During the night of 11th/12th February HMS RELENTLESS had found and destroyed the German tanker CHARLOTTE SCHILEMANN as she was refuelling a U.Boat at a rendezvous south-eastward of Mauritius. The 42 survivors took to four lifeboats. Two lifeboats with 20 men were never seen again. However, after many privations 2 lifeboats with 22 men were rescued. One boat reached the coast of Madagascar with 12 men and they were interned in a camp in the Highlands of Kenya. The other boat with 10 men was rescued by the British vessel AFRICAN PRINCE, and after 2 weeks on this vessel to recover they also joined their rescued comrades in internment.
After the sinking, four lifeboats full of crew were drifting towards an unknown future. We will follow the account of one of the survivors, radio officer ALFRED MOER, who lived through the ordeal and survived. This is his story as told in his own words.
We wake up between 5.50 and 6.00 am and see in the bright sunshine pieces of wreckage everywhere. A short distance away is a second lifeboat, which is turned upside down with four men sitting on it. The seas wash large quantities of gas oil over me and already my eyes are burning horribly. I feel I cannot stand this for much longer.
My God! I am sitting in water up to my waist, our own boat is leaking, but we must struggle on and try to get closer to the other upturned boat. Suddenly I jump over and scramble on to its keel. A quick inspection and it looks OK so we jump into the cold water and attempt to turn the boat over. It isn't easy, but we struggle on and in the end we just manage it. Thank God we find there is some food and a little drinking water left in one of it's lockers. Not much, but with rationing it will keep us going for a few days.
We also find a bottle of red wine and we open this to celebrate our success. We sort out the mast and sails and set a course north north west, hoping to find one of the Mauritius or Reunion Islands. With good winds we should be able to make it in about 14 days.
By day we follow the compass and by night we follow the stars. The first officer, the only mariner on board becomes the pilot. He sets the watches and gives out the food rations. The men who cannot row because of their injuries have to bail water. This is a never ending task, because water is coming in through a small hole. We look for it and find it, then seal it with a little piece of dough. We still have to bail as the floor is always wet and we can only lie down on the thwarts. Nobody can stretch themselves, but lying on the thwarts becomes something nice to look forward to.
There are ten men in our life-boat and someone is constantly on watch. We all hope that sometime soon, something will show up. Suddenly someone gives a shout saying he has seen a submarine. The excitement is great and everyone looks in the direction he is pointing, but it's only a piece wreckage and everyone is distraught.
Our boat is moving slowly through the water and I suddenly realize that we are in the middle of the INDIAN OCEAN with limited supplies of food and water. Is there any hope that we will be saved? Everybody has the same thoughts, but will not voice them and we all pretend to be optimistic. As night falls everybody tries to find a place to sleep. I am not so lucky as all the thwarts are occupied. I have to lean my shoulder against the stomach of one sailor and my legs over another. The sun has dried the gas oil on my skin and it burns like a fire.
During the night a wind and sea builds up and high waves constantly wash over us and we are frozen. Suddenly the night is over, the wind falls away, the sun comes out and our world looks much better. We use, a pole to dry our clothes, soaking wet from the nights storm and get our food ration for the day. A small amount of water, two little pieces of hard bread, a small amount of corned beef and a few drops of lemon juice.
The sun is rising to its zenith and is burning us again and as we sit in agony, we can only guess what is ahead of us. Our basic need is to conserve energy, to do this we rest and make no unnecessary movement. Once again it is time for a little food, but I can hardly eat, only drink a little because my stomach is upset from the gas oil I've swallowed. I have to say it is no different for the others, as some oil has got into the drinking water. However, the longing for water is getting stronger and stronger.
I note with interest that the boat is slipping gently through the sea and taking us slowly to our unknown destination. With the help of my watch - which survived the sinking - and the sun, we manage to calculate a speed of 6 knots through the water.
The terrible heat goes on and on and our ordeal becomes greater and greater. Our thirst is almost unmanageable, but we dare not distribute any more of our precious water. Our mouths, tongues and lips are covered with a thick crust and we can hardly eat. Our mouths are so dry that when we try to eat a little bread we cannot swallow. To moisten our mouths we gargle with a little sea water and then chew the bread quickly and force it down. Sometimes the temptation is too great and I swallow sea water. This brings some relief, but then the thirst comes back stronger than ever.
