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History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network

Ken Guy and CS Ocean Layer

Introduction: Ken Guy served on CS Ocean Layer as a deck boy, and was on the ship when it caught fire on 14 June 1959 while laying TAT-2. Here Ken shares the story of his experiences on the ship, and a poem he wrote about the fire.

--Bill Burns

Ocean Layer
by Ken Guy

Old Ernie Boobyer was almost back to the shore after taking someone over to the ship. There she lay out in the calm River Thames moored fast to a gantry that led from the Cable works out to the deep of the river.

She was sleek and majestic looking, and to the callow youth standing on the wooden jetty she conjured up images of exotic islands with half naked maidens dancing in grass skirts to the tunes from reed made flutes and hollow tree drums. And Canadian ice fields that had polar bears resting on icebergs that the ship would slowly nudge out of the way with her bows.

She had seen sharks and porpoises, whales and penguins, palm trees and coconuts and bananas actually growing on the trees. Hot beaches and nightclubs on the sand and sea water warm enough to swim in, even at night.

These images gave enough courage to the boy for him to stand there and watch Old Ernie as he shipped his oars and tied the painter to the jetty.  Ernie looked up to him and the boy greeted him as if he knew him, having seen old Ernie around all of his young life. Old Ernie acted much the same, probably because he too had noticed the lad once or twice, maybe scavenging on the muddy shingle or playing around the barges that lined the shore.

The boy swallowed hard. He was shy because he did not like rejection and he thought that if he did not seem confident he would end up looking a fool. Ernie looked up at him from his seat in the boat and asked him what he could do for him. The boatman had a friendly manner, much to the boy’s surprise. He had always looked to be a gruff sort of person, forever rowing about the river with somewhere to go.

The boy took the plunge and asked Ernie to row him over to the ship, and was surprised when Ernie merely nodded and said, “Jump in then, it’ll cost you half a crown”.

That was Ken’s first taste of a life on the water and as he settled on the plank seat he passed the coin over to the river man. The water was calm and the motion of the boat was strange to the landlubber. This was the first time he had ever been in a boat. Ernie made no conversation as he rowed strongly and rhythmically, pulling the craft smoothly across the water until they reached the floating platform at the bottom of the gangplank. Ernie shipped his oars again and caught hold of the structure as his passenger stepped on to it. Then with barely word he pulled away from the ship and headed back to shore.

This was it for me. Here I was on this strange platform with a flight of steps in front of me. Not a soul had notice my arrival and my heart was in my mouth as I climbed the steps.

I reached the top and looked onto the deck to see a couple of men washing the deck with long handled brushes. The men took no notice of me, and as I was about to approach them another man came round the corner. He looked at me strangely and asked me what I wanted, and I told him I had come aboard looking for a job. He seemed stumped for a moment and I could see interest had stirred in the deck scrubbers as they listened and looked on.

The man then told me that I would have to see the mate who was on the next deck up. No he’s not, called one of the men, he was going down to the keelson just a minute ago, he was looking for the key. That’s right, called the other scrubber, and the key’s hanging on a hook outside the purser’s office on the next deck up. If I were you matey I would get the key and take it to the first mate and he would be sure to give you a job then. We do need another deck hand. There you are boy, said the first man, get the key first then find the mate and he’ll be so grateful he’ll maybe give you that job. Thanks, I said and went off up the companionway to the deck above.

On the next deck there was no one about and I looked for an office with a key hanging outside, to no avail. I wandered about the deck eventually bumping into someone and I asked them if they knew where the mate was and did they know where the key of the keelson was. A smirk appeared on this man’s face as he directed me back down to the next deck and off I wandered looking for the mate. I no longer looked for the key of the keelson, for his smirk had alerted to me to trickery. I had been a barrow boy after all and I figured that even if the mate did want it he would not know that I had been instructed to bring it to him.

I saw another couple of blokes and asked them where the mate was and told them my mission.

Looking for a job? They replied, the mate can’t give you a job, someone is having you on. No you have to see the Captain. He’s the only one who can give you a job.

So they directed me to the Captain’s cabin down in the bowels of the ship where another seaman told me that the Captain was in his other cabin way up on the highest deck where he spends his days.

By now of course I knew that I was being given the run around and decided to take the bull by the horns. I knew nothing about naval etiquette but it seemed obvious to me that the Captain would have his cabin topsides and as there was no one else to get reliable information from, it was best I go right to the top man.

I eventually found myself up on the Captain’s deck and I asked a passing officer where the Captain’s cabin was, and without further ado he pointed it out to me.

My nerves had all dissipated in the runaround and the exercise up and down deck so I knocked boldly on the door.

