Trip from Halifax to Liverpool
Leaving in good weather at the end of summer (maybe August or September), we set sail in the SS Singkep from Halifax, Newfoundland, Canada to Liverpool, England. We were transporting Indian rubber. This may not seem to be a precious cargo, until you consider all the uses for it in wartime: it’s used in the manufacture of boats, cars and aeroplanes.
We crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a convoy of 68 ships, accompanied by a few corvettes. The communication between the ships was conducted purely with flags. That was my new job on the SS Singkep. Every day around noon we all had to signal our position. One day, a joker signalled to me that he was in the Sahara, near Timbuktu. The commander of the convoy did not appreciate this joke at all. The guy was punished and was told in no uncertain terms not to do that again. We were sailing in wartime and tensions were very high as prior crossings had been very deadly. It wasn’t the right time for jokes.
We had to travel at the speed of the slowest vessel in our convoy and there were steam-powered boats with us travelling at only 10 knots per hour. There were over 260 German U-boats in the seas at that time, and any could fire torpedoes at our convoy. We were, quite literally, sitting ducks, as we were travelling so slowly.
We had English destroyer corvettes racing around us. I’m grateful to the corvettes for their service and attempts to keep us safe. Every time the submarine alarm went off, the corvettes rushed through the convoy at high-speed, trying to listen out for and identify the location of German U-boats. We maintained radio silence during the convoy, so that we had a better chance of not being hunted down.
Eerily, I was told we would see the flash of light signalling a torpedo impact before we heard the roar of the explosion, just as you see lightning before you hear the thunder. I didn’t see any explosions, as our convoy was not targeted. However, the German U-boats had obviously attacked previous convoys, as I saw hundreds of bodies in the water. Most of the people floating in the water had died, but sometimes the people were still alive.
Regretfully, in these crossing there were no rescue boats. All boats were instructed not to veer from their own course, not even to pick up survivors. Any ship, which went to help rescue sailors, would probably be torpedoed too, as it would maneuver itself into the firing line. Rescue efforts were strictly forbidden and weren’t attempted. If you survived the blast, you would drown at sea.
Even so, I learnt from the horrific tales of boats being torpedoed. I mulled over who had a better chance of surviving a direct hit. I thought how important it was to choose where you should jump overboard. I knew that you ideally needed to jump overboard at the back, as the torpedoed boat would keep its forward momentum for a while and would crush anyone who tried escaping at the front. I checked and double-checked where the flotation devices were during that trip. I felt safest at the back of the ship near our quarters.