The Tragic Tale of Roy Widdicombe

17 Nov

Merchant Seaman, Wilbert Charles Roy Widdicombe, known as Roy, was born in Totnes, Devon in 1919. He married Cynthia in March 1940 and while on shore leave lived with his new bride and her mother in Lewis Street, Newport.

On the 21st August 1940 the SS Anglo Saxon belonging to the Lowther Latta Line was en route from Newport to Bahia Blanca in Argentina with a cargo of coal when she was attacked by the German surface raider Widder (disguised as a neutral ship) in the Atlantic Ocean off West Africa. Able Seaman Widdicombe was in the wheelhouse when the ship was strafed with machine gun fire and torpedoed.  Roy Widdicombe managed to lower the one undamaged “Jolly Boat” into the water even though he sustained a serious injury when he got his hand jammed in the running block. Out of a crew of 41 just seven men managed to survive the sinking ship.

The seven surviving men had few provisions in their life boat; a little water and food, a compass and oars. Over the next fortnight five of the men perished either as a result of injuries sustained in the original attack on their ship while others threw themselves into the sea – deluded from hunger and thirst.  After 19 days only two remained alive; Roy Widdicombe and Robert Tapscott. 

Seventy days after the SS Anglo Saxon had been sunk, the “jolly boat” grounded on a beach of Eleuthera Island in the Bahamas.  Barely alive Widdicombe and Tapscott had lost half their body weight and were sunburnt to the point of being black. They had survived by eating seaweed and collected fresh water on the few days it had rained.  For the last eight days of their journey they had no water and had smashed their compass and drank the fluid within it.

They were taken by seaplane to a hospital in Nassau (capital of the Bahamas) where they remained for many weeks while they slowly recuperated.  In hospital they were visited by the Governor of the Bahamas, the Duke of Windsor (King Edward VIII before abdication). 

As the men recovered, messages came from Britain that the Ministry of Shipping needed every sailor it could muster for its merchant fleet. In February 1941, Roy Widdicombe, who was in a better physical shape than Robert Tapscott, travelled to New York for onward passage back to the United Kingdom. Tragically he was only one day from Liverpool when the vessel, Siamese Prince, was torpedoed by a German U-boat off Scotland, with the loss of all hands.

Robert Tapscott recovered in due course and enlisted in the Canadian army, but after frequently absconding he was discharged from the military.  He later re-joined the Merchant Navy, married and they had a daughter, but took his own life aged 43, perhaps haunted by “survivor’s guilt”.

The “Jolly Boat” in which Roy Widdicombe and Robert Tapscott made their epic journey is now on display at the Imperial War Museum.

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