The Captain's Report
The vessel was escorted by the H.M.S. Bridgewater until about 40 degrees West Longitude, and at Midnight on Saturday 30th January the escort left and Rhexenor proceeded on her own in accordance with route issued by Naval Authorities at Freetown. Speed was to be 14 knots through the water and maintaining zig zags nos. 17 and 39 throughout to give a speed of advance of 11.8 knots.
These instructions were strictly carried out night and day, and the noon positions were never far from the estimated positions.
All went well until about 6.45 a.m. of the 3rd February, when a torpedo entered the ship on the port side below the bridge, sending up a column of water and blast which completely wrecked the No.2 lifeboat which was secured in the davits. The vessel soon started to settle by the head and developed a port list. Full action stations were ordered and a survey of damage made. The port side shell plating revealed a huge gaping hole with the plates turned outboard, the hatch boards of No.2 hatch were disturbed but the beams were not unshipped. Deck plates were buckled in a direction from the port after corner of No.2 hatch to the starboard rigging, which looked as if the torpedo had been fired from slightly abaft the port beam.
The vessel's head swung quickly to port and the helm seemed not to be effective. She continued to settle by the head and crew were ordered to boat stations. The fore deck was awash at the break of the forecastle head and orders were given to lower the boats, leaving No.1 boat for taking off last minute personnel. At about 8.15 a.m. the last boat left the ship with myself, Chief Engineer, 4th Engineer, senior Wireless, ship's doctor and about fifteen ratings from deck and engine room.
Nos. 3, 4, and 6 boats were clear of the ship and a little distance from the starboard quarter, and before the boats had got far, a submarine surfaced slightly on the port bow and, at about a quarter to half mile distance, commenced shelling the ship. The vessel caught fire fore and aft, listed to a full ninety degrees and sank on her port side at about 8.35 a.m.
During the shelling fragments of shell splinters were falling near the boats and it was necessary to pull up towards the bow to miss possible damage to boats and crews. The four boats finished up about four points on the starboard bow and about quarter of a mile away.
The submarine subsequently closed my boat No.1 and asked for the Captain, a second man in the conning tower repeated Kapitan. They were told he was on the ship. He next asked for the Chief Engineer and the second man again repeated Chef Mechanician; we gave the same reply - on the ship.
This concluded the interview with No.1 boat. There was no one in No.1 boat looking official, soft hats and rain coats had been adopted.
The submarine closed the other boats in turn and evidently asked the same questions. When hailing the last boat he invited the Chief Steward on board, took particulars, name of ship, cargo, and where bound, then asked the Chief Steward if he was an officer. He replied that he was in the catering department. The fourth officer was seen in the boat and the sub commander asked who he was and the Steward said he was a Midshipman. The Commander asked him to come on board, which he did, and took a small attache case with him. It contained certain papers which convinced him that Mr. Allen was Fourth Officer, although an envelope he had in the case marked "Ville de Tamatave" could not be reconciled with the name of the ship given. This was explained, the Chief Steward was allowed to get back into the boat and the fourth officer was unfortunately detained.
The submarine steamed away on the surface in a northerly direction and all boats closed to see what had happened. It was then I got from the Chief Steward what had happened.
Each boat had a metal container containing a Meteorological Chart of the North Atlantic, pair of dividers, two pencils and paper, and also a sheet copied from the Nautical Almanac giving the sun's declination, R.A. Equation etc, for the whole month of February - this had been the practice of Chief Officer Case to always have a month's particulars from the Almanac in each boat.
The Chief Officer and myself had taken a Chronometer, sextant, sight book and Nories tables and were in a position to navigate, the second and third officers did not have a sextant so their progress was by dead reckoning.
I arranged to keep the second officer's boat in sight if possible, and this was done until a.m. of Friday the 5th February when he was astern out of sight.
Bad weather sprang up on the 6th February and continued until 3 a.m. of the 8th. The boat was put head to sea and rode it out to two oars lashed together as a sea anchor, the canvas one had carried away. Oil was used from the bow and an oar out occasionally, with the jib set aft to a boat hook. The boat behaved very well. When the weather abated it was decided to rig the Wireless and a few calls were given out. It worked all right but we got no help.
Progress was being made at about 70 miles a day and we figured the run to the West Indies would take about 20 days, rations were set for that time and as we made Westing we found we had sufficient. There were four breakers of water and a few large pickle bottles containing water, working on ten ozs. a day it was enough. The prunes and raisins, also biscuits and pemmican were issued by the Doctor strictly to ration and after ten days all seemed to be quite fit. L.J. Davies Second Cook and H. Tonner Fireman, were obviously quiet and not interested. L.J. Davies died at 2000 hrs. 17th February or 14 days after he left the ship - he was buried right away.
