All Brave Sailors: The Sinking of the Anglo-Saxon, August 21, 1940


In the darkness before moonrise on the Atlantic Ocean off the African coast on August 21, 1940, the night erupted in a fusillade of bullets and shells. The victim was a stalwart English tramp steamer, Anglo-Saxon, part of the lifeline that was keeping besieged England supplied. The attacker was the Widder, a German surface raider, disguised as a neutral merchant ship.
When it was near its prey, the raider unmasked its hidden armament and with overwhelming force destroyed the ...

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All Brave Sailors: The Sinking of the Anglo-Saxon, August 21, 1940

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In the darkness before moonrise on the Atlantic Ocean off the African coast on August 21, 1940, the night erupted in a fusillade of bullets and shells. The victim was a stalwart English tramp steamer, Anglo-Saxon, part of the lifeline that was keeping besieged England supplied. The attacker was the Widder, a German surface raider, disguised as a neutral merchant ship.
When it was near its prey, the raider unmasked its hidden armament and with overwhelming force destroyed the target ship. Only seven of the forty-one man crew of the Anglo-Saxon managed to get into a small boat and escape the raiders. Seventy days later, two of them, half dead, stumbled ashore in the Bahamas.
The account of the sailors' ordeal — how first the badly wounded and then the less strong died and were thrown over the side of a fragile boat that had almost no supplies — is suspenseful and riveting.
On the same day the two survivors reached the Bahamas, the Widder arrived off Brest, in occupied France, her murderous voyage over. Her captain, Hellmuth von Ruckteschell, who sank a staggering twenty-five ships, was eventually tried as a war criminal.
All Brave Sailors is a story of endurance, heroism, brutality, and survival under the most terrible circumstances. It fills a gap in the history of World War II, telling the story of the much neglected sailors and the ships of the merchant marine, fighting against great odds in the early days of the war.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Walter Cronkite Revell Carr is one of the world's outstanding maritime historians. It turns out he writes like a prize-winning novelist. With extraordinary research he has put together the true story of one ship and one life boat that synthesizes in gripping, heart-stopping detail the story of the battle of the Atlantic, and the victory over the German U-boats and raiders, that cost thousands of lives of merchant seamen but made possible Hitler's ultimate defeat.

Nathaniel Philbrick author of In the Heart of the Sea and Sea of Glory All Brave Sailors is a vivid, meticulously researched account of merchant seamen during World War II — a heartfelt tale of incredible heroism and endurance.

Osborn Elliott former Editor-in-Chief of Newsweek and Dean Emeritus, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism A Nazi raider sends a British merchant ship to the bottom of the Atlantic in the summer of 1940 — and thus begins one of history's greatest sagas of survival at sea. Through meticulous research and with a keen eye for detail, Revell Carr captures the drama and tragedy and indomitable human spirit that finally prevails.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743238380
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 7/27/2007
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 1,393,894
  • Product dimensions: 0.87 (w) x 6.00 (h) x 9.00 (d)

Meet the Author

J. Revell Carr is a former president and director of Mystic Seaport, America's leading maritime museum. A former naval officer, he was also president of the Council of American Maritime Museums and the International Congress of Maritime Museums. While at the museum he was responsible for the jolly boat of the Anglo Saxon. Carr lives on the coast of Maine.

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Chapter 10: Drastic Choices

The morning of the seventh day began with an increased awareness of a nauseating smell. Gangrene was now progressing unchecked up Pilcher's leg. It was apparent, too, that Gunner Penny's jagged thigh wound had the same infection, and that Morgan's leg wound was also turning gangrenous. There was no way to escape the stench. Pilcher continued to apologize and others attempted to reassure him. They could see that the disease was coursing through the Radio Officer's system and taking its heavy toll. The spark in young Pilcher's eye was disappearing. During the morning, his condition took an ominous turn: he lost feeling in his leg. The blessing of this was that he was no longer in anguish, but it also meant his body could not sustain its interaction with the rotting limb and had essentially amputated it. Of course, this was not a true amputation and the rampant infection was making its way into other organs of his body. There was great frustration in the inability of the others to help Pilcher, Penny, and Morgan.

