Chapter 9. The Last Voyage and End of My Sea Career

The Japanese forces had captured Singapore and it was only a matter of time, we thought, before Rangoon would be under Japanese occupation. Submarines of the Imperial Japanese Navy were prowling the seas in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian ocean, sinking allied ships. Therefore, we could not understand why the Chilka was sent on her own without any escort.

We sailed, keeping as close as possible to and about 30 miles off the coast of Eastern India. The Captain had still not disclosed our destination to us, directing us to set course up to a certain point each time we needed to set a new course. During meals the main topic of conversation used to be: “Where are we going?” We knew that the Chilka had stores and provisions to feed a full load of passengers for a month or so, and quite obviously we are going to embark passengers or troops from somewhere.

With only the ship’s officers and crew, and the few persons we were carrying to cook vegetarian food, the ship looked empty and silence prevailed everywhere. My day began fairly late as I was woken up by steward Baquer around 8 a.m. Since there was no distraction of any kind, I was able to settle down to a daily routine which I planned for myself. After breakfast I would spend an hour studying Seamanship, Navigation or some other subject to keep myself in touch and prepare for the Examination for the Second Mates Certificate three years hence. I would also write letters, read or do a general clean-up of my cabin, which, after Soni’s departure, I had all to myself.

At 11 a.m. we were served a glass of lime juice. This was a tradition at sea, having come down from the  sailing ship days when ships were not equipped with refrigerators to store food. Sailors were susceptible to suffer from scurvy, a disease caused by lack of vitamin C found in vegetables and fruits.

Most of the morning was spent at my desk and very seldom I felt the passage of time. In fact, on many occasions, I had to stop reading or writing when the watchman knocked at my door to warn me that I would be going on watch on the bridge within fifteen minutes. Thus, at the stroke of 12 noon, and again at midnight, I would report for duty on the bridge, along with Feast, the Second Officer, to whom I was attached. He had a pleasant disposition, but frail and hard of hearing, looking older than his age. Since I was attached to him for watch-keeping duties, he gave me as much instructions as he could in navigation and seamanship. He made me responsible for changing the course of the ship at intervals – indicated by a clock used for this purpose – as we steered a zigzag course to avoid being hit by a torpedo.

During the afternoon watch of four hours  and again the middle watch from midnight to 4 a.m., he would make me “take sights” using a Sextant (as explained in the next paragraph), by sun, moon or star. He did it at least twice in each watch, and made me mark the ship’s position on the chart. This is one of the most important duties performed by an officer of the watch on board a ship at sea. When a ship leaves port, its position is plotted on the chart by taking bearings of more than one known object shown on the chart, such as a Lighthouse, a tower or some other landmark ashore. Then a course is set for a destination and the ship is kept on that course by means of a compass.

The speed of the ship, which is known, should give us an idea of its position at any given time.by determining the distance it has traveled.along the straight line representing the course set for the ship. However, there is wind, tide, and other factors to contend with, and that makes this simple exercise quite complicated. Therefore, in order to know the exact position of the ship at any given time, the sailor has to depend on the sun, moon and stars to guide him.

In order to measure the angle or altitude of these heavenly bodies, he uses the ‘sextant’, an optical instrument which has an arc equal to the sixth part of a circle to measure angular distances. The actual act of measuring the altitude of a heavenly body with a sextant, to determine her position, is known as ‘taking sights.’  Once the  altitude of the heavenly body is known, at a given time according to G. M. T. (Greenwich Mean Time), the Nautical Almanac is consulted, and by means of certain calculations, the exact position – Latitude and Longitude – of a ship is known.

There are occasions when, due to bad weather and clouds, none of the heavenly bodies are seen, the position is plotted by means of a Radio Direction Finder, and, at the first glimpse of a heavenly body a sight is taken to confirm the position. This is as far as my memory serves. Today, there are radars and computers to aid navigation which we did not have in our time.

The navigating bridge, so situated that it gave a commanding view of the horizon all round, was the most peaceful part of the ship at sea. The Officer on watch, Second Officer Feast, with a cadet – myself – assisting him, kept scanning the horizon through the telescope of and on, and discussing Seamanship, Navigation or other subjects for my benefit. The Sukhani, the helmsman, with his eyes focused on the compass, steering the ship to keep it on course, and two watchmen on either wing of the bridge scanning the horizon with binoculars. Now and again, Feast would go into the chartroom, leaving me in charge of the bridge. At 4 p.m. Chief Officer Andrew would relieve us, and I would go to my cabin and have tea.  Dinner was served at 6 p.m. after which I usually went over to see Reddy, and then went to bed around 8 p.m., to be woken up shortly before midnight to go for the ‘middle’ watch.

