical rich navy stew. When the mess kid arrived at our table three army passengers left; Hookey started dishing out and four more of the mess decided they would wait until teatime. Just at this moment a soldier hastening to the upper deck could contain himself no longer and threw up just before he got to our table. There was immediately a general exodus.
Hookey and I faced each other over a large kid of stew. “You alright?” he asked. I had missed too many meals on the raft to be finicky, “I’m waiting for you to dish it out,” I told him. He laughed out loud, “Hang on mate; I’ll get some bigger plates.”
He took great delight, later, in telling the other lads what a grand stew it had been. I’m afraid his reminiscences were not appreciated.
Three days had elapsed and the Irish coast came into view. We all lined the rail to watch as we sailed on. It was near noon when we berthed at Greenock and the usual noises of the bustle of a ship berthing filled the air. One or two of the lads in our mess were getting ready to go ashore. Ginger, who sported a real Captain Kettle beard, combed perfume into his adornment. Catching my eye he grinned, “The girls like it.” I wished him well and he proceeded with his toilet, aided by a ribald comment from Hookey.
We passengers were ushered to waiting lorries. Some other service personnel and I were on our way to hospital once more.
A Petty Officer who was in charge of the party halted the lorry en route, with good reason: he had spotted a public house. We were, on this occasion, a nimble lot of cripples. I was not the first inside but I was certainly not the last. Greatly refreshed we proceeded on our way.
The hospital at which we arrived was called Mearnskirk, and we were well received by the staff. Our few days’ stay was made very pleasant by reason of having sunny weather and the gentle care of soft-voiced Scots nurses.
A Surgeon Commander RNVR gave us the news that we were to be moved again. He was as reasonable as possible; each man was sent to the military hospital nearest his own home. The commander looked at me, “I’m sorry old man, there’s no naval hospital in Birmingham, you’ll have to go to Haslar, Portsmouth.” There was no alternative, to Haslar I had to go.
We started the following afternoon, our train left from Central Station, Glasgow, and was due out at 11.00 pm. Prior to leaving, a Petty Officer and I spent the last two hours tipping up the whisky bottle to protect us against the chill of travelling.
I slept nearly all the way on this journey to the south of England. Eventually the long haul to Portsmouth drew to a close; we slowed down as the train approached Pompey. Many of the chaps were Portsmouth men and they crowded the windows as we slowly drew into the station. A savage quiet gripped them as they surveyed the bomb devastated ruins. The comments were vitriolic and vengeful.
Those of us who were bound for hospital gathered together and made our way to the jetty to await the cutter from the main hospital at Haslar. When it arrived, to my amazement, the first man to get off was Lt Cox; we looked at one another in surprise. The Lt broke the silence, “Good God, have you only just got back?” He with the others had of course travelled faster than me. We chatted for a few seconds and then boarded the cutter. I was to read, later, his tale in the London Illustrated. Knowing Lt Cox and the soldier’s dislike of the sea, I could have imagined his story, “Sharks my boy, the bloody sea was full of them.”
The reception office at Haslar put us through the usual routine: name, rank, when wounded, where wounded, are you hungry? I realised I was back in England when we were issued with gasmasks. O England, my England!
Once more to bed, to allow official permission to be given for me to walk. Our surgeon was once more a Naval Commander, strict, meticulous, efficient and under his hard exterior a kind and gentle man.
His entry into the ward was auspicious. Making his rounds he spotted a minute bit of fluff under one of the beds. “Growing tomatoes, Sister?” he asked, without taking his eyes off the small speck. Sister made no comment but a warm tide of colour suffused he cheeks. I had expected another battle of Culloden, but the incident passed.
He came to my bed and examined my leg closely. He asked how I felt; I told him I had been mobile for some time.
“Have you been home yet, laddie?”
“Then I’m sending you home at once for a fortnight.”
The following day I appeared on Commander’s request to hear him grant leave.
From the hospital I was sent to barracks and there I had to wait overnight before I could proceed. At long last I was on my way to the station, on my way home. The journey dragged, the wheels were surely in reverse. At last the old sight of Birmingham came into view. Leaving the train I was fortunate in getting a taxi, “62 Clarence Road, Erdington,” I told the driver, and relaxed back in the seat. The Birmingham I passed through had been well bombed and I wondered if all was well at home. I sat up and looked eagerly at the old familiar streets flashing by.
‘Home, home, home like a singing bird’.
The taxi pulled up in front of that familiar door, number 62, and I was soon out and hammering on the knocker. I waited and waited and waited for what seemed like hours and my heart sank to my boots. My God, after all this time of waiting and hoping and longing to be here, there was nobody at home to greet me. I was just about to turn away and the door opened. Vera’s young brother opened it wider, “Hello Bill,” I said. He looked at me half awake, I didn’t realise at the time but he was working nights and my knocking had brought him from his bed. “Where’s Vera?” I asked. He told me that she had gone to the local picture house with her mother. I had told no one I was coming home; I knew how easy it was for wartime leave to be cancelled at the last minute.
