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Troopship Oronsay (Survivor's Report)
From SN Guides
The following Diary Report was compiled by the late Pilot Officer Roger Quixley RAFVR on his experiences during and after the sinking of the troopship SS Oronsay on the 9th October 1942. You will notice that his report was written during the war when censorship availed so he did not mention the name of the navy ship that picked him up in his report which was HMS Brilliant. Mind you he did slip in the phrase 'Brilliant Seamanship'!
After Roger left school he worked for a short period with the Barclays bank in London before obtaining an appointment with the British Crown Colonies. He sailed for Malaya in 1935 and took up a position as an Immigration Officer with the Straits Settlements in Penang where he spent most of his time looking for illegal immigrants and clearing ships in and out of the Penang Region. In 1938 he took flying lessons at the Penang Flying Club and gained his private pilot’s licence.
When war broke out in Europe he applied to join the Straits Settlements Volunteer Air Force in Singapore but he was refused release by his employers because they needed his ability to speak fluent Malay. When he eventually was released to join the SSVAF it was too late as it was just prior to the fall of Singapore. He and 15 other RAFVR cadet pilots, all of whom had civilian pilot’s licences were placed on the last ship to leave Singapore. All sixteen were shipped from Ceylon to South Africa for RAF training. Roger always said that obtaining his private flying licence saved his life!
After receiving further flying training in Rhodesia he embarked on the 20000 ton troopship Oronsay in Cape town bound for UK. When the Orient liner was on passage back to UK she was torpedoed 500 miles from the West African city of Freetown. She was sailing unescorted at the time of the sinking and was unable to send out a SOS as the first torpedo strike damaged the ship’s radio aerial. In consequence of this the air search for the survivors was unfortunately delayed and this caused suffering because of the extended stay in the lifeboats in the sun and heat.
The Oronsay was torpedoed by a long range Italian submarine, Archimede, operating out of the German Bordeaux submarine base in the West Coast of France. When on its next patrol the Archimede was sunk off the Brazilian coast by two US Navy Catalina flying boats on the 15th of April 1943. Three rubber dinghies were dropped from the US aircraft for the twenty survivors of the sinking. Only one crewman was found alive in very poor condition by Brazilian fishermen on the 27th of May. The lone survivor spent a considerable time in recovery before being transferred to a POW camp in USA.
Roger eventually made it back to UK and completed his RAF flying training. He served with RAF 239 Squadron in UK and when this squadron was disbanded he was transferred to RAF 28 Squadron which was stationed in India at the time.
On transit to India in October 1943 he was to experience yet another sinking when he was onboard the Dutch flagged troopship the MS Marnix Van St Aldegonde. The convoy was attacked in the Mediterranean by 35 German aircraft and his ship was one of the first ships in the world ever to be sunk by a missile. The flying rocket propelled bomb was radioed controlled and flown from the German aircraft into the engine room of the ship. The ship was seriously damaged and although attempts were made to tow her into the North African port, of Phillipeville, she sank after all personnel on board had been rescued by US escort ships.
He spent the remainder of the war with RAF 28 squadron flying Hurricanes on photo air reconnaissance and ground attack flights for the Army in Burma. Between December 43 and June 45 he flew 171 sorties, over 300 hours in sometimes very poor weather conditions. He was demobbed from the RAF in 1946 with a DFC and with the rank of Flight Lieutenant.
On return to Malaya his ability to speak fluent Malay saw him transferred immediately to the new Malayan Special Branch as a Police Inspector. He was there for several years during the Malayan Emergency and one of his last jobs in Malaya was to carry out the investigation into the assassination of the British High Commissioner to Malaya Sir Henry Gurney. Sir Henry had previously presented Roger with his DFC medal and Roger also told me that during one of his leaves in UK he had to do a wee bit of a training course with MI5!!
In 1952 he joined and served with the Canadian Air force for six years before he and his family settled in Australia!
