On 24 November 1941 HMS Dunedin was operating out of Freetown, South Africa, engaged in a search for a possible German raider in disguise. Her lookout spotted a mast that suddenly disappeared and she deviated from her course to investigate. He may well have spotted a periscope.
At 1526 hours, two torpedoes from the German submarine U-124 hit her and she sank rapidly. Only four officers and 63 men survived out of the Dunedin’s crew of 486 officers and men.
Lieutenant-Commander Watson was the senior surviving officer and he was to provide the first comprehensive report of the sinking and the survivors. The lifeboats were destroyed in the torpedo explosions so there were only very basic rafts and a ‘flottanet’ available to those who managed to get off the ship before she sank:
The first night on the rafts was fairly comfortable, there being no rain. The swell gave the rafts a considerable motion which made it difficult at times to keep on them, but the men got some sleep by huddling together and the night did not seem unduly cold. Many of the men were scantily clad and some were naked. Some were without lifebelts. Most of the badly wounded cases died during the first night, and a number of uninjured suffered from delusions.
The general policy adopted was to keep the rafts in touch with each other, and, to effect this, they were secured by painters at night, casting off during the day time so as to avoid bumping and to give a better chance of being picked up. At the beginning most of the rafts had a full equipment of paddles, but even with these, they proved very difficult to manoeuvre. The paddles were successfully used as thwarts, in conjunction with spars recovered from the sea, but a number of paddles were lost by demented men during the period.
Sharks were very numerous but gave little trouble. On the other hand, an unknown type of small fish was extremely ferocious. They were less than a foot long and blunt nosed, quite unlike barracuda. During the first and each successive night many men sustained deep bites from these fish. The bites were clean cut and upwards of an inch or more deep, and were mostly in the soles of the feet, although in some cases the fish sprang out of the water and bit into the men’s arms. Frequently the bites resulted in severed arteries and many men died from this cause. The gratings and nettings of the rafts did not prevent the fish from attacking from inside the rafts.
On the second day, the men who had been delirious during the night recovered their senses, and biscuits and water were issued at intervals to those rafts in touch with those so provided. Later in the afternoon there were several showers of rain and at least 2 jugs were refilled with rain water caught in pieces of a sail which had been picked up from the sea by one of the rafts.
The second night was cold and it rained on and off. The men were suffering considerably from exposure and general discomfort. A number died from fish bites and several men went quite mad, swimming from raft to raft. Some were quarrelsome and gave considerable trouble.
The third day was mainly dull and the men seemed to be suffering from their experiences of the night. Biscuits and water were issued to all rafts within reach of the provisioned rafts. The third night was dry and a little warmer, but the exposure was telling on most of the men and a large number died. The delusions from which so many were by this time suffering were invariably that they were, in swimming from one raft to another, going to their mess decks for a cup of tea, or some such purpose. They appeared to be quite happy in their delusions, and drowned very easily and almost without consciousness.
The fourth day was hot and many suffered from sunburn and possibly sunstroke. About one hour before sunset, a steamship was sighted and the rafts were paddled towards her. The ship proved to be S. S. NISHMAHA, of Houston, Texas, a freighter owned by Lykes Bros. S. S. Co. Inc., and bound for Philadelphia.
The rafts were sighted from the ship and three of her lifeboats were lowered to pick up survivors. It is considered that a high standard of lookout was being maintained, but for this our rescue would never have been effected. The occupants of 6 rafts and one flottanet were rescued by about 2000, local time. These survivors, who numbered 72, were very feeble and many required surgical and medical attention. Every care and attention was given to them by the crew of S. S. NISHMAHA, whose generosity and kindness over a period of 9 ½ days cannot be too highly commended.
For the full report see HMS Dunedin.co.uk.