DISASTER ON THE SAMBUT
Tuesday, June 6, 1944
‘As we climbed over the side, we could see where the shell had landed in the middle of them. The worst part, I remember to this day, was the terrible screaming.’
THE Sambut had sailed from Southend in convoy early on D-Day, with D and E Troops of 318 and RHQ – 120 officers and men – aboard. In all, the liberty ship was carrying 562 troops from 28 different units as well as 63 crew, plus vehicles, weapons and large quantities of ammunition and high explosives.
Just after midday on June 6, disaster struck. Three miles off Dover, the ship was hit by two 16-inch shells fired from German gun batteries in Calais, some 20 miles away. Fierce fires broke out and could not be tackled because the pumping gear was put out of action.
After about 45 minutes, the master had to order abandon ship. ‘The troops went over the side in a very orderly manner,’ wrote Captain Bill Almond of 92nd LAA. ‘The wounded were also taken off the ship and by 1400 hours she had been completely abandoned and the survivors had been picked up by a variety of small craft.
‘One officer and 73 other ranks swam to a corvette and were not disembarked in the UK until three days later, after enjoying a ringside view of the landing beaches, whither the corvette was steaming at the time.’
In his book Liberty – The Ships That Won The War, author Peter Elphick gives fuller details of the Sambut disaster, pointing out that she was the first liberty ship lost during the Normandy campaign.
The Sambut, launched in August 1943 in Portland, Orgeon, as the C S Jones, was under the command of Captain Mark Willis. The first shell which struck her landed just behind the engine room, the second just forward of the bridge.
Inflammable equipment on deck, including lorries loaded with explosives and cases of petrol and diesel, immediately caught fire. The petrol cases had been covered with sandbags, but that did not prevent them igniting. Unfortunately, the first shell damaged much of the firefighting equipment and within ten minutes the blaze had really taken hold.
A few minutes later, a consignment of gelignite in a lorry stowed on No2 hatch exploded, completely wrecking the bridge and the port side lifeboats. Captain Willis later reported: ‘As the fire was spreading rapidly, I rang the emergency alarm bell and ordered abandon ship. All my crew were clear of the ship in the two remaining starboard lifeboats by 12.30. The ship carried some 30 rafts for the troops. These were released and I told the soldiers to jump overboard to them.
‘At first some were rather diffident at the thought of jumping, but they quickly jumped on being told that the ship was likely to blow up at any moment. Everyone should have been wearing lifebelts and I had given specific instructions to the officer commanding troops at 0600 that morning that lifebelts were to be worn from that time onwards.
‘The pilot, chief officer and I were last to leave the ship at approximately 12.40. We jumped over the side and swam to a raft. A number of dead bodies were floating in the water, many with lifebelts on. It is possible that many of the missing troops were drowned, but some were undoubtedly killed as they were having dinner in the troop deck, which was in the vicinity of the explosion.
‘Four Naval motor launches from Dover appeared very quickly, but I thought were extremely slow in picking up survivors. Motor launches are totally unsuitable for rescue work, sides too high and inexperienced crews. I would like to point out that the convoy did not use a smokescreen. After my vessel was struck, I started my own smoke apparatus and other ships in the convoy followed my example.’
Bill Wills, a young 92nd LAA driver-op, was among the survivors – but only after a narrow brush with death. Along with some comrades, the 20-year-old Londoner had been posted to keep a watch on the Sambut’s aft gun during the voyage to Normandy. He recalled that as the liberty ship left Southend, it was a fine day, with some men relaxing by lying on the deck.
‘Then, just as we passed Dover, there was an enormous explosion just before the bridge and a lot of people thought we had been torpedoed. We saw a fire near the bridge. The ship had large fire extinguishers on wheels, but they apparently didn’t work. There were quite a lot of further explosions, with lots of nasty bit and pieces flying about. We were told to put our ammunition over the side to stop any further explosions.’
Bill and his comrades were standing inside the steel housing of the aft gun, which provided some shelter from the blasts. ‘Suddenly, just in front of me a chap called Billy Oakes dropped to the floor and said he couldn’t walk. He had been hit by shrapnel which had come through the steel housing and gone into his back.
‘It was fortunate for me, because the shrapnel would have hit me. We got him out on to the deck and laid him down and put some of our leather jerkins over him to keep him warm. Then the order came to abandon ship.
‘There was an immediate rush to the rail and it upset me because they were going to leave him. I said to the others, “Come on, we’ve got to get him over.” They came back and we got him under the arms and lowered him over the sides. But there was so much blood about that I didn’t know if we were going to help him at all.’
Bill and his comrades found themselves floating in the water below the burning Sambut. ‘I tried to get on one of the Naval vessels that had been escorting us, but we were so weak. They tried to get us to climb up netting at the side of the boat, but my fingers just would not grip. Then they said, “We’re sorry, but we’ve got to keep up in convoy” – and they just sailed on.