The four fit men again went over the side and immersed themselves. Primarily done to obtain some relief from the oppressive tropical sun and stench, this seemed to provide an additional benefit as they took some fluid into their systems through their skin. They had not been able to salivate for several days, but after their time in the water they found that saliva had returned. Various studies show that only a superficial amount of water is absorbed during immersion and it cannot penetrate deep into the tissues of the body. Those problems that developed from the lack of water would have the most devastating impact on those in the jolly boat. Modern scientists assert that the second most fundamental requirement of the human body, after oxygen, is water. It is the presence of adequate water in the system that facilitates virtually all other bodily functions, from digestion to blood circulation. Without adequate water, basic human functions begin to shut down and fail. The daily minimum fluid required from food and liquid sources by an adult is nearly 2 quarts. The men in the jolly boat got a mere fraction of that.

Thirst had long replaced hunger as the sailors' primary consideration. As the day wore on, it was not food they fantasized about, but beverages. They discussed not only favorite drinks, but also wistfully thought about moisture-laden sweet fruits such as peaches, pears, and oranges. Denny remarked on this in his log, which still carried an optimistic tone despite the crew's declining condition. Part of that optimism was due to the fact that strong winds were enabling them to make good progress. The following morning, their eighth, brought disappointment as the breeze diminished and continued to do so during that uneventful day. Penny and Morgan seemed to be somewhat better, but that encouragement was countered by Pilcher's deterioration. The men also observed physiological changes in themselves, such as the total lack of sweat, even in the stifling midday heat. With the lack of fluids, they refused the quarter of a ship's biscuit offered morning and night. Their desiccated throats and mouths were choked by their swollen tongues. The physical impact of their lack of fluids and nutrition was obvious. Their weight loss was apparent and their clothing, which only a week before had fit them, now was too large.

In this sad state, they settled down for what became a sleepless night. They had learned to tolerate the uncomfortable seats as makeshift beds, but the discomfort of the various protrusions interrupted what rest they could achieve. They were suddenly roused from this uneasy state by an unearthly, plaintive cry. Its source was Pilcher. Up to this point, the brilliant young officer had borne his suffering with a courage admired and respected by all. Now a voice they did not recognize was among them.

Denny made his way to Pilcher to see what he could do to help. The Radio Officer stared blankly into the distance. The Mate tried to get him to respond, to focus, or to react, but Pilcher was mentally in another world. This was the beginning of a long night, during which the delirious Pilcher took on a persona none would have associated with him. Gone was the refined, thoughtful, concerned man, and in his place was a ranting body, wracked by the poison of gangrene. There was no way to curb the flow of sound that came from Pilcher. He used language the others had never heard from him and most thought he didn't even know. There was no doubt his fine mind was in the clutches of his disease. He cursed, broke into an hysterical cackle, sang, and then cursed or laughed again. This went on for a long time, and then a calm came over Pilcher. He quietly coped with his agony, groaning and softly talking nonsensically to himself. Gratefully, the others eased back into their rest, sobered and saddened, but glad for the relative quiet. This was not to last, however, as the night was once again pierced by Pilcher's tortured cry, and he began the cycle of cursing, singing, and inane laughing again. No one could rest, but Denny struggled to find something he could do to ease the deteriorating situation for Pilcher and the rest. The Radio Officer was in a desperate way, the condition of Penny and Morgan was of great concern, and they were all visibly declining. Barry Denny carried an enormous burden. As the night came to an end, so did Pilcher's ranting as he slipped into near unconsciousness.

The entry in Denny's log for the day following Pilcher's delirious night began to show discouragement. He had done a remarkable job keeping their spirits up, setting a positive tone, reminding them that rescue by a ship was possible at any time, and that they were making progress toward their island objective. But it was increasingly difficult to rally the men. The wind had died off, which added to the disappointment. The first two lines of the Mate's entry for August 31 read: "Becalmed, partly cloudy, nothing sighted whatsoever. Have not had one speck of rain but living in hopes." Those last, powerful three words were the only positive strain in this subtle roster of woes — becalmed, cloudy, nothing seen, no rain. Added to all of this was the condition of the Radio Officer.

