J. Revell Carr
When I retired from Mystic Seaport at the end of 2000, I hoped to be able to do research and write, but this story was not one that I anticipated writing. I had an opportunity in the spring of 2001 to sail to the U.K. and then meet some of the family members of the sailors in this story. They were very anxious for this story to be better known and I told them I would try.
There were two inspirations for the story - the boat, a very powerful object, and the families of the British sailors.
All of us in our contact with maritime museums have had the experience of confronting a powerful museum object. Each of these conveys some aspect of the past and each links the visitor of today with a person from the past. It is a magical moment.
Some objects have great power. When you enter the Nelson Gallery at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, you find Nelson's coat with the bullet hole from the shot that struck him down on the deck of HMS Victory in 1805. It is a powerful, intimate moment between the visitor and Nelson. At the other end of the spectrum, for years, at the Smithsonian, you could encounter George Washington's false teeth. Perhaps more of an intimate moment with the first President than some wished to have.
My book is the story of a boat, a very powerful museum object. I first encountered it in 1969 within days of joining the staff of Mystic Seaport. I looked at the boat, read the label and immediately felt the power of the boat. It was only a little, 18 foot, utility boat, but you could sense the human drama that played-out in that boat and you could see the physical evidence of the ordeal.
Around this boat are linked many lives. The first part of book brings together the lives of the people involved in the story, British and German, The second part, tells the story of the remarkable voyage of the jolly boat. The last part of the book tells what happened to the survivors, the relatives, the Germans and the jolly boat.
In the early decades of the 20th century many men, British and German were making their way toward two ships and a fateful rendezvous in August of 1940. Some were British merchant mariners reporting for duty on a tramp steamer the Anglo-Saxon, and lead by Captain Paddy Flynn and 1st Mate, Barry Denny. The others were members of the German Kreigsmarine, reporting for duty on the German raider, Widder, commanded by a very complex character, Hellmuth von Ruckteschell. In 1919, von Ruckteschell caught the world's attention when he dramatically fled to Sweden to avoid WWI war crimes prosecution.
Hitler, in the mid 1930s had thought that he could avoid war with England, but that proved impossible and when war broke-out, the German navy was so short of surface ships that the Kriegmarine's leader Admiral Reader said, ˘all my men will be able to do is show they can die with courage÷
The German need for surface ships prompted them to convert existing freighters into raiders. In an age-old maritime tradition, these raiders traveled the seas, disguised as neutrals and flying false colors. Their normal tactic was to converge gradually with a British ship, fire a shot across the bow, allow the crew to get into life boats, pick up the crew as prisoners and sink the ship.
On August 21, 1940, von Ruckteschell used a lethal new tactic that he had employed only twice before. On spotting the masts of a ship over the horizon, the Widder shadowed the target all day, staying ahead and out of sight over the horizon. Then as night fell, Widder converged with the target, appeared out of darkness and viciously attacked. A prolonged and deadly fusillade destroyed lifeboats and lives on board the Anglo-Saxon. Capt. Paddy Flynn was killed in the first moments and Barry Denny gave orders to abandon ship.
One of the ship's two utility boats, the port jolly boat was in the lee of the attack. The boat was lowered by the Mate and a sailor, two men on the deck below threw themselves in and then the two who had lowered it, and one other with a shattered foot, slid down the boat falls into the boat. As it drifted past the flaming wreck of their ship, two more sailors leapt over the side and into the boat. As the crowded little vessel drifted away from their stricken ship, the mariners were encouraged to see lights from the ship's life rafts in water. They were then appalled to see them fired upon.
The valiant little 18 ft lapstrake boat with a dipping lug sail and oars was not equipped as a life boat and had scant supplies - a compass, three, 6 pd. tins of meat, 30 lbs of biscuits, 4 gals water. This was all there was to sustain seven men, three seriously wounded. 1st mate Barry Denny took command. They were 800 miles from Azores, Canaries and Cape Verdes but would have had great difficulty attempting to sail against the prevailing winds and currents to reach these. Denny made the difficult, counter-intuitive decision to sail west. He calculated, optimistically, that at 100 miles a day it would take them 16 days to reach the Leeward Islands. In order to make the food and particularly the water last, each person's daily ration was 2 oz. of water in the morning and 2 oz.in the evening with 1/4 of a hard biscuit.
Within a few days, the stench of gangrene permeated the boat. The Mate decided to use the meat to raise morale and this was successful on the first meal but the following day when they served the rest, the sailors had no digestive juices left to process the protein and they became sick. After 11 days gangrene took the first man and three days later another succumbed. Within a few days they had no water and two more went over the side. Five days later, Sept 9th, the fifth man died and there were only two left in the boat. On the 12th of September it rained, the two men had gone 8 days without water.
Twelve days later, all food and again all water were gone. They had been in the boat for 34 days and that sturdy boat would see them through 36 more days. For sustenance they gleaned tiny crabs and winkles from mats of floating seaweed which they pulled on-board. Other adventures included a collision with a whale and combating a three-day tropical storm.
On the 70th day the boat brought the skeletal figures to the shore of Eleuthera more than 2700 from where they began. They were too weak to move from the deserted beach and would have died there, if they had not been found by a Bahamian woman. The woman and her husband were drawn to the beach by a dream she had had and happened upon the boat and two cadaverous forms sprawled on the sand.
They were taken first to Governors Harbour then flown to Nassau for a long period of recovery and significant, international celebrity. The Governor, the Duke of Windsor, ordered the boat protected and retrieved. It too became a celebrity and was on its way to becoming a powerful museum object. In the spring of 1941 the boat was shipped to The Marine Historical Association in Mystic, the organization that would become Mystic Seaport, and was placed on exhibit by June 1941
There is not much of a happy ending to this story - both survivors met poignant, tragic deaths, the German captain was tried as a war criminal, but the glimmer of a happy ending is found in the boat's destiny.
During the 1990s some of the families of sailors from the Anglo-Saxon began to wonder if the jolly boat had survived since none of them knew it was in Mystic. Once they determined the location, the families contacted Mystic Seaport and asked for the boat to be returned to the U.K. This seemed appropriate, particularly because Mystic Seaport had focused on becoming the museum of America and the sea. After several years of negotiation, the boat, protected in a container, completed its voyage back to England.
On May 12th, 1998, with family members gathered, the jolly boat took its place as the centerpiece of Battle of the Atlantic exhibition in the Imperial War Museum. Its power is still there. It is the sole survivor of the Anglo-Saxon. It is gratifying that family members of those lost on the Anglo-Saxon continue to gather at the boat.
This boat motivated me to write the story, it is a story of the boat but also of the merchant mariners who made such a huge sacrifice during WW II and are seldom recognized for their heroism. During the war, more than 30,000 British merchant mariners lost their lives. That meant that their mortality rate proportionately was greater than that of people serving in the Army, the Royal Navy or the RAF. Once the United States entered the war, the American merchant mariners suffered the same staggering loss percentages. They are all brave sailors and unsung heroes.