South Scotland

Battle of the Atlantic: How Tom Carruthers survived a torpedo attack

Tom Carruthers
Image caption Tom Carruthers was just 16 when the boat he was working on was torpedoed, killing almost all of its crew

This evening won't be like any other for Tom Carruthers.

Every year on the 25 August his mind fills up with vivid memories of a night as a teenager which he was lucky to survive.

And memories return of all the friends he lost in a fateful minute and a half.

As a 16-year-old, he joined the Merchant Navy and found himself a place as a deck cadet aboard the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Company's ship, the Pecten.

He was among crew in August 1940 when it was part of an Atlantic convoy bringing precious wartime fuel oil from the Caribbean back to Britain.

But engine problems meant it was straggling behind the other vessels as it got close to the west coast of Scotland and that proved to be a fatal situation.

"We managed to keep up with them right across but we lost a bit of speed when we came into The Minch," said Mr Carruthers.

"We were about two miles behind the convoy - so we were a sitting duck."

It was a shot which the U-boat U-57 would not miss.

Image caption Mr Carruthers, now aged 91, remembers the night the Pecten sank vividly

"The ship just moved sideways - it was funny, there was very little noise," Mr Carruthers recalled.

"Sitting in the saloon you just felt the whole ship move sideways and she got two torpedoes in her.

"You realised you had been hit but you did not know how badly."

However, everyone on board - including the young man from Dumfries and Galloway - realised they needed to act quickly.

"My action station was the bridge and the other boys all headed for the cabins to get the emergency gear they had stowed," he said.

"They just got trapped because she sank so quickly that the water would have come in on them."

The teenager found his path to the bridge blocked by a "wall of fire", so he tried another route.

"I got to the captain's cabin - his last order to me was to cut away the starboard lifeboat," he remembered.

"I tried to cut away the lifeboat but by this time I was up to my knees in water.

"I realised that she was sinking very quickly and my life jacket had got caught."

Only by freeing himself from the jacket was he able to get off the ship and fight his way to the surface of the water.

"I knew I had a chance of being picked up because there was a rescue ship allocated to the convoy," he said.

"Whether I could last long enough before I got picked up I didn't know.

Image caption Mr Carruthers received recognition for his service in World War Two

"I became a very good swimmer that night."

He reckons he had to stay afloat about three hours before he was eventually found, picked up and ultimately landed in Belfast.

Records show that he was one of just eight survivors from a crew of 57.

"She sank so quickly and rolled that it put the fire out - I was lucky," he said.

"If it hadn't put the fire out I would have burned.

"I later learned from other ships that they reckon from start to finish - from the time she got hit to the time she disappeared - was a minute and a half."

Mr Carruthers went back to sea just a few months later and several more times during the war before being medically discharged.

He received the Atlantic Star and the 1939 to 1945 Star for his efforts during the conflict.

Lost friends

And now, aged 91 at his home in Carrutherstown, he still remembers the night he was lucky to live through.

"What saved me was doing my duty," he said.

"If I had tried to save myself or save anything from my cabin I would have been a goner.

"My job was on the bridge and I tried to get there and that is what saved me."

His voice cracks a little with emotion, though, when he remembers his friends who were not so lucky.

"I lost every mate," he said. "And I lost a very good captain."

More on this story

Around the BBC