Laurence Rees: Brian Clarke joined the Merchant Navy as a radio officer when he was just 18 years old, in 1941. The following year he was serving on board a merchant ship called the Sithonia, en route across the Atlantic to South America with a cargo of coal, when one night disaster struck.
Words of Brian Clarke: When I was lying in my bunk asleep waiting for the quartermaster to call me for my midnight watch, at half past ten there was an almighty explosion, which is quite a traumatic business an explosion. I don’t know how close you’ve ever been to one but it doesn’t sort of stop at attacking your ears – you become the epicentre of the noise. It’s very odd, your whole body is sort of suddenly enveloped in noise and you become part of the noise. However, the torpedo, and I knew instantly what it was even though I was fast asleep, it threw me out of my bunk. I was in the top bunk so this was about six feet above the deck, and it threw me out of my bunk and onto the floor of the cabin which, by the time I got there – amazingly in all this, the speed of it is quite stunning – by the time I hit the floor was already a few inches deep in water
Laurence Rees: Brian managed to get out of his cabin, up onto deck and into a lifeboat.
Words of Brian Clarke: Then the old Sithonia, she slipped down and to the bottom, you know, she suddenly gave up the ghost and went down. And it’s all a bit sad really because she’s your home, not much of a home it’s true, but all your possessions and things are on it, so that’s a bit of a bad moment.
Laurence Rees: One other lifeboat had been launched with them, and the sailors in both boats now started to discuss just what they should do next.
Words of Brian Clarke: The atmosphere was okay then because we were new to it and we realised that we were only 350 miles from the Canary Islands anyway, which is not a terribly long journey. And so we were kind of buoyed up, full of hope because (a) we were uninjured, (b) we survived, and (c) we were in a lifeboat. Although they look, I have to say, lifeboats look very tiny compared with the Atlantic Ocean, which is absolutely massive.
And then in the middle of our deliberations came a big shout across the water on a megaphone in perfect English, ‘What ship are you?’ And it was the U-boat commander. And we said, ‘The Sithonia,’ and he said, ‘Is your Captain aboard?’ Well, the Captain was aboard, he was in our boat, but we said, ‘No, he went down with the ship,’ because they used to take senior officers and interrogate them. Then the Chief Officer, he was a bit worried that we were going to be machine gunned by the U-boat’s commander, so he was saying, ‘Don’t shoot us, don’t shoot us.’ And I must say I had more faith in human nature than he had, I couldn’t see anybody turning machine guns on people in a lifeboat somehow. Anyway, he said, ‘Have you any injured men?’ and we said, ‘No,’ all this is in splendid English. I often wonder how many British submariners could have addressed a German crew in German. Not so many I suspect.
However, he was very good, most concerned. ‘Have you any injured men?’ No. ‘Do you know where you are?’ Yes. ‘Your position is this,’ and he gave us our position, which we knew. And he said, ‘Did you get a distress signal away?’ and we said, ‘No, we didn’t. The radio was damaged.’ And he said, ‘Right, give me your call sign and I’ll send a distress message for you.’ Now, whether he ever did or not I honestly don’t know, but he said he would. And then he said, ‘Are you alright for cigarettes, blankets?’ that was the next question. We said, ‘Well, we don’t really need blankets.’ We’re south of the Canary Islands, you know, don’t need blankets. And so he said, ‘Are you alright for cigarettes?’ So we said, ‘No.’ So as good as gold he went down his conning tower and came back a moment or two later and said, ‘I’m terribly sorry, but we’re short of cigarettes as well.’ So we didn’t get any cigarettes from him. But his intentions were good. So with a shout of bon voyage he slid off into the darkness.
We rationed the water because there was not a lot of water, some of the barrels had been broached. The chocolate was missing, or some of the chocolate was missing, and the food we had in the boat was Pemmican, which is a kind of meat concentrate paste, frightful stuff. And we had ships biscuits, and we also had Horlicks tablets and some chocolate. So that was our diet. And so after about the fourth day or the fifth day we woke up one morning, daybreak, to see that the other boat was no longer there, so that was bit of a blow, you know, it sort of knocks your morale a bit because you don’t know whether it’s gone down in the night, sunk in the night or been picked up or whatever.
Anyway, so that was that, so we were on our own, and it becomes a bit more lonely, if you will. So we kept on sailing and we could see that the water was going down fast so we were really keeping our rations low, because the funny thing is, if you don’t have anything to drink you don’t make much saliva, and when you don’t have any saliva you don’t eat anything. At that time we were drinking probably a couple of tablespoonfuls at daybreak, a couple of tablespoonfuls at midday and a couple of tablespoonfuls at sunset. But it was only at that stage that we realised, after we’d been at sea about seven days, we realised that we had missed the Canary Islands, somehow we’d made a mess of it navigationally and we’d missed them.
Unfortunately you’d think you were literally in the same boat together but it isn’t like that; human nature is rather horrid really and the atmosphere was pretty grim. We had a number of different nationalities in the boat and one nationality would say that another nationality was getting more than their whack of water and, you know, and so on. So the atmosphere was not good and there were lots of incidents where people would get their knives out and were going to slit somebody else’s throat and so on and so on. And you were in a confined space, you’re suddenly deprived of smoking and if you’ve ever given up smoking, you know, you feel bad tempered, so the atmosphere was not good. We were not eating, we were not drinking, and we were not getting anywhere, which was worse.
