The Battle of the Atlantic may have effectively been won but the U Boat menace remained a real threat for the remainder of the war. A sharp reminder of this reality came with the loss of the SS Yoma on the 17th June. She was carrying troops back from Algeria to Alexandria, many of them Royal Engineers who were to assist with port facilities for the Sicily invasion. The SS Yoma was hit by two torpedoes and went down in under 5 minutes. Sources vary but it seems that 451 troops were lost together with 29 crew.
Few bodies were recovered so most of the men were listed as “missing”. For hundreds of families there was an agonising, uncertain wait as they tried to discover what had happened to their sons and husbands.
The family of Herbie ‘Bert’ Cullum were to wait months for news.
In August 1943 they got an account from a friend of Bert, George Monk, who managed to escape from the hold of the ship:
Bert was at hands reach from me, when it happened. We all got thrown across seats and on the floor and after I managed to regain my feet, which was very difficult, I looked around for Bert. He was nowhere to be seen … after great difficulty and luck I found myself in the water, and for the one and three quarter hours in which I was drifting around my eyes were constantly looking for Bert, but could not see him.
That was the most definitive information they would ever get. For a long time his Bert’s mother was to wait, hoping that news of her son’s survival would somehow arrive, placing hope in her knowledge that her son was a strong swimmer. She continued in this hope long after official confirmation that he was ‘presumed dead’ in February 1944.
It was years later, when she saw her son’s name listed on the official War Grave memorial at Brookwood that she began to come to terms with the death of her son. Her experience was to be visited on many other families.
Only much later would the family discover this account of the sinking, in the official papers released in 1976, from Chief Officer Olds:
Although the explosion was loud, it was not as loud as I would have expected. The vessel was ‘lifted’ by the explosion, and settled rapidly by the stern. I was in the Wireless Room at the time. I came out onto the bridge, but could see nothing owing to the steam which enveloped the ship…
Nos. 3 and 4 hatches were blown away, and clouds of coal dust were thrown high into the air, smothering everything, including myself. I heard the Master order “abandon ship” and hurried to my lifeboats…
After wrestling with the lifeboats, he found that:
… by this time the Yoma was well down by the stern and the next thing I knew she sank under my feet and I found myself in the water…as the boat rose I saw a lot of men on the foc’sle head: they would not jump into the water, …as the bow lifted a number of them lost their footing and fell onto the bridge, many others being dragged under by the ship.