World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                                     Herbert Bunting

Recollections of Leading Seaman Herbert Bunting - Rescue of Refugees from the Sinking of the Empire Patrol

By actiondesksheffield

People in story: Herbert Bunting
Location of story: Meditteranean
Unit name: H.M.S. Trouncer
Background to story: Royal Navy


This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Doreen Partridge of the ‘Action Desk – Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Herbert Bunting.

I was conscripted into the Royal Navy at the beginning of 1943 and did my initial training at H.M.S. Portsmouth, and then I was sent to Douglas in the Isle of Man to train to be a radar operator. My first ship was the H.M.S. Westminster, a destroyer, which was a support ship in the North Sea. She escorted ships from Rothsay to the Tyne, Humber and Thames ports and back; these ships would pick up other support ships and travel on to Russian and Baltic ports. Although the seas were often rough and we were attacked by German planes many times, I was never ship wrecked or suffered any injury.

When, however, I was sent to help with the D.Day Landings, I was in a landing craft that became swamped by the sea and we were thrown into the water. I was not at all worried because I was a good swimmer and there were plenty of ships around. We were soon picked up by H.M.S. Wrestler and taken below decks to dry out. We had only been on the ship for half an hour, when it hit a mine and we were in the sea again. I never finished that lovely cup of cocoa. Shipwrecked twice in one day!! I was sent back to England and had to go into hospital for two week because I was covered with oil like many other of my compatriots

I was later sent to Belfast to join the H.M.S. Trouncer, an Aircraft Carrier loaned from the United States. Just as our training was completed the war in Europe ended, so we were direct to sail to the Far East to help in the Pacific war.

We were travelling through the Mediterranean when we received a distress call. It was from the “Empire Patrol”, a ship that was on its way to Cyprus taking Cypriot refugees from North Africa where they had been interred by the Germans. The ship was on fire and we were the closest vessel to them.

The captain turned the Trouncer to go to their aid and as we approached the burning Empire Patrol, we could see heavy smoke and flames and people swimming in the sea. I was off duty at the time and when the captain asked for anyone who was a strong swimmer to jump into the sea to help rescue the refugees, I volunteered.

We did not have time to put lifejackets on and I knew, of course, that an aircraft carrier is a big ship, but until I jumped in, I didn’t realise how high the flight deck is from the water. I seemed to be falling for ages and ages and then I went down and down and down and down into the sea, it was utter blackness. I eventually, stopped sinking and started trying to swim up to the light; I thought that I would never reach the surface again. I came up gasping for air, looked around and started swimming towards the people in the water. They had lifejackets on and I and the other volunteers swam them towards the lifeboats from the Trouncer. We were swimming for quite a while and the lifeboats had become full. I saw two women holding onto some floating debris and swam towards them. I tried to swim, pushing them before me, but was making no headway, so I motioned them to hang on whilst I swam for help, hoping to get a line from one of the lifeboats so that they could be pulled behind the boat and to safety. I seemed to have been swimming for ages, but when I turned round to check on the ladies, I was only about 10 ft away from them.

I was getting more and more tired and felt myself weakening very quickly. I remember sinking below the waves. I knew I was drowning and it is true; all of your life does flash before your eyes. I got angry with myself and using all of the energy I had left, I kicked my way to the surface. I cannot remember what happened after this but I do remember waking up in the sick bay. I was told that two hours after the ladies were rescued and had boarded the Trouncer, one of them gave birth. I often wonder what happened to that mother and baby.

The war in the Far East had finished before the Trouncer could arrive to help; we stopped off in India and returned to England by the way of the Cape of Good Hope and sailing up the coast of Africa. After a short while in Blighty, we had to return the ship to the Americans and we sailed across the Atlantic and the Caribbean until we delivered her to the port in Virginia. Our journey back to the U.K. was on the Queen Mary, my first and last time on a cruise ship.

The H.M.S Trouncer at the rescue of refugees from the Empire Patrol in September 1945.
One of the officers wrote this poem about the Empire Patrol rescue. I have kept it all these years.

Empire Patrol

S.O.S! S.O.S! I’m on fire, she flashed
And the Trouncer slews round and away she dashed
To the scene of the tragedy miles away
Where many were lost on this luckless day
Poor Empire Patrol.

“She’s ablaze like a torch,” Trouncer’s captain said
“Now let our great hanger take many a bed.
Strong swimmers will muster with no more delay
For there are souls in the water on this luckless day.”
Poor Empire Patrol.

“Stand by all you boat crews, now lower your boats
And you on the flight deck, away Carley floats.
Off you go you strong swimmers, now make your play
There are men to be saved on this luckless day.”
Poor Empire Patrol.

And into the water tho, heavy the swell
Went boats, Carley, rafts; strong swimmers as well
While yet in the hangers we tried S.BA.
Stood by for the survivors on this luckless day.
Poor Empire Patrol.

The air force was there with a plane in the sky
Dropping smoke floats as marker for those drifted by
And many the men who had drifted away
Owed his life to that aircraft on this luckless day
Poor Empire Patrol.

First women and children, the poor victims of fate
Who will never forget to this September date?
For when they’ll remember, they’ll stop and they’ll pray
For the men of the Trouncer on this luckless day.
Poor Empire Patrol.

Now faster they come and yet even faster
As the boats loaded up, move from disaster
And the swimmers bring in those gone astray
There are heroes aplenty on this luckless day.
Poor Empire Patrol.

The new from the Trouncer flashed back to the port, said
The number rescued, the number of dead
Yet evenings closing, the sky’s getting grey
And there are still some adrift on this luckless day.
Poor Empire Patrol.

At last all were off, many a thrill
Yet remain in the water a few people still
But more ships are here and Trouncer must stay
To aid in the search on this luckless day
Poor Empire Patrol.