The Bower & Collier Family History

Research by Colin Bower

Sinking of the SS Britannia

Extracts from an Account by Donald Brown

Since June 1940, when the small vessel in which I was then serving was blown up by a mine with the loss of 18 out of 26 Officers and men during operation "Dynamo" - the evacuation of the B.E.F. and others from Dunkirk -, I held a teaching appointment at the Royal Naval Seamanship School at Portsmouth. Although interesting and satisfying a duty, I felt that I should really be at sea once more and was very pleased when in February 1941 I was appointed to the battleship, HMS Barham, which was part of Admiral Cunningham's force in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The Admiralty instructed me to proceed to Liverpool to arrive there on 11 March in order to take passage in a ship of the Anchor Line named SS Britannia, of some 5,500 tons.

She was to be routed in convoy as far as the latitude of Gibraltar, after which she would proceed independently round the Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean to Bombay.

From Bombay I would be assigned to another ship routed to Aden, up the Red Sea and thence to Alexandria where the fleet was then based. This widely diverted route,was necessary becuase of conditions prevaling at sea at that time.

1941 was a very bad year for Britain in the war at sea. The Navy had suffered heavy losses especially in destroyers and escort vessels at Dunkirk and Norway, let alone in the Mediterranean.....

Leaving Liverpool

.....SS Britannia sailed in convoy from Liverpool in the early hours of 12 March 1941.

Liverpool was very heavily bombed on the following night, presumably aimed at the concentration of shipping which had, by then, left.

Britannia was, of course, fully loaded with war materials for India. The passengers were mainly army personnel, some nurses, a few civilians and a small number of naval officers and ratings. All reliefs or additions to various forces.  

Accommodation, though cramped, was comfortable and food adequate. The weather during the first three or four days at sea was very cold and time spent on the upper deck was limited to the daily lifeboat drill for which we all wore coats and mufflers.

The crew of the Britannia were, in the main, Lascars and Goanese and, as there were insufficient ship's officers....naval officer passengers were asked to take charge of the lowering of some of the lifeboats, should the necessity arise. In consequenece I found myself in charge of No. 8 boat, lowering it and getting it away with its quota of passengers.

Gradually the weather became warmer. Coats and mufflers were discarded and passengers began to take an interest in upper deck games. A few of us then decided to turn out earlier each morning for a few minutes P.T. and run round the decks before breakfast. This effort did, I am sure, stand us in good stead a few days later.

Fateful Day

Because of the shortage of convoy escort vessels, which I mentioned earlier, we were not surprised, after about a week at sea, to find Britannia all on her own.

All was well, however, until the thirteenth day at sea. On the morning of 25 March, our P.T. party, having done its stuff, was resting on the rails when one of them remarked, "Look, a ship - the first we have seen since leaving the convoy."

We all looked and sure enough a ship was appearing over the western horizon. Thinking nothing more about it, we went below to bath and shave. I was half shaved when the alarm bells sounded, shortly followed by the sound of gunfire.

The ship we had sighted shortly before, had turned out to be a well-armed German surface raider. I did not know then, but now know, that she was, in fact, Raider designated E named Thor. Her armament was six 5.9" guns and four torpedo tubes.

Everyone knew what to do when the alarm bells sounded. Dress quickly, get a coat and sun helmet, grab valuables, put on lifebelt and spread about the ship to avoid large numbers of caualities.

I thought the bar as good a place as any, besides which it was near the boat I would have to lower, should the necessity arise.

I had not been there for very long before a salvo from the raider struck and hit .. .... our only gun situated at the stern was destroyed with all the crew. It was an old 6" gun of first world war vintage and was intended, apart from giving moral courage, for firing at an attacker whilst running away from it.

With the first shock of knowing that we were under accurate fire and a feeling of helplessness, I suddenly realised I had left a photograph of my wife in the cabin so dashed down to get it. Having collected it, I was on my way back to the bar when the crash of another salvo was heard. The bar had disappeared and with it the wireless compartment which was above it.

