The Bower & Collier Family History

Research by Colin Bower

Sinking of SS Britannia

"Other Survivors"

Extracts from an account written by Lieutenant A.H. Rowlandson, R.N. in 1942

From the book, Lifeboat Number Seven

One of the best and most informative accounts of the sinking was that written by Lt. Rowlandson. It is also particularly poignant to me as references are made to Lifeboat Number Three, in which my Dad was a survivor, and the Cabo de Hornos which rescued him.

I have not included the whole account because the account describes details of deaths which some people might find upsetting:

"25th March

My cabin mate, Lieutenant Wilkinson, R.N.V.R.,. and I, turned out as soon as the alarm bells sounded about 0715, and put on some clothes. We could hear occasional crashes and looked through our square port, which faced forward, to see some splashes ahead.

We joined several others in the large gangway above the dining-saloon and crowded round the large doors to the outer gangways to see what was happening. A few wounded were brought along to the dining-saloon, used as an emergency dressing station, and Wilkinson and I went down to see if we could help. We gathered that the after gun-platform had been hit by a very early salvo from the raider.

About 0815 the sirens sounded the Abandon Ship stations. Everone hurried from the main staircase to the promenade deck. I was in charge of Number Six Lifeboat, so decided to get on deck as quickly as possible by the starboard midship ladder, which I hoped would be clear. This was not so and I arrived at the foot just as the last salvo from the raider burst on the boat deck above. A number of passengers on and above the ladder drew back, so I returned to the forward staircase and got to my boat just as she was being lowered. Lieutenant Hardy, R.N.V.R. was in charge but according to our previous agreement he went into the boat to direct the five naval ratings there while I remained on deck to control the lowering.

As soon as the boat was in the water, none of the civilian passengers being present, I ordered the naval ratings into the boat. Mr. Westgarth (bo'sun), in charge of the lowerers, arrived, and I sent him to the boat to assist Hardy and help a very nervous woman passenger into it.

The crew were coming on deck and the boat was filling up fast. In addition, several others from damaged boats appeared and asked permission to enter mine Finally only Sub-Lieutenant A. Davidson, R.N.R., in charge of sentries on the main deck and I were left.

Number Two Boat was full and was pushing off; Number Four Boat, reserved for ship's officers, appeared to be full of splinter holes, and Number Eight Boat was clear of the ship's side.

I saw Surgeon-Lieutenants Drysdale, R.N., and Marks, R.N.V.R., coming on deck carrying a Fleet Air Arm Sub-Lieutenant. Davidson and I relieved them and carried him aft to find a boat or raft. He was badly wounded in the thigh. There were only a few people about on the after well-deck as we put him on a raft. Lieutenant-Commader Welby and I decided that the wounded might be all right on the rafts as the difficulty of lowering them to crowded boats would be too great.

Welby and I went over to the starboard side of the promenade deck and saw Number One Boat waterlogged, with three men trying to bale her out; Number Three Boat was filled with men and women and clear of the ship; Number Five was also crowded, with Captain Paton, R.N., standing up amidships giving orders; Number Nine was hanging in splinters at the davits, and Numbers Seven and Ten, right aft, were just being lowered and appeared crowded with steerage passengers and others.

We returned to the Chief Officer, who agreed that the wounded would be best on the rafts until the boats could collect them in the water. The Radio Officer who was with the Chief Officer, thought that his S O S had been jammed. Davidson and I returned to our boat, but on climbing down the ladder found her clear of the ship's side and filling with water. We shot up the ladder again and began throwing life-belts, spare life-jackets, chairs and table over the side to those in the water. I went up the boat deck for more life-belts and found the inflammable tank blazing fiercely. This was the "water" tank behind which Mr. Alfred, Gunner (T) sheltered at one point in the action. Davidson and I then joined the Captain and Second Officer near the Bridge and I suggested lowering Number Four Boat. The Second Officer said she was badly holed, but helped to get bedding from officers' cabins nearby, which I hoped could be used for plugging. Davidson and I lowered the boat, directed by the Captain. The fore-most fall had been shot away but a length of hemp already led over the davit head made the lowering possible.

The Second Officer was using an Aldis lamp, answering the raider, and reported her signal to the Captain:

"Abandon Ship, sir, I am about to open fire."

We saw Number Four Boat in the water surrounded by a number of swimmers, so Davidson and I decided we would abandon ship on the last table left on the promenade deck.