“Yes” called a voice inside, and not knowing if I was being addressed I ignored it. A minute later I knocked again. “Yes” the voice yelled, now sounding gruff and bad tempered and suddenly the door was flung open and I was confronted by a fierce looking bearded man who resembled an old time Scottish warrior. “What do you want?” he asked, gruffly, “I’m looking for a job on this ship” I replied, and he snorted. “So why the hell are you knocking on my door?”  he asked as I began to get nervous all over again. “I’m sorry sir” I quaked, “I was told to come to you because you were the only one who could give me a job” I saw a hint of amusement glint in his eyes as he thought about this for a brief moment before answering, “For your bloody cheek you can have a job, boy, now go to the purser and tell him I said for him to take you on”

Following the Captain’s precise instructions I found the purser in his office and in no time at all I became part of the crew of the Cable Ship, the Ocean Layer.

My brother Ron had been on the previous trip, which gave me the idea of applying in the first place. He had told us a few stories of Hawaiian beach parties and how tough life was aboard ship and of the sister ship the Monarch, where it was said that the fights among the crew were so vicious a crew member was killed every trip.

He had palled up with a cook who went by the name of Frank Howlett. Frank came from Great Yarmouth in Norfolk and had called round to what was now my Sister Val’s house a few days earlier. He seemed a good bloke and on this I hinged my decision to apply.

The purser had sent me home to get my stuff, and as I was now living in Hearne Bay in Kent  I caught the train and went down to load my suitcase. Well I didn’t actually have a suitcase at that time as apart from going hopping I had never been anywhere else much.

So I tucked a few things into my old school satchel and went off to Hearne see my girlfriend, Sheila Gough. To her many tears I explained what was happening and I went home early that evening. The next morning I said goodbye to my Mother and brothers Leslie and Alan and my Dad took me to the station to catch the workman’s express.

At five o-clock in the morning I was full of fear, trepidation and excitement as the steam train screeched off on its way to my new adventure.

The next morning I went on board to find the ship’s crew getting the ship ready to leave on the high tide. The bunk I was allocated was in a cabin probably seven foot by nine foot with a double bunk and a built in wardrobe. The top bunk was taken up by a Scots lad about my age and the top of the wardrobe was his also.

The cabin was clean and bright and the porthole let in sufficient light for the size of the room. After unpacking I wandered off to find out what work I must do.

On deck I came across a general workforce chipping and painting portions of rust on the superstructure. Looking for the man in charge I came across Bosun Jim who put me to work with the others.

All that day I was in a dream looking out at the sights on the river, then watching the land eventually recede to the horizon until we were out at sea proper. The rolling waves mesmerized me and I never ceased to be amazed at the volumes of water that seemed to be moving across the planet of their own volition, like living creatures.

CS Ocean Layer

Soon we arrived in Calais and were allowed ashore. I had never been out of the country before and it was very exciting to be standing on foreign soil. The Mauritians had tried to teach me a little French but I did not realise that they spoke Mauritian French with a Creole accent so no French person could understand me. I rectified this somewhat by taking up with a couple of girls who could not speak English but were willing to teach me French. Unfortunately most of what they taught me had little to do with everyday life and commerce in France so I had to stumble along on my own. The little they taught me did come in handy when wooing a few girls in England later on though.

I was pleased one evening when a funny little Mauritian cabin steward, whose job it was to wait on the officers, asked me if I was going ashore. He spoke fluent French and I thought he would be able to show me some interesting things in Calais. We had a couple of drinks in different bistros and as we were leaving one we bumped into Frank, who almost snarled in fury at the sight of me with the chap. He pulled me roughly to one side and explained that the only thing I was likely to get that night was kept in the little man’s trousers. He then insisted I go along with him and his party and the little steward waved farewell in sadness as we went off up the road. I didn’t like to tell Frank that I had already realized what the man wanted and had no intention of falling for his game. But he was decent enough company apart from his size and his mincing walk and voice, and he spoke fluent French. I also couldn’t mention it because I had rumbled Frank for what he was too, even though he did not mince about and show it openly. That was one of the reasons why I did not bother him on board ship. He had his own kind of friends.

I had never drunk alcohol before I reached France and luckily for me I found that I did not like the stuff. I tried drinking the seaman’s way, beer with rum chasers and just ended up getting dreadfully sick and drunk. It was no fun for me to make myself ill, and a few hours in convivial company was just not worth the price I had to pay. So from then on I had my fun watching other people lose control.

I remember one night I was in the WC when in came two lovely girls. They started yabbering away at me in French and laughing, trying to pick me up, but it was hopeless. I had had a couple of lagers and still couldn’t understand what they were saying and I felt really stupid sharing a mixed sex toilet with two beauties and not able to do anything about it.

Another evening I visited a bar that featured lovely glasses with a tiger’s head printed on the side. I had recently had the same tiger head tattooed on my arm and wanted a memento, so I slipped a glass in my pocket and walked out of the door. I was seen by a waiter who started shouting and as I ran he gave chase. By then we had been in France for a while, and I was learning my way about the port city. The waiter did not give up and seemed to chase me for miles. Each time I came to the docks I had to double back because the man would have seen me cross the great expanse of empty dock. And if he made a fuss there were one or two Gendarmes about the port and I was afraid that they would soon grab me. Eventually I lost the waiter and as I was wearing an overcoat I found that I was sweating from the exertion of the chase. My knees suddenly went weak as I slumped against a rubbish skip to the sound of breaking glass in my pocket. That was one of the times I laughed out loud over my stupidity.

