The Sinking of the Primrose Hill
A copy of the log kept whilst adrift in Lifeboats and written by
Mr. Charles Brock Robertson 2nd Officer.

 Edited with additional research by Roy Gerstner for LOF News 2007

S.S. 'Primrose Hill'    Registered London    Official No. 168208   
N.T. 7628    G.T. 11400
Launched at Port Glasgow July 1941        Master. M.D. Mackenzie

Thursday 29th October 1942
Ship torpedoed in Latitude 18-58' North Longitude 28-40' West at approximately 17:40 Hours.
I launched No. 2 Lifeboat immediately on reaching the Boat Deck, after finding that the boats under my charge had been destroyed by the terrible concussion. At about 18:00 hours the boats were all afloat. Amidships, in the way of the engine room had now become an inferno. The fuel tanks had caught fire immediately after the explosion. Several valve chests or steam lines must have burst and the dynamo was immediately put out of action. I am of the belief that the H.P. engine was entirely wrecked, for not only did the vessel stop immediately after the explosion, but an intense volume of steam was exhausted through the funnel, skylights and fiddley doors. It seams that the steam acting as a blanket kept the flames down until finally, when all exhausted, the oil caught fire and went "sky high".

By this time the lowering of the boats was well under way, and the Captain ordered "abandon ship". This was done in a very orderly and seamanlike manner. Before abandoning ship, we satisfied ourselves that unfortunately Mr. Ferguson 2nd Engineer, Greaser MacDermott and Fireman Zarb (one of our old hands) had been killed by the explosion. Attempts at rescue and investigation were all in vain.
When everyone had taken up their respective position in the Lifeboats, Captain Mackenzie and I successfully embarked, the Captain going into No.2 and I into No. 4 which was under charge of Mr. Dean Chief Officer and Mr. Radcliffe 3rd Officer.

The Bos'n, N. Cocker, and A.B. Hutchings had launched one of the Poop Lifeboats, and this boat had now drifted about half a mile astern. At the Captains orders this boat was pulled alongside No. 2, which was very much overcrowded and the Captain along with several ratings, transferred to boat No. 5.
Before leaving the ship we attempted to release all our rafts, but unfortunately these must have been damaged by the blast, and we only managed to get one away.
We cleared the ships side at approximately 18:00 hours and headed to windward, away from the flames. By this time, the sea to starboard was now ablaze. The ship itself was now ablaze from stem to stern, and presented a heart-breaking and unforgettable spectacle to those in the Lifeboats. We felt so deserted and helpless. However as we were all obliged to pull for our lives,, away from the burning oil, we did not find much time to think over anything material.

Shortly after we had pulled clear, we could see an object on the surface, proceeding in our direction. This proved to be the German submarine responsible for our plight. The U-Boat commander immediately hailed the boats and began asking all sorts of questions regarding our stricken vessel. He then made a demand for the Master to come on board the submarine but we replied that the Master and all his officers had been killed. Needles to say he did not appear to believe this part of our information. Previous to this we had gone to the pains of dumping our uniforms, and although being stained with fuel oil, must have presented a very sorry spectacle.
After the Commander had bidden us goodnight (possibly sarcasm or courtesy) the U-Boat proceeded towards our ship once more. In a few minutes time a most violent explosion shook our lifeboats, and we were convinced that it was necessary to fore a second torpedo in order to send our ship to her watery grave. At approximately 18:20 hours the ship took her final plunge. Perhaps only seamen can appreciate the bitterness of such a sight, especially seeing that we had weathered the so called Battle of the Atlantic, with its excitement, and then had to be caught far to the Southward in waters which we were wont to consider as being completely safe.

We then moored the four lifeboats together and streamed a sea anchor. After spending an uncomfortable night in the boats we did our best to get everything "ship-shape" and it was then decided that I should board No. 2 lifeboat. This boat contained Sextants, Chronometer, Chart and Navigation books saved from the chartroom by Captain Mackenzie and Mr. Radcliffe, 3rd Officer.

Friday 30th October 1942
At dawn we took star sights and found our position to be quite close to the scene of the sinking. We then set a course for Cape Verde Islands, and at the Captain's orders we hoisted sail and proceeded in company.
At Noon, all boats closed the Captain's boat and I then transferred some of the Navigational gear to the Chief Officers boat, there being more room to move in the larger boat. Wilkinson appeared to be suffering from severe shock and bruises which were badly swollen. Most of the crew were saturated in fuel oil.
At sunset today we partook our scanty ration of 2 small biscuits (two bites), one tenth (quarter of an ounce) Pemmican, with 3 spoonfuls of water per man. Nothing has ever tasted so sweet in Life as that daily taste of water. Having completed our meal (some could not eat the Pemmican) we settled down for another uncomfortable night, with hope of making good "Easting" overnight.