On 7th March, 1942, while we were off the north eastern coast of Ceylon (Sri Lanka), we altered course to the south east, in a line almost parallel to the island of Sumatra. It was now evident that we were in for some excitement. To prove our point even further, the Captain ordered that we should try out our guns and have sufficient training and practice to be able to defend ourselves in case of an attack.. We were now in the Indian Ocean heading for the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia. Our only companions were the whales who had been keeping us company ever since we left the coast of Ceylon. The whales, not very big, would come to the surface in pairs and after breathing in fresh air would disappear. I used to like watching their amusing antics.

On 10th March we altered our course due east for Padang, a port on the west course of Sumatra.The Butler was instructed to prepare the cabins and be ready to receive passengers within 24 hours. It was clear now that our mission was to evacuate as many families and troops from Sumatra, who had managed to escape from Singapore before its fall. The same night we ran in to very bad weather – a severe storm accompanied by heavy rain, thunder and lightning. When the eleventh day of March dawned, the storm had abated, but the weather remained dull with overcast sky and light rainfall. We felt this was ideal weather for us to reach our destination safely. Little did we know that, not far from us a Japanese submarine was patrolling the area to take care of allied shipping in and out of Padang.

The weather had cleared a little by the time Feast and I returned to the bridge, after lunch, to continue our afternoon watch until 4 p.m. Visibility had improved and the sun was making desperate attempts to break through the clouds. The thought of fair weather ahead cheered me up as I scanned the horizon with my telescope. Suddenly, I observed, ahead of us on the port bow moving in the opposite direction at a distance of a mile or so, disturbance on the surface of the sea, like the wake of a ship.

I drew the attention of Feast who joined me and kept looking at it through his binoculars. Neither he nor I had any experience of sailing with convoys as someone with that experience might have guessed what it was. Feast felt that it must have been a whale, but, as a precaution he told me to keep an eye on it and went into the chart room to check the ship’s position. I kept my eyes fixed on this moving shape of water until it was far astern and out of sight. I had another good look around the horizon and put the telesope back on its rack.

In retrospect, I have no doubt that the disturbance on the surface of the sea was actually a submarine which kept itself just below the water level surveying the situation and waiting for the right time to strike. It was around 2 p.m. that the telephone in the wheel house rang – it was from the gun crew on lookout duty in the stern of the ship – and Feast got to it first and within a second put it down and rushed down to the Captain’s cabin. Within mimutes both of them emerged and Captain Bird said: “See if you can see anything.” I moved to the port wing of the bridge and saw a submarine breaking surface.. “A submarine on the port quarter, sir.” I reported.. There was a peculiar feeling in the pit of my stomach and the beat of my heart increased.

Captain Bird, Feast and I watched Japanese gunners, clad in white appear on the deck of the submarine to man the two guns. There was a flash of lightning, followed by smoke and then, a loud explosion. The first shell from the guns of the Japanese submarine landed in the water with a splash, about half a mile from us. At that very moment the Captain ordered ‘action stations’ The alarm bells were ringing all over the ship and members of the crew who were not on duty at the time proceeded to their various posts or to take shelter in the deck below. The first pangs of fear had now disappeared. I collected my tin helmet from the cabin and ran full speed to the stern of the ship to man our gun. The three naval gunners, Feast, Hodges and I got busy returning the fire from the submarine.

In order to describe the action that followed, I felt it would be best to reproduce excerpts from the book “Valiant Voyaging” : A short history of the British India Steam Navigation Company by Hilary St. George Saunders, in which Captain Bird is quoted extensively:

The ill-fated Chilka (Captain W. Bird) a passenger ship which had been converted into a trooper, was on the way to Padang in Sumatra to fulfill a similar mission. She never arrived, for on 11th March 1942, in latitude 00.23 degrees north, longitude 95.41 degrees east, she met with an ocean going submarine painted grey. “She appeared,” reports Captain Walter Bird, “right aft, slightly on the port quarter at a distance of 2000 yards, and opened fire with two guns. I opened fire almost simultaneously and fire was sustained. With the enemies third shot they hit one ammunition locker and the explotion caused both lockers to explode: one seaman gunner, H. Stone, had both his arms shot off and an abominal wound. K. M. Feast , the second officer and G. B. Hodges, the third officer, and a number of the crew were hit, and Cadet Shahabuddin sustained injuries to his hands and face and to the muscles of the back near the spine.”

