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Shipwreck. By AKA.


Told to me by a man at a Rehabilitation centre in Devizes 1957


He was a wireless operator on a minesweeper during the war,lent with its crew to the Russians, and stationed at Murmansk and Archangel.

On their way home to England for refitting, sailing towards the end of a convoy, they were torpedoed off Spitzbergen. He was seated in the radio room, clad in shirt, sweater, pants, trousers, socks and lace-up boots, but no life-jacket because he had not been given time to collect one at Portsmouth, before joining the ship, and once on board found there was no spare life-jacket of the inflatable type.

He and two others in the cabin were blown into the air when the torpedo struck, and he blacked out. He never saw either of them again. When he came to and staggered on deck, the ship was listing badly. He scrabbled to the side in windy darkness and plunged into the sea. They had been told that survival time in this sea was ten minutes, and that other ships in the convoy were forbidden to turn back to seek survivors.

He wasn't a strong swimmer, but struck out in no direction. He had swallowed water mixed with oil from the sinking ship. He kept coughing. Why wasn't he dying of cold?

A voice said: 'Over here, hang on to this. Save energy.' He found himself clinging to a baulk of wood. They stayed afloat for at least forty-five minutes while stronger men and better swimmers gave up and went under.

His eyes got accustomed to the dark. A ship had disobeyed instructions and turned back. The waves and the wind were pushing them towards the ship. He could see figures. Ropes had been lowered. He saw a man trying to climb, slipping and falling into the sea. Another tried with the same result. 'Covered in oil.' his companion said. 'Can't grip. Wait They'll find a ladder.'

Ten minutes later. 'They've got one. Let's go.'.They began to swim. The waves were held down by oil. He was grappling with the ladder. He couldn't pull himself up. Someone pushed him from behind. His hands kept slipping. He was gripped by the collar and heaved onto the deck.

'Thank your Ma,' the sailor said. ‘She's praying for you.'

Later, in a cabin, he was told that oil had saved him, keeping out the cold.

For weeks afterwards he was vomiting oil. He never discovered who his companion was. Forty men were saved from crew of 180.

He found that one leg was full of shrapnel and useless. He hadn't known that until he was safe. He couldn't understand how his laced boots had disappeared.

He was invalided out of the Navy because of his leg, which would not bend at the knee. Nothing helped until he was persuaded to buy a fixed-wheel bicycle, and gradually grew able to pedal.

As a result, he lost his disablement pension, but could now play cricket. He never overcome his guilt at having survived.

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