A Fateful February

By Gerald C. Jones

Asphalion in Vizagapatnam

Asphalion in Vizagapatnam, ready to be towed to Calcutta.

In August 1943 after leaving school, I did a months Outward Bound Pre Sea Course at Aberdovey, then I joined Alfred Holt and Co's 'Blue Funnel Line' one of the leading shipping companies in the British Merchant Service at that time, as a 'Midshipman'. On the 20th.September 1943 I was appointed to my first ship, the s.s. 'ASPHALION' lying at the coal tips in the Liverpool Canada Dock. Immediately after climbing the gangway we were ordered by the Chief Officer to 'Get those gladrags (Our smart new Midshipman's uniforms) off, and start shoveling coal'.

After the bunkering was completed we moved out through the Sandon Half-Tide Basin into the Mersey on the 22nd Sept. taking up our station at the head of the convoy No.O.N.203, Our Captain S.R (Mavagissey) Evans was the Convoy Commodore until we joined the Glasgow section when he became the Deputy Commodore of a much larger group bound across the Atlantic for New York.

From New York we loaded for Australia via Panama with essential war supplies for the forces in the Pacific, including having our decks covered with aircraft lashed down to keep them secure. During the passage across the Pacific we had a large Shark keeping station off our starboard side for a couple of days, an ill omen according to our Irish Lamp Trimmer, a seadog of many years standing.

After discharging at Sydney, then bunkering at Newcastle we loaded a cargo consisting of cases of general, canned goods, and frozen meat in our No.4 Refrigerated Hold, at Melbourne, and Fremantle for the British forces in India.

We arrived off Colombo on 28th.January and we had to anchor to await a berth. During this time the vessel rolled most uncomfortably and the cook brought a large canister of Ice-cream out of the fridge laid it into the scuppers to partially thaw, unfortunately it fell over and hit the ship's cat. Thinking that the cat was dead he threw it overboard so nobody would know BUT apparently it still had one of its lives. The same Irish Lamp Trimmer shouting 'Thats another bad omen' dived over the side and saved the cat, but it died the next day, its head had been badly crushed.

On the 5th.of February 1944, we left Colombo after completing the discharge of more than half of the cargo, brought from Australia, consisting mainly of canned goods, and frozen carcasses of beef destined for the use of the British forces stationed in Ceylon. The s.s.'ASPHALION', with all of us aboard, then joined a convoy JC 36 bound through the Bay of Bengal, to deliver the remainder of our cargo to Calcutta, setting off from Colombo, the rest of the convoy joined us as we steamed past Trincomalee. We had an Australian naval officer as the Senior Officer of the Escort, a Commander P.G.Collins, who was in command of HMAS 'LAUNCESTON', with two Indian escorts HMIS 'JUMNA', & HMIS 'INDUS' to assist in looking after us during the voyage.

HMAS Launceston

HMAS Launceston

Thursday February 11th. found us steaming North Easterly, about twenty five miles off the Indian coast, not far from the port of Vizagapatam, it was a typical hot, sunny, peaceful, and calm morning with a slight offshore breeze bringing the sweet smell of the land to our nostrils. We were the leading ship on the Port side of the convoy, and we were followed in our column by another Blue Funnel Line vessel, the Dutchman s.s.'MELAMPUS', which although she was not quite a sister ship, she had a very close resemblance to our own ship.

Starting at six o'clock, my duties this particular morning had been to thoroughly clean out the Officers Bathroom, and our own accommodation prior to breakfast at eight thirty. At eight o'clock I duly washed and changed into my white shorts and shirt and went into the saloon for my breakfast. I had no sooner started to pick the weevils out of my Shredded Wheat than there was an almighty bang the lights went out, and the whole place shook violently, this was followed by a second explosion. I can still recall looking forward to the other end of the long table and seeing a Senior Officers kipper jump up off his plate, seeming to hit him in the face.

Obviously we had hit, or been hit by something, we could feel the ship starting to heel over to port then she returned and listed over to starboard to remain that way, with a slight roll but with a heavy starboard list, so it was all hands on deck and abandon ship. I had to pass my cabin on the way to the main deck from the Saloon, so I collected my 'panic bag' enroute, I then had to go aft passing No.3 Hatch and the coal bunker to get to the Boat Deck. At the after end of the hatch just before the vertical ladder to the boat deck, the main deck plating had crumpled upwards, and folded over to a height of about three feet, tippling a winch up on end, just as if it weighed nothing. However I scrambled over the obstruction then up to the boat deck, where I saw that the boat falls where my lifeboat was supposed to be hanging, were dangling loose, my lifeboat had disappeared completely, it had in fact, as I saw later, been wrapped and broken, around the Mainmast crosstrees.