All this time, Britannia was zig-zagging and making smoke screens in an attempt to spoil the enemy's gunnery. But to know purpose.

Britannia was repeatedly hit and eventually stopped, a burning wreck with dead and wounded lying all over the ship. Some of the wounded were being attended by the ship's doctor in the dining saloon.

Very soon , the German surface raider closed and signalled Britannia to abandon ship at once, adding that she would sink the ship at the expiration of half and hour., The captain of Britannia had no option.

Continual short blasts on the Britannia's whistle sent what was left of the passengers and ship's complement scurrying to lifeboat stations.

In the Lifeboat

Having got my boat full, I lowered her into the water, after which I intended going down two decks to get in myself by means of a chain ladder rigged for that purpose. Apart from being annoyed, I was very surprised to find the boat had been pulled away by the time I got to the ladder.

As I did not relish getting wet before time, I dashed round looking for another boat and found Number 10 turned out from the poop, near where the gun had been. After a bit of fussing, a crowd of us eventually got the boat into the water and then got into the boat by sliding down the falls.

Because of the holes made in her when the gun was destroyed, this boat sank almost to the gunwhales and it was the bouyancy tanks which prevented her from sinking altogerther. But it was better than nothing.

...At last the boat was pulled clear of the ship - pulling a waterlogged boat is no easy task.

Soon afterwards the enemy raider closed Britannia to within about 400 yards and fired a few shells into her below the waterline. Some few minutes later, the Britannia, with her cargo of war materials and dead passengers disappeared beneath the waves, after which the German raider retired at high speed, never to be seen by us again.

There we were, with other boats and rafts, on a fairly calm sea but heavy swell, some 700 miles west of Freetown. We looked about. Other boats were either making sail or pulling, the occupants waving to each other all except for one boat which, like ours, was waterlogged. This boat carried a stewardess and many Goanese. We transferred them to our boat. We also attached two rafts which had been set adrift by one of the boats now under sail.

The occupants of No. 10 boat now consisted of 12 whites and 38 Goanese and Lascars.  A total of 50 persons in a boat designed to hold 35 persons under normal conditions.

* * *

Ed. The following days were harrowing with things going from bad to worse with constant baling of the waterlogged lifeboat and people surcoming to the heat and lack of food and water; some drinking salt water with disastrous results. Just 7 people survived. I would rather not include Donald Brown's detailed account.

* * *

Rescue

......At 7 p.m. on Saturday 29 March, someone croaked: "A ship - a ship".

....At first we took no notice. This time, however, the cry was insistent so we looked. And it was a ship.

I cannot describe my full reaction but do remember ripping off the remains of my shirt and firing it with a flare which had been lit by someone else.

....We were soon all croaking, fondly imagining that we were shouting I suppose.

It was getting dark and the ship was burning a searchlight. I can remember thinking it may be an enemy ship. But even so, I thought, they would at least give us some water.

Eventually a boat from the ship came alongside ours and we were hauled out, our boat sunk and we were soon being hoisted aboard the ship. I knocked a few projections on the way up and must have passed out because the next thing I remembered was being in a bed in a sick bay.

We had been picked up at last by the Spanish liner Cabo de Hornos bound for Tenerife from South America.

That then , is the story of how seven out of fifty survived in a lifeboat for five days without food or water.

The Spaniards cared for us in a royal manner and on 3 April at 2 a.m. I was landed in a stretcher at Santa Cruz, Tenerife and taken to a Spanish hospital.

Subsequently the survivors were interned by the Spanish authorities, but that is another story. (Ed. In fact the civilians were take to Cadiz and onto Gibraltar to await a ship home)

Needless to say, I never did take up my appointment to to HMS Barham which, for me personally, was just as well because in the afternoon of 25 November 1941, whilst in company with other forces in the Eastern Mediterranean, she was hit by three torpedos from a U-boat........"

Colin Bower
18 March 2018

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