‘I found that I was floating away from the Sambut, because I could see it completely. I started to think, “Well, this is it.” It was very, very peaceful. I could have gone then. It was only a little while later that I thought it would upset everyone. So I started looking around and waving my arms about.
‘Then a rowing boat came alongside and a man said, “Hang on a minute and I’ll pull you in.” A tugboat had come out, lowered its rowing boat and was picking up people. And the funny thing was that the next fellow they picked up after me was the driver of my wireless truck, Ginger Vaughan.
‘He’d always said to me, “We’ve got to stick together.” I’d last seen him sitting on the rudder and he told me afterwards that when the ship got hit he’d climbed up the mast, because that was the last bit that would sink! Anyway, he and I got taken on to this tugboat, wrapped up in blankets and they took us into Dover, where we had to climb up those damned iron railings with no shoes on.
‘We were taken to a Naval first aid station and they just sort of laid us out there, looked at us, and said, “There’s nothing wrong with you – get up”. We were still wrapped up in our blankets and they took us over to Dover Castle. As you go in, there’s a huge gateway and the rest of the regiment were there and everyone who walked through was cheered, which was quite something.’
Tom Cribb, a 92nd LAA bombardier, was manning his Bofors Gun with a comrade in the fore part of the Sambut while the rest of their unit went astern to get some food. He recalled: ‘Suddenly I heard this terrific noise which sounded like an express train coming. I jumped off the gun and looked over the side and immediately there was a large geyser of seawater coming up where a shell had gone in.
‘There were two more explosions as two more shells landed on the ship, one amidships and one on the stern where all the rest of the men were having something to eat. Immediately the petrol and stuff and jerricans exploded and everything caught fire, including the gun, which started sending shells up into the breech because of the heat from it. The Medical Officer’s truck, which was next to us, caught fire, which was unfortunate because we probably needed the stuff off it.’
The 25-year-old Cornishman and his comrade grabbed some of the jerricans and ran to the side and pitched them over. ‘But in the end it was hopeless, because they were getting hot. There was a fire hydrant there, so we ran this out, but it wasn’t working. I found out later in a report that it had been damaged by one of the shells.
‘So there really wasn’t much else to do except get back to the stern and find out what was happening. But flames had now spread right across the ship and the only way to get back would be to go hand over hand over the rail, which we did.
‘Coming up to the stern as we climbed over the side, we could see where the shell had landed in the middle of them. The worst part, I remember to this day, was the terrible screaming and seeing this poor chap with a long white bone sticking out of his leg. He was screaming and screaming.
‘We tried to put out some of the fires, but without the hydrants working, it was pretty hopeless. While they were sorting out the wounded and giving them first aid, we should have ... they wanted to rig some of the Carley floats (small lightweight liferafts which could be thrown overboard).
‘But someone had cut them adrift without tying the ropes, so they had drifted hundreds of yards already away from the ship. It wouldn’t be much use trying to get to them, so in the end we were told to abandon ship. I decided to go down by one of the ropes, because it was quite a long drop from the side of the ship down.
‘Some of the men had done that and what they had forgotten was that with your steel helmet on and the strap coming up under your chin, if you hit the water with any force, it could come up and break your neck. There were already one or two bodies floating around. So we threw our helmets away.
‘I went down this rope and there was a chap below me screaming and shouting that he couldn’t swim. But we had all inflated our Mae Wests (lifejackets). Another thing was, you had to make sure you kept them well up to your chest, because if they were too low when you hit the water, they could turn the wrong way up and you would be feet up and head down. We had all been trained on these and all been to different rivers and ponds testing them out.
‘So I went down the rope and the chap below wouldn’t move – he was frozen on the rope, I suppose. So I stood on his head – there was already somebody standing on mine, telling me to get a move on. So I just jumped and cleared him and landed in the sea and just swam away from the ship.
‘You didn’t quite know ... there were explosions taking place and the ship was turning all the time. There were no engines going, it was just drifting now, I suppose. I wondered afterwards if perhaps I should have stayed and tried to give a hand. But you don’t really think about it at the time, you just swim away.
‘I suppose I was swimming around for about 20 minutes. I knew I could never swim to the shore, because it was too far off. But there was a motor torpedo boat creeping around picking up survivors. I knew if I swam off ahead of him in a certain direction, he would eventually pick me up, which he did, of course.
‘They grabbed me and yanked me out and said, “Get below, we’re going back to Dover”. The first thing I saw when I went below was that it was crammed tightly, you just couldn’t move. So we turned round and shot off towards Dover. Quite a few of the chaps were being sick unfortunately, I suppose because of the salt water they’d swallowed.
‘We got to Dover and got picked up by a lorry and taken up to Dover Castle. It’s quite a primitive castle, that one, at least the first part is. I think they were stables or something where they used to keep horses and it was all cobbles. They swung open these two big iron gates and said, “Youcan sleep there for the night – we’ll find you somestraw”, which they did eventually, for us to sleep on.’
