Now includes a copy of the diary from her master, Thomas Williamson & an eye witness account
as told to me by Frank Brookes, SS Allende sailor. Profile of U68 included.

 
Left: Merchant Naval Memorial on the Pier Head, Liverpool - Right: SS Allende

The S.S. Allende began her life on the stocks in the year 1929, built to the specifications as required by Thomas Morel, ship-owner of Cardiff. Her duty in life was the transportation of general cargo to any part of the world as required by the Company. Sturdily built, of simple design, fitted with coal burning furnaces and a single triple expansion reciprocating engine, she was the typical tramp steamer of her day. Of 5081 tons, main superstructure amidships, with main holds fore and aft of it and central woodbine funnel, she represented, like a thousand others of her kind, the backbone of the British Mercantile Marine, created to fulfil the empire's trading on worldwide travel. In late 1939, with the advent of hostilities, Allende, like all other merchant ships of her class, was ill-fitted for war. Decreed by My Lords of The Admiralty, her armament supplied at the outbreak was two First World War Lewis guns, a few rifles of ancient vintage, and a secret weapon, The Steam Projector. This weapon was almost useless in any sea or air action, and was presumably supplied mainly as a psychological boost to the crew. Some mention of the steam projector must now be made. The Steam Projector was a device dreamed up by some fertile imagination to act as a deterrent to low-flying enemy aircraft. Its barrel firmly fixed and pointing vertically upwards was muzzle-loaded with a projectile, to which a trailing wire was secured, with the other end of the wire being firmly secured to the deck. On attack by an enemy low-flying aircraft, at some precise moment, steam from the boiler room was injected into the bottom of the barrel, thus hurling a projectile and trailing wire to an undetermined height. Unsuspecting, the enemy aircraft became ensnared in the wire and theoretically was brought crashing down into the sea. Its inventor, even in his wildest dreams, never realised how beloved by the crew his invention would become. Soon the crew found the projector was just as efficient as a potato launcher. With much fun and hilarity, bets were laid and potatoes launched to great heights, providing the crew with many happy hours of joy when ploughing the monotonous seas.

Now homeward bound, on the 17th March 1942 the Allende had been almost constantly at sea for thirteen months. Earlier that day she had crossed the Equator, but no crossing the line ceremony was enacted. The captain was pushing her as fast as possible, hoping to reach the port of Freetown, Sierra Leone, in time to join an escorted, homeward bound convoy . Thrusting her blunt bow into an ever-rising swell, the ship became more alive. Her master cast a worried eye through the port side window of the bridge wing, seeing an ever thickening black wall of foul weather building up and swiftly advancing from the east. A further worry to the captain was the amount of thick, black, gritty smoke pouring from the tall salt encrusted funnel. Having coaled ship in Bombay, the bunkers were now filled with an inferior coal, much used in India, and, as such, it was impossible not to make smoke, an indicator to any prowling U-boat. At least, he knew that he could take on good Welsh steam coal at Freetown for the last leg home. Several old merchant ships were used as floating coaling stations at such gathering points, and Freetown was such a one. With the gathering storm and its accompanying loss in visibility, worry over making smoke dissipated, as did the smoke in the rising wind. Thus on the weatherworn Allende, with watch set, boats, rafts and weapons overhauled and ready for instant action, and all watertight doors shut, they were ready as could be for the coming storm. Girdling the earth and extending from the Equator to 10 degrees North of latitude lies that meteorological phenomenon called the Doldrums. This narrow belt, if viewed from space, is seen as a white belt surrounding the globe. From the earth's surface looking up, it is a canopy of cloud varying in intensity, but always there, especially during the winter months of the Northern hemisphere. High equatorial temperature, humidity, and low air pressure create a concoction of elements, making two human activities uncomfortable. Firstly, high temperatures and humidity give rise to an enervating physical and mental effect to one's body. Secondly, and much more frightening, weak pressure gradients. coupled to wildly fluctuating temperatures. create daily thunderstorms of such intensity that their appearance is sometimes awesome. These diurnal storms build up during daylight hours, and, presaged by a violent wind, break out into a combination of rain, lightning, and thunder. Lightning discharges are far more numerous and intense than ever seen in more temperate climes. These storms of daily periodicity almost always occur towards sunset.

The Cabin Boy

The crew of the Allende was comprised of thirty-nine souls. Being Cardiff owned, most of her crew came from Cardiff, Newport, or the Welsh valleys. The youngest member was the mess room boy, more commonly known as the cabin boy. His name was Wilfred Williams, born at Blackwood, Gwent, on the fifteenth of August 1925. Subsequently he had moved with his older sister Betty and parents, Wilfred and Maud, to another small mining town within the valleys of Gwent (then Monmouthshire) called Abersychan, his address being 105 Manor Road, Abersychan, Monmouth. Within the next few years, two more additions to the family were made, both boys, named Luther and Kenneth, Kenneth being the youngest and the author of this true narrative. Leaving school at fourteen, Wilfred gained full employment at his father’s place of work, Pontypool Town Forge, lying approximately three miles from his home. Being tall, well-built, and strong for his age, the arduous work within this extremely old-fashioned tin plate works suited him. Wilfred started work in early August 1939, and so did the war. Wilfred was upset and despondent in that being so young, he could not volunteer for the armed services. Seeing older men from the works being called up or volunteering, he realised that no chance existed of getting into the war at his tender age. Almost a year had passed when one day whilst he was at work, a former workmate called in. He was wearing civilian clothes and sporting a Merchant Navy lapel badge. Their conversation resulted in Wilfred learning that he could get to sea at his age of fifteen as a cabin boy. Coming home from work he emphatically told his parents that he was going to sea, and, if they refused, he would run away. Down to the "Pool" at Newport he went. Signing the register he was informed to wait for a ship! Coming home, he sold off his pigeons (for a second, or third time, as they always flew back). Within a few more days, a letter arrived from the "Pool" requiring him to report and join a ship at Newport Docks the following week. No training was given or considered in those days.

Thus, on the eventful day of the twenty-fourth of February 1941, Wilfred joined the ss Allende, holding the rate of Mess Room Boy, ready to face all the dangers of modern sea war at the tender age of fifteen and six months for the princely sum of £4 per month. For this payment he was expected to carry out the following duties in general, from 0600 hours each morning. Firstly, take tea and toast to the bridge, and then below to the Second Engineer. Make up all the bunks, and wash the floors. Then, go to the galley, helping the Second Cook to peel potatoes, prepare food, and wash all the dirty pots and pans. Next, lay the table in the saloon, and serve the meals with the Steward, and then wash the dishes. Back to the cabins to polish the brass, and then take afternoon tea to the bridge and down to the engine room for the Third Engineer. On completion, make up sandwiches for the First Watch (8 – 12pm), trim all lamps, and clean all glasses. An additional task in wartime was the securing of deadlights over portholes to "darken ship" at night. If the ship was attacked by enemy aircraft, he also acted as loading number for the secret weapon, namely the Steam Projector. For doing all these duties, plus the very high chance of being killed (higher than the three armed services), he was rewarded a poor return of £1 per week. Wilf was happy with his long hours of duty, also Allende was a happy ship. His shipmate and friend was a townie named Bill Haynes. who lived in Griffithstown, only a few miles from Wilfred's own village of Abersychan. Bill was a junior seaman, who, at the age of nineteen, was a grown man to Wilf, but, having both joined together, and now having served together for thirteen long, perilous months at sea, they were firm friends. On the evening of the seventeenth of March 1942, Wilfred, who was now an experienced cabin boy, had completed most of his duties. Having checked that all deadlights were down and screwed tight, he retired to his shared cabin to lie on his bunk and started reading a well-thumbed western magazine that was doing its rounds of the crew. Feeling the gradual increasing roll and pitch, Wilfred knew that the storm had arrived. Never being seasick, he had no concern for the weather. Lying on his bunk dressed in trousers, shirt and loosely tied life jacket, he slowly drifted off into sleep, drowsed by the tropical heat and closeness of the air. With the rhythmic thump of the ship's reciprocating engine giving an almost hypnotic effect, he sank ever deeper into sleep. Youth and innocence prevailed; young Wilfred was soon deep in the arms of Morpheus.

The U 68

In the same month that Wilfred joined the ss Allende as the youngest and lowliest in rank, another, and far more auspicious occasion was being re-enacted the other side of the English Channel. Korvettenkapitän Karl-Friedrich Merten (transferred in early 1940 to the U-boat service) was given command of U68. Almost to the day, both joined their respective ships. Merten, born in Posen, Germany on the 15th August 1905, shared the same birthday as Wilfred, but exactly twenty years older to the day, joined the Reichmarine in 1926. On completion of his basic training as an officer, he received his commission as Leutnant zur See as Weapons Officer in the light cruiser Königsburg, a modern cruiser of 6,650 tons armed with nine 5.9" guns in three triple turrets. Subsequently he served in torpedo-boat T157 and the escort boat F7. Thereafter, with this experience behind him, he became a Cadet Training Officer in the training ship Schleswig Holstein, an old First World War battleship where he remained until the outbreak of war, thus, as previously mentioned, volunteering and transferring to the U-boat service. (See profile below).

Merten was to remain in command of U68 and to become one of the most successful U-boat commanders of the war. Before leaving the U68in early 1943, Merten's achievements were recognised by the award of the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross (he was already the holder of the Iron Cross First and Second Class). Quickly following this distinction came the coveted Oak leaves to the Knights Cross for the sinking of a total of 180,870 tons of Allied shipping.  Merten ended the war with the rank of Kapitän zur See. The closing months of the war he spent in not destroying but saving lives. He assisted in organising the evacuation of over 50,000 refugees from the advancing Russians. When the war ended, Merten went into French captivity, where in 1948 attempts were made to try him on fabricated war crime charges. These allegations were totally unfounded, and he was released in March 1949. In the 1980s, he was still alive, living in retirement near Valdshut, Germany.

The Meeting

At approximately 5.30 p.m. local time, the storm broke over the area that the U-68 was prowling. Even at thirty metres, some movement was felt in the boat indicating a stormy surface. Still carrying out his sweep, the operator electrified the control room crew when, at 6.45 p.m., his report of a weak positive engine noise announced an approaching ship. Confirming the report, Merten ordered the crew to action stations. Grouping up on both motors, battery power was supplied to both electric motors and speed was increased, heading the U-boat on an interception bearing. On reaching his required position, Merten came once again to periscope depth. Now much closer to his intended victim, Merten picked up the dark shape of a ship sailing darkened out. This confirmed that the ship was not a neutral. Switching to high magnification his magnificent optics gave him a clearer picture. Plunging and rolling slowly due to her full cargo was a typical merchant freighter of roughly 5,000 tons. A quick all-round sweep of the periscope revealed no accompanying escort. With some satisfaction, Merten realized the howling storm and darkness negated any chance of the periscope being seen by the oncoming ship, and being no escort meant a leisurely approach to the setting of the attack plot. After several minutes of intense periscope observation, Merten started the plot. Range, angle off the bow, relative bearings and speed, torpedo speed and angles were fed into the control calculator. From it came the new periscope bearing, torpedo gyro angle, and time of flight of torpedo to target. On Merten's orders, torpedo tubes Numbers 1 and 2 were flooded, and their bow caps opened. Seeing the freighter deep in the water, Merten set torpedo-running depth to 16 feet. Using impact type detonators, he did not intend the torpedoes to run under the ship, but to strike well below the water line.

With calculations made and set, Merten had only to wait until the cross-wires in his attack periscope centred amidships of his victim. He intended a single shot and hoped for a first hit. A comfortable range of 1200 metres against a slow moving target was reasonably simple, provided all went well. Crouching at his periscope he saw first the blunt old bows come pushing into view, slowly rising and falling, crashing in a welter of foam in the raging sea. Next, following in succession, [he saw] forecastle, well-deck, derricks and bridge superstructure. With the bridge in the cross-wires of his attack periscope graticule, he gave the order: "Fire Number One."  Instantly, a jolt was felt in the boat as the torpedo was launched from its parent tube by compressed air. On leaving the forward tube, the torpedo, over a ton in weight, caused an upward movement of the bow. Quick, controlled flooding made up for the loss in weight and returned stability to the boat. Within seconds of the torpedo launch, a muttered report from the radio cubicle informed the control room that the torpedo was running true. Hydrophone effect used for finding targets also could be used to hear the receding propeller noise from the running torpedo. The navigator, with his clipboard and stopwatch, was standing next to Merten, and timed the torpedo run. A simple calculation of range and speed gave the navigator the time of impact. If time ran out, a quick set-up for the next attack plot could be made. The whole crew were frozen in silence and anticipation during the torpedo run. Travelling at 30 knots, the launched torpedo quickly found its set depth of 16 feet, the efficient hydrostatic keeping it within inches of its setting. Guided by its gyro-controlled system, the rudders, offset by the calculation set prior to firing, guided the torpedo on a course to intercept the path of the target ship at a precise position. Whilst running, the flow of the water over the torpedo warhead turned the small propeller, winding off the safety range (for the safety of the U-boat) and unmasking the firing train of the detonator to its warhead. Once past its safety range, the fully-armed torpedo now sped towards its intended target.

Explosion

At exactly 7.20 p.m. local time, on the wild stormy evening of 17th.March 1942, at the nautical position of 4º North 7º, 44’ West, only a few degrees above the Equator and approximately 18 miles from the coast of Liberia, the confrontation of U68 and ss Allende was enacted with tragic results. Another source, Alan S Pope, in Nov 1996 in a letter to Frank Brookes, puts this at 2153hrs local. The torpedo struck the ss Allende amidships, at the juncture of the Boiler and Engine Room bulkhead, at exactly 16 feet below the water line. With the impact, the primer fired its small charge into the detonator train, which, on exploding, lanced its energy into the 800-lb. warhead. This in sympathy detonated in one colossal explosion against the thin, unarmoured steel-plating of the ship's side. Ever expanding, the gasses of this explosion, with its central core of a thousand or more degrees of heat, blew through the plating like it was paper. Preceding the noise, its catastrophic blast wave tore into the confined spaces of Boiler and Engine room alike, incinerating, blasting, and wrecking everything in its path. Mercifully those killed (which was the whole watch below) were killed instantaneously, saving them from a possible slow death of horrendous burns and scalds from escaping steam and scattered furnaces. The awful energy created by the high explosive still sought a pathway from the wrecked compartments, taking its easiest route. Rivets, plates and a thousand pieces of engine and boilers all blasted skywards, reducing the ventilation shafting and engine room deckhead to a shambles. From the single tall funnel shot a plume of coal dust, smoke and hot gasses 50 feet high, [and] jets of flame shot from the remaining boiler room and engine ventilator trunking in all directions, like giant flame-throwers. Seconds later, not only the tropical downpour hit the stricken ship, but debris rained from the sky, some still hot and smoking.

Young Wilfred never heard the roar of the exploding torpedo. Lying full length, sound asleep on his bunk, which luckily cushioned him from the whiplash effect many felt through the decks and superstructure. Wilfred was propelled vertically upwards with his mattress, his flight being arrested only when hitting the deckhead. Plunging back to the cabin floor, he lay there for several seconds, regaining his reeling senses and paralysed body. The freezing of one's body comes to all, usually followed by adrenaline charged mobility of sheer panic. Most overcome this in seconds, others in minutes. Wilfred being the former, rushed out the wreck of his shared cabin to be confronted by a scene that even his wildest nightmares could not envisage. Presented with an ever-tilting deck, in the pitch dark, intermittently lit by brilliant sheet lightning, Wilf struggled toward his lifeboat station, tightening his lifejacket as he staggered along. Before taking two paces, he was saturated by the cold, heavy downpour, blown at terrifying force by the shrieking wind, [which was] slanting across the deck at a density that was difficult to penetrate. Compounding this horror was added clouds of condensing steam and coal dust, mixed with spent explosives, all combining to give a highly nauseous smell. Below decks, ominous rumbling of shifting cargo and broken machinery gave added impetus to the alarming tilt. Figures appeared from all directions, wraith-like apparitions appearing and disappearing in the steam cloud and darkness. Shrieks and shouts of frightened and hurt men filled the stormy evening. Some semblance [if order] followed the arrival of the captain, officers and bridge watch to the boat deck. Most of the officers had torches, and by their fitful light, Wilfred could see his shipmate and friend, Bill Haynes. Bill, as a junior seaman, as is general in the Merchant Navy, happened to be on the wheel during the second Dog Watch. The First Dog Watch (4 p.m. to 6 p.m.) and the Second Dog Watch (6 p.m. to 8 p.m.) were reserved for bridge watchkeeping instruction for junior seaman. Thus, on detonation of the torpedo, Bill, who was helmsman for the Second Dog Watch, was firmly holding the wheel. The sudden transmission of explosive energy through the steel hull, generated a whip-like shock to the superstructure, which was felt by all, most being flung off their feet with numbed ankles. In Bill's case, both his  ankles and wrists felt as if [they were] broken. Standing there on the boat deck, he was holding his hands in each armpit, trying to relieve the pain. [Added] to this, Bill had received a secondary shock, [because] debris, [having been] flung high by the explosion, had resulted in a large, heavy piece of the main engine plunging through the bridge deckhead and landing, smoking, between him and the Watch Officer.

