How to Survive Being Sunk by a U-boat

‘A Guide to the Preservation of Life at Sea after Shipwreck’.

In the drink

1941 was perhaps the nadir of Britain’s war. As German U-boats roamed the waters of the Atlantic and Mediterranean, losses of merchant and naval ships and personnel spiralled. In the air, Bomber Command’s campaign proved expensive, in terms of aircraft and lives lost, for little reward. The bomber crews, the poorly resourced men of Coastal Command and the RAF’s fighter pilots all faced the very real threat of being shot down over the sea or having to ditch due to technical issues or enemy action. So high was the possibility that all RAF and Fleet Air Arm aircrew wore life-vests over their flying uniform.

The chances of rescue and survival – sailor or airman – if you ended up in the drink for any reason, were slim. Even if you made it into a life raft, unless you were in close proximity to other shipping who were aware of your presence, very close to shore or directly under a regular flight path, death from hypothermia, sunstroke, dehydration, exhaustion, inclement weather and stormy seas was a very distinct possibility.

If you were a crewman on board a Bomber Command Handley Page Halifax however, your life may ultimately have been saved by a very useful piece of kit. This was no top-secret technological marvel; this little miracle was something much more simple. A pigeon.

The early Marks of Halifax were all supplied with two homing pigeons who travelled on board and were kept in a little basket behind the flight engineer and the wireless operator’s positions. If the aircraft was forced to ditch in the sea, the wireless operator would write out the coordinates of the aircraft’s position on a small piece of paper, put the message into the little canister on the pigeon’s leg and send him on his way, back to base.  

There are recorded instances of crews being rescued by this very low-tech method, but just how many wireless operators were actually able to complete this task while plummeting towards the sea at 200 miles an hour, with the aircraft possibly on fire, is unknown. Still, it was better than nothing. For some crews, this was their only hope of rescue. One Halifax crew survived for 11 days in a life raft before being picked up.

Imagine lying in your life raft, soaked to the skin, in the dark, freezing cold, terrified, traumatised, and quite possibly injured, and having to place all your trust in your little feathered friend, battling through the winter weather over the North Sea like that poor little Robin in the Sainsbury’s Christmas TV ad from a few years back. An exhausted, soaking wet little bird finally makes it back to base and relays the message to his handler, in true Lassie fashion, having survived storms, gale force winds, and attacks by NFIs (Nazi Falcon Interceptors*).

RAF Bomber Command crew aboard a life raft after ditching (photo credit – RAF Museum)

‘What’s that little Walter, the crew of ZA-K went down 30 miles off the Humber, the skipper is dead, and the tail gunner is injured? I’ll notify Coastal Command immediately!’

(*I made that bit up, sadly).

The Yorkshire Air Museum is home to Friday XIII, a magnificent reconstruction of a Halifax; if you’re ever lucky enough to go inside, you’ll spot the little wicker basket behind the flight engineer’s position, and its two little occupants, and the proof that the Pigeon Rescue Service isn’t just a figment of my imagination.

Pennington Crew
Pilot Officer Reg Pennicott and his Halifax Crew of 10 Sqn – May 1943 – the pigeons were looked after by wireless operator Jack Clyde (3rd left) (Author’s own image).

Cast Adrift

For the thousands of men whose vessels were sunk or crippled by U-boats on the Atlantic and Arctic convoys, death was not only a possibility, but a probability. Ships often went down in minutes; if you had the misfortune to be aboard an oil tanker, you were likely to die in the conflagration even if you survived the initial impact. If you were in open water rather than in a life raft, you’d pretty much had it. The phrase ‘picking up survivors’ is a comforting one but the vast majority of those lucky enough to picked up would’ve been in life rafts or disembarked from crippled vessels, or those that were sinking very slowly.

IF you were one of the fortunate chaps who had made it into a life raft, and IF you’d been sailing as part of a convoy, you had a much better chance of being saved. From 1940 convoys were usually accompanied by the little ‘Rescue Ships’. Typically, small coastal vessels (which were most definitely NOT designed for crossing the Atlantic), the rescue ships sailed with convoys with a singular purpose: if a cargo ship or one of its escorts was torpedoed, the rescue ship stayed behind to locate and assist any survivors while the rest of the convoy either scattered (unadvisable) or sailed on.

