The Narrative of My Only Sea Adventure
(I Hope!) 11.7.1943
March 23rd 1943
Being my own personal experiences of the torpedoing of the “Windsor Castle” on that day.
The day previous, 22nd March 1943, we, 2,000 troops, airmen and soldiers, had been given instructions for disembarkation, having almost reached our destination, the port of Algiers. We were at that time approximately 100 miles off Oran on the French North African Coast. Having been given these instructions we went to bed leaving our kit ready to pick up a moment’s notice and not even undressing, (by this I mean we did not take off our boots, for of course we never undressed while on board, as we were warned to be ready to disembark any time during the night.
At approximately 2.30am, 23rd March 1943, I was awakened by a violent jarring of my hammock which almost swung me out. I do not recall hearing any sound of an explosion at the time. About 5 seconds after this, the most pitiful cries made by human beings, I have ever heard, came to my ears. These were made by men sleeping right up against no. 4 hold, where the torpedo struck, and by a few sleeping on deck. We immediately got out of our hammocks and start to get our life-belts and water-bottles. Of course no lights were on. I cannot even remember seeing any emergency lights on, though I think there must have been. After some few minutes searching I managed to find my water-bottle and life-jacket and get them on. I remember I also found my mess-tin and fastened it to my water-bottle as I had 1 dozen bars of chocolate inside. Afterwards, when it was light and I was in the sea I discovered it was not my own mess-tin, so I threw it in the sea. After about 10 minutes the order was given over the loudspeakers “Abandon ship quietly” so we all filed up on deck, just as we had done it before on boat drill. When we had been on deck a few minutes, I heard that 2 men who had been amongst the first on deck, had fallen down the hold. The explosion in No. 4 hold had blown all the hatches off. I think both the men were brought up, but they were badly hurt and neither lived. By this time the first of the rafts had been lowered and an officer was asking for 6 volunteers who could swim to push the rafts away from the side. As of course I could swim, I took off my boots and slid down the rope into the water which was bitterly cold, though not quite so cold as I had expected. Our raft was very much overcrowded, I think there 10 on instead of 6 anyway we started to push and eventually the raft was well away from the ship, though rather by the drift of the tide than by our exertions. When we had been in the water about 30 minutes a destroyer came circling round with its searchlight sweeping the sea, it was a very heartening sight.
Several times it came within a few yards of us and each time we all shouted as loud as we could but either they did not hear us or they could not stop just then to pick us up. One time when the destroyer came close, I left the raft and struck out towards the path it would, but I was hampered by my life-jacket and the ship was going a good speed, so I had to return to the raft, though by that time it was out of sight but I managed to find it again by the sound of their shouting.
Soon after this we seemed to drift further out and we could see neither other rafts, lifeboats nor the two ships. All the time about 5 chaps on the raft who could not swim, persisted in sitting on top of the raft. (Rafts provided on troopships are meant for men to hang on to ropes at the side.) Of course this was making the raft very top heavy with the result that when a big wave struck us, the raft overturned. As I could see this was going to happen, I kept well away from the raft. Actually I was only on the raft for about 5 minutes the whole time we were in the water. I just kept treading water by the side, thus keeping myself comparatively warm though by this time most of us were pretty well numbed by the cold. It was soon after this that a lifeboat came in sight, which we shouted but unfortunately it was already very much overcrowded, so could not take us on board.
As it was going out of sight one of the men on the raft, Sam Wright, who had been growing very weak, seemed to drift out from the raft towards the lifeboat. He had been asking the men on the raft to hold him on, but of course they were having difficulty in keeping on themselves. In fact none of us were in any condition to do anything but look after ourselves. It was every man for himself. So although we could see him drifting away and not attempting to swim, although he had been swimming earlier on, we couldn’t do anything about it. That was the last anyone ever saw of him.
About 15 minutes after this we seemed to drift back towards the ships and we could occasionally see a few lifeboats, then a small motor lifeboat came round picking up the men out of the boats and taking them to the destroyer P 45 H.M.S. Eggesford. Soon after we sighted the motorboat we were picked up by it. The sailors had to pull us out of the water we were so weak. There were two of us who were capable of moving about so we were kept busy rubbing and slapping the others to get some life back in them. We found out later that it was about 6am when we were picked up, so we had been in the water almost 3 hours. Another raft was picked up shortly after we were and then we just kept cruising round the ship, Windsor Castle P 41, which was by this time getting low in the sea at the stern, though it was only going down very slowly. One time when we passed the ship, some of the sailors who were still on board got some bread rolls, syrup and cigarettes and threw them down as we passed, we soon wolfed all this as we were ravenous.
About 5 minutes after eating the rolls 6 of the chaps were very sea-sick, mostly I think from the effects of the sea-water they had swallowed. I didn’t swallow any or very little anyway so I was not affected, though the small boat was rocking about a lot.
At approximately 8.30am we sighted a destroyer which had returned. It stopped about ½ a mile from the ship and we made towards it and went alongside. As soon as the waves permitted we hung on to the rails of the destroyer and were soon pulled aboard by willing hands.
When we got on deck we could hardly stand, but we were soon helped down into the engine room, where it was comparatively warm. I took everything off except my trousers. It was too chilly for that and there was nothing available to put round me. There were already a number of survivors aboard who had been picked up earlier on. We soon got a hot cup of tea which was very welcome. All we got to eat however was a tin of tomatoes (uncooked) as the destroyer itself was rather short of rations.
At about 4.30 we got our first sight of Algiers which was very welcome, not because it was Algiers, but it signified the end of the journey and we could get our feet on dry land. Rather painful land however as of course we had no boots and the quayside is merely pebbles. We were soon all, more or less sorted out into drafts, 7262 ours was.
The Lorries soon came up for those without boots, but all those with boots had to march to Hussan Dey which about 4 miles from the docks.
The original plans had been for us all to march right to Maison Blanche, which is where we are stationed now, and is about 15 miles from Algiers.
When we reached Hussan Dey we had tea which consisted of bread, butter and jam, as we had no utensils of any sort. Afterwards we were shepherded into tents. We had nothing but the deck to lie on and our water-bottles for a pillow, but we were glad to be able to feel the ground under us. About 9pm when it was quite dark some blankets were got for us and we had 2 each. Next day we got organised on some palliases. It was 3 days before we got any boots and by that time our feet were pretty sore.
There I think is the end of this narrative. We moved to Maison Blanche aerodrome about 3 weeks after and are there now 11.7.1943.
All this is true and is not at all exaggerated in anyway.
D. Birch 1735029 L.A.C. R.A.F. B.N.A.F.