Rafts and Rescue

A recently discovered document among the private papers of Lt Commander Watson, the senior surviving officer, sheds new light on what happened to the men of HMS Dunedin after the ship was hit by two torpedoes.

Tucked away among Watson’s papers was a scruffy piece of paper with pencil scribblings showing the number of rafts that were rescued, the number of men who originally made it to each raft after the sinking, the number of officers on the rafts and the number of survivors. For the first time, we have a first-hand record of the make-up of the small flotilla of Carley rafts and one flotanet which was spotted by the American merchant ship Nishmaha on 27th November 1941. You can see a copy of this here.

The discovery of this document has prompted me to revisit the many other documents and accounts of the sinking and the rescue to piece together a fuller picture of those terrible days and to place – as far as possible -individual men on specific rafts. In addition, I can now include a second report that Commander Watson (as he had by then become) wrote in late 1942 for the Survival at Sea sub-committee of the Royal Naval Personnel Research Committee. This report contains more detail on the sinking and on what happened on and around the rafts. Some of the detail is distressing, but the report is now included on this website for completeness. You can see it as a pdf document, in two parts here.

What follows is as accurate an account as I can glean from several sources, including the new Watson documents. Much of it relies on the detailed accounts written by Roy Murray, who was the first man in Nishmaha to spot the rafts bobbing up and down on the South Atlantic swell on the early evening of 27th November, including a letter – only recently found – written by him to his father on 1st December 1941 while the survivors were still on board. I am indebted to the family of Roy Murray for making this letter available to us. The text of the letter is here. In addition we have the first hand memories of the survivors we have been privileged to know, including those of my father, William Gill, and Jim Davis, Harry Cross, Andrew (Boy) McCall, Les Barter, Bertie Jeffreys, John Miles, Albert Cooke  and Arthur Binley. We are indebted, too, to EJ Stevenson, Harold Woodley, SR Wood, Michael Shinn and Robert Rainbow, whom the Society did not meet but whose families have generously donated their written accounts of their experiences. With these vital memories and a number of other letters, the source list is surprisingly long. Of course, the bedrock of the official story was set down initially by Lt-Commander Watson himself and later in his second report. For this, we are, in turn, grateful to the efforts of Lt Milner who gathered much of the information for Lt-Commander Watson in the immediate aftermath of the rescue.

Where I have named an individual member of the ship’s company, you will be able to click on his name to go to his own page on the website.

Much of Watson’s account was gathered in the days following the sinking, both during the voyage in Nishmaha and afterwards in Trinidad. In their own accounts written later, individual survivors recalled the events with understandably varying degrees of accuracy. In the heightened tension, relief and swirling emotions of the rescue operation, the men would have been anxious to get off the rafts and into the rescue boats and only later would they have tried to remember precisely how many men were on their respective rafts. It would have been easier for the likes of my Father who was one of only three survivors, but estimates of the numbers on the other rafts would have been less reliable.

Amidst the confusion, Watson was able to glean from Milner (who did a sterling job gathering information from the survivors) how many men were on each raft at the point of rescue. Watson’s scribbled notes tell us the following:

145 men made it to the rafts after Dunedin had been sunk. At the point of rescue, seventy two men were left on six Carley rafts and one flotanet. Of these, four were officers and five others died on board Nishmaha.

For the purposes of this article, I have labelled, in Table 1, each raft C1 to C7 in the order that I think they were rescued by the crew of Nishmaha. Lt-Commander Watson’s raft was C6.

Raft occupants Died of injuries Died of exposure Died on Nishmaha Survivors
12(C2/3) 1 5 1 5
17 (C6) 3 6 0 1+7
26 (C2/3) 18 1 7
20 (C1) 4+13 3
31 (C4/5) 3 5 3 20
32 (C7) 3 6 3+20
Total 138
Flotanet occupants
7 (C4/5) 1+5 1
145 10 5+58 5 4+63

Table 1

In addition to Watson’s account, we have access to the records of Roy Murray, who first sighted the rafts from Nishmaha, and to several other accounts of survivors. Given that the Watson and Murray accounts were written fairly soon after the event, I have tended to give them more credence in drawing up the basic facts of the rescue. In some cases it has been difficult to reconcile different recollections about the numbers on specific rafts, so I have had to make reasoned judgements.

It is generally agreed that Nishmaha came across the rafts late in the day on 27th November, as the sun began to dip towards the horizon, but the records show some disagreement over how long the rescue took to complete. For the most part it is suggested that the seven rafts stayed close together from the sinking to the rescue, with at least two rafts physically connected for much of the time. In one account, the rescue was a very quick affair. In practice, it probably took much longer than the men realised and the rafts were spread out further than some recalled later.

According to Murray, he spotted something bobbing about on the swell at about 1700 some three miles away on the port bow. He called his Captain and they agreed it could be a raft with men on board. They couldn’t easily tell at first because the raft kept rising and falling on the swell, disappearing then reappearing. This raft, we can be sure, was C1 in the table.