With the destruction of engine and boiler room, the ship immediately lost way, gradually swinging broadside on to the heaving sea. Luckily, if such a term can be applied, the alarming tilt of the deck was to leeward, so assisting in the launching of the lifeboat. Quickly scrambling into the boat, the Bosun and Second Officer held the falls until the Master had made a quick round of the deck, ensuring that no survivors were abandoned.  Coming back to the lifeboat, a hurried count was made. Added to the jolly boat and raft made nineteen, twelve, and two respectively. With thirty-three souls in the boats and raft and the knowledge of the watch below being five, all dead, the crew were accounted for. Jumping down into the lifeboat, the Second Officer and Bosun let fly the falls, and, pushing off from the heavily listing ship, endeavoured to pull away, keeping to the leeside of the stricken vessel. The captain [was] still aboard, [and] lumbered off to join the survivors clustered in the jolly boat. Wilfred and Bill were sat on the thwarts in the centre of the boat. The horrors of the torpedoing and storm were now compounded by the rapid filling of the boat. Torrential downpour of rain, [along] with the weight of nineteen men and [a] boy, laid the boat heavy and almost unmanageable in the heaving sea. Freeboard was rapidly being lost, and the gunwales were hardly above the level of the sea. The Second Officer in charge of the boat ordered all to bail for their lives, with everything possible. A bucket, trilby hat, and even a fez were used in the frantic effort to lighten the lifeboat. As fast as they bailed, the ingress of water seemed greater in the wallowing darkness. After some minutes, someone in the boat shouted that the ship was not sinking. After some discussion, the Second Officer decided to re-board her to collect buckets for more efficient bailing. Giving the necessary order, they pulled back to the ship.

Korvettenkapitan Merten was slightly annoyed. Cruising around the hard-hit Allende at periscope depth, he observed the ship was not sinking. A tribute to her builders, the Allende, although almost torn apart, refused to sink. Her stout remaining bulkheads and riveted frame held together, giving her the necessary buoyancy to keep afloat. Now wallowing in a trough, then tossed high on the crest of high wave, she refused to sink. Merten realized that a gun action was not possible because the gun crew would hardly survive on the casing of the U-boat's narrow deck in such weather. Another precious torpedo would have to be used. At point blank range, Merten fired his second torpedo, exactly sixteen minutes after his first. If he had waited, or, taken longer in his firing, he would undoubtedly have claimed the lives of all in the lifeboat.

The lifeboats' survivors redoubled their effort under the Second Officer in trying to pull back to the ship. The lifeboat, being waterlogged, was heavy and unmanageable and barely moving. This slowness was their salvation. [They were] still some distance from the ship [when] the second torpedo struck its after-end. An explosion that dwarfed the storm disintegrated the stern. The proximity of the lifeboat to the ship gave most survivors a feeling that their end had come. A bright orange flash that hurt the eyes was quickly followed by a blast of searing heat, that scorched and almost drove the lifeboat under. Again the acrid stench of burnt explosives swept over them. Wilfred in the centre of the lifeboat received less of the blast, being shielded by the bodies of the men around him. Looking back, he saw the Allende sinking by the stern, slowly at first, then rapidly, her blunt bows lifting higher and higher, until [the ship was] almost vertical to the sea, before finally disappearing. Wilfred--in his thirteenth month at sea, [and] thirteen days from their last port of call, Durban--said a sad farewell to his thirteen-year-old ship. Thirteen was certainly an unlucky number. Merten had no need to watch the death throes of the ss Allende. Sound travels through the medium of water faster than air. Merten and crew heard the crashing detonation of the torpedo quickly followed by the screaming and rumbling of rupturing bulkheads, moving cargo and heavy machinery. Her insides torn loose and collapsing under the ever-increasing pressure, Allende plunged to her eternal watery grave in the ocean depths. Merten did not know what ship or what cargo his victim was or carried. Taking a final sweep of his periscope, he decided to surface. Blowing main tanks, he surfaced in a flurry of foam and compressed air. With conning tower hatch opened. Electric motors were shut down and the diesels started, throwing plumes of water in the air from the main exhaust valves, as the boat slowly moved on the surface through the choppy sea. With the watch set on the U-boat's bridge they started a search for survivors. Aided by the lightning flashes they quickly saw the tossing boats. Closing on them, Merten, when in voice range addressed them through a megaphone. The question was standard: What ship, what cargo, what destination, and is the captain alive. All these demands were answered in some garbled form, which seemingly satisfied Merten. On completion Merten turned the U68 away from the survivors, increased speed and moved off into the wild darkness. Jagged shards of lightning silhouetted the sinister U-boat's shape against the inky backdrop of the sky, soon to disappear in the black tumbling seas.

With the U-boat gone the surviving crew turned to their immediate task, that of staying alive. In the darkness and heavy seas the boats and raft soon lost sight of each other. Within the lifeboat, waterlogged, and lying low in the water, the men and Wilfred bailed out with every available and conceivable item that would hold water. With sea anchor spread, the lifeboat's compliment found they were slightly gaining, and, with better buoyancy a higher freeboard was obtained. Now riding the waves better and taking in less water some semblance of order existed. A suggestion to complete the bailing by most going over the side and hanging on the lifelines, whilst a few remained to finish bailing was quickly killed with the Second Mate's reply of these were shark infested waters. Sharks for miles around would have been drawn in from the noise of the underwater explosions. Some minutes later, shouts from the surrounding darkness, and the sudden pinpricks of lights attached to the lifejackets indicated someone was near. Rowing towards the sounds and winking lights, the lifeboat survivors made out the two men who had tied themselves to the raft. Securing the raft with a length of rope the two men transferred to the lifeboat. Now twenty men and one boy were in the lifeboat, facing all the perils of an open boat in an angry sea. All night they drifted, bailing continuously and keeping a lookout for the jolly boat and remainder of the crew. 

With the passing of the electric storm, its departure abrupt as its coming, the sea began easing off into long, high ocean swells. From the crest of the larger could be seen the coast, inhospitable and dark lay the coast of Liberia some 15 miles away. With dawn came light, and at first the welcome warmth of a new day. Having now bailed the boat comparatively dry the survivors under the direction of the Second Officer stepped the mast and raised the single sail. Wind and drift drove them sadly, in a southerly direction. With the sun rising ever higher from the eastern sky, so accordingly did the temperature. By noon the heat was almost unbearable, covering themselves with their meagre possessions, they crouched and sweated under the unrelenting sun. Another crisis now reared its ugly head, the emergency rations packed in watertight bags had all gone over the side during the first panic of foundering in the storm. Worse was to come, the water held in a container jammed beneath the thwarts was found to be leaking and contaminated with sea water, the only remaining water being the small metal cask lashed to the raft. Small measures were dished out supervised by the Second Officer. 3:00 p.m. that afternoon once again the dark low-lying coast was visible, but by nightfall they were still unable to reach the coast. Another miserable night was spent in the overcrowded lifeboat. The following morning with a change in wind and spending some hours at the heavy, unwieldy oars, they approached the coast. Miles before they reached it the air changed to a heavy, dank, rotting wood smell typical of the mangrove swamp. This smell of primeval forest pervades the atmosphere along this coastline for a thousand miles, or more.

As the huge Atlantic rollers surge in towards the African coast, although hardly felt or noticed in an open sea, when hitting a shelving beach they begin building up. Gaining height and shortening in length, ever accelerating, they finally hit the beach like miniature tidal waves, superb for the expert surf rider but not compatible to the riding in an ungainly, strongly built, heavy lifeboat. Approaching the coast in the late afternoon of the second day, the lifeboat became livelier, the Second Officer finding difficulty to steer and keep the bows on to the beach, he could see and hear the heavy surf breaking on the beach with the ominous roar of a thousand guns. A decision was taken to beach the boat by the method of waiting for the passing of an huge roller, then rowing as fast as possible behind it so retaining control until safe on the beach. Unfortunately the weight of 21 beings and the heavy craft was much too slow and ungainly. Still some distance from the beach, the next incoming wave hit the stern and propelled them at ever increasing speed towards the beach. The stern, ever rising with the lifting wave, pushed the bows deeper into the frothing sea, [and] within seconds control of the lifeboat was lost. Now completely out of control the boat turned broadside to the wave and immediately filling turned over and sank, depositing its contents in all directions.  Luckily all were wearing their lifebelts. Incredibly all were cast up on the beach--coughing, retching and spluttering--despite the deadly undertow. Gathering together in a bedraggled group, the Second Officer counted them off, being somewhat surprised to find all present. Young Wilfred being an excellent swimmer had been one of the first ashore and least affected. Standing there in only trousers, remnants of shirt and lifebelt, shifting his bare feet in the burning sands, he sought out his friend Bill. Thankful now they were comparatively safe on dry land, the next priority was water followed by food. Water was imperative in importance in this furnace-like heat of an unshaded, equatorial beach. The thin, narrow beach of fine brown sand stretched away in both directions for hundreds of miles, with the ocean bordering one side and the thick, verdant rain forest to the other.  Holding a brief council, the decision was reached to keep to the beach and walk in the direction with the sea to their left, in this they hoped they were heading deeper into neutral territory. Having been torpedoed off the Liberian coast, they sincerely hoped they were travelling deeper into Liberia. After walking for a short time, many were suffering from swelling and abrasions to their feet. Pausing for a welcome rest, sitting beneath a Palm tree fringing the beach, Wilf with others cut and ripped up the bottoms of their trousers to wrap their throbbing feet.

Onward went the intrepid, ragged little band, when, after some seven miles they sighted smoke, closing with it they soon sighted a native fishing village. On entering they were greeted by the headman and village elders. Using sign language and halting French they found to their mortification they had landed in French Equatorial Africa, namely French Guinea to be exact. Unknowingly, the tide and winds had carried them only a matter of a few miles south, past the border with Liberia. The headman supplying them with much welcome water, then setting them a large meal, to the natives a banquet. Having never seen so many white men in their lives this was an event unsurpassed in their village history, and probably spoken about now sixty years later.  The meal consisted of chicken, yams, plantains and rice, unfortunately all cooked and swimming in Palm oil, almost inedible to most. Further sign language produced more vegetables which they cooked themselves. Whilst the meal was in progress, the headman sent off a runner to the nearest town to inform the authorities of his sudden guests.  Later that evening, an old French government official arrived accompanied by some native gendarmes. The old Frenchman informed them they were the first Englishmen he had seen or spoken to since 1910, having spent most of his adult life in the colonial service. Further, they were to accompany him to the main town of that area, but a short distance away. Arriving at the town of Tabou the following day they were placed in semi-confinement, but told they would soon be released. Being so poorly dressed, each was issued with shirt, trousers and sandals. On the fourth day of their semi-confinement, the jolly boat survivors turned up. A joyful reunion was enacted, now all thirty-three of the crew were together. Later that same day, a French Navy sloop anchored off Tabou, sending an armed party ashore they quickly and not too gently rounded up the survivors and took them on board.

Prisoners

Keeping them under armed guard on deck the sloop weighed anchor and was soon steaming down the coast. Six hours later the sloop entered the mouth of the River Sassandra and was soon alongside the jetty there. Marched down the gangway they were transferred to an army guard and placed in a secure compound within the confines of Sassandra Town.  The once cheerful attitude of the crew saw some deterioration with the general surly, and openly hostile French. French authority within this colony of French Guinea was Vichy French. Not openly at war with the Allies, but very pro-German and violently anti-British. This attitude was well portrayed in their treatment of, theoretically, non-combatant Merchant Seamen.

Some clarification of the short, inglorious history of Vichy France is required to realize the reason for the treatment meted out to the British Seamen. With the fall of France to the then victorious Nazi armed forces, in mid 1940 Marshal Petain former hero of Verdun, on the 11th July of that year assumed supreme power in defeated France. The new government under Petain, as president, and Laval as premier, formed its administration centred on the city of Vichy, in southern, or, as called in the war years Unoccupied France. Completely under the control politically and physically, they were mere a rubber stamp for Hitler's 'New Order' of Occupied Europe. Another faction the 'Free French', fighting under their political leader General De-Gaulle fought, when the occasion demanded with the Allies.  These two factions, Vichy and Free French, pro-German or pro-Allies was the complex problem set before all governors of the French Colonies. On the 26th August 1940, Chad, Cameroon and part of Equatorial Africa joined the Free French faction; the others accepted Petain's government. Doubly unfortunate the luckless survivors had landed, first only six to seven miles from Liberia, secondly on Vichy controlled soil namely the Ivory Coast Colony. The French authorities in the colony were in an embarrassing position. Ivory Coast, like other surrounding colonies being Vichy, were holding British citizens classified as non-combatants, and refusing them repatriation, or, initially even informing British or friendly authorities of the seaman being alive. This withholding of information of their survival caused undue agonies to the families of these men and boy. Wilfred's mother applied almost daily to the Red Cross and the ship's agent at Morel's, Cardiff for news. Living in dread that he was missing, believed drowned. In war this was as much as one was ever told. Still agonising what to do with the prisoners, one can assume the French authorities carried out a system used by all bureaucracies, 'Pass the Buck', in other words pass them on to another authority. This policy seemed to be adopted thus causing most of their captivity to be spent in seemingly aimless travel through huge West African possessions, many times the size of Europe. Now sitting or wandering around in their cramped compound, they waited to know their eventual fate.

After a few days they were ordered to collect their meagre belongings and then marched out of the compound gate to awaiting lorries. Once loaded with their human freight, the small convoy moved off. Moving slowly through the town under the inquisitive gaze of the local natives they soon cleared the township of Sassandra. The first few miles of road paralleled the Sassandra River with unchanging scenery of long stretches of sandy soils interspersed with long, course grass and low lying thorn bush. Crossing the river some ten miles upstream from the town, the groaning trucks headed inland. After some hours of uncomfortable travel in the bare backs of these ancient military lorries under armed guard, mainly native, they reached the rain forest. The equatorial rain forest of West Africa, primeval in content, extends for hundreds of miles inland: Similar to its counterpart in Brazil. An area almost untrodden by man, consisting mainly of hardwood and softwood trees, growing in an almost impenetrable screen, each vying with one another for the life-giving sun. Some, many hundreds of years old and huge in size with their branches interlocked cast a perpetual gloom to the forest floor.  Beneath this canopy, engines snorting and whining the little convoy struggled on, keeping to the winding dirt road that scythed through the trees and undergrowth. With headlights almost constantly on day or night the survivors suffered severely from the hothouse conditions. Trapped by the leafy canopy, the almost airless, humid temperature was almost unbearable. Sweating profusely, almost all delirious with the heat, they clung on grimly to the lorries.  After the second day the forest noticeably thinned. Soon native habitation was sighted both sides of the road at ever increasing intervals, the land they now passed through was of low, rolling hills partially cultivated but mainly of tall coarse grass with scattered and stunted Acacia trees, Depressing and monotonous this scenery remained with them for the next three days. Twice a day they stopped to eat, the food supplied was native, in the morning half boiled rice with a shred of meat, in the evening watery soup with a coarse black bread, all served up in a communal pot into which they and their guards fed themselves by the simple expedient of using fingers, some none too clean.  Portent of things to come was signified by an outbreak of dysentery a well-known scourge of the tropics. This disease affecting one’s stomach and hence one's bowels needs little imagination to realize the suffering of one tossed hour after hour in an unsprung military truck. With armed guards under the command of an uncaring white, French sergeant to relieve oneself from a moving lorry was no mean feat. Security was lax, in his halting English the French sergeant explained the guard was provided not to much to stop escape, but to keep off marauding native lawless bands who would kill for the clothes they wore. Within this huge, sprawling French Equatorial Empire policing was very thin on the ground, leaving vast areas where law and order was almost unheard of.

