We are grateful to TASC Member Paschal Gunawardena for this fascinating story written by his late uncle Stan Fernando
The following article was written by Stan Fernando, a Junior Engineer from Sri Lanka (Ceylon as known then), who was serving on S.S. Talamba at the time when disaster stuck.
The article was first published in ‘The Sunday Times’ news paper (Sri Lanka) 24th February 1980 issue and again sometime later in the Institute of Marine Engineers’- Sri Lanka Branch bulletin.
This is his recollection of events on that fateful night.
The night of July 10, 1943 and its events are indelibly stamped in my mind and although over thirty years have passed, no power can make me forget.
The British India Steamship Company’s vessel ‘Talamba’, then converted into a hospital ship was a happy ship which I had recently joined with strict medical instructions that I was to be on light duties as I had only just recovered from a very serious illness. What made the particularly pleasant was the fact that there was a full complement of medical staff including nurses on board and practically all the ships officers has sweethearts and girl friends which made life worth living in spite of the dangers existing at sea in war time.
Imagine if you can a large floating craft full of casualties – mostly men wounded in battle and completely incapable of fending for themselves now imagine that one of this craft is holed and filled with water – one end only. Slowly but steadily this end sinks deeper and deeper while the other end rises up until the once horizontal craft is now in a vertical position.
Is it possible to imagine a worse fate that can happen to human beings already in the agony of desperation due to being incapacitated; and then imagine the whole craft sinking into the depths of the Mediterranean. This is just what happened when the German bombed the ill-fated ‘Talamba’ on that memorable night, I was one of the survivors.
The ‘Talamba’ was a bonny vessel of nearly 4000 registered tons with a machinery rating of 8000 horse-power. Ship’s engineers of the old school will appreciate it when I say that she was powered by two triple expansion up and down engines using steam from five or six coal fired scotch boilers. The ‘Talamba’ carried three funnels and was painted white with red markings and large red crosses painted on the ship-side, funnels and decks lit at night with all ablaze, she could not have been mistaken for anything but a hospital ship.
The Captain was an Englishman by the name of J. D. Woods who lived up to the best traditions of his profession. Brodie a dour wee Scotchman was the Chief Engineer under whose special jurisdiction I came, while Olson a typical Geordie, was the Second Engineer and I as Junior Engineer kept the 4-8 watch with him. Big Aussie Brown was the Third Engineer and a braver man. I cannot think of, for it was he who volunteered to go down the Engine Room and put out the generators when we realized that the lights were attracting the aggressive plane. Of course Aussie Brown had extra reason to be careful as he was engaged to be married to one of the lovely nurses on the medical staff on board.
It was only on the morning of July 10 that we realized what our destination was. Even the Master of the ship was unaware of where we were heading for when we left Tripoli the night before, as he was given sealed orders which were to be opened only after leaving Port.
On the morning of the 10th we found that we were at the end of a vast convoy of ships stretching as far as the eye could see. It was only then that we realized that the convoy was heading for Syracuse in Sicily and this was the beginning of the assault for its capture.
One thing I was not happy about was the fact that the hospital ship was fully blacked out during the night, – the explanation being of course that almost secrecy had to be maintained. But on the night of the attack and sinking of the vessel the ship was flood-lit to ensure that no mistake would be made in the identity of the ship’s mission.
We had an Indian crew both on deck and in the Engine Room. Right through the watch the firemen who kept the boilers fired and the greasers (oilers) went about their work quietly and efficiently, not appearing in the least bit perturbed by the fact that all around us there was the constant sound of bombs bursting. It would be no exaggeration to say that the British Merchant Navy owed a great debt to the Indian seamen who I would say manned at least 50% of the British Merchant ships.
After a gruelling four hours of watch keeping with constant manoeuvring of engines, I was glad to come up when relieved by the Fourth Engineer and his mate at 8pm. This was the high moment of sea watches for m – to come out of a hot Engine Room after four hours of sweating it out and then to know the comfort of a cool bath and sliding between clean sheets with a good book in hand and reading yourself to sleep and oblivion.
We heard the screech of an aero-plane as it raced past with machine guns blasting away and there came a booming voice saying ‘put those lights out’
I must have just fallen asleep when there was a terrific bang and woosh! A great splash of water hit the boat deck, I was out of my bunk in a flash and put on a boiler suit. In a trice I was outside my cabin at the same time as everyone else; there appeared to be no sign of any damage but the boat deck was awash. We heard the screech of an aero-plane race past with machine guns blasting away and there came a booming voice saying ‘put those lights out’. No one on a hospital ship is ever prepared for a situation like this. The best I could do was to take out a shoe and try to bash in some of the bulk head lights but this was a futile attempt. In a matter of minutes we were aware that the ‘Talamba’ had reached her doom. The vessel was now sinking quite quickly and word went round to lower the lifeboats. Aussie Brown had gone down below and put out the power supply; cutting out the lights. No sooner we knew it was ‘abandon ship’ then everyone put on his life jacket, popularly known as ‘May West’ in those days. In no time the life boat I was in charge of was lowered with assistance of search lights from ships around us. In this particular life boat we were lucky as there was no panic among the crew men. But in some life boats a few of the ship’s staff (certainly no officers) had panicked and taken possession of the life boats even before any attempt had been made to unship them and some of the ship’s officers had suffered severe rope burns on their hands, while attempting to lower already weighted boats into the water. Most of the ship’s officers declined to get into the boats but ensured that all the crew and medical personnel were safely into the boats. About the live ‘cargo’ of sick and wounded humans in the ship’s holds (converted into hospital wards) nobody had the time or opportunity to worry.
