Travelling to the United Kingdom from India on board the passenger and cargo ship SS City of Cairo in 1942 were Australian Margaret Gordon and her Scottish husband, Crawford. They had both recently suffered from dengue fever. While Margaret recovered well, the doctors suggested that Gordon (as Margaret called her husband) travel to India to recover from post-sickness depression and a breakdown.
A month after the City of Cairo left Bombay, the ship departed Cape Town in South Africa, heading unescorted towards Brazil, before heading for her final destination of the United Kingdom. On 6 November at about 8.30 pm, a German torpedo struck the ship.
Margaret and Gordon were sitting in the lounge when the attack occurred. They returned to their cabin, collected their panic bags, warm clothing and torches. Margaret was in lifeboat 1, which had been lowered into the ocean. Gordon was following down a ladder when there was another explosion. Margaret’s lifeboat turned over and the passengers fell into the water.
Margaret never saw Gordon again. After being settled into the righted lifeboat, she looked for her husband and called out his name, but to no avail. She later found out that the men on the ladder had gone back on deck, where the captain ordered them to lifeboat 2. Gordon went down the ladder before Third Officer James Whyte, who thought Gordon had boarded the lifeboat.
Seeing lifeboat 2 drift over the ship’s well-deck, Whyte and another man swam away. The lifeboat was caught by the suction of the sinking ship and Gordon was believed to have gone down with it.
Margaret was later transferred to the smaller lifeboat 4. The day after the sinking, mothers and babies were transferred to lifeboat 5, the captain’s boat, leaving 19 men, women and children in lifeboat 4, including Whyte. That night, the boats were tied together and the first rations were issued.
The lifeboat’s rations included two kegs and two tanks of water, tins of hard tack biscuits, pemmican (a concentrated mixture of fat and protein), chocolate, and Horlicks milk tablets. Not knowing how long the journey to land would take, the water was strictly rationed, which made the dry food hard to eat.
A few days after the sinking the lifeboat was taking on water, so it was decided to lighten it. The women and children were moved to other boats, but conditions were too rough when except for Margaret was to be transferred. She tried to keep up morale by encouraging the men to brush their teeth with her toothbrush; the group tidied themselves up with a comb owned by one of the men.
It was a struggle to keep the six lifeboats together. They were of different sizes and only one had a sextant for navigation, although the other boats had compasses and watches. At night they tied themselves together or tried to keep in contact using torches and lanterns. The night the ship had sunk, a U-boat came alongside one of the lifeboats to ask the name of the ship, cargo and whether there were German prisoners on board. The inquirer gave the survivors advice on the location of the nearest land masses – Africa, South America and the tiny island of St Helena – before leaving, saying “Goodnight, and sorry for sinking you”. The boats would separate and meet up at different times. They could not return to Africa due to the wind, and Brazil was thousands of miles away, so the captain decided to aim for St Helena, about 500 miles from where the ship sank.
After a week at sea, Margaret felt Whyte needed another man to help steer the boat and swapped places with a man from lifeboat 8, a larger lifeboat with about 60 people on board. Conditions were crowded. She observed how another passenger, Marjorie Miller, looked after the welfare of everyone on the lifeboat, including managing rations, maintaining general fitness, and caring for illness and injuries. With nothing to do to help, Margaret began to feel she let Whyte down by leaving the lifeboat. After getting advice from Marjorie on caring for the other occupants, she returned to lifeboat 4.
Lifeboats 4 and 8 had managed to stay together, but there was concern that lifeboat 8 was holding lifeboat 4 back, and it was decided that the smaller boat would continue on ahead.