At the end of their third day of travel they reached a large town. Passing through its outskirts the crew saw the road sign: Daloa. Unknown to them, having no maps or reference, they had reached the main town of West Central Ivory Coast, chiefly a collecting point for the forest region products of cocoa, kola nuts and timber.  Since 1903, it had become a French military post. Now showing signs of crumbling decay, a rapid, and seemingly natural process in the tropics, [the town  was] populated mainly by the Bete and Guro tribes. Many of these, along with a few inquisitive French civilians, flocked to the barracks to see the newly-incarcerated white prisoners.  Once again they were fed native-style, one bowl to four or five persons, and they ate using their hands. Knives, forks and spoons were never issued, although cheap enough to supply. Hygiene almost unknown to the native was never a forte of Colonial France. Now after some weeks in captivity, almost all were suffering in some degree or other from Bacillary Dysentery. 

On the morning of their second day of imprisonment in the filthy barrack-room of Daloa's military post, the door was flung open by a guard to admit a white-coated doctor. A brief medical inspection ensured, [but] no words were spoken or exchanged; it ended with the issue of several white pills to everyone and a speedy departure of the doctor. Within minutes, a French officer appeared to inform them they were all fit to travel and [to] make ready to move. That afternoon, they boarded the same lorries, and, under the same guards, rumbled off through the dirty streets of Daloa, now empty in the enervating heat of the mid-day sun, bound for they knew not where.  With frequent stops for the sick, the caravan of lorries wended slowly, but ever moving farther into, and deeper, the African Continent. The monotony of the undulating Savannah gave one the feeling they were hardly moving. To this, their poor health and repetitive diet gave scope to a general feeling of melancholia, often felt by captives in such circumstances. The blasting, oppressive heat of the day drove all for cover under their makeshift sheets or blankets in the open trucks.

A welcome relief from the monotony was provided by the crossing, by ferry, of the Bandama River some 300 miles from Daloa. At the end of the second day of leaving Daloa, the township of Bouake was reached. Bouake as much the same as a thousand other African townships, had one outstanding quality, a railway terminus! On arrival at Bouake, the prisoners were driven straight to the small, dusty railway station and swiftly transferred to awaiting railway trucks normally reserved for natives. Within the hour, a small old-fashioned steam engine was connected up and was fussily steaming out of the town over its metre-gauge tracks. The trucks, although filthy and uncomfortable, were a welcome relief from the swaying and bumping of the open, unsprung lorries. For two days and nights, they remained on the train, ever travelling north westerly, but in more comfort than their previous mode of transport. One could lie and even stretch, remaining comparatively dry from the daily downpour.  On the third morning, the little train puffed its way into the first major town since leaving Bouake. Gradually slowing, it clanked its way to a stop at its rail end. Peering through the slats and narrow glassless windows, they saw the station board proudly announcing Bobo Dioulasso. Detraining, they were mustered alongside the train, counted off, and handed over to a new guard, similar in size as the old, who, promptly on receipt of exchange, entrained for return to their parent unit. Standing with their few belongings, none too clean from lack of water, exuding the cloying stench prominent in all dysentery sufferers, the Allende crew presented a sorry sight. No pity, aid, or affection, was shown to them by the few white soldiers and civilians present [and] with their curiosity satisfied, they moved off without a word. After mustering, they were marched off, once again to the ever-present military barrack [that was] part of every French colonial town of any size.

Again they were visited by a military doctor who informed them they were now in the colony of Upper Volta, and now under a new administration. Like the colony of French Guinea, the Upper Volta administrators wanted to rid themselves of British non-combatant prisoners. Likewise, they were all pronounced fit for travel after another mockery of a medical examination.  On completion of the examination and with undue haste, the captive seamen were again marched out, some assisting others through the barrack gate and to awaiting lorries. This time, many required help in getting over the tailgates. Off again, hanging grimly on, similar in type to the previous lorries, poorly sprung, noisy, issuing clouds of noisome exhaust fumes, which tended to lessen their fly torment. A change in direction was now obvious to the mariners: for some hours they were travelling always due east. To converse with the guards was useless, not even they knew their eventual destination, happy to go along with their French superiors, their childlike confidence enough for their undeveloped mental capacities.  Late on the first evening on leaving Bobo Dioulasso, they reached another large town. The fittest and more inquisitive stood up in the lorries in hope of reading any road signs. Soon they passed a road sign denoting the township of Sikasso. Stopping outside the main buildings, they disembarked and were locked up for the night in the town's jail compound, fed and told to rest until daybreak. Not knowing, they were now within the region of Sikasso, part of Southern French Sudan. They had now entered their third colony of the French African Empire. Some mention of the size of French Sudan (now Mali) must be made to give some indication of the distances travelled. French Sudan has been calculated to be 31 times the size of Switzerland, adding the other colonies surrounding French Sudan, some the size of major European countries, some idea of size can be grasped.  At daybreak they were fed again the same eternal meal of half-cooked rice and black bread. Having finished their meal and before the general daily rising of the townspeople, they were led, some half carried, to their waiting lorries. Within minutes, they had cleared the town still moving in a westerly direction. Moving once more through the Savannah-like countryside, now abounding in wildlife, whose proximity to the small caravan of lorries offered some break in the monotony. They spent their days in adapting themselves to the most comfortable position possible in the bouncing, swaying trucks.

An indication of their endless journey can best be illustrated in their routine for one day's travel: Starting at daybreak, after a meal of rice and bread washed down by weak coffee, they boarded their respective trucks; using the filled rice sacks, they positioned them for their own comfort. The first hours were the best of the day being reasonably cool and dry, the tropical sun only beginning to bite around 10 am. Rigging awnings and using their own ragged clothing, they sought some shade from the relentless sun. Late afternoon produced a build up of heavy, fetid heat and high humidity which although distressing was soon replaced by a bigger discomfort. The heavy diurnal (daily) rainstorm accompanied by thunder and sheet lightning descended upon them. Within minutes the lorries were flooded. The huge raindrops cold from rapid descent from great heights, blanked out visibility, stopping the lorries and leaving its human contents shivering in abject misery beneath their makeshift awnings. Collapsing awnings created a miniature Niagara over the tailgate. Luckily of short duration the storm passes and within the hour the heat and humidity returns rapidly drying them and their scraps of clothing. On the passing of the rainstorm, once again the lorries move off if the road is passable; if not, a wait of some hour or so sufficed in this terrific heat to dry the track. Sometimes the lorries would bog down or leave the dirt road, requiring the occupants to exit the lorries and help push or pull them back to firmer terrain. This part of an almost daily routine, once welcome for the working of cramped muscle, was now a form of torture to weak, ill men. Late evening the welcome stop was made for the night. Fires were lit and they cooked their own rice, the hard black bread being supplied by the guards. After their frugal meal, some time was spent sat around their fires before retiring to sleep in their lorries. No guard was set for them [because] guarding them was of no importance; escape into the wilderness was death itself. Principally the guard, when set, was to ward off wild, dangerous animals and murderous bands of natives. All of French West Africa suffered from these brigands. Many unwary people travelling alone, or in small unarmed groups, had been killed by them.  So with troubled sleep so ended a ‘normal day’ of their travel. An addition to this ‘normal day', one must realize the needs of dysentery sufferers and other tropical diseases, now, symptoms accelerating in the torrid heat, gave further alarm, pain and suffering to the crew members.

On their third day of leaving Bobo Dioulasso they crossed another large river. Brown and sluggish in appearance, the Volta Noire, one of the main rivers of the same named region was crossed by ferry without mishap. Travelling swiftly, within hours they reached the outskirts of the biggest township they had so far seen. Signs along the roadside way indicated they had reached Bamako. Unknown to the captive crew they were entering the chief town of the district similarly named within the colony of French Sudan. Occupied since 1880 and becoming capital town of French Sudan, Bamako extended some miles both sides of a huge, slow flowing river, of which they soon found to be the massive, and well-known Niger. Bamako although the premier town of French Sudan, was similar in appearance and smell as all the other towns they had passed through, the only difference being in size.  On entry they were assailed by the usual smells of open drains and rotting garbage. The garbage lying in huge rotting mounds gave off an overpowering smell, only equalled by the open town's sewage system. In this year of 1942, less than one in ten houses, including government buildings were attached to the crumbling, colonial sewage system emptying itself into the Niger.

     Passing down its dusty, tree lined main street, the little convoy quickly drove through the market place, less than half-filled at this time of day, most market dwellers paying scant attention to the military transport. Passing through the market place, they observed its high enclosing walls and pink turrets, its design resembling a Medieval or French Foreign Legion fort. Closer inspection revealed time and lack of maintenance made one wonder how it was still standing. The captain, officers and crew now thought they had reached journey's end. Since the sinking of their ship, they had been almost continually on the move for two months, travelling hundreds of miles by lorry, train and foot, in one of the world's worst climates. Now through lack of food, ill health, hammered by a relentless sun and torrential rains, they were worn out, Walking, stumbling, and physically carrying some of their more supine comrades, the fittest helping the ill into their fourth native barracks, like all previous, filthy, damp, dark and alive with fleas and insects.  At each barrack or jail the captain and officers requested an interview with any senior French officer or administrator; none came. Further entreaties were made for variation in diet, the regions they had passed through abounded in fresh meat, tropical fruits and vegetables, none was forthcoming. The refusal of cheap and plentiful supplies of this nature left the captain and crew with the nagging and frightening conclusion that the French authorities were hoping they would 'disappear' or die, hopefully whilst travelling between colonies relieving them of responsibility. Their hopes now centred on the investigations of the Red Cross. The Red Cross, efficient in time of war, seemed mainly designed in accordance with the Geneva Convention for the fighting services. The Merchant Marine classified derisively as Non- Combatants actually saw more 'front line' fighting in a continuous on going fighting than any of the Armed Services.

Some days after the sinking of the ss Allende a telegram arrived at the house of the parents of Wilfred. Dressed in his dark blue serge uniform with pillbox hat and pouched leather belt, the telegram boy knocked at the door. The telegram boy in wartime had become a figure of ultimate importance, far exceeding any other person in town or village. It was the practice of other children, on seeing the boy on his distinctive red bicycle, to follow him to his house of delivery, then run home to tell one's parents. In wartime, the contents of a telegram had only two meanings. Those few typed and pasted words covered the whole spectrum of human feeling: Utterly inexpressible joy, or, devastating grief.  Answering the knock on the door, Mrs. Williams, seeing the telegram, froze. In abject terror she received the proffered, small buff envelope. This was the second telegram in as many months, the first informing her that her nephew, Jack Gamboll, a regular Royal Navy Acting Petty Officer serving in the Submarine P33, had been lost with all its crew, believed sunk off Italy in an unknown minefield. Jack who was treated as a son having lost his mother (Mrs. Williams’s sister} in childhood, presented a loss to the Williams family similar to loosing a son.  Mrs. Williams, still suffering and mourning Jack's memory, now held a second telegram in her quivering hands. Waiting patiently for a possible reply, the telegram boy, now used to such behaviour, watched Mrs. Williams slowly open the envelope, her reaction spelling the text of the telegram. With no reply, the boy stole quietly away. Sitting at the kitchen table, the telegram held in both hands, she read it once again, the shock and grief making it almost unintelligible. The blurred words were as follows:

Morel's Ltd., of Cardiff has been informed by the Lordship's of the Admiralty, that the SS Allende of that company had been sunk by enemy action off the West African coast.
NO KNOWLEDGE OF SURVIVORS HAD BEEN RECEIVED TO DATE.

Collapsing over the table, grief overwhelming, Mrs. Williams gave in to tears of despair. The arrival of the telegram, having been noted by the neighbours, resulted in Mrs. Hall from next door coming round. On seeing Mrs. Williams’s condition, she offered some comfort and immediately had Mr. Williams, now a Ministry of Defence policeman, informed at his work at the local munitions factory.  Coming home immediately, Wilfred's father arrived coincidentally at the same time as the younger boys, Luther and Kenneth, from school. White and drawn, Wilfred's father, a veteran himself of the First War, twice wounded and having faced death a hundred times in the trenches, comforted the family in the knowledge that no deaths had been specified, and they could only wait and hope.  Access to information could only be obtained from two sources concerning Merchant Seamen lost or taken prisoner. Firstly the Red Cross, secondly the Shipping Line to which the ship belonged. Both sources were now constantly bombarded with letters and phone calls from Mrs. Williams requesting information.

Some months later another telegram arrived with all its mental trauma. With joy, this revealed that the Red Cross had received information that, on the sinking of the ss Allende, five of the engine and boiler crew had been killed, and the rest had been taken into captivity in Vichy-held territory within the French West African Colonies. With a mixed joy for her eldest son and grief for the families of those killed, Mrs. Williams, having obtained a list of the crew's addresses, wrote to every member's family, to those killed in sympathy and to the rest to pool any other information, also writing constantly to the Red Cross. Three sometimes four times a week she wrote, but month followed month with no added information. The Red Cross never received any signals other than they believed they were alive but not in receipt of Red Cross aid or treatment. So the torment of uncertainty was inflicted on Wilfred's family and the families and loved ones of the crew. Not knowing whether alive or dead, day followed day, and weeks then months passed. The agony and misery, like some malignant disease seemed eternal. Vichy French attitude to the prisoners was equalled only by the Japanese treatment meted out to theirs.

Lying now in their filthy barracks building, fitfully sleeping on the hard native mattresses supplied, incessantly tossing and turning, scratching countless insect and fleabites attracted by their body warmth they passed through the night. Daybreak brought the guards and their tasteless meal. A difference followed their general routine adopted so far; instead of a medical they were led out of the derelict building and led down to the river's edge. Passing over a rickety wooden pier, they embarked into a small flotilla of native canoes. These canoes, better known as pirogues, unbeknown to them were to be their transport and homes for the next eleven to twelve days. Their travel was to take them up one of the largest, but least known rivers in Central Africa, the River Niger.  The Niger, third largest [river], being only inferior to the Nile and Congo in all Africa, rises within 150 miles of the sea in the mountainous regions on the North West borders of Sierra Leone and French Guinea. It flows through the interior in a vast curve. Firstly flowing northeast, then east, eventually turning southeast, finally entering the Gulf of Guinea through an immense delta: Its total length being some 2,600 miles. From its mouth to its limits of navigation from the sea, Niger was in British territory; above that point it flows through French territory.  Bundled into their waiting canoes, clutching their meagre belongings, the captives departed Bamako in first light, their departure witnessed by some beggars awakened from their sleep on the muddy riverbank. At this point, the Niger presents itself in all its majesty. Slow flowing, over 6 feet in depth and 1,300 feet in width, it provides the water and method of transportation for most of French West Africa, winding and curling like some gigantic python. Some comfort was gained by the small group of native craft, in that they moved slowly, paddling and poling when in shallows, always moving with the sluggish current as the ‘dry season’ which was about to end provided them with some ease. Some two months later in late May and early June the rains became continuous, bringing with it, insufferable heat and every conceivable disease prevalent in Equatorial Africa. Some 150 years previous, Mungo Park, a famous Scottish explorer, with some 43 European soldiers and fellow travellers had left the same town of Bamako. Travelling downstream on a mission of discovery, sailing in exactly the same type of rudely constructed native pirogues as the Allende’s crew, they were caught by the rains. Within two to three weeks, 40 of them were dead. Dying of diseases and fevers, some from apoplexy (thus recorded) brought on by the stultifying heat and humidity. Temperatures recorded by Parke at times were 120-135 degrees Fahrenheit.  The comfort of smooth journey was negated by the cramped conditions and appalling heat they suffered in the open, narrow canoes. Almost all, after some days, exercised their limbs when possible, by walking on the low river mud banks. Almost all wearing broken shoes or sandals unknowingly were subject to the immediate attack by the jigger flea.

