I left school in the summer of 1958, before “gap years” were invented. I managed to work my passage to West Africa as a supernumerary on the Enugu Palm, a Unilever freighter delivering cloth, rail sleepers, crates of alcohol, boxes of explosives for the mining industry, machinery, and other cargoes from Liverpool to ports along the West African coast from Gambia, Sierra Leone, Liberia , Senegal and the Ivory Coast to the surf ports of Ghana and creeks of the Niger Delta, eventually returning to Liverpool, her decks loaded with huge logs of teak, mahogany and ebony, her holds full of palm oil and groundnut oil to make Sunlight soap and Stork margarine in Port Sunlight
On board I made friends with Tex, a Nigerian sailor. He taught me how to steer our 5,000 ton ship through the Atlantic; to splice cables with a marlin spike; to catch a 25 foot hammerhead shark with a butcher’s hook and rotting meat. In return I composed him a passionate love letter to his Aggie in Everton.
15 years later, I bumped into Tex again out of the blue one evening in The Britannia in Cable Street. He was staying in the Red Ensign Club in Dock Street – an historic berth for thousands of seamen over the years (Joseph Conrad had lived there a century ago. It’s now been converted into the trendy Wombat City Hostel).
Tex told me of his own extraordinary story. In 1940 his dream as a 17year old Yoruba boy from Lagos was to become a sailor. It was wartime. He got a job as a deckhand on a merchant ship sailing out of Apapa. Two years later he joined the crew of RMS Laconia, a 20,000 ton Cunard liner converted into a troopship. She had joined a convoy of Allied vessels sailing from Egypt round South Africa to zigzag North up the Atlantic. On board were over 2,000 passengers, including hundreds of British and Polish soldiers; a crew of over a hundred; a lot of civilian families and, locked up down in the holds, a thousand Italian prisoners of war.
On 12 September 1942 hundreds of miles off the Liberian coast, the ship was torpedoed by a German U-Boat. She sank quickly. More than half of those on board drowned. But many others somehow got overboard and were floating in the sea.
Tex and a few others managed to scramble onto a lifeboat that had been cut adrift. Over the next few days as they floated away they saw survivors in the sea being attacked by sharks, then watched many others being rescued as different vessels began to reach the scene including, astonishingly, the German U-156 that had torpedoed the ship. 400 survivors clambered on her hull and several life rafts were strapped on in a mercy rescue bid.
Then a plane flew over, an American B-24 Liberator bomber. In a series of sallies, it tried unsuccessfully to attack the U-boat with bombs and depth charges. The submarine had to dive, abandoning hundreds of her rescued passengers to the sea. Then the plane began to fire on survivors in the water and to strafe life-boats killing many, including all the others in Ted’s boat, then flew off.
The pilots of the B-24 mistakenly reported that they had sunk U-156. They were awarded medals for their bravery.
Ted was the only survivor in his boat. He had two oars and a bailer, but no engine, no map and no water or provisions. For 5 weeks he drifted in the Atlantic. Somehow, he rigged up a small makeshift sail. A few flying fish landed in the boat. He managed to kill a seabird with an oar, eating it raw. Sunburned, starving and dying of thirst, Tex was spotted by an Allied vessel and taken to South Africa. He was in hospital for a month but recovered and was eventually taken back to Nigeria, returning to sea as a sailor. Some years later he became one of the first African bosuns on Palm Line.
U-156 was sunk later in the war. In January 2011 a two-part BBC film ‘The Sinking of the Laconia’ by Alan Bleasdale was shown on TV telling this incredible true story.