‘It took iron nerve and cool courage to lie immobilised in the middle of an attack; an easy target for torpedo or bomb while survivors were helped on board; often a long and difficult business in rough weather and icy seas.’

                                                              – Vice-Admiral Sir Ian Campbell KBE, CB, DSO, RN.[i]

According to an article by Jen Robertson, assistant curator of maritime history at the Liverpool Museum, 29 Rescue Ships supported 797 convoys throughout the war and saved 4194 lives. Crewed by Merchant seamen, the ships were equipped with small rescue launches, scrambling nets, hoists and ropes to haul men from the water. Also on board was accommodation for 180 souls, as well as a sickbay and even an operating theatre.[ii] Six of these rescue ships were themselves sunk during the course of the Battle of the Atlantic.

A Guide to the Preservation of Life at Sea After Shipwreck’

In response to the most dreadful circumstances and heavy losses of shipping throughout 1941, the Committee of the Care of Shipwrecked Personnel was appointed in October of that year, at the request of the Medical Department of the Royal Navy,

‘To examine the conditions to which Naval and RAF Personnel may be exposed after loss of ships or aircraft, when they may be adrift in boats or rafts or isolated in the desert; to examine the physiological aspects of those conditions, with special reference to water requirements, exposure to extremes of heat or cold, food requirements and stimulants’,

and to prepare practical recommendations.[iii]

Liaising with the Ministry of War Transport Committee who had already put in place some guidance to try to save the lives of more merchant naval personnel, the Committee published a short pamphlet, amounting to only 21 pages, containing vital guidance, medical advice and instructions. ‘A Guide to the Preservation of Life at Sea After Shipwreck’ was published in early 1943 and issued to the medical officers aboard all Royal Naval vessels.

How to Survive Being Sunk by a U-boat
William Thompson’s personal copy

The Surgeon Commander

Among papers belonging to Surgeon Commander William Thompson, now in my possession, there is an almost pristine copy of the Guide. William, who was born in Ireland, had studied medicine at Queen’s University in Belfast in the 1930s. At University, he was an acquaintance of Blair ‘Paddy’ Mayne – the two played in the same rugby team – although Mayne went on to play for Ireland and the Lions, before becoming a founder member of the SAS in North Africa in the early years of the war. According to his grandson Tom, William was nicknamed ‘Tiny’ by his rugby team mates, as he was 6 feet 6 inches tall.

How to survive being sunk by a U-boat
Tiny Thompson and Blair ‘Paddy ‘ Mayne (centre right and left) Queens University Rugby Team (Photo courtesy of Tom Thompson)

When war was declared, William joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve at the rank of Surgeon Commander and served on the destroyer HMS Saladin in the North Atlantic and Arctic Convoys, before heading to Australia and warmer climes at the end of the war. Saladin travelled all over the Atlantic and Arctic Sea, from Halifax, Nova Scotia, Freetown, Sierra Leone, Scapa Flow, Iceland, to Archangelsk and Murmansk, and even accompanied HMS Rodney in the hunt for Bismarck.

William’s papers and photographs include an image of a young dog on the deck of a ship. On the back of the photo, in William’s handwriting, there is the following caption:

           ‘Bess – Jan.1944 – Exchanged for a bar of chocolate, Murmansk, Russia’.

How to Survive Being Sunk by a U-boat
Bess aboard HMS Saladin, January 1944 (Photo courtesy of Tom Thompson).

I don’t know what happened to Bess but hopefully she lived out her years in relative comfort, being thoroughly spoiled by sailors and sharing their rations, before retiring to a quiet English seaside resort with an elderly Admiral for company.

William’s copy of the Guide breezily states in its introduction,

‘The experiences of survivors from shipwreck have been accumulating during the war; careful study of these records shows that with knowledge, foresight and initiative the chances of survival can be increased, bodily discomfort reduced, spirits cheered, and morale maintained during exposure, and the general state on rescue improved.

…Recent statistics…show that of boats adrift for more than 24 hours nearly half will have reached safety within 5 days, and that it is quite exceptional for any lifeboat not to be picked up within 3 weeks. Once a crew is safely away from the abandoned ship in a lifeboat it’s three-quarters of the way to safety’.[iv]

Three weeks. In a lifeboat. In the middle of the Atlantic.