On the third morning of river travel they reached the rapids of Tulimandio. Passing swiftly, and alarmingly through them, the high rocky banks with large granite outcrops opened out once more to low lying banks giving a vista of complete flatlands to the distant horizon, broken only by the occasional low-spreading Acacia tree. Heavily populated, much cultivation was in evidence. As they progressed these populated areas, many natives followed them for miles down the riverbanks, offering every conceivable item for sale. Unfortunately with no money and entirely ignored by the guards, they paddled on.  The morning of the fourth day, they reached the town of Segu. Segu like most towns on the Niger lay sprawled on both banks. Little change since Mungo Parke's a century or more earlier. Originally a Moorish slave trading centre, it now consisted mainly of clay, whitewashed houses, clustered around narrow streets and overshadowed by the inevitable Mosque. Without landing and with a change of native paddlers, they quickly proceeded on. For some hundreds of miles they slowly ventured on, passing, again without pausing, the small townships of Sansandig and Silla. Unchanging, the scenery was tiresome in its continuity of low banks and flatlands and occasionally broken by the herds of hippopotami and basking crocodiles, both given a wide berth by the paddlers and guards. The seventh day since leaving Bamako saw them enter the river township of Mopti. Situated at the junction of the main stream of the Niger, and, its breaking off into its several branches to pass for several hundreds of miles through a malarial, swampy, treeless region, possibly one of the most unhealthy, disease ridden areas of the tropics. Within its labyrinth of lakes, its largest lake Faguibini - 70 miles in length, 12 miles in breadth, and, at the height of the rainy season 160 feet deep - exists creeks, stagnant pools and stinking backwaters. Now being late April, the rains had not yet arrived, giving comfort and even life to the captive crew.

At Mopti, young Wilfred, assisted by his friend Bill, staggered ashore. Sitting on the mudflats, mindful of Chiggers, Wilfred noticed an occurrence he had seen several times before whilst descending the Niger. Into his view came a young Negro, similar in age to Wilfred, leading a chain of eight or more natives, all with their right or left hand alternately holding a loop in a length of rope. Its leading end [was] held by the boy, who, as he walked, chanted incessantly to the men stumbling on behind, not unlike a coffle of slaves being led to market. Having witnessed this scene before, sometimes with rope, other times a long stick. Wilfred with some difficulty asked a native guard, who or what were they? Pointing to the river then his eyes, he graphically explained the reason: River Blindness. (See base note) Within, and almost its whole length the Niger contained a parasitic worm, which, almost unique to this area, is carried by flies, breeding in the river and its tributaries, has caused an endemic, crippling disease, which, in some villages more than half its inhabitants are effected.  Millions of people in the region suffer from River Blindness, a horrifying and shocking disease, slow but inevitable. The parasitic worms burrow beneath the skin, laying their eggs which are carried by the blood stream eventually enter and grow behind the living eye. A tremor of apprehension felt by Wilfred and Bill was swiftly transmitted to their compatriots who now viewed every fly with mortal terror.

This region of Marcina, with its huge unhealthy marshlands, alive with Malaria and Blackwater Fever, being but two of the many killers, extend through the middle course of the Niger, forming channels and meandering waterways, causing a vast inland delta as large as Wales. Traversing this wild swampy marshland as quick as possible, even cooking their rice on board, their canoes paddled and poled onwards. Moving with the sluggish current their Fulani paddlers [were] only too happy to work hard to leave this God-Forsaken country behind.  Other diseases and tropical fevers were beginning to surface among the crew. Lack of mosquito netting, coupled to dietary and hygiene problems, left them weak and receptive to all ailments. Continuously bit by winged and other insects, some were beginning to signs of fever. Certain symptoms [like] hot sweating followed by extreme prostration was symptomatic of malaria, probably caught in the rainforests of French Guinea. Others were suffering from a form of tape worm found throughout Central Africa, caught usually by eating half-cooked food (mainly rice). The worm lived and grew at a phenomenal rate within the stomach, removing the goodness of the ingested food [and]  giving immediate symptoms of loss of weight and a constant hunger. A native emetic was administered, vile, horribly smelling, and guaranteed to make one vomit. Wilfred, a growing boy of sixteen, needing a wholesome diet to fuel his ever-growing frame, was much affected by the heat, lack of food and medical care. Through a never-changing diet, week after week, he was beginning to show the classic effects of pellagra, dietetic in origin [and] due mainly to vitamin B deficiency. The withholding of fresh meat, eggs, milk and fats, to which the body was conditioned, was having its effect. Its symptoms--dry tongue, pain when swallowing, and slight disorder of vision--was now being produced in the younger members, Both Wilfred and friend Bill were suffering in some degree these insidious symptoms.

On the evening of the eleventh day, they reached the river port of Kabara. After eleven days and nights of never-ending nightmarish travel in crude, open native pirogues, Wilfred and the remaining crew reached the upper-northern reaches of the Niger. At this bend of the Niger, where it flows eastwards before bearing south to eventually empty itself into the South Atlantic, lays the river settlement of Kabara. Kabara is the primary place of disembarkation from river traffic bound for Timbuktu. Lying on the muddy riverbanks, a mere huddle of low, mud brick buildings, it serves as a river port for Timbuktu a mere few miles away.

Now standing in a little, bedraggled, forlorn group, [they felt] the heat of the sun-baked mud flats through the soles of their broken shoes and sandals. The most seriously ill were laid gently down. [They used] what scraps of rags they could spare, covering themselves from the relentless Saharan sun. The ever-curious multitude of local natives were kept, by the guards, at a distance, which ensured speech or touch was not possible.   After a brief time, the Guard Commander, who undoubtedly had been enjoying his lunch in the town, appeared. With customary French efficiency, of shouts and blows with much swearing at the native soldiery, he formed the survivors up into some semblance of order for the march to Timbuktu. If Timbuktu had been more distant than a few miles, some of the seamen could well have died. The Lascar seamen, mainly stokers and trimmers, were beginning to lapse into a state of abject melancholia, accelerated by their physical condition, [and] they were giving up the will to live. Wilfred [was] now finding difficulty to walk [but] never lost his spirit to live out this nightmare. Aided by Bill, he struggled and shambled along with the rest. Weak and unused to standing, not [sic] alone walking, eleven days of crouching and sitting in cramped dugout canoes had left its mark.  With many stops for rest, they eventually passed through the crumbling town of Kabara. Clearing Kabara, they now entered a thick forest of low stunted and prickly scrub, impenetrable in its thickness. (This forest only fifty years later has entirely disappeared; only sand dunes exist now.) Passing slowly through this forest with even more frequent stops to revive their exhaustion, the guards grew increasingly worried. Even at mid-day the forest floor was dark and uninviting. The guards tried to quicken the pace; this short distance between Kabara and Timbuktu was bandit infested and the forest provided perfect ambush at any time. Even the guards feared this area. Their slowness, due to the prisoners' condition, caused some apprehension in that they may be caught by nightfall still some distance from Timbuktu. With trepidation and well-founded terror, the guards even physically helped the most incumbent along.

Towards evening, the forest edge was reached, and with apparent relief, the guards led their small caravan of scarecrow-like prisoners into the outskirts of Timbuktu. Entering the narrow alleyways and dirty streets, they passed firstly the mud brick hovels, [their] windows and doors heavily barred and barricaded. Often it seemed that these living on the outskirts suffered often from the hit and run raids of the dreaded Tuareg and their Negro helpers, who, after murder and pillage disappeared into the forest or the vast wastes of the Sahara. Advancing farther into the town, the dirt roads progressively widened with larger and better built houses, man-fitted with large front doors of incredible thickness, often carved and heavily studded with metal. Closer examination revealed the carving denoted some long past battle between Tuareg and Negro Kingdom, through the chequered history of Timbuktu. Like campaign medals of a modern age, these doors told the passer-by the wars or actions its original owner had partaken in. (These doors have become world renowned, many are worth much more than the house itself!). Onwards they struggled in the thickening gloom, passing down darkening alleys, wary of the open sewers, whose presence the smell gave warning of proximity sooner than sight.

Eventually they reached an area surrounded by barbed wire containing several mouldering mud brick huts. Through a heavily wired gate, entry was gained by the exhausted crew. Completely spent, some collapsed on the ground spending the whole night there, others staggered into the dark, dismal huts, windowless and stifling in the evening heat, only to find them infested with fleas, cockroaches and a myriad of other creeping crawling insects all intent on feeding off their new occupants. Uncaring through weariness in its extreme, they collapsed on the native beds provided, unsprung, unyielding and themselves uncaring. With daybreak those able and inquisitive enough rose and surveyed their new surroundings. Daylight revealed the depressing sight of a totally enclosed, heavily barbed wired, earth floored compound, within which a few dilapidated buildings represented their frugal living quarters. Outside their compound similar single storey hovels, some in even a worse state of repair lay huddled in little haphazard groups separated by narrow evil smelling alleys and garbage filled paths. The flat, brown vista [was] only broken by the remnants of an old Mosque, like some anthill, worn by the winds of time. To the prisoners it was now visibly obvious that their prison lay well within the poorer native section of Timbuktu. Rising early, seeking same small comfort from the cool of daybreak, their silence only broken by the call to pray of the Mezzuin atop the Mosque's minaret, the captives gained stock of their new confinement. Dressed now in rags, many having torn up their mattress covers converting them to crude skirts, worn to give cover to [=from] the burning sun, they sat around in the stifling, airless, desiccating heat of another day. Twice a day without fail, two huge bowls--one of rice [and] the other of weak soup with the inevitable black bread--were pushed into the compound, into which they plunged their hands and fed themselves native fashion.  Sixty-three days they remained in this hellhole, uncared for, unwanted and treated with complete indifference by the French authorities. By the second week most were lying down all day, conserving energy needed only for rising to their next meal. Sitting or lying in the shade when possible, with remnants of rags around their faces and exposed limbs, they desperately awaited the end of another day to the incinerating sun.  No cooling comfort came with the wind. When the unwelcome wind blew from the desert, it arrived like some furnace blast, drying every pore, and in seconds converting the mouth and lips to a dry swelling irritation, demanding instant relief found only in the brackish, bitter, sandy unfiltered water which grudgingly they were supplied. Seeking some shelter from the burning wind, they tottered into their mud hovels, flinging themselves down of their straw bundles, swooning with the intolerable airless heat within. After some two or more weeks living in these conditions, a parallel could be drawn to the French prisoners incarcerated in the infamous prison colony of French Guiana. Again situated in the tropics [and] suffering similar diseases, but probably fed better and at least under a penal institution, these French prisoners were hardly ever expected to live their sentence out. Undoubtedly the French wanted the crew to die.

They began to die. At the beginning of the fourth week of incarceration in Timbuktu, fevers compounded by dysentery and other unwelcome diseases had brought many of the crew to a new low. The Captain's entreaties for even the most basic medical treatment were now answered by a brief visit of a French military doctor. Entering the compound, the white-coated doctor, escorted by an armed NCO, gave a swift medical examination to the crew.  On his orders, one of the survivors--the worst ill--was removed from the compound and taken away. Their joy in receiving medical treatment was soon dampened; by nightfall of that day the Captain was tersely informed that the man taken away to the ‘hospital’ had died. A request by the Captain for a Christian burial in a predominantly Moslem country and town was granted. Buried the following day his shipmates, who could walk or stand, attended the funeral. Gathered in a forlorn, ragged little group around the open, wind swept graveside; they lowered their shipmate to his eternal rest within the barren soil of Timbuktu. Reading a short service the bare-headed Captain and crew were then hastily removed from the tiny Christian cemetery and unceremoniously bundled back to their compound.

After some two or more weeks, another crew member had reached crisis point. Weakened by continual neglect and lack of food, exacerbated by unknown fever he was rapidly reaching death's door. Again the Captain requested the doctor. Once again the doctor duly arrived, once again with an armed escort, and like before ordered the sick man to the ‘hospital’, a hospital that no crew member had ever seen. That night, as before, the Captain was informed the man had died. On both these occasions, although requested by the Captain, neither he nor an officer was allowed to accompany the sick men. The following day, once again a crew member was buried alongside his shipmate: Both laid to rest over 1000 miles from the sea and many more from home; both of the Christian faith - simple memorials were placed at the heads of each grave.  Once again back in the compound, the Captain gathered the survivors about him. In hushed silence the crew listened to the Captain's words. He informed them that he had now had the awful, frightening feeling that the French were deliberately killing the very sick, and no matter how ill they became they would remain together until death. All agreed, knowing that now it would be a matter of weeks or months before most would be dead. Some little comfort was felt in at least dying with friends.

Unbeknown to the prisoners, the French Colonial Authorities were having a change of mind. Pro-German and anti-Allies at the start, now with the recent loss of Madagascar to a British Free-French landing force, which in a matter of days destroyed part of their Navy and land forces firstly in Diego Suarez harbour then throughout the Colony, the French were now becoming rather frightened. Many Vichy Frenchmen were now beginning to 'turn their coats' as it became more obvious the Allies were going to win. This turncoat attitude was prevalent throughout the French Equatorial Colonies.

On the ending of the ninth week in captivity at Timbuktu almost half the crew could not stand, many, totally incumbent had taken to their straw bundles, having used their mattresses as crude body cover. Lying in the stupefying heat of their mud hovels, too weak to fend off the flies, lice and other insects, they lay in their abject misery. Lying on his straw bundle, now almost too weak to move, every day being an eternity, Wilfred was reaching the end. Being the youngest, there was a tendency of the crew to give him a little more food than they took from the communal bowl twice daily. His growing body required that extra sustenance; his stamina at the age of sixteen to withstand the rigours of this inhuman treatment was far less than a grown, older man. Now suffering from several open ulcers on his feet and legs, dysentery, mild fever and a low-grade Pellagra, his six foot slim frame was reduced to less that eight stone in weight, [and] he lay in an oven like heat of a sweltering native dwelling barely aware he was alive. At this time of the year, June, the Saharan sun rose daytime temperatures to a soaring 130 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit.  The word 'suffering' can, and often is passed over rather quickly. Wilfred's 'suffering' can be partially brought home to one if one remembers his age. Sixteen years old, when most were still in school Wilf was thousands of miles from home and family, treated worse than any German POW camp, [and suffering from]   multiple ailments, ailments hardly known in civilised countries:

  • Dysentery -A disease of the bowel, in its worst form a killer if not treated.

  • Ulcers -A superficial sore, discharging pus, becoming ever worse if not treated, giving incredible long lasting pain, and can result in loss of limbs.

  • Pellagra - an eruptive skin complaint, very similar to scurvy, caused mainly by the lack of vitamins, mainly vitamin Bl. This horrible disease leaves the skin, at least in Wilfred's case dry, scaly, almost fishlike.

Coupled to these mentioned above was the everlasting hunger, the knowing of no modern treatment, and the seemingly wish by the Vichy French Authority for them to die. All this combined needed an extra power to have the will to live. Helped by Bill Haynes, Wilfred was sitting outside in the shade awaiting the morning meal. The usual routine of the guards was interrupted by the entrance of the white-coated military doctor accompanied, startlingly, by senior uniformed French Army officers. Armed not with side-arms but with large oily smiles, they called the crew together.  Once mustered the French officers shook the hand of the old Captain and officers, professing with smarmy platitudes and much arm waving it must have been all a mistake, and was not their responsibility. Standing on a rickety, worm eaten bench, their sole furniture, the French doctor, the most-hated Frenchmen of all announced in broken English they would soon be going home.  Standing there on his precarious perch, he evinced his love and respect for the British people. Anyone of the crew given a rope would have gladly hanged him. With a further wave of his white-coated arm, more native guards entered the compound, each carrying armfuls of new clothing. Now told by the doctor to now discard their filthy rags, wash with unlimited water provided and dress in the lightweight, new socks, shirts, shorts and sandals provided. An extra shirt and shorts would also be issued to each man. Bemused by this the survivors were transported to limitless heights of happiness. At the beginning hardly able to believe it at first, this material gift gave reality to them going home. This news was better than any tonic; the will to live returned to all, even the Lascar element of the crew began showing signs of revival, their spirits raised by this glorious news.

