Experience of Constable Mara
We were rushed off from Camp Borden in quite a hurry. We had a miserable train journey, sitting up two nights in filthy coaches. We had a morning in Montreal, and I managed to get a few final things which I now regret buying, as it was just a waste of money.
We reached the eastern Canadian port on Saturday night and when we awoke the following Monday, the ship was out at sea. It was only a small ship of about 5,000 tons and we traveled alone. We reached Newfoundland in a couple of days and spent one day there. As it was St. George’s Day and Newfoundland, being a Crown Colony, had a holiday, there was not much doing….. In this city we had our first encounter with cars driven on the left-hand side of the road. It seemed very silly, too, since most of the cars were American-made.
At this point we got rid of a stowaway-a wire-haired terrier that had come aboard the last trip and had been over to England and back. He was a very affectionate little pooch and when our whistle blew he came running down to the dock and tried to get aboard. Two stowaways did manage to get on, both soldiers, and stayed for the rest of the trip.
I was a little seasick the first day out but I think it was probably the tail end of the flu. Our quarters were good as it was a troopship, we were travelling as passengers. The crew was all English and I’d like to bet the cook had never tasted a decent cup of coffee, let alone made one.
We had the days free and had to amuse ourselves as best we could. There was a canteen aboard at which you could buy beer, soft drinks and cigarettes, and which was open at various hours during the day. Cigarettes were 15 cents for twenty-five or 15 cents for twenty if they were American. I had several hundred stowed away and I sure wish I had them now. The beer was rotten and I didn’t touch it; ginger ale was my favourite beverage until it ran out and then a weak, orange-coloured liquid had to do.
The food was good but nothing like the food on ships during peacetime. We had two sittings for meals, troops eating first. Walking the deck, sleeping, eating, playing cards and reading was all there was to do until we reached the danger zone when we had various watches to do. This usually amounted to about six hours a day, and we were glad of it as it helped pass the time away.
The weather was fairly good all the time and the sea was always calm but the ship must have been rather flat-bottomed as she pitched and rolled continually. There were four in our cabin, the last in the stern of the ship; consequently it was very noisy as the propeller could be heard plainly. Compared to the beds on the train and at Camp Borden, our bunks were quite comfortable, and I slept like a log most of the way. The last two days we slept with our clothes on and had to carry our life-belts with us or wear them all the time. We sighted one or two ships going the other way.
On the morning of Apr. 30, we were told that we were about two days out. A British plane picked us up; all that day we had a plane flying about the ship. About 11:30 (British time) that night, we had just finished playing cards. I had just put my life-jacket in my cabin and gone into the wash-room about four yards away.
Suddenly there was a terrific explosion on the starboard side. We guessed it was a torpedo, and we were right. All the lights went out; I was thrown against the steel partition of the washroom and dazed a bit. I had to strike a match to find my way out. Already there was water in the corridor; men were rushing past my cabin so I couldn’t get in to get my lifebelt. There was absolutely no panic and we got to our boat stations all right, mine being on the port side. Luckily the list of the ship was not great; it did not prevent launching the boat. But all did not go well and down went the stern first with me in it. I got my first sea bath right then and there. As luck would have it, I was holding tight as I had a hunch something would happen. Eventually the bow came down but the boat was swamped. Some of the boys got out and swam for it; two of them were R.C.M.P. lads and they got hold of a raft. The remainder of us, nineteen in all, stayed put because the airtight drums in the bow and stern kept us afloat. With any more in the boat though, they wouldn’t have.
The sub came around to our side of the ship and passed within fifty feet of us. They leg to another torpedo and it passed under our boat blasting into the stern of the ship, just opposite our cabin. The third charge struck just before the boilers blew up. The whole middle portion of the ship exploded leaving the stern and the bow afloat for a few seconds. It was just luck that we weren’t hit by bits of the ship flying about; we picked up pieces of it in the boat next morning.
There was absolutely no suction when the ship went down, as I came across a Negro the next day who had been swimming when the bow went down, narrowly missing him.