When I brought the food to the galley, if any of the men were not there I put the meals in the warmer oven. Then when they got back from shore or got up late in the mornings they would just help themselves to a still warm but often ruined portion.

The crew seemed to be getting tired and on edge in port, for being at sea was infinitely preferable to being stuck in Calais with little money to spend, and many were borrowing against their future earnings.

Some drunken thugs started splattering the galley bulkheads with gone cold breakfasts of eggs, bacon, and tomatoes and beans and fried bread and sausages and whatever else the hardworking chef had decided to treat them too. These people would find fault with the now oven ruined meal and throw it in any direction before stumbling off to drink some more. There the broken plates would lie on the deck below their handiwork.

One day after a particularly bad mess I was in a foul mood. I had lost respect for the crew who all seemed to accept the loutish behaviour as normal.  As I set the tables I began throwing the required numbers of knives forks and spoons onto the tables. One man took exception to my rude display of manners and upbraided me for it, telling me that I should lay the table out properly.

I responded angrily, calling the crew pigs for treating food and their own home in such a manner. This man had a large scar across his face and was an uncouth individual.  He then picked up a knife and pointed it at me and told me he would give me something that I would regret. I immediately rounded on him and leaned into his face and growled something to the effect that if he was any good with a knife he would not have that great ugly scar across his face. The man went livid and growled back that I would never leave the ship alive. This made me laugh and the tension in the room dropped quickly. Not one of the other crew members in the room had spoken out during the exchange despite me accusing them all of being pigs. I had acted hastily and stupidly and was lucky to get away with it.

But strangely enough, from that day on we had no more dirty walls or thrown food.

I don’t remember how long we spent in Calais, but it seemed forever.

But eventually the cable was loaded and we went back out to sea.

Now I was really looking forward to the exciting bits.

The further out into the Bay of Biscay we went the higher the waves became until giant hills seemed to be threatening to engulf us and then at the last moment we rose up over them. At the apex the ship would tilt on its axis and tip forward to surf down the next mountain. At the peak of the waves the propeller would come out of the water and the ship would rumble and vibrate for a moment before the screw bit into the water again. It was exhilarating and mind numbing at the same time and as often as I could I went for’ard to the bows to experience the pitch and toss of the rollers close up.

This weather was nothing to these hardened seamen, but to me it was a great adventure to be out on the ocean in air unpolluted by smoke or dust, and the deep breaths I kept taking began to make me so dizzy that I was in danger of falling to the deck.

In the next days the weather worsened and the sea roughened until it seemed impossible to walk on the pitching deck. One moment I was walking up a mountain and the next I was trying to prevent myself falling down the hill. Other crew members laughed at my predicament as they confidently strode around.

Now the waves were breaking over the bows and floods of water swept over the deck right through to the aft where it disappeared over the side. I wondered how it was going to remain dry below and I soon found out when the great steel doors were closed on the weather side and I had to struggle round to the afterdeck to enter the ship. The doors were not actually locked but I didn’t know that at the time and I didn’t want to look stupid by trying one.

One morning I awoke feeling awful. Sea sickness had struck me down and I lay and moaned in my bunk believing I was at death’s door.

Word soon got out that the greenhorn was seasick and several crew members called in to try and cheer me up. They would have a bit of pork fat on a string and swallow it and pull it up out of their throat again then dangle it in my face. They would bring their breakfast in and wave it about so the smell made me worse. Some told me stories of how long such and such was sick, six weeks or more and never ever recovered properly.

They didn’t help me feel better.

Then Bosun Jim came in and insisted I follow him up to the deck where he would soon put me right. I already felt like dying so Jim couldn’t threaten me, he knew that. So he cajoled me instead and I felt grateful to think that soon my misery would be over.

On deck Jim led me to the line machine and I rushed to the side and puked. I nearly went overboard, such was the pitch and toss and the rolling of the ship and every time her bows rose up a wave the sea would pour right down the deck almost washing me off my feet. But Jim had an answer, and a stout length of rope, which he fastened round me before hitching me to the line machine. Off he then went and came back with a paint pot and brush and instructed me to paint the machine.

It was hell out there on deck in that weather. It seemed that I would be washed away any moment the waves came so heavy and the spray blown off the wave tops came down almost horizontally with torrential force.  And with each wave went my paint pot, into the scuppers so that I had to release myself from the safety line and crawl over to rescue the thing before it was washed over. Back I would crawl and the first thing I would do was secure myself to the line while holding the pot between my feet. Then another wave would come and I would lose my balance and off the pot would go to what more and more seemed its rightful place in the scuppers. After a couple of these games I managed to tie the pot to the line machine, but I was doubtful about how effective the contents would be in preserving anything, for it now consisted of three parts sea water.

