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Guarlford History Group

Sinking of the City of Nagpur

Betty Remembers

Betty

World War Two brought many changes to Guarlford, especially when the RAF and later on the Americans and Canadians arrived in the Malvern area.

In June 1940 Betty, daughter of the Rector of Guarlford, married a handsome RAF officer, who was soon after sent to train British pilots in South Africa, and in April 1941 Betty was given a passage on board the City of Nagpur in order to join him in Cape Town.

Betty didn't really want to go: "I had never been out of England and South Africa seemed such a long way away, but I applied for a permit to go and join him and after an emotional send-off, I left."

The ship was a smallish ex-cruise ship and left from Gourock in Scotland on April 25th 1941, carrying 274 passengers and 2,184 tons of general cargo.

The officers who ran the ship were British, but all the crew were Indian Lascars and, as Betty says, looked extremely exotic.


The other passengers were mostly women and children, with some married couples and quite a few service personnel who were to be dropped off on the way at Freetown and some in Aden. The ship had not been altered inside for war service, and Betty recalls the charming lounges and smoking rooms and so on. Her cabin was pretty basic: no running water, so if you wanted a bath you rang for a Lascar who would position an old-fashioned hip bath in the room and fill it with water by hand. But it was very comfortable and of course the food was good - infinitely better than the rations back home.

The City of Nagpur was not in a convoy, but the passengers enjoyed the Spring weather and were able to walk on the promenade decks quite freely during the day. Betty says: "We were completely alone. After a couple of days we came into contact with another ship, but after a while it received a radio message to pick up survivors and it went off to help. We couldn't go because the Nagpur was full to capacity already. After that we were on our own again."

It was one o'clock in the morning of April 29th when the first torpedo hit the ship. In "The Titanic Diaries" by Anthony Cunningham, Betty describes what happened: "About fifteen of us were having an after-dinner drink in the smoking room and the party was breaking up when it happened. I was actually being escorted back to my cabin by an officer and another chap and we were almost thrown off balance. There was a huge bang and a bit of commotion. The ship immediately appeared to take on a list, but then slowly righted herself. I never made it back to my room at all.

 My chaperones took me straight to the lifeboat station. There was no panic, but all the same people were flying about everywhere, half-dressed in most cases. Most people were asleep at the time, so they appeared bleary-eyed with bewildered children in tow, and stumbled along as best they could. Many of them didn't even have time to get a coat, but I was lucky because I was already dressed in a wool dress and fur coat. As we made our way to the lifeboat station I remember seeing various Lascars pulling blankets and green tablecloths out of lockers and bundling them into the boats. Lots of activity. The trouble was that as soon as the boats were lowered they jumped in first! I suppose they were terrified but it did cause a few raised eyebrows at the time.

My two companions left me at the boat and then went off to their own stations and I didn't see them again until we got back to Scotland. I'd say the average age on that ship was twenty-five, and being as young as we were we just didn't consider the possibility of danger, real danger. It was only when the crew started to let the lifeboats out that they realised there was something wrong. The boats came down in sharp jerks instead of on an even keel and it was very dangerous. They clearly hadn't been tested for ages and were not terribly seaworthy.

We were all standing in a group waiting to get on, and just as I was about to climb in I heard a disembodied German voice floating across the sea hollering, "As there are women and children on board I am going to give you twenty minutes for you to evacuate the ship before I put another torpedo in." It was quite extraordinary! It was a moonlit night and about seventy yards away you could see the outline of this U-boat. In fact, the Germans gave us an awful lot longer than twenty minutes, which was just as well as we were all of able to get off in time.

In the end he lost patience as it was taking so long and he did start shelling the ship, but all things considered he was pretty fair. The majority of the casualties came when the first torpedo hit and they were the engine room lads who didn't have a chance." Evidently once they were clear of the ship all the boats were roped together for safety. The swell of the water was pretty high, but the biggest problem was that the boats took on water straight away. Betty says that she could see through the joins in the planking because they had shrunk so much, and everybody started bailing using anything they had which would hold water. After a few hours the wood expanded and the joints sealed themselves, which just left a dirty, smelly puddle sloshing about in the bottom.

Betty saw the end of the City of Nagpur, which is recorded as having been sunk 600 miles off Valentin Island, Ireland, (900 miles off Fastnet). "We watched the submarine circle the ship and saw it put another torpedo into the other side. Almost immediately it started to sink by the head. It seemed to only take a few minutes at most. There was the most terrible whooshing sound as it went - something I can't quite describe as I've never heard anything like it since. And then it was simply gone. It struck me then that practically every possession I had in the world was lost. All I had were the clothes I was wearing."