Pilcher swung back and forth between sleep and ranting during the morning. Try as they might, the others could not tune it out, and Pilcher's ravings added significantly to their miseries. With many sleepless hours during which to think, the Mate reluctantly had made a drastic decision.

After the morning ration of water, he spoke quietly with the other fit men — Hawks, Widdicombe, and Tapscott. He had decided something had to be done about Pilcher; the crew couldn't continue this way. The others agreed, but what? They were astonished to hear what the Mate planned. It was barbaric. It was unthinkable. They had to amputate! The concept was staggering. This was major surgery they were talking about, the kind that required sterile operating rooms, teams of surgeons, blood transfusions, effective anesthetic, and an array of fine, sterile, razor-sharp surgical tools. They had none of that and in fact had almost nothing. None of them had any medical training. Denny had done the normal patching up of an injured sailor, but nothing in this realm. The operation, if you could even consider calling it that, would not take place in a proper environment, but exposed in a rocking, dirty, germ-laden, fetid boat. Of course, there was no blood for transfusion and worse, no anesthetic. Finally, what did they have to substitute for those fine instruments? When questioned on this point, Denny gave an appalling answer to his stunned listeners: the ax. The ax was dirty and rusty and undoubtedly had lost its edge, but what else was available? They had no saw, and neither the Mate's knife nor the sturdy little blade from Pilcher's Rolls Razor could carry out this plan.

It was hard to argue with the fundamental point in Denny's reasoning: Pilcher's leg was literally killing him and something had to be done. Amputation was the only choice. Even in the most professional hospital ashore, amputation would have been the only course; even then its effectiveness would be questionable, since the use of the first antibiotic, penicillin, didn't begin until 1941.

Widdicombe and Hawks, despite the incomprehensible gravity of the decision, went along with their leader. They all respected and cared for Pilcher. If there was any way to help, they were for it. Tapscott had equal regard and concern for Pilcher, but he couldn't accept this approach. In his mind, the entire idea was ludicrous. There would be the brutal, crude butchery, with the ax causing incredible pain for Pilcher, since the amputation would have to be in untainted living flesh to be effective. In addition, how could the others control the bleeding, dress the stump, or inhibit infection? If they managed to get the leg off, perhaps they could cauterize the stump with the flares, but the thought of the entire horrific process was alien to Tapscott. Instinct told him that the disease had gone systemic and infection was raging throughout Pilcher's body. He simply could not endorse the procedure, which seemed too primitive and too late.

Without unanimous agreement, the Mate opted to bring Pilcher himself, who at that moment seemed lucid, into the decision-making process; but his capacity to make a rational decision was questionable. The stellar Roy Pilcher was a desperate man. When the Mate posed the question and gave him the option of having the leg off, he readily agreed and the decision was made. The ax was cleaned as thoroughly as possible, and every effort was made to restore its edge. Pilcher was positioned, and Hawks and Widdicombe prepared to hold him down. Penny and Morgan looked on, undoubtedly thinking of their own wounds and growing infections. Barry Denny grasped the ax, hesitated, searched for the strength to perform the task, and could not find it. When it came to that final act, there was no willpower in Denny to carry out the deed. None of the others was sufficiently convinced of the benefit to step forward and take over the terrible task. With both relief and a sense of failure, the Mate put the ax away. He told Pilcher that with the probability of being picked up by a ship soon, the foot should wait for the proper medical care.

These stalwart men were dealing with incredible physical deprivations and enormous mental stress. Their fortitude had been remarkable, but they would have to dig deep into their reserves. In this forlorn moment, Denny resorted to his most powerful morale booster; for the second time he offered the boiled mutton. They had been in the boat for nine days and had consumed a quarter of their ship's biscuits, half of their condensed milk, and, most significantly, half their water. With Denny's firm leadership and the discipline of the crew, they were on the schedule they had set for the consumption of their provisions for the sixteen-day voyage they had anticipated. With the days becalmed, they now knew it would take longer. The logic of giving everyone an equal amount each day until expected arrival was flawless. After nine days of experience with this minuscule daily ration, however, the question that had to be in their minds was, Could they survive on this scant supply for nine more days? Surely they would reach the Leeward Islands by then.

