For most people the 12 February 2005 passed unnoticed as just another day, but it was, in fact, the 61st anniversary of one of the worst disasters of WW11 involving female service personnel.
On Sunday, 5 February 1944, convoy KR8 formed up at Mombasa and set sail for Colombo,Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon). There were 5 troopships with an escort of 2 destroyers, PALADIN and PETARD, and the cruiser HAWKINS. The largest troopship was the KHEDIVE ISMAIL(7513 tons)which, carried the convoy commodore,had a crew of 187 and a passenger list of 1324, which included at least 80 women - mostly Wrns personnel and nurses
The voyage was uneventful for the first week until after mid-day on the 12th. The sea was very calm with little breeze, but the heat was stifling. On board the KHEDIVE ISMAIL an ENSA concert was in full swing in the main lounge and a marine was doing some washing on the gun deck while the CO of the 303 (East African) Rifle Regiment was along with others, indulging in a spot of sun bathing on the top deck.
On board PETARD a constant watch was continuing on the lookout for enemy submarines. Off duty personnel were relaxing in a well earned siesta when suddenly, at 1430, the port lookout cried "periscope bearing Red 150. Bells and buzzers quickly roused the snoozing sailors and they raced to their action stations as the sleek destroyers leapt forward to engage the enemy.
Within seconds the ships' guns were brought to bear and were spitting fire towards the interloper. Even at that moment a more sinister huge explosion shook the destroyers from end to end and all eyes were drawn to the KHEDIVE ISMAIL where flame and smoke were already obliterating the stern quarters. Within 3 minutes the ship had completely disappeared beneath the glass-like surface of the sea leaving only assorted wreckage, Carley floats and the more fortunate personnel who, being on the upper deck, had managed to escape as the ship quickly went down.
Among them was the sunbathing CO of the Rifle Regiment and six girls. There was also a man who had left the concert to answer the call of nature. On returning, he opened up the lounge door just as the torpedo struck, and saw the entire audience disappear into the wrecked engine room below.
The destroyers raced in to pick up survivors and, whilst doing so, sighted the submarine amongst them. The PALADIN made a course to ram but, at the last moment, the attempt was aborted as the submarine was as big as herself. A collision, however, was inevitable and the survivors she had picked up were again involved in a frightening experience as a large hole was ripped in the side of the destroyer.
The submarine submerged and the captain of the PETARD had the horryfing decision to make - should he save more of the swimmers or drop depth charges to sink the enemy marauder, Rightly or wrongly he chose the latter course and many of those thinking they were about to be rescued were blown to pieces in the devastating attack of patterned depth charges.
Eventually the submarine was forced to the surface and the crew tried to man the deck gun but were eliminated by the destroyer's gunners. Although only 1000 yards away from the target 7 torpedoes were fired before one found its mark and terminated the activities of Captain Toshiaki Fukumura's submarine I-27 for good and all. There were no survivors.
The convoy had scattered when the submarine struck and the destroyers eventually headed for Addu Atoll, in the Maldive Islands, the PETARD towing the crippled PALADIN.It was here that the survivors were transferred to the roomier vessel - the cruiser HAWKINS on the 13th, and after helping to repair the damaged she left for Colombo on the 15th.
In all, of the 1511 passengers and crew on board, only 214 survived,including 6 women, one of whom saw her sister crushed to death by the depth charges. The women were housed in the Captain's cabin on the cruiser and a signaller from the KHEDIVE ISMAIL slept outside their door. This was because he had saved one girl in the water and she could not be parted from him. 74 women died in less than one hour. Has this dubious and unwanted record ever been publicised or even commented on? I think not.
You may wonder where I fit into this picture and why I show so much interest in one one particular incident of the war.
It is because I was a member of the ship's company of the repair ship HMS LUCIA and we had made our way from Durban, South Africa to Mombasa with an escort of 4 trawler/minesweepers Our normal ship's complement was about 300 but had a further 250 naval personnel taking passage to Colombo.
Our orders were to join the KHEDIVE ISMAIL and convoy KR 8 but when they learned that our maximum speed was only 9 knots they departed without us at 15 knots on the 5th February. We left on the 8th and sailed through the wreckage and empty lifeboats before arriving at the Maldives where we carried out first aid repairs to the damaged destroyer. Apart from this our voyage was completely uneventful, but only now do I realise how close we came to disaster.
If that raider had not been disposed of in that terrible moment of decision by the PETARD captain my ship,and the lives of some 500 navy men, would almost certaily fallen to that Japanese submarine. We had so little in the way of defences - just a 12 pounder gun and a few depth charges, we would have been a sitting duck. With that thought in mind, perhaps those dozens of poor souls did not die in vain on that most tragic day 61 long years ago, when swimming hopefully towards their rescuers only to find that they were their own executioners.
I sincerely hope that when my two sons read this narrative they will realise that they owe their existence in this world to one moment in time.....the moment when a terrible choice confronted a destroyer captain on a calm sea in the blazing heat of the Indian Ocean.
According to a letter I received, some years ago from (the late)Captain Tony Bailey of the PALADIN the only two troopships to have had greater losses were the LANCASTRIA (ABOUT 300) during the Dunkirk evacuation, and the LACONIA, when 1800 Italian pows lost their lives in the South Atlantic in September 1942.