Seventy Days: SS Anglo-Saxon

Numbers in brackets proceeding names indicate age.

The evening of 21 August 1940 found the SS Anglo-Saxon steaming along peacefully having departed Newport, Wales days earlier. The tramp steamer carried 40 in crew. Among her crewmen were Robert Tapscott (19) and Wilbert Widdicombe (21). They possessed opposite personalities and detested one another, but forced themselves to put up with each other.

Nazi raider (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Tapscott was in the middle of a cribbage game and doing well. All of a sudden the ship was rocked by four explosions that came in quick succession. A Nazi raider, the Weber, Weser or Widder, had attacked the Anglo-Saxon with tremendous ferocity. Tapscott and his companions grabbed their lifebelts and headed for the deck. Once on deck a blast from behind blew Tapscott across the deck. For a few seconds he couldn’t move. Shrapnel littered his back. When he finally staggered to his feet the raider had began raking the ship with her machine gun. When the raider paused her attack for a moment, Tapscott ran. He encountered the gunner, Francis Penny (44) who was wounded in several places. They were laying on the deck when they heard the ship’s jolly-boat being lowered overhead. When it came down to their deck they jumped in it. Widdicombe was on watch when the attack began. On deck he found Captain Philip Flynn (53) dead. Flynn had been killed while throwing the ship’s papers overboard. The radio had been put out of commission and there was no chance of sending out a distress call. It had been less than 10 minutes since the attack began. Moments later Chief Mate Barry Denny (31) fetched Widdicombe to help lower the starboard jolly-boat. While lowering it Widdicombe’s hand was jammed in the process, but he continued working. Once in the jolly-boat Tapscott aided in the lowering process. Denny slid down into the boat followed by Widdicombe. Denny’s hands were burned while sliding down into the boat. At the last minute Second Radio Officer Roy Pilcher (21) climbed down into the boat carrying an attaché case.

The Anglo-Saxon was still moving full speed ahead and as a result the propeller was pulling the jollyboat towards it. While they were working to clear the propeller (which they did) two more men jumped into the boat. Now the sea carried the boat towards the raider. The seven men hunkered down in the boat fearful of being discovered. They passed by undetected. Once they were at a certain distance they began rowing away from the two ships. Nearby they seen the lights from the Anglo-Saxon’s life rafts. Before anything could be done the raider spotted the rafts and turned her fury on them. When she finished there was nothing left. Shortly after 9:00 p.m. the Anglo-Saxon sunk and the raider sailed away. In the jolly-boat the survivors settled in for the night.  The next morning Denny made the decision to head for the Leeward Islands. It would take more than two weeks to reach but they had no choice. Perhaps a ship would pick them up along the way.

Pilcher and Penny were badly wounded. Pilcher’s foot was so mangled everyone wondered how he had been able to row the night before. Pilcher’s explained he hadn’t been able to feel any pain. With a medical kit they tended to the wounded as best they could.

Jolly-Boat, top left (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Jolly-Boat, top left (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Before leaving the ship Pilcher had grabbed his attaché case which held tobacco, razors, a collection of Bible quotes and papers which Denny would use to keep a log. To further keep track of how many days they were at sea, Denny cut notches on the gunwale. Denny also set about to rationing their meager supply of food and water. On August 23rd  Denny spotted a ship in the distance. He lit a flare and when it had fizzled out the ship turned towards them. Unfortunately, as it neared the ship looked to be a German. Cautiously, Denny observed the vessel while making no move to make the jolly-boat’s presence known. The ship eventually sailed away.

Gangrene had set in on Pilcher’s foot. The nauseating stench hung over the boat, for which Pilcher apologized for. On August 26 he went mad, laughing hysterically and babbling. It was hard for the others to take; Pilcher’s madness had turned him into a different person. No one could sleep that night. A few days later Denny fell ill with nausea and cramps. In great pain, he would never recover  Pilcher wasn’t any better either, although he was now in possession of his senses. The same day he slipped away with nary a soul knowing he had died. He was buried at sea leaving his shipmates saddened.

On September 4, Penny was at the tiller when he decided to go overboard. He floated away face down. Shortly after, Denny and Third Engineer Lionel Hawks (23) also decided to do the same. The Assistant Cook Leslie Morgan (20) had been rendered childlike in mind and cried for Denny to stay. Before leaving, Denny gave his ring to Widdicombe and asked that he see that his mother got it. Denny and Hawks went overboard and floated away together. There were only three men left now. Two severely weakened and one raving mad. Morgan’s constant babbling was driving them insane. Once Morgan nearly sunk their boat while at the tiller. He was knocked overboard and had it not been for Tapscott he would have drowned. At one point Widdicombe got fed up with Morgan’s ramblings and threw the axe at him. The axe missed and went overboard. On September 9, Morgan decided to go for a walk to get a drink. Before anything could be done he went overboard  and was carried away by the sea.

Seaweed (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Twice Tapscott and Widdicombe had made up their minds to go overboard like their shipmates before them. But both times Widdicombe had changed his mind at the last minute. Tapscott would not leave unless Widdicombe went with him. At one point they were so thirsty they drained the liquid from their compass and replaced it with seawater. They then drank the compass liquid. Then one night they got the long sought after rain. They were able to gather six gallons. With their thirst quenched their sense of hunger returned. Throughout the days they fed on biscuits, seaweed, crabs and fish (that happened to land in their boat. Fishing had proved fruitless). But by October they were both suffering from the strain of the ordeal. Tapscott had began babbling and the two had also come to blows (Tapscott apologized to Widdicombe).