I saw the Chief Officer and told him the Captain had ordered us to abandon ship as the raider was about to open fire, but I did not see him leave. Davidson and I saw that there was nothing along the port side of the ship so we threw our table over and climbed after it. It was then that I found a great-coat was not ideal for abandoning ship in, however useful it could be later, so I discarded it with difficulty and with Davidson's help. We drifted down the ship's side and found a raft we had thrown over earlier still secured to the upper deck, with two or three others on it. We joined the party, cut the securing line, keeping as much of it as we could, and drifted rapidly under the stern. There was a heavy swell which lifted us well amidst the propeller blades, but we managed to push ourselves clear. Once clear the ship drifted rapidly away from us and it was then I had a chance to look round and see the raider steaming across to leeward of the ship.

The raider then opened fire and disappeared behind her. In a few minutes smoke was pouring out of our ship's foreholds, then her bow dipped, her stern rose higher and higher band she slid slowly out of sight. As the bridge and funnel entered the water the sirens sounded and continued until they were awash. Only black oil and a small quantity of smouldering debris were left.

The raider turned and made off at high speed, behind a cloud of smoke. We then looked round to see who was on the raft and what we possessed. There were:

Lieutenant-Commander Welby, R.N.
Surgeon-Lieutenant Marks, R.N.V.R.
Surgeon-Lieutenant Drysdale, R.N.
Sub-Lieutenant Davidson, R.N.R.
Sub-Lieutenant Dwyer, R.N.V.R. (sp) South Africa
Second Lieutenant Cox, Indian Army
A. Warren, F.A.A.
Another Fitter, F.A.A.
and myself, Lieutenant A.H. Rowlandson, R.N.

On two planks nearby was a Goanese steward, The raft was about six feet long by four feet wide. We had also four planks each about ten feet long, a lifebuoy with automatic electric lamp attached and a short length of hemp. Eight of us sat on the raft, four aside, back to back, while the four planks and lifebuoy were used to support one another and the Goanese steward, "Lobo" by name. The raft, with this load, supported us waist high in the water. We could see two lifeboats, with sails set, one making apparently to the westward, the other just visible making to the east. Two other boats were nearer, but visible only occasionally when we both appeared on the crest of the waves. One other raft, with two Goianese stewards on board, could also be seen occasionally.

Our raft appeared to be drifting down on the mass of wreckage and burning oil. We used pieces of wood as paddles and eventually passed through the leeward end of the oil stream.

Number Four Boat, with seven on board, came down on us, stern underwater, and controlled by one man with an oar. They could do nothing for us and we could not reach them. They appeared to go by very fast.

Another large lifeboat appeared and we hoped it would pick us up, but this also was waterlogged and fairly crowded. We never got within hailing distance and drifted apart.

We could also see another lifeboat south-east of us with a mast steeped. The sea and swell were increasing and it was very difficult to see much. Welby, Davidson and I tried working out distances from land and possibilities of being picked up by destroyers from Freetown, or even by something from America, as an apprentice had given me the approximate position just befoire abandoning ship.

By evening the raft was continually turning over. During the night this happened even more frequently as we became more tired and less able to support ourselves.

Welby became very weak and needed constant support on the raft or in the water. Drysdale and I took turns in this. His strength was remarkable and he was of great assistance to us all.

We had several visits from Portuguese Admirals. We had seen them sailing by day and we felt their stings during the night.

At times we thought we could see a flashing light, and I replied by flashing our lifebuoy lamp clumsily to make: S O S; Help us; and Come to us. We hoped it was a lifeboat searching for such as us.

There is little doubt that this was the light attached to the mast-head of Commander Spurgeon's boat. They seldom saw our flashes as we were usually hidden by waves.

26th March

At dawn we looked for this boat hopefully, but we must have passed each other during the night as we could see only a mast, north-east of us. The sea was moderate to rough with wind Force Four we estimated, so that our view was very limited by the wave crests round us.

Welby seemed to recover his strength a bit and we streamed matches as a means of estimating speed and guessed at two knots. As the wind was north-east we may have been blown away from the match quickly, but we certainly did not make this speed over the ground.

