- McIntosh, Ian, Sub-Lieutenant, RN
- Biographies and personal histories, WWII operations, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 2008 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Those in the boat showed a surprising degree of apathy and some reluctance to help in any of the tasks required. The main burden therefore fell on a small number of men. Lieutenant Frank West RNVR, (‘Frank’), the nominated Senior Naval Officer, was a fire-fighting expert called up for duty with the Fleet Air Arm and was on his way to a Naval Air Station in Egypt. He was as a consequence rather lost in the sea environment. The ship’s Third Mate, William MacVicar, (‘Bill’), an excellent man though without experience in handling small boats on the high seas, was a valuable support, and he and I were deeply involved in the navigation and in the general maintenance of the boat, and renewing the rigging when needed. David Purdy (‘Dave’) had been a commercial traveller for Lea & Perrins Worcester Sauce and, when called up, was logically put into the Supply Branch. With little knowledge of the sea, he was, nevertheless, a willing helper in whatever was required. Finally, there was Lieutenant Bill Lyons, an RNR officer, who, in his late forties, seemed to me, a 20 year-old, positively elderly. His vital contribution was his knowledge of the South American coast.
Frank West and Bill MacVicar got all our motley crew sorted out into their various groups and settled in suitable parts of the boat and then mustered them. This head-count revealed that we had 82 men onboard, one-third Europeans and two-thirds Indians. Since the licensed Board of Trade lifesaving capacity was 56, we were very over-laden.
The lifeboat was a fairly common type then, wooden hulled, clinker built, 28ft long but broad in the beam with quite a high freeboard. Buoyancy tanks were fitted along either side with slatted seats over and wooden panels protecting them. A number of thwarts were fitted, including two or three low ones, beneath some of which were water and biscuit containers. The forward thwart provided a sort of tabernacle for the mast that we had stepped the first day. She had a foresail and a main laced to a dipping lug, a rig that with an almost wholly amateur crew was difficult to handle beating into wind but presented few problems if running free – unless the helmsman was careless. The rigging was simple but almost entirely rotten, and frequent renewal was necessary throughout the voyage.
The two stays for the mast, though of tarred hemp, had to be used as a main halyard, being replaced by the two salvaged tow-lines from the life rafts. The fore halyards were twice replaced by light lines in the boat-bag, and finally, a day or two before landing, I had to unpick the bolt-rope around an un-rotten part of the boat’s cover – not very suitable but it served – for we had nothing else by this time.
When night fell with tropical suddenness, we were all wet, tired and very cold, however we had to spend the night baling continuously as the rags in the shrapnel holes let much water in and whenever we seemed to be making some progress the heavily laden lifeboat would ship more water, so low was the freeboard. I remained at the helm for the whole of that first night whilst the other officers organised and controlled the baling.
With the dawn we found ourselves alone on the wreckage-strewn sea, for despite the sea anchor, the lifeboats had drifted apart during the night. Plugging the four known shrapnel holes with cloth had helped but this was clearly inadequate and something more effective and robust was needed.
Looking at our resources, we had a small hatchet which could be used as a hammer, and a strong pair of scissors from the meagre medical kit which enabled us to cut out not only suitable pieces of blanket but also allowed me to cut up the metal of used condensed milk tins. These tins, 48 in all, were stowed in a light wooden packing case which, dealt with carefully, provided nails about 1½ inches long that could be straightened and re-used. With these resources I was able to make four ‘tingles’, each of tin with pre-punched holes, and two layers of blanket.