‘Sir, we’ve been adrift for 18 days now, I can’t take any more!’

‘Don’t panic Able Seaman Carruthers, all will be well, it says so in this here pamphlet’.

How to Stay Alive

In the Guide, sailors were encouraged to develop life-saving habits in case they were torpedoed, including sleeping fully dressed in warm underclothes, extra pullovers or jerseys on, or ready to hand, together with waterproof clothing and dry socks in a waterproof package. Personnel were warned NOT to sleep on a hatch, even if the weather was hot, ‘because by doing so you run the risk of being thrown into the sea by the force of the explosion if the ship is hit.’ Advice was given on how to minimise the effect of explosions on board:

‘If bomb hits are expected and duties permit, lie flat on the deck with head and body against a ledge side or deck, to minimise both exposure to the blast wave and to fragments, and to prevent being thrown.’[v]

Detailed instructions were provided on how to abandon ship, including what instruments should be taken into the life raft, charts and nautical tables, clothing, and extra water (‘water is more important than food’). The Guide even explains how to go overboard safely, in the event that a sailor failed to get into one of the lifeboats or rafts.

‘If you have to jump into the sea, hold your nose. If you have to swim through a patch of oil, keep your head and eyes high and your mouth closed…Swim on your back…If you have to jump from the ship into burning oil you may, if you are a good swimmer, be able to avoid being burned if you adopt the following procedure, which has been tested [BY WHOM??] and proved successful. Jump feet first through the flames. Swim as long as you can under water, then spring above the flames and breathe, taking a breaststroke to push the flames away, then sink and swim under water again.  Men have been able to get through 200 yards of burning oil in this way. To be able to do this however, you will have to remove your lifebelt and other cumbersome clothing.’[vi]

Now do it in the dark, in a ten-foot swell, in January, in sub-zero temperatures, whilst deaf from the initial explosion and possibly with shrapnel wounds, burns, and the odd fracture, and while suffering from shock.

The Norwegian oil tanker Koll, sunk by U-571 on 6 April 1942 (source unknown)

Assuming our torpedo victim had managed to abandon ship, avoided being pulled under by his vessel as she sank beneath the waves, jumped into and then swum through a burning oil slick, and managed to scramble on board a lifeboat or raft, further delights awaited him. The Guide gives very detailed directions on procedures to be followed in a lifeboat, and helpfully points out,

‘Once you have safely got on board your rescue craft… your chances of winning through have improved enormously.’


‘Do not exhaust yourself by getting excited. Do not sing or shout, for by doing so you use up your strength…the motion of the craft will jostle you against others, and you may be very tightly packed. Make the best of it, for your survival depends on everyone carrying out his routine cheerfully and promptly.’[vii]

Even in these circumstances, strict discipline was key. Every officer and man on board was to be given a job to do, however small; only the badly wounded or severely exhausted were excused. Watch duties were allocated, exactly as on-board ship. Wet clothing was to be squeezed out but was not to be removed unless the weather was warm and dry. Wet boots and socks were to be removed and replaced if the seaman had been able to bring spare pairs with him. If not, and there was no way of drying out boots and socks, they had to be kept on unless and until the feet began to swell.


Guidance is provided on the use of awnings and makeshift eyeshades to protect from the sun’s glare, but sailors were cautioned against the use of fuel oil as protection from sunburn. Bathing is suggested no more than once or twice a day, but care had to be taken to ensure that there were no sharks, barracudas or jelly fish in the vicinity.


‘Sharks are not as dangerous as is commonly believed. They may rub against the lifeboat, but they are not trying to overturn it; they are trying to rid themselves of sea-lice. They rarely attack a boat, and can usually be scared off by vigorous splashing, or by a crack on the snout with a boathook or paddle. It is advisable, however, to keep your hands and feet inside the lifeboat.’[viii]

Tell that to the men lost when the Canadian liner, Empress of India, was torpedoed and sunk off the coast of Freetown, in March 1943. Three hundred and ninety-two lives were lost, according to a newspaper report at the time, ‘most being victims of sharks.’ One young man, Eddy Rawson, had a very lucky escape indeed. After the sinking ship almost dragged him under, in the words of his grandson Andy, ‘he surfaced to discover the oil he was soaked in put off the sharks’. He was only rescued many terrifying hours later.[ix]

Water, water, everywhere…

Perhaps the single most important life-and-death issue on board a lifeboat or raft, shark attacks aside, was the control and issue of water rations. If rescue was imminent, a generous supply could be issued at once; if, however survivors were unlikely to be picked up for a week or more, no water was to be given for the first 24 hours, and thereafter 18 fluid ounces per man per day was to be issued (assuming the lifeboat or raft was full).

