J. B. McLoughlin # 641 – 1932/33 (Whilst serving on SAS Protea)
The muffled thud of an underwater explosion at about 1030 was the start of the whole thing. We immediately went to full action stations but continued our zig-zag astern of the convoy. We were the stern escort and away on our port bow we could see a large merchant ship stopped and blowing off steam. Two escorts were hurrying out to port to try and locate the sub that had scored a torpedo hit.
The weather was vile with half a gale blowing out of the West and building up a short steep sea for which the Med is famous. Water and spray everywhere aboard, especially around the depth-charge racks and throwers. An Antarctic whaler hasn’t a great deal of free-board nor is she very comfortable even though she has been converted into an anti-submarine escort and re-dubbed a warship. How that ship could roll !
“Signal from the Senior Officer of the escort, sir,” said the leading signalman to our Captain. “Pick up survivors”. The crew of the merchant ship had got two boats away and, after some rather tricky manoeuvring in the sea that was running, we managed to pick up both crews. The first man aboard from the second boat, the Mate I think it was, reported that the ship’s captain was still on board together with the Second Mate and the Radio Officer, who was ill and in his bunk. Acute appendicitis. Senior Officer of the escort was informed and ordered us to fetch them off. By this time another of the escorts had taken up our stern position and the convoy was rapidly drawing away to the Eastward. The torpedoed ship was about two miles away to the East, down by the stern and drifting rapidly broadside on to wind and sea.
The Captain and I (I was No. 1) had a quick discussion and decided that as the weather was too bad to launch our own boat – we had no patent davits or slipping gear – I should take away the second life boat from the merchant vessel which was still alongside, the first having been cast off and allowed to drift away. To save us a long pull at the oars a grass rope was to be passed and the ship would tow us down to the casualty. I donned my oilskins and the Coxswain, having gathered the boat’s crew together, manned the boat. I took the tiller and the six crewmen took their places. The leading gunner was there, also a leading seaman, a signalman and three AB’s. The grass rope was passed and away we went under tow. The breaking seas made this very hazardous as we were inclined to surf down onto the stern of the ship and once or twice I thought we were going to come to roost on top of the depth charge racks.
I streamed the sea anchor aft and this had good effect until it broke up due to the pressure of the water. By this time we were to leeward of the wreck and could cast off the tow and take stock. The ship was now well down by the stern and her fore-foot was clear of the water. The force of the explosion had damaged her very severely aft and there was a great deal of wreckage, broken steel work, etc. over to leeward. There were some bodies, too. One poor chap had his foot trapped in a davit cleat and was being dipped up and down in the sea as the ship rolled. Not that it mattered to him; he was gutted like a kipper. The ship drifted downwind and came alongside us with a bump and we grabbed a pilot ladder which was hanging down, having been used by the crew when abandoning. The bowman nipped up the ladder with the painter and made fast while the rest of us secured the blocks of the boat’s falls which threatened to brain us. Leaving two hands in the boat, the rest of us boarded and went off with the Second Mate who had met us at the top of the ladder. I went to find the Captain while the rest went off to help the Radio Officer. The Captain was haggard and didn’t seem to care much what happened. The shock of losing his ship had really shaken him but I heard later that he had left his wife, a nurse, in Hong Kong – as she had refused to leave the wounded there – and she was now in the hands of the Japs. This was the real cause of his apathy.
I persuaded him to go down on deck and when the sick man, more or less comfortable in blankets and a stretcher, had been lowered into the boat he and the Second Mate also took their places. The signalman had in the meanwhile salvaged sextants, binoculars, telescopes, etc. from the bridge while I took possession of the log book, code books and other documents. All this was placed in a bag and lowered. The rest of us then climbed down into the boat. Our Captain meanwhile had been steaming around the wreck doing an Asdic sweep as he fully expected the submarine to attack again and finish the job he had started. He, our Captain, was very anxious about us and gave me a blast when I got back aboard, saying I’d taken my time about things ! Roll on my twelve !
To get back to the life boat, however, “Shove off !” I said and the crew shoved off. No good; the ship came back with a bump. We couldn’t get our oars out no matter what we tried. The only way to get clear was to pull ourselves along the plating. The easiest way would have been aft as we could have used our boat-hooks on the butts of the side plating. That however, impossible as we couldn’t have got past the wreckage. So we had to pull ourselves forward. Pushing along the plating with our bare hands we made good progress until we neared the bow. She was even lower by the stern by this time and our nightmare began.
Up surged the bows and in under the ship went we. Down she came with a ponderous, watery crash and out we shot like a squeezed orange pip – washed out by the displacement wave. Up she went again and this is where I looked up and I’m sure I saw the coffin plates. I hoped there was no significance in the name ! Out we shot again and then back in we went. I don’t know how many times it happened; four, I think. I looked up again and saw the knife edge of the bow and the two anchors looming above me, like being in a dry dock looking up. Down she came …. and we all breathed again, as this time, we were to weather and safe.
Someone cracked a feeble joke and we all laughed. Then the leading gunner found the bottle of brandy in the boat’s provision locker. We cracked that and I promise you it went down better than the joke had done. Our ship came and picked us up and, leaving the boat to drift, we took off after the convoy.
When the weather eased we transferred the sick man to a destroyer and I believe he recovered. Our survivors were landed in Alexandria having reclaimed their sextants and other gear and went off to join other ships and face more perils. Our Captain went to dinner with the skipper of the ship that had gone down …… and we went back to the mainly unexciting task of escorting Mediterranean convoys.