Seventy Days: SS Anglo-Saxon

Numbers in brackets proceeding names indicate age.

The evening of 21 August 1940 found the SS Anglo-Saxon steaming along peacefully having departed Newport, Wales days earlier. The tramp steamer carried 40 in crew. Among her crewmen were Robert Tapscott (19) and Wilbert Widdicombe (21). They possessed opposite personalities and detested one another, but forced themselves to put up with each other.

Nazi raider (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Tapscott was in the middle of a cribbage game and doing well. All of a sudden the ship was rocked by four explosions that came in quick succession. A Nazi raider had attacked the Anglo-Saxon with tremendous ferocity. Tapscott and his companions grabbed their lifebelts and headed for the deck. Once on deck a blast from behind blew Tapscott across the deck. For a few seconds he couldn’t move. Shrapnel littered his back. When he finally staggered to his feet, the raider had began raking the ship with her machine gun. When the raider paused her attack for a moment, Tapscott ran. He encountered the gunner, Francis Penny who was wounded in several places. They were lying on the deck when they heard the ship’s jolly-boat being lowered overhead. When it came down to their deck they jumped in it. Widdicombe was on watch when the attack began. On deck he found Captain Philip Flynn dead. Flynn had been killed while throwing the ship’s papers overboard. The radio had been put out of commission and there was no chance of sending out a distress call. It had been less than 10 minutes since the attack began. Moments later Chief Mate Barry Denny fetched Widdicombe to help lower the starboard jolly-boat. While lowering it Widdicombe’s hand was jammed in the process, but he continued working. Once in the jolly-boat Tapscott aided in the lowering process. Denny slid down into the boat followed by Widdicombe.  At the last minute Second Radio Officer Roy Pilcher climbed down into the boat carrying an attaché case.

The Anglo-Saxon was still moving full speed ahead and as a result the propeller was pulling the jollyboat towards it. While they were working to clear the propeller, two more men jumped into the boat. Now the sea carried the boat towards the raider. The seven men hunkered down in the boat fearful of being discovered. Once they were at a certain distance they began rowing away from the two ships. Nearby they seen the lights from the Anglo-Saxon’s life rafts. Before anything could be done the raider spotted the rafts and turned opened fired. When she finished there was nothing left. Shortly after 9:00 p.m. the Anglo-Saxon sunk and the raider sailed away. In the jolly-boat, the survivors settled in for the night. The next morning Denny made the decision to head for the Leeward Islands. It would take more than two weeks to reach but they had no choice. Perhaps a ship would pick them up along the way.

Pilcher and Penny were badly wounded. Pilcher’s foot was so mangled everyone wondered how he had been able to row the night before. Pilcher’s explained he hadn’t been able to feel any pain. With a medical kit they tended to the wounded as best they could.

Jolly-Boat, top left (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Jolly-Boat, top left (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Before leaving the ship Pilcher had grabbed his attaché case which held tobacco, razors, a collection of Bible quotes and papers which Denny would use to keep a log. To further keep track of how many days they were at sea, Denny cut notches on the gunwale. Denny also set about to rationing their meager supply of food and water. On August 23rd  Denny spotted a ship in the distance. He lit a flare and when it had fizzled out the ship turned towards them. Unfortunately, as it neared the ship looked to be a German. Cautiously, Denny observed the vessel while making no move to make the jolly-boat’s presence known. The ship eventually sailed away.

Gangrene had set in on Pilcher’s foot. The nauseating stench hung over the boat, for which Pilcher apologized. On August 26 he went mad, laughing hysterically and babbling. It was hard for the others to take; Pilcher’s madness had turned him into a different person. No one could sleep that night. A few days later Denny fell ill with nausea and cramps. In great pain, he would never recover. Pilcher wasn’t any better either, although he was now in possession of his senses. The same day he slipped away quietly and was buried at sea.

On September 4, Penny was at the tiller when he decided to go overboard. He floated away face down. Shortly after, Denny and Third Engineer Lionel Hawks also decided to do the same. Before leaving, Denny gave his ring to Widdicombe and asked that he see that his mother got it. Denny and Hawks went overboard and floated away together. There were only three crew left now. Two severely weakened and one raving mad. The latter, one day decided to go for a walk to get a drink. Before anything could be done he went overboard and was carried away by the sea.

Seaweed (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Twice Tapscott and Widdicombe had made up their minds to go overboard like their shipmates before them. But both times Widdicombe had changed his mind at the last minute. Tapscott would not leave unless Widdicombe went with him. At one point they were so thirsty they drained the liquid from their compass and replaced it with seawater. They then drank the compass liquid. Then one night they got the long sought after rain. They were able to gather six gallons. With their thirst quenched their sense of hunger returned. Throughout the days they fed on biscuits, seaweed, crabs and fish (that happened to land in their boat. Fishing had proved fruitless). But by October they were both suffering from the strain of the ordeal. Tapscott had began babbling and the two had also come to blows.

The end was soon near. October 29 they sighted Eleuthera Island and made landfall with hardly any trouble. Once ashore they collapsed in exhaustion. They were located by some people who got them to help. The pair had been seventy days at sea. Widdicombe recovered earlier than Tapscott, but on the way home was lost at sea in February 1941 when his ship sunk.

Source: Jones, Guy Pearce. Two Survived.