As time wore on I began to anticipate the ship’s movement and roll with it. I watched for the next wave and began to revel in its power. I gradually found myself actually enjoying the battle and the cold wet spray and the sea’s efforts to dislodge me with my precious paint pot. I began to laugh at the waves and anyone looking aft may well have thought that I had become demented.

Jim was right. Though I could not go down for lunch, by teatime I was just about cured. Soaking wet with my skin shrivelling up, freezing cold and my hands and feet were absolutely numb. My jeans had even got wet through the Souwester and they chafed my inner thighs, and my work shoes were sopping. I was covered in paint from head to toe but thanks to Bosun Jim Coulson I didn’t want to die any more.

The next days were heady with discovery for me. I saw porpoises riding the swell and marvelled at their grace and speed, and I stood in the bows with the cold rain stinging my cheeks riding the bow up and down hands cupped around my face lighting cigarette after cigarette while facing the wind.

The old timers took trouble to show me how to splice a rope and then I graduated to splicing a multi layer steel hawser with Adolph Vasileski, a Latvian forced to join the SS and now wanted as a war criminal in his own, now communist, country. Like thousands of enemy soldiers Adolph had slipped away as the allied forces invade Germany, stealing some washing from a clothesline and burying his SS uniform. He had found some papers on a dead German soldier and used them in place of his own. Making his way to a Port he had been allowed by the allied authorities to sign on as a deckhand on a neutral vessel and had lived at sea ever since.

Adolph had not seen his family since joining the SS and now he believed that he never would. Being stateless he was confined to the ship, though he used to slip ashore unofficially in England.

He had ditched the dead German’s identity once aboard ship, just in case it caused him problems, then switched ships often to hide his trail. It seemed that he was playing a waiting game before deciding on which nationality to claim.

Without proper papers he would only be allowed to join a ‘non pool ship’ which meant that the crew were not members of the seamen’s pool of London and therefore not subject to union rules. If you were thrown out of the union for any reason you could always search for a job on a ‘rough ship’ such as the Ocean Layer.

On these ships, it was said in those days, lived and worked the ‘scum of the earth’.

My cabin mate barely spoke English and at sixteen he was already an alcoholic. I did once understand him when he slurred that he ‘didna need to speak English cos he was a Scot’.

There was no companionship with him and when we had to work together he was surly and argumentative. We had a few violent set to’s and he would even fight with the geyser, punching it because he burnt his hand. And then punching it again because it hurt him again. I named him Haggis because of his accent and because he acted as stupid as a stuffed sheep’s stomach. I told him I could understand a Haggis as well as I could understand him, and the name stuck.

Keith Marshal was the third deck boy and I seemed to get on well with him. Keith had been at sea for sometime and was soon to become the lowest rated seaman. The deck boys were called peggys for some reason and they worked one week on deck and two below cleaning up the toilets and deck crew galley, and waiting on the crew, carrying the food from the kitchen along the gangway to the crew galley. It was hard work and the toilets were miserable things with the doors to the cubicles long gone, but we still had to scrub them out twice daily and polish up all the china bits.

The food was exceptional, as it usually is on a merchant vessel. The chief cook was a tiny little fellow with a yearning to be taller. Frank Howlett worked as a second cook and baker and he first time he saw me he expressed surprise at me being on board. I never liked to bother Frank for anything and I think he began to see me as standoffish.

Haggis would spend each evening with the firemen, or stokers as they used to be called. They had a bar somewhere that I never discovered or they drank in their mess and they seemed to delight in getting Haggis drunk.

The fireman seemed to be composed of three quarters Mauritian natives and one quarter Scots natives. There was not much to choose between their habits, though to be fair the Mauritian stokers kept themselves cleaner, were polite and did at least try to speak English. I much preferred the islanders to the highlanders we had on that ship.

In a few days we had reached our target and picked up the end of a cable and spliced a new one to it. When we started laying cable the working hours were changed to six hours on and six off, six hours on and twelve off and I felt tired most of the time until I got used to the regime.

Now that we were laying cable we travelled at the heady speed of four knots crawling in a predetermined direction and the Captain was not able to change course to favour ship or crew, despite the weather. So the ship wallowed about pitching and tossing and screwing like a bull trying to dislodge its rider. We sailed diagonally across the waves, behind the waves and even with the heavy seas on our beam. But I was a landlubber and knew no better. If the rest of the crew took the action, so could I. That it seems is the life of a cable ship’s crew.

Keith Marshal had a gramophone and would play the latest hit records. Elvis Presley, and Cliff Richard’s Living Doll, would sing out from his open door really livening up the lower deck.

Haggis would often be drunk in his bunk or missing during the off shift hours but by now we did not see too much of each other because of the new work rota.