Events moved swiftly. Told to collect their meagre belongings they were removed from their filthy and hated compound, and placed once again in waiting lorries. The French, now mindful of possibly a War Crimes Commission following up a victorious Allied conclusion to the war, treated them with the utmost kindness. Now the rainy season was well advanced, they were informed their return journey to the coast would not include the NIGER passage, during this mast dangerous of seasons.  Prior to leaving, a last request by the Captain was granted for those able to walk to visit the graves of their lost shipmates. Gathered in a little, sad group, they paid their last respects; A forlorn small party almost 1500 miles from the sea and over 3000 miles from home. Two British seamen laid to rest in a predominantly Moslem country under the blazing Saharan sun arid sterile soil. Of the remainder some half would have joined them within several short months, or even weeks!   After a brief service they returned to their awaiting trucks and quickly drove away due West into the desolate desert with never a backward glance. Once more on the move the crew adopted their well rehearsed and practiced mode of making do for lorry travel. Motoring due West, they travelled for two days and nights, moving swiftly over the compacted sands, steering by compass and stars, they traversed the trackless wastes of the Southern Sahara. Stopping near mid-day, they ate their rations, now varied and of much better quality. Using the lorries canopies, they spread them as awnings enabling them to sit in the shade, panting in the awesome heat, now soaring to 130-140 degrees Fahrenheit at noon. Late afternoon they clambered back once again into their respective lorries. With the lessening heat they drove on, with the coming of sudden darkness, so swift in the desert, using headlights they carried on travelling at a reasonable high speed in these flat, arid wastes.  On the ending of the second night the lorries turned in a long South Westerly sweep. Skirting Lake Faguibine, they passed on well clear to the West of the Macina swamplands, now under constant heavy rain, and with it its attendant fevers as the rainy season was now well advanced. After six long days of driving through the sands and wild Savannah, they hit the dirt road to Segou. Progressing rapidly they soon reached the river town of Segou.

Once again they had reached the Niger, this time though purely for the crossing. Having crossed the Niger safely, the little convoy moved steadily on. Slower now in the heavy rains, heat and humidity that was now much higher than when they passed down the Niger in the 'dry season’. Weakened and ill, many were suffering terribly in the backs of the canopied lorries. Concern was now rising for the senior Wireless Operator and one seaman who were getting progressively worse. Struggling valiantly, grimly hanging on for dear life in the knowledge of soon being in friendly hands, they fought on. Wilfred too, was, with several others unable to stand. Spending all day lying under the rainproof awnings, they prayed for journey's end.  The eighth day of leaving Timbuktu, they crossed the Niger once again. Entering the township of Bamako once again. Helped now by the 'friendly' French they were quickly transferred to the railway station. Knowing this station of old, the Captain and crew wondered if this was some elaborate trick being played on them, and were about to be sent back. Gathering on the station platform, they were informed that their journey would be by train on the Bamako to Dakar line. They would travel in the European section with accompanying guards and medical staff. Boarding the train they were separated from the French, placed into a carriage with upholstered and well-sprung seats, with comfortable mattresses for the incumbent. After open, poorly-suspensioned lorries, native rail trucks, mud brick hovels and bare earth, this luxury was beyond their wildest dreams.

For a further two days they travelled by train, by far the best mode of travel since captivity. Now in complete dryness and with some degree of comfort they traversed the Savannah landscape of the colony of Senegal. On the morning of the third day the train drew into a tiny station within the town of Tambacounda. In a heavy rainstorm they detrained and led to cover in a large, empty warehouse. Some minutes later a Civil Administrator complete with a retinue of junior officers appeared at the door. Re-enacting the performance of handshaking and crocodile tears of heartfelt sympathy and condolences of which the French have no equal, in perfect English he informed them they were now in the French colony of Senegal, but only a matter of two hours away from the British administered colony of The Gambia. Leaving with his retinue, he was quickly replaced by medical staff and military drivers. The French officer now conveyed to them they would now be driven to the border town of Brifu, within the colony of The Gambia, where a British delegation would meet them and the transfer would take place.

Within hours, most of them delirious with delight, some too far gone with fevers and dysentery to know what was happening, they arrived at Brifu. Brifu situated on the extreme tip of The Gambia was a nondescript native town lying within the unhealthy marshlands area of the upper reaches of the River Gambia. Helped from the lorries, some on stretchers, they were carried or tottered once again into a large open sided shed. On sight of fellow Britishers some broke down and sobbed. The transfer was quickly enacted without friendly overtures, the French leaving rapidly. A British doctor with native medical attendants now stepped forward, giving them a quick examination he declared their condition as deplorable, some not really being fit to move. Unfortunately local conditions could not allow them to stay in such inhospitable surroundings. Hurriedly moved to some small motor launches they were taken down the tortuous river Gambia. Reaching Georgetown that night they were taken ashore and given beds with clean sheets. Unused to them they spent a restless night. Next morning embarking on a single, but much larger craft they progressed downstream to the Capital town of Bathurst (now Benjal). On arrival they were taken immediately to the main hospital, many remaining there, the fitter and luckier taken to a convalescent area. Bureaucracy again reared its ugly head. No one it seems could decide whether the Allende crew were released Prisoners-of War, or, as non-combatants, merely released civilians.  If they had been a Royal Navy crew, undoubtedly they would have been feted; the officers lionized by the white authorities. If they had been civilians, they would have been treated as equals by their fellow colonials; but these were Merchant Seaman, bringing into play all the old racial, caste, and class position so remarkable among all British Colonials.

One common feeling felt between crew and administration was to leave The Gambia behind them as soon as possible. Within days the crew fragmented. Alone and almost unknown, the critically ill seaman died in hospital. Wilfred, with others too ill to walk or even stand, were transferred by ship to Freetown, Sierra Leone, just over one day's steaming away. Too ill to move, the Senior Wireless Operator stayed in Bathurst hospital. Bill Haynes, Wilf's friend and 'townie', accompanied by seaman Sidney Milroy worked their passage home in a merchant ship, luckily surviving their dangerous passage, although being attacked several times when in convoy. Being a 'slow convoy' they took some weeks before arriving home. Wilfred with the incumbent sailed home on a fast Hospital Ship, arriving home two or more weeks before Bill Haynes.  It is believed that nearly half the remaining crew, after suffering and surviving all this true narrative has shown went down on their way home. Torpedoed once again, but with no survivors.

Homecoming

Wilfred arrived at his home at 105, Manor Road, Abersychan, Monmouth (Now Gwent), on the afternoon of the 13th. August 1942 (another 13!). Two days before his seventeenth birthday. Six foot in height, weight eight stone! Hair still long, shoulder length (unusual then), covered in scars, wields and scabrous sores, he was a wreck of his former self.   Doted on by his mother, family and local doctor (Dr Warren) he was still unable to eat normal meals. He was nursed with great love and devotion by his mother, who was a nurse many years ago. With passing months Wilfred grew stronger and fitter. What he had been through had earned him the right of a civilian job for the rest of the war, not that he could be 'Called Up’, he was still one year under age, Feeling fit and ready for work, on a cold February day Wilfred disappeared from the house.

On returning he cheerfully announced he'd found a job. Further enquiry by his mother about the job reduced her to a flood of tears. He had been to Newport 'signed on the Pool'. No amount of persuasion or entreaties changed his mind. Some weeks later on the 3rd April 1943 young Wilfred joined his second ship, the ss Tortuguero at Cardiff, holding the rating of Assistant Steward, once again he went to war.  With infrequent leave, Wilfred spent the whole of the remaining war at sea. From ss Tortuguero he then served in ss Fort Norman followed by the ss Vermillion. Seeing many ships sank around him he was lucky to survive without another sinking. He saw service in the North and South Atlantic, Mediterranean, Indian and Pacific Oceans: The whole spectrum and theatres of the Second World War. When the war ended he wasn’t even 21 years of age. His war service was longer and greater than many twice his age.

Bill Haynes, Wilfred's friend and 'Townie', like Wilf, was soon voluntary at sea again. Unlike Wilf, poor Bill paid the ultimate price at the tender age of 20 years. Joining the ss Empire Tower as a seaman he sailed from a Welsh port once again. On the 5th March 1943, only seven months after surviving his first adventure the Empire Tower was torpedoed and sunk. So rapidly did she sink that only four survived. Sadly Bill was not one of them.  The agony of war does not end with its declaration of peace. Until she died some twenty years or more later, Mrs. Haynes never locked her backdoor. Until her death she believed that one day, or night, he would return. Such is the awful finality of such a loss. Nothing is ever the same.

Wilfred stayed on in the Merchant Navy, serving in the following ships: ss Empire Prome until 1947. Then joining the Company of Charles Hill & Sons of Bristol, he served in: ss Boston City, ss New York City, ss Bristol City. He served in these ships for some eight years, eventually "swallowing the anchor" in September 1955. His last years as Chief Ship’s Cook.

Diary written by Thomas Williamson, Master of SS. Allende March 1942.  As provided by Audrey & John Williamson.

March 17th 1942 S.S. Allende torpedoed by German submarine, about 18 miles South of Cape Palmas, Liberia at 7 p.m. at ship. I had only just left the bridge, where Fullerton, the Chief Officer and I had been looking for Cape Palmas light, before altering course to the North. We had seen no sign of the light, and before leaving the bridge, I said to the Mate,  “If you don’t see the light before 8 o’clock, I’ll alter course then.”

I came down off the bridge and had just entered the saloon, switched on the light and shut the door, when she got it. A terrific explosion and instant darkness. The ship seemed to shudder and stop dead in her track, the engines were silent.

I rushed up the inside stairway and up to the bridge, the Chief Officer was not to be seen, but W. Haines, a deck boy was at the wheel and he said, “The Mate has gone down to get the boats away.”

I rang half speed astern on the telegraph, but there was no answer. Looking over the side, the ship appeared stopped. and making no way at all. It was very dark and the sky moderately overcast. I sent the man away from the wheel to his boat, went down on the lower bridge with my binoculars, a pair of 7 X 50 prisms, and searched round for any sign of the submarine.

Lewis, W/T man transmitted S.O.S. about 20 times but afterwards in the boat he said that he thought someone was transmitting very powerfully close ship. possibly the sub. jamming. (Saw no sign of the sub.).

The Mate came up with the boat’s crew of the Port Jolly boat. He said,  “She’s got it in the engine room, on the Port side, the port life boat’s blown to bits and the 2nd Mate, P. McHugh is already away with your boat.”

I said,  “All right, get your boat in the water and I’ll come in that when I’ve had a look around, I want to get everyone away if possible.”

I gave one of the ABs. F.J. Meaker, my suit case to put in the boat. It contained all my papers, ship cash accounts, victualling bills, insurance etc., Rum, cigarettes, Brandy and some Liebigo Extract.

The Chief Engineer, Mr W. Soutter, came up to me and said, “The engine room’s full of water. I’m afraid there’s no hope for them down below.” then he said, “You haven’t got your life jacket on.”

So I went back on the top bridge and got my life jacket from out the day room and put it on. The ship continued upright but well down by the stern, there was no panic or rush. The Mate said, “We’d better get a move on, Sir, before Jerry gives her the second one.”

I said, “Carry on and stand near by for me when you’ve got the boat in the water.”

I went down on deck with the ship’s papers, confidential papers, with the intention of burning them in the galley stove, there usually being a good fire there about that time in the evening. I found the galley just about wrecked, with the stove blown to bits. I lashed up the bag and dropped it over the side. It sank at once.

The deck in the port alleyway seemed to be buckled, the hatch covers of the bunker pocket blown off. There was hot water ankle deep right away along to the engine room. Flashed my torch in the engine room but could make out nothing but heavily rushing water. Walked around house to starboard alleyway, deck was all right but nearly ankle deep in cinders. Climbed up on boat deck. Starboard boat away but not in sight. Port boat and davits blown to bits. Back on deck, Chief Engineer just going down sea ladder into starboard Jolly boat. The Mate and his crew already in the boat, he shouted out that the forward fall had jammed on the port Jolly boat, so they had abandoned it and lowered the starboard one. He said,

 “I’ve got all your papers safely in this boat, are you corning down now, she’s settling rapidly by the stern, and I reckon she’ll get a 2nd torpedo any minute now.”

The Chief Engineer said, “I saw Sango (Trimmer) go along the fore deck just now, he’s badly hurt in the face.”

 I went along forward and into the f’ocsle saw Sango in the beam of my flash light, sitting on one of the benches. His face was very badly cut and. Burned. I went in and said,  “Come on my son, let’s get amidships to the boat before the old ship goes.”

He didn’t want to leave, but I forced and dragged him out of the f’ocsle and along the fore deck and shouted down to the boat,  “Here’s Sango.”

 I left him then and went back along the fore deck and let go the painter of the raft which had jammed.  Meaker and the Bosun, G.Emmerson were on the raft.

Came back along the deck, the Mate said, “You’d better come down now.”

I said, “All right, I’m going in the saloon to get the kitten.”

 Went in the saloon and found the kitten in the medicine chest, brought him out and threw him down to those in the (boat), caught him safely enough, called him Temoshenko because he was always ready to fight.

Steamer very low in the water aft, but still upright. Felt very reluctant to get in the boat and leave her. Went and looked down the X bunker, it was full of water, at least could see nothing but water, there was a good bit of coal there, went back to where Starboard Jolly boat was waiting under the bridge. Said “Goodbye’ to the old ship. Climbed down the pilot ladder into the boat. The Mate said,  “She’ll go any minute now.’

Let go the painter and pushed. off.

I said, “Stand by for a while, let’s see what’s going to happen to her.”

Saw the 2nd Mate in the Starboard life boat, shouted to him to go alongside raft and pick up the Bosun and Meaker, saw him go alongside raft.

About 7.25 p.m. now, heard heavy explosion in Allende and, in a few seconds she seemed to collapse in the middle, the stern sank out of sight and the f’ocsle head rose up to the sky and then disappeared. The 2nd torpedo seemed to have been put in about No. 4 Hold, and that was the last of Allende. I felt like crying.

Noticed that our boat was making water badly. There was a little chop on the sea, but 12 men in her was too much. There remained only a few inches of free board. Carried on baling and commenced pulling away in a N. Westerly direction. Suddenly heard a noise and then a black shape came into view. The submarine had surfaced and was heading at good speed in our direction. I ordered “Vast pulling” and dead silence. The submarine at first sight looked like a trawler, her engines made considerable noise. I thought she might pass without seeing us, but suddenly she took on the appearance of trying to run us down. A voice from the Sub. hailed us, “Boat ahoy, come alongside, come quickly.”

Answered “O.K.” and commenced pulling in her direction. She got herself in good position to give us a lee and stopped her engines. We came up close alongside. She looked big and black. There appeared to be a l2 lb gun on her fore deck, and a heavier gun fairly close to the after side of her conning tower. Two men dressed in heavy weather clothing and sea boots were standing on the fore deck about half way along it and there was the glow of a cigar or cigarette in the conning tower. One of the men on the fore deck sang out,  “What is the name of’ your ship?”

All hands except myself answered, “Allende.”

 “Is the Captain on board?” Milroy, O.S. answered yes, but I believe they must have taken that to mean that I had gone down with Allende for he asked no more questions about the Captain. He probably assumed, from the fact that everyone in the boat was answering his questions that quite possibly there was no senior officer present. I was content that he went on thinking it. He continued his questions with  “What tonnage? Where from? What cargo?” and finally, “What is your port of Registry?”

Everyone roared out the answers to his questions and he replied  “Oui”.

Lightning flashes lighted up the submarine every minute or so. She showed light grey then, but although I looked carefully, waiting for the lightning flash, I could make out no mark or number on her conning tower. Saw the dim figure of the smoker there, probably the commander.

 He said “Carry on boat. Steer 008° — 18 miles.”

Everyone shouted ‘Thank you.”

I was waiting for a burst of machine gun fire, but it never came, so I guess I thought an injustice on that commander.

Suddenly we noticed that the boat was filling up in spite of the baling. We were pulling away from the sub. and from the wash coming from her casing sides. The sea was a little more choppy now; the clouds were banking up, the lightning flashes became more frequent. The boat sank below the level of the water and capsized, turning everyone and everything into the sea of course. I grabbed an oar as it floated clear then as the boat rose above the surface again, bottom up now, we all managed to get back to her and cling to the keel, but we were not evenly spread out around her, so she just took another turn round and floated full of water. Then once more she capsized as we all made frantic attempts to hang on to her sides. This happened five times before we finally got ourselves evenly spread out around her. We were feeling very exhausted by this time. I should think we had been struggling in the water for about an hour.

Porpoises were leaping close by and some large multi-coloured fish glided past. Someone said afterwards that it was a Barracuda, I doubt it myself. If it had been, more than likely it would have attacked us there and then. However, it turned our thoughts to sharks and greatly increased our anxiety to be back in the comparative safety of the boat.

