Both motor boats, these spotless boats and the skiff are only strips of wood now, the port lifeboat ‘left us’ some time ago. Now they are trying to lower the starboard lifeboat. The angle of the ship right now makes it quite a job. Even if they get it into the sea, it’s a question if it will float, there is a big gash in its side. All that can of the injured are being put into it - a pitiful sight indeed. Jerry has two or three go’s with his machine guns, he rakes the upper deck and ships side.
We hold on, close our eyes and pray until he passes, he is a ---------. I spot young Peter Paterson, he is by the lifeboat and looks dazed and lost, just as he was on the night I first met him in Ganges. He was on the bed next to me and sobbing his heart out. I felt homesick too but slipped out and tried to comfort him. He said then that he was a Farmer and didn’t want to fight. I can almost hear him say it again. Wish he would shake himself now though. ‘Take your boots off’ I called to him, pointing to my shoes in case he couldn’t hear me, ‘And get into that boat’, because I knew he couldn’t swim. He looked at me but never answered. Just then one lone Jerry had a look, he went round picking his spot. How I cursed him, if only we had some ammo.
Some one found one round of pom-pom ammo. and with difficulty, owing to the ships list, trained it on the hun. We prayed for a hit, just let him land on or even near the ship where we can get our hands on him. As soon as he started his dive ‘Ginger’ fired , but missed. We couldn’t help but watch him come down. Then came three ‘black dots’ that grew fast. I held tight for the crash, and it came too. I found myself down almost in the water at the other side of the ship. Grabbing a bolt I held on then dragged myself up to the dry side of the ship, where I’d been knocked from. Water from a burst pipe kept hitting my neck and gave me a few nasty minutes. Almost at the top of the dry side I heard and spotted the hun coming back and coming in low. I knew what that meant but couldn’t do much about it but hang on and curse every son of the German race and that I did. Again those yellow streaks and Zip! Zip! Zip!.
He missed me , but not some of the other lads. Someone had a go at him with the 5's but it never stopped him. The bombs were a credit to the pilot, of course he had a sitting and defenceless target. One landed on the iron deck above me, six more feet and I’d be an angel - or a Stoker !! It curled the steel deck up like cardboard, taking the big crane on to the quarter-deck. Few of the lads were left there.
‘Lofty’ was wrapped round the crane on the other side, badly messed up and finished. Lots were blown clean over the side of the ship. I looked for the lifeboat, what was left of it was lying in the sea below. Of the injured the lucky ones were in the sea too. I knew then how to hate a German. He didn’t need to drop those last three bombs, nor machine gun the upper deck. We were finished and he was low enough to see that. How on earth a ship can lie at this angle and not turn over is beyond me. She is still sliding over too. Everyone is throwing over any wreckage that can float. Others are getting worried and jumping over the side. Wish we had our Carley floats, still no one complains about where they are. The ship slides over even more, no one likes it at all ! Everyone is rushing everywhere, ‘have you seen Bill, where’s Ginger’. I’m going back for my wallet’ one says. ‘Like hell you are’, he is answered and a push sends him over the side. One lad got an unfortunate one, he was in the water and a piece of wood thrown over hit him on the head, he went down under. The Commander is tearing around, the Midshipmen are too - real naval men, the ship is there all.
They are real sailors. Now the order ‘Abandon ship’ has been given. Wonder where Peter Paterson is, after the last bombs he disappeared. I get to the ship’s side and take off my anti-flash gear and shoes. Why I don’t know, but I took pains to hang them up. I wanted to leave the ship half an hour ago, but looking down at the water from here one is apt to think twice. I looked round and saw someone take a lovely dive from the gun turret, nice diving fellow, it was a pip ! Don’t ask me why he did it. Good old Fiji, that clean, spick and span ship was gone and here was one big mess, everything was twisted or battered one way or the other, just one big junk heap. The port side was already under water and how a ship can lie at this angle I will never know. But I can’t stay here, so, ‘pulling’ my eyes round I looked down at the sea below me. Some of the lads didn’t like the jumping into the sea idea - who did - those that wouldn’t go got a good push that made up their minds for them. Lots ran down the ships side and jumped to clear the keel that we know was there - hidden by the water.
Swimming isn’t my profession so I looked around in the water before I let go. I noticed a floater-net drifting down from forward and although I didn’t relish the jump it was now or never. I hung on until I thought it near enough for me to come up beside it, then it was ‘So long boys’ and over I went praying all the time . I believe I shouted ‘cherrio Mum and Bella’.