As we know now, this was the raft containing my father, William Gill, and two other men, Thomas Moore (Ship’s Joiner) and Sgt-Major MacCauley (RM). According to my father (and Thomas Moore in his account), twenty-two men originally made it to the raft after Dunedin sank. My father remembered three other Marines who made it to the raft, but did not survive, Sgt AllenDyer and Rose. Moore records that the Chief Ordnance Artificer and someone called George were on the raft. I cannot identify George, but the COA was Patrick Kinsella.

After Roy had sighted this raft, Nishmaha altered course and headed towards it, launching, at some point, the ship’s number three lifeboat, which picked up the survivors and returned them to Nishmaha. In his account, Roy Murray describes the sea swell which made it difficult to bring the three “helpless” men on board.

Nishmaha then towed the lifeboat and set off towards the next two rafts (C2 and C3) some distance away, but which together contained around ten men (Watson’s table says there were twelve men on these two rafts from an original thirty eight). We have identified six of the twelve survivors (Jeffries; Binley; Davis; Miles; Butler; and Cross) and one other (Hudson), who did not survive.

With sunset approaching, Nishmaha proceeded to the next two rafts, C4 and C5, leaving the lifeboat to tend to C2 and C3. As the light continued to fade, Nishmaha launched a second lifeboat for rafts C4 and C5 and moved on to where they could see a light from another raft, C7 and where they launched a third lifeboat.

One of the seven rafts was a flotanet, a makeshift raft made of rope and corks. For the men on board, it was a very uncomfortable experience because they were always submerged in water. Dunedin had twelve of these but, according to Watson, only one was used. Commander Unwin was seen on this flotanet, refusing to take up precious space on a Carley raft. According to Watson, seven men were on the flotanet soon after Dunedin went down, with only one still there when Nishmaha arrived. Commander Unwin – the only officer on the flotanet – died along with five other, men. We don’t know their names or the name of the one survivor, but we think that the flotanet was either C4 or C5.

In addition to the one man left on the flotanet, there were twenty survivors on the nearby Carley raft, of which we can identify Wood, Hawks, Lavington and Shinn. Watson says eight men died on the Carley raft, but we can only identify one, Grant.

As the third lifeboat approached C7 in darkness, the crew could hear the shouts of men in C6, so they left C7, realising they could come back to her as long as C7’s torch light lasted. The lifeboat picked up eight men from C6 and twenty three in C7 and returned to Nishmaha. Watson, badly injured, was aboard C6, along with Thomas and Moore, the only other survivors we can place on this Carley raft. We know that Tall, Hay, Smith (JA) and Rowett all died on the rafts and the evidence suggests that they were on Watson’s raft. Milner; Titheridge; Jolliffe; McCall; Lowe; Stevenson; Morris; and Barter were among the twenty three survivors on C7, the last raft to be recovered. Three others on C7 (Brunton, Rutland and Peachey) died before Nishmaha arrived. A Canteen Assistant died on C7, but we cannot identify him from the available evidence. He would have been either Traviss, Matthews, or Yardley.

According to Murray, the whole operation took about five hours and the rafts were spread out about ten miles. Other accounts challenge this, but there is good reason to think that the operation took far longer than the men recall. Murray first spotted the first raft at around 1700 and he talked of being “detained” for four and a half hours. From first sight to the point when all the men were on board and all the lifeboats were secured, this sounds about right. The first raft was spotted some three miles away on the port bow and the next two were seen on the starboard bow as Nishmaha proceeded to the first one. It seems very likely, therefore, that the rafts were strung out over quite a long distance on a running sea and that it is not unreasonable to suggest that by the time Nishmaha wrapped up the operation, she could have travelled as far as ten miles.

The next question which Watson’s scribbled notes help us to answer is who was in which raft. Again, this is not easy, given the discrepancies in the various accounts available to us, but it has been possible, nevertheless, to make a start to construct a reasonably accurate list. Table 2, below, shows the names of forty men, who can be placed on specific rafts. I hope, in time, to be able to increase this number.

Table 2

Raft total Died of injuries Died of exposure Died on Nishmaha Survivors  Raft
12 1 5 1 5 C2/3
Jeffreys, B
Binley, CA
17 3 6 0 1+7 C6
Tall, H Rowett, LW Watson, AO
Hay, CJ Thomas, WC
Smith, JA Moore, R
26 0 18 1 7 C2/3
Hudson, AC Davis, RH (Jim)
Miles, JG
Butler, RD
Cross, H
20 0 4+13 0 3 C1
Allen, SW (RM) Gill, W
Rose, F (RM) Moore, T
Dyer, JJ (RM) MacAulay, RJ
Kinsella, P
George (anon)
31 3 5 3 20 C4/5
Grant, A Wood, SR
Hawks, F
Lavington, ETH
Shinn, R
32 3 6 0 3+20 C7
Brunton, T Milner, GE
Traviss, Matthews or Yardley Rutland, VA Titheridge, CG
Peachey, RH Jolliffe, EF
McCall, A (Boy)
Lowe, GH
Stevenson, EJ
Morris, CA
Barter, L
7 1+5 0 1 C4/5
Unwin, EO

In memory of HMS Dunedin and her Men