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In 1942 marine fireman William Swinchin of Dingle Mount in Liverpool, England engaged in an incredible act of endurance when he survived 75 days alone, adrift on a raft after his vessel was sunk by a U-boat.
Prior to his incredible ordeal, William had already been torpedoed once before. In 1940 off the Irish coast, he was on board the SS Diplomat that was torpedoed. The mariner spent 23 hours in the water before rescue by HMS Active.
William was serving on the steamship SS Etrib, which was sailing in a convoy of six vessels from Gibraltar to England. The vessel was torpedoed on 15th June 1942 in the Atlantic Ocean off Portugal. Only four of the ship’s crew were lost and the rest of the crew of around forty were saved, although 37-year-old William’s experience was very different from the others.
The Etrib had gone down quickly at night. During an ‘every man for himself’ hasty evacuation William jumped overboard after a lifeboat had been launched. The distressed seaman was swimming in the dark for about an hour and a half then managed to clamber aboard a raft that had provisions for around twenty men. These consisted mainly of pemmican tablets (dried meat and berries, mixed in fat), milk tablets, sailors’ biscuits and a single tank of drinking water.
William didn’t expect to be adrift long as it was a busy shipping lane, but he ended up spending 75 days on the raft. For the last week, he had to survive on water alone. On 29th August, at the point of exhaustion he was spotted by a German submarine, U-214, that pulled up alongside and took him on board. Lieutenant Commander Gunther Reeder placed William in a bunk and gradually nursed him back to health over the next six weeks.
In October the submarine landed at Brest in France and William was handed to the German authorities. He and Gunther agreed that when the war was over, they would try to contact each other.
William was a prisoner of war at Westertimke, near Bremen where a number of other Liverpool seamen were held. By now William was presumed dead and his wife Elizabeth was receiving a widow’s pension which was then stopped after she got a letter from him saying he was now at a prisoner camp.
William was repatriated in May 1945 and returned to Dingle Mount to his wife and two children. After just four weeks of recuperation, he signed up to go back to sea, joining the Moss Hutchinson line and sailing to Malta on the Kana.
In October 1945 William received a letter from Lieutenant Commander Gunther Reeder, who revealed he had been injured in 1943 when U-214 had to crash-dive after being targeted by an RAF Halifax bomber.
His German saviour’s left arm was partially paralysed, meaning he was not on U-214 when it was sunk off southern England in 1944. When asked to comment on the man who saved him, William told the Daily Post ‘He was a German, but believe me, he was a very decent chap’.
William remained a merchant seaman until 1961 when the effects of his wartime ordeal caught up with him and he spent some time in hospital. On getting better he became a dock watchman and moved to the newly built tower block Windsor Tower in Windsor Street. He died in 1971, with his wife Elizabeth passing away the following year.
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Related books: The Leaving of Liverpool, Britannic Waives the Rules: Last of the White Star Liners, UNTOLD SAGAS OF THE SEA Volume I (The USA, The UK), UNTOLD SAGAS OF THE SEA Vol II (The USA, The UK), UNTOLD SAGAS OF THE SEA VOL. III ( The USA and The UK) UNTOLD SAGAS OF THE SEA VOL. IV ( The USA and The UK) and All I Ask is a Tall Ship by Liverpool writer Michael Walsh
Categories: Sea Stories