I had my arm under my lifebelt saving it from the smack I knew would come on hitting the water. Hitting the water I ‘lived a lifetime’ before breaking surface. Coming up I looked for the net, which was ahead of me, and going away. I was after it quick. I grabbed hold and breathed again. It was still in a roll so I tried to unroll it. By then there was quite a crowd with me, but we just couldn’t get it un-rolled properly, one end was well and truly stuck. We had to leave it that way and hold on. Every inch possible had someone hanging on to it, but dozens more kept struggling to get over our heads to get a hold. Doing so pushed those on the inside down under, some were drowned that way. I had a few nasty minutes myself. Not so long ago I didn’t care what happened but now I had a chance to fight for my life and I was going to take it. I helped others where I could, but not where it put my own life in the balance. Then came a terrible trouble, the pulling of and struggling on the ‘heavy’ end of the net was turning the whole thing over.
Being too scared to let go we were always pulled under with the net and while underneath lots got entangled and never made the surface in time. Once like that was enough for me, I didn’t like it at all. After that, when I felt the net going over, I let go and swam off a bit until it settled again. We bawled at the others to do the same and to go easy on the heavy end but they wouldn’t listen and suffered. I had the net once with someone holding on round my neck. I didn’t mind until he tried to get over me to the net pushing me down under. I told him to steady but he was too excited to hear me so I had to hit him, he ‘caught’ on the idea then !!! Tubby talked of his experiences then suggested a song. Our first song was ‘Roll out the Barrel’. Someone thought a barrel of rum would be handy, we laughed and agreed.
Singing was going on all round the water now. All the time we paddled with our arms and legs, trying, successfully to get away from the ship before she heeled over. Thank goodness there was little oil on our side. Looking around the water there was some memorable sights. Here and there a body would drift past being held up by the life-belt. Maybe one on the net would recognise one of them, then we would all hear his life-story. We still kept singing, it was strange, so hopeless we looked, yet we smiled at each other and sang. I can’t explain the real feeling one had when drifting around as we did, but Noel Coward’s film ‘In which we serve’, described it admirably. We had been wobbling around for approx. half an hour, when a shout went up all over the sea - ‘Look at her now’. We all looked at the ship. She was slowly going right over, her keel and screw now above the water. She looked so lost and pitiful, so helpless. There were few who didn’t ‘feel’ her going. After all she was our home.
Still it was quiet and peaceful off her and I’d asked for that not so long ago. We watched her go right over and there to our amazement was someone standing on one of the propellors. He couldn’t swim I learned later and was afraid to jump. We all called him everything, but he was real scared. He did eventually jump though. We were a bit out from the ship now and the two destroyers were nosing around picking up who they could. But Jerry didn’t give them any peace. Twice one of the destroyers came quite close, at least they looked close, some left the net and tried to swim to it, but I, rightly, thought it too far for me. The destroyer moved else-where before they reached it, they didn’t come back. We could see Crete’s hills on the horizon, they were a long way off though, but three or four Marines headed for the land.
We never saw them again. Maybe they got there. The Commander was quite close by and on a raft too. He was singing his head off with the rest. Again the destroyer came so damnable close yet so damned far away. We shouted our hearts out but off it went again, first dropping a raft or two. This time both destroyers went away and right out of sight. It was getting dark now too.When they were gone the singing wasn’t so loud. Some said they would come back, others weren’t so sure. I felt very lonely. Lots lost their heads and started raving that they couldn’t stick it. They would leave their raft or their spar of wood and let their life-belts down. The good swimmers would go after them first pleading with them to keep their heads and get hold of themselves. If that failed they socked them one. Some fought back real wild almost drowning the one who was trying to help them. It was rotten to watch them. Now there was only about a dozen left on our net. One was a boy who cried when he saw those fights. I heard myself saying ‘what about another song’. The response was very weak, anyway I didn’t feel like singing. It was dark now, in one way it was better dark, it hid some of the things going on around us. Seeing fellows ‘pass’, who not so long ago you had sang in the canteen with, isn’t so hot, not from a float-net.
A gunner with us, saw his pal go pass, he went after him but was a little late, he let his life-belt down and let him sink. Our J.I. called out for help, two us pulled him towards the net, he kept warning us to keep off his leg, a piece of the crane hit him (later he had his leg amputated). Someone said, ‘ there goes someones photos’, I looked and they were mine, after them I went, sticking them inside my overalls as best as I could. I liked my photos ! I got back to the net and found one of the stokers wailing a prayer, he was getting on our nerves. I told him to pray decently and to himself if he wanted to pray - just as I’m sure we were all doing. I can’t just explain or describe properly, exactly how I really felt while on the net. I did lots of thinking I know, mostly about home. Going through all my life again and again. Yes, ‘In which we serve’, did a good job describing how, at least, I felt, while in the water. Strangely enough I wasn’t afraid. Sometimes I wanted to finish it by letting go, other times it was the opposite.