The joints in my arms and legs become very painful, my whole body begins to ache. Sores begin to appear and they weep with pus. God, how much more of this will we have to endure?
Day after day drags on. Sometimes for a change we see a rain cloud drift overhead. If it rains, we try everything to collect the water. We hold tin cans against the sails, but the water collected is of little use, as it is full of salt washed from the sails. Some hold paddles up to the rain and drink from them, but this is like water dripping on to a hot stone.
After the rain storm we are soaking wet and cold. My whole body is in pain from the sores and I believe my head is bursting. Days and nights pass like this and I lose track of time and days.
We are all becoming tense and bad tempered. In the beginning we all tried to talk; now even that has ceased. Unwanted contact with others makes us bad tempered and angry, and hard words are spoken, but everyone knows we have to depend on each other. The nights are particularly difficult. With darkness, a feeling of complete loneliness comes over us: above us the stars and around us only the water. Our strength appears to leave us more and more, but we have to steer the boat. Two men are now required for this as one cannot manage any more on his own.
Some of us start to hallucinate and we hold up our hands for imaginary drinking cups. If we speak to each other during the day the only subject is food and drink. Every conversation comes to this and eventually we have to restrain the cook from jumping overboard. The poor devil is now just sitting there, either in a trance or hallucinating.
For the first time the word 'death' is being spoken aloud. Some of us have been thinking we can't go on anymore. I must admit for the last few days I have toyed with the idea of jumping overboard and letting the sun sparkled waves peacefully wash over me. Yes, I have to admit this is a very tempting thought. How wonderful it would be to be free of all this. However, during the hours of darkness this thought leaves me and I find the idea terrible. The cold sea at night without the sun brings me back to my senses.
I now begin to hallucinate and all thoughts of my family are erased and I see pictures of 'death'. Sometimes I can hear church bells ringing quietly and see a summer meadow covered with flowers. Somewhere deep inside me there must be a tiny fraction of hope, but why cannot I change these thoughts into reality. It is only pain and thirst that is reality.
The wind gets stronger. Thank God it's from our stern and the waves are from behind us. However, nearly every third wave breaks over us and we fall into each other. We can only hope that nobody is knocked overboard as we don't have the strength to save ourselves, never mind our friends.
Then it happens. A wave dashes our helmsman against the tiller and throws him overboard. At the last minute he holds on and we just manage to pull him back into the boat. Now the sail begins to tear and we wonder how much longer it will last. We don't care any more, as we are consumed by thirst and there is no room for other feelings.
After a few hours the wind dies and the sea calms down, but we don't know whether to lie down, sit or stand up. There is no part of our bodies which are not sore and horribly painful.
By now, if our calculations are correct, we should be in the area of the Mauritius and Reunion Islands. The shape of the clouds and the sighting of a single bird makes us believe that land must be nearby. Our helmsman decides to continue on our course for another day, but can we depend on our calculations? Perhaps we are north of Madagascar. We loose our nerve and change our course at lunchtime to the north west so that if we are north of Madagascar we can get to East Africa.
Again uncertainty, hunger and especially thirst. We gain some relief when we pour sea water over our heads. Sometimes a flying fish ends up in our boat. The one that catches it will clean it and eat it raw - it doesn't taste bad at all.
We don't know any more which is worse, the daytime with the hot sun or the night time, when our thin bodies are exposed to the cold. At night, the water which soaks us and the cold, feels doubly unpleasant. It is similar when it's raining. On the one hand we are happy because of the additional drinking water and on the other we start to shiver in the cold.
It is now day 24 of our journey and our supplies are getting very low, and the hopes of rescue are fading away. Someone makes the proposal that from the day when all the supplies run out, we continue our journey for another two to three days and if we do not see land or are rescued, we take down the sail pull it over us and await the end. As the will to live has got smaller and smaller everyone agrees.
During the afternoon of the 26th day, we can hardly stand it any longer. Our limbs are maddeningly painful and our heads feel like they want to break apart. Our last food is handed out consisting of a small handful of hard breadcrumbs soaked in salt water.
Suddenly someone shouts 'land ahoy', but nobody believes it. Everyone moans at him and tells him to shut up, even though they would like to believe it. But now, someone else claims to have seen it and this time our attention is held, our hopes raised. Can it be true!
