Filed under: Africa, Heroes Return | Tags: BIG, Big Lottery Fund, North Africa, Royal Navy
At 8pm at 17 December 1943, 19-year-old Quartermaster Robert Lang finished his shift at the wheel of merchant ship SS Kingswood. He headed down below for a meal, sat down in the mess room with his mates and picked up his cutlery.
“As I put my knife and fork to the plate, the torpedo struck the ship,” he said.
Robert is one of a number of Second World War veterans who will be returning to the place where they served as part of the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return 2 programme. The 88-year-old from Preston will be visiting Gibraltar and Morocco on the west coast of Africa this year – near where his merchant ship was torpedoed 68 years ago. To date more than £25 million has been awarded to over 51,000 Second World War veterans, widows, spouses and carers across the country for journeys in the UK, France, Germany, the Middle East, Far East and beyond.
Peter Wanless, Chief Executive of the Big Lottery Fund, said: “A huge debt of gratitude and recognition is owed by today’s society to the men and women who fought across the world during the Second World War. They built the peace and protected the freedoms we enjoy today.”
Robert recalled how he fought for his life escaping a sinking ship, clinging to a piece of wood in shark-infested waters, his rescue by local African fishermen, and treatment by a witch doctor on the Ivory Coast before friendly African forces helped his shipmates to a hospital. Decades later he managed to contact and even become friends with two members of the same U-boat crew that sunk his ship.
Weeks before the U-boat struck, Robert’s ship had previously called at Gibraltar. The ship loaded with cargo in Lagos in Nigeria and on 17th December set sail for UK. It was passing the Ivory Coast when the torpedo slammed into its side.
“All the lights went out – and the steel door to get out was jammed,” said Robert. “The ship was turning and the portholes were below the water line. It was like a sealed coffin. Someone shouted ‘we’re going’ and I thought we were headed to the bottom of the ocean. Then there was another explosion from the ammunition locker. That saved us – it blew the steel door open by 18 inches – just enough for us to squeeze out.
“When we got on deck the ship was leaning about 45 to 50 degrees. The engines should have been turned off when the captain called abandon ship but hadn’t been. We were trying to get a lifeboat down but the ship was dragging it along. Because the ship didn’t stop a second torpedo was fired which hit.
“I was blown clean out of the lifeboat and into the sea. I went straight down and thought that was it. When you hear of people saying you see your life and family before you it’s all true – and it wasn’t a fearful feeling. Eventually I popped up near the rotating blades. The ship kept going for a bit further and then turned over and sank.
“I was clinging to a piece of wood four feet long in the dark. I was terrified about the sharks – we’d seen them earlier in the day and I was living in fear of being eaten. One lifeboat got away and eventually it discovered me. It was made for 14 men but there were about 50 inside and I was the last to be pulled out of the sea.”
But the ordeal on the seas was not over. Suddenly, they heard and engine and a searchlight suddenly swept onto them – the deadly German U-boat had surfaced.
“I thought we were going to be blown out of the water,” said Robert. “The Germans demanded that our captain came aboard but we said he wasn’t in the lifeboat and must still be in the water. They wanted someone to go over and speak to their captain but none of us wanted to. Then a chap offered and they questioned him about our route and cargo. He was let go and came back to us. The search light came on us again and we feared the worst but the U-boat disappeared into the darkness.”
Robert, with broken fingers, injured arm and a gash in his groin, drifted in the lifeboat for two days while sharks circled the boat. After two days adrift they spotted local fishermen from Grand Popo in long canoes who helped them find the shore.
He recalled, “We slept on the beach. They looked after us in their village of clay huts with straw roofs and fed us yams. At one point the chief of the tribe called for me and another mate to follow him. We came to a witch doctor covered in feathers. He chanted all sorts of incantations and abracadabra stuff, throwing his hands to the heavens. He also threw little stones at my broken fingers. Eventually the chief tapped me on the shoulder and my treatment was over!”
Robert and his shipmates then walked for days through the bush, coming across another tribe who killed a wild boar and fed them. Days later they met soldiers from the Royal West African Frontier Force. He was taken to a hospital in Takoradi in Ghana suffering from malaria where he spent Christmas day and eventually made it home, five months after the torpedoing.
Decades after the war, sometime in the early 1980s, Robert discovered the name of the U-boat – U515 – and wrote to the German Embassy for see if there was an association. They replied with contact details of two members of the crew from the submarine. He became pen pals with Carl Moller and Herman Kaspers. One day a couple of years later Robert’s phone rang.
He said: “My wife said someone wanted to speak to me and it was Carl. He asked if he could visit – I said yes anytime – he then said ‘I’ll see you in four hours!’ He was on holiday in Scotland! It was a strange feeling seeing the Mercedes pulling up my drive. Carl got out the car and then Herman stepped out too! Carl walked up to me, put his arm around me and the first thing he said was ’We are sorry for sinking the ship under your feet’.”
Robert, Carl and Herman stayed in touch for many years and Robert paid four visits to Germany, one time talking a tour of a U-boat on the Elbe with Carl and another occasion visiting Herman and his brother Helmut who also served on the U-515.
“I’m not at all resentful”, said Robert. “They were just doing their job like we were. When you get older you start to reflect differently on life.”
Robert served on nine merchant ships during the war. He has received a £800 grant from the Big Lottery Fund and will be visiting Gibraltar and Morocco in June next year.
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