The rescue of survivors from SS West Lashaway 14 September 1942
Lt.Cdr. Henry Graham Dudley de Chair RN , the CO of HMS Vimy (on the right in dress uniform), described the circumstances which led to Vimy
firing her main guns at a life raft carrying the survivors of a
torpedoed merchantman and then rescuing the survivors, including an
American missionary and four children, in an article for The Navy,
the magazine of the Navy League of Great Britain.
After being rammed by
U-162 on 4 September 1942 and handing over her survivors to the Americans at Trinidad HMS Vimy along with a corvette, HMS Burdock,
was charged with escorting a small convoy of tankers to Gibraltar with
oil for the imminent landings in North Africa. They had been promised
air cover and the first sign of this was a bomb on their port quarter
dropped by an allied plane on a suspected u-boat which Burdock went off to investigate:
"No sooner was Burdock's hull down than a conning tower appeared on the same bearing but much closer. Vimy
sounded six blasts on the siren and turned to attack, whilst the convoy
went off smartly in the other direction. We could not exceed 15 knots
and that only with excessive vibration from the port propeller, and
stern steam on the port engine. We opened fire. The
radar was out of action and control was difficult owing to vibration,
but some of the U-boats upper works disappeared and she seemed to be
stopped. Then a dirty white flag was seen waving: we ceased fire and
reduced speed. Somehow, the conning tower looked rather too small and
when within a mile definitely odd. Not until we had slowed down did we
realise that the conning tower was people packed tight, standing on a
raft whose sail we had shot away. As
we drew alongside this ragged party made a brave but pathetic sight.
There were 17 Americans including two women and three children with
virtually standing room only on their small raft. Their clothes were
tattered and faded but they looked fit and tough. Their ship had been
torpedoed 19 days earlier over 500 miles to the south east whence Mr
Peiffer, the Bosun had sailed them."
The short description below conveys the shock of a seaman at coming so close to killing women and children:
"Orders arrived for us to escort a small convoy to Gibraltar with the
assistance of a Corvette. On the very first day of the voyage, 14 September 1942, we
spotted what seemed to be a periscope and after closing to 'Action
Stations', opened fire but on approaching closer, how glad we were at
the gunners notoriously poor marksmanship. What we had mistaken for a
periscope was the mast of a crude raft, crowded with pathetic survivors
of a torpedoed ship. Among them were a woman and three small children.
They had been adrift for some considerable time and although the men on
the raft had rigged a small piece of canvas to protect the children
from the fierce tropical sun, the effects of the heat and the lack of
drinking water left them in a pitiable condition. Our Doctor and S.B.A.
tended to their needs and they were later transferred to a tanker that
was calling at the nearby island of Tobago. We resumed our duties and
continued the voyage without further incident."
The raft was one of four launched from the Barber Line freighter West Lashaway
(Captain Benjamin Bogden) which had been torpedoed by U66 (Kapitan
Lieutenant Friedrich Markworth) nineteen days earlier, at 2.30 pm on
Sunday 30th August. She had been on passage from Takoradi, West Africa,
to Port of Spain, Trinidad, with a cargo of copper, tin, palm oil,
latex and cocoa beans. She also carried a secret cargo of Free French
The ship had been hit by two torpedoes and capsized in two minutes,
giving the Radio Operator no time to send a distress message. There was
no time to launch the lifeboats either, but the life rafts, made of
rough wood 8 by 10 feet with 6 oil drums for flotation, had been blown
clear. There were actually four children on the raft, Robert (11) and
Mary Bell (13), with their mother, Ethel Bell, a Missionary, and
Richard (13) and Carol Shaw (7). Their mother Vera Shaw and sister
Georgia had been killed in the sinking. Their father Harvey Shaw,
another Missionary had survived, but was allocated to a different raft
which was later separated from theirs.
While the survivors were struggling to get to the rafts the U66
surfaced and the officers emerged onto the casing to admire their
handiwork. Most inconsiderately, the Germans tested their machine guns,
firing in random directions.