I went round to the cinema and asked if they would notify my wife of my arrival, but I was told that the main feature had started and so my request was declined. I was tired and in no mood to argue or tell them my life story. I made my way back to my mother’s house, hoping for a better reception. My journey was not in vain for I was met at the door by my mother; I was hugged, kissed, patted and made much of. “But where’s Vera?” mother wanted to know. When I told her, my sister in law Ivy waxed indignant. Hurtling into a coat she dashed round to the picture house to see the manager and put a flea in his ear.
It seemed a long time before I heard footsteps on the path. Mother opened the door and there she was: my wife of such a short time. She smiled and the tears filled her eyes. I was overcome with emotion myself and hard put to control my own tears. Vera put her arms round me and I knew I was really home at last.
AFTERWORD – AT HASLAR HOSPITAL
It was obvious to those of us who had been in the ward long that there was something afoot. Never before had there been such to-ing and fro-ing. New flower vases appeared, clean sheets on the beds, a fresh issue of bedspreads, and a great play with dusters and polishing cloths.
I was personally honoured by the attentions of a pretty Red Cross nurse who informed me that I was to have my nails manicured. The mind boggled. Speculation ran rife. Who was coming? It was an old experienced seaman who came up with the right answer: “The King is going to visit us.” There were many derisive jeers at this. “Don’t be daft Stripey, he’s got too much on his plate to bother with us.”
Stripey’s years of experience were to prove him right. Indeed the King was coming to see his servicemen in hospital, and more, the Queen would be with him.
If I remember rightly it was about 11 o’clock when the royal party arrived. The first to enter the ward was the Admiral of the Home Fleet. The old Stripey uttered one word, “Bubbles.” According to the tale that followed, it seemed that the high ranking officer in question was the lad in blue who sat for the famous picture.
The Admiral came to my bed. “Are you the laddie who was bitten by the shark?” “Yessir.” “Good Lord, I must tell His Majesty!” And with that he went off.
The Admiral was a tall handsome man and one could see that as a boy he would catch an artist’s eye. He was gone just a few minutes and then through the ward entrance came the King, by his side ‘Bubbles’. Following were the Queen and the rest of the royal entourage. The King slowly made his way down the ward, chatting to several of the patients.
Then the King stood at my bedside. He asked how I felt, and then wanted to know something of the events that led to me being in hospital. The King then turned to the Queen who by this time had arrived at the foot of my bed. After a few words from the King, Her Majesty then came to talk to me. Her first words were, “Are you feeling well young man?” and on my replying that I felt in fine form her next enquiry was to ask if I had seen my family. On this point also I was able to give a happy reply. I had the firm impression that had I said “No” to the last enquiry then immediate questions would have been levelled at high authority as to why one Alfred Warren, Air Fitter, no longer dangerously ill, had not been home to see his family, or had not had his family brought to see him. Such is the firm but sure power of Majesty in England. Fortunately I had never found naval authority unreasonable on the question of sick leave. The royal party then moved on out of the ward. There were only three of us in our ward who were war wounded: a commando, an RAF rescue man and me. The three services were well represented. We were of course, after the royal visitors had gone, besieged by the nursing staff asking us what the King and Queen had said. We had our small hour of honour and we were content.
The one thing that stuck in my mind, and was confirmed by the comments of the rest of the ward, was the genuine interest and feeling of their Majesties.
Over twenty-five years have passed since the events in this story took place and my wife has long insisted that it should all be told.
The story is compiled from notes I made after my recovery and from the memory of incidents as they occurred, while they were fresh in my mind.
Originally the tale was written for my wife, son and daughter. For my wife, who wondered where I was during those anxious days, for my son, who wondered at my scarred leg and for my daughter, who still hopes that the scars will vanish.
It is also written in memory of those who were adrift with me at that time, I think it is only proper that others should know of the courage and integrity of men who fought and served in the last war.
With the writing comes the memory of my friends and companions who survived the sinking of the Britannia and of the good friends we found amongst the British and Allied inhabitants of Santa Cruz de Tenerife. I owe a great debt of kindness to Mary Golding and her family, to Dr Tomas Soraldo and all those who nursed me back to health. I have endeavoured to portray, in words, a picture of those days, a thing of shade and light, perhaps a highlight of colour here and there, and like all pictures faded with the passing of years.
There is much that is repetitive in this tale, the fight for survival was in itself repetitive. The beat of the sea, the sun, even in the deaths that followed. My companions died, not in the heat of battle with blood, hot and careless. They did not die with a quick gasp of wonder and leave a mark of their passing. They died slowly, with courage and uncomplaining faith, they differed only when privation brought madness as a prelude to death. Even then they did not turn upon their companions.
They spoke only of those they loved and who loved them. They went quietly over the side, sometimes with a last word, but more often than not, in silence and at night.
It is to them and their memory that I dedicate,
They went not to a coward’s death
Death it was that coward turned.
He came in darkness and in darkness
Stole, their strength, their honour
And all the promise of their bright young days.
LINES FROM ‘ATALANTA IN CALYDON
Before the beginning of years
There came to the making of man
Time, with a gift of tears,
Grief, with a glass that ran;
Pleasure, with pain for leaven;
Summer, with flowers that fell;
Remembrance fallen from heaven,
And madness risen from hell;
Algernon Charles Swinburne