The crew had two cans of mutton left, and since it had lifted everyone's spirits the first time, Denny decided to indulge in this luxury once again. They had a feast of mutton that Saturday night, but unfortunately it had the opposite effect. The meat had moisture, which enabled them to chew and swallow it, but their shrunken stomachs had virtually shut down from lack of food. A minimum of 2 pints of fluid in the body's system is needed to generate the gastric juices necessary to process meat and dispose of the waste. The salt in the mutton just increased the men's thirst; they were all suffering, their bodies screaming for water. With his usual decisiveness, Barry Denny broke with his strict regimen and doubled the water ration that night. It was the only option he had to reduce the suffering the treat had induced. This luxury of water was only marginally successful, and some of the men spent an agonizing night, twisted with abdominal pain and nausea. The Mate himself was among those who were crippled with cramps and vomiting that night.

The following day, Sunday, September 1, was a pivotal day for the men on this voyage. After an uncomfortable night, they roused themselves for another routine day. When they looked at their leader, Denny, they were taken aback by his altered condition. His only problem had seemed to be his rope-burned hands, which hadn't healed and were oozing pus; but now there was an unmistakable change in the man. The wracking sickness of the night before had drained him of vigor. His skin was pallid and he was clearly still coping with wrenching internal pain. This shocking transformation was difficult for the others to consider. Barry Denny was their leader and everyone respected him in that capacity.

Suddenly, the others felt enormously threatened by this change and fervently hoped that as the day wore on the malady would wear off and their leader would again be himself. Drawing on nearly exhausted reserves of willpower, Denny first made a decision of enormous import. He had mentally reckoned the boat's position, since he had no charts. Having calculated the compass error, he had been steering essentially southwest. He had estimated the boat's speed and the currents and knew the time elapsed, so he could estimate the distance traveled. He must have felt that the jolly boat was far enough south to be on the latitude of the Leeward Islands, and ordered that the crew steer west. If Denny had had a chart, he would have seen that the boat was well north of the desired latitude, and steering due west would cause her to miss the Leeward Islands completely. Without instruments, charts, or navigational tables, and with the exhaustion of the ordeal, a fateful decision had been made.

Denny's next task was to issue the 6:15 A.M. 2-ounce water ration. As usual, each man was eager for this taste of liquid. Back to his old gentle self, but weaker than ever, Pilcher turned away from his ration and said that others needed it more than he. This generous act of sacrifice was typical of what they might have expected from Pilcher in his prime; but now it saddened everyone, since it indicated that he could not envision recovery, even if they were rescued soon. In these moments when his mind was clear, Pilcher was able to assess his condition.

Less than two hours later, Morgan, who was convalescing in the bow, made the lamentable discovery: twenty-one-year-old Roy Hamilton Pilcher, exemplary shipmate and admired friend, was dead. Despite being among a small group, all of whom truly cared for him, Pilcher had slipped away silently and alone, without anyone to comfort him, without anyone to whisper his endearing family nickname, Bun, and without anyone to assure him that all would be well. His life and his loss was so typical of the tragic waste of war. Those in the boat had seen death before, had witnessed it on board the flaming Anglo-Saxon, and knew now that death was truly stalking them in their little boat. All of this added to the gravity and demoralization of what had just occurred. Perhaps if he were not dealing with his own physical deterioration, the Mate might have organized a more appropriate service for Pilcher, or perhaps he was thinking the men shouldn't dwell on this morbid situation. The result was a swift, abrupt disposal of Pilcher's body, with no ceremony.

