5. West Africa
A. Torpedoing of the MV "Memnon" and detainment by Vichy French
Having passed around the Cape of Good Hope, the MV "Memnon" was three days out from Freetown when a torpedo fired by the German U-boat U106 struck at 15:46 on 11.3.41. Lost at sea were 3 members of her crew and 2 RAF passengers.
The 69 survivors had launched 2 of the 8 lifeboats, called "The Boat of the Captain" and the "Boat of the Mate". Both lifeboats awaited rescue for two days in heavy seas, but then decided to sail to the coast. They were to meet vastly different fates.
The "Mates" lifeboat had 47 passengers of which 4 were taken aboard the nearby German “Gneisenau” as POW "hostages". The remaining 43 included 3 RAAF airmen:
407022 Maxwell Elliot Whitehill F/Sgt 49 Sq
407101 Clifford Gurney Fort Sgt 201 Sq
407104 Vivien Lewis Sgt 201 Sq
(Fort and Lewis were killed on 31.7.42 when their Sunderland W4025 was shot down by “friendly fire”. Whitehill was doomed to be KIA in a Manchester of 49 Sq. over Germany on 7.6.42.)
The lifeboat reached the British base of Bathurst in Sierra Leone on 24.3.41.
The "Captains" lifeboat had a total of 22 passengers including 3 RAAF airmen:
407036 James Leslie Rollins P/O 49 Sq. (KIA 8.4.43)
407029 Eric Theodore Hensel W/O (Discharged in Australia on 15.10 44)
407103 Arthur Edward Frederick Jones F/S DFM (Also discharged in Australia as a F/L on 2.5.46)
After 13 days adrift and suffering severely from exposure and lack of food and water, they landed some 100 miles north of Dakar having declined to approach a large ship fearing imprisonment if it turned out to be French. Local natives then piloted them into Dakar where they were admitted into a military hospital. They made it to French Senegal on 21.3.41 to be imprisoned by the Vichy French.
Rollins, Jones and an Australian seaman,,Peter Ryan, escaped from their captivity on the Saturday after Easter. They trekked along the coast to near the border when, with sore feet and suffering from exhaustion, they sought refuge and sleep in a fishing village. Meanwhile the gendarmes were notified and they were re-arrested.
Despite the fact that the police were pro-British, informing them that had they stayed inland, they would have dodged all patrols, they arranged for meals to be supplied to them.
They were transferred to Port Gamelin and then via a three day train trip to a camp between Bamaoka and Timbuctu. There they contracted malaria and dysentery among the filth, vermin and lice. They joined 12 Fleet Air Arm airmen who were captured in an attack on Dakar in September 1940. They were part of a failed attempt to invade Senegal with a Royal Marine Brigade and 2500 Free French troops following a Royal Navy attempt to immobilise the French battleship “Richelieu.” Nine Swordfish and Skua aircraft were lost to anti-aircraft fire and to defending Vichy French Curtis Hawk aircraft. The attack proved a dismal failure.
At the end of May they were taken to Kaolack where they crossed the border with an exchange two gallons of petrol and seven French prisoners for each of the British. They were driven to Bathurst, flown to Freetown and then by Sunderland to the UK on 4.7.41
Tom Roberts “Wingless” p 267
Torpedoing of the “Oronsay”.
On the 29th of April 1942, the Orient liner “Oronsay” sailed from Capetown for England. Ten days later, off the coast of West Africa, she was torpedoed and sunk by the Italian submarine “Archimede” operating out of the German Bordeaux submarine base in the west coast of France.
Among the passengers were four graduates from the RAAF Training School in Rhodesia. They were:
416210 F/Sgt Cecil Gordon Eckersley
409108 F/Sgt Brian William Gorman
401986 F/Sgt William Victor Manuel
411967 P/O John Bligh Suttor (Later F/L, DFC).
Only one, Suttor, was destined to survive the war.
Suttor, Manuel, and Eckersley were picked up by the Vichy French sloop “Dumont D’Urville". Gorman, in a lifeboat, was rescued by another ship in the convoy. All four were thrown into Sebikotane Prison Camp in Dakar in very poor conditions.
William Manuel recalls: “The camp was a former native school, three class rooms of which were utilised to accommodate POW and internees. It was most unsatisfactory as a Prison Camp and was obviously a scratch arrangement.
We were given an iron bedstead with a mattress, two sheets and a blanket - there were no mosquito nets. The rations may well be described as disgusting.
The guard at this camp consisted of Senegalese Tirailleurs under the command of a French Colonial Army Lieutenant. The Lieutenant made no attempt whatsoever to improve the conditions of the camp and complaints had no effect. The behaviour of the Tirailleur guards was insolent and definitely hostile”.
Brian Gorman: “We were at this Prison Camp until October 22nd when we were transported by rail and road to Bomana arriving there on October 25th. We were treated as prisoners of war at this camp until December 15th. when released by Allied Forces. Immediately we were transferred by road and rail to Gambia where we boarded the S.S. 'Mataro'. This ship took us to Bathurst where we were billeted at RAF Squadrons. On the 26th December we were flown to Freetown, Sierra Leone and again billeted in RAF Squadrons. I was admitted to hospital at Freetown for 18 days after being given a test for malaria and subsequently given treatment. We remained at Freetown until February 12th 1943, when we boarded a troopship for the United Kingdom."
Cecil Eckersley: “Owing to the general treatment given to POW by the French in Senegal and the Sudan, without exception every serviceman was in a very bad physical condition on return to British territory. It is to be noted that of ten air force officers, each one, without exception, was treated in hospital for either malaria or dysentery before leaving Sierra Leone."
John Suttor: “No arrangements were made for entertainment, sport, reading or distribution of news. No mail was received at this camp but it was possible for us to write our usual POW letters. None of these apparently reached their destination. We received one issue of Red Cross comforts early in November in the form of foodstuffs and medical supplies. The French authorities confiscated the medical supplies but after much trouble we managed to have these returned to us.”
Brian Gorman was killed on 18.03.44 in a Spitfire training accident.
Bill Manuel was killed on 25.02.44 in a Stirling accident.
Cec Eckersley was also killed in a training accident on 30.12.43.
John Suttor became a Photo Reconnaissance Pilot with 4 Squadron.
He was discharged on 30.11.1946 as a Flight Lieutenant DFC.