Roger Quigley's Diary
Roger’s report on his 11 days adrift in a lifeboat is as follows:
DIARY FOR PERIOD FRIDAY 9th OCTOBER to TUESDAY 20TH OCTOBER, 1942 To the accompaniment of soft sweet music provided by the British Broadcasting Corporation I am transcribing rather more legibly, from rough pencilled notes an account of the period beginning in the early hours of Friday, 9th October and ending somewhat quickly, and at the same time, joyfully, on 20th October, 1942 some eleven days later. The background is lacking entirely, but I pardon myself by claiming that this is but a record anyhow.
Friday 9th October 1942 Shattering crash awoke me. Time: 5.30 am First coherent thought was that the ship had collided. I jumped out of the upper bunk and switched on the lights. Took off my pyjamas (force of habit!) donned KD shorts and shirt. Even in this short time the cabin lights had begun to dim, so I did not persist in my search for the second stocking. Walters, my cabin mate, had gone by now and the appreciable list which the cabin had assumed soon convinced me that it would be foolish to remain below deck any longer.
Left the cabin with my shoes in hand and made my way to my boat station, B deck, port side. It had already been decided that the list to starboard made the launching of the port boats too difficult and everyone was making his way to the starboard side. Considerable crowd here. Boat lowering hampered by the pitch darkness. Showing of lights was forbidden, although the submarine could quite obviously see us from where she was sitting on the surface. I fear there must have been several casualties when nested boat was lowered too quickly striking its parent boat before the latter could push away from the ship's side. Cries and wails from people in the lower boat were heart-rendering. Was not encouraged to queue up for a seat in a life boat. Decided to await events.
Bumped into MacIntyre in the darkness. Decided to hang to together. Ship did not appear to appear to be in immediate danger of sinking so decided to make a dash down to my cabin to collect my service cap. Protection for one's head is after all most necessary in the tropics. Remember wondering whether I wasn't being very foolish. Recalled instances where passengers had returned to cabins and not been seen again.
Emergency lighting now functioning although the cabin was in darkness. Groped about and discovered a couple of sweaters, the second stocking and my cap, the latter on the cabin floor. Thought afterwards that I might have put on a blue suit. However, at that moment, I was very much disinclined to remain more than a few seconds! As I was leaving, I remembered my wallet. Gathered this together with my keys (including my home door key). Unfortunately left behind a new wallet, a present from Jimmie. Remember scoffing at the idea of wasting precious seconds collecting my loose change!
Arrived back on deck and contacted Mac. Shortly afterwards came another shattering crash. The second torpedo had found its mark, this time on the port side. Great deluge of water swept over the boat deck and poured into the lifeboats remaining. Further hampered efforts of the crew to lower them. By now number of people remaining aboard much smaller. Helped to lower the boat before the last and together with Mac clambered down the life line into her. When she was full, we pushed off from the side with no little difficulty. Ship's list now more noticeable. Last of the boats soon away to be followed almost immediately by the crash of the third torpedo again on the port side. No apparent change in attitude of ship. Fourth torpedo struck the ship a little later, registering a hit in the stern. Caused a considerable explosion. Thought the ship's magazine had blown up. The ship quickly began to sink, stern first, her bows rising slowly out of the sea. Had soon slid back into the sea. Great puff of debris as compressed air fought its way upwards. 8.05 am our ship had gone. My own selfish thoughts at that moment were of intense regret that I should have lost all my belongings collected over the last four and half years including two RAF service suits, provisions, photographs and addresses.
Our lifeboat was by now more than half full of water. Bailing did not improve the position noticeably. Decided to find another boat. Eventually discovered one almost waterlogged, a steel effort which we managed to empty of its water and crude oil after two hours hard bailing. It was now mid-day and extremely hot. During the morning the two launches which had been safely got away had rounded up all the life boats, thirteen altogether. Set course for Freetown! Our “convoy” consisted of five life boats towed by one launch and the rest under the care of the second launch made 2-3 knots during the afternoon. Recognised, no one in our lifeboat beyond the ships Adjutant and three other RAF blokes, one almost full of crude oil, poor fellow. Ships wireless operator, passed on the doleful news that a broken aerial had prevented a message from getting out. We've had that! First meal 6 pm . Two biscuits (1.5 inch square) a layer of Bovril Pemmacan in between. This magnificent meal washed down by l.5 ounces of water. If that's dinner, I've had it!