“The gun was knocked out of action.” continues Captain Bird. “The submarine appeared to be trying to broaden the target by steaming across the quarter, but as he altered so did I alter to keep him aft. He was firing the whole time and damage was being done to the ship’s structure; nine boats were wiped out and a great deal of the top side accommodation. This continued for about fifteen minutes. We then appeared to get out of range and I thought there was a chance of getting away as I was steaming at about thirteen and a half knots.”

Meanwhile Second Officer Feast, covered with shrapnel wounds all over his body managed to get up to the bridge with great difficulty to report to the Captain that the gun was out of action. Third Officer Hodges and two of the naval gunners made their way to take shelter, while the gunner Stone, mentioned earlier by Captain Bird, who had lost both his hands, sat helplessly on the ship’s side. There was nothing I could do to help him in my own state of helplessness, as his bulging grey eyes looked at me sorrowfully as I stumbled past him up the ladder towards the First Class Dining Saloon.

I was soaked in blood and burnt badly. I saw Chief Officer Andrew walking up and down the alleyway. I remember, noting with surprise, that he had his waterproof on and had a dagger tied to his belt. The moment he saw me he ran into the pantry, cut a table cloth into pieces and started bandaging my wounds. Bazlur Rahman, the Chief Steward, a grand old man of about 63 years with over forty years of service at sea, was around too.He was calm and cool headed and there was no sign of any panic on his serenely bearded face.. He helped me in to the saloon and I collapsed on to a chair. He promptly brought me a glass of water which he helped me to drink. A moment later Hodges walked in and sat down opposite me. He had a bottle of whiskey in his hand and offered me a drink, which I declined. Second Officer Feast was then carried in to the saloon and laid on the floor of the deck. He was joined by Hodges who also lay down.

It was then that Dr. Dixon Mason, the ship’s doctor, appeared. He was in no state to provide any medical help as he had no intention to make the perilous journey back to his cabin to get medical supplies. His cabin was on the port side of the ship, the side which was being battered by shells from the submarine.

Fortunately for all of us at the time, Abdul Karim, the Store Keeper, a man of  splendid courage, went to the doctor’s cabin and fetched the ‘First Aid’ kit. He removed the piece of the table cloth from my right arm – other injuries were not visible at the time – and substituted it with a proper bandage. It is unfortunate that none of us reported his bravery which should have been recognized by the British Governmemt.

During this period we could gather from vibrations that the ship was moving at top speed and shuddered each time a shell from the submarine hit a part of it. Suddenly the ship slowed down  and we heard six short and a long blast on the ship’s whistle – it was the signal to abandon ship. There were only the three of us – severely wounded – left in the saloon. I staggered to my feet, but seeing Feast and Hodges lying on the floor of the deck, I made no further attempt to move.

For a moment I had that awesome feeling that I was fated to go down with the ship. I could not think of leaving my colleagues who did not appear to be in a condition to move. Just then Hodges shouted at me: “What are you waiting for?” I said: “I cannot go leaving you here.” He shouted once again: “You can walk, can’t you? Well, for God’s sake get a move on.”

With great difficulty I made my way to my cabin, which was right across the saloon, put on my cap, collected my wallet, and managed to get up to the boat deck. The Chief Officer led me to Boat No. 2, which was being lowered. Seeing my condition, Captain Bird and the Serang (Boatswain) caught me and flung me in to the boat. They realized that I might not have been able to go down the jacob’s ladder.

Once the lifeboat was safely lowered the crew started coming down the jacob’s ladder. To my utter amazement, I could not believe my eyes, seeing  Feast and Hodges on the jacob’s ladder. I was very happy that they had managed to get up and were now half way down the jacob’s ladder. Eventually, twentyseven of us in Boat No. 2, with Captain Bird in charge, rowed as fast as possible to get away from the ship’s side before the submarine could start firing to sink the ship.