The main Galley produced restaurant class food three times every day. For breakfast there was cereals and a full English and better. Lunchtime a full meal was served and the chef often went to the trouble of baking potatoes and removing the inner from the skin then mixing it with cream and butter before piping it back inside. No common or garden spuds for these spoilt seamen. When steak was cooked it was tender and tasty.

The biggest problem with the meals was fetching them from the galley. When it was my turn I learned to load my hands and arms up with up to eight meals at a time but the journey back to the mess was fraught with danger. As the ship rolled about I would bounce off first one bulkhead and then the other using my shoulders to take the force. These of course soon became black and blue and ached so that manual work, such as scrubbing out the heads, became painful to do. But strangely enough that job was part of shaping me for life, for my shoulders made effective battering rams later when I played football, and I still to this day bounce off of objects using my shoulders.

Newspaper being shoved down the toilets often blocked them and many men were not fussy about the mess they made. The drinkers were of course the worst messers and some of the tasks we had to carry out are best forgotten.

But sadly all this, good and bad, was soon over.

We were seven hundred miles out in the Atlantic in heavy swells and I was fast asleep when the ship’s alarm went off and the engines were thrust into reverse, causing an almighty shudder. Someone banged on the door yelling the ship was on fire. I got out of bed and opened the door and sure enough there were palls of smoke to my right where the firemen’s mess and cabins were. I reached up and tried to wake Haggis but he stayed fast asleep in another drunken stupor. I grabbed him and pulled him off the bunk and he fell with a crash to the floor. He awoke then alright but he was still in a stupor as I told him the ship was on fire and he had better get up on deck. He wanted to argue with me and called me a liar and staggered to his feet wanting to fight me, but I opened the cabin door and shoved him out. As usual he had gone to bed fully dressed and when he saw the smoke he scuttled to the companionway and up to the deck.

I had bought my father some Gauloise cigarettes and my mother and girlfriend a small present so I put these on my bunk with my wristwatch so I could grab them quickly if necessary.

The bedclothes from the top bunk were strewn about the floor but this was no time to tidy the cabin, I pulled my jeans on and I could only find one slipper and one sock. I shoved these on opposite feet and went out to see where I could help. Turning to the right I saw a man in the smoke and approached him and asked what I could do. He was choking on the smoke and shouted that there was no water and he was trying to turn it on. Another man went past and then turned and grabbed my arm telling me to get up on deck for I would only get in the way down here. I protested and that stung the impatient man into shoving me to the companionway. He pushed me up a step and then the choking man came over and we went up to the deck in a group.   

On deck there was quite a commotion with crew tugging hoses about and others milling about near the life boats. The hoses trickled a little water and then became dry, and officers and crew were shouting to each other the situation, and then the Captain’s voice came over the tannoy ordering us to abandon ship. Immediately order appeared out of the momentary chaos. Seamen and officer jumped to their stations and as I tried to make my way to my own station I was told by an officer to stand by this boat. Then I remembered my gifts that lay on the bunk and I rushed to the companionway and tried to go down the stairs but I was grabbed from behind. I don’t remember who caught hold of me but I was told in no uncertain terms that I was not allowed below. The heat and flicker of flames through the thick smoke served further to dissuade me and I returned to the life boat.

The swell was running heavy, often reaching the deck as we wallowed about without way on the ship, and spray was breaking onto the deck despite us being on the lee side. Then I understood why the officer told me to stay by this lifeboat. My lifeboat station was on the weather side of the vessel and it was unlikely launchings could take place on that side in this sea.

The davits the lifeboat was hanging on were stubborn and would not swing out. As the men tried to push it out I saw the next boat along being lowered and as a wave came up to meet it a crew member at each end tried to release it from the cable. One man was a bit slow, or the thing stuck, either way as the wave dropped away the boat tipped and hung in the air from its bow tipping the occupants out into the rough water. Strangely enough laughter broke out among the crew followed by further guffaws as our boat suddenly swung out and a man who I only remember as Ernie slipped between the boat and the side and tumbled into the water. A wave brought Ernie back up and he grabbed the ship’s rails and was pulled aboard by his shipmates with many ribald comments.

The lifeboat was lowered to deck level and we stepped aboard quite orderly, the officer in charge calmly allocating places to the laughing, joking men.

The boat was lowered and I too expected to be tipped out when a wave arose but skilfully Ernie and another let go the falls at precisely the right moment and suddenly we were bouncing about the ocean like a lump of flotsam. Oars were grabbed but the lifeboat was being banged about the ship’s side and we were awkwardly close to be able to stave it off with the long oars, so soaking wet Ernie stood and leaned against the ship, forcing the lifeboat away. When the boat rose on another wave his hand was caught between the lifeboat and ship and he fell back in pain. Other men leapt too and oars were shoved against the ship until we moved far enough away for them to be inserted in the rowlocks.

Singing started as the men pulled on the oars and we gradually drew away from the ship on the heaving swell now lit up with reflected flames dancing on the surface.