About 1000 we sighted what we thought to be a boat and waved and shouted. Eventually we approached it in the afternoon by paddling with our hands, all improvised paddles having been lost during our frequent capsizes. It appeared to be going to drift past about fifty yards away, but by a tremendous effort we reached it at last, to find it was a large raft, the side of the swimming pool with about ten men on it. This was late in the afternoon

We decided to join forces and Drysdale and I swam round the two rafts to see how we could join them. Warren also came over to help, but the material for joining was limited. I returned to discuss the problem with Welby and found that Drysdale had left both rafts to swim after the other F.A.A., rating who was drifting away in the lifebuoy. As the rafts were drifting fast we all decided to paddle hard to keep near them, but in doing this we found we drifted rapidly away from each other and they were unable to join us.

I believe Drysdale reached this other raft, but only two of that party survived , one being Warren. We never saw this raft again although the two who survived were picked up an hour after us on 29th March.

There were now seven of us left on the raft without food or water. We sat three on one side and four on the other...............Dwyer had a small sample bottle of brandy and this was passed round for each one to have a lid full, but it was a very small quantity and hardly reached my throat.

........During the night Welby died.................

 

27th March-29th March

Ed. Marks, Dwyer and Lobo were also lost (I am not including the sad details)

29th March

....We were all very depressed and Cox was so weak that he could only lie across the centre of the raft. Davidson and I contiuned to take turn and turn about keeping watch. The one off watch rested across one end and corner of the raft.

About 1700 I lay back during my period on watch and after a few minutes saw smoke behind me. I had imagined it so often that I did not believe it and, therefore, said nothing to Davidson. I sat up again and looked, and this time I was sure I could make out the white bridge of a ship steaming towards us. I shouted to Davidson, who sat up and saw it too.

We began waving although the ship must have been three to four miles off. After a time we paddled with our hands to get nearer to the expected course of this ship. We gave up very quickly as a giant ray came and circled round us and sailed under the raft with each fin-tip out of the water and well clear of us on each side.

The ship passed us about a quarter of a mile away, then turned towards us.

I believe that none of those on watch sighted us, but a passenger on deck persuaded them to turn towards us to see what the object was.

We imagined that she would ram us but she passed again and finally stopped about fifty yards away.

Someone shouted to us to come alongside the other side, but we pointed to the ray that was still circling and they realised that this was impossible.

A boat was lowered and came over to us, manned by three ratings and an officer. I told Davidson to climb in, then with their help lifted Cox across and fell into the boat after him. They were Spaniards and their ship the Cabo de Hornos, an ex-American liner.

They lifted us up the side of the ship in the Bosun-chairs and I saw Cox and Davidson carried away in front of me.

I persuaded the sailors who had picked me up to stand me on my feet while I spoke to an officer, with the help of a French baroness as an interpreter. I told him that we had drifted south-west for five days and that north-east from us, steering into the wind, in fact, there were two rafts and at least two more boats. I asked that the Captain should search along this route, which he did most thoroughly and by 21.00 had found two rafts with two men on each, Lieutenant A.D. Hunter's waterlogged boat with seven on board, and Commander Spurgeon's boat with about seventy-four on board, I believe.

We had drifted about eighteen miles from the position of the sinking, while Commander Spurgeon's boat had remained on that spot for the whole period. The Spanish crew and passengers were very good to us. We were all three taken straight to the sick bay, stripped of our sodden clothing, scrubbed with oil and given coffee and brandy to drink. This was too much for me and for the next few hours I was unable to move a finger, being completely helpless. The attendants remained with us all night, giving us small quantities of water and glucose to drink.

This had been on Mark's recommendation and the glucose was produced by the baroness, as were many other comforts for the other survivors, who were all on board.

3rd April

Ten of us were carried ashore on stretchers at Tenerife and taken to Doctor Zarolo's clinic, where we were excellently cared for until we were able to walk and get about again.

Out stay at Tenerife, although enforced by the Spanish authorities, was made easier by the kindness of H.M. Consul, the British and Allied residents and many Spanish friends who did all that was possible for us."

* * * *

Commander Frank West, author of the book, takes up the story:

"Lieutenant Rowlandson's request to the Captain of Cabo de Hornos to search the area brought about the rescue of many more survivors. Lifeboat Number Three had got away from Britannia in charge of Commander S. Spurgeon, R.A.N. About four p.m. on the day of the sinking they took on board Fourth Officer W. Leitch and two Naval officers. These three had left Britannia in a small dinghy. After several hours they had joined a water-logged lifeboat in which was Captain Collie, the Chief Officer, Second Officer, Purser and Third Wireless Operator together with a number of others. With the help of an oar borrowed from this boat they were able to keep their dinghy head to wind until picked up by Number Three. This lifeboat now had sixty-three in it including three women and twenty-five Indians. The women were a Naval Nursing Sister, a missionary-teacher from Penarth in South Wales, and a stewardess. (A year later the Nursing Sister helped to nurse me back to health in the Royal Naval Hospital in Haslar.)

