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Capt. Jack Spencer Royal Army Ordnance CorpsThe sinking of the “Anslem”
Before the Second World War, one of my ambitions was to sail 1,000 miles up the Amazon on one of the Booth Line ships sailing regularly from Liverpool. The two vessels making this trip were the “Anselm” and the “Hildebrand” and the cost of the 100-day voyage was £100. Long before I was able to get anywhere near achieving my ambition the war came along and I quickly found myself a serving officer in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps.
After going through some training and service in the UK, I was notified in June 1941 that I was to go on seven days embarkation leave. Naturally, no indication was given as to my likely destination, but this was in fact the second time I had been destined for service overseas. On the first occasion in early 1940 my name was removed from the list of men due to leave for Singapore; this was because quite suddenly I had been selected for an immediate commission in the RAOC and I was required to report to an entirely new unit. This posting has nothing whatever to do with this story, but I mention it because many of my colleagues who did leave for Singapore finished their days on the Burma Railway project and in later years when on a business trip to Thailand I visited the British cemetery at Kanchnaburri – close by the bridge over the River Kwai. It was on that visit when the man in charge of the cemetery – which incidentally was beautifully maintained – allowed me to look through the long list of names of those who were buried there. I looked for the names of many of those with whom I had served and discovered that many of them had finished their days in the cemetery at Kanchnaburri. It was a very moving moment for sad reflection, the more so when I looked around and said to myself “There but for the Grace of God go I”.
At the risk of continuing this diversion from the main point of my story, it is worthy of recording that on this visit to Thailand I was working on a project for the World Bank and I was accompanied by a chap with whom I spent a lot of time while working for the Bank. The man to whom I refer was Japanese and during the war had actually worked on the survey and construction of the Burma Railway. When we went off on our duties on railway projects in various parts of the world it was the custom of this Japanese colleague of mine to wear a kind of field uniform with peak cap and high ankle boots similar to the uniform worn by Japanese soldiers during the war. On this particular visit to Kanchnaburri I knew in advance we would be visiting the cemetery so I told my colleague: “On this occasion please do not turn up in your usual outfit – wear something casual”. He was always willing to please and did as I asked, but the fact that he was with me made the visit even more emotional than it would have been without him.
I must now come back to my embarkation leave in June 1941. After the seven days were up I reported to a transit camp for officers at the Great Eastern Hotel on Marylebone Road in London. There I met several officers with whom I had trained in the early days after our commissioning; one of them was John Tucker who prior to the war was an executive with Marks & Spencer; another was named Barrie and he was a Shell employee. There were several more I knew well, but Barrie (I have forgotten his first name) was the comedian of the whole party and soon after we had our first briefings he made the comment: “We are bloody silly to come on this lark”. I may say these briefings of course gave us no indication at all of where we were destined for, but as we were issued with mosquito boots and other paraphernalia – including pith helmets – it was generally assumed that we were destined for West Africa – the White Man’s Grave! For this reason Barrie lost no opportunity at very frequent intervals to make his famous comment reminding us “We were bloody silly to go on this lark”.
After several days in London we boarded a train at some mysterious station I think near to Hammersmith. The train was a special one with only one stop – Liverpool. On arrival we marched down to the landing stage and, always having been keen on a sea voyage, I was delighted to see the magnificent Royal Mail ship “Reina del Pacifico” – she looked beautiful and our detachment made the for gangway. There we were advised that we had got to the wrong ship; the gangway man pointed a long way downwards to a very small vessel lying at the next berth. He said “That is your vessel – the Anselm.” Well, it looked a small ship but it was in fact about 6,000 tons and I was quite pleased to think I was at last going to sail on the Booth Line ship but I realised it was most unlikely we would be sailing 1,000 miles up the Amazon.
We eventually set sail with other ships from the Mersey and headed for the Clyde where we were marshalled with many other vessels to form quite a large convoy. On the trip to the Clyde the “Anselm” had shown signs of tending to limp along very slowly, but a few days after leaving the Clyde she was in quite serious trouble and was left behind by the convoy as she was quite unable to keep up the pace. The convoy did not have a very big naval escort and it must have been very difficult for the Commodore to reach his decision to allocate two of his corvettes to the “Anselm” and “Challenger” (a Royal Navy survey vessel). We made very slow progress and Barrie continued to remind us how silly we were to come on this trip. I was fortunate to get accommodation in a four-berth cabin with John Tucker, Barrie and John Dow, and considering it was wartime we had quite a pleasant voyage – for about a week!