Once again, I revert to the narrative of Captain Bird from the book Valiant Voyaging:

“In about another ten minutes the submarine was again within range. He must have been travelling at least 19 knots and he resumed fire until I realized it was no use carrying on any longer, as that would have meant the loss of the entire ship’s crew, and no means of getting away. I hoisted the signal, ‘I am about to abandon ship’, and after the signal was understood, they ceased firing and allowed the crew to proceed to and get into the boats and leave the ship’s side.

“My books were dumped over the side immediately the action started. I saw all boats away from the ship’s side before I left her. The wounded comprising the second and third officers, a cadet and a coal trimmer, Munir Ahmed, came away in my boat where they were attended by the ship’s doctor. The wounded Seaman gunner, H. Stone, got away in number 10 boat with Third Engineer McAulay in charge. Five hours later he died. Five boats in all got away. After I had cleared the ship’s port side in the Fleming boat number 2, I observed on the starboard side, some distance away, a raft with two people on it. My boat was capable of carrying twenty-eight people and I had twenty seven in it. When I turned the boat’s head to pick up these people, the submarine fired one shot across my bow and when I turned the boats bow away again, they fired no more. I then observed the Japanese flag flying on the submarine.”

As we moved away from the ship, the submarine commenced firing again. The Chilka now received direct hits below the water line. Her bows went up and the stern went well below the surface. She then listed to port and disappeared from our view. That was the end of the good old Chilka. She was now on her way down to Gavy Jones locker, carrying with her all our belongings. Our only hope now of ever reaching land – any land – lay in the little life boat crowded with 27 of us, if the Japanese were willing to give us even that much chance of survival. What would the Japanese submarine commander do now, we wondered? We had heard and read reports about the Italians machine gunning the crew of life boats.

The Captain, the man they most wanted, was in charge of our boat, and steering her, sitting right in the stern. I lay on a thwart next to him. He had his waterproof on with all signs of rank hidden from view, and, he had on a felt hat almost covering his eyes.

As the crew pulled hard at the oars, the Captain kept asking Chief Officer Andrew, next to him, but facing the stern, what the submarine was doing? Just then, one of the life  boats was seen alongside the submarine. There was a Secunny (Helmsman) in charge of that boat who later reported to Captain Bird, as narrated by him in Valiant Voyaging:

“One of them, the Secunny of No. 5 boat reported that, on being called alongside the submarine after the ship had been shelled and sunk, he was asked by the O.C. submarine the ship’s name and enquired where the Master was, and he reported I had gone down with the ship. The submarine crew gave them water and fresh biscuits and also gave the course to steer for land. The Secunny reported they were kind to him.”

The submarine cruised around, on the surface, for a while, but did not go near any of the other boats, and finally went down under the surface.

As a matter of interest, the character and conduct of this Japanese submarine Commander was compared with that of a German submarine Commander at a seminar organized by the International Committee of the Red Cross (I.C.R.C.) at the P. A. F. Air War College, Karachi, on 20th November 2007, when an excellent paper was presented on this subject by Air Commodore Belal Ahmad. As contained in the report I had written, as follows:

The International Committee of the Red Cross (I. C. R. C.) held a Seminar at the P. A. F. Air War College, Karachi, on 20th November 2007, to which I had the honour to be invited, and seated in the first row along with the Commandant, Air Vice Marshal Tubrez Asif, his two foreign guests and Air Commodore Bilal Ahmad. An Air Force officer opened the meeting, followed by a welcome address by the Commandant, one of the two foreigners (I forget his name), part of the ICRC  delegation which had come from Islamabad, spoke.  He was followed by Mr. Marcos Succi, head of the delegation, who gave a detailed presentation about ICRC and its activities, with projections on a large screen.

I was invited to this seminar through the kind courtesy of  Air Commodore  Bilal Ahmad, a former Air Force Officer who, after retirement, has been associated with ICRC in Islamabad. He said, he had learnt certain lessons from my book, To HIM I owe my life, which he used for his presentation, and wanted me to be present. It was very kind and gracious of him to say how important it was “to project our own heroes”.

The Air Commodore’s presentation was immediately after the coffee break. His subject was “The responsibilities and duties of Commanders of various missions etc.”. He spoke at length with the use of media projector showing on the screen the various situations and  how they should be handled.

He then took up two actual cases showing contrasting behaviour of two Submarine Commanders during the Second World War. First, he took the case of a German submarine Commander who sank a Greek ship and then machine gunned all the survivors on rafts and life boats, and destroyed all evidence of the crime committed by him and some of his officers. He had all the names, ranks and designations in detail.