Several boats had been launched and there were still men on board singing and shouting as we watched the last of them slide down the falls to land with a splash next to a boat. They were quickly pulled aboard and all boats got into motion pulling as far away from the possibly explosive vessel as quickly as possible.

It soon became impossible to see another lifeboat and even the flaming ship often disappeared as we sank into the very heart of the sea, or so it appeared.

I was surprised to see that instead of us being inundated even these tiny craft rose up the massive swells to the peak and then tipped forward surfing down the hill.

Gradually another boat got close to us and a rope was thrown to keep us together. The men were all in good spirits and my own feeling was of great excitement and camaraderie as I realised that I was now one with the rest of the crew. We were all in the same boat together and of one family battling against the elements; pulling together in unison to fight against the odds. On one side our sea-borne home was afire and on the other the limitless ocean standing against the speck of mankind bobbing about on her surface. All around was the heaving waters and below, just hundreds of fathoms down, was Davy Jones’ locker. 

But I did not expect to see below the waves. The fear was just not there with the general excitement and the rowers busy dipping their oars to keep us heading into the waves.

Conversation never stopped and jokes and laughter could be heard all round. Someone had broken open the medical pack and bandaged Ernie’s hand but apart from that no one mentioned they were hurt in any way. I was young with a strong constitution and did not have time to feel the cold through my thin shirt. But it was June after all and we were lucky this had not happened in winter.

After a few hours a ship appeared and hove too. We rowed across to the vessel and climbed aboard. It was the Flavia, a German cargo vessel bringing sugar cane from some tropical and exciting place.

We mustered on deck and found one man missing. On man was badly burnt, a very large Mauritian stoker who had been trapped in his cabin by the flames. Other stokers had wriggled out of the portholes to catch lines dropped down to them and from there they scrambled up to the deck. This man was too big for that so he ran through the flames and was helped up the last few steps by crew members. He was bad and men said that he would not survive.  

The missing man was Adolph and boats were sent out to find him. It was a least a couple of hours before he was found. He told me later that he had not woken until the smoke and flames were licking at his door. He had escaped to the forward deck to find the ship empty, and had gone around the deck collecting lifebuoys and dropping them into the sea where the telephone cable led over the bows and entered the water. He had slid down the cable and gathered the lifebuoys to him and slipped six of them over his head. His body had remained well out of the water and he clung to the cable waiting for developments.

Seeing a light far out he realised that it was a lifeboat and he let go of the telephone cable to try and make his way towards it. As he did so the cable burnt through and plummeted past him to the depths of the ocean. The cable ripped through the top lifebuoy breaking it in half, so he discarded that one, thanking his lucky stars that it was not his body.

He was eventually pulled on board the searching boat and brought back to the ship intact.

Our lifeboats were valuable so they were lifted on deck while many of us were served a cup of cocoa with rum in it.

The next few days were surreal, unnecessary, and the crew suffered for the sake of salvage bounty for the German ship’s crew. It’s not that I deny them the right to salvage money, but an American ship came and offered to take the crew off. All of us would have welcomed a decent billet but instead we had to endure the next five days.

The first night Keith Marshal and I went down into the hold and tried to make ourselves comfortable sleeping on the sugar cane. It was not to be. The cane was not a bit like hay or straw, instead it was just like knobbly lengths of bamboo. We also had the rats to contend with. They were happy living in the hold with an uninterrupted food source but when we entered the hold it was a bit like chasing the usurpers off. Rats were running around our heads and feet and we were wary of going to sleep in case they decided to try nibbling on us.

We went back up to the deck and found a corner we thought might be cosy, but despite it being summer the North Sea seems to get very chilly at nights and we spent the rest of the night talking, waiting till dawn signalled a bit of sun. The sea had been calming all day so at least we did not have to contend with the rolling and pitching and tossing of the hove-to ship. The Captain kept the bows into the weather and during the day we managed to doze and get a bit of sun on our bodies.

There was just nowhere to sleep. The Flavia carried a normal complement of forty six officers and crew. We shipwrecked were another ninety eight and we were left to our own devices. No one asked if we were comfortable and no one from the Flavia’s crew tried to help us.

One of our officers tried to see to our needs but he was pretty helpless, probably sleeping somewhere outside himself. Hammocks in the mess or even blankets were not offered, but the worst thing was the lack of food. The Flavia had intended to make port in a couple of days and re-victual at that time. Instead she sat around for five more days trying to feed 144 people instead of 46. They sent word out that food was short and a plane dropped supplies into the sea, which were picked up by the crew. But I remember well going into the mess where our little chief cook was assisting the German big chief cook and as I was friendly with our little cook I was allowed to stay as they prepared the food. A giant pot was place on the stove. I don’t know why anyone would want a food vessel that size unless it was for dying the ship’s linen. The big chief cook could easily have climbed into it and I wish he had because his next move was to fill it with water before tipping a 2 litre tin of tomato puree into it. A few stirs and brought to the boil and with a half slice of black bread that was our meal for the day. The next meal was better. We were served a spoonful of mashed potato and a square of horse meat 2” x 2” by a half inch.

