Alan Shard served in the Merchant Navy during the Second World War. Read and listen to Alan Shard’s testimony below.
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June the 25th, 1942, while the ship [the British Vessel Merchant Putney Hill]was sailing from Cape Town to New York, we were torpedoed at about 11:25 pm, full moon. I didn’t see the torpedo wake, even though I was on lookout on that side, but with the full moon it was probably not distinguishable because of the moon beam’s reflection, you couldn’t detect any difference between the wake and the torpedo.
We were struck by a torpedo, blown up in the air, and I knew it was 11:25 because the lookout had just been in the wheelhouse and reported the time. And we both went up in the air, about three feet. The captain came out, said abandon ship; we went to the lifeboats. Both lifeboats on the port side had been blown up against the funnel and were useless. Went to starboard side, now the ship had taken a big list of about 40 degrees, 45 degrees starboard. Two boats were in the water on that side. We went into the boats, 22 men. They immediately sank to the gunnels because it was a wooden boat and the strakes were open, not having been in the water for two years.
When the boat capsized, you looked at the small boat ahead of us and she was just in the process of doing the same. So here’s two capsized lifeboats in the middle of the night. I can’t swim but I do have a life jacket on and I saw the raft about 50 yards, 100 yards away. And I know the swimming movements but I can’t swim. But I did manage to get to the raft. I was the first on it. I helped to pull eight men on the raft.
Later on during the night, the U-boat [U-203] came alongside asking for the captain. We didn’t know where he was. He went away and came back. He had on deck an apprentice of our ship. He spoke to the second mate, it had got a little bit rough now and this boy couldn’t swim either, so I asked someone to come from the raft to the U-boat, to take him across. Which he did. His name was Hancock. When he got to our raft, it was very surreal. We said to him, Hancock, how the hell did you get onboard the U-boat? And it seems that he couldn’t swim either but he found an oar which supported him. But a few minutes later, a gunner, naval gunner came and he also got on the oar which would not support that. So the consequences were they began to fight. And this kid won, I guess he kicked him in the guts or something and he disappeared.
So there he is, and the U-boat came alongside and he grabbed the ballast intake the U-boat has holes in the side for taking water. And they hauled him aboard and took him. Interviewed him, spoke English perfectly, the commander [Kapitanleutnant Rolf Mutzelberg]. It turned out, he’d been to the same bloody English school where this kid came from, Chelmsford in England. Unbelievable.
Anyway, he said to him, well, I’m going to put you back among your mates but don’t come back again or the ending might be different. So he gave us some cigarettes, pack of cigarettes and some matches. The kid couldn’t swim, and the second mate went for him, so they gave these matches and cigarettes back to the crew because they would have been ruined.
Subsequently, when he was interviewed by the Admiralty in London, they gave him hell because he didn’t know what brand the cigarettes were. They were trying to establish of course where the U-boat was being stored, supplies, was it Central America or something like that? So morning came, the two lifeboats which had been capsized had been righted, which you can do by giving the keel and rocking the boat until it flips.
I got in the captain’s boat, there were no food in the raft, it had been stolen by the stevedores in Suez [Egypt]. But there was water, so we transferred the water and off we went. We were about 500 miles north of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and we sailed on. There were two men lost already, the assistant cook, he was seen hanging onto the propeller whilst he was still a little bit up like that. The other one was our DEMS [Defensively-Equipped Merchant Ship] gunner.
We saw the ship eventually go down (gestures), just like that. Might have got ahead of myself there. So after seven days in the lifeboat, the fourth engineer, who was on watch at the time of the torpedo, and had been burned by the hot oil dropping on
him. Over 80 percent of his body was burned, he died in seven days. So we proceeded for another two days and then we were suddenly seen approaching a British corvette called HMS Saxifrage. She was bearing down on us and the captain said he did
not know we were there, we didn’t know he was there, we were alone at the time, it was a pure fluke and he came alongside and he took us up on the nets, we climbed up the nets. We could hardly stand actually. Strangely enough, there was a kid onboard
that corvette from my next village, he was a signalman and he gave me his bunk for the night and shaving and tackle and stuff like that. And then we landed in Puerto Rico.
Interview date: 19 October 2010