Moderate N.E. winds prevailed and by noon of the 19th February or 17 days out we were within 80 miles of the islands, the wireless was again rigged, set, overhauled and the Aldis lamp battery used to boost it up. It again worked well but no help came. Corporal Shipp, R.A.F. passenger was an electrical expert and he gave a hand to connect the Aldis Lamp batteries and was certain the delivery was good.
By this time peoples mouths were parched and it was very difficult to eat the peanuts, prunes or biscuits, chocolate was cut up, biscuits crushed and the whole put in condensed milk and the water ration - this was very palatable and with the pemmican the boats crew seemed........(word or words missing)
I cannot speak too highly of the Pemmican - it was always eatable, contained sufficient fatty matter to swallow it easily, a pleasant taste and a portion big enough to fill a soup spoon three times a day proved ample.
The North end of Destrellan Is. was made at noon of 20th February, 18 days out, we made for the West Side of the Island being the lee side, and Nories Tables gave a position of Galet Anchorage and Landing four miles down the West side, this was found at 4 p.m. sail and mast downed, oars put out and the boat landed on a sandy beach over the swell without mishap.
The boat's crew had behaved well throughout and after landing could not walk very well, but were quite cheerful. After landing we were taken to a nearby village called Anse Bertrand, where the natives brought fruit, coffee etc. The officials were French and the island's right name was Guadeloupe. I gave certain particulars to the Marine Office, and at nine p.m. all were taken by lorry to Point a Pietre some twenty odd miles South, Officers to the Catholic Hospital and the rest to another Hospital - all were medically examined and well cared for. We remained there for 13 days and then on to St. Lucia via Martinique, transferring at Martinique from French vessel to American Gunboat.
The foregoing is an outline of the events from the sinking to the landing.
At Point a Pietre, Guadeloupe, Saturday 20th February 1943.
23rd Feb. Took upon myself to cable Alfred Holt & Co. of boat's arrival.
24th Feb. Contacted Mr. Hazelton, American Consular Shipping Advisor, form N.N.I. filled in for Washington. Could not see Hazelton before as he was ill with Malaria.
5th March Left in s.s. "Saint Domingue" for Martinique.
6th March Arrived Martinique and transferred to U.S.S. "Lapwing" for passage to Saint Lucia - left same day.
6th March Arrived Saint Lucia and taken to Port Castries, members placed in three hotels, temporary clothing issued.
8th March Contacted Barnard & Son - asked them to act as Agent for Owners for cash advances. They had looked after "Mentor" some time before. I found them very keen and obliging. Interviewed by British Routing Officer and form N.N.I. filled in for second time.
11th March Transferred from hotels to s.s. "Eva Conway" for passage to American Camp. Arrived same day.
13th March Left Camp at Grossles, St. Lucia Island for Trinidad in U.S.S. Dredger "Comstock", towing lighter.
14th March Arrived Trinidad. Reported Naval Control - contacted Mr. Proudfoot of Messrs. G. Huggins, Agents. Survivors taken to :- Officers to Merchant Navy Officers Club and men to the Merchant Navy Club, Master and Chief Engineer to the Convalescent Home. All were looked after very well at Trinidad, and I specially thank Mr. Proudfoot for his many kindnesses. Cold weather clothing was issued here. Booth American contacted frequently from here - latest advices given. The two passengers disposed of at Trinidad.
H. Tonner, Fireman, died at 0755. Buried 1700. Usual wreaths. No next of
kin. Catholic ceremony.
This man was very depressed in the boat and kept very much to himself usually. Habits very intemperate, constitution poor. He apparently had not felt well and had gone to the hospital on his own - they admitted him and neither myself nor the Agents were notified until p.m. 19th March, when he was then in a state of coma. The hospital could not give us a diagnosis until two days after his burial, when they declared Malignant Malaria.
Copy of the Articles were sent up to New York from this port.
29th March Remaining 16 survivors left in s.s. "George Washington" for Baltimore.
4th April Arrived Baltimore. Ramsay Scarlett made cash advances. Officers to hotels and ratings to Merchant Navy Club. All looked after well.
6th April Left Baltimore - arrived New York same day by train. Master and Chief Engineer to Hotel Belmont Plaza, Officers to Woodstock Hotel, men to seamens club. From this date onwards the men were disposed of to the pool, two of them living in Canada were paid off. Self and J. Hearn, also Chief Steward, H. Stoner, at Booths each day for over a week making up a portage bill from what records we had.
By arrangement with Booths and Captain Watson, passage was provided for me as
Staff Captain on "Prometheus" and I left New York thanking Booth American for
all of their assistance on Saturday 24th April.
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