Capt. Daniel S Davies
This is an account written by Captain D S Davies himself, it appeared in the "Reef Knot" - the House magazine of the Saint Line, published in 1948.
February 2nd 1943, found the St Margaret, the second of the three original vessels built for the South American Saint Line, at Liverpool, ready to sail for South American ports. Consigned to the Lamport & Holt Lines, the vessel was fully laden with a very superior cargo consisting of machinery, textiles, whisky, stout, Yardley's products etc; plus a consignment of military stores, destined to the Falkland Islands, by transhipment at Montevideo. There were seven passengers, including a German mother and daughter who had escaped from Germany just before the war and now on their way to join the father in Buenos Aires. The third lady was an ex hospital matron in charge of the hospital at Port Stanley, Falklands Islands, when HMS Exeter of Graf spee fame arrived after the Battle of the river Plate. She had been home to England buying her trousseau and other things in preparation for her marriage. The gentlemen passengers consisted of an estate manager from the Falklands, two Belgians and a Hungarian Jew.
The vessel sailed on the a.m. tide on the 2nd February. It was a typical winter morning, cold, windy and a threatening sky. I well remember the Lock Gates man calling out "Good Luck" as we left the locks. In accordance with our sealed orders, we proceeded to form up with a local convoy, later joining the Belfast portion and finally, the main Atlantic convoy from the Clyde. This convoy was bound for New York and we were given our instructions to "proceed independently" at some suitable date.
On the third morning after sailing, the weather deteriorated rapidly, and from then onwards for almost a fortnight it was a sequence of severe gales one after the other. Whilst normally, most of the vessels in the convoy would be "hove to" for a considerable part of the time, all were now making valiant efforts to remain with the convoy, and thereby gain what protection there was. Two black balls by day and two red lights by night, signifying vessel "not under command" were common in all directions. Vessels in ballast were being blown almost on top of others; laden vessels shipping heavy seas. All this, plus messages from the Commodore, "Try and keep together. Enemy submarines in vicinity" did not add to one's peace of mind. It almost made me wish I had stayed at home and joined one of the guards Regiments or even the NFS. The St Margaret made very heavy weather of it, being fully laden. The crews quarters and passengers accommodation were flooded for days. The more delicate sex had been granted the use of part of the Master's accommodation, the others sleeping in the lounge.
At long last on Friday 19th February, we received our orders to "proceed independently". We left the convoy at 9am on a course which took us due south, through mid Atlantic. The weather had by now eased up and, as we proceeded south, the was a marked daily improvement. Our hopes were daily rising, as we got further from the danger zone (we thought).
Saturday the 27th February, opened with prospects of a good sub tropical day. At breakfast, passengers discussed how they were going to take their trunks out on deck to dry the contents, how they would be sunbathing etc. There was quite an atmosphere of cheerfulness, and some relief on faces. The gunners had started cleaning their guns. We had not heard or received any messages whatsoever of enemy activity for several days. After breakfast the Chief Engineer was in my room and we arranged to go around the decks and check up on what weather damage there might be, but he was firstly going down to the Engine Room for a few minutes. Little did I think, when he left me, that it would be the last time I would ever see him.
Whilst I was waiting for his return, I went to look for the Chief Officer. I wanted all our boats which had been carried in the Inboard position, placed outboard as the weather now warranted this. I could see the Chief Officer on the after deck, port side, speaking to someone, and I moved in his direction. Just as I approached him, a terrific explosion took place, followed by huge columns of black smoke, steam, water and oil combined, several hundred feet high, going up from the midship part of the vessel. There was no mistaking, the vessel had been torpedoed.
I made immediate attempts to reach the bridge, but the rush of descending water, etc, cascading down, flooding the deck to a depth to a depth of about eighteen inches was so strong that it made progress very slow and difficult. Besides, I could not see more than a few feet ahead of me. I groped my way along the ships rails and I remember the impression came over me that the ship was sinking there and then. I suppose if one had the time to think such an impression would not have been a very pleasant one. I was anxious to get to the Bridge, to make sure that the box containing the secret papers had been safely dealt with.
