SKELETON COAST
by John H Marsh

CHAPTER 2
A DOOMED LINER
"S.O.S."
Those three letters, peep-, peep-ing through his earphones in Morse, roused to instant vigilance an operator at Walvis Bay radio station, late on the night of November 29,1942.
He heard the 13 ,000-ton British liner Dunedin Star report that she had struck an unknown object. She had torn her bottom open and was making at full speed for the nearest land in the hope of beaching herself before she filled. She gave her position as approximately 18.13 south latitude, 11.55 east longitude.
A quick glance at the map showed at once for where the crippled liner was making. It was the Coast of Death.
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It was just after half-past ten that night when the liner struck. Of more than 100 people on board most, including the 21 passengers, had already turned in, or were preparing to do so. The ship was tearing along at full speed, 16 knots, in pitch darkness, showing no glimmer of light without, for fear of submarines. She had safely traversed more than 5,000 miles of the Atlantic without being molested since leaving Liverpool three weeks previously. In three more days she should be in Table Bay, "halfway house" on her voyage to the Middle East with an important cargo for the Allies' military forces.
What it was she struck will never be known for certain. Her master thought it might have been a submarine. Enemy U-Boats were known to be in those waters at the time. Or it may have heen an uncharted rock. The captain had set his course ten miles off the coast. The only obstruction shown upon the chart was the Clan Alpine Shoal, three to five miles off the coast and marked "P.D." Most of the dangers marked upon that chart had those letters next to them. They meant "position doubtful". The court of inquiry that investigated later decided that the liner may have hit the Clan Alpine Shoal. Her captain believed he was nine miles at least from it. If the court's supposition was right, either the shoal was wrongly charted or the liner, influenced by treacherous currents, had been drawn well away from its course.

Whether it was a navigator's or a cartographer's error, or just a thousand-to-one chance, its consequences were going to be great upon a large number of lives.
None of the five lookouts or the third officer, who was on watch on the bridge, saw anything to warn them of danger. There was a violent bump, then two lesser bumps that were more like shivers. Those below heard as well as felt the first bump, then heard the bottom plates grating over something hard. The ship heeled over to an angle of about seven degrees, then slowly righted herself. She carried on at full speed.
Most of the passengers jumped out of their bunks, hurriedly donned dressing gowns or threw warm things over their night clothes, and made for the foot of the cabin companionway with their life-jackets. There were women among them, clutching sleeping babies in their arms. Some of the women were agitated, and there was anxiety on every face, but there was no panic. From the rhythmic sound of the motors in the engineroom below the ship seemed to be still travelling at normal speed, and that was reassuring. Hopes that nothing serious was wrong seemed confirmed when word came from the bridge that the ship was safe and passengers should return to their bunks. One by one they broke away, having exhausted in discussion all the possibilities as to what might have happened. The main thing was that everything was all right, that it was chilly there in the passage, and that warm beds were waiting. Soon most of them were sleeping peacefully. Meanwhile, what was happening up on deck? The captain had been reading in his cabin when he felt the first bump. He guessed at once what had happened. Running onto the bridge, he found the third officer there, and at once gave the order to swing the ship hard-a-starboard until she headed due west, away from the coast. He kept her at full speed while he sent officers and men to find out what the ship's condition was.
Reports soon came in. The duct keel beneath the engineroom appeared to have been torn away and water was rushing in. The propeller shaft tunnel was leaking. Water was rising in numbers two and three holds. The engineroom reported leaks.

No.3 hold seemed to be making water fastest, so the captain ordered the pumps to be switched onto it, while others in the engineroom tried to keep the water down there. It was obvious within a few minutes, however, that the engineroom pumps were not sufficient to control the inrush of water there. This was the most vital part of the ship, so the order was given to stop pumping elsewhere and concentrate all pumps on the engineroom. Five powerful electric pumps were soon working at full capacity there. Even they, however, were not sufficient. The water was creeping gradually up to and over the floor plates. It was cascading through the joints of the watertight doors separating the shaft tunnel from the engineroom. The doors were bulging under the weight of the water that already had flooded the tunnel.
The chief engineer had been in bed when the ship struck. He rushed at once to the engineroom. Within seven minutes he knew that the liner was doomed. Every pump in the ship was working at full capacity, but the water was still gaining. A rough calculation showed that the ship would float at most another three or four hours. As quickly as he could he made his way to the bridge to report personally to the captain.
The captain made up his mind when he had heard the chief's report. Ten minutes after the first impact the liner had changed course again and was rushing at full speed towards the east - and the shore. Her master had decided to beach his ship rather than let her sink. Not only did he have to think of the safety of his passengers and crew, but he had a valuable ship as well as a cargo to answer for. There might be a chance of saving something at least if he could run her onto the beach.
It was then, while the ship was racing shoreward through the darkness, that the S.O.S. was sent out. The chief wireless operator tapped it out. He breathed a sigh of relief when the response came from Walvis Bay Radio: "Q.S.L." ("I have received your S.O.S.") Those who could help knew of their plight He reported at once to the bridge.

Copyright Michael Marsh(2005)

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