Of 56 persons onboard, consisting of merchant seamen, US Naval gunners
and passengers, 42 had survived. A number had been hurt by the
explosion or while escaping from the ship. Captain Bogden had been
badly burned, but kept this concealed. Carol Shaw had a broken arm and
a gashed head.
Each raft had a survival kit with provisions – tins of pemmican, milk
and chocolate tablets, and two small casks of water. James Owen, the
Bosun was very resourceful, and had added canvas to the kits, which
were later used to make a sail, an awning, and a partition to protect
Ethel Bell’s privacy. Using a flotation ring with a net beneath
(“doughnut”) and a pair of oars the Bosun moved about in the floating
debris recovering useful items. A considerable number of survivors were
scantily clad, either because they had been having a Sunday afternoon
siesta or their clothes had been blown off. Cocoa bean bags were
emptied and holes cut to make them into shirts.
Three of the rafts had flotation drums which had been damaged, and
could only support a maximum of 6 survivors each. The intact raft was
allocated 19 people, including Captain Bogden, the Bosun, Joseph
Greenwell the First Assistant Engineer, Mrs Bell and the Children.
Initially all four rafts were lashed together. A school of hopeful
sharks took up residence in the vicinity.
The deck level of the raft was two feet above the sea, with a well in
the middle which was washed through by the sea, so it was impossible to
keep dry. The wounded Captain lay in the well of his raft, providing a
cushion for Robert Bell.
At first there was confidence that they would soon be rescued. Although
it was realised that no distress message had been sent it was thought
that there would be passing shipping, On the morning after the sinking
an unescorted tanker, the Winimac, went by, but failed to see their
signals. U66 sank her at 2.14 pm, though she did manage to send a
distress message and launch a lifeboat.. There was a Maritime patrol
detachment for Catalina Flying Boats at Port of Spain which was
scrambled in response but no aircraft come close to the rafts.
By Thursday 3 September Captain Bogden decided that it would be best to
separate the rafts. While the four together would be easier to spot
from the air the rafts were continually crashing together with risk of
damage, and injury to the survivors. Harvey Shaw was too depressed to
make any bid to rejoin his children. His son Richard saw him sitting
with head bowed and decided that there was nothing to be gained by
trying to make contact. The lines were cut, and the other rafts drifted
out of sight.
After a week on the raft the physical condition of the survivors had
deteriorated markedly. There was a constant six inches of water
swilling through the well, so that those sitting on the sides had
permanently wet feet which developed sores (immersion foot). The badly
injured in the well, Captain Bogden and a US Naval signaler, “Flags”
Croons, were wet all over. On the morning of Tuesday 8th September
Croons became delirious and then died. Ethel Bell said a prayer, the
body was stripped of clothes for reuse and pushed into the sea. She
covered the eyes of the two girls and told Robert to look away as the
sharks closed in, but it was impossible not to hear what was going on.
On the morning of Wednesday 9th Captain Bogden became agitated. He
seemed to have forgotten that the ship had sunk, and held an anxious
conversation with the Engineer Joe Greenwell about what had happened to
the Free French Gold, apparently amounting to $50 millions worth. He
died later that morning.
The Captain was buried, again with a prayer from Ethel Bell. This time
Robert disobeyed his mother’s order not to watch, and wished he hadn’t.
Captain Bogden, although mortally wounded, had ensured good order on
the raft. He worried about what would happen now.
What did happen was that the Bosun declared himself in command,
overriding the objections of the Engineer. He clearly resented the
presence of Ethel Bell and the children and ordered them into the
“doughhnut”, where they would presumably not have lasted long. Mrs Bell
refused and was backed up by the other survivors who declared that they
would protect her and the children.
On Sunday 13th September the Bosun declared that the rations were
getting low, and that “meals” would be cut to one a day. However, hope
arrived in the shape of a Catalina Flying Boat which dropped supplies.
Its first pass was a cardboard box which broke on hitting the water.