Oh how we wished that we had been taken aboard an American ship instead.

As I had now been introduced to the big fat German chief cook, the two cooks got together and offered me a billet on the floor of his cabin. I was pleased to accept but was surprised to see the little cook get into the bunk with the German cook, but I let it go and decided to stick it out for a while. After all it could be a great improvement on my previous night. It was, for a while. I was woken by a big fat surreptitious hand searching carefully for my dick. I looked up and there was the German leaning over me. I shouted at him to clear off and he quickly withdrew to his bunk. I have no idea whether the little cook was awake at the time but it made no difference because I decided that I had better go and find somewhere else to sleep. Our lifeboats were secured to the deck and I decided to try sleeping in one of them. It was not much but it was warm and dry, out of any wind and reasonably private. From then on I claimed the lifeboat as my bed and Keith soon joined me.

The next morning we stood in line for a grog ration. As I had been given one when we came on board I lined up with the rest of the crew. Behind me was Lofty, another big fat bloke, and he started bullying me by pushing me forward with his great gut, telling me I was not allowed to be served the rum ration. After a few minutes of this and despite me asking him to stop he was still at it as the line moved slowly along. Getting cross, I suddenly spun around and sunk my fist into Lofty’s stomach and was satisfied to see him step back onto another crew member. This chap was quite short but he got annoyed with Lofty and as the bully stepped forward to have another go at me the seaman told him to leave me alone. I was chuffed that a crew member had stood up for me instead of observing the usual rule of leaving others to fend for themselves. Again I felt proud to be part of this rough band of men. When I finally arrived at the officer dishing the grog Lofty leaned over me and said, “He’s too young to have alcohol sir, he’s only a peggy” The officer carried on pouring and replied coolly, “After what he’s just been through I think that he’s a man now don’t you?” and to Lofty’s chagrin he passed me the tot as a couple of chuckles were heard from behind.

I think that the officer had seen Lofty’s attempt to bully me and decided to teach him a lesson. Every day from then on I lined up with the rest of the crew.

Keith and I discovered the lifeboat’s ration of barley sugar and to my surprise, after eating a couple I was no longer hungry. We had been told there was no food left, so from then on until we arrived in Falmouth, Keith and I ate only barley sugar sweets.

We watched our ship burn for five days while the Flavia waited for a tow to arrive. They had put a couple on men on the for’ard deck to keep watch and cement their right to salvage money and as the Ocean Layer smouldered we could see the German crew moving about the cooler front of the vessel. Ironic really, considering that the Ocean Layer had been seized from the Germans as part of England’s war reparation.

At last the giant tug Wotan arrived and before too long she had a towline fixed to the bows. The cable ship had been steadily listing to port and seemed about to sink, but nevertheless Flavia had completed her role and we soon got under way heading for Falmouth. It seemed to take no time at all to reach the port and we wondered why we had been forced to stay at sea for five days. The answer was obvious, though, for not many ships had the chance of salvage prize money.

CS Ocean Layer under tow off the Cornish coast,
damaged by fire and listing badly
Image courtesy of John Keane

As we approached the port on the 19th of June we were surprised to see a flotilla of small craft coming out to meet us. The German ship took very little notice and carried on steaming to the dock. As we tied up we were inundated by reporters yelling questions and a boat came alongside exactly where Keith and I were standing at the rail. The Flavia was fully laden and being a small ship sat low in the water. The press people’s vessel was almost level with our deck and one man fired off questions which we answered freely. Suddenly there was a sharp blow in my back and I turned to see Bosun Jim instructing me to stay quiet and not speak to the reporters.

I was a proud member of this crew, so I obeyed without question.   

Excerpt from the Ocean Layer page:

It was just after eleven o’clock on the night of June 14, 1959, when the alarm was raised in c.s. Ocean Layer. She was then 700 miles out in the Atlantic, laying cable. So
quickly did the flames spread that the vessel soon became a raging inferno. In spite of the valiant efforts of the crew, Captain Ross signalled “abandoning ship” at 11.45 p.m.

The German motor vessel Flavia, commanded by Captain Gerhard Theune, was the first on the scene and picked up the crew of the blazing Ocean Layer without loss of life. Flavia stood by while salvage operations commenced and the gutted hulk of Ocean Layer, with a dangerous list of 15° to port and still burning, was taken in tow by the German tug Wotan, commanded by Captain Hans Todt.

Captain Ross and his crew were landed at Falmouth on June 19, and on June 21 Ocean Layer, with two of Flavia’s crew on board, dropped anchor in Carrick Roads, two miles off Falmouth. On June 24 she was towed into Falmouth Docks.


