“1400 miles across the Atlantic in 118 days”
The Norland was a brand new tanker, built in the Clydeside shipyards and this was to be her maiden voyage.
The ship set sail from the Firth of Clyde on 10 May 1942 and headed out to sea. One of the officers told me that we would be crossing the Atlantic and were bound for Galveston, in Texas, to load oil.
On 20 May just on 1.00 pm, a loud bang was heard throughout the ship and there was a slight shudder. I head one of the men shout out “torpedo”. The men came running out of the mess rooms and I went over to my friend’s pantry. He had slipped and was sitting on the deck. I shouted “torpedo”. He replied “no kidding”.
We went out on deck, the crew were all active at different tasks. The torpedo had holed one of the empty tanks and the ship was beginning to list to one side. To balance her, the tank on the other side was flooded and the ship was able to go ahead at full speed.
We sailed on for about another hour. The submarine surfaced a long distance from the ship. Several bangs were heard and water spouted up where the shells fired from the submarine had landed. There was a 12” gun mounted at the stern of the ship. A number of men were loading it and preparing to fire at the sub. My friend and I helped to carry the shells up to the gun platform. The first shout our crew fired deafened us. We had nothing to cover our ears. Our shots did not reach the enemy, but their shots were landing on us.
The bridge was hit and fire broke out. Another shot hit the bow. The captain ordered ‘abandon ship’.
Everyone wore a life jacket with a small light and a whistle. Three lifeboats were filled and lowered into the sea. My Friend and I were in one with the Captain and the Radio Officer. The three boats pulled away from the burning ship, and some distance away from the burning vessel, drew alongside each other and the two boys from our cabin were transferred into our lifeboat..
The submarine continued to fire shells at the Norland as we rowed further away from the ship.
While we rowed further and further from the sinking ship, the Captain checked the supplies stored in the lifeboat. Under a seat across the boat was a storage tank, which held water. In other compartments were supplies of Pemmican, hard tack biscuits and chocolate. There was a compass, an emergency battery radio, first aid kit, flares and some blankets. Stored along the side was a mast, a red sail and several large oars.
Our position was approximately 500 miles from Bermuda.
SOS signals had been sent from the ship when we had been attacked, and it was assumed we would be rescued before long.
There was a good breeze so the sail was raised and the three boats off westwards.
That night we were all issued with one square of chocolate, a biscuit with a cube of Pemmican about the size of a thumbnail, and a very small droop of water. It soon became dark, but no one really slept that night. The following morning, as it got lighter there was no sight of the other two lifeboats. We had drifted apart during the night. We were on our own.
The next morning we were issued with the same ration as the night before. This was to be our daily ration, every morning and evening, for some time to come.
There were fifteen people in our boat, the Captain, a Radio Officer, four boys and nine crewmen.
One evening the weather suddenly changed. It got very cold and a strong wind began to blow. Soon afterwards heavy rain began to fall, and we were soaked through. We had to wear our life jackets as the small boat was tossed up and down. The sail was lowered, and we all curled up in the bottom of the boat, which was filling up with water, and a pump had to be continually hand-operated. The storm went on most of the night, and finally abated just as dawn broke through.
That was a most frightening experience, and I had really been afraid.
You could not be shy when needing the toilet. The only way was to stick your rear end over the side, and when finished, wash with sea water.
A week passed with no sight of any other vessels. The weather was still good, but rations were getting low, and the biggest worry was lack of water. At night the sail was spread flat across the seats and this way moisture was gathered and, though small, was saved. Several small flying fish landed on the sail and the boat. These were eaten raw.
One day as the wind was helping us to move along at a steady pace, another raft was spotted. It was from an American ship. There was a small container of water and a container with several little bottles of vitamin tablets. This was a gift from heaven, as our water supply was very low.
On our 16th day in the lifeboat we found that we were sailing through lots of seaweed. The Captain said that this was part of the Gulf Stream, which flowed up the east coast of America. He said gather in the seaweed and eat the little creatures that were found amongst the weed. They were like tiny crabs.
At noon on the 18th day an aeroplane was spotted some distance from our position. A flare was fired and we saw the plane turn and come in our direction. He flew in low and circled round us several times. We knew that he would signal his sighting and our position to his base.
An hour or so later, an US Navy PT boat was sighted. It pulled alongside and we all clambered aboard. With the lifeboat towed astern, the rescue boat headed towards their base ashore. The land and the Navy base were only a few miles over the horizon, from where we had been picked up. Altogether we had sailed and rowed 1400 miles across the Atlantic, in 118 days.