It was the usual practice at sea, in reasonable weather, during the war, for all the lifeboats to be swung out, suspended on their rope falls, then bowsed alongside a boom at boat deck level, ready for a quick get-away if necessary. In this instance all three lifeboats on the port side of our ship, had been blown away by the force of the explosions.

Boat Deck looking forward     Boat Deck looking aft

The Boat Deck after the explosion.

I then encountered my first sad moment, turning to cross over to the starboard side I saw our Fourth Engineer Mr.Ward, who was walking around the boatdeck with his boiler suit all tattered, and torn, his eyes closed and his arms outstretched in front of him, moaning and crying, he had been very badly burned indeed. I helped him to our second choice boat, the one opposite ours, on the starboard side, which was the Second Mates boat, and was the only motor lifeboat. We managed to get Mr. Ward into the boat whilst it was level with the deck, before it was lowered into the water, which was just as well really. Fortunately the motor started first time, and when all hands were aboard we pulled away from what seemed at the time to be a doomed and sinking ship.

2nd mate's boat

2nd Mate's boat with injured 4th Engineer

As is the tradition of the sea, Captain Evans was the last man to leave the ship, and for the second time that morning I was amused when he appeared on the bridge boat deck, which was way up in the air from our viewpoint in the lifeboat, then suddenly, this stout, portly gentleman, swung out from the ship, and lowered himself down the knotted rope into his boat, wearing about six hats of various shapes and sizes on his head, from trilbys to Panama's, but not I noted, his uniform cap with the scrambled egg round the peak. He had been torpedoed many times before, and knew how hot the Sun could be, when in a boat on an open sea.

Captain's boat

Captain's boat.

The first thing that the Second Mate, in charge of our boat, did after we had cleared the ship, was to take off his shoulder epaulettes, and instruct any others wearing them to do the same. The Japanese were known to collect officers from the lifeboats and take them aboard their submarines as prisoners. I didn't have any at that time so it did not apply to me.

We watched the other ships in the convoy, including the 'MELAMPUS' ,which seemed like our own ship, steam past us, and away into the distance. It gives one a very strange, lonely feeling when all your 'mates' apparently just leave you behind in what feels like a huge and vast expanse of nothingness. We did have the three escorts of course which were busy dashing hither and thither all over the place dropping depth charges which shook the lifeboats, but we didn't know what was really happening. Our own ship still lay like a dead duck leaning over, still, and lifeless. Our lifeboat stayed with the Captains lifeboat, more or less in the area around the desolate ship, but the Fourth Mates boat, contrary to instructions, was slowly disappearing into the distance heading for the shore.

After about three hours we saw some M.T.B.s (Motor Torpedo Boats) approaching from the West, one came alongside and we all left our little lifeboat, boarding this slightly larger but very fast motor torpedo boat with our Fourth Engineer, hoping to get him to see a Doctor as soon as possible, he had been suffering for too long now, particularly from the heat of the Sun despite our best efforts to shade him, the skin had peeled off his hands just like a glove. Apparently he had been leaving the Engine Room for his breakfast, and was almost at the top ladder when the first torpedo struck, bursting a boiler which had in turn smothered him with superheated steam. It was heartbreaking to see him lying across the thwarts in such pain, even with morphine injections from the lifeboats first-aid kit.

There was much signaling by lamp between our M.T.B. and one of the escorts, HMIS 'Indus' I think, whereupon it was decided that we would go alongside and pass the Fourth Engineer across to see their Doctor, this was accomplished after about three attempts which was very frustrating to us. Each time when she was about to stop the Escort would suddenly dash off after getting a sonic signal, from the submarine I presume, however we were finally successful on the third try, and so we said farewell to Mr. Ward who died later aboard the escort before she reached port.