And then the Captain said rather than start looking around for the Canary Islands, which would have been quite a difficult job really, he said we really ought to make travel east until we got to Africa. So this caused a lot of recrimination within the boat. Some people said, well, we haven’t got enough water to get to Africa, you know, it’s going to be another 500 miles or something. However, that was what we finally decided to do, we took a vote on it and we decided that if we kept going east, Africa was so big that you can’t really miss it very well, even us. And so we carried on going east, and then we realised that we hadn’t got enough water for everybody, and I can remember sitting in the stern of the boat thinking, now, we’re not all going to make it and you wonder if it’s going to be him or him or him.
And, so we had to cut the ration, the water ration down from two tablespoonfuls to one tablespoonful, which is very, very little water if you stop to think about it, especially in that part of the world. The sun beats down mercilessly during the day and it’s staggeringly hot, no shade, and then at night-time as soon as the sun goes down it’s bitterly, bitterly cold, very cold indeed, so you begin to get into a bit of a state. And the first incident, I suppose, was one of the firemen, Ephebo, and he suddenly said, ‘I’m going to swim ashore, I’m too young to die.’ So he jumped over the side and started swimming. Well, I mean, this is nonsense really, so I said to the skipper, ‘Aren’t we going to pick him up, sir?’ And he said, ‘Certainly not,’ he said, ‘if that man is mad enough to think he can swim ashore he’s mad.’ And he said, ‘We haven’t got room in this boat for mad people. Besides,’ he said, ‘it’s one less mouth for water.’ And, of course, he was absolutely correct, I’ve since thought. So poor old Ephebo, we watched him swim away to his death.
Some of the chaps started filling their Horlicks tin or whatever they had, mug or something, with salt water, seawater, and I can remember saying to one guy who was from Bolton, I said, ‘What are you doing that for?’ He said, ‘I’m going to drink it,’ he said, ‘I’m going to leave it out in the sun and the sun will extract all the impurities from it and it will become fresh.’ And I didn’t believe that. So he started to drink salt water, seawater, and some of the others followed suit. And I must say that it made a big difference to them, they became feverish and would flop about in a frenzy in the bottom of the boat, which was always awash anyway, there was always a foot of water in it.
On about the nineteenth day we spotted the land. So this was very cheering, but it took us another two days to get there. We were rowing like mad, although we were weak at this stage and where we’d had one man on an oar in the beginning we now had to have two men, because we weren’t strong enough to manage the oars. We did make it to land and in the Atlantic, even in calm weather, the breakers are pretty huge and these breakers flung us up onto the beach and crashed our boat, smashed it to smithereens, and it threw us up onto the beach. And the worst thing of that day was that, well, there were two worst things really. One was that one of the guys had died the day we got there, and the other thing was that our water barrel was also shattered. To see our nice fresh water going into the sand was a bit of a blow. So we dragged the poor chap who’d died, he was a young man, my age indeed, a fireman from Liverpool, and we dragged him up above the waterline and dug him a shallow grave in the sand and as far as I know he’s still there. Then we looked around us and we’d landed of all places in the Sahara desert. So we were sitting there wondering what we were going to do.
Laurence Rees: Then Brian and his shipmates noticed a group of tribesman staring at them.
Words of Brian Clarke: We made them understand that we wanted water, so they said yes. So they sent four men on two camels out into the desert, to an oasis presumably, to get water and they were away forever and we were pretty desperate by then. However, they did come back and they had goat skins absolutely bulging with water, which was lovely. So we sort of ran forward and held out our mugs and tins and things to get it, and they wouldn’t give it to us. But they wanted an exchange, they wanted to barter, and so all sorts of daft things changed hands, you know, pound notes. I mean, what good is a pound note in the Sahara desert? And I’d got an old greatcoat there with brass buttons on, so I cut a brass button off and I got water for a brass button, and somebody else got something for a watch or a belt buckle, and one chap even traded his false teeth. But, anyway, there we are. So we lived with these people, they became a little more understanding as we stayed with them. They were a fishing community of about 80 people – men, women and children – and they had two or three tents and we slept outside and we helped them a bit with the fishing. They fished for a man who would come down the coast who had a fish-canning factory up in a place called Rio de Oro, because we had landed in Mauritania.
Laurence Rees: Brian and his comrades were subsequently taken up the coast to Dakar, and from there, after a brief period of captivity at the hands of the Vichy French, managed to return to Britain. Brian landed back at Gourock in Scotland in January 1943. But his view of human nature had been forever changed by his experience, and he certainly didn’t have feelings of affection for the men he’d shared his terrible ordeal with.
Words of Brian Clarke: I hope I never see any of those men again, and I’m sure they feel the same about me, they wouldn’t want to know me. Which is a shame really when you think, as I say, that most people are nice, but I suspect that this niceness is just a very thin veneer until you get down to the nitty-gritty.