Our launch still chugging away hauling along its human cargo. Each lifeboat had now rigged a mainsail — jib. Convoy resembled a string of pirate boats Darkness 7.30 pm continued making 2-3 knots. So ended Friday 9th
Saturday 10th October The other string of boats which were lagging behind in the late afternoon were nowhere to be seen this morning. Our launch was still plugging away when I awoke after a not too - uncomfortable night. 8.00 am issue, of morning rations consisting of two biscuits, pemmican & 2 oz. of water ( 0.5 oz. additional ration). There followed an exceeding hot day. I was so dry in the mouth at 6 pm that I was quite unable to eat my evening biscuits.
Rain at 11.30 pm awoke me. Hastily collected an empty biscuit tin and contrived to trap a little water. However, in the darkness we found it difficult to hold the mainsail in such a way as to gather a good quantity. Some of the crew who seemed less anxious to quench their thirst than myself rather hampered our efforts by revealing a desire to retain the sail as their improvised blanket. Nevertheless I managed to collect a few mouthfuls which I was very thankful to let trickle down my parched throat. It was fortunately too dark to ascertain the colour of the water for it tasted strongly of paint and sail cloth. I would have drunk lots more had it been there to be offered. When the rain ceased I was thirsty enough to suck the sail. I swallowed my half masticated biscuits and then went to sleep again.
Sunday Il th October In the early hours of the morning the launch broke down and we hove to until daylight. At 4.00 am a considerable breeze sprang and everyone in his wet clothes felt extremely cold and uncomfortable. The grey cold dawn took a long time to come and when it did come it wasn't very inviting. I for one was shivering freely. The Second mate commanding our boat was anxious to be away and as the motor-boat seemed to have passed out on us for good he decided to set sail alone. This we did at 7 a.m. and set off at a cracking pace (4 knots?) soon outstripping three other boats which did like wise. Thought it rather a dirty trick to leave the launch which, after all, had done us yeoman service, Ran into heavy rain during the morning and spent an absorbing time collecting rain water as it dripped off the sails. Water so collected rather brackish but not altogether unpalatable. Sail should be reasonably clean after a little more rain. During afternoon discovered Horlicks malted milk tablets in another watertight locker. Before dark I endeavoured to dry my KD shorts and underpants rather unsuccessfully however. Evening meal included 4 Horlicks tablets. Went "to bed" as soon as it was dark (7 pm) Did not relish wearing my wet garments so lay down without them.
Monday 12th October Spent an exceedingly uncomfortable night. Blanket wet and wind persisted in discovering gaps and blowing and whistling up my bare legs. Quite expect pneumonia now. At daybreak discovered that one other boat was still in sight on the horizon. After rations had a roll call. 28 aboard, ship's Adjutant ('Wilkie') 3 RAF Sergeants and self only passengers present, rest ship's crew. Did two hours at the oars in an effort to warm ourselves but packed up when it started raining again. Breeze improved after lunch (just a time now rations served at 8 am & 6 pm) and so sailed quite successfully. Kept an optimistic watch for Sunderland during afternoon without success. Turned in at 6.30 pm, other boat still in sight. Lifeboat seems to get harder if that's possible. Would appreciate a little deck space if even for a game of quoits.
Tuesday 13th October No sign of other boat when we awoke this morning. Rations at 7.30 am but my share made little or no difference to gnawing pains in my stomach. Incidentally we discovered a store of Terry's chocolate yesterday afternoon. Rations are now supplemented by two tablets of chocolate. Rain during morning. Amused myself collecting water although got somewhat damp in the process. Most of the others were content to huddle beneath blankets.
Rained during afternoon also after a break at mid-day. Clothes now thoroughly wet and so made an effort to dry them in the late afternoon. Evening meal at 5.20 pm and as it had been a cold, cheerless day we were issued with supplementary rations; - Three biscuits, pemmacan three Horlicks tablets and a double measure of water some of which was rain water collected this morning. Taste of sail scarcely noticeable these days.