We are all watching intently - there IS a coastline - nobody speaks. Cramp and pain disappear. In this moment, we have even forgotten about our thirst. We are getting closer and closer. Soon we are able to recognise mountains and trees, and in front of them the high surf. Even houses are visible standing above the beach.
Our tongues become loose again, joyfully everyone starts screaming and shouting. The thought that there ahead lies rescue, water and food is driving us mad. Meanwhile night has descended upon us and we come closer and closer to land. We then notice a British ship lying at anchor close inshore.
Our helmsman keeps a clear head and talks us out of attempting to land at night. He's right, because we are much too weak to make it through the surf at night.
We stay offshore and await the dawn. The rain pours down on us without interruption but with the certainty of being rescued the next day, we cower together in the smallest space and wait.
Dawn begins to break and we are instantly alert, it is time to find a way through the surf. We believe we have arrived off the coast of Portugese East Africa, a neutral country, and we would rather try and land on the coast, than be taken aboard the British ship and be made Prisoners of War. The crew on the British ship, the AFRICAN PRINCE, are signalling us and advising us not to attempt the surf, but to come on board.
We can find no entrance through the surf and no possibility of reaching the shore, so we turn and try to reach the British ship. We find this isn't possible because of the wind and the British up anchor and come closer to us. A Jacob's ladder is hanging down the side and we see the crew at the rail waiting to help us. We come alongside and the first men are trying to climb aboard and they soon disappear behind helping hands.
With the last of my strength, I am trying to climb and helping hands grab me and pull me over the rail. They try to stand me on my feet, but my legs give way and I sink to the deck. I lay on the deck unable to move, but straight away British sailors help and carry me on their shoulders to another deck.
I learn we are in MANAJARY, the middle of the east coast of Madagascar. With this information I am relieved that we did not attempt the surf. We might all have been drowned.
The British had noticed us for some time before we had seen them and realized we were German, because of our white sail - British lifeboats have red sails - and had prepared for our arrival. Our eyes grow wide when we see what they have prepared for our reception. On deck are canisters of biscuits and pot after pot of tea and coffee. The food and drink seem never ending and we can not get enough. The crew really look after us and provide cigarettes as we tell them of our ordeal. They bring us fresh water and soap and help clean our aching bodies. This is not easy because the sun has burnt the dirt into our skin. We are given a mirror and my own reflection frightens me. I cannot recognise myself with sunken eyes and body burnt by the sun and gas oil, surrounded by a wild growth of hair. Can this be me?
All survivors are given an English sea rescue parcel, which contains a woollen jumper, woolly scarf, a pair of trousers, underpants, canvas shoes, woolly socks, handkerchief and a belt. In spite of the heat we put everything on, but our bodies are so weakened, we still feel the cold.
Before long we are hungry and thirsty again, but we need not worry as there is more food awaiting us in the mess. The steward, FRANK DAWSON, who himself survived a sinking, takes a lot of trouble for us and the crew as a whole do everything they can to make us comfortable.
The British Captain, K.L.KOILE, arrives to see us and his first words are 'as long as you are on board my ship, you will be treated as shipwrecked sailors and not POW's'. We are very grateful for this. Our cook and one sailor have fist sized holes in their backs and are totally exhausted so they are sent to the ship's hospital for treatment.
We spent 14 days on board the ship, and due to the care given to us are able to recover our strength. We are even able to stand on our own legs and lend a helping hand here and there.
Meanwhile, Captain KOILE receives orders from the Admiralty in London, to hand us over to the Military authorities in DIEGO SUAREZ.
We arrive there, but our stop is only a short one and the first officer and myself are separated from the rest of the crew and flown to a camp in the Highlands of Kenya. There we are amazed to meet others of our crew who had been picked up by a British destroyer after we were sunk.
The above account is the story of one of two lifeboats that reached land. A second boat, with another twelve survivors, took four days longer, before it reached the shores of Madagascar. Eleven men survived the ordeal and one died of exhaustion.
Two other lifeboats with twenty men, left the scene of the sinking, but they were never seen again.
The CHARLOTTE SCHLIEMANN was the only sea-going tanker owned by the Schliemann Shipping Company. She was bought from the Norwegian Shipping Company, A.F.Klaveness & Company in 1938.
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