After a while we all got kind of tired and nobody seemed to care about talking. All of us wondered, will the destroyers really come back ? The stoker would keep raving about something. I didn’t go much on him, a good punch on the jaw would have helped him. The boy was in a bad way, he cried and pleaded with us to let him sleep. We pushed him on top of the net, it could stand him on it without it going right under. He would keep lying down but we kept slapping him and pushing his face into the water just to keep him awake. He had just about had enough. In fact we all had an inclination for sleep.
It seems queer, hanging on to a net, up to your shoulders in water, with the latter lapping at your face every two minutes, yet you want to sleep, queer, but thats just how I felt. I kept ducking myself. My hands seemed to be cramped round the rope of the net. I didn’t mind though, I meant to at least be on this net when I was found. There was only seven of us left on the net now. The boy asleep on top, at least call it sleep, we gave up slapping him and just kept his head up. A Marine had been staring across, seemingly at me, for some time, for a while it never bothered me. Then he began to give me the creeps. He had his arms round a gunners neck and not on the net. I thought he must be dead and said so to ‘Guns’. We had a good look at him and he was. He must have been for some time. ‘Guns’ pulled to get him of his neck but we had to help him.
Soon after we heard others calling and saw a few lights flashing. We cheered having a hunch it was the destroyers back, and it was. There in the dark we could see one nosing about picking up others quite near us. A ticklish job in the dark. We called our heads off but they never heard us and drifted further away. We kicked out all we could to get our net in their direction but we made little headway. I thought that we had had it then. A bit later we spotted a light quite near us and heard more shouting. We got as near to them as we could knowing their light could save us too. Then we spotted a beautiful, heavenly grey shape creeping near by. We all bawled in our excitement, then came to a bit and got some system into it, by all calling together and calling the same thing. Our prayers were answered and she eased over in our direction and we struggled to get near her.
A line came tearing out and Stokes grabbed it and bellowed for them to pull away. He never thought of tying it to the net as we were telling him to, guess he was too excited. Two good pulls from the ship and the line was gone. We cursed him and bellowed again for another line. Down it came and ‘Guns’ tied it to the net and we were pulled close in. Two of the destroyer crew handed down a heavy line and we got the boy hoisted inboard. Grabbing the bottom of the gangway we tried to pull ourselves up. Each of us tried but we just couldn’t make it. So down came the rope again and again until we were all hoisted inboard, dead beat, but happy and thankful men. ‘Stepping’ on board was like stepping into heaven would be like. We were taken down below, stripped, got rubbed well with a towel, found a corner and promptly fell very fast asleep. It was about 11.45pm then. My watch said 7.5pm when the sea water had stopped it. Anyway I slept, to hell with everything now, if Jerry gets this ship he gets me too.
In the morning I found I was on board the ‘Kingston’. Bless her ! Now we are heading back to Alexandria. The ship was a shambles down here, men lying everywhere, wet cloths and oil all over. These ‘Kingston’ lads were good though , they gave us what they could. Early on the Alarm Bells went and then we felt a few bomb-happy nerves. The Kingston had only four (either four or two) rounds of ammo. left. Our prayers were answered and no planes attacked us. A tot of neat rum brought us a little nearer our normal selves, we needed it. It was my first tot and neat, but it never affected me one bit. Early afternoon we met the Fleet, then on to Alexandria.
Going there we buried five who had died after being picked up. It was the usual Med. and we dried our overalls on the guard rails. In Alexandria at 3am I went ashore to the depot ship - wearing overalls and a pair of sea-boot stockings, quite a ticket ! Still some were worse off. We were just on the ship when an air-raid took place and we nearly all jumped out of our skins when the guns above us opened fire. Down I went to the bottom of the ship and slept, getting up next morning feeling darned hungry. Breakfast was ‘sausage and mark’, and I enjoyed it. The remainder of the day we spent scrubbing ourselves and getting a few things to wear. At dinner time we again had a tot of rum. This time it made me as happy as a Lord. At night we boarded a train and headed into the desert and to Port Said. I tried to sleep on the window and doorless train but the seats were too hard and I was too full of thoughts. It was good to be on a train again, no matter how hard the seats were, I liked it. At Port Said we boarded a trooper ‘Strathmore’ which was our gateway home. There, when all together, was a Church Service for our pals, half the ships company, who didn’t make it, and for ourselves who did.
Our Captain couldn’t manage all the speech, none of us could have. We knew how he felt. My pal Harold, who was in the life-boat with the rest of the injured, somehow escaped the bomb and had been picked up, was kept in Alexandria in the Infirmary there. I wish he had been with us. Early next morning we sailed for home. A slow trip it seemed to be, but it was sure. We stopped at Durban and Cape Town en- route home where we had the kind of time one usually only wishes they could have. A swell time we may have had but our one ambition, all the time, was to keep going in the homeward direction.
So ends the story, the understanding of which is up to ones talent at reading and imagination, as no one can tell the real feeling, under such circumstances, in writing.
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