Captain Eric Wiberg, who grew up in the Bahamas, recounts the forgotten story of the Allied survivors who landed in the former British colony after waves of submarine attacks.

Alcoa Guide lifeboat Above: Lifeboat of steam ship the SS Alcoa Shipper sailing to Bermuda in 1942

By Captain Eric T. Wiberg (Harris Manchester,  1992)

During the Second World War, German and Italian submarines sank or damaged 181 Allied merchant vessels around the Bahamas and Bermuda. This resulted in over a million tons of shipping, and thousands of lives, being lost.

In 1942 a cadre of German submarines, aided by four Italian submarines, attacked the exposed American and Caribbean coastlines in Operations Drumbeat and Neuland. There were 142 submarine patrols led by 108 Axis commanders in the sea surrounding Bermuda. Around the Bahamas there were 112 patrols - including Italian and refueling missions, as well as land saboteurs off Florida and Long Island, and mine ports including Charleston, Norfolk, Jacksonville, and Puerto Rico. To avenge all of these attacks only four submarines were sunk in retaliation: two near the Florida Keys, and two near Bermuda.

Darina survivors eating on ship

Above: Survivors from British boat the Darina, attacked on its journey to Texas, on a rescue vessel 

Overall 1,276 Allied survivors landed in Bermuda and 255 in the Bahamas. Of those in Bermuda, 595 were British or Canadian. They came from large ships such as the Lady Drake with 256 surviving passengers, or small schooners such as the Helen Forsey, whose men – mostly of hardy Nova Scotia fishing stock – rowed and sailed for 12 days, to be met by surprised fishermen.

The first Allied survivors to land were nineteen-year-old Robert Tapscott and twenty four-year-old Wilbert ‘Roy’ Widdicombe whose merchant ship the Anglo-Saxon was sunk by the German raider Widder on 21 August 1940, while sailing from Wales to Argentina. The two survived for 70 days, drifting over 2,800 miles across the Atlantic, to land on Eleuthera in the Bahamas. Widdicombe was soon well enough to get a boat back to Britain but drowned a year later when his ship was sunk off the coast of Scotland by a German submarine. Tapscott eventually rejoined the Merchant Navy, but after the war committed suicide.

Duke of Windsorl Nassau.

Above: The Duke of Windsor, Governor of the Bahamas, in Nassau

Unusually, two hardy Norwegian skippers initially refused to be rescued when offered: Captain Finn Rusti of the sunken Grenanger preferred his lifeboats to the safety of the rescue ship Almenara as he believed that there were not enough lifeboats and food for his men. Captain Knut O. Bringedal of the O. A. Knudsen initially told Captan Foster of the schooner E. P. Theriault that he preferred to make his own way in lifeboats to Miami, but relented because of the severely injured men in his boat. 

Carstairs Red Cross

Above: The Duchess of Windsor, Marion Carstairs and Bahamas Red Cross volunteers with survivors of the US-flag merchant ship Potlatch in Nassau, Bahamas in August 1942

Others were rescued by brave civilians. When he American steam ship Potlatch heading from New York to Suez in June 1942 was sunk east of the Caribbean fifty men spent a month sailing in a 26-foot boat and four rafts until they landed on Great Inagua in the Bahamas. Two days later they were saved by an heiress named Marion Carstairs, a British tax exile who owned her own island, Whale Cay, whose small defence force she ruled as a benevolent despot. The men were taken on to Nassau on Carstairs’ yacht Vergemere IV. There they were met by head of the Red Cross the Duchess of Windsor whose husband, the erstwhile King Edward VIII, was Governor of the colony. 


Above: Survivors of British ship the Daytonian, which was sunk by an Italian submarine in 1942, on the beach near Nassau

The Duchess served as the personal welcoming chairperson for all 255 Allied survivors who landed in Nassau during the war. Several of the victims’ ships – the Cygnet of Panama, Athelqueen and Daytonian from Britain – had been sent to the bottom by Italian submarine Enrico Tazzoli, which sank a ship a day for over a week before colliding with the Athelqueen in March 1942 and limping home. However, there were still plenty more submarines lurking in those waters, making crossing the Caribbean a perilous journey for years to come. 

Images courtesy of Eric T. Wiberg