Eyewitness Account of Torpedoing
City Soldier Spent Night in Half-floating Boat
Details of the sinking of a British merchant ship in April, 1941, with an estimated loss of 300 lives, including 122 Canadian soldiers and sailors, 11 of them Victorians, were told today for the first time by Sgt. Vernon Bruce, 1325 Johnson Street, who is now convalescing from the after-effects of a grueling night in a half-filled lifeboat tossed by the ice-cold waves of the north Atlantic.
Bruce is one of Victoria’s unsung World War II heroes. On arriving in Canada he was sent to various military hospitals to undergo further treatment and only recently received his discharge from the army.
The unassuming youth, who was born in Victoria and educated at Oaklands and Victoria High School, told his story Wednesday afternoon in the living-room of his parents’ home.
The story began at the outbreak of war on Sept. 3, 1939. Bruce joined the army here the next day and was posted to Work Point as a member of the Corps of Military Staff Clerks. He was here until the spring of 1941.
LEAVES FOR BRITAIN
Bruce in company with six other staff clerks from Victoria, left for the east coast of Canada, en route to Britain.
The other six youths were Sgt. Fred Harding, Pte. William R. Bateman, Sgt. Stanley L. Lock, Cpl. William F. Budell, Sgt. Maj. Owen Bentley, and Cpl. John L. Leadbetter. They were all killed or died following the sinking.
Arriving at an eastern Canadian port, the group went on board the ship the next day on the start of a voyage which took 10 days and which only 72 of the total of about 375, survived.
Bruce and the other staff clerks from Victoria occupied two very small cabins adjoining each other on one of the lower decks of the ship. Everything went fine and the youths arranged when they reached the danger zone off Ireland to have one of them stay up each night so that should anything happen they would be warned immediately.
The night of the sinking, Bruce went to bed early as usual in his clothes. The others were elsewhere in the ship.
Without warning there were two explosions. “I heard the first,” Bruce said, “and I felt the second”. He was knocked out by the explosion.
Apparently Bruce recalls the second torpedo struck the ship very close to his cabin. On awakening, Bruce found himself in the corridor outside where his cabin had been. The corridor was rapidly being filled with water. Timbers were crashing. Bruce floated up on the tide as it swept [ illegible ].
“I decided to try to swim against the water coming into the ship,” he said but it was to no avail. I was swept backwards and eventually found myself in the engine room.”
The crew were struggling to get out, he said, and finding himself by a ladder, Bruce began to climb upwards.
“I might say there was no panic,” he said. “They all seemed cool, knowing what to do.
At the top of the engine-room ladder, Bruce found himself on the boat deck.
A lifeboat was just leaving. I jumped in. I had no life preserver. I tied myself to the boat.
The lifeboat apparently had been damaged by the torpedo explosion. On striking the water it went right under, but rose again, half full of water. The men pushed away from the side of the ship. There were 21 persons in the boat.
When the boat was about 300 yards from the sinking ship, some of the men noticed what they thought was a raft. They tried to go towards it when they noticed it was not a raft but a submarine conning tower.
Before their eyes, the submarine jockeyed into position on the other side of the ship and fired a third torpedo, which broke the ship in two.
While the ship settled into the water the captain (Bruce does not remember his name) shot rockets into the air to mark the position for possible nearby ships.
The captain, a veteran of three or four torpedoings in the first World War and two or three of the present war, shouted “good luck, boys”. He went down with his ship.
The night in the open boat, half filled with water, the oars broken or still lashed to the boat, was the most horrible experience Bruce ever went through.
None of the men were properly clothed. The wind blew icy cold. Waves continually broke over the lifeboat. Then it rained and the sea became calmer.
ADRIFT 12 HOURS
The survivors sat in the ice-cold water for 12 hours. Not realizing the air tanks of the boat would keep them afloat, all night they bailed the water with their hands. They were 350 miles north of Ireland. There was no land. There was no light except the infrequent lantern flashes of other lifeboats, made so the survivors would not become separated.
Although the bailing of the water from the boat did nothing to keep the boat floating it saved the lives of 12 of the 21 in the lifeboat. Those who did not exercise died of the cold.
Bruce said all those who survived owed their lives to an unknown eastern Canadian sailor who, sitting with the rest of them up to his waist in water, kept shouting at the men to bail harder, struck anyone who stopped bailing or who showed any signs of sleepiness.
“It was darn cold,” he said “But there was no crying or signs of emotion. Everybody took it calmly. We tried to talk and sing all night.”
Bruce’s friend, Cpl. John Leadbetter, who was in the lifeboat died of the cold.
“We were singing the Beer Barrel Polka at the time,” Bruce recalled. “Suddenly Johnny just pitched forward. He was dead.”
Three other Victorians, Pte. John H.F. Mara, L.Bdr. Lionel P. Cockrell and L.Bdr. Peter L. Cockburn, also in the lifeboat survived.
As soon as it was light a Hudson bomber which the day before had escorted the ship towards Ireland, but had left before the torpedoing reappeared. By 10.30 two British destroyers approached.
Then, while aid was in sight, the sailor broke down, worn out by his efforts to keep the others busy. He died in the arms of two of his companions as the destroyers neared to pick up the survivors.
Bruce’s lifeboat was the last one to be picked up by the destroyer, but once on board the men were quickly stripped of their wet clothes and wrapped in warm blankets.
Bruce said nothing was so welcome as the shot of navy rum they gave him as he came aboard the destroyer. He was soon asleep.
The survivors were well treated by the British navy boys who rescued them. Bruce himself lost everything, including his trousers. When he went ashore in Ireland it was in a pair of sailor’s pants, a gift of one of the destroyer crew.
The survivors were sent to hospital in Ireland. Bruce was there two weeks. On being released he went to the Canadian military headquarters.
He was soon back in hospital again, suffering from pleurisy. As soon as he was better from that he was brought to Canada on a Red Cross ship. Since he arrived back home he has still been taking treatments for some of the after-effects of the bitter night at sea in an open boat picked up, and spent three months in hospital following the ordeal.
A graduate of Sandhurst Military College, England, Lt. Cockrell was presented with a Sam Browne belt, which is given to top-ranking officer cadets.
Reference: Vancouver Daily Province 1941