Saturday 31st October 1942
Second Wireless Operator Smith's birthday -  a boiled sweet was issued to everyone on the strength of it.
Uneventful during the dark hours. The day opens with afresh N.E. Trade wind and lively swell. The boats are rolling and pitching heavily making things very uncomfortable. No food or water has been issued this morning and we sail on trying to get Eastwards. According to sights taken this morning, we appear to be drifting to the Westward. The strong adverse winds and current are much against us and therefore make things look somewhat gloomy. All going well throughout the day. We served our meagre meal at sunset. Everyone had now become gravely in need of water.
Before sunset all those who were suffering from burns and scalds had their wounds washed in salt water and then covered with dressings from our small First Aid Kits. A.B. Blackburn and Gunner Lightfoot are both suffering from severe stomach pains and both men have been issued with one ounce of Gin.

Sunday 1st November 1942
This days also opens with Fresh Trade wind and heavy swell. We continue trying to make Easting, under sail. The boats are good, and quite tight, but simply can't sail. By slights, we have been set to the Westward again. There is no doubt but that we are in avert grave situation. The boats all close daily for the position with hope of having made good Easting, but it always appear to the contrary to our expectations.
our rudder carried away this afternoon and it took several hours to remedy the situation.
At sunset we indulged heartily in our scanty ration of food and water. We shall now need to commence making an issue of water in the morning. The thirst is terrible. When the sun sets, we once again settle down for another dreary spell. During the night, the weather is very cold and damp, but during daylight hours it becomes extremely hot and dry.

Monday 2nd November 1942
No issue of food or water this morning. We feel very worried about Mr. Simmons, our Chief Engineer, but hope that he stands the terrible strain. After closing the other boats, we find that we are still making no Easting. In my opinion we shall never make the Cape Verde Islands but we still keep hoping that a passing ship may pick us up.
During the afternoon we held a conference and decided that the crew should be divided into three boats, and that the steel boat, which had very poor sailing qualities be cut adrift and abandoned. At sunset all the provisions etc. were transferred from the steel boat and before the boat was finally cut adrift, the Captain wrote out a message giving our position etc. this was placed inside the lockers.
Later our usual ration was issued, the only difference being that we shared a tin of Corned Beef tonight. All hands very pleased with the "bully". A few boiled sweets are now issued periodically for sucking. Our thirst is now becoming terribly intense and to make matters worse, we keep thinking of the clear springs from which we drank so copiously in childhood.
During the day one of the Naval Gunners caught two fish, which the cook cleaned and hung out in the rigging to dry. Later we shall eat them. We often catch small flying fish, but no one bothers about cleaning or removing the heads etc., before we heartily partake of them. To be able to taste something moist is good. With every hope of a shower of rain, we settle down for another night in the boats. We pray for rain, but it never seems to come. Tropical skies are so deceiving, and the nights are now becoming very long and dreary.

Tuesday 3rd November 1942
Lat 17-53' North Long 29-26' West Day opens as before. Thirst is so intense that we have to split the water ration to one and a half tablespoons morning and night. At times we are aware of tiny spots of rain, and all hands lay back holding their tongues out, in order to catch drops. Most of try sucking a button to see if this will help to keep the thirst down,
Our "Sights" still show that we are not making any amount of leeway and are simply drifting to the Westward. We now decided to lower sail and try pulling to see if that gives better results. However, we soon find that the wind and current are proving much too strong for us. Towards sunset the sea became very rough and the swell much heavier than usual. The boats are now shipping much water. All hands are wet and miserable and suffering from Boils and Cramp.

Wednesday 4th November 1942
Lat 17-50' North Long 29-46' West All went fairly well overnight, until 03:00 Hours when we became aware of the sound of a motor engine close by. After a few moments this proved to be another Submarine approaching our boats. The Submarine soon hove in sight on our starboard side and then trained his searchlight on us. He then hailed as, asking the name of the ship, when we were torpedoed, and if the Captain was present in the boats. After telling the boats to keep clear he headed off in a Northerly direction, and, much to our relief, soon vanished into the night. At noon this day, we find that we are again set to the Westward. It is very disappointing after having pulled all night. After this we hoist sail once again and make a further attempt to reach Cape Verde Islands. Even if we miss the Islands we may stand a faint chance of reaching the shipping lanes from Freetown.
Sailed on all day. Boats closed at sunset and decided to sail on all night, keeping in touch by flashing torches. Today we discovered that A.B. Blackburn has been drinking salt water. He will soon go if he continues doing this. The 3rd Officer also reports on of his crew to be drinking salt water. Tonight we prayed for rain and deliverance from our ordeal.

