I Was There! - We Were On the Mined 'Simon Bolivar'

The War Illustrated, Volume 1, No. 13, Page 411-413, December 9, 1939.

One of the most shocking tragedies of the War occurred on November 18th 1939, when the Dutch liner "Simon Bolivar" struck a German mine in the North Sea, and sank with the loss of over 120 lives, including woman and children. Poignant stories told by survivors are here reprinted from "The Daily Telegraph."

Mr. L Veltman of Amsterdam, a Dutch ministry official in Curacao, had had experience of mines during the last war. He was so sure that a mine might strike the "Simon Bolivar" that he kept his wife and daughters with him throughout the whole journey. When the first explosion came they were all sitting in the smoking-room on the upper deck. Mr. Veltman said:

"I hustled my wife and daughters into a lifeboat and followed them in as we drew away from the boat-side."

"When we were about 100 yards off, some quarter of an hour after the first explosion another mine blew up, right amidships. This explosion shattered three lifeboats still swinging on the davits. Glass showered on hurrying passengers, and many were badly cut by flying fragments. Others were flung to the deck by the force of the explosion and suffered broken legs, ankles and ribs."

"I saw a steward flung against the superstructure so violently that he broke his back and died immediately."

"My impression was that this second mine was linked to the first, and that the explosions were caused by a twin mine. I came across examples of this during the, last war. The passengers were amazingly calm. The only sign of panic was the screaming of children, but that was natural."

"Three boats were lowered within three minutes of the first explosion."

"Shortly afterwards we and three other lifeboats were picked up by a British patrol steamer. Later they rescued a nun who was blown out of one of the lifeboats with the second explosion and had been drifting on a piece of wood for nearly three hours."

"There were nine seriously wounded in our lifeboats. In our boat was a man with a broken back."

"The wounded were laid on the deck of the rescue ship, and a middle-aged nurse, who was rescued from another lifeboat, made rough splints and dressed wounds with strips of cloth which the crew tore from their clean clothing, "

"After she had attended to the wounded she made us cups of cocoa and cheered us up all the way to port."

"There the railway station was turned into a casualty clearing station. Those who were not wounded were given coffee and sandwiches. Blankets were provided."

"Shortly after we were landed an air raid warning sounded, and we had just recovered from the first shock of our experience when we had to crowd into a bombproof shelter under the station restaurant. We were there for about 20 minutes."

"While I was helping emigration officers to sort out the passengers I saw many of my acquaintances seriously wounded. I saw husbands with their wives and children missing, and wives with their husbands and families gone."

"One man on board had with him his wife and five children, the eldest of who was only seven and the youngest four weeks. He was holding the hands of two of his children aged about five and three years. His wife and three other children were missing. As far as we know they have not been found."

Miss Ella Lieutenant a shorthand writer from The Hague, a girl in her early twenties, who was on her way to the West Indies to become engaged to an officer of an oil tanker, said to me:

"I was in my bunk when the first explosion came. I rushed out into the gangway and said to a steward: "Has it happened?" He replied; "Yes Miss, its happened." We both knew what the other meant, because we were expecting it."

"Never have I seen anything like the scene on the deck. Men, women and children went hurled to the deck; wood and glass splinters flew everywhere."

"The first lifeboat I went to was swinging from a single davit. I clambered into a second, and we had just touched the surface of the water when the second explosion occurred."

"I was thrown high into the air and expected to land in the sea. Instead I hit the bottom of the boat I had been flung out of and sprained my back."

"I have had some training as a nurse, and helped the ships surgeon, Dr. Ebes, to tend to the injured. One was a child of seven months who was held down by a heavy plank of wood. There was so much oil smeared over everything that we could not get a grip on the wood, and it was some time before we could ease the childs suffering: The childs parents were both dead."

"I ripped off pieces of my clothing and helped Dr. Ebes to bind the wounds."

"Eventually we were picked up by a rescue ship. After we were landed there was an air raid warning, and we were immediately hustled into a shelter. In the darkness I heard a German shouting in German: Fritz, Fritz, are you there! Then he dashed into a corner, where he found his little boy."

Mr. J. H. Wisters, first-class cloakroom steward, said:

"It was as if the ship was lifted out of the water. The master, Capt. H. Voorspuiy was killed instantly on the bridge. It seemed as if the explosion was immediately underneath him. All the oil-pipes burst and people in the cabins were smothered."

