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A Sailor's Account of the Shipwreck of the 'Aube'

Updated on October 17, 2012
Jack Duncan (x)
Jack Duncan (x)

The Shipwreck

'Being of an adventurous spirit, I had joined the French armed vessel 'Aube' and proceeded to sea when the German sea wolves were out for prey, and life at sea had become very dangerous. The only stranger and non-French sailor on the ship, I was known as the "Australienne".

It was not the first time I had been a crew member of a ship, other than British. A sailor is a sailor under any flag. But this was war time, and there had to be a constant alert. A strict lookout was kept always. Whether night or day, fore, aft, and amidships, we were on alert. We had to be on the lookout for enemy ships, mines and particularly submarines. Every man had his allotted station to go to when the alarm sounded. There was always this uncertainty.

We cruised along the French coasts, in and out of the Mediterranean to Gibraltar and Marseilles and to ports in Colonial Africa. Algiers and Bizerta were favourite spots when we were around North Africa.

One sunny day, off the Portuguese coast, we saw action. With all hands on deck we were caught up in a three hour battle that ended with us sinking the enemy. I was at the wheel when the enemy was first sighted steaming up on our port quarter. At eight bells (8 o'clock), I was relieved of my duty and went below. I had just finished breakfast when the order was shouted "poste des combats" (battle stations). In a moment, men were rushing, stern faced, to their posts. And then - here it came. I had heard the sound before the scream of a shell over the starboard bow. Immediately after, there was another over us, this one splashing a few feet away. They were getting our range.

Why, I wondered, didn't we return the fire? The reason, I found out, was they were waiting for the flag. Hurrah, the 'tricolour', waving in the breeze. 'Liberty, Equality, Fraternity'. On target - fire! Radie france, in reply to a message sent to Paris, 'The eyes of France are on you', and so the battle roared on.

The gunners on board had a cozy mess-room of their own. I was always welcome to sit down and share a bottle of wine with them, and to join them in their fun ashore.

Down the alleyways of the 'Aube' we would often greet one another as we rolled on our way. The engine room staff and the firemen would yell out, 'Hi Australee, come on in.'

The officers too were keen to learn English. So when I was on the bridge or at the helm, the language lesson would begin with question and answer - both nautical and otherwise, and all with good-humoured banter.

Around the fo'castle the men were often reading, and yarning in the watch below. Most, if not all had had long service at sea. Some had served for years on sailing ships. One of my watch mates had rounded the dangerous Cape Horn on fourteen occasions, aloft shortening sails in hurricane winds and mountainous seas. I had experienced that myself on one occasion.

For every Sunday at sea we were allowed two days shore leave. Many friends were made in the old cities of Bordeaux and St. Nazaire. The seamen had their favourite haunts in all ports and in our own way, we thoroughly enjoyed life.

On this last voyage we had bunkered at one of the Bristol Channel ports, and as usual we had put to sea under sealed orders by dark of night, with all lights blacked out.


The Storm

It was wild enough in the Bristol Channel. When we rounded the 'Bull Light', with our foghorn blaring, on the North Western point of Devon, we encountered the full force of the gale. We were tossing about in the Irish Sea. I thought we were rather close inshore. The crew were on the deck in oilskins and sea boots - standing by should anything untoward happen.

Although the Quarter Master had the helm hard over, it proved to be too late. The terrific wind against the hull added to the quick and fast seas. We were hurled onto the rocks at Hartland Point. We were the seventh ship to be wrecked on that headland.

This happened at one o'clock in the morning. Our siren was sounding, but could barely be heard above the roar of the elements. It was very cold and drizzling. In the darkness of the storm we were tossed against the rocks which gave us more cause to fear than anything else.

As we struck, the watch below came scrambling up the stairs clutching their life jackets. They supposed we had hit a mine or had been torpedoed.

Early in the morning a farmer happened to spot us and in no time the cliff top was crowded with people. To us, on board the ship, they looked like tiny ants in the distance.

The crew was busy, however, and did just as the seamen did 2000 years ago when the ship in which St. Paul was a passenger was wrecked on the Island of Malta. We let down two anchors astern and hauled tight. This eased the motion of the ship to some degree, although we could do nothing forward.

We were awash, the seas rolling over us fore and aft. By and by we could see a figure climb a little way down the cliff and commence to wag semaphore flags. We could only just discern him and his flags. They appeared like two little white dots. The people on the cliff must have thought we were a British ship. I was the only seamen on board who spoke English and the Captain called for me. We got two flags from the locker and signalled back. The vessel, by this time, was lurching badly and the seas were rolling aboard.

The message came that they would shoot a line for us to make fast and to then, one by one go up by breeches buoy. 'No! No! No!' said the Captain. "Tell them we want the life boat.'

There was a life boat at Clovelly which was three miles to the north. This was launched, manned by volunteer seamen and fishermen.

After what we thought was a long time, the life boat could be seen heading our way. It seemed so slow. One moment it appeared like a cork on top of a wave, then it would be lost from view in a trough, then up it popped again.

The life boat stood off in the heavy seas. I was handed a megaphone. When the life boat came around to leeward, I roared out for them to come and take us off. The life boat manoeuvred around to windward so that we could hear them. Their Captain shouted, 'If we come any closer we shall be smashed up.' For a couple of hours they tossed around and then abandoned us and steered off home.

With our backs to the wind, we gazed over the wild waste, wet and helpless ... but not totally without hope. There was nothing to do but hang on and wait for the chance to get off in our own boats. This we did the following day when there was some abatement in the weather.

Some accidents did occur, but fortunately there were no fatalities. Some seamen were nearly washed overboard but managed to be saved by their mates who grabbed them from falling in the icy water. A steel block fell and gouged my head, cutting through my seaman's cap. My head felt as if it had been split in half, and like most head wounds, there was considerable bleeding. I was held fast while the Chief Officer put a tight bandage on my head. Later, when I was in hospital, the Matron asked who had bandaged me. 'I couldn't have done better myself,' she said.

Once away from the wreck, with little freeboard in the crowded boats, we seemed dangerously close to the heaving waters after the high deck of the 'Aube'. The chorus of a song I had sung many times in 'Seamen's Bethels' around the world kept ringing in my mind -

'Pull for the shore sailor, pull for the shore. Heed not the rolling wave but bend to the oar. Safe in the life boat sailor, cling to self no more. Leave poor old stranded wreck and pull for the shore.'

Some of the crew were billeted at Ilfracombe until such time as they could be sent home to France. One by one the good-byes were said. The Second Officer invited me to come with him and his family to Madagascar where he was to make his home and from there take command of a new ship.

After convalescing for some time in England, I decided to sign on with a British freighter and so was off to sea again.'

This account of the wreck of the 'Aube' was told to me by 'Jack' Duncan (my Grandfather) when he was recording some of his memories, a few years before he died, in 1976.

Copyright Marion Drury (c) 2012

All rights reserved


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