I have read all the diary pages from one of the escapees, a pilot, Flt Sgt John Lovegrove, of this ‘great escape’ from the Japanese invasion of SE Asia. The lifeboat was called ‘The Scorpion’. An amazing story:
|One of the most incredible escapes made during World War II involved 12 airmen who sailed in an open boat from Java [now Indonesia] to Australia to escape the Japanese, a journey that took 47 days.Sgt Athol Snook, a navigator in the RAAF was one of the 12 who made the journey, all chosen for their stamina, morale and initiative. The men, from 84 Squadron RAF, made their desperate escape bid after a surprise Japanese raid had captured their base including about 20 Blenheim bombers and all support crew.Four of the officers on the boat were RAF while one officer and seven others were from the RAAF. They were selected
They survived the journey despite being hit by violent tropical storms, being becalmed for several days, having to constantly bail out their leaking boat, enduring several visits from whales and sharks and an unlikely encounter with a Japanese submarine that let them pass unhindered.
After the Japanese attack, the aircrew had been sent from their base at Kalidjati near Bandoeng to the port of Tjilatjap for evacuation but the expected rescue ship never arrived to pick them up. They then decided to try and escape by sea and looked around for a suitable vessel.
All they could find were two old 9-metre lifeboats without engines, but after one attempt to tow the heavily laden boats, each carrying about 30 men, out of the harbour ended in failure, and the wrecking of one lifeboat, it was decided the surviving boat with a crew limited to 12 men, should try to reach Australia to get help for those left behind.
A search of the port area produced enough food and water for the 12 men to last about 30 days, twice as long as the anticipated 16-day duration of the journey, together with a large quantity of American canned beer which had been obtained from a Dutch canteen.
With basic navigating equipment which included a marine sextant, a Mercator’s Projection of the World, a portion of the Nautical Almanac giving declination tables and time apparent noon, a large scale chart of Java and Bali and a general navigation chart of the world (not discovered until after they reached Australia), the men set off full of hope. There was no chronometer and they used the CO’s watch which was the only one working.
They set off on 7 March 1942.
Those selected to take part in the epic voyage were W/Cdr J R Jeudwine (captain), S/Ldr AK Passmore (2i/c and purser), F/O C P L Streatfield 1st (Lt and 2nd helmsman), P/O S G Turner, (navigator) – all RAF and P/O M S Macdonald, Sgts G W Sayer, W N Cosgrove, A C Longmore, J Lovegrove, A C E Snook, P M Corney and P Haynes, all RAAF.
Problems arose even before they left when they discovered an extra man on board, so he was sent ashore. Then strong winds prevented the boat from being rowed out of the cove and it had to be towed. Thunder storms also caused some problems but once these had subsided, the oars came back out.
The following day the rudder came adrift, having been damaged in earlier manoeuvres, and had to be repaired. The crew was beginning to suffer from the cramped conditions and from sunburn and even when they made an awning to protect themselves, the heat was stifling.
On 9 March they had a narrow escape.
As soon as the submarine was sighted, each man was given a can of beer to drink in case they were killed or captured or the submarine turned out to be American – and therefore dry.
Later that voyage a heavy thunderstorm enabled them to replenish their water casks which had leaked. Rain was so heavy that a 12 gallon [45 litre] cask was refilled in half an hour.
During the day, crew members took turns at swimming in the sea while the rest kept a look out for sharks. Throughout the voyage they had several close encounters with sharks and a number of whales, so the lookouts always had to be vigilant.
Due to the basic navigation equipment and the unreliability of the only working watch, they were never sure exactly how far they had travelled, while the various currents and winds threatened on many occasions to take them away from their intended destination.
Water rations were replenished whenever it rained and food stocks seemed to be holding out. But the original estimate of 16 days at sea was soon passed and rationing was tightened.
The rudder was a constant problem, regularly breaking away from the boat and having to be repaired. Great ingenuity was used to replace bits that had broken off in heavy seas.
Lunch each day consisted of biscuits and two sardines or a little potted meat and a mouthful of water issued at noon.
From time to time the boat was becalmed while on other occasions storms hit them.
During heavy seas the crew had to keep up constant bailing with the boat in danger of becoming water logged. Steering was hampered by the lack of a reefing device on the sails and it was often difficult to keep the boat moving in the right direction.
After 24 days at sea, food stocks were found to be better than thought and allocations were increased but were reduced again after they were becalmed for several days. The boat was drifting northwards, away from Australia during these calm periods.
Throughout the voyage, the men managed to maintain a sense of humour although on 1 April, jokes were few and far between.
But some of the little things took on an importance much greater than normal. On 8 April Commander Jeudwine wrote:
The following day they were visited by a young whale which took a particular interest in them.
On 16 April the crew had the first inkling that they might be nearing land.
Commander Jeudwine spent a sleepless night working out times of sunrise and sunset during the past few days then dropped a bombshell to the crew.
But early on 20 April they sighted land.
Soon, they set foot on dry land for the first time in 45 days.
They continued their voyage after breakfast and sighted an unidentified aircraft high and about 10 miles to the west of them. Their efforts to attract its attention failed and they landed on another small island for the night, enjoying a stationary and soft bed made from spinifex.
Next day they spotted a flying boat, which turned out to be a Catalina of Patrol Squadron 101, US Navy. Waving all manner of clothing, they eventually persuaded the Catalina to land but the crew of the aircraft were still suspicious and kept their weapons handy.
The captain of the aircraft offered to take six of the crew from the boat but only three accepted the offer – the others opting to stay with the boat. However, next day another Catalina landed and picked up the rest of the crew and the boat was abandoned.
Thus ended an epic voyage under incredible conditions that enabled 12 men to escape the clutches of the Japanese. Those left behind in Java were all taken prisoner and most served on the Burma-Thailand railway.
Footnote: Athol Snook travelled to Canberra to meet the brother of the captain of the Japanese submarine which had allowed them to pass on the eventful voyage. He presented a frill-necked lizard to Mr and Mrs Ohashi. Athol Snook died about five years ago leaving Peter Haynes of Western Australia as the only survivor of the Scorpion’s crew.