"Some of the lifeboats could not he lowered properly and others were affected by the second explosion, which came within 15 minutes. I saw about 80 people in the water, and the sea was covered with oil. The wireless apparatus was smashed."

"We were almost stationary when the explosion occurred, and were in shallow water. Even when the boat went down her upper structure was still showing."

George Anches, shipís fireman, said that after the explosion steam poured out of the sides and deck of the ship. He added:

"I was dazed, and it was several minutes before I could collect my thoughts. Then I ran up to the bridge where the captain was lying covered with blood. I saw at once that he had been badly injured. He did not move or make a sound and I knelt down and examined him. He was dead."

As the boat Anches was in was drawing away he saw another boat being lowered. "It was crowded with women and children" he said. "Then there was another explosion which shattered this lifeboat, throwing them into the oily water. Those who were not killed instantly were stunned and drowned."

Mr William Cowen, of Ilford, Essex, an A.R.P. worker, told of a West Indian who having lost his wife and two children in the disaster rescued a child about three years old.

"He was a huge man over six feet tall and wearing a blanket," said Mr. Cowen. "He was carrying the little child and was in tears when I assisted him by taking the child from him. He told me that he had lost his wife and children aboard, and burst into tears as he said that he intends to adopt the child he had rescued."

Dr William Bessonís life was saved by his strong white teeth after he had drifted in the water for four hours with a broken spine and a shattered right arm after a vain effort to save his six-year-old son."

"Dr. Besson, a medical officer, was sailing back to his post. His wife, four year old daughter and son were all drowned.

He said: "I was thrown high into the air by the explosion as the ship struck the first mine. I smashed my spine and my arm as I landed on the deck. The shipís boat we clambered into capsized and I was thrown into the water."

"Clinging to wreckage I drifted for four hours. Then I saw a rope trailing from the side of a British destroyer. I caught hold of it with my teeth and clung to it."

"Then using my teeth and my good arm I gradually hauled myself up. I was too weak to shout for help."

Dr. Besson did not mention how after receiving his terrible injuries he directed rescue operations as he lay in agony on the deck, how he helped his wife and daughter to some drifting wreckage when the ships boat turned over, how he left their side to plunge to the rescue of his son, who had been swept away by a wave, and how with injuries that would have rendered any man completely helpless in normal circumstances, he swam after the little boy until he could swim no longer

These things were told by his brother-in-law, Mr. John Davis, a Liverpool University dental student. "His behaviour was heroic and his endurance miraculous," Mr. Davis said.

Dr. Besson, it was stated at the hospital last night, will be from two to three months recovering from his injuries.

One of the most remarkable escapes was that of a father and his three year old daughter, whom he saved by putting her in a wooden box and swimming behind it for nearly an hour in the oil covered, icy water.

The father was Mr. Sydney G. Preece who lives at Maidenhead, Berks. He was returning to Trinidad, where he was agent for two English firms.

Yesterday Mr. Preece's face was still stained brown and his hair matted with oil which he had encountered in his desperate swim. He and his daughter were picked up by a British minesweeper.

"The first explosion," he said, "blew me a couple of feet in the air. My child Elizabeth, who had been playing on a rocking horse on the promenade deck, was also thrown on to the deck. My chauffeur, Henry Samuel Batt, tried to help me in finding a place in one of the boats for my child, but passengers were jumping on to each other in these boats, and I decided to wait."

"After the second explosion the ship began to founder, and Batt and I seized a 'bull board,' which is used in a deck game and is like a box. We placed the child inside and pushed the box into the water."

"I jumped in after it and I thought Batt was going to do the same, but I have not seen him since and I do not know whether he is alive."

"I pushed the box with one hand and tried to swim with the other, but the oil which had come from the tanks after the explosion had saturated my clothes and I was being dragged under. At that moment I seized a drifting raft with loops on it. Placing one arm through a Loop was able to hold myself up and steady the box in front of me."

"After about an hour we were picked up by a minesweeper. During the whole time my child behaved remarkably. She was not at all perturbed and at one time she said to me, 'Are we going to Trinidad in this, Daddy?' meaning the box."

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