Wednesday 14th October Fairish breeze during night, Made fair progress. A dry night which was just as well because my clothes and blanket were wet enough already. Slept fairly well, waking hourly. Hips and shoulders seem to be wearing badly. Awoke at 6.45 am Sea still there. Has every appearance of being an unpleasantly hot day. Breakfast conspicuous by return to normal rations! As anticipated, an absolute "scorcher". Cloudless sky, no breeze. Freshened a little in afternoon made little progress today, I fear. Lay gasping like fish out of water. So hot that there was an issue of 2 ounces of water at 1 pm together with 3 Horlicks tablets.
In the late afternoon washed my feet and legs in sea water in an attempt to remove crude oil still adhering.
TEA: a pleasant surprise. A full cup of water before the biscuits. Rainwater, collected yesterday it's true, but very palatable, followed by three biscuits with pemmacan and two chocolate tablets. Then a further l.5 cups of rain water. I must mention the three bakelite cups - picnic variety - were discovered with the chocolate size - approximately 3/4 size of an ordinary tea-cup. Sun set at 6.51 very thankful to see it go.
Absolutely no wind so furled sail and lay down.
Thursday 15th October A warm night. No wind, regret made no progress. As soon as it was light sighted another boat on the horizon. After breakfast, sluiced bottom of boat. Rowing six blades other boat caught us up at 7.45 am. Rowing since mid night. Weow! A mental case on board. They have tied the poor fellow down. Took two men off and so made numbers equal. Also presented them with a tank of water. We have a good supply. Then followed another scorching day.
Most exhausting. Absolutely no breeze. Most people doused themselves with sea water repeatedly throughout the day. I resolved to wait until the sun was low in the west before 1 followed suit. During afternoon clouds began to creep into the sky and at 5.15 it was cool enough to enjoy a sluicing.
We hung over the gunwale rather precariously and doused one another with buckets of seawater. Wonderfully refreshing! Some of us did the thing properly. Hanging onto the lifelines and hastily immersing ourselves then a quick scramble out to avoid possible unpleasant encounters with sharks (or as the crew call them 'Nobby Clarks') Meal at 6 p.m. Rain clouds ahead. Rowed towards them and prepared the sail for rain water collecting. Our luck was out however. Rain seemed to be falling everywhere except where we were. Continued the galley-slave act until midnight and left the other boat away astern. Five shifts of 20 minutes each. Realised how weak I'd become. A small issue of water and then fell asleep exhausted. My partner on the oar filled a biscuit tin with salt water and sank the lot to my consternation. Went to sleep with dry clothes for the first time.
Friday 16th October With the coming of daylight we discovered that the other boat was nowhere to be seen. Rowed two hours until 7 am as we were still becalmed. Sighted rain clouds and at 7.20 we were joyfully collecting rain water. A very heavy precipitation enable us to fill the 49 quart tank. A few of us employed the jib and collected several biscuit-"tins full of water. Drank copiously. A veritable 'feed' Superb! Unfortunately rain soon passed over. Had rations and felt almost sated. I said almost. The more water one has, the more one seems to want, especially when one is denied. Sat in the sun till I was dry and then retrieved my clothes from their 'dry' hiding place. Wind dropped early and so performed at the oars from 10.00 am till mid-day. Sun hidden by a veil of clouds (alto-stratus?). Sun threatened to break through in the afternoon; but we were not forced to suffer as we did yesterday. Bathed at 5.30 pm and then the day's big moment - rations! made little progress since noon (1/2 a sea mile?) . Rowed five shifts from 7.20 pm Could barely raise my arms towards the end. Went to sleep at midnight after a small ration of fresh water. Unwelcome prospect of rowing again at 5 am! Hope there's some wind by then!
Saturday 17th October Freshening wind awoke us at 3.50 am so set sail immediately. Slight rain but wind too high for heavy precipitation. Fell asleep until 7.20 am Breeze continuing. Forgot to record last night's beautiful sunset. Great banks of cumulus and four huge cumulo - nimbus complete with anvils:- Breakfast (apology) at 7.45 am Was writing this at 9.30 am when a Sunderland flying boat was sighted on starboard bow some 15 miles distant we launched a smoke float but wind too high for the signal to be effective.