For seven nights we were ordered to sleep with our clothes on as we were passing through an area at great risk from enemy submarines. On the eighth night we were considered to be safe and permission was given to sleep in pyjamas. However, on this particular night I was unable to get any sleep at all. I first went to my bunk at about 10.30pm; an hour later I got up, donned my dressing gown and walked all round the ship; on the boat deck it was a beautiful night with an oil calm sea. I looked all around and had a strange feeling of unease. I returned to my cabin and still I could not sleep. The other three occupants were fast asleep so I crept out again at 1.00am and again at 3.30am. On both occasions I marvelled at the beauty of the calm night, but I still had a most strange feeling of unease. It must have been 4.00am when I finally got to my bunk and at about 5.00am there was a low-sounding thud which seemed to knock the ship sideways from the port side.
Even though there was not a loud explosion I knew straight away that we had been torpedoed and my immediate thought was – that is why I have been uneasy and that must be what my subconscious mind had been anticipating. I jumped down from my bunk and believe it or not I had to waken the other three officers and tell them we had been torpedoed. At first they thought I was fooling, but when the lights went out and the voice from the bridge gave orders to abandon ship they were fully convinced. We all went up on deck with life jackets and minimum clothing. I surveyed the scene and saw the torpedo had struck forward and must have exploded in the troops’ sleeping quarters. Afterwards I learned it had blown away the escape ladders and the men could not get out. An RAF Padre, named George, asked to be lowered to the men, knowing he would never escape. It was a very brave and Christian act. Several years afterwards – it was after the end of the war – I read in the newspapers that the Padre had been awarded the George Medal posthumously.
The ship was sinking fairly quickly and the water was gradually creeping along the deck nearer and nearer to where I was standing with John Tucker at our lifeboat station. There was a lot of difficulty with the lifeboats; some were not lowered at all, while one was successfully lowered and filled with men when the next boat swung out and dropped on top of them. A lot of men threw rafts and other floatable material into the sea and then jumped in afterwards to their rescue platforms. This meant that some men already in the water got quite hefty stuff dropped on top of them. John Tucker and I watched all this and resolved not to jump until the water got close to our feet. While waiting for this to happen we could not help being amused to see an RAF officer clinging to a rope – he was in full service dress including peak cap – while trying to manoeuvre a raft with his feet so that he could get on to it, presumably hoping he would not get wet! There was also another humorous moment when our friend Barrie arrived on deck, exclaiming more convincingly than ever “I told you we were bloody silly to come on this lark!”
On looking around us I observed that the ”Challenger” and one of the corvettes were standing by to pick up survivors while the other corvette was sailing round dropping depth charges. I looked across to the “Challenger” and decided no matter what happened I could swim that distance – I should think it was no more than 500 yards. It was a strange feeling – for I had an inner feeling of confidence that I would make it. When the water crept up to us we did jump and I resolved to make a bee-line for the “Challenger”, but the strange thing is I remember absolutely nothing of the time I was in the water. This is not surprising for after I was eventually hauled up on the “Challenger” I developed the largest black eye I have ever had. This must have been caused by a small raft or other material dropping on me while in the water. I suppose I must have been in a pretty bad way for I was put to bed in an officer’s cabin on the “Challenger” and I must have slept for quite a long time.
The “Challenger” was a very small vessel and she picked up close on 600 survivors. The “Anselm”’s total complement – troops and crew – was about twelve hundred and I believe over three hundred men lost their lives. The morning after the sinking an armed merchant cruiser, the P & O liner “Cathay” arrived on the scene. She was not allowed to stop but lowered scrambling nets and we had to scramble up in quite a heavy sea. The Royal Navy men on “Cathay” were very kind and helped out with clothing and necessaries; eventually we put in to Freetown, Sierra Leone and later sailed in a small vessel “Surprise” to Lagos, Nigeria where I stayed for two years.
In Nigeria I landed a job in which I was very happy. I was in charge of an ammunition depot at Oshodi. I had five British NCO’s, about 100 African troops of the West African Frontier Force and a small army of casual labourers to handle the ammunition. I was the only officer on the depot and my house was a bamboo hut with palm thatch roof. The depot was about twelve miles from Lagos so I was pretty much my own boss.
Being so near to Lagos I was able to go into the city about once a week and I often used to attend the Saturday night dances at the Ikoyi club. On one of these visits there were several naval officers in the club – obviously from a vessel newly arrived in the harbour. One of these officers came over to me and said “Are you Captain Spencer?” I said that I was and to my amazement he said “You were on the Anselm, do you not remember me?” I had to admit that I did not remember him. He then informed me that he had been in charge of one of the lifeboats going around picking up survivors and he had a very full boat when they encountered me in the water. As he couldn’t get me in the boat he put a rope round my shoulders and dragged me along to the ladder of the “Challenger”. I suppose this account of what happened – and the black eye – together explain why I do not remember my time in the water!
Jack Spencer.Chris Spencer
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