As he swam, desperate to find the HMS Avondale, Archie became thoroughly soaked in the thick oil fuel that covered the water surrounding the Parramatta’s stricken stern. This made the going very difficult and most unpleasant. Nevertheless, his determination to reach the Avondale gave him the strong incentive to keep searching in that dark and sloppy sea!
How understandable it would have been for Archie, in such a nerve-wracking predicament, to have been consumed by terror and helplessness! Instead, the instinct for survival together with his natural resilience and strong positive character took over.
He also displayed a generosity of spirit when, as he was swimming, he came across a shipmate, Able Seaman Tassie Hextall, who was clinging to an oar from a whaler –a flimsy refuge, but it seemed to be supporting him. As Archie passed by Tassie called out, “Don’t leave me, Dusty!” (After the war Archie told me, “ I can still hear that call to this day!”)
Archie realized that the oar would not have supported the two of them and, so, he kept swimming in the hope of being rescued by HMS Avondale.
Then, suddenly, out of the darkness the ship came bearing down on him and, for a moment, he thought she was going to run him down. He could feel the thud of her propellers as she swept past no more than forty feet away. He yelled out and sailors on the deck yelled back, but she didn’t stop until she swung around about two hundred yards away, probably to pick up other survivors.
Here’s how Archie later described his feelings and the subsequent events that led to him and two shipmates making it to the Libyan coast and eventual escape from German occupied territory:
I was disappointed and frustrated after putting a lot of effort into getting so close, and now left with no choice but to try again. I started to worry about how long my energy would last.
A short time later I ran into a large suitcase, which must have blown out of the Officers’ Wardroom. I was tempted to see if it would support me, but decided against it –Avondale was still in sight and she was my target.
Next thing, I found a ship’s carley raft right in my path. These were made of a cork substance, of oblong shape, six feet by about four feet, with a rope in the bottom to stop one from falling through. I didn’t hesitate; I climbed aboard and sat there exhausted.
A few minutes later I saw a puff of black smoke and Avondale departed at high speed. I knew she wouldn’t be back tonight. She herself was in danger stopping to pick up survivors and her main task was to escort the merchant ship safely into Tobruk. Maybe she would return in daylight to look for us. Anyway, I was safe for the time being and I just sat there in that raft and offered a prayer for my shipmates. Some of them caught in the explosion area, or who were trapped when access ladders were wrecked would have died without a chance!
Suddenly I was jolted back to life: I had company. Able Seaman Alec Ladhams (a good pal of mine) appeared over the carley raft side. He had to speak before I recognised him because, like me, he was masked with oil fuel. He was dressed in only his underpants and a seaman’s belt and, not surprisingly, his teeth were chattering with the cold. It was great to have company and we even joked about our predicament. Sortly afterwards we had more company: Able Seaman Fred Tysoe, another good pal of mine. (Good pals meant that you went ashore together.)
By now it must have been a good two hours since our ship was hit. All three of us were tired and a bit shocked, I guess. Fred gave Alec a jumper to put on and we all sat there trying to cope with that miserable oil fuel in our eyes and hair, wondering what the light of day would bring forth.
Gradually the dawn came and at about 0700 hours it was light enough to survey the scene, although our vision was restricted as we were so low down in the water….
Part Six will tell of the events leading to landfall on the Libyan coast by Archie and his two shipmates and of how they avoided capture with the help of a friendly tribe of Arabs.
TO BE CONTINUED….in part 6
©Patrick Talty 2004