Thursday 5th November 1942
Day opens as before. We made a very little Easting during the night and this has cheered everyone considerably. Had our usual ration and issued a few sweets for sucking during the day.
We carry on under sail but the other boats appear to be holding us back. Physically we do not feel so bad but the mental strain is terrible. In our boat the Captain and I have little assistance, except from the old cook. He makes a good sailor and must have had good training in the schooners around his home in Estonia. The Captain is very worried but does not show it. Our Chief Engineer looks worn out, and older than usual, but by no means finished.
With everything going well during the day, we had our meagre ration at sunset and continued on, under sail, during the night. Still hoping for rain. Prayers again held.

Friday 6th November 1942
Day breaks with usual weather. We can scarcely see the other boats. The weather was very cold overnight. After "sights" we find that we are still drifting to the Westward. Several of the crew are now becoming very down-hearted and Mr. dean has made the suggestion that we should sail for the coast of Brazil, the nearest point being Cayenne, approximately 1,500 miles away (as a plane may fly but not as a lifeboat sails). All hands seem quite pleased at the idea, but the Captain is still very dubious whether it is prudent to head to sea, away from the shipping lanes and our last hope of being picked up.
After making our boat ship-shape for our long voyage, we the goose-winged our sailed, on the oars and shaped a course W.S.W.
At 14:30 hours we had everything fixed up and were getting well under way. However shortly after this, the lookout in the Chief Officers boat sighted a ship heading in a Southerly direction about 6 miles distant. We immediately commenced burning smoke flares to attract of those on board and, after offering a prayer of thanks, we bent to our oars and pulled with all our remaining strength.
At 15:30 hours we were alongside the rescue vessel and we soon helped on board. The vessel proved to be the M.V. Sansu of the Elder Dempster Lines of Liverpool.

We were exceptionally well treated on board, and on Wednesday 11th November 1942 were landed at Freetown, Sierra Leone, slightly worse of our experience.

The Hunter of the S.S. Primrose Hill.
The Submarine which sank the Primrose Hill was an ex Dutch boat and was designated UD-5 when appropriated by the Kriegsmarine or German Navy.
When in service of the Dutch Navy she was used as a torpedo supply boat. A remark attributed by 'Mahn' at the time was "this boat is unfit for combat operations."
Bruno Mahn was in command of this boat from 1st November 1941 until 12th January 1943. He survived the war, finishing it as Chief of the 31st U-boat Flotilla having taken on that role in September 1943. He was born 3rd December 1887.

The S.S. Sansu.


Built in 1937. 5446 GRT. Registered in Liverpool for Elder Dempster & Co. Ltd. Route mainly UK/Europe
West Africa. Scrapped 1961. Elder Dempster Shipping became part of the 'Ocean Fleets' Group Companies.
They were sold off to French/Belgian - 'Delmas Group' in 1989.

Captain Maxwell Dunnet Mackenzie (b 1909 D: 18:06:79) Joined Counties Ship Management 1934, transferred to LOF 1960 retired 1969 . Two daughters and one son.

Primrose Hill

Name: Primrose Hill
Type: Catapult armed merchant (CAM)
Tonnage: 7.628 tons
Completed: 1941 - Wm. Hamilton & Co Ltd, Port Glasgow 
Owner: Counties Ship Management Co Ltd, London 
Homeport: London 
Date of attack: 29 Oct, 1942 Nationality:      British
Fate: Sunk by UD-5 (Bruno Mahn)
Position: 18.58N, 28.40W - Grid DS 9835
- See location on a map -
Complement: 49 (3 dead and 46 survivors).
Convoy: ON-139 (dispersed)
Route: Glasgow (16 Oct) - Takoradi - Apapa 
Cargo: 3000 tons of coal and 1796 tons of general cargo, including war material and 11 aircraft 
Notes on loss: At 21.18 hours on 29 Oct, 1942, the Primrose Hill (Master Maxwell Dunnet Mackenzie), dispersed from convoy ON-139, was hit by one of two torpedoes fired by UD-5 northwest of the Cape Verde Islands. The torpedo struck in the stern, set the ship on fire immediately and killed three crew members. The survivors abandoned ship in four lifeboats and were questioned by the Germans. They told them that all officers were killed in the explosion but this was apparently not true. The U-boat then fired at 22.46 hours a coup de grâce that hit near the bridge and at 23.13 hours another one that hit in the stern, broke her in two and caused her to sink at 23.45 hours. The master, 37 crew members and eight gunners were picked up by the British merchant Sansu and landed at Freetown.


I am grateful to :
Tony and Maisie Tucker of Bridgewater New Jersey USA (Maisie is the daughter of Captain Maxwell Dunnet Mackenzie.
) who have made this article possible.

Note by the Web Editor Roy Gerstner The version given is only a short historical extract and if any further information or correspondence comes available this extract will be modified and updated. If any reader can correct any mistake or add details please feel free to contact me via the LOF Website. The article is subject to copyright and permission should be obtained before any part is used, copied, or transmitted in any format.

Roy Gerstner © April 2007