Troopship sunk 500 miles off South Africa

The Royal Mail Liner Oronsay was built for the route to Australia, conveying passengers and cargo. Six men died when she was torpedoed on 9th OCtober 1942.

One of the U-boats directed to look for convoy ships off South Africa found a target on 9th October. The liner Oronsay was making her way unescorted back to Britain. She carried a large cargo of copper metal and oranges – both much needed commodities in Britain. Her passengers were mainly servicemen who had completed their training in South Africa.

Amongst them was Pilot Officer Roger Quixley RAFVR. He had left Singapore on the last ship before the capitulation to the Japanese, as a qualified pilot he went to South Africa to train for the RAF. Now he was making his way back to Britain to complete his training and join a Squadron:

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

For the full diary see Ships Nostalgia

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