I Was There! - How I Said Good-bye to Bonaventure

The War Illustrated, Volume 10, No. 241, Page 351, September 13, 1946.

Early in the morning of March 31, 1941, H.M.S. Bonaventure, accompanied by the destroyer Hereward, was escorting two troopships from Crete to Alexandria, when she received two torpedoes in the starboard side aft. Royal Marine Musician H. T. Thompson took a hasty plunge overboard – and this is the mental picture he eventually brought ashore.

I had just been called for the morning watch, and was casually putting on my socks, when wallop. Seven seconds later came another crash, and the ship took a list of 45 degrees to starboard. I grabbed my lifebelt and proceeded cautiously to the upper deck – cautiously, because the second torpedo had put all lights out. I heard many voices in the water, some shouting “Come on, you up there, she's going!” and “Jump, if you don't want to go down with her!”

Realizing the ship would soon be gone from under my feet, unless I went first, I took one deep breath and slid down over the side, which took quite a few seconds owing to the list the Bonaventure now had. By the time I had swum well clear she had blown up and sank, seven minutes after the first hit. I was in the water almost an hour, though it seemed all night. It suddenly occurred to me that I was due for pension in a few months, and all other considerations apart I was determined not to be cheated out of that. Uppermost in my mind was the thought of my wife and son, and I decided that if I were to see them again – and draw my pension – I must keep calm and reserve my strength.

The Scrambling Net Was Out

The water did not seem in the least cod, at first, and as the accompanying destroyers had thrown overboard all the wood they could find – anything that would float, sugar boxes, tea chests, oars, bathroom grating boards, and so on – practically every man in the water had something to hang on to. Our boy bugler, Roy Marshall, aged 15½ and unable to swim, was as plucky as any. On being awakened by the first torpedo, he dressed just as if he were going on the parade ground; boots properly laced, tunic correctly buttoned, and with bugle slung. Over the side he went. Three or four of his messmates took care of him and managed to get him safely on to a raft.

When I arrived alongside the Hereward she had the scrambling net hung and was picking up survivors. Attempting to clamber up the oily net I was yanked off by someone behind, and it seemed to me I should stand a better chance if I lay off for a while and made another attempt a bit later. This I did, and on turning away from Hereward was horrified to feel – with my hands groping a couple of feet below the water – the bodies of men who, not having strength left to scramble up the net, had been drowned. However, my turn came, and some hours later I arrived safely in Alexandria, thank God, and thank you, Hereward!

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