TWO British sailors landed at Eleuthera on October 30, 1940, after drifting 2,500 miles in 70 days in an open boat.
They were the sole survivors of the “Anglo Saxon”, a merchant ship which was sunk off the coast of Africa.
A group of men had scrambled into the lifeboat, and during its perilous voyage through No Man’s Land on the seas some died, some committed suicide and at least one “went mad” – as recorded in the ship’s log.
The Tribune’s call for stories about war and The Bahamas prompted one reader to remind us of the incredible tale of Tapscott and Widdicombe...
THE Nassau Daily Tribune of Wednesday, October 30, 1940, is dominated by Second World War reports – including “Twenty-two Nazi planes destroyed,” “US warships leave Key West on secret mission,” and “Aluminium Drive” by the War Materials Committee.
On the top left of the page, in the “Here And There” column, is the headline “Survivors of British ship reach Eleuthera.”
The Colonial Secretary, we reported, had received a phone call from Governor’s Harbour that afternoon, informing him that two seamen had landed at Governor’s Harbour that day.
“It is believed that the men, who were suffering from exposure and exhaustion, are survivors of a British ship torpedoed about two months ago,” we said.
The next day the story took centre stage on the front page, with the headlines, “Two survive seventy days of horror” and “Seamen reach Bahamas after seeing crazed comrades die.’
Wilbert Roy Widdicombe, 24, formerly of Devon in the UK, had moved to Wales, and Robert George Tapscott, 19, was from Cardiff.
Both men had landed in Eleuthera and were flown to Nassau by Bahamas Airways, to be treated at the Bahamas General Hospital.
“Burnt black by exposure and their hair matted by salt water, Widdicombe was still strong and able to walk to the ambulance at the airport, but Tapscott was weak and had to be lifted,” said The Tribune.
“His condition is serious but not critical. Widdicombe originally tipped the scales at 180. He now weighs 100 lbs.”
The men were survivors of the 5,595 ton steamship SS Anglo Saxon, which had been on route carrying Welsh coal from Newport in Wales to Bahia Blanca, Argentina when it was shelled by a German ship, a surface raider, the Widder, just after 8:20pm on August 21, 1940, about 700 miles southwest of the Azores.
Able Seaman Widdicombe had been at the wheel, the third Mate was on the bridge when about a mile away they saw the silhouette of the Hamburg American liner.
Without warning the Widder fired four 4-inch shells into the poop of the ship, the stern, and the gun platform aft, and many of the men were killed.
After blowing the Anglo Saxon’s only gun out of the turret the Widder “steamed to within three cables and raked the decks with incendiary machine gun bullets coloured red, yellow, white and blue.”
A shell hit the engine room on the starboard side and the main boiler burst; the bridge and the wireless room were destroyed as the bullets flew. No S.O.S could be sent.
Crewmen tried to reach the lifeboats, but the two big lifeboats were destroyed. The Master, Flynn, was gunned down.
The Widder fired machine gun bullets at two life rafts as they were launched, but Tapscott and Widdicombe got lucky, their tiny “jolly boat” was still and quiet in the night. The Anglo Saxon sank stern first and the Widder steamed away.
The Tribune reports there were seven in the 16-foot lifeboat. The rest of the crew, 33 or 34 men, were dead.
Two in the boat were wounded by the machine-gunning and died from gangrene.
“Two others became so crazed and desperate from exhaustion that they jumped overboard. Another slashed his throat with a razor,” said our report.
When they took to the lifeboats they had about 20 pounds of biscuits, four gallons of water, 11 tins of condensed milk and 16 lbs of tinned beef.
Fifteen days later their rations were exhausted and for 55 days they lived on seaweed and one sailfish and one gar fish that were washed into the boat by the seas.
They broke the glass of their compass and sipped the distilled water and alcohol. After that they never knew where they were going. They just drifted.
They saw two ships pass, and signalled frantically but without avail. Widdicombe broke off his front teeth trying to eat his shoes.
They caught rainfall in the sail of the boat but for eight days they were entirely out of water.
The boat eventually drifted onto the beach on the north side of Eleuthera near James Cistern.
A farmer named Martin was going to his field, saw them crawling up the beach to the shade of the trees and took the news to the settlement, said The Tribune.
At Governor’s Harbour their beards and hair were cropped by the Reverend William Hyslop, English Methodist missionary on the island.
The Colonial Secretary at Nassau issued instructions for their removal to the hospital in Nassau by aeroplane.
“Although in a very weakened and emaciated condition, every hope is entertained of a rapid recovery,” said the Secretary.
Widdicombe told a Tribune representative just a few hours later that the two men had been forced to eat seaweed after their supplies ran out.
The Tribune said: “In the last days this was all that stood between them and starvation, but the salt from the seaweed so rasped their now sensitive throats that finally it could hardly pass.
“And then one day they dazedly realised that they were lying on firm ground, that a strange face was peering into their eyes talking to them in English, but it was not an English face.
“Was this the end?
“Had they too gone over the side to leave untold the atrocious tale of the Anglo Saxon? Was this the other world, was this the end or was it real and... a new beginning?
“It was a new beginning.”
TOMORROW: Tapscott and Widdicombe get a Royal visit as they recover from their ordeal but tragedy will strike again in both their lives.