Lost at Sea
An abridged account of the sinking
of the S.S.Fort Buckingham
by Norman Gibson
edited by Leo Zanelli
When these events took place in January 1944 I was a Deck Officer Apprentice aboard the S.S. Fort Buckingham - which was in ballast, bound from Bombay to Buenos Aires, with a stop at Durban for bunkers.
The German U-188 was commanded by a Captain Ludden. On 20th. January he oserved the Fort Buckingham at distance of 2500 metres and fired a spread of three torpedoes. They all missed. As the Fort Buckingham was now veering away, Ludden thought he had missed his opportunity as the U-Boat could not maintain a superior speed.
Not knowing anything about this, the Captain MacLeod of the Fort Buckingham made a dramatic change of course - done routinely to shake off any shadowing U-Boats. But this manoeuvre actually brought the Buckingham into a suitable position for the U-188 - and she fired off another two torpedoes, which both hit on the port side. The Fort Buckingham went down in five minutes.
The Neglected Buns
My cabin was on the boat deck on the port side. I had made and drunk a cup of tea but did not bother to eat the two rock buns by the side. I was to regret that later. Fast asleep in my bunk, I was shaken awake by an explosion. As the noise abated I heard water filling up No.4 hold, where I had been working. All lights went out and I fumbled for a torch. Putting on battledress, shoes and lifejacket I made my way on deck.
On arrival I met 3rd. Engineer Coverdale. We cleared the starboard lifeboat ready for lowering. The 3rd.Mate - Willoughby - was shouting from the bridge, in an attempt to stop lifeboats being lowered until our Captain had decided on the best course of action. Coverdale and I both returned to our cabins to collect items; he was never seen again. People began to collect on the boat deck.
On my return I found Lascar seamen had filled the lifeboat causing it to tilt. The davit guy rope had become jammed under the rudder pintle. It had to be cut free and as I had a knife I set off to the main deck to do this. I found the main deck already under water, the ship was sinking fast. There was now no time to lower the boat. Taffy Jones - a cool-headed gunner and I ran to the bows to release a raft. On the way the bows began to rise; when we reached the bridge the bows began to rise and the deck became so steep we could not go on.
We jumped off the side as the ship slipped beneath the waves. She went down vertically, with tremendous rending noises. We hit the surface just in time to see the bow, with its 12-pounder gun disappearing. It was all over in minutes.
Did my life flash before me? No - I remember being surprised at how warm the water was! Although I was swimming 500 miles from land, at night with no lifeboat, I had not been sucked down by the ship, I had survived the explosion and had Taffy beside me - he seemed to know just what to do all the time. In truth I felt slightly euphoric. We saw the light from a raft some way off and swam for it with the aid of a floating door, which provide some rest. I even picked up a food container; you don't find many of those while swimming in the Pacific Ocean...
We climbed onto the raft together and were joined by two of the Lascars. We extinguished the light in case the sub surfaced and tried to shoot us. During the night other seamen and lights were spotted. At first light we counted five rafts with 51 survivors. There were eleven on my raft. Only one officer, the Chief Engineer had survived.
A Glorious Day!
Gradually the sun rose; the sea was blue and coloured fish surrounded us. It was a beautiful day - but there was no sign of a rescue aircraft. Two rafts drifted away and we lost contact with them. We tied the other three together and erected a mast for visibility.
We quickly became thirsty - hunger pangs developed later. A look-out rota was devised but tempers began to rise. The wind rose to force 3 during the night so we had to cut the connections between the rafts for safety. At night it was cold and so we had to huddle together.
Daybreak: still no sign of rescue. After 24 hours of fasting, hunger pangs commenced. A small empty tin was used to measure water rations: one tin at dawn another at dusk.
Sharks appeared from time to time. We kept perfectly still - and avoided dangling feet in the water! Taffy dropped a line and hook in the water, without success.
The days that followed were of desolation and deprivation. The monsoon was blowing continuously and the sea regulrly washed over the raft. We collected some rainwater in the sail but it was barely enough to wash out the salt deposited there.
Things were getting desperate, and we had no charts, compass or sextant. Also as we were not due in Durban for a fortnight , it seemed likely we would be missed - too late. At times I was hallucinating: although dreams were quite pleasant.
On the evening of the eleventh day, we sighted a puff of smoke on the horizon. We set off several rockets to no avail - or so it seemed. In fact the smoke was from the S.S. Kongsdal. She had found one of the two rafts that separated from us on that first day. The Kongsdal carried on but sent a message to East India Command.
Tragic Rescue Attempt
Three Catalina aircraft were immediately despatched from Koggola to begin a search. These were from the British 205 and Canadian 413 squadrons. Sadly one of the Catalinas, on taking off, plunged into the sea and her depth charges detonated, killing the entire crew.
Meanwhile we were ignorant of all this. We had caught a shark, managed to light a fire on the raft, and had our first real food for days. Despite this the next day found us all weak and listless. Then came the sound of aero engines; but had they seen us? They had (W8406 - I'll never forget) flew past low. I clearly saw a crew member in the port blister. however because of the swell the craft could not land. but she dropped a Thornaby Bag an arm's length from the raft. It contained bottles of water, a Very pistol, cigarettes, chocolate, biscuits and barley sugar. It was practically party time!
The next day another Catalina arrived and dropped another bag; but this one fell wide and we didn't feel like swimming for it. The following day our renewed spirits started to sour. It was now two days since we had been spotted, yet we seemed no nearer being rescued.
We didn't know the Norwegian MV.Ora was on her way. It arrived on the 16th. day and we were taken aboard - then it was on to Bombay. We were in a state - five of the Lascars did not survive the journey to Bombay. The final count of survivors from the Fort Buckingham was 46.