After seen my life boat launched and rowed off, I who had also declined to enter the boat went around trying to be of assistance where I could, but there was not much I could do as the ‘aft’ end of the ship was now sinking and everybody left on board had wandered to this end where the main deck was practically awash. A great sense of camaraderie existed among us ship mates and this was further enhanced by the unfortunate circumstances borne by all of us. But there was no time left to help each other anymore.
It was now about twenty minutes after the bomb had exploded and time was running out. Fortunately we were surrounded by other ships which gave us a great sense of security.
Years ago the eldest of my brothers had been drowned in the sea and the fear of the ocean was so ingrained in me that I never learned to swim. Now the time had come to jump off the ship. Walking along the upper deck I came across a solitary life buoy discarded; just dropped there by someone who later I learned was Mr. Rottenshaw an elderly Parsi who was the ship’s purser and perhaps did not know what to do with it. More than anything else I think it was this lifebuoy that gave me courage and picking it up I took the leap from the ship into the water along with several others.
Now seeing in the blaze of the search lights, the ship sinking and remembering that a ship when going down sucks everything within range with it, I did really start to get scared particularly remembering my widowed mother back home in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) and prayed god to save me at least for her sake.
In the water I could hear others shouting for help; in particular and still clear in my mind was the call of the purser who kept announcing who he was and pleading for succour. Now in great panic I was pushing myself as far as possible and trying to get as much distance as I could between me and the doomed craft. When I looked back in fear it was to see the most awesome sight of my life captured in the glow of many searchlights of the surrounding ships.
The sight of this once majestic ship literally standing upright with its bows pointing skywards and all three funnels unbelievably horizontal, one by one the funnels broke adrift and tumbled into the sea and the vessel herself dramatically sank below the water surface taking with her the few hundred doomed and desperate souls to their watery grave.
I am sure this article might open up some debate between factual content of this article and other articles published in the internet, mainly on the number of people who lost their lives during the sinking of the vessel.
There are a number of articles published on the internet referring to Talamba as a hospital ship and five lives were lost when she was sunk off the coast of Sicily. However there is one article under the title Hospital Ships and heading Front-line Nurses, an account witnessed by a Daily Telegraph war correspondence who states that, quote: Talamba was bombed off Sicily whilst it was embarking casualties and sunk with the loss of many patients and QAs, such as nursing sister Maud Louise Johnson’ unquote. (QA = Queen Alexandra medical staff). This more or less fits with Stan Fernando’s account of the number of lives lost at the time. His article concludes, quote: ‘the vessel herself dramatically sank below the water surface taking with her the few hundred doomed and desperate souls to their watery grave’ unquote.
Up to now I have not being able to find any documentation to the number of personnel; ships’ crew, wounded casualties and medical staff onboard, in all total when she was sunk. Neither shall we find this information as all most all records would have been lost with the vessel.
I take this opportunity to give tribute to all the Merchant Navy Officers and Crew – especially from the Asian subcontinent who served on British Merchant Navy ships during both world wars.
Stan Fernando was born in Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon) in 1918 and after completing his schooling in Colombo he joined Colombo Electricity Board as an apprentice in 1937. After a short time with this company, he joined Colombo Port Commission in early 1938 as a Special Apprentice Engineer. On completing a four year apprenticeship, he joined BI (British India Steam Navigation Company) in 1942 as a Junior Engineer. While onboard his first ship he contracted Dengue Fever and was hospitalized in West Africa. For his recuperation from that illness he was sent onboard S.S. Talamba as a Junior Engineer, with specific instructions to be engaged on ‘light duty’.
Stan Fernando continued to serve in the British Merchant Navy until 1954 when he gave up his sea going career and want back to Sri Lanka to join Walker Sons & Co. Ltd., Colombo, as an Engineer in their Marine Department and later as workshop engineer in charge of marine repairs.
During his time with the British Merchant Navy, he frequently visited South Shields and stayed at Westoe Towers. He was a ‘Steam Engineer’ and did all his tickets at South Shields Marine & Technical College. He had many friends in South Shields and some of the older generation members of this club may recognize his photo or may have heard of him. He used to attend services at St. Bede’s church and apparently there is an alter cloth still existing at St. Bede’s church with the names of all the catholic marine students who attended the church during that time, including his name.
About the author
Stanley Fernando was one of the pioneers of Sri Lankan seafarers. He encouraged many a young Sri Lankans to seek a career at sea and join the merchant navy. Until the launch of Ceylon Shipping Corporation in 1972, those who completed a shore based Special Engineering Apprenticeship in Sri Lanka, mostly joined the British Merchant Navy. Some of our members of this club (TASC), who has sailed with those old British Shipping Companies such as Bank Line, Clan Line, Blue Funnel Line etc., may have sailed with some of the Sri Lankan Engineers and Officers, some time during their seafaring days. One of his own son’s and seven or eight of his nephews followed his footsteps and took up careers at sea. He passed-away in 1997, three days short of his 79th birthday.
This article is presented to the Tyne Area Shipping Club website by Paschal Gunawardena – a nephew of Stan Fernando and also a member of the club. He himself has been a seagoing engineer for 41 years and retired recently.