The Mate suggested that while the rest of us held the boat steady from the outside he would get in, make ?----plug and then bale the boat out again, and that is what we did. There were a couple of sheath knives amongst us and with it, the Mate cut down and shaped out a plug out of the wooden handle of one of the sea (?) lights, a tin of which still remained lashed to one of the thwarts, being not heavy enough to carry away when the boat turned over, I suppose. All this took us the best part of another hour I suppose, but with the help of the sea (?) light tin and a couple of soft felt hats the boat was baled out sufficiently for us all to get back in and give a hand with the rest of the baling. We were all mighty thankful to get back into the boat. The struggle with the capsizing boat in the first place had taken it out of us and we had all just about reached our limit.

For my own part, I would never have been able to climb back aboard but for the assistance of Mr Lewis, the Senior Wireless Operator, who very gallantly boosted me aboard before he himself climbed inboard. All my right side was paralysed, particularly my right shoulder and hand. The hand was grip-less and useless and the shoulder dead.

About now the sky was heavily overcast and it looked as if it might come on to blow. The lightning had ceased except for a faraway flash at long intervals. We took stock of our position. Most everything movable had been lost. The water was gone, all the oars except 3; buckets, baler, mast and sail all gone. The biscuits of course were all right, being secured to the thwart in an iron tank by iron bands. We also had the compass and. we settled down to gently pull through the night, just keeping a little way on the boat and her head in a N. Westerly direction. Too dark to see the compass, so as we kept getting a glimpse of the pole star, we steered by it, keeping it about 4 points on the starboard bow, hoping that we would make a little against the 2½ knot current that was running to the Eastward.

Around about midnight it commenced to rain gently, the rain lasted about half an hour and was very cold. Everyone remained fairly cheerful. We spoke of the chances of being picked up when daylight and everyone agreed that the chances were rosy indeed. If our S.O.S. got through at all, someone would be looking for us, and the course we were steering across the current wouldn’t take us far away from the position in which we were torpedoed by daylight. I lay aft close against the tiller trying to rest, my leg and my shoulder both being extremely painful by now. The Mate had the tiller while three men kept up a gentle pulling on the three oars, changing over about every half an hour. One or two of us were violently sick during the night, due most probably to the amount of sea water we had swallowed.

At last the dawn came with a morning (?) sky away to the Eastward. As the light became stronger we could make out the land low down on the Northern horizon, too low down I thought, we were further off than I expected us to be as the current had evidently done better or worse than I had looked for. However, daylight and just the knowledge that land was in sight made most everyone cheerful, very hopeful of a quick delivery from an unenvious  position.

About 6 a.m. smoke was sighted away to Starboard and we put on a spurt with the oars. Presently a steamer hove in sight, steering almost directly towards us. We were all very bucked now, thinking that in a very short while we should have reached succour in the shape of dry clothes, coffee and a bunk. As the steamer came closer it could be seen that she was about 9000 tons D.W. Buff topsides and we thought we could make out the shape of her 4 inch anti-submarine gun. British was in everyone’s mind, but I thought without voicing the thought, “She’s in a funny spot and steering in a peculiar manner if she is a British ship.”

As we came closer together she altered her course more directly across our bow and appeared to be crossing ahead and that is what she actually did at increasing speed. We ceased pulling and tied the third Engineer’s raincoat to an oar and hoisted it up in the air, a bit too difficult to wave about, but we tried even that. All to no purpose, she just kept her course and speed and left us to do the best we could for ourselves. If there had been an officer on the bridge at all, and it is most improbable that there was not, taking into account her close proximity to land and that she had altered her course only a few minutes before, if anyone at all had been on the bridge, we must have been seen, a pair of ‘binoculars should have done the rest.

However, if she was British or Allied maybe her master feared some submarine trick and wasn’t having any, and thinking things over since that time, I’m inclined to think he was acting in the best interests of his ship, that is of course if he were a Britisher or an Allied Merchant ship. For my own part, I think his manoeuvring and position were suspicious. He could as easily have been a store ship for Subs. probably not long since having refuelled the fellow that sank us. However in about an hour she had disappeared to port which made me think that she had again reduced her speed after crossing ahead of us.

This incident of the passing steamer hit us where it hurt most, we all felt a little down in the mouth about it, yet when we had looked around and satisfied ourselves that the shore line was rising albeit all too slowly, we cheered up a bit, and put a little more vim into the pulling. I suggested a biscuit apiece and I also voiced the opinion that we would be landing on the beach just after midday, although I didn’t believe it myself. We opened the tank and had a biscuit each. Chewing seemed to bring a little comfort and strangely enough no one complained about the absence of a drink, no one asked for water or protested that they were dying of thirst. For my own part I wasn’t thirsty. No doubt, if water had been there I should have been glad of a drink, but just as it was I didn’t miss it. Fullerton, later on in the day was the first to mention thirst. I wasn’t very pleased about it but said nothing. He cut a button off his shirt and put it in his mouth. He said sucking a button was known to allay the pangs of thirst. After that most of the men complained of thirst.

Fullerton also had a ¼lb. tin of tobacco which he had given Kenny to look after for him. After we had opened the biscuit tank and had chewed through a whole biscuit each, I mentioned about a smoke. He was very unwilling that we should do so. However I told Kenny to open the tin, and while he did so, we dried a packet of papers in the sun, which was pretty fierce by this time. All hands cheered up wonderfully when we had got our very ragged looking cigarettes under way. We commenced pulling again. It was very hot now and for the most part we had little or no protection from the sun. Here our life belts came in very useful and handy, we were able to cover our heads and necks with them. This must have saved us considerable subsequent suffering, for at the end, of the day we were all rather badly burned, mostly around the arms and. legs.

Slowly but surely the line of shore came up over the horizon. We could. make out the trees quite plainly now and about 2 points on the port bow, what we had taken for a tall palm tree gradually took on shape and towards noon we made it out to be a lighthouse. We steered directly for it. Fullerton thought it must be Cape Palmas Light, but didn’t see how it could be, not if we had set with the east going stream. Of course there was the possibility of a counter current, but the chart had shown nothing of one, so I couldn’t bring my hopes to a head there. Anyhow, it was something, it was a mark of civilisation. The sandy beach came into view now, one minute it was there, then the next it had disappeared. Some of us saw it for certain, the others said imagination, but in a little while there was no mistaking the white sandy appearance, and a little later still all uncertainty was swept away when we were able to make out the breakers.

Just on noon, the sun almost right overhead, we had our hopes raised to high pitch once again, this time by the unmistakable roar of an aeroplane engine. This time it was going to be a British plane sent out to look for us, an answer to our S.O.S. of the day before. We could hear the plane for some time before our eyes could pick it up in the brilliant sunlight. At last we found it, flying at about 6 or 7000 feet. We ceased pulling, sitting silently and hopefully, waiting for some signal from him that would let us know that we had been seen. No signal came though and in a little while the plane had disappeared to the Southeast. A French plane no doubt and not the least bit interested in a boat load, of ship wrecked seamen, of whatever nationality.

Some of them were getting a bit down now and Soutter made it worse by saying, “I don’t think we are getting any closer.”

I gave him a good mouthful, and they laid back on their oars again. It was a back breaking nerve racking strain all the time. We seemed to move with frightful slowness, the current carrying us out of the way all the time, and at a faster rate than we were able to approach the coast.

Suddenly though, the beach seemed to leap nearer and nearer at every pull of the sweeps. We were in smoother water now, we could make out two figures moving along the beach and. above the sandy line of the shore, some native huts stood silhouetted against the sky in a clearing surrounded by palm trees. The surf was roaring and curling along the entire stretch of beach, but away to port, some nasty looking rocks running out from the beach into the sea, made me think of a lee somewhere close to them, and with this in mind, I steered for the rocks.

 As we approached the lee could be seen as a small circular sweep of the beach close in behind the rocky promontory, a sort of tiny bay, where the breakers were falling short and running up the beach with tidal effect.

I told everyone to put on his lifebelt, and explained how the boat might probably capsize if the breakers were bigger than they looked to us. Glasgow, a native of Sierre Leone, one of Allendes’  firemen offered to take the tiller saying that he had done plenty of surf boating and knew just how to handle the lifeboat to make a safe landing. I let him hold the tiller, sitting close beside him as we approached the beach. The surf roared and foamed all around us rising up in the air like columns of solid steam, then curling back to show the black terrible looking jagged edges of the naked rocks. Pulling like mad, the water suddenly flattened out and the beach leapt to meet us, the boat stopped dead and in a split second had swung her stern up on to the sand. I jumped into the water and waded ashore with everyone close beside me. We were alive and safe ashore and at first I could hardly believe it possible that we were destitute and with no Allende to go back to. However, we were, and we had to do something about it.

Everyone felt a bit done in, but the elation at getting safely ashore made us forget how tired we were, but not how thirsty. With Roberts I set off along the beach to where we had seen the two natives, and after a couple of hundred yards came across a young fellow throwing a fishing net across a hidden pool, of what looked like stagnant fresh water. When he saw us he lifted his hand in the air, giving the peace sign.

I suppose I said, ‘Good day” in English.

I told him we were a torpedoed crew, and were looking for water to drink an. if possible, something to eat. He understood the eating and drinking part, but not I think the torpedoing, although he knew that we were shipwrecked in some manner or other.

He led us by a narrow path through the trees, and presently we came upon a clearing where there stood about a dozen or so reed and bamboo huts, one or two of them were quite large, and there we were introduced to the head man of the village, an elderly gentleman with a ghastly open and running sore on the shin bone of his left leg. Again I explained about being torpedoed, meanwhile a tin bath of clean fresh water had been brought to us by a semi-naked native woman of big build. By this time the rest of the crowd had followed us up and were now all seated in a circle around the bathtub of fresh water, which now required several refillings.

Most of the villagers had gathered round, children and all, they were all eager and excited by us, but very sympathetic and extremely polite in a simple and. pleasantly unassuming way. Quite a number of the men could understand slowly spoken broken English, and so could some of the elderly women of whom there were quite a number gathered round us, all smoking short and black wooden pipes. Most of the men had worked as “kru-boys” loading the steamers of the Elder Dempster Company. They were all big strong and fine looking people, the women bare from the waist up. After we had satisfied our thirst we talked a great deal, during which time I was able to find out that we were on French soil, which of course was what we had expected, although there was always just the chance that we might have got above Cape Palmas and landed in Liberia.

January 13 2004. Today I received an email from Frank Brookes who served, and suffered, on this fateful trip. Here is his account, briefly, of the above transcript. He ha sent me some papers from which I can sort out the "truth" of this episode. These are reprinted below:

Dear Mike, I came across the story of SS. Allende today, as you say 'History is as seen by the individual' or  something like that. The story as given is very nearly accurate but the drama is a bit over the top. I was there! The Vichy French were a bit nasty at times and the food was pretty awful and not much of it at any time but I don't recall all the weary seamen being  unable to stand  bits and after all except for two of the survivors we all got back. I finished up in the Royal Gwent Hospital with Malaria but that was not the French people's fault, more likely the prolonged wait in Freetown to be repatriated. I went down with it on the ship home and the medical staff on board showed their disinterest in DBS (Distressed British Seaman) by providing me with one  bottle of fizzy pop!  So it wasn't only the French who could have done better. I remember very well Wilfred (Blondie) Williams, I was his (17 year old) counterpart in the deck-officers' Mess and when I'd recovered and reached the age of 18, my call-up papers arrived and I decided that I would not be going back to sea in the merchant Navy to be shot at without being able to reply, so joined the Army instead where I served a very happy 33 years. I enjoyed my West African trip, for which, these days, one would pay thousands of pounds! Regards, Frank Brookes.


Merten

An overview of the life of Merten and his crew of U68, the U Boat responsible for the loss of the Allende.

Born in Posen on 15 August 1905, Merten joined the Reichsmarine in 1926. On completion of his basic training as an officer cadet 4pd his commissioning as Leutnant zur See, he served as weapons officer in the cruiser KONIGSBERG, a modern 6,650 ton vessel which was armed with nine 5.9 inch guns in three triple turrets. Subsequently, he served in T.157, a rather elderly torpedo boat, and in the escort boat F7. In the German Navy, a torpedo-boat was a fairly large vessel, more like a small destroyer and not at all comparable to what is known as a torpedo boat in the British or American Navies. Thereafter, Merten became a cadet training officer in the training ship, SCHLESWIG-HOLSTEIN, an old 13,000-ton battleship from the First World War, based in Wilhelmshaven before the outbreak of war. In early 1940, Merten transferred to the U-boat service and his rise to the status of a U-boat ace of the highest calibre began. His first posting was to U. 38 under the command of Heinrich Liebe. Having served his time as Wach Offizier, (Watch Officer) he was given his own command in February 1941. This was U.68, a large Type IXC built by Deschimag of Bremen. It was a powerful 1,200 ton ocean going boat, equipped with 22 torpedoes and a 4 inch gun.

During the summer of 1941, Merten began to build his score. On 28 July U68 made an attack on the ships of Convoy OG69, bound for Gibraltar from the United Kingdom. Although torpedoes were launched, no detonations were recorded though a vivid jet of flame was seen on the side of an escorting corvette. On 22 September It was the turn of Convoy SL87 from Sierra Leone to the U.K. The 5,300-ton British merchantman, SILVERBELLE was sunk. A tanker was also hit and was spotted again on the following day with a heavy list and under protective escort by two warships. On 22 October, the 5,300 ton British tanker DARKDALE was sunk of f St Helena and six days later the steamer HAZELSIDE of similar tonnage was also sent to the bottom. During November the last victim of that cruise, the 4,950-ton BRADFORD CITY was attacked and sunk.

U68 returned to port and after a welcome break began her next cruise, this time to the South Atlantic, off the coast of South Africa, and in the Caribbean. The first victim was the 7360 ton steamer HELENUS on 3 March 1942. Five days later the 7,000-ton BALUCHISTAN was sunk by a combination of torpedoes and gunfire. March was to be particularly successful month for Merten. On the 16th, the small 3380 ton steamer BARON NEWLANDS was added to the list of U. 68’s victims. On the next day three more ships were sunk, these being the 5,750 ton ILE DE BATZ and the 4900 ton SCOTTISH PRINCE, sunk by a combination of torpedo and gunfire and the 5000 ton steamer ALLENDE was sunk by a torpedo later the same day. A quiet spell then ensued for almost two full weeks, broken on 30 March by the sinking of the 5850 ton MUNCASTER CASTLE.

Merten’s next major success was the large Panamanian tanker C.O. STILLMAN of 13000 tons, sunk on 6 June 1942. On the previous day the tanker L.J. DRAKE of some 6690 tons was reported missing in the same area. Although not claimed as a kill, she was thought to bave been sunk by U.68. A particularly successful day was 10 June 1942 when the 5580 ton SURREY, the 5000 ton ARDENVOHR and the 5880 ton PORT MONTREAL were added to Merten’s list of kills.. All were sunk by torpedo. On 13 June, Merten’ s achievements were rewarded by the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. Merten held the rank of Korvettenkapitan at this time. U.68 was still at sea when he learned of his award. 0n 15 June he celebrated his decoration with the sinking of the 9240 ton tanker FRIMAIRE in the Caribbean. The final success of this cruise was another tanker, the ARRIAGA,  2500 tons, sunk by a combination of torpedo and gunfire on 23 June. Merten’s next cruise was to see several more sinkings. On 12 September 1942, the British TREVILLAY was sunk, followed three days later by the 6860 ton Dutch steamer BREEDIJK. On 8 October in the Indian Ocean, U68 destroyed four ships: the Greek KOUNOUNDOUROS of 3600 tons, the Dutch GAASTERKERK of 8700 tons, the US tanker SWIFTFIRE of 8200 tons and the British SARTHE of 5270 tons. All were sunk by torpedoes. On the following day the US EXAMELAI of 5000 tons and the Belgian BELGIAN FIGHTER of 5400 tons were added to Merten‘s ever-growing score. This represented some 36000 tons in just two days. On 6 November the British CITY OF CAIRO, an 8000 tonner was also sent to the bottom, sunk by torpedo from U.68.

