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The Britannia and the Thor

Discussion in 'Atlantic Naval Conflict' started by Deep Web Diver, Jul 25, 2003.

  1. Deep Web Diver

    Deep Web Diver Member

    Oct 8, 2002
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    Goan story emerges strong on lifeboat of World War II-torpedoed Britannia

    From Frederick Noronha

    PANAJI (Goa), July 23: It started off as an old puzzle. But for a journalist in Goa, the six-decade old story about a colonial vessel sunk off the
    African coast, open untold pages from history and stories of grit and determination that people back home simply didn't have a clue about.

    Melvyn Misquita (31), assistant chief of news bureau at the local newspaper Herald, has been working on his family tree for nearly a decade (see

    But two family members intrigued him -- adopted seven-year-old Luiza Misquita who died by accidentally drowning in a well and his grand-uncle
    Constantinho Mathias Luduvico, who died in a lifeboat close to the Brazil coast after the British ship he was travelling was torpedoed by the Germans.

    "The only information given to me at the time was that he was in the ship S.S. Britannia, which sank in 1941," recalls Melvyn. In the Goan village of Aldona, the local church records his death as ometime in March-April 1941.

    Tapping the Internet, and slogging it out for the past four months, the scribe tracked Australian web-pages that gave details of the little-remembered ship, descendents of Goan survivors and those who perished, and even an 83-year-old vice-admiral in Britain who knew the Goans on board.

    The SS Britannia was sunk in "enemy action" -- read, German fire -- on March 25, 1941. Many took to lifeboats. Later "Indian seamen" on board apparently drank seater and "died in torment", says a rare article on the Net.

    Other survivors from the village, Aldona, had since died. The Britannia had sunk off the west African coast, but because of the winds, one lifeboat only
    reached the shores of Brazil after a four-week grueling journey.

    Slowly, the jig-saw fitted in place. Relatives in Aldona traced photographs and documents linking them back to 1941. By some "eerie coincidence", as
    Melvyn calls it, he started the search exactly on March 25 this year, exactly 62 years after the Britannia sunk with its considerable Goan crew.

    LINKS WITH MIGRATION: This story, while at one level of a few Goans on a single ship, also links up with the generations-old story of Goans migrating and scouring the globe for a livelihood.

    Goa, under Portuguese rule since 1510, was one of the first regions in South Asia to encounter the Western world. The poor state of the Portuguese-ruled economy in the latter centuries of colonial rule, saw tens of thousands migrating acorns the globe for jobs and a better life. In coastal central Goa, there are few families, especially Catholics, who don't have some history of global migration along the generations.

    Says Melvyn: "This search has also -- probably for the first time -- focused on the Goan seamen who served on the Britannia. Such Goan-oriented research needs to be pursued, especially since so many Goan seamen died on many ships during the two world wars. Their contribution to maritime history needs to be recognised and it is never too late to do so."

    Says Melvyn: "My project is aimed at uncovering the experiences of some of the Goan seamen before, during and after the Britannia episode. Their voices have remained silent for over half a century. They need to be heard now."

    VIA THE SUEZ: S.S.Britannia, the third ship with this name on Anchor Line, was built by Alex, Stephen & Sons at Linthouse. Since 1926, she plied from Glasgow to Bombay via the Suez Canal, till being sunk by the German commerce raider H.K.Thor during what the Western world refers to as World War II in 1941. During the war, the Suez Canal was closed.

    On March 25, 1941, Britannia was carrying about 500 passengers, off Africa's west coast, some 600 miles from Dakar in today's Senegal. The Thor, built in
    1938, was a 9,200 tonner, with the appearance of a normal merchant ship. On that successful voyage, she had been at sea for 322 days, sunk 11 merchant
    ships and one armed merchant cruiser -- a total of 96,602 tonnes.

    After being torpedoed some 600 miles from the West African coast, the survivors decided to work on the prevailing winds and currents to reach Brazil, some 1600 miles to the west, which they thought was a more achievable goal.

    But the lifeboats had holes in their planks, survivors were ailing and food was in short supply. Rations comprised one egg-cupful of water, one biscuit and a few drops of condensed milk each day.

    Some storms helped the survivors to catch some rainwater. The number of people surviving decreased. But many were covered with salt-water sores, aggravated by the crowded conditions and the constant rolling of the boat.

    Survivors recall that the lifeboat which reach Brazil was just 28 x 10 ft in size, with two sails and a rudder. At points of their voyage, dolphins
    following it. This vessel had a capacity to carry 56, but actually had as many as 81 packed on its board.

    On landing in Brazil, one of the Goan sailors -- Louis Albino de Souza of Aldona -- was "very helpful as he was able to make himself understood to the native fishermen", according to records available.

    39 OTHER GOANS: Melvyn's work helped him dig up the names of 39 other Goans, who died on board the SS Britannia. They were employed as general servants,
    topass, scullion, cooks, bakers, butlers, butcher's mate, bar-keepers and in similar capacities.

    They were Catholic Goans with typical names like Alphonso, Cardozo, Carneiro, D'Costa, D'Cunha, Heredia, D'Sa, D'Souza, Fernandes, Ferrao, Gomes, Mendonca, Pereira, Rocha, Rodrigues, Mendes or Vaz.

    Many had become skin and bone by the end of the journey, and on reaching Brazil some refused to believe they reached land.

    Melvyn found his grand-uncle died hours before they reached the shores of Sao Luis in Brazil. Later, he learnt that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission

    What egged him to undertake this search? Says Melvyn: "The fact that no one in Goa really knew what happened to the S S Britannia III in 1941 -- even though there were many Goans on the Britannia who either perished or remarkably survived -- ignited my interest in the incident."