The contents were ham sandwiches which were enjoyed by the sharks. The
second pass was better packed, and yielded more tins of pemmican and of
spam and hash, malted milk tablets and four cans of condensed milk. The
third pass produced a woman’s dress for Ethel Bell. Unfortunately, the
“doughnut” was allowed to drift away but no one cared at the time, but
there was no immediate rescue. On Monday 14th an American destroyer was
sighted, but it did not see the raft. On Tuesday 15th , Woodman Potter
the 2nd Cook, tried fishing with a bent pin and a line unraveled
from the ropes that had been used to secure the other rafts. He caught
two pilot fish which were gutted and shared out. The afternoon brought
a further ordeal as the raft was tossed about by a tropical storm which
lasted to early on Wednesday 16th. While everyone survived the storm,
their nerves were fatally frayed. One man jumped overboard but somehow
thought better of it and the sharks were presumably not alert. Another
grabbed Carol Shaw with a view to going overboard and had to be
restrained in the well. Suspicion began to grow that the Bosun, in
charge of the food issue, was being unfair or helping himself.
Matters came to a head on Friday 18th when the men accused the Bosun of
cheating and demanded that all remaining rations should be issue
forthwith. There was very little remaining, less than a full days
worth. Miraculously, at 09.50 am Douglas Stott, the Radar operator of
HMS Vimy made a detection to the northward at five miles.
The photographer who took these pictures from the deck of HMS Vimy on 14 September has yet to be identified but they were brought home by LS Arnold Ludlow and sent to me by his grandson, Peter McQuade
Through his binoculars the Captain of the Vimy, Lt Cdr De Chair, could
make out what he was certain was the tower of a submarine and and
ordered his 4-inch guns to open fire. The raft was straddled by the
salvo's and the sail was shot away. Ethel Bell sheltered with the
children in the well, and several men threw themselves on top.
The Bosun grabbed what was left of the canopy and waved it frantically.
The Vimy ceased firing and closed the raft. Scrambling nets were
dropped over the side and the survivors were helped onboard, apart from
a young steward who refused because he had been fired at. They tied a
rope under his arms with a bowline and hoisted him in. Ethel Bell had
broken a rib, either while sheltering in the well or while toppling
over the Vimy’s rail.
Each survivor was assigned a member of the Vimy’s crew to look after
them throughout their time onboard. They given a shower,
medical attention and clean clothing, and turned in in a clean bunk to
rest while a transfer to the small Dutch tanker SS Prins William van
Orange which was due to detach for Barbados. Sub Lieutenant Raymond
Venables was put in charge of Carol Shaw. Mrs Bell and the girls
received womens’ clothing which had been left over from a fancy-dress
party in Trinidad. An officer also presented Ethel Bell with a gift of
lingerie, intended for his wife in England.
Sub Lt Raymond Venables RNVR
described this strange encounter on Reel 10 of a lengthy interview
recorded by the Imperial War Museum for their Sound Collection in June
2001 which can be listened to online by clicking on this link: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80022193He described mistaking
the 18 – 19 survivors clinging together in the centre of the small raft
as the conning tower of a u-boat and how:
On approaching closer they could see
several sharks circling round the raft which made their rescue
difficult and he "took pleasure in shooting several of them with a machine
gun". He picked up a little American girl who said: “Gee, I’m so glad
you picked us up as it's my birthday on Saturday”. After that she was
made a huge fuss of by the sailors who gave her toys bought for their
own children. She cried when she was put on a merchant ship going
to Tobago as the crew were not “Navy Boys”. Carol Shaw phoned him 12 years
later when she was 19 and reminded him that “you gave me tomato soup”
and he told her that he had to put her on a toilet, not an appropriate
thing to tell a young lady of 19! The newspapers got in touch but
people hated being in the papers in those days.
Carol Shaw in the arms of Sub Lieutenant Raymond Venables on board HMS Vimy, probably just before the transfer.