On 16 November, Merten’s achievements were further recognised by the award of the coveted oakleaves to his Knight ‘s Cross. After this, Merten was given command of 26th U Boat Flotilla in Pillau, and later on, the 24th Flotilla in Memel. Here his greatest achievements were not in sinking Ships but in saving lives.  In the closing stages of the war, Merten assisted in the evacuation of more than 50,000 refugees from the advancing Russians. Merten ended the war with the rank of Kapitan zur See under command of the Marine Oberkommando West. He had sunk a total of 180,870 tons of shipping. After the war he went into French captivity where, in 1948, attempts were made to try him on fabricated war crime charges. These allegations were totally unsubstantiated and he was released in March 1949. This accomplished U Boat ace sadly died at his home near Waldshut in May 1993. He was 88 when he died.

 

A letter to Frank Brooke in Dec 1996 from Ray Bennett:
 

Sinking of the Allende

I spent last week end with my son in Devon, and he was able to find in his notes some further references to the release of the Allende’s survivors by the Vichy French authorities. Please note that the set out below consists of my son’s summary of documents, hut verbatim extracts are placed within quotation marks.

1. When you get the copy of Captain Williamson’s report, you will see that he covers the period of internment as well as the actual events at sea.

2. PRO file F0371/32035 contains a file with the Foreign Office Registry reference Z43317 on the cover of which an official with an illegible signature had compiled a long minute summarising events. This states that, on 3 April 1942, M. Boisson [ Governor General of French West Africa] had suggested an exchange of interned merchant seamen, to be dealt with in secrecy via the intermediary of United States consulates, He did not wish the German/Italian armistice commission to learn about it. The [British] West African Governors’ Conference recommended that his offer should be accepted, and the Colonial Office approved on 11 April. There was then a delay, because the French held more internees than the British held in West Africa, and there was some question of whether to equalise the numbers by bringing some extra French seamen up from internment in South Africa.

“Meanwhile, M. Boisson referred the matter to Vichy, who have now decided to authorise the exchange of the crew of the ‘Allende only (i.e. 7 natives and 23 white British) for all the interned Frenchmen (figures of these are now given as 33 white French.) Vichy, at the time of replying, required a reply within a week.”

The US Consul in Dakar declined to proceed with that time limit. The British Foreign Office official writing the minute recommended acceptance of the Vichy proposal, arguing “We want to get our men out while we can”, and that it was better to recover some men rather than none. He suggested that the US Embassy in London should he requested to ask the State Department in Washington to make the arrangements, and the Ministry of War Transport representatives supported that suggestion.

3. PRI) file F037l/32036 contains a file with the Foreign Office Registry reference Z6320, which itself contains a telegram from the US Ambassador to the British Foreign Secretary on 10 August 1942, US reference RBI—6489, which quotes a telegram from the US Consul at Dakar to the State Department dated 21 July 1942.

“The seamen internee exchange has now been completed. On July 16 twenty eight British from Timbuktu, plus a non interned Irishman, Robert Kenny, were turned over at the Gambian frontier. The only member of the crew of the Allende remaining, A.O. Fish Lewis, was hospitalised at Bamako for an operation in connection with an old complaint. It is possible that within two or three weeks his repatriation may take place. The deal was closed by the delivery in French Guinea on July 17 or 18 of the thirteen Frenchmen held in Sierra Leone.”

4. PRO file F0371/32036 contained a file with the Foreign Office Registry reference Z6453, which itself contains a telegram from the US Ambassador to the British Foreign secretary on 15 August 1942, US reference RB1—653 which quotes a telegram from the US Consul at Dakar to the State Department dated 8 August 1942 reporting: “that the last member of the crew of the Allende remaining, Henry Lewis, was on the previous day repatriated to Gambia.”

You will see from these details that your release was quite a complicated matter involving our Foreign Office, Colonial Office and the Colonial authorities in West Africa; the United States’ State Department, London Embassy and Dakar Consulate; and the Vichy Government and their Governor-General in Dakar. It would he possible to try to track the issue through the records of these various authorities, but I think there would be only an outside chance of your turning up any substantial quantity of extra information. Anglo-French relations during the period of your internment were, of course, complicated by our invasion of Madagascar in May 1942, but after what had happened in Indo-China it may be that, at heart, the Vichy French felt that the British might be preferable in Diego Suarez to the Japanese! If we come across anything else relevant to the Allende I will let you have it.

 

The following is an account of what happened through the eyes of Frank Brookes.
 

SS Allende (Morel & Co Cardiff) 1941/42

Public Records office, Kew - Adm. 199/2140-33070 pages 54, 55, 56 and 57. Capt. Williamson’s statement TD/1 39/1425 26.08.42

Having obtained Captain Williamson’s statement with regard to the sinking of Allende by a German submarine and the subsequent events I can now add to that with my own memories of what happened. Capt. T J Williamson was the master of the Allende and I was the Officers Steward having 'signed on’ the Allende in February 1941. My first trip to sea and very green as to the sea and my duties. I was sixteen years old — just!

Allende loaded general cargo, military stores, vehicles and guns in the lower holds and 'tween decks' while on deck there were aircraft in packing cases and motor launches. On leaving Newport docks Allende struck the lock gates and damaged her bow, not an auspicious start, large quantities of concrete were poured into the bow and then we were off again. We were routed to Milford Haven where we remained at anchor for several days waiting for a convoy. On leaving Milford Haven and before we cleared the Heads we were attacked by a German twin-engined bomber which was in turn attached by two fighter aircraft. They chased the German off later coming back waggling their wings so we assumed they had put paid to the German. There was no damage and having joined our convoy in the North Channel we went in heavy weather out into the Atlantic. Three days later the convoy split up, Allende going independently to Cape Town.
Leaving Cape Town we called in at Durban where two of our ‘passengers’, Royal Naval ratings accompanying the on deck launches, skipped ship. The welcome that the local people gave to British Military personnel is renowned and it would appear that South Africa was more attractive than Egypt. We never saw those two again.

On arriving at Suez we passed through the Suez Canal and after a short stay at Port Said sailed on to Alexandria where we unloaded. Alexandria Harbour was a target for enemy bombers and night after night we watched as the Royal Naval vessels and shore based ack ack guns blazed away. The din was quite terrific I remember but I don’t recall seeing much damage. We loaded a cargo of cement in bags which seemed to get everywhere despite the bags. Returning through the canal we off loaded at Kilindini Harbour, Mombasa in East Africa, reloaded general cargo and returned to Port Said via the canal.

We were then directed to Bombay but en route called at Aden for bunkers as Allende was coal burning. The ship was sealed down as much as possible but even so coal dust was everywhere, it took days of washing down to get rid of the dust. Having loaded again we went via Colombo to Calcutta up the Hoogli river where we loaded general cargo, jute mainly I believe and leaving Calcutta called at Coconada bay in India’s East Coast to top up with beans in sacks. We lay off the shore at anchor while the cargo came out in lighters. The sacks of beans were placed in all holds on top of the general cargo and I believe these had a dampening effect when we were torpedoed. We called at Cape Town for supplies and left there on 3rd March 1942 en route for Freetown, there to join a convoy. I remember the superstitions among us saying that as the 13th March fell on a Friday that would he the day we fell in with a U-Boat but it came and went only for us to fall foul of one on St. Patricks Day.

We younger members of the crew, myself, galley boy engineers 'peggy' boy and some of the apprentices were sitting on the hatch behind the midships deck housing talking and some were smoking behind covers so that the light wouldn't show. There was au electric storm over towards the African coast, the U-Boat must have been able to See us clearly against that background and at 1900 hours the torpedo struck. We all immediately knew what it was and as our lifeboat station was above us we were able to reach it within seconds. We were all dressed in shorts, shirts and plimsols as the weather was hot. The exception was the galley boy who had no shirt on and had sat with his back to the engine room alleyway. The blast burned the skin from his back and although on his feet he was in pain. My only injury was a burn on my ankle which didn't inconvenience mc, everyone else seemed to be alright. Ours was the starboard lifeboat and we soon found that the torpedo, having struck the port side of the engine room had destroyed the port lifeboat. The crew of the port lifeboat joined us and together the starboard lifeboat was lowered. In command was the Second Mate, Mr McHugh. who created order out of chaos and soon had us under way from the from the ships side. We waited off, the sea was fairly calm but we soon found that the lifeboat was making water. All the plugs were in and the hull seemed undamaged so it was assumed the planking was opened up which proved to be the case.

We were now floating level with the sea, tile buoyancy tanks keeping us afloat. As long as we sat still, up to our waists in water, the lifeboat seemed stable. The galley boy was feeling the pain so I gave him my shirt to drape over his hack, this we kept wet with sea water and it proved to be a boon. Later the scars healed up well, probably due to the sea water. We then saw the outline of the U-Boat and all kept very quiet, being low in the water helped and in the event the submarine didn’t see us. We learned later that the other boat to get away, the starboard jolly boat with among others, the Master, Capt. Williamson, was called alongside the submarine. After the submarine departed we, by good fortune, picked up the bosun and a seaman who, trapped on the foredeck of Allende had launched a carley float and lowered themselves on to it. The float came in useful at daylight when we used it to support most of the survivors while the lifeboat was being bailed out. When this was done and the seams were swollen sufficiently to hold water out we cast the float adrift and set sail fur the African Coast. We made t in two days sailing and rowing. In the night of the second day we could hear the surf crashing on the beach and we laid off until daylight to land, ‘ landing in surf was pretty hectic hut no-one was hurt, the lifeboat hauled up on the beach. We found that we had landed in the French (Vichy) Ivory Coast at a native village called San Pedro. The Africans were very friendlv and treated us well, providing food and shelter such as they had. Several days later a French Official and his wife came by in a boat and made arrangements for us to be transported to a larger place, Tabou, further up the coast. We travelled in surf boats, double ended native craft that were paddled, Sanders of the River style, just beyond the line of breakers, it was in Tabou that we met up with the other survivors and there was talk among the crew members that we should attempt to walk along the beach towards Liberia which was some eight miles distant. This came to naught as there was no agreement between crew and officers as to how and when to do this. In the end the French moved us to Sassandra making use of one of their destroyers, we sat on the filthy deck all night and were not offered food or drink. At Sassandra we were held for a while, no one explained what was happening but those Frenchmen that we met were only too happy to say you are going home, never when or how.

Then one day we were taken by truck, still not knowing where we were going, up country travelling by day and stopping in small towns at night. We had two French escorts, both were armed with rifles but whether that was to control us or to guard against forest animals we never found out, probably the former. Ten days of this brought us to Mopti which is on the River Niger and here we were ‘billeted on an old stern wheel paddler tied up to the bank. I don’t remember what food we had but it was probably just enough to sustain us. We were at Mopti for sonic days and probably because the water in the river was low we were carried by large canoe type boats down through the lakes and swamps to (space here) from there we had a short walk to Timbuctoo itself. We were put into two houses surrounded by walls, one house for officers, the other for crew and a fairly sumptuous meal with new potatoes appeared. We thought that we were at last in luck but from then on we had two meals per day, lunch of gritty rice. supper of cous-cous. The meat was either goat or camel but in any case there wasn't I enough of it to decide which.

Two members of the crew died and are buried in Timbuctoo, the Chief Engineer, Mr Souter I think his name was, and a seaman. The only time I can recall leaving our prison was to attend these two funerals. I don’t know why the French thought it necessary to guard the houses with Colonial troops with rifles and fixed bayonets - with thousands of miles of desert between us and anywhere we were unlikely to leave of our own accord!

Some nine weeks later we were all embarked on large Army trucks, taken down river to Gao where there was a vehicle ferry, from there we continued up river on the opposite bank across once again to Mopti and thence to Bamaco where we travelled by train to a remote stretch of line, the train stopped and we were again driven by truck to the Gambian border. The French handed  us over to the British and again on the ubiquitous truck we travelled to Bathhurst where we received a great welcome from the WRVS ladies and our first cup of tea in months. Later we went by troopship to Freetown and after an appalling wait in a very flea bitten hotel we embarked on the ‘Highland Monarch for England. We landed at Liverpool and caught the next train home.

Frank Brookes SS Allende

I mailed Frank and asked him about the conditions on board, but typically for a young lad, it was all a big adventure!!

Trouble is Mike, I didn't find it at all horrendous, except for a period of sea-sickness, everything was one big adventure. We left Newport, South Wales in February '41 and after traversing the Irish sea on our own we met up with a convoy off Liverpool which headed out into the Atlantic. We were only in convoy for about three days as I recall and due to what must have been a strong gale when our deck cargo shifted and a howitzer took charge in the 'tween decks, all of which were contained by the crew. We seem to have been told to proceed independanly for one morning after the gale I looked around the horizon and lo! no ships, just like Nelson! We saw the Azores from a long distace away and that was the last land we saw until we fetched up in Capetown ,all those flying fish, whales, porpoise and sunshine, it was sublime! Capetown was a revelation, we younger crew members went ice skating of all things and there was a cinema, very plush, with a ceiling black as the heavens with twinkling stars, I hardly saw the film. I did see a white policeman counting off the stevedores, all black, with a thump on the head from his revolver as the passed through a narrow gateway and a young black boy being chased off from the out side of a cinema where he was singing for pennies to the crowd, sang very well too, 'Don't ever pass me by, just say hullo to an old friend', made a great impression on me as an old chorister at Newport cathedral. We were a month overdue in Capetown and the folks at home were going spare (according to my Sister), of course there was no way of letting them know so I think they thought that that that was the end of me. I had a lot of the World to see so off we went, round the Cape with it's Albatross' and land birds, next stop Durban, and what a lovely place that is, had a ride in a rickshaw pulled by a Zulu! Up the East African coast and round Cape Gardafui into the Red Sea and on to Suez, through the canal , Port Said, Dump, and so to Alexandria where we discharged, including quite a bit of matchwood that the howitzer left behind. Back though the canal with a cargo of cement for Killindini (Mombasa). Only one cargo worse than coal, cement, gets everywhere, the deck hoses were going for days. What a surprise Killindini was, the smell of cloves was everywhere, glorious! Back to Port Said and loaded general for Bombay but called in to Aden for bunkers, the like will never be seen again, barges of coal along side and a constant stream of our coloured brethren trotting up planks with a bowl of coal on their heads, tip into the bunker hatch and tot back down.  Close tight all the ports and lock your doors! Again it took days to clear away the dust. Then Bombay, Nuff said, sailed once again with military supplies for Singapore via Calcutta but  we stopped at Ceylon as I think that was where we were directed to Calcutta due to the Japanese attack (Lucky us!) Calcutta was a bit of disappointment as by this time we had used up most of our cash and the Capt was not the kind to make much of  an advance (of pay) So we loaded jute and sailed for home, Capetown for provisions and the rest you know  Regards, Frank.