Another vivid memory comes to mind, when the M.T.B. was alongside the Escort, we were rolling quite a bit, and one of her depth charges fitted in a frame on the port side aft, which was primed ready for dropping if called for, was pushed against the hull of the escort, causing it to work loose. I was ordered, with another chap to hold on to it, and stop it rolling over the side, or it would go off on reaching a certain depth, which would have been curtains for our M.T.B., the Escort and no doubt us as well. As you can imagine we held on to that depth charge, which is about the size of a five gallon oil drum, for all we were worth, although it was quite heavy and awkward, and took a deal of securing with the side of the Escort pushing against us every time she rolled. It was hard enough to keep our feet on the wet slippy deck, which was being splashed with seawater as the craft surged together without having to wait for someone to find a suitable piece of rope and then to lash a round object to a flat area of deck with the broken bits of the frame thrashing about. The Gods were with us on this occasion.

Whilst all this was going on a tug had appeared on the scene from Vizagapatam and the Chief Officer Mr. Clarke with a few deckhands from the Captain's boats crew had reboarded the heavily listing 'ASPHALION', which was then towed to an anchorage just off the harbour entrance, whereupon they left her unattended, and went ashore. We on the other hand had a swift, exhilarating passage into Vizagapatam on the M.T.B. and we were given a very warm welcome, a good meal, a drink and somewhere to sleep at the Naval Base.

Next day volunteers were called for to go out to man the ship whilst she was towed into a suitable berth in the harbour. We were taken out on the tug and went aboard. It is surprising how difficult it is to walk and work when the deck is sloping at an angle of between twenty five to thirty degrees. Once aboard all the heaving and pulling of the towlines, and later the mooring lines had to be done manually, it was hard work. Eventually she was berthed between two buoys away from the quays, and a barge brought two heavy duty Fire Pumps out, which were hoisted aboard with a Handy Billy lifting tackle, and brute manpower. Then the local Firemen started the pumps to clear some of the water out of our Number Four Refrigerated Cargo Hold.

A full assessment of the damage sustained showed that we had been hit on the port side amidships and that the Fore Peak, Nos.1. 2 & 5. Holds were alright, but No.3.Hold, the Bunker Hatch, the Engine Room, and the Deep Tanks were all full of water. The No.4 Hold, the frozen hatch which was still half full of sides of Beef, was slowly filling, it was suspected, later found to be true, that the bulkhead between the Engine Room and No.4 hold was fractured. The ship had broken her back, the main deck amidships had a fold about three feet in height, the Masts were leaning in slightly towards one another, and she was sagging about two feet amidships, altogether a sorry sight.

As night descended, the ship was of course in total darkness, it was decided that only a skeleton crew should stay aboard, the Chief Officer, the Irish Lamp Trimmer, and one Midshipman, guess who ?, the junior first tripper, me. The Mate organised us into watches and I was given the early part of the night until midnight as my special duty. We arranged bunks in the Saloon which had side settees, fitted ourselves with lifejackets, oil lamps and torches and had strict instructions to call the others immediately should there be any feeling of movement in the list or any strange noises of any kind whatsoever. At about eight o'clock Lamps went for'ard to check the moorings. the Mate went on the bridge and around the accommodation, and I was sent to the Galley to make up a brew on the stove before the other two retired until their watches.

We still did not know what had happened to all the members of the crew, we did know however that the Third Engineer Mr. Curry, and at least five West African stokers who were in the Engineroom at the time, must have been killed, the Bosun, Mr. Evans who was sitting out on deck right above the point where the torpedo had struck was, missing. The Carpenter, Mr. Carroll whose cabin door faced the Engineroom door, had been in his room at the time, and he too must have died almost at once, when the steam came blasting into his cabin.

These thoughts kept crossing my mind as I passed their rooms heading on my way to the galley, then I had to scramble along the steeply slanting deck past the Engine Room with the just visible reflections of the water glistening over the top of the machinery looking for all the World as though it was floating when reflected in my torchlight, but it was an uncomfortable sensation knowing that my ex shipmates bodies were still trapped somewhere in that mess of tangled metal.

The Galley fire had been lit earlier on during daylight, and only required topping up with coal, the boiler was bubbling merrily away when suddenly there was a clang. One of the steel shutters, used to close the grilled openings that served as the galley windows, had been flung open, and a black shiny face showed behind the bars, I instinctively grabbed a poker, yelled and chased this apparition, which must have been equally as scared as I was, because he just jumped over the side and into the water. It wasn't until the next day when we were told that the ship's Agent had arranged for a bumboat to stand-by the ship all night in case she heeled over and we needed picking up out of the water. The Indian boatman had apparently been intending to report his presence, but ran for his life never to return.