    In an interview with this correspondent, he said that the response has been very encouraging. "Besides a number of relatives and friends who have been interested to read about the Britannia incident, I have even received queries from some in USA and UK, who had their loved ones serving on the
    Britannia. None of these people were previously aware of the events shortly before and after the sinking of the Britannia," says he.

    Melvyn spent between one to four hours on a daily basis scouring for clues. Says he: "Much of my work was undertaken after office hours, that is between
    12 am and 3 am."

    What's the lesson he learns from it? "That it is possible -- given a generous dose of enthusiasm, determination and advances in information technology -- to collect information on an incident which remained hidden for well over six decades," he says, in hindsight. "Give it your best, for
    the truth is out there."

    * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


    LONG WAY HOME 1941

    On the morning of 25 March 1941, the 8799 ton passenger ship Britannia of the Anchor Line, carrying 500 passengers, was off Africa's west coast, about 600 miles out from Dakar. Travelling alone and relying on her speed to stay out of trouble, she had the misfortune to cross paths with the German commerce raider Thor.

    The Thor was coming to the end of a successful tour of duty in the southern Atlantic. By the time she reached Hamburg on the 30 April 1941 she had been at sea 322 days, sunk eleven merchant ships and one armed merchant cruiser - a total of 96,602 tons.

    Built in 1938 as TS Santa Cruz, 9,200 tons, Thor was not a large ship but had the advantage of appearing to be a normal merchant ship. Concealed behind this cloak she was well armed with six 5.9" guns, torpedoes, and even a float plane stored in her hold. During this first cruise she was under the command of Capt. Otto Kahler.

    On the morning of the 25th the Thor closed to almost point blank range before opening fire. Soon the Britannia was burning from stem to stern and sinking. The decks were strewn with dead and wounded. The 400 survivors were ordered into the remaining four lifeboats as the sinking Britannia's decks became awash.

    In one of these lifeboats the 27yr old Third Officer William "Mac" McVicar was in command. In this boat, designed for 56, were 82 people of which many were gravely wounded. One of the more able bodied was a young 22yr old Australian born Royal Navy Sub Lieutenant Ian McIntosh who had been in transit to his posting.

    McVicar had managed to plot their position before abandoning ship and whilst only 600 miles off West Africa his navigational experience of the prevailing winds and currents told him that Brazil 1600 miles to the west was the more achievable goal.

    Rigging the heavily laden boat sails was not an easy task. From the outset everyone was rationed to an ounce of water, one biscuit per day, and a few drops of condensed milk. Subsequent storms, though endangering the heavily laden craft, enabled rainwater to be caught.

    Nevertheless, the sufferings of the survivors were intense. Many were gravely wounded. All suffered from dehydration and many developed abscesses as flesh, wasting on their limbs, rasped against the hard thwarts with the rolling of the boat. Performance of the simple bodily functions was an agony. After ten days of malnutrition and exposure men began to die. A number of the Indian seamen drank seawater and expired in torment. But McVicar and McIntosh kept the spirits of the remainder up and organised duties for those fit enough to keep watch and to collect rainwater. McIntosh repaired the shrapnel rents in the lifeboat's hull with makeshift patches.

    After only 23 days at sea, McVicar, and another RNR lieutenant who died before the landfall was actually made sighted land, thanks to a fine piece of navigation. By that time, 44 men had died of their wounds or exposure and of the remaining 38, most were in very poor condition. They dragged themselves ashore near São Louis, Brazil, where they were discovered the following morning by a group of fishermen. They fed them, and took them in canoes up river to a hospital run by nuns at Corupu. A note scribbled by McVicar informed the British Consul and the survivors were repatriated after their recovery. The other Britannia's boats were picked up at sea, and 235 survived in all.

    The young Australian Sub Lieutenant went on to become Vice-Admiral Sir Ian McIntosh DSO DSC MBE who, as a Lieutenant, commanded HMs/m Sceptre from March 1942. His skills included those of towing X-craft on Operations Source, Guidance, and Heckle. Successful patrols in the Atlantic, Arctic, North Sea and Bay of Biscay earned him the accolade of "Bring em' back alive McIntosh" He was indeed the most successful Australian born WWII submarine commander. We will continue his story soon.

    McVicar's War was not over yet! His next vessel, the troopship California was in a convoy that was attacked by Focke Wulf FW 200 bombers off the coast of Portugal and sunk. He was rescued from the water with most of his crew within hours. He went on to take part in the Normandy landings.

    Captain William McVicar, MBE, became senior captain of the Anchor Line and died on 9 August 1997, aged 83.

    * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


    Thor (HSK 4)

    The Thor was one of the few German auxiliary cruisers that did two operations. The first one lasted 329 days and 57532 miles, it ended in Hamburg on 30.04.1941 In this operation, the Thor engaged three British auxiliary cruisers, destroying one of them (Voltaire ) , the other two (Carnarvon Castle and Alcantara ) were badly damaged. Half a year later, on 30.11.1941 the second operation stated. It too until 14.01.1942 until the Thor finally broke through the British lines into the Atlantic. In difference to the first operation, the operation area was the Indian Ocean, on its way there, it was planned to capture allied whale hunters in the Antarctic.

    After 321 days the second operation ended in Yokohama, Japan on 09.10.1942. On 30.11.1942 the supply ship Uckermark exploded, the resulting fires spread on the Thor as well and destroyed the ship.




    HK Thor

    [ 25. July 2003, 10:51 PM: Message edited by: Crapgame ]

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