The Mate ordered Tapscott and Hawks to simply lift the body over the side and let it go. There were no words, no prayer, no eulogy, no simple Godspeed. The awestruck men could do nothing but watch the body drift away. Undoubtedly, there were individual thoughts and silent prayers and good wishes lingering with the body as the boat sailed slowly on, but the weight of this moment bore heavily on each of them. They knew Pilcher was very sick, but no one had wanted to admit that death was so near, or that it could claim one of them at all. The hope that a ship would find them before it was too late and everything would be solved proved to have been a dream, and one of their number had been taken from them.

There was nothing that could be said to ease the mourning that saturated the boat that day. Each man dealt with his grief for Pilcher and his fears for the future privately. This had to be particularly terrifying for Gunner Penny and Leslie Morgan, whose own wounds were already infected. They had witnessed the agonizing decline of the Radio Officer in excruciating detail. They had seen his pain and were coping with their own. They had seen the fever and the delirium. They had witnessed the alteration of his character. For Penny this was a grim prelude to what he knew would be his own trip down the same twisting, tortuous trail. It had to be unnerving for the other officers, Barry Denny and Lionel Hawks, who observed the loss of dignity of their fellow officer as the disease reached his mind. Everyone knew the true Roy Pilcher and that it was the gangrene distorting his personality, but they were forced to contemplate their own uncertain futures. Tapscott and Widdicombe must have had their own misgivings, despite their comparative health. Pilcher's death drained the optimism from the boat and demonstrated that everyone was vulnerable. Things would not be the same.

The day following Pilcher's death brought no relief. In fact, numerous factors contributed to an even more somber mood, if that was possible. Denny fought to rally himself and attend to his morning water distribution, but struggled to get to the water breaker and carry out the task. The others were shocked by his continued decline, and each must have pondered how to manage if Denny were unable to exert his steady leadership. The other wounded men created additional cause for concern. The veteran Penny demonstrated extraordinary control and restraint despite his gangrenous thigh. There were no outbursts or signs of the ordeal he must have been experiencing, except that he grew visibly weaker each day.

By contrast, young Morgan had begun to act very strangely. His previous good humor and lighthearted chatter disappeared, and he now sang incessantly, repeating the same tired song over and over, driving the others to distraction. This was not only the result of his infection, but the fact that he was taking the very risky course of drinking seawater. The others knew that, despite their warnings, he had used one of the empty condensed-milk cans to ladle up water from over the side to try to quench his growing thirst. They suspected that at night he surreptitiously continued to consume more seawater. It was known that drinking seawater was a futile method of relieving thirst and had grave consequences. Although it is difficult to create a laboratory experiment to assess this impact, observations by medical personnel who were themselves in survival situations during World War II documented the fatal results of drinking seawater. In 1965, the Marine Division of the British Board of Trade issued Merchant Shipping Notice No. M.500, which in bold letters asserts never under any circumstances drink seawater. Morgan was not alone in consuming the seawater. Tapscott on several occasions attempted to relieve his raging thirst with a can straight from the ocean, but found the relief short-lived. He also knew that this was a very dangerous path to follow, and with his wits still keen, avoided the trap of continuous consumption that would certainly lead to his death.

The lack of water had a psychological impact in addition to the physiological effects. Studies show that coherent behavior can be sustained for as long as seven days on a ration of 5 to 6 ounces of water per day, but that much more water is needed to sustain life. After a week on the 4 ounces a day consumed in the jolly boat, dehydration would have begun to impair the crew's judgment and, by this time, they had been on the minimal rations for twelve days. Widdicombe seemed particularly unnerved by the events around him. He tried to be hopeful and optimistic but then plunged into despondency. He claimed to have experienced heat stroke in the past and, just as frostbite creates a hypersensitivity to cold, he had trouble tolerating the unforgiving rays of the sun. He frequently requested relief on the tiller by his watchmate, Tapscott.