When I eventually reached the Bridge and entered the Charthouse I found to my disgust and annoyance that the box was still there. I carried it out and handed it to the 3rd Officer telling him to dump it. Knowing the Reef Knot to he a super respectable magazine I will not repeat the other remark that was made. Whilst on my way to the Bridge, I had called out Stand by the life-boats” and “See the women in first.” From where I stood on the Bridge I could see the Starboard Big Lifeboat in process of being loaded. The women were in. and the gunners were also boarding it. The 2nd Officer was very ably conducting the operations. The Port Big Lifeboat had been very badly damaged by the blast. I could see it would not be much use, even if we could lautteb it at all. Because of this I called out that as many as possible. without undue overloading, should go into the Starboard Boat but that about a dozen men should stay behind on board to try and get the other boats away. I then ordered the Starboard Boat to be lowered. I also asked for a hurried Roll Call to be made. This showed that there were four missing, the Chief Engineer, a donkeyman, fireman and one passenger. I had by that time verified that all communications between Bridge and Engineroom had been completely destroyed. About then. I went down to my own quarters for a moment having noticed that I had nit lifejacket. Inside my starboard door I found the missing passenger, the Belgian. He was alright. but had been caught without his lifebelt. He would not go down to his Cabin even when I assured hint it would be safe if he hurried back. and he then proceeded to cry. It will sound stupid. perhaps incredible. when I say that I could not help laughing. I asked him “What the are you crying for?” I threw my life-jacket towards hint and he made record rime for the Starboard Boat and got in just as it was moving off. I entered my bedroom for the last time, it was in a mess, the explosion having occurred immediately underneath I picked up a Welsh Bible from the debris. placed it inside my shirt, I had no coat on, and returned to the deck. The reader will realize that since the explosion until now was only a matter of minutes.
The vessel was still on an even keel and there appeared no immediate danger of her sinking It was certain that should she hold her own for very many minutes, a second torpedo would strike. There was now on board, besides myself, the Chief Officer (whom I thought had gone in the starboard boat), 3rd Officer, who worked very bravely indeed, four sailors, the 2nd Cook, another very brave worker, and one or two firemen. In fact, all these men were extremely cool and were ready to do anything asked of them. As the Chief Officer was not very well I hailed the Starboard Lifeboat to come under stern and he slid down a rope and took his place in the boat. The next boat to get away was the small Starboard Boat, two men were in this and were standing by “ ready to pick up the remainder should anything happen. We still had to try and break the Belgian’s record for it. We then tried the Port Small Boat, but this capsized and was subsequently left.
I asked the 3rd Officer to try and get the Port Big Boat away, it would not last long I knew, but we might be able to transfer the provisions and be glad of them at a future date. Whilst this was being done I left the party with the view to having a look around for the missing men. I first entered the Engineers alleyway. On looking into the Engine Room I saw that it was completely flooded, right up to sea level. There was much floating debris and I looked closely for any of the missing men that might be floating around, injured. I then went along to the Chief Engineer’s room, it was in a shambles, but no signs of life at all. I called out several times, but all to no avail. I then walked aft, and entered every one of the rooms calling, but there was no response.
On going forward again. I noticed the ensign attached to the gaff halyards, lying at the heel of the mainmast. It struck me that the “St. Margaret” should go down with her flag flying so I hoisted the flag but when about two-thirds up it jammed and I had to secure it in that position. I could see that the 3rd Officer and his gallant helpers had succeeded in getting the Port Lifeboat out, and it was hanging about half way down. They were calling on me to hurry as there would be another torpedo soon. I once again entered the Engineer’s alleyway, went into the Chief’s room and shifted some of the debris in case the Chief, who was a very good friend of mine, might be underneath. It was all in vain. I at last had to decide there was nothing more I could do. so I made for the ship’s side, the lifeboat was now in the water and I slid down a lifeline and got into it. It was with a very deep feeling of regret and almost guilt, that I left the “St. Margaret.” The impression came over me that I was deserting her in her time of trial. She was still upright and in an even keel and to me appeared very proud and defiant, although mortally injured, and that it was only a matter of moments before the enemy would strike again. As we pulled away I asked my comrades in the boat to bare their heads whilst I committed our unfortunate shipmates. whom we were leaving behind, to God’s care and mercy.
We pulled away in the direction of the other boat. We were actually sitting in the water and it was touch and go whether we would make it before the boat got full. When we were about two hundred yards or so away and approaching the other boat, the second torpedo struck the vessel, also on the Port Side. She soon commenced to list to port, then go down by the head, and in a matter of minutes slid almost gracefully under. As she disappeared, I again asked all in the two boats to bare their heads whilst I committed our lost shipmates to God’s care and mercy, and asked for his care and guidance for the remainder of us in the lifeboats. I should have said that on approaching the other boats, we had to abandon the boat we were in as it was completely swamped. I entered the Starboard Lifeboat. Soon after the old “St. Margaret" had completely disappeared, a periscope was observed and a submarine surfaced and made for the boats. When a short distance away, the Commander started howling at us to come alongside. I say “howling” as that is the only way to describe it. He was exactly as if mad. As we got nearer, I observed that we were covered by many guns of different calibre and wondered what was going to happen next. The first to be called to board the Submarine was the 3rd Officer, he wore a badged cap. After asking some questions, the Commander asked for the Captain. I stood up and was ordered to board the submarine. The Commander spoke reasonably good English and had by now calmed down a little. He apologized for having to leave the ladies in the boats, and said that I would be going with him to Germany. He said, “Meeting you like this would be very romantic, if it was not for the circumstances.” Thus commenced a journey on board what I was later to find out was the Deutsch Unterseeboot U66. under the command of Captain Markworth, but that is another story.
From Reef Knot October 1947
From Reef Knot Autumn 1950