Commander Spurgeon decided the best thing to do was to remain in the vicinity of the sinking and this they did. They had only ten gallons of water, and this, with tinned milk and biscuits, was issued sparingly. Continuous baling had to be carried out and all suffered severely from the heat, sunburn and the crowded conditions, their legs and feet becoming swollen and numbed. On the fifth evening the lights of the Spoanish ship were seen and they soon jpined Rowlandson and the occupants of the two rafts.

The Cabo de Hornos then went on searching and found Lifeboat Number Ten. This had been badly holed in the action, but was lowered and though it filled with water, its buoyancy tanks kept it from completely submerging. It got away with twelve Europeans and thirty-eight Goanese and Lascars. Among the Europeans was one woman - a ship's stewardess. These poor people had an appalling experience, being in water with only head and shoulders above for five days. They had no food or water. All the Indians died and only seven European men were alive to board the Spanish rescue ship.

The Cabo de Hornos had a total of seventy-seven survivors on board, of whom forty-nine were service personnel. They were provisionally interned at Santa Cruz, Tenerife, the remaining twenty-eight, including the women, continued their voyage to Cadiz and then proceeded to Gibraltar and England.

Lifeboat Number Five in charge of Captain S.H. Paton, C.B.E., Royal Navy, though badly holed, got away fully loaded. Lieutenant Stanley Green, R.N.V.R., and several others who had been detailed to the boat, decided it was so crowded they woukd take a chance in the water and try to find something to support them. Green, after swimming around for quite a while was eventually picked up by the same boat. Later it also picked up others including Lieutenant Strong who had similarly refused to come down into Number Seven. Altogether there were fifty-five on board including six Naval Officers, twenty-six Naval ratings, Doctor Miller the ship's surgeon, four women missionary teachers and eighteen Indians.

As with the other boats, it had been badly holed and only heavy and continuous baling kept it afloat. The rigging was in poor condition and shrouds and halliards frequently broke and much trouble was experienced. In between short spells under sail the boat was pulled with oars, but with so many on board, this was extremely difficult. The Indians could not be persuaded to help with any of the work and it all fell upon the British. One of the British and three Indians died. After one and a half days the boat was picked up by a small Spanish cargo vessel s.s. Bachi and several days later it was intercepted by the ex-Anchor Line vessel H.M.S. Cilicia Captain V.B. Cardwell, R.N. which was now an armed merchant cruiser and was searching for Britannia survivors. It was an extraordinary coincidence that when Doctor Miller reached Cilicia she was met by her own father, Surgeon-Commander T. Miller, R.N.V.R., who was its senior Medical Officer.

A third lifeboat was seen by s.s. Raranga and sixty-seven more survivors were rescued, including fifty-two Europeans of whom three were women, and fifteen Indians. They were landed at Montevideo."

Conclusions

These extracts are very valuable but they do throw up 2 mysteries:

1. In Lt Rowlandson's Account

The Cabo de Hornos rescued seven people in Lieutenant A.D. Hunteer's waterlogged boat but I have not been able to trace his signature on the Cabo de Hornos menu.

From Lt.Commander West's account, that follows, it appears that this was Lifeboat Number Ten.

I would love to know the names of the other six survivors.

In Lt. Commander West's Account which follows

Lifeboat Number Three under Commander Spurgeon picked up Fourth Officer W. Leitch and two Naval officers, who had left Britannia in a small dingy.

They had joined a water-logged lifeboat in which was Captain Collie, the Chief Officer, Second Officer, Purser and Third Wireless Operator together with a number of others.

From Lt. Rowlandson's account, this lifeboat appears to have been Lifeboat Number Four.

There appears to be some confusion over what happened to the occupants of Lifeboat Number Four.

W. Leitch signed the Caboi de Hornos menu but we know from a list of  Memorials that, for example the Captain and the Chief Officer did not survive.

Memorials

It would be good to get some clarification about what happened to the occupants of Lifeboat Number Four.

Colin Bower
3 October 2020

Links to:

Names mentioned in Account

Britannia Index

 
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