Another 92nd LAA driver-op, 19-year-old David (Dai) Jones, was lining up in the meal queue on the Sambut when the first shell struck. ‘A couple of fellows standing two or three places behind me were hit by shrapnel,’ he recalled. ‘We all scattered then – many of us went down to the hold on the other side of the ship, where I had a bunk.
‘Then there was one hell of a bang and some explosions in the middle of the ship. This blew somedecking out and set fire to the stepladders that wentup to the deck. But we went up the ladders anyway. That’s where we stood and waited and wonderedwhat to do. Some men were already jumping overboard. I should have followed, but I didn’t fancy that!’
Dai then found Major Peter Crane of 92nd LAA standing next to him. The officer was working heroically to save lives. ‘He said to me, “Are you going to jump?” As I looked over, there was a rope alongside the ship, a little way down and parallel with the deck. I said, “No, I’m going to get hold of that rope and work my way along to a ladder” – which is what I did.
‘Then I got to a rope with two or three people hanging on the end of it in the water, and that’s where we were for a while. One of our own lifeboats came along – it was half-full of our chaps – and I swam across to that and got into it.
‘Then a Naval craft came along and a ladder dropped down from it. A lot of those in our boat made a move towards the side where the ladder was and I realised what might happen next, so I jumped back into the water.’
As Dai feared, the lifeboat capsized. He tried to swim back towards the upturned hull, but a fortuitous wave washed him directly up the side of the Naval craft. ‘I was able to get an arm into a stanchion on the deck. A sailor was standing there and I remember saying, “Excuse me, can you give me a hand?” He pulled me up and I was taken below, given a blanket and stripped off.
‘I’ll never forget when we got to Dover, walking up the slipway, there was a Church Army canteen at the top, offering us a cup of tea and a few cigarettes. I remember reaching out with both hands, one for the tea and one for the cigarettes, and my blanket fell off and I was standing naked on Dover quay. As I looked round, a car pulled up – I don’t know whose it was – and it had a Wren driver! But I wasn’t bothered at all – I made sure I got the tea and cigarettes!’
The survivors stayed overnight in the castle, at one stage sheltering in its tunnels from German shelling, and were issued with bundles of clothing, one bundle between two men. Then they were taken to Cowley, Oxford, to re-equip and then on to Aldershot, prior to being sent back over to Normandy at the end of the month.
Author Peter Elphick gives the death toll on the Sambut as 136 – 130 soldiers, plus six of the Sambut crew. Of the 92nd contingent, three men were killed, four were missing presumed dead, one died of wounds and 14 were wounded. All the regiment’s equipment and records on board the ship were lost.
Among the wounded was Regimental Sergeant Major Len Nott, who was hit by a shell splinter and spent several hours in the water before he was rescued. Among other 92nd LAA men who survived the disaster was Lieutenant Cowper Pratt.
The burning hulk of the Sambut, rocked by explosions, was finally sunk by a Royal Navy torpedo at location 51 08 N, 01 33 E because its wreckage was a hazard to the rest of the invasion fleet.
One question that remains after more than 60 years is whether the ship was deliberately targeted by the German long-range guns, which somehow got a bearing on it, or whether it was struck by a salvo of lucky shots.
Bill Wills recalls how, just as they were off Dover, a Naval escorting vessel came alongside and an officer using a megaphone ordered the master to lower the Sambut’s barrage balloon. ‘I don’t know if the master had time to comply, as shortly afterwards the shells struck. It is very likely the Germans used the balloon to lay their guns.’
Tom Cribb recalled that the balloon was ordered to be lowered because ‘it was obviously too high because the Germans could see it against the cliffs’.
Whatever the reasons for the Sambut disaster, it was a tragedy of terrible proportions. But there were to be two happier sequels.
Four months later, Major Crane was awarded the Military Cross for the outstanding courage and leadership he had shown on board.
His citation read: ‘He set a magnificent example of fortitude and initiative, organising chains of men to remove ammunition from the burning fore part of the ship, himself standing exposed to exploding ammunition from neighbouring blazing vehicles. He was then blown the length of the promenade deck by the explosion of 1,200lb of gelignite, which rendered the fore parts of the ship untenable.
‘He then searched all cabins and troops’ accommodation, moving wounded men aft, and at the last superintended to final abandoning of the ship, helping the wounded and cheering and encouraging all ranks. Throughout he set a magnificent example of leadership with complete disregard for his own safety, refusing to leave the ship until all ranks were off. By his conduct he quite definitely prevented a greater loss of life than actually occurred.’
And, after the war, Bill Wills was waiting for a bus home from work one evening in Deptford, South East London, when he was amazed to see a familiar face – Billy Oakes, the wounded comrade he had helped rescue from the Sambut and whom he feared may not have survived. ‘He told me he was now all right, but I couldn’t question him further as my bus came along and we had to part. Perhaps his wound was not as bad as it appeared at the time.’