The end was soon near. October 29 they sighted Eleuthera Island and made landfall with hardly any trouble. Once ashore they collapsed in exhaustion. They were located by some people who got them to help. The pair had been seventy days at sea. Widdicombe recovered earlier than Tapscott, but on the way home was lost at sea in February 1941 when his ship sunk.

Source: Jones, Guy Pearce. Two Survived.


42 thoughts on “Seventy Days: SS Anglo-Saxon

    • Yes. I wish all seven had been able to make it. And poor Morgan, only 20 years old. Loses his mind and inadvertently kills himself. Drinking as much seawater as he did though, I guess it was inevitable. Thanks for your comment.


  1. I always think of “lost at sea” tales as something that happened centuries ago; it’s eye-opening to realize that there are so many more stories like this, lost to history, and probably right up to this day. (And what an jarring reminder of how young are the people we send into military service. Widdicombe survives this catastrophe, only to be lost a year later!)


    • This brings to mind the seven crewmembers who have been missing since the Baltic Ace sunk the other day. I wonder if they will be found?

      Yes, so young. More than half of the seven survivors were in their 20s, with Tapscott being the youngest (I wonder if he is still alive?) Incidentally, Radio Officer Pilcher’s parents were from Godalming, Surrey, home of RMS Titanic’s chief wireless operator (radio officer), “Jack” Phillips.

      Thanks for your comment.


    • Up until Pilcher went mad and Denny took ill, everyone had remained surprisingly optimistic. If only they could have stuck it out longer.

      Yeah, the tramp trade sounded like a practical thing (coming from the armchair-sailor 😉 ).

      Thanks for your comment.


    • It is unfair. But then most of these disaster stories are. And then Tapscott killed himself in 1963.

      “Colorful” stories sell but I wonder how many of the good-news stories get overlooked in the midst of tragedies. Some authors bring them out in their books while others don’t, which would make me wonder if there were any, but surely there were! But in the case of the Anglo-Saxon there wasn’t much like that. Other then how they were located. It’s been a while but I believe that the people who found them got up in the middle of the night and made their way to the shore. The wife apparently had an urging to go there. Details are a bit fuzzy at the moment.


    • I’m not working, but you are right! I probably won’t be able to keep up with it. I took the weekend off! 🙂 I got 4 or 5 posts ready to go, but with two blogs, that’s not enough. 🙂


    • Correction you are working – you may not be getting paid for it but 5 blog posts is nothing to sneeze at. That’s A LOT of work. A shame we aren’t getting paid for this though. 🙂 Keep up the great work, Marsha. Your posts keep me entertained!


    • Thanks. I know, I can’t quite bring myself to do the things that might possibly make money, like sell my lesson plans when I can give them away. Sell my photography when there is so much out there better than mine. Write a real book, fix all the errors, and make it sellable! OK, maybe I need to work on that one! Love u much, JG. Have a good rest of the week! 🙂


  2. Men of steel in those days, can you imagine some of the youth today going through such a tragic ordeal? my Grandfather George Bedford (cook) unfortunately lost his life that day and left his wife and my mother behind. my mother never ever forgot him and we all know about this tragic loss in my family. we have a very nice photo of him at home and he was a handsome young man. the chap that saw the jolly coming into shore was called Martin.

    Martin Reader


    • No, Martin, I really can’t imagine it although in some countries I imagine young people do go through something as equally horrible just different circumstances. 😦 It’s sad.

      Thank you so much for taking the time to share this information about George Bedford – I found it most interesting. It’s good to know that his family remembers him and the story of the Anglo-Saxon. It’s such a sad story virtually the whole way around.


  3. Yes you are correct, what’s happening in the world is very disturbing for both the young and older generation. My daughter visited the Jolly boat on a school trip recently, it made her ask lots of questions and she could not comprehend having to survive in the Jolly boat for 70-71days? have read a lot about this and come to the conclusion that my grandfather could well of been in the second life boat and survived if it wasn’t for the murderous actions of the Captain in the Widder. I come to this conclusion because one of his assistants Leslie Morgan made it to a life boat, it makes me believe he died fighting for his life and country and to be home with his loved ones.


    • When I started reading the story of the Anglo-Saxon I knew nothing about the event. It came as quite a shock when the bit about the Germans picking off survivors came up. So cold and almost unfathomable. Your grandfather and so many of his contemporaries were a stalwart people. Would that everyone had survived that ordeal.


  4. Map of time.Robert Tapscott was my uncle I grew up with my mother telling me and my brother and sisters all about her brother being lost at sea for seventy days surviving, then dying like that.


    • Adele, thank you so much for taking the time to leave a comment. It’s a very sad story all the way around. I was shocked when I read about Widdicombe dying on the way home and then later learning of Tapscott’s death. 😦


  5. gunlayer francis penny of the ss anglp saxon was the grandfather i never knew. his death at aged 44 left my grandmother devastated and their two sons without a father. my grandfather gave up his life when he didnt have to.


    • A very tragic and unnecessary loss of life, even in the midst of one the saddest periods in history. And for people like Penny who left family behind, I can only imagine the anguish.


Share Your Thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s