It has been many years since the City of Cairo was in the news, but in early 2015 a press release told us that 100 tons of silver coins, the property of the British Government had been recovered from the wreck of the ship in 5750 metres of water in the South Atlantic. The recovery of the silver has stimulated some interest in the original disaster which was unusual, in that only six of the passengers and crew died when the ship was torpedoed by a German submarine, but many of those who took to the boats died in the subsequent weeks..

The City of Cairo, one of the Ellerman City Line cargo liners, built in Hull in 1915, had started its voyage in Bombay where it had loaded the silver. And while 100 tons sounds like a lot, it was probably contained in a single cargo locker, and the rest of the cargo space would have been given over to general cargo of one sort or another making up some of the essential supplies required to keep the British nation on its feet in the early years of the Second World War.

Despìte its extreme age and the fact that it broadcast its position by means of an extremely smokey boiler it reached Capetown safely, all on its own, and subsequently set sail for Britain. At this point we are all thinking, what on earth did the British government have in mind sending their hoard of silver across the oceans of the worlds in an ancient vessel, which might, even without the predations of the German submarine fleet, have had a bit of a job to make it home. After all the ship was 25 years old when it was pretty good for any steel hull to make it to its 11th birthday.

It was an armed merchantman with a small naval gun which could be used either surface to surface or surface to air and half a dozen lesser mounted machine guns for surface and anti-aircraft use. There were nine lifeboats and a number of rafts amongst the lifesaving equipment.

The ship sailed from Captown on November 1st 1942 with 344 people on board. These included 136 passengers, 11 military personnel and 197 crew. Most of the crew were from the Indian subcontinent, and as was the way in those days it is certain that the engine guys came from Calcutta, the deck crew from Bombay and the catering staff from Goa. The senior ratings such as the quartermasters were British, as were the officers.

On a calm night in the South Atlantic the City of Cairo was struck by a torpedo fired by U-68. The ship started to sink and so the Captain ordered evacuation in the lifeboats, and some 20 minutes later when the Captain of the submarine judged that everyone was in the boats he put a second torpedo into the ship which then sank rapidly by the stern. He then surfaced and gave them a course for the nearest land which was St Helena about 480 miles to the north-northeast. They were also about 2000 miles from Brazil and 1000 miles from Africa.

Over the next few hours six of the nine boats rafted up, with all hands except for six people on board. Four passengers and two crew members had been killed. They were Boats No 1, No 4, No 5, No 6, No 7 and No 8. No 2 boat had capsized and No 3 boat was destroyed by the second torpedo. The passengers and crew members were fairly evenly distributed betweeen all the boats each carrying between 50 and 60 passengers and crew, except for No 4 which only contained 17 survivors, though the numbers don’t quite seem to total up in the reports. Each was commanded by a merchant navy officer, although two of the officers were actually passengers. One of the City of Cairo officers had remembered his sextant, and the Captain had a Rolex Oyster watch, and they hoped that this combination of equipment would enable them to make a landfall on St Helena which was 480 miles away. The downside of this plan was that they could overshoot the island, particularly if they could not stay together and get the benefit of a daily sight. The boats were overloaded, and initally it was necessary for the survivors to take turns at standing up, but gradually as the days passed people died and were thrown overside and this resulted in more space. There are two accounts of the voyage of No 1 boat on the “City of Cairo” website, which are extraordinary records of courage, and in some cases endurance.

It was 6th November when the boats started out towards St Helena. After about a week No 1 was having a great deal of difficulty keeping afloat, but was the fastest boat, so the Chief Officer asked if he coul;d go ahead. Initially the Captain was reluctant, but the foillowing day on Wednesday 11th November he gave permission, and so No 1 pressed on. The others continued more slowly, No 7 with a steerring oar in lieu of a rudder and No 8 with a cracked mast. On Friday 13th No 4 and No 8 found themselves alone, and in the end No 8 told No 4 to to get going since it seemed to be more seaworthy. On Thursday 19th No 5, No 6 and No 7 were still within sight of each other, when No 6 saw a ship on the horizon. This was the Clan Alpine, also steaming alone. It picked up alll those from the three boats, less 20 people who had died. The same evening the survivors in No 8 boat were rescued by the Ben line cargo ship Bendoran. Leaving No1 and No 4 boats still at sea.

No 1 boat continued towards its intended landfall, under increasingly distressing circumstances. Gradually the survivors lost the will to live, and died and as the weight on board reduced so the damaged areas were raised above the sea and the ingress of seawater was reduced. At one point the boat started unaccountably filling up with water, and they found that one of the delerious passengers kept removing the bung in the bottom, with the view that since he was dying everyone else should go with him, and sure enough he did die, and had to be heaved overboard into the jaws of the sharks which were following the boat. Finally there were only three people left alive Jack Edmead, the Third Steward, Angus MacDonald one of the Quartermasters, and Diana Jarman a young Englishwoman who had gained the respect of the others during the voyage. When they were on their last legs, no longer having the energy even to put up a sail, they were rescued by a German “blockade runner” Rhakotis. On the German ship Diana Jarman died, to the distress of Edmead and MacDonald and they found themselves in lifeboats again when the German ship was sunk by the British cruiser HMS Scylla. The boat containing Edmeads landed at Coruña after a few of days, and the survivors in the other boat including Angus MacDonald were rescued by a German submarine. He was to endure a depth charging by a British warship before finally being landed in Germany and spending the rest of the war as a POW.

On 27th December, after 52 days at sea No 4 boat, now containing only the Third Officer James Whyte and a passenger Margaret Gordon were rescued by a Brazilian corvette the Caravellas. Since 13th November they had covered over 2000 miles. Subsequently the Third Officer was being repatriated to the UK as a Distressed British Seaman (a DBS) on the City of Pretoria when it was torpedoed and all hands including Mr Whyte were lost. Mrs Gordon refused to go to sea again before the was was over, although she travelled to New York overland and joined the WRNS. She was the only person from No 4 to survive the war.

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