- McDonald, I.H., Captain, RAN (Ret)
- Biographies and personal histories, WWII operations
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 1991 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
VALIANT’s half-inch machine gunners must have been pretty alert when the conning tower surfaced, as they loosed off a few rounds at it while it was in sight, but to no avail, as U 331 was brought to the surface some months later between Malta and Tripoli, by depth charges from Fleet Air Arm aircraft.
I helped the Admiral unscrew the ‘tit’ of his life jacket, so that he could inflate it, and then we all beat it down the various ladders to the upper deck to get over the six inch gun barbette and on to the ship’s bottom and into the sea. The ship was still surging ahead.
All my friends on the Bridge were lost, except for P-W, who miraculously got away from the starboard side of the ship and met me again on the Wardroom deck of the destroyer HOTSPUR which picked us up. On the way down I saw Jimmy Warren (my Signal Bosun) exhorting his young Signalmen on the Flag deck not to panic – but they hadn’t a chance, they were all lost.
When I scrambled over the barbette and onto the heavily barnacle encrusted ship’s bottom and over the bilge keel, it was probably only about four minutes since the ship had been hit. I estimate she then had a list of about sixty degrees. Those of us who were scrambling over the barnacles, which were pretty sharp, were close to the swirling sea when there was a tremendous shudder throughout the ship which turned out to be a major explosion in one of the fifteen inch magazines aft. One sailor near me said ‘Christ, another torpedo’, and another said ‘Nah, the bastard’s blowin’ up’. That was enough for me to hurl myself at the sea and hope for the best.
When I hit the sea, the ship was rapidly disintegrating by the force of the tremendous explosion. Gun turrets and pieces of superstructure were being hurled hundreds of feet into the air, and I was immediately engulfed in the vortex of a 33,000 ton battleship which was sinking rapidly. I had no control of my limbs which were at the mercy of the swirling water, but I had the presence of mind to hold my breath as long as I could. I think my first attempt lasted about three-quarters of a minute. The second wasn’t so good because I breathed in some water, but when I tried again I was apparently in the middle of a God-sent bubble until I surfaced – on the point of giving up the ghost and barely conscious. Nearer my God to thee!
I could see nothing because of the pall of black smoke covering the sea. I think I can owe my miraculous survival to the efficiency of my inflated ‘Gieves Waistcoat’ as I have never been able to swim more than about fifty yards at the best of times.
When I could see where I was, the ship had gone, and there were no signs of life nearby. The surface of the sea was covered with oil fuel and so was I. When I was submerged I had time to think of my mother and my wife, but my over-riding thought was to survive – and I was lucky.
There was an uncanny calm and quietness after the turmoil of the earlier few minutes. The sea, which had fortunately been smooth as BARHAM sank was, as far as I could see, a vast area of oil fuel and debris, with at that time no signs of life. So much had happened during the five minutes or so since the torpedoes hit, and there had been so much to think of and do, that at that stage of the proceedings there hadn’t been time to be frightened – but the horror of the event ”sank in” a couple of weeks later when all the facts were known and I realised the extent of the disaster and the losses involved.
When I could see for a hundred yards or so around me, I experienced a feeling of extreme loneliness, and (later) likened my circumstances to those of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, as being….
Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide sea.