The Bower & Collier Family History

Research by Colin Bower

Sinking of the SS Britannia

Recollections of Dr. G. L. Dasgupta – survivor of sinking of SS Britannia in 1941 by a German raider.

Transcribed by his daughter from a handwritten letter to his grandsons. April 20, 2019

10. 3. 1941

Bombing over England started in 1940 becoming heavier-still heavier in 1941. My parents hearing news from radio and newspapers asked me to return immediately with an assurance to send me again.

Orient Lloyd Co. offered me a seat in SS Britannina Anchor Line which I had to accept.  The cost was about Rs. 1000/- (about 80 pounds).  I took a loan of 20 pounds from India House and the rest from my bank account.

There were two more passengers Mr. Anil Shankar Roy of K.S. Roy family and Mr. Nihar Ghose journalist.  I was booked in a first class cabin with 2 Gujrati gentlemen – Patel.  Mr. Roy and Mr. Ghose took deck(?)class.

We reached Euston in the afternoon.  Many intimates- Indian students came to see us off.  The train left at 5:30 PM and proceeded towards Liverpool in the midst of searchlight, antiaircraft gunfire, sounds of airplanes and also some noise of falling bombs. We witnessed these as we proceeded.

Reached Liverpool at 10:30 PM.  We did not get accommodation to sleep.  Passed the night in the waiting room.

11. 3. 41

We reached dock by 10 AM and boarded by 12 noon.  In my cabin were two more Indian passengers, Patels, Gujrati jewelers.  They were cousins. 

12.3. 41.

Our ship sailed in a big convoy of ship escorted by cruisers, destroyer, also air support, proceeded towards Canada.

After 2 days or so our ship changed course to South, proceeded along through mid Atlantic Ocean.  At night it was like ghost moving on and on, due to blackout.

Our daily routine – After getting up, after finishing natural necessities we got breakfast.  Then walk on the deck.  After lunch possibly a short nap. Then tea.  Then standing to see the ocean or talking with the co-passengers.  There was also Boat Deck Drill – a siren, you had to run up to allotted deck with life belt on.

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I completed my necessary affairs including my bath and shave. I heard a gun fire, saw the falling of a shrapnel on the sea from the porthole and the ships officers asked us to go to our boat deck.  I had a full suit on with my passport and purse in the pocket.

I ran up the stairs to reach the Boat Deck Drill area.  It seemed it was not a drill but some attack.

Suddenly we were ordered to lie down.  I laid myself down on the deck.  Something fell near my head and when I stood up I found a piece of iron stuck in the wood.  I pulled it out and put it in my pocket. It was hot.  I did not show it to anybody.  It missed my head by an inch. (I have seen it, it is still with someone in the family)

Our ship was sailing as fast as possible and took a zig-zag course.  But with a big sound, the engine stopped.  Then an attempt was made to abandon the ship.

The passengers on outside were put on lifeboats and the boats were lowered to water but the boats sank.  The passengers were floating with their life belts on.

(NB first shells were fired to destroy the Radio room when only 6 SOS messages were sent)

I saw them floating including ladies on one side (starboard side), the boats were intact probably.

I found ship crews getting down the rope to water level.  I took a ladder to reach down and I found on reaching water level the allotted boat had left and was stationary at some distance.

I jumped into the ocean and I was able to reach the boat by swimming and caught hold of the side and I could not get myself up to the boat due to the life belt on my body.  Suddenly a man stretched his hand which I caught hold of with help of another English fellow.  I was pulled into the boat and I became safe for the time.

The man who stretched his hand to save me was a Goanese crew steward who used to attend our dining room tables. It was possibly instinctive.

When our ship was abandoned and notified by signaling, the German raider came alongside and shelled the abandoned ship. It took fire and sank.

I surmise that the people who were in the water became victims to fire and suction of sinking ship and those that may have remained alive became victims of sharks.

I thought day after day of misfortunes – losing all belongings except the passport and purse.  The passports were collected by the commander of the boat and he threw them into the water in order to avoid identification by the raider.  It was unwise as it caused great difficulties after the rescue.

Days and night were passing, thinking of loss of facility for study, also the threat of not surviving after 7 days without water. On 29th March we were trying to sleep with closed eyes, I heard somebody saying he would like to have whiskey. And so on.  I thought they were mad.

Every passenger on the boat had to bail water.  We were 63 passengers including two ladies. Then they came to know that I am a doctor. They put before me a first aid box containing dressing, ointments, powder, anti-sceptic lotions and tablets. I had to dress the wounds as far as possible.  Blisters everywhere on the skins. (Faces of white men affected due to sun rays).  Our food consisted of 2 oz. of water and 10 drops of condensed milk 2 times a day.

One can imagine on end of March, in the Equator region, how the health would suffer with the above feed. Just a consolation of food. Mouth was dry, I was advised to suck anything (a coat button).  Without food one can live a month or so, but without water, not more than a week.  One can imagine – water, water everywhere not a drop to drink.  Due to thirst, some of us drank the clear ocean water, causing loss of water from the system.  Desalination was not possible.

There was not much space to stretch your legs.  One could stand or sit on the bench (like sitting arrangements found in all boats) – no back rest.  Our capacity was 56 but it had to carry 63 individuals.

How to pass time? My duty in the morning to attend with the first aid box.  Then pass the day looking at the horizon with hopes of seeing a vessel which might rescue us.

Then I saw some lighted thing on the horizon like a moon, which then disappeared. Our commander lit some flame to attract the attention of that ship.  Gradually a well-lighted ship appeared.  Neutral ship or armed vessel?  The ship came and stopped nearby.

Our boat crew now led us near to it with help of ropes thrown.  The boat was anchored.

We were taken into the dining room salon one by one.  Everyone sat and drank water and brandy to our hearts content. We were given two pieces of sandwiches and cigarettes and match box.  I for the first night went with the crew and slept in a hammock.

Next morning I went on the deck.  The English fellow arranged my accommodation in a cabin (2 seater cabin). The other passenger who was rescued earlier was a victim of shark bite (on the calf muscle)

We were allowed for shaving.  Then a lady known as Baroness La Dulu donated some clothing.

I was rather well dressed, striped worsted flannel suit but without shoes.  I got a pair of socks, keds (type of shoes) and tie.  Many who were in their night dresses got trousers, shirts and jackets and so on.

We were served good food (tasty), walked on the deck and had an English speaking steward to talk to.

After 4 days we reached Canary island Teneriff (Now a beautiful sea resort)

We could see the nice view of the island with tall coconut trees and others which I dreamt of while on the life boat baling water.

(After this the story continues with the rest of the journey back to India.  It was difficult)"

 

Colin Bower

20 April 2019

Also see Dr Das Gupta's Missing Page

 
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