He then showed, how step by step a situation arose where the Diary of the Submarine Commander was found. He had forgotten to destroy it. He showed how detailed investigation was carried out by the Germans, and the matter referred to the Supreme Court. He named the judges etc. who finally sentenced the Commander and three officers, including a doctor, to death. He then said that they wore their uniform for the last time and were marched out to a parade ground where they were killed by a firing squad.

The case of S.S. Chilka then appeared on the screen with a photograph of a B. I. company ship, which was supposed to be the Chilka. Details followed, as quotations from my book “To HIM I owe my life” appeared on the screen. He was very kind to point me to the audience and say that I was a cadet aboard that ship, and the report by Captain Bird, Master of the ship, about the action, was screened. The Captain had stated that, since there was no chance of escaping from the continuous shelling by the submarine, he hoisted the flags to indicate that the crew were abandoning the ship.

Immediately, the submarine stopped firing and after all the life boats had left the ship’s side, the submarine resumed firing to sink the ship. After that, as the Captain reported, the submarine went alongside a life boat and the Commander asked the usual questions – the boat had all Indian crew – when the Seacunny (Helmsman) in charge told the Commander that the Captain had gone down with the ship, they were given water and biscuits and were shown the course to steer to head for land.

Then the screen showed the portion  from the book where I had stated about being in the “jaws of death” etc. He screened the extract from the book quoting from the book “Valiant Voyaging” about my part in the action etc., for which I was decorated and, in addition, awarded the Lloyds War Medal. I feel so humbled that I find it difficult to express the manner in which the Air Commodore projected me as a hero. I cannot find words to express how touched and emotionally moved I was. The most amazing part of Air Commodore Bilal’s presentation was the last item on the screen, which read: “W. Sumatra 11th March 1942: Cdr. Inada shelled and sank a 3400 ton British Freighter S.S. Chilka.”  This was a quotation from the records of the Imperial Japanese Navy.

I thank God for His grace and merciful blessings. Never before in my life have I experienced such a VIP treatment. In all humility I bow my head before the Lord Almighty, and express my deep sense of gratitude for bestowing upon me this honour, by His grace and mercy.

4 responses to “Chapter 9. The Last Voyage and End of My Sea Career

  1. Congratulations, well written,your narration of this episode will keep readers spell bound. Such a piece of history was not known to many of us, has been revealed.

    Best Regards

    Syed Azizur Rahman

    • Dear Syed Azizur Rahman,

      Thank you very much for your kind and gracious comments. May Allah Ta’ala bless you and your family with health and happiness by His grace and mercy.

      I regret the delay in responding as I had not seen your kind and thoughtful comment till Belal Hassan kindly drew my attention to it.

      With warm regards and best wishes,
      Sayeed Bhai

  2. Dear Khawaja Sahib,

    Your WW II experience as narrated in the book is unique. It is probably the only record of a sea battle in WW II that has been narrated by a survivor in a book in which the commnader of the submarine spared the survivors of the ship, the SS Chilka. He provided food to the survivors in life rafts and gave them direction to steer and sail towards safety.
    The name of the Captain of the Japanese I-2 Class submarine,according to my research, was Lt. Cdr Hiroshi Inada. .
    You will recall that in November 2008 you were the chief guest at the ICRC seminar on ‘Command Responsibility in War’ at the PAF Air War College, Karachi. Since then, I have highlighted, at various seminars, your WW II experience with the Japanese submarine as a unique example of a commander respecting the Laws of War and displaying acts of chivalry which are so often forgotten by combatants of fighting forces.
    I believe that all students of the Law of Armed Conflict (Law of War/International Humanitarian Law) would thank you for the book and narration of the events as they unfolded when your ship was under attack by Lt. Cdr Hiroshi Inada.
    I’ll conclude by wishing you the best of health and long life.
    Air Cdre (Retd) BILAL KHAN, PAF

    • Dear Air Commodore Bilal,

      Thank you very much for your comments. You are so kind and gracious. I cannot fin suitable words to thank you for so kindly arranging to invite me to the I.C.R.C. Seminar. I had written about the seminar and included it in an issue of the DNF Newsletter. I shall send it to you.

      Hope all is well with yourself and your family.
      With kind regards and best wishes,
      Affectionately yours,
      Sayeed

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