A SAILOR FROM "AUSTRALIND"
Vaughan Richards went to sea in 1939 aged 15 years and 5 months as a deck boy. He joined the motor vessel Australind in June 1941 and sailed for England via the Panama Canal, heavily loaded with zinc concentrates and dry foods. Later he remembered:
We had numerous stoppages with machinery breakdowns. ..We wallowed for days at a time; then, after forty-two days, at a point near the Galapagos Islands, the 3000-ton German raider Komet came along…
It was 3.30 p.m.; I’d just had a call, as I was to go to the wheel at 4 p.m., when all of a sudden we heard loud explosions. We raced up on deck and what appeared to be a Japanese ship calling itself Ryuka Maru (a neutral)was looming out of the sun. In reality it was the Komet in disguise. The first shot was fired across our bow, the accepted signal from any aggressor to stop a vessel. When our wireless operator began to send out a message, as he was obliged to do by the British Admiralty, they opened up on us with intense fire. We were so close you could see the German gunners actually training the guns on us. After about ten minutes, the vessel was on fire, lifeboats were shot away; on the bridge, the Master of the vessel, he was only 29, had half his head blown off. I and another boy went up to the bridge, and the Second Mate told us to carry him below. So we carried the Master down, laid him on the galley table, pulled his white coat up over his head and went out and locked the door after us.
There was no doctor on board, no first aid at all. We went down to one of the working alleyways to alarm other personnel; things really started to happen, I went to wake the Fourth Engineer, tried to pull him out of his bunk and his arm came away, he was dead. The third engineer, he had his backside shot away and one arm just dangling on a sinew and we carried him out and laid him on the after-deck with a massive peace of cotton wool under the injury, he was losing blood at a rate of possibly half a gallon a minute, he died rapidly. The Second Mate, who was on the bridge, suffered severe injuries to the leg, ripped open. End result was three killed with eight injured.
The Mate gave the orders when the Master was gone. We were ordered to action stations, I was in the gunners crew as the rammer, the bloke who has to ram the cordite up behind the projectile with a big mop; we trained the gun but immediately a projectile from the raider went past us. I saw it. It was every man for himself. All the life-saving appliances were gone, shot away or on fire, and a German crew came over in their boats and took us of the vessel along with the injured. But the dead remained, the captain laid out as if for a Viking funeral.
After boarding the raider, the injured were attended to in a very professional manner; the second Mate recovered. The hospital and dental facilities were second to none and in all fairness I’ve got to say we were better treated there as far as food goes than on the ship we’d left. We weren’t allowed to se our ship go down, they locked us down below straight and she was sunk by demolition charges. That was 14 August 19141.
The following week the Komet got her next victim, a British-India ship Devon with a large complement of Lascars with British officers.
All prisoners were locked down in their quarters in No. 1 hold, no discrimination here, the officers were locked down as well; the Germans used to bolt the door and put an armed guard on. Devon was put down by gunfire and the prisoners brought aboard the Komet.
Next, a Dutch Vessel Kota Nopan, en route from Java to the USA with rubber and tin, was captured intact. After two weeks of ferrying supplies back to the raider, a German prize crew was put on board and the prize was sent on her way with the Lascar prisoners to Bordeaux. The raider had to juggle both crew and captives to relieve crowding.
By now, on the Komet we had the officers of the Devon, full crew of the Australind and some Dutch officers from the Kota Nopan.
They cruised across the Pacific, rounded Cape Horn into the South Atlantic and sailed north. The ship changed colours, was disguised again, this time as a Portuguese vessel named the St Hom, and the German naval ratings were dressed in civilian gear as the raider proceeded up the neutral Portuguese coast. Eventually they were escorted into German-occupied Le Havre by three German U-boats, and waited while preparations were made for a dash up the English Channel.
We went at about eight o’clock at night – it was dark, you needed cover to go through the Channel unmolested. But about 11.30 p.m. action stations were sounded and they had a four-hour engagement with British motor torpedo boats, with shore batteries and some aircraft. A bomb went off on the starboard quarter of the raid and the vessel was lifted almost bodily out of the water and it took two days for minor repairs to be made before they continued on Cuxhaven where all prisoners were put on shore and sent in motor lories to the camp named Marlag und Milag Nord.
By this time Vaughan Richards was aged 17.
In the camp there were about thirty of that age or younger including little Albert White from Melbourne.
The life in the camp was quite bearable. Food was sufficient. Food parcels wee received through the red cross at Geneva as were uniforms, band instruments and games, books, cigarettes and tobacco. Prisoners had concerts, plays, pantomimes and sports meetings as well as rugby and soccer matches between England, Scotland, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
Settling into the camp was no drama, just a fact of life… we had some good doctors and with their limited supplies they did a good job. Dr Sperber, a Czechoslovakian, was brilliant (after the war we saw him on TV in relation to Dachau and Auschwitz because that’s where he ended up).
Vaughan was an exchange prisoner in March 1943 in company with twenty-four other seamen. They were put aboard an Italian hospital ship and the exchange took place in Turkey. Twenty five seamen were taken to Alexandria.
The British Consul wasn’t concerned about our welfare… The RAF invited me to their camp… I had a consultation with their adjutant and after that I was in the camp for five months… [Then] I made a move and signed on a Norwegian tanker bound from Alexandria to Italian Somaliland, then to Bombay where we were paid off…
Then Richards got a berth on another Norwegian tanker, went back to Abadan and later joined a British tanker bound for Melbourne and finally got back home. A two year long circumnavigation of a young seaman ended happily and safely.
P. Adam-Smith. Prisoners of War from Gallipoli to Korea. 1992
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