Courtesy of Peter McQuade, Grandson of AB Ludlow
At 3.00 pm the Vimy went alongside the tanker forecastle to forecastle
to transfer the survivors. A jackstay was rigged and they were
transferred in slings hitched to it. Manouevring was not easy due to
the Vimy’s damaged screw. There was a considerable amount of bumping
and the tanker’s starboard lifeboat was stove in. Everyone landed in
Brdgetown that evening and were taken to hospital.
On return to the United States all
four children were place in orphanages. In the case of Robert
and Mary Shaw this was temporary as their Mother was traveling around the
country. Carol Shaw was adopted by the Hobson family who had been
friends of her parents and given the name Donna. After the leaving the
Navy, Raymond Venables became a school master at a public school, Harrow, England. In 1954 he
showed his copy of the photograph to a member of the American Friends
(Social) Service Committee, and through the Chicago Daily News and a
network of Pastors he was put in touch with Donna Hobson and spoke to
her on the telephone in the Daily News Office. He recalled her telling
him “I am so glad you picked us up”. She remembered him as “the man who
gave me some tomato soup”.
Robert Bell also became a teacher
and in 1975 became a School Principal. For some time he had been
lecturing on his family’s experiences adrift, and decided to carry out
detailed research, contacting members of the West Lashaway crew, the
Admiralty and Imperial War Museum, the United States National Archives,
and other sources. In 1978 he obtained details of U66 from the
Stuttgart Library of World History, and contacted two members of the
crew. This led to him and his wife attending a U66 reunion in 1991, and
meeting the former Captain, Friedrich Markworth. In 1984 Doubleday
& Company published In Peril on the Sea by Robert W Bell and D
Bruce Lockerbie, on which this account is based.
At the time of its publication it
was believed that Donna Taylor, formerly Donna Hobson formerly Carol
Shaw, married to Bill Taylor and mother of three girls in Conway,
Arkansas, had not wished to be further involved after her telephone
conversation with Raymond Venables. However, according to an interview
with 501 Life, a Conway on-line newsletter in 2005, she had attended a
reunion of fellow raft survivors, U66 crew members and also crew of the
United States ship that later sank U66.
“That was really amazing. The
Germans could not understand why we would even want to be friends with
them, but when its wartime any enemy vessel is fair game and they had
no way of knowing that there were civilians onboard. It was really an
interesting experience to get to meet them and tour a sub like the one
that torpedoed us. They couldn’t believe that we wanted to be friends
because they had killed our parents, so we were able to explain that we
were where we were supposed to be at the right time, and that God loved
them like He loved us and we didn’t have any reason to hold a grudge
In 2008 Donna’s daughter Wendy
made contact with Raymond Venables’ daughter Helen via the Internet,
who wrote that her father was “sitting by a log fire in a small town in
South East England by his wife of 65 years”.
According to In Peril on
the Sea, only one other of the West Lashaway’s liferafts was ever seen
again. It came ashore on St Vincent on 23rd September with one
survivor. In the empty ration box were found an American Express Money
Order and an endorsed cheque, both payable to Harvey Shaw. However
according to Donna Taylor and her brother Richard Shaw a newspaper
article stated that Harvey Shaw was still alive when the raft touched
land and died on the way to the infirmary. He was buried in the
Anglican cemetery at Georgetown, and they were able to visit his grave
in 2002. The reporter had asked the only survivor how he had managed to
live all those days before the rescue. He said “The missionary
taught us to pray”.
Donna said “that let my
brother and me know that he did not stay in that dejected state. He did
somewhat recover from that; he was still able to help other people.
That was what gave me the most closure,”
Oil for North Africa; by Henry Graham De Chair (The Navy, a publication of the Navy League of Great Britain) Let go aft: The indiscretions of a salt horse commander; by Henry Graham De Chair (Tunbridge Wells: Parapress, 1993). Adrft: The Story of Twenty Days on a Raft in the South Atlantic; by Ethel Bell, edited by J.H. Hunter (Toronto: Evangelical Publishers, 2008) In Peril on the Sea; by Robert W Bell and D Bruce Lockerbie (Doubleday & Co, 1984)