The next day in addition to the firemen manning the pumps, swarms of Indian dockers came aboard and started to discharge sides of beef from the No.4 Hatch using handy billies to haul the heavy carcasses up to the deck which were then dropped into a lighter, the beef being sent to the local British Army barracks. This went on for two days by which time the meat was beginning to go off, then anyone, and everyone was allowed to help themselves to anything that was edible from the lighters when they arrived alongside the wharf. Finally during the last two days of discharging the meat, when in fact it was a case of almost digging the carcasses out of the remaining filthy water in the hold, it had to be taken out to sea and dumped. Totally unfit for human consumption.

We Midshipmen were housed in a Greek restaurant on the main street in Vizagapatam for the next three months, when, after temporary repairs to 'ASPHALION' to strap her together, we were towed to Calcutta where she was cut in half and made smaller, by taking away the severely damaged section of the old coal bunkers. Then she was re-engined as an oil burner, to give a further number of years useful service.

Lying in Fremantle some years later, 1956 in fact, when I was Chief Officer aboard the m.v.'NAPIER STAR'. I was standing on the after deck, talking to the Cargo Superintendent Stevedore loading our vessel about the proposed distribution of the cargo, when my old ship, the slightly shorter s.s.'ASPHALION' sailed around the breakwater into the harbour, and I commented to him that she had been my first ship on going to sea as an apprentice. He asked when that was, I told him, and to our mutual surprise it turned out, that he was Commander P.G.Collins, ex Officer in Charge of the Escort to the Convoy in question. Number J.C.36

Later Commander Collins presented me with a signed photograph of his escort vessel HMAS 'LAUNCESTON', together with an interesting photograph of the echo-sounder trace taken at the time, that was on 11th.February 1944. at 0521z hours, in Latitude 17"25'N. Longitude 83"21'E. at a depth of 42 fathoms, showing a reasonable outline of a Japanese 'I' class submarine ( RO 110 ) lying on the flat sea-bed, which was accepted as a 'kill' by the Admiralty.

Echo sounder trace of sub    Reverse of the sub trace

Echo sounder trace of the sub, and the reverse showing details.

Although we had heard rumours at the time that the submarine which had torpedoed us, had been sunk, it was very interesting to hear at first hand, with all the details, and to be given signed photographs from no less a person than the Senior Officer of the Escort.

Needless to say, the Senior Officer of the Escort, and the most junior Midshipmen in that same 1944 convoy, were able to celebrate 'Old Times' ashore, later in the evening.

Coincidences abound at sea, and even though I can't confirm the story, it does make one think. My Mother who was teaching at the Pensby Primary School in the Wirral, in 1944, had one of her young girl pupils, sadly report to her, that her father, a Captain in the Merchant Service had been taken prisoner aboard a Japanese submarine, and they had reported, through the International Red Cross, that he a had been lost at sea during February of 1944.

For me 'A Fateful February indeed.'

The temporary repairs that were made to the s.s.'Asphalion' at Vizagapatam consisting of stout steel beams welded to the Main Deck and the upper and lower Tween decks. The No 4 hatch forward bulkhead was shored up and a small Donkey boiler was fitted into the top of the engine space to run the special rod and chain steering gear.

On 14th.April 1944 we embarked a small crew for the passage to Calcutta under the tow of a large ocean going tug. On board we had to use oil lights at night, we still had to 'Blackout' of course, and for all catering and washing, we had to use fresh water out of the galley boiler. This lasted for five days until with the assistance of two more tugs we headed up the Hoogli River to be dry-docked in the Kiddapore Dry dock.

We had to go into the dry-dock to be measured up so that they could layout special chocks, then we had to come out of the dock again so that they could prepare special beds. When we re-entered the dock, and they were able to pump out the water, we were able to see the terrible damage to the hull. The keel had gone the rubble and bits of the engine were hanging around and in fact it was estimated that one could have driven eleven double decker buses through the hole at the same time.

A memorial church service was held in Calcutta for those that had lost their lives aboard the vessel, and their remains were buried there. They were 3rd.Engineer Bill Curry, 4th.Engineer Jack Ward, Bosun Evans, Carpenter Joe Carroll, and Five Firemen from among our West African Crew who were serving with the British Merchant Service at the time.

Although I did not stand by the ship any longer, as mentioned earlier, I understand that she was cut in half, shortened and re-engined with oil fired boilers instead of the coal bunkers.

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