The Bower & Collier Family History

Research by Colin Bower

Sinking of SS Britannia

Article published in my Probus Club's Newsletter during Lockdown

What did your Dad do in the war?

1941 was a very bad year at sea for the UK with a lot of shipping sunk including, tragically, HMS Hood by the Bismarck, which itself was famously put out of action by the Royal Navy.

In 1941 my father was an electrician with Electrical Installations (a reserve occupation) installing important electrical equipment in tunnels in Porthcurno before being asked to travel to Iran via Colombo and Basra to work on a University in Teheran.

On 11 March, his Anchor Line ship, the lightly-armed SS Britannia, set off from Liverpool in a heavily-escorted convoy. Most of the passengers were service personnel making for Freetown, Cape Town and Colombo. It left the convoy when it was thought that she could avoid the u-boats on its own. Unfortunately, on 25 March before the Britannia could reach Freetown, she encountered a heavily-armed German surface-raider, the Thor, which shelled the Britannia until it stopped. Passengers and crew took to the lifeboats, some of which were damaged by the onslaught and were water-logged.

The Thor thought that a warship was responding to the ship’s S.O.S. and picked up one survivor only and sped away; no warship materialised.

The fate of five lifeboats is worth a mention.

On 29 March, survivors in Lifeboat No. 3 (63 from the lifeboat in which Dad survived) and Lifeboat No. 10 were picked up by a Spanish vessel, Cabo de Hornos. Both lifeboats had picked up survivors from other lifeboats and rafts. Those in Lifeboat No. 10 had a torrid time and just 7 of 50 people survived.

It is reported that 51 survivors in Lifeboat No. 5 were picked up the day after the sinking by another Spanish ship, the Bachi. The survivors were later transferred to a larger ship Cilicia and taken to Freetown. Lifeboat No. 7 famously sailed to Brazil and just 38 of 82 people survived. It took 23 days and this was the longest journey ever undertaken by a lifeboat under naval command.

67 survivors from another lifeboat were picked up 3 days after the sinking by ss Raranga and taken to Montevideo.

The Board of Trade’s maximum occupancy for the lifeboats was 56.

It is estimated that there were approx. 500 passengers and crew onboard the Britannia and approx. half survived. I am here to tell Dad’s tale!

The Cabo de Hornos first went to neutral Tenerife where service personnel were interned. The other passengers then went to Cadiz and then to Gibraltar. Dad and others had to wait for a ship home in the form of a troop ship, The Empress of Japan (later renamed the Empress of Scotland) one of two ships under heavy-escort, including the Argus and Repulse& 6 other warships.

I helped Dad write up his account of the sinking and published it in my website in 2003. Over 15 years later, I still receive enquiries and information, some from the sons of survivors including some from the same lifeboat as Dad!

When Dad died, I inherited his memorabilia and books including a ship’s menu which was signed by the survivors picked up by the Cabo de Hornos, which has resulted in many enquiries.

Also included in the memorabilia was the telegram/letter my mother received from Electrical Installations:

“Memorandum

4 April 1941

Mrs F. Bower
8, Ernest Grove,
Beckenham, Kent

Dear Mrs Bower,

We have heard today that your husband is safe somewhere on the West coast of Africa, though the boat on which he was proceeding has been lost and there will probably be some little delay before he is able to proceed on the remainder of his journey.

We thought it desirable to acquaint you with it lest you should become anxious on his account.

Doubtless he will be communicating with you though not perhaps so soon as he expected, but we feel sure you will be glad to know that he is safe.

Yours faithfully”

As a famous tennis player was heard to say: ”You cannot be serious, man!” Someone else was sent to Iran.

Dad cabled his firm and his wife from Gibraltar on 7 April.

For those interested, the main website for information is: ssbritannia.org

Colin Bower
2 February 2021

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