Once stocks had become depleted to the extent that there was only one pint of water per man left, the ration was to be reduced to an horrific 2 fluid ounces per day.  18 ounces per day was noted to be the smallest amount needed ‘to keep a man fit for periods customary in a lifeboat’, and that if greatly reduced rations had to be implemented, these would ‘fall so short of the minimal requirements for health that rapid and progressive deterioration is bound to set in.’ The drinking of sea water or urine was strictly forbidden.

For food, an ounce each of high fat content biscuits, condensed milk, chocolate and butter fat was considered quite sufficient to keep a man alive, but on the upside, ‘…it is unlikely that you will have a bowel action while adrift. This is due to the small amount of food which you will be taking and need not alarm you’. Every cloud…

‘Energy tablets’ – Methedrine or Benzedrine (amphetamine sulphate) could also be issued if available. The Guide notes that these drugs are ‘not dangerous, but their use requires care and common sense. They should be regarded as a stand-by for difficult situations.’ Very specific guidance is provided about the circumstances in which this medication could be given, with clear instructions that the tablets should NOT be given to wounded men, to excitable or hysterical men, ‘nor to those whose minds are wandering’.[x]

The pamphlet also lists a number of first aid treatments including CPR, guidance on how and when to use morphine, the emergency treatment of wounds, broken bones, burns and scalds, how to treat severe shock, and what to do if a death occurs on board:

‘If brandy is available, it can be given to dying men in order to make their last hours more peaceful. If you have a death aboard, strip off and divide the clothing amongst the survivors before committing the body to the sea.’

The list of medical conditions which might arise on board if the boat or raft is adrift for more than a few days is sobering – everything from dry mouths and cracked and parched lips to saltwater burns, fever, vomiting, diarrhoea, frostbite, ‘immersion foot’ and even mirages.

Survivors of the sinking of Laconia being picked up by U-boats – photo credit By Leopold Schuhmacher, born 22. Oct. 1917, deceased 8. Mar. 1943 Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9934806

The Call of the Sea

One wonders how many lives were saved due to this little pamphlet and its straightforward, no-nonsense, cheerily British guidance, and whether the original owner of the Guide, Surgeon Commander William Thompson, was ever required to put it to the test in his time aboard HMS Saladin.

Ships were lost from some of the convoys he escorted – SL69, which left Freetown on 23 March 1941, lost two vessels. The straggler Aurillac was sunk by an Italian submarine; all but one of her crew was rescued. Swedru was bombed by a FW Kondor, killing 24 of the 61 strong crew.[xi] More well known was convoy PQ13, which left Loch Ewe bound for Murmansk in March 1942; Saladin was part of the escort  on the initial leg to Reykjavik but had withdrawn by the time the convoy was attacked on 28/29 March by German surface ships, U-boats and aircraft, with the loss of  5 of the 19 merchant ships, and one escort.  

How to survive being sunk by a U-boat
William Thompson (without cap)and senior officers on the bridge of HMS Saladin (Photo courtesy of Tom Thompson)

William survived the war; so many of his colleagues aboard the merchant ships of the Atlantic and Arctic convoys and their escorts were not so lucky. Unable to persuade his wife Margaret to move to Australia, the family settled in Haverford West in Pembrokeshire, where William became a GP and Force Medical Examiner for the local police force. His grandson Tom recalls that the family were famous for having the first new car in town after the war.

For reasons which were unknown to the family, some years later William was found to be self-prescribing opiates, and subjected to warnings about his behaviour by the medical authorities. The family relocated to Cardiff, but shortly afterwards, in the mid-1960s, he was again discovered to be self-prescribing. Unable to bear the shame of being struck off and losing his medical practice, William went missing.

He was never seen again, and his body has never been found.

Perhaps the sea called to him one last time.