Ken Guy later wrote this poem about his experiences on Ocean Layer:

The cable ship toiled up the swell
Wild Ocean passed beneath her keel
Portholes of light shone brightly out
As she heaved slowly through the night

Her bow was weighed down heavily
By cable dropped beneath the sea
And on her deck though lacking sleep
Men paid out cable to the deep

The boy asleep in his bunk lay
He’d had a real demanding day
And up above the drunken snores
Of Haggis dreaming endless whores

The heaving pitch and toss of ship
Was not enough to disturb kip
Of the tired and the drunk
As they lay sleeping on their bunks

Then came a mighty metal curse
As engines thrust into reverse
The boy awoke and wondered why
He seemed to hear the raucous cry

‘Get up you bunch of lazy men
The ships on fire do you ken?
Get up on deck ye Sassenachs
Or ye lay burning on ye backs’

On the door smashed heavy fist
I called ‘It’s ok, I’m not pissed’
I dragged out Haggis from his bunk
On steel deck landing with a thunk

‘Get up on deck the ship’s on fire’
‘Och’ he moaned ‘ye dirty liar’
I shoved him through the open door
And then I heard a seaman roar

‘The pumps don’t work, nae water here’
The voice was strong and held no fear
‘Get up on deck’ somebody shouted
‘We’ll try to get the hose rerouted’

They wouldn’t let me help down there
They said I’m young it’s just not fair
Hustled up on deck before
I’d earned my stripes and made a score

No hosepipe worked, tar coated cable
To quench the fire we’d not be able
Captain Ross roared ‘Abandon ship’
Excitement on this boy’s first trip

Some lifeboat davits wouldn’t swing
And blokes fell in the drink to swim
Huge swell were rising up to deck
And brought these hearties back by heck

Odd moments we could see ships keel
And then a shudder shook the wheel
As screws spun loosely in the air
These men just laughed without a care

Except large stoker couldn’t climb
Through porthole and up lifeline
Ran flaming gauntlet to deck above
Clothes roasted to him, gory glove

No funk or fear or desperation
Did that boy witness at his station
When lowered lifeboat davit stuck
And tipped the men into the muck

Some gaily slid down lowered line
Plopping into foamy brine
Singing ‘fire down below’
Twas all surreal like movie show

“Fire fire,
No bucket use your hat
Don’t bother with the water boys
It’s much too hot for that”

As boats were lowered one caught tight
Tipped sailors in the freezing murk
“No problem, jump back in boys, right!
You’ve ad yer fun now get ter work”

And as they crashed against the ship
We thought we’d surely get a dip
Brave Ernie staved of ship alone
And crushed his hand tween steel and foam

Just six or seven hours did we
Have to wait for German tea
As Flavia scooped us up on deck
She dished it out to us roughnecks

Though the ship rolled pitch and toss
And roared aflame from stem to stern
Not a single man was lost
Though all were made to watch her burn

Adolph though he’d slept till last
Through the entire din he’d slumbered fast
When he woke up he climbed down cable
To gather all the buoys he’s able

The cable burned through with a snap
And Adolph lost one belt to that
But luck was with him, he’d let go
And didn’t get pulled down below

Hours and more he floated round
Down in trough or top of swell 
Till searchers found him fastly bound
In bed of buoys quite comfortable

Five days we stayed while she burned fierce
Sleeping where we could lay our head
On the deck in wind that pierced
Or in the hold with rats instead

Small food we had there’d been no plans
Tomato soup mass watered down
Thin slice of horsemeat two inch square
With luck that was our daily fare

A slice of black bread sweet and strong
For mothers table we did long
We raided stores in the lifeboat
Those barley sweets kept up our hope

Though planes flew over dropping food
That landed with almighty splatter
It did not turn our stomach’s mood
We saw no sign of it on platter

And still we waited, though Yanks come
And offered then to take us home
We saw the sleek and shiny ship
And wished that we were all on it

But no it’s better we stay poorly
So the Germans get their dowry
Off she sailed with food and heat
And we tucked in to barley sweet

Five days we stayed just how we were
I had one slipper and one sock
No coat to keep me warm I fear
We longed to see old Falmouth dock

Eventually tug Wotan came
The latest princess of the sea
To take in tow our burning home
No one bothered with the crew or me

Excitement now our hopes revive
Soon we’ll eat and drink all right
See our mums and dads and wives
Get some clothes that fit us right

The press are here now we are in
Questions shout from bouncing boats
A punch in back from Bosun Jim
Crushes my literary hopes

‘Don’t talk to the Press’ Jim growls out angry
My spinal pain now makes me wary
But still we got a little in
And on front page I looked so thin

 

See also the pages for Ocean Layer,
the 1957 San Francisco - Hawaii cable,
Brendan Keane’s story,
and Jim Coulson’s story

CS Ocean Layer's captain at the time of the loss of the ship, Anthony Ross, was interviewed in 1991 about his career in the cable service and provided many additional details on the fire. The interview is available as a PDF document at at the Arambec Research website.

Copyright © 2007 Kenneth Guy & FTL Design

Last revised: 26 May, 2016

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