The survivors were in the lifeboats for many hours. Betty describes the conditions: "Eventually someone found some mouldy old biscuits and some cans of water of indeterminate age and we had some of that. Everyone was pretty hopeful - particularly the service personnel - that we would be rescued. It never even entered my head to think that we wouldn't! For most of the night we were a pretty quiet bunch - not a lot of talking or chat. I suppose everyone was just wrapped up in their own thoughts, thinking of home. Then as dawn broke a Catalina aircraft came flying over us."

 According to the Malvern Gazette's account of the incident, published on May 10th 1941, the Catalina flying boat was on her way back to Britain from the U S A, when the captain of the aircraft, Flight-Lt. R W Gautrey, decided to take a course at lower altitude to avoid strong headwinds. "He descended to 6,000 feet below the cloud when he spotted what seemed to be a patch of oil sparkling in the semi-darkness. He passed over it and happened to look back, and he saw a flashlight signal coming from the sea. As the Gazette reported "He was astonished to find that the sparkles of light came from nine lifeboats, one of which was towing a raft. Flight-Lt Gautrey sent out a signal asking for the name of their ship. From one flashlamp, slowly and letter by letter, came the name." 

In "The Titanic Diaries" Betty describes what happened next: "As the Catalina circled us it flashed back the message "Will sendů.." and because it was turning we couldn't get the last bit but we guessed it was "Help". Well, we were all a great deal happier then. But it was another eight hours before a ship appeared on the horizon. Again, we didn't know if it was friendly or not, so for the second time I found myself lying down in the stinky pool at the bottom of the boat. Luckily it was HMS Hurricane, which had received the wireless message and had come to save us. The ship drew as close as it could to us and threw down a rope ladder. We were all in real danger now because if a ship sits dead in the water it is an easy target for attack. However, there was simply no other way. I must say that climbing that ladder was the hardest thing I've ever done. Being flush against the side of the ship it was difficult to get your feet in far enough to get a solid foothold, and because your hands are numb with cold it is almost impossible to get a grip. It was like climbing a mountain and I've never been so glad to get to the top! One lady had a baby in arms and she just couldn't manage it so a sailor climbed down, tucked the baby into the inside pocket of his greatcoat as if it were a rabbit and carefully scaled the ladder to safety.

Once we were on board the crew treated us with the utmost care and kindness. Our clothes were laundered and I was given a pair of men's trousers and a shirt to wear. The first thing they gave us was a bar of Cadbury's chocolate, which was simply heaven!" At first the survivors were going to be taken to Gibraltar, but officials there said they could not take in so many people. So HMS Hurricane made for Scotland at top speed, arriving in two days. Betty was understandably very relieved. Her parents back in Guarlford had heard from the Government that the ship had sunk but did not know if Betty was among the survivors until she got home.

"When we arrived in Scotland we were put up in a hotel and then given a train voucher to get us to our various destinations. You can imagine my parents' surprise on seeing me back so soon." The records show that the master of the ship (Capt. D.L. Lloyd) with 170 crew, 8 gunners and 273 passengers were rescued by H M Destroyer Hurricane and landed at Greenock. Fifteen crew members and one passenger were lost.

Postscript

Betty never got to South Africa; eventually she and her husband met other partners and were divorced. "Had I got there in 1941 my whole life would have been completely different, but looking back it all worked out for the best. Getting married at nineteen was ridiculous - you're just not ready for that kind of commitment, let alone during a war."

After Betty's second husband died, she went on a cruise that took in South Africa on the itinerary. She told Anthony Cunningham: "The tour guide asked us if anyone had been there before. I replied that I should have been there fifty years ago. After telling him about the Nagpur I put it out of my mind until we were on a coach trip later on. At one point he stopped the coach and said to me, "I've got something to show you, it won't take a minute." So, leaving all the other passengers on the coach he took me into a newly built housing estate. I couldn't imagine what he was going to do, but then he stopped and pointed to an arch across the road. It turned out to be the entrance to the RAF training centre where John had been all those years before and where I would have gone to live with him. Now all that remained was the entrance, as the centre had been razed to the ground for the housing estate, but it did give me a strange feeling all the same. I don't believe in fate or anything like that, but had the City of Nagpur made it to South Africa all those years ago I wouldn't be talking to you now.

Makes you think, doesn't it . . ."