The sub came to the surface about half a mile away, showing all its lights; I’m glad to say we didn’t drift near it. It came to the surface again about three hours later and signaled to other subs with flares. Not knowing at first what it was, we tried to signal to it with our flashlight.
We had only two of the ship’s crew with us-one a steward who went mad and died within an hour, the other the ship’s doctor, who didn’t speak all night; apparently he didn’t know much, if anything about lifeboats. They are fitted to carry a lot of equipment but we didn’t know where anything was and because the boat was awash, the floor boards were loose and made it difficult to find things. The plug was out of the bottom so we had to stand in water up to our waists the whole night until we were picked up-eight and a-half-hours later. All the time we bailed water out with our hands and thus managed to keep about two inches of the gunwale in view most of the time. It didn’t do much good but the exercise helped to keep us warm and the big weaves only came up to our chests instead of going clean over us. Most of the night it rained, but there was little wind.
After a few hours some of the men started to go, and by the time we were rescued we had lost seven of the nineteen. Our feet were so stiff we could hardly move. We managed to get only two bodies overboard, the rest were floating about in the boat. It wasn’t a pleasant sight. There were three of us R.C.M.P. chaps in the boat, all standing side by side. We kept in touch with the other boats and rafts by flashlight, and it was certainly comforting to know that someone else was about, even though we were nowhere near enough to them if anything happened. The signaling sub was an encouraging sight too as all we could see was the flares, and we thought possibly it might be a rescue ship. We started to sing for a while but decided it was a waste of energy, and we needed all of that we had.
I hardly stopped bailing at all from 11:30 p.m. until 7:30 a.m., when the rescuing destroyer was first sighted. About 6:00 a.m. our would be escort plane spotted us and gave our exact position to the destroyer; we learned later that it had been sent the night before, after our ship’s SOS had been picked up. At dawn we could see the other lifeboats and rafts; we were all bunched together pretty well, within about a half mile radius.
We were the first bunch the destroyer came upon, about 8:00 a.m. but they passed by us, much to our disgust, and came back later; most of us had to be hauled aboard with ropes. Never have I seen such a welcome sight as that destroyer! And the treatment they gave us when we got aboard-it was wonderful; something I will never forget. My fingers were so numb from being in the water, I had to be undressed. After a good rubdown, they put dry clothes on us, gave us breakfast, hot tea and a good shot of rum-and so to bed. All our clothes were taken away, dried, and given back in the afternoon.
We lost Charlie Johnstone. He was with us up on the boat deck where the lifeboats were, but no one saw him after that. Only a very small number of all the people aboard the ship (including the crew) survived.
I sprained my ankle sometime during the night; but it was not till the following afternoon, when I started to get some feeling in my legs and feet, that I noticed it. We reached port late in the afternoon and transferred to a corvette, which brought us here. We were admitted about 10:00 p.m. I didn’t feel too bad as I had a good sleep in a hammock on the destroyer. I think it was one of the most comfortable things I’ve ever slept in.
There are four of us R.C.M.P. men in hospital, two with colds and the other with badly cut up legs and feet. I was wearing my battle dress and canvas shoes at the time, but the shoes came off somehow. All my personal kit went down. It was quite an experience but not as bad as it sounds as we knew we’d be picked up next day when the escort plane came out to meet the ship.
The food here in hospital is ten times as good as it was at Camp Borden. Apparently it is not so scarce here as we thought; or perhaps in hospital, one gets better rations. I’ve had afternoon tea twice in Londonderry and had all I could eat with lots of sugar and butter. Cigarettes are hard to get though and all the shops have signs up to that effect.
The Force will be very sorry to hear about Charlie Johnstone. He is the first casualty of our unit. However, we had the highest percentage saved of any unit by a long way and we are all extremely lucky to be alive. We were told that the next night they got the sub that did us in. It deserved the worst fate possible, for if there had been only one torpedo, which was sufficient to sink the ship, I think most of the people would have been saved. But using three made the ship go down in about five minutes.
Reference: R.C.M.P. Quarterly, Vol. 9 No. 1, July 1941