Section of the Log of the U-68 Spring 1942 Patrol

Date/Time Position, Weather, Light, Wind, Seas, Moonshine Occurrence

16/3

EU8143

Hit forward of the bridge, steamer sinks bow first, 5000 tonnes, 5 cargo holds of conventional type. Cargo probably iron ore. Sank immediately therefore could not identify it and it was not possible for crew to launch a lifeboat. Continue mission along the coast towards Palmas. (This refers to "Baron Nemands, 3386tons)

17/3
0000 hrs

Mid Atlantic, light seas, poor visibility, sheet lightning on horizon Wind SSW Force 2-3

120 Degrees Economy cruising.

0545

  Silhouette of steamer on horizon 5 degrees to starboard. Following in the general direction of 285 degrees and confronted

0633

  Positioned on its starboard side and readied for surface torpedo attack

0635

  Tube 1 fired, depth 3 metres, distance 1000 yards, speed to target 10 metres per second. Hit target amidships in 1 min 57 seconds. Steamer not sinking, lifeboats launched, investigating. Steamer "Ile de Batz" 5755 tonnes from Rangoon with general cargo

0751

  After investigation, artillery used to sink steamer, firing 33 rounds of explosive shells. Ship ablaze listing to port.
0800   Steamer rolled over and sank stern first
1025   90 degrees economy cruising
1059   Steamer in sight at 75 degrees. Approaching from general course of 285 degrees
1200 Wind 1 Seas 0-1  
1216   Submerged for underwater attack
1326   Twin torpedo attack, tubes 2 and 4, depth 3 metres, speed 10 metres per second, distance 500 metres. Hit target amidships in 24.8 seconds. Crew launched one lifeboat and started rowing to nearby coast, other lifeboat damaged. Steamer will not sink. When steamer was on fire approached closely for identification. The name Scottish Prince was over painted. 4917 tonnes could be read as 6917 tonnes. The steamers weapons were 1 x 10.2 centimetre cannon stern mounted, and 2 x twin machine guns on bridge. Fire control located behind the bridge. Cargo soya beans and oil seed.
1450   Steamer sinks from rear port quarter
1501   Aircraft approaching from land at 140 degrees. Emergency dive
1600   Submerged 180 degrees
1736   90 degrees economy cruise
1945   At 55 degrees smoke sighted, approach for attack at 285 degrees
2000   Steamer on port bow, position 40 - 50. Approached at dusk for attack from port side.
2103   Tube 3 fired, depth 3 metres, distance 1000 metres, speed 9 metres per second. Hit amidships in 83 seconds. Steamer launched lifeboats and raised mayday. Answering mayday and approaching lifeboats. Steamer Allende, size 5081 tonnes with general cargo from Calcutta, home port Cardiff.
2228   Final attack from tube 4, depth 4 metres, distance 1000 metres, 38 seconds hit aftermast and steamer sinks at 2233.
2243   85gr economy cruise
2400   On the general course of 285 degrees sank 4 steamers, continue course in the hope of another 4
18/3
0000hrs
Mid Atlantic east of Palmas dark night 85gr economy cruise

March 2005: Received an email from Frank Brookes today in which he describes going back to the region for a look. Here is his email:

I was recently given the opportunity to re-visit Tombouctou (the real spelling of the name). My wife was reading the travel section of the Weekend Telegraph and saw an 'ad' for a trip starting in Bamako and travelling down the R. Niger to Tombouctou and subsequently to Dorgon Country and then back to Bamako, in all two weeks travel. So in November 04 I hopped on a plane to Bamako via Casablanca and joined a party of nine others together with a guide and set off down the Niger visiting Djenne, and Mopti where the crew of Allende had embarked in 1942, me among them! 

We again embarked on a local boat of the same kind as the original trip, this time not in Mopti but a little further down river but we had a good look at Mopti and to all intent was unchanged since 1942. The vessel that we sailed in had been converted for the tourist trade with a powerful Diesel engine, toilets and comfortable seats, not at all like the original. We camped at night under 'Igloo' tents or the stars in my case, they were SO beautiful and quite unlike what we were lead to believe there were no mosquitoes. The river in November was full to the tops of the banks as the rainy season had just finished. Unlike the first trip when in May/June we could not see what lay beyond. We arrived at Kabbala, the port for Tombouctou inn three days, a trip that took us eleven days in 1942! There were vehicles to meet us an drove us to our Hotel in Tombouctou, a distance of 18 kms. I couldn't believe that we had walked that route in '42 and at that time there was no road, just scrub. Tombouctou itself was largely unchanged, dusty, dirty. and impoverished, we explored a bit but the heat was oppressive and no-one seemed to know where the cemetery was where some of the crew are buried. The houses that we were held in had in all probability collapsed as they were built of mud and the locals have a constant battle to re-build, but it was worth it just to see it all again. Frank Brookes.

Message from Professor Bernard de Neumann for Frank Brookes. Received on December 23rd 2005: Frank, I have been reading your account of events surrounding the sinking of the ALLENDE.  I met Third Mate Max Maxwell some years ago outside of Cardiff and he did me a tape-recording of his reminiscences.  The recording is now in the Audio WW2 archives of the Imperial War Museum.  It was me who transcribed the Williams.  I have been researching events of which ALLENDE is but a part for more than 30 years as my late father was also a prisoner at Timbuctoo at the same time as you, but for almost a year.  He attended both funerals.  He had been Second Mate on the CRITON (RN prize captured from Vichy French) and spent 18 months as a prisoner.  As I understand it, and you make no mention of it, whilst you were all there, the officers were kept in one house (Travellers' Rest Home) and the crews in another.  Do you have any memory of this, and Capt Williamson and Capt Dobeson visiting your camp once a week with Col Moreau.  Does the rest house still exist?  Did you on your recent trip visit the graves, and camps?  Do you have any photos you can share? The jpg attached of the two graves was taken by a friend of mine (Tim Insole), and he restored the graves on behalf of the CWGC only about 3 or 4 years ago. Best regards, Prof Bernard de Neumann. From Me, I will keep the Professors email as long as I can for you Frank.

Christmas Day December 2006. I received the following document from Keith Rogers on behalf of the sons of Henry Lewis, Roy and Reginald. This letter was published in the British Ship Adoption Society magazine and referenced in a letter from the BSAS dated 13th July 1943 to Strick & Co. You will see from this letter just how true were the events related above.

SS ALLENDE

Letter from Radio Officer Henry Lewis to the school which had 'adopted' the Allende.

Torpedoed Crew's Adventure

"You have probably heard a great deal about this ship from Captain Williams  other members of her company; so I will try to arouse your interest, by giving you a short account of an unusual and somewhat unpleasant experience that befell me during the year from my joining her. I had been serving on another ship at the beginning of 1942 for nearly two years and had been for over one year in or near the Middle East. You can imagine how much I, for one, was looking forward to a re-union with my little family after such a prolonged voyage! As the Allende made her way, right down the Indian Ocean, round the Cape of Good Hope and up, and up the Atlantic Ocean one could see joy written on the faces of all members of the crew.

Only two or perhaps three weeks, and we would see home. We felt that the voyage was practically over as we approached the Equator on that long Northward run. Then early one night, there came that terrific explosion which upset all our bright expectations. Yes we had received a torpedo right in the engine room, and the ship immediately became lifeless, all lights were extinguished and there was nothing that could be done to save her. We simply had to take the necessary action to save the lives of all on board. I had broadcast distress messages and had done all that was possible to make certain that our position would be known to those who would be able to come to our rescue, when the Captain came along to the radio cabin and said it was time for us to get into the remaining boat. We lost no time in doing this, I can assure you, for the ship was riding very low in the water by then! A good thing we did too, as we had not pulled very far away when another torpedo struck and she disappeared in just a few moments.

Questioned By Submarine

"Well there we were; thirteen in a small "jolly boat"; and worse still, a boat that was damaged and water logged. To add to the troubles, the submarine came near and we were ordered alongside to answer a few quite unimportant questions. When leaving us by going astern, she created such a big wash that our boat simply overturned and we were left swimming. Nevertheless we managed to clamber on to the upturned boat but it only gave us a small respite, for another wave righted the boat and threw us back into the water. Fortunately, the water was warm and fairly calm so we felt no ill-effects other than sickness through swallowing salt water during the whole of the hour-and-a-half that we struggled to right the boat and bail her out. This operation was carried out with my cap (which had stuck to my head throughout) and the binnacle top (which with three oars was amongst the very few things left in the boat).

At last we were ready to go, having no water and the nearest land a good thirty six hours away, with the few implements that were left and with constant baling. There is little to tell about that long row except that we made a very good landing through the surf and rocks, being guided by a solitary native, who indicated the most sheltered part of the beach and afterwards led us, very tired and thirsty, to his village. Here, we were welcomed by the Chief and given food and drink. As the water looked rather dirty, most of us contented ourselves with milk from coconuts, of which, there appeared to be an endless supply.

The Natives Were Friendly

"So, we found ourselves safely on land, amongst friendly people, a few of whom could speak broken English as a result of the great amount of trading carried on in peacetime by various British companies along that coast. However, the Chief told us that we had landed on the Ivory Coast, which was French Territory, and he would be forced to send a runner to the nearest White Settlement with information about us and it would be necessary to wait the arrival of a French Official.

Meanwhile, he provided a new hut and more food and I, for one, slept quite soundly that night on a grass mat. In spite of our spill, no one had been lost although sharks were all around the boat when daylight came. Probably the explosions had frightened them off for the time being. Our chief worry then was about the remainder of the survivors who had got away in one of the lifeboats and we felt that they were safe enough in a well-equipped and properly provisioned boat. Little did we realise that our troubles had only begun. Early the following morning, as we sat together on the beach, we found ourselves surrounded by a company of soldiers and were made to march to the nearest town seven miles away, in the blazing sun. It was a severe trial as no doubt you can imagine, for we had hardly any clothes, some no shoes, and no sun helmets. Again, however, we reached our objective safely and were led to an empty building and placed under armed guard. Here we lived several days, until, much to our joy, the other boat's crew were brought in, very footsore and weary. They had made landing two hundred miles to the eastward and made the journey back by surf boats and marches.

We were treated quite well and were given sun-helmets and reasonably good food. The vegetation was dense and typically tropical whilst fruit abounded and could be had for the mere picking. Then, one morning, we were told to prepare for a journey and were taken on board a warship, thinking it meant repatriation. But our fond hopes were dashed next morning when we were taken ashore at a small town, called Sassandra, which you may find in your atlas, on the northern side of the Gulf of Guinea (Equatorial Africa) and about two hundred miles along the coast. Again we were housed for a few days under guards and fairly well treated, but still without any indication of release.

Through The Jungle

"Well from then on, our adventures (I suppose I may call them that) began to be unpleasant. We were to be taken into the interior country. It was a long, long journey over rough and wild stretches in open lorries, through jungle, then savannah, and gradually to semi-desert - hundreds and hundreds of miles - always to the northward; traveling by day and sleeping by the side of the track or in small convenient towns by night. Sometimes the food was fairly good, but generally very rough-and-ready. So, the continued exposure to the sun, bad water and generally rough traveling began to affect the health of most of us and we reached the upper River Niger, at a place called Mopti, in very poor condition. Even the two days' rest there did not improve matters and we began a further journey in canoes not knowing where we were going and in rather miserable spirits, although we still felt that the Frenchmen were probably taking us to British Territory by an overland route.

These canoes were 70ft. long, being constructed of pieces of wood sewn together with fibre cord. They were, consequently, leaky and had to be baled out frequently. Even then a good deal of water remained in the bottom and it was on this, we had to make our beds! A layer of sticks, on which the "mattresses" were laid, did not entirely keep things dry. The crew consisted of seven boys (they are really great big negroes and immensely strong), three at each end who paddled or poled according to the depth of water, and a headman, who also prepared and cooked the food. Each craft was allotted eleven or twelve prisoners (for by this time we began to realise our position) and an armed guard, giving just enough space for lying full length when packed nice and straight like so many sardines in a tin

It was not possible to sit up properly because of a thatched roof, so we took it in turns to sit on top of that in the fresh air. Twelve days of traveling thus, brought us to what was to be our home - a prison camp in a place you have probably heard of, Timbuctoo! In all, from the day our ship was lost to the day we reached this camp, almost a month had passed, the greater part of which had been spent in very rough travelling.

Wild Animals and Birds

"It is true, that we saw much of the interior of Africa, much of it wild, ranging from dense jungle to the Sahara Desert, and saw many strange sights. Of big game, not much was to be seen although groups of animals could sometimes be picked out in the distance. Monkeys, wild boar and all sorts of birds were a common sight, whilst on the river we often came upon crocodiles and hippos and water birds of all shapes and sizes - pelicans, flamingoes, geese and all the varieties ranging between, which can be seen in the zoo or in your picture books.

So we began our imprisonment, a sick looking crew for the river water and poor food, not to mention wet beds, finally made us really ill. To add to these misfortunes mosquitoes attacked us at night.

Separation from the Crew

"I will not bother you with details of life in such a camp. It is true that we were housed and fed sufficiently well to keep body and soul together and most of us became stronger, although never reaching normal health. I, for one, developed an abscess amongst other things and the military doctor decided to send me away for an operation. This entailed waiting for a convenient means of transport, as the hospital was about one thousand miles up river. At long last a French officer arrived in a small canoe containing a little cabin having two berths. He was on his way to hospital also and was willing to share with me. So, again I began travelling, but under vastly different conditions! In spite of my guard (who proved a very useful and willing fellow) I felt free and able to enjoy life. One outstanding memory of Timbuctoo remains. That was the beating of Tom-Toms, which could be heard on two or three nights a week when the natives held dances in the nearby village.

Long Canoe Journey

"During the 23 days" journey to Bamako my strength returned rapidly and I really had a good time. The crew paddled or poled leisurely and the Frenchman and I were able to shoot game or call in native villages on the way, where we bartered for eggs, milk or meat. If sheep were not available we bought a goat and very good eating it was. Sometimes we could get vegetables and fruit, especially if we stopped at a place occupied by the French Army. I was treated kindly by most Frenchmen and soon realised that the source of all our discomforts was the Vichy Authority together with the German and Italian Armistice Commission who controlled everything.

The scenery on that part of the River Niger is not pretty. It varies from sandy wastes, occasionally sparsely covered with weedy looking trees and coarse grass and dotted by anthills, some reaching as high as 30 feet. Where the river floods in the rainy season, some cultivation goes on, but it is too far to the North and is terribly hot and dry. Nearing Bamako the scenery became greener and much more attractive although still rugged. However, the hospital is situated on top of a mountain in comparatively cool air. It is a modernly equipped institution and, under the care of a good surgeon and friendly people, l soon regained my health.

Visit to Native Village

"Before closing this rambling and boring letter, I must tell you of one visit I made to a native village. My companion felt too lazy to go and look for food, so I decided to go myself. A village was to be seen about two miles away and looked fairly prosperous. Off I went, arriving later in the middle of it, to find the old Chief, surrounded by headmen sitting in conference in an open sided hut. In broken French I greeted them and the Chief answered in a similar manner (only his French was even worse than mine). Still we were able to understand each other with the aid of signs and I asked if he would sell me some eggs. He said "Oui" and sent for a carved teakwood stool for me to sit on while the little boys and girls ran round looking for the eggs.

There was very little conversation but they seemed pleased to meet an Englishman. After a while the eggs began to come in and I had to ask them to stop when all my pockets were full. I offered payment but they would accept none and asked me to remain seated. Soon a man brought me a large gourd of milk and I drank as much of that as I could. At last I was forced to get up and wish them all "Goodbye" most ceremoniously, and make my way to the canoe.

I had not gone far when I heard footsteps behind me and found a man following and carrying the gourd of milk. This he handed to me when I boarded the canoe and a few minutes after, another chap rushed down and gave me a live pullet, which I tethered to my bunk until we required to kill and eat it. This little story will give you an idea of the fundamental kindness of the African natives. They knew I was a prisoner, but did not allow that fact to prevent them doing me a good turn.

Repatriation and Home

"Well after six weeks in hospital, the great news came through that our entire crew had been exchanged for Frenchmen held in Allied territory. I was alone, of course, but was sent on a narrow gauge railway to the nearest point on the British Gambia border - a journey lasting 36 hours. Another short trek through the jungle brought me to the actual border and there I was handed over to the care of the nearest British Chieftain who helped me to the port of Bathurst.

Without further extraordinary adventures I eventually reached home - much to the delight of my two little boys, who never seem to tire of stories about Africa. With their mother, they naturally had been through an anxious time, especially at the beginning when the ship was known to be lost and the crew missing. Through the good offices of the United States Consul at Dakar, they first received news of us and were able to write letters and send parcels (which unfortunately were lost) with the help of the Red Cross Society.

I hope this story will give you much pleasure even if it is just a skeleton and is lacking in detail. No doubt you read many more thrilling adventures produced in this war. Still there it is! I hope you will do your best both in school and in games and will now wish you all and your teachers "Good health and good luck". "

POSTSCRIPT - Henry Lewis returned to his job as a wireless telegraphy officer and was back at sea in February 1943, retired in 1965 and died (aged 78) in 1978. 

Merchant Navy Day.com would like invite all families and relatives, friends and companions, to submit the names of their loved ones to the commemoration page
for 3rd September in recognition of their contribution to the years 1939-1945.

www.merchantnavyday.com

Thanks to Audrey & John Williamson for the Diary. Thanks also to Frank Brookes (SS Allende), Ray Bennett, Alan S Pope

Base note: Regarding ‘River Blindness’ This is now not only preventable but curable with a drug developed for animal use – Ivermectin. It is manufactured by Merck and has been profitable in agriculture for treating worms in sheep, cattle, pigs. It is highly effective in treating River Blindness, and Merck give its human version (tablet) free, for distribution by a Haywards Heath Charity called Sightsavers. Thanks to Tim Sesemann for that info.

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