(From “How was it for you? Memories of the 1940s” by Rob Horlock, Unlimited Publishing, 2005, p285)
Tom Dunn was shipwrecked
I was a twenty-year old RAF Corporal and along with five others, was attached to the FAA. We sailed as passengers on the Anchor liner SS Britannia, from Liverpool in March 1941 in a small convoy with an impressive looking escort.
On the thirteenth day out whilst steaming alone and unescorted in the South Atlantic we were shelled by a heavily armed German raider who fired at will causing many casualties and heavy damage. The captain ordered a smoke screen and tried to outrun the German but it was hopeless and eventually ‘Abandon Ship’ was sounded. I found myself in a lifeboat with three of my RAF friends and about sixty other passengers and crew.
In charge was a commander of the Royal Australian navy who was, I believe, to join the Australian cruiser Perth. We had a few gallons of fresh water, forty-eight tins of Nestle’s milk and the usual supply of hard ship’s biscuits.
Most people including myself were very seasick for about two days before everyone settled down to a daily routine of looking forward to our small ration of water and milk in the morning and evening. Then, on the fifth night, we saw searchlights across the horizon followed by the lovely sight of a brightly lit ship with the Spanish flag illuminated by floodlights along the hull. It turned out to be a liner en route from South America to Cadiz. A number of survivors had been picked up in the afternoon, amongst them was a young naval rating who had one leg bitten by a shark. Luckily the ship’s doctor managed to save his leg despite the fact that gangrene had already infected the bite.
We were extremely fortunate that a Spanish/American baroness was on board and insisted that the captain search for a few more hours as she was sure there could be more survivors in the area.
We were all treated handsomely on board, kitted out by donations of clothing so everyone of us found something to fit eventually.
All the service personnel were put ashore at Santa Cruz in Tenerife where we stayed in two English run hotels for the next four months. Then, one day, they told us to pack up and we left on a Fyffe’s banana boat bound for Gibraltar. We eventually arrived back in the UK in August, five months after leaving for the Middle East.
Of the four hundred passengers and crew who ‘abandoned ship’ on the 23rd March*, two hundred lost their lives.
(* The date of the sinking is actually documented as 25th March.)