Aircraft appeared to be circling an area 12-15 miles away. Finally disappeared at 10.30 am in direction of Freetown without seeing us. Disappointment naturally intense, although no one said much. Encouraging, anyhow. I think it has bucked us all up. Breeze continued and at 2 pm ran into rain. Speedily developed into squall and we bowled along at the rate of knots. All very wet but as we're making such good progress none of us worries. Continued to make considerable headway after the sun had disappeared. Wet blankets and clothes made it a distinctly unpleasant night. The wind would persist in whistling up my shorts. Breeze died at 12.30 am
Sunday 18th October Breeze freshened at 7.00 am. Sky overcast. Raining soon after but wind dropped. Rained steadily until 2 p.m. We lay becalmed until 11 a.m. when we decided to row to keep warm. Breeze sprang up in mid-afternoon. Shipped oars and attempted to dry damp garments.
Awaited evening rations with eager anticipation. Cold, wet weather makes one hungry. After a hot day dry biscuits are exceedingly difficult to swallow but today, cold and miserable, I could eat 30-40 without any trouble. I have drunk several times today and do not feel thirsty this evening. During the day, apart from discussions as to possibility of aircraft appearing, topics centre on drinks - tea seems to be the favourite - (when the weather's cold) no one grumbles over the lack of cigarettes. Just before sunset cloud shapes on the horizon played tricks with our imaginations; but land must still be over 100 miles away. We may be in sight of it on Tuesday or Wednesday.
Had a sing- song before going to sleep our song-master, 67 year-old Jock -, Steward. He is a credit to the Merchant Navy.
Monday 19th October Wind dropped shortly after 2 am, but sprang up at daylight, Few rain showers during morning. Breeze failed at mid-day and we were lying becalmed when an aircraft sighted by young McIver (RAF) on port quarter (1.05 pm) about 4 miles away. Launched smoke float. Failed to work. Grabbed the last one and hurled it into the sea. This one worked and produced a goodish column of orange smoke. All eyes on the aircraft. - identified as a Wellington - which was still pursuing its original course, now flying away. Suddenly began to turn towards us. We're seen! Flew directly above us and then began to circle our position. Immense relief, and feelings of intense gratitude. Evans (purser’s assistant) and I wrung hands. I was so happy. I had a lump in my throat. Received a message (by Aldis lamp) from the Wellington. Came, low and told us that she had sent our position to base and that help was coming.
Continued to circle us until 4 p.m. when another aircraft appeared. This turned out to be a Hudson. On its arrival the Wellington flashed us IMI. (returning to base) and departed. Hudson flew close to us and dropped supplies, medicine and tinned, and then made off after giving us a white Verey (IMI). At 5 pm celebrated the occasion with a minor banquet ! Three biscuits three chocolate tablets, a double ration of pemmacan, tomato juice and two beakers of water! Put out the sea-anchor to keep our position and so to sleep - in a very happy frame of mind.
Tuesday 20th October For me, as for most others, a sleepless night. Boat rolled horribly in the ceaseless swell. I was excited too, of course, and my shoulders were very stiff. At 5.30 a.m. some one spotted a light flashing astern. Returned signal. At 5.55 a.m. a dark shape loomed up out of the darkness. Its towering height to us made it seem like a battleship. Recognised it as a destroyer as it came nearer. Brilliant seamanship enabled her to pull up dead alongside us. Boarding net lowered. All of us aboard in five minutes and away immediately,
I was taken to the ward room where I consumed a terrific break-fast and several cups of coffee during the next hour. Later on, a bath and shave. Next few hours somewhat of a dream. Dashing along at a rate of knots, 34,000 H.P. throbbing beneath my feet. Hudson, co-operating with the destroyer had, in the meantime, sighted another boat, and at 11 am we picked up her crew. She was the boat which had made contact with ourselves some days previously. Two Australian P/O’s on board. Lunch, a terrific meal, which goes for tea too. Reached Freetown and dry land at 5.30 pm.
Learned that we were picked up about 120 miles from Freetown. Said goodbye to the Navy, magnificent fellows. We couldn't have been treated better, anywhere. 6.00 pm. on dry land again.
Pilot Officer R W Quixley RAFVR 128630 Freetown 30 November 1942