I am most grateful to William Thompson’s grandson Tom for providing photographs, for entrusting his grandfather’s wartime medical guides into my care, and most of all for sharing his family’s story with me.

There will be more to follow; next time, I’ll be looking at hygiene on the battlefield, and exploring William Thompson’s personal copy of the Handbook of Military Hygiene, 1943.


This article was inspired by the We Have Ways of Making You Talk podcast, which recently broadcast several episodes on the Atlantic Convoys. You can listen here: https://wehavewayspod.com/episodes/

This is an excellent site dealing with a couple of the arctic convoys, and includes JW54B, of which Saladin was a part. https://north-convoys.com/en/history_of_the_northern_convoys/heroic_pages_of_the_northern_convoys1/dnevnik_konvoya.html

You can read more about the Battle of the Atlantic in my article, about the use of Ultra Intelligence: https://www.justcuriousjane.com/ultra-intelligence/

For general reading, I recommend the following:


Peter Calvocoressi, Top Secret Ultra, (Ballentine, New York), 1980.

John Ferris, Behind the Enigma – The Authorised History of GCHQ, (Bloomsbury, London) 2020, Ch.6

WJR Gardner, Decoding History: The Battle of the Atlantic and Ultra, (MacMillan Press, London), 1999.

Ronald Lewin, Ultra Goes to War – The Secret Story, (Penguin, London), 2001.

Evan Mawdsley, The War for the Seas: A Maritime History of World War II (Yale University Press, New Haven and London), 2020.

Mark Milner, Battle of the Atlantic, (The History Press, Stroud), 2003.

Richard Overy, Why the Allies Won, (Jonathan Cape, London, 1995) (Pimlico, London), 2006, Ch. 2.

RA Ratcliff, Delusions of Intelligence: Enigma, Ultra and the End of Secure Ciphers, (Cambridge University Press, New York), 2006.


John Buckley, ‘Coastal Command in the Second World War’, Air Power Review, Vol: 21, No: 1, Spring 2018, pp.7-30.

WJR Gardner, ‘Prelude to Victory: The Battle of the Atlantic 1942-1943’, The Mariner’s Mirror, 1993, 79:3, pp.305-317

 WJR Gardner, ‘From Hunter to Hunted: The U-boat war in the Atlantic’, 1939-1943 (Review), The Mariner’s Mirror, 2020, 106:4, pp. 496-498.

Eric Grove, ‘The Battle of the Atlantic: A legend deconstructed’, The Mariner’s Mirror, 2019, 105:3, pp. 336-339.

Michele Magnozzi, ‘One Torpedo, One Ship: An appraisal of Otto Kretschmer’s U-boat tactics, 1939-1941’, The Mariner’s Mirror, 2021, 107:2, 202-215.

Marc Milner, ‘Naval Control of Shipping and the Atlantic War 1939-45’, The Mariner’s Mirror, 1997, 83:2, pp.169-184.

Marc Milner, ‘The Atlantic War 1939-1945: The Case for a New Paradigm’, Global War Studies, 14 (1), 2017, pp.45-60.

Duncan Redford, ‘The March 1943 Crisis in the Battle of the Atlantic: Myth and Reality’ History, vol. 92, no. 1 (305), Wiley, 2007, pp. 64–83

Duncan Redford, ‘Inter- and Intra-Service Rivalries in the Battle of the Atlantic’, Journal of Strategic Studies, 32:6, pp. 899-928

David Syrett, ‘The Battle for Convoy OG69, 20-29 July 1941’, The Mariner’s Mirror, 2003, 89:1, pp. 71-81.

[i] https://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/stories/rescue-ships-addition-battle-of-atlantic-gallery, accessed 20.12.2023.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] MRC Memorandum No. 8: A Guide to the Preservation of Life at Sea After Shipwreck, (HMSO, London), 1943, Author’s Private Collection.

[iv] Ibid, pp. 3-4.

[v] Ibid, p.6.

[vi] Ibid, pp. 7-8.

[vii] Ibid. p. 8

[viii] Ibid. p. 9

[ix]  Thanks to Andy Rawson for sharing his grandfather’s story with me.

[x]  A Guide to the Preservation of Life at Sea After Shipwreck, pp. 11-12.

[xi] http://www.convoyweb.org.uk/sl/index.html?sl069.htm~slmain, accessed 21.12.2023.

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