The weeks on the Anglo-Saxon, followed by the days in the jolly boat, had given Tapscott ample time to size up Widdicombe, and he didn't trust him. Tapscott strongly suspected that Widdicombe's complaints of feeling faint and needing him to take over the tiller were an act. He felt that Widdicombe was malingering and manipulating him to his personal advantage. On the afternoon of their twelfth day in the boat, Tapscott refused to respond to Widdicombe's request. In typical fashion, Widdicombe, who was used to getting what he wanted, ranted and berated Tapscott. A lesser man might have given in to this verbal assault and threatening gestures, but Tapscott was not a man to be intimidated and rose to the challenge. Quickly, Hawks threw himself between the two men before the violence began. This was fortunate, because instinctively Tapscott had grabbed the ax, and in the heat of the moment the result could have been disastrous. Most importantly, for their future days in the boat, Bob Tapscott had demonstrated to Widdicombe that he would not be bullied.

The role of intermediary in the Tapscott-Widdicombe dispute had been assumed by Hawks, when it would normally have fallen to the Mate. Denny was by then unable to play the active role he had assumed for the last eleven days. He was crumpled in the bottom of the boat, suffering from the undetermined illness that gripped him, and wracked with cramps and nausea most of the day. Nevertheless, he sought and found the energy to mark the end of the discouraging day with another notch on the rail and another log entry. There was not a glimmer of optimism as he laboriously wrote with typical understatement: "Crew now feeling rather low. Unable to masticate hard biscuit owing to low ration of water." As if sensing that this would be his last opportunity to make some recommendations that might help future shipwrecked sailors, he struggled to add his suggestions to the log. These included two breakers of water, various canned fruits and fruit juices, and, curiously, baked beans. These were not suggestions reflecting a consensus of those on board, but the poignant personal desires of a sick man.

The night brought no rest for the weakening Denny and little for the others, who had to listen to him heaving and retching. At dawn, the depth of their crisis was obvious: the Mate was unable to rise from his cramped position in the bottom of the boat. The others did the best they could to rig a more comfortable berth for him, but it was clear that he no longer had the ability to lead the other five sad souls in the little boat. It would seem appropriate that Hawks, the only other officer on board, would assume command. This was challenged by Roy Widdicombe. Hawks was a relatively new officer and an engineer. To Widdicombe, Hawks might do fine in an engine room, but they were sailing and that was the province of real sailors, like himself, with far greater sea time than the Third Engineer. She was a small boat in extreme circumstances and no place for a mutiny. Hawks found a compromise, a distribution of responsibilities. The Engineer would be responsible for keeping the log and the allocation of the provisions. Widdicombe would be responsible for the seamanship: the sailing and navigating.

The efficiency and order that the compromise promised never materialized. As soon as Hawks prepared for the morning distribution of water, he was challenged again by Widdicombe. The sailor argued that the crew should have double the ration that had been so strictly allocated by the Mate, who was now incapable of resolving the dispute. Hawks felt the men should continue to conserve and stay with Denny's plan. Once again, confrontation loomed and Widdicombe exhibited his belligerence. Resisting Widdicombe would surely end in violence, so once again the Third Engineer retreated from his position. Widdicombe won his point and the full double ration of water was issued.

As the men began their fourteenth night in the boat, they were an image of despair. The water supply was nearly gone. Three men were in serious condition: two suffering silently and the other raving mindlessly. The other three reasonably healthy young men were distraught about their future and confused about who would make the critical decisions that lay ahead. It was hard to imagine what further hardships could befall them.

Copyright © 2004 by J. Revell Carr

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Table of Contents


Author's Note

Part I: FATE

1. Attack

2. The Catalyst

3. The British

4. The Germans

5. Raider!

6. The Widder at Sea and at War

7. Paths to War

8. The Raider Strikes


9. Speck in the Ocean

10. Drastic Choices

11. Desperate Decisions

12. Water!

13. Fortitude

14. Warrior Widder


15. Rescue

16. Return, Redemption, and Reward

17. Celebrity

18. Homeward Bound

19. Wounded Warrior

20. Michel — The Ship and the Man

21. War Criminal

22. Haunted Hero

23. Survivors


Appendix A: Comparable Naval Ranks

Appendix B: The Log of the Anglo-Saxon Jolly Boat




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