Wartime Merchant Navy, a site by Gordon Mumford concerning World War II Merchant Marine Experiences

Survival at Sea

Captain William (Bill) Cook

During World War II, Doug Crook and Bill Cook were deck officers employed by the Athel line (United Molasses Co.).  They were both on the MV Athelknight in May 1942, which was sailing independently (not in a convoy), Trinidad bound from Barry, when the ship was torpedoed and sunk. Two lifeboats survived the torpedoing of the Athelknight. One was in charge of the Second Mate, Dougie Crook, while the second boat was that of the Third Officer, W. H. Cook, who kept a log of the voyage. This was the only log kept in lifeboat No. 4. Captain Cook donated the original log to the Imperial War Museum (UK) in 2002.

The following are condensed, selected excerpts from the log, printed with permission from Captain William Cook.

Log of No. 4 Lifeboat (MV Athelknight), kept by William (Bill) H. Cook, Third Officer.

Tuesday 26 May 1942

10:15pm. Torpedo hit on starboard side in No. 6 tank. Captain came on bridge and ordered engines to 'Stop'. Chief Engineer came on bridge for instructions and Captain said we would stand by with engines stopped & boats swung out.

Sub gave us about 10 mins. or of an hour before she struck us on port side with shell under the port midships boat. Submarine kept ahead about 2 points on port bow of a mile so that we could not use our aft gun.

When sub started shelling Capt. Roberts flashed a torch from the lower bridge but sub carried on shelling so Captain ordered 'Abandon Ship'. We had tried to get a wireless message out but everything in the W/T room was smashed. Captains boat was the first away and Senior Sparks and I were still on the top bridge. I had gone back for my patrol jacket and cap from port wing. Chief Officer was aft tripping rafts and attending to lowering of Second Mates boat.

Sparks and I went on lower bridge and shells were falling near the port boat which three or four men were attempting to lower. I told them to leave off and come with us to my (port after) boat but they took no notice and Sparks and I went aft to my boat. Second Mates boat was clear of ship. Chief Officer had already started lowering my boat away, and we cast off with 12 men aboard, mostly my boats crew, but some of them had gone in Captains boat. Not everyone had made for his own boat at the order Abandon Ship. The Mate said that he would go back to his boat, but didnt. He came down into mine.

We pulled away and the sub was firing QF tracer shells over the boat. Port midships boat was now in the water and the men were calling out to us that they were making water and needed help. We pulled over to them thus putting ourselves in line of fire from sub to ship. We were quite close to them when a shell struck the Athelknight portside amidships and also port midships boats. Shells were now falling thick and fast, and as there seemed to be great danger of our boat being shelled too, we pulled away from the ship. Two of our boats crew were injured by either shell splinters or m.g. (machine gun) bullets --- McAlinden, in face & Sheehan, in finger -- and I got some in my left hand.

In pulling away we lost Dewar fireman. He jumped or fell overboard but Chief Officer and I managed to haul him back aboard again. The boat was making water fast and we had to keep bailing continuously. Rowing was difficult for we had to keep ducking down below the gunwale to miss the m.g. bullets which were passing over the boat. We had some difficulty in steering because we had a broken rudder pintle.

After a while the sub had moved to the starboard side (of Athelknight) & the shelling had set the magazine on fire. We could see the shells & cordite going off like fireworks. We lay off the ship all night and some of us were violently sick.

Wednesday 27 May - Day 1

In the morning we could still see the Knight about 2 miles away. She was on fire, but seemed to be upright, so we decided to go back and if we couldn't get the ship moving, we would take extra stores and a sextant and chronometer. On the way back we saw what we thought was the Captain's boat & thought that they must be making back for the ship too. But after we were a bit closer we saw it was the submarine, so we sheared off to the NW where we thought the Capt. & 2nd mate's  boats must be.

At daybreak, the sub started shelling the ship again, but must have found it slow work sinking her by shell fire, for he soon gave her another torpedo which hit in the Engine Room starboard side. She sank in a few minutes stern first and heeling over to starboard. The last thing we saw was the focsle head going under. The Chief Engineer shed a few tears. He had served in the ship for many years.

After a while we saw a sail and rowing up to it found it to be the Second Mate & his crew with the Captain and his crew. We were told the motor boat (no. 1) had been holed when lowered on a jagged plate in No. 6 tank, so 2nd Officer had taken the whole of No. 1 crew aboard his boat. They had also picked up the damaged Mates boat, No. 2 port midships, with 2 dead men and 3 badly injured. 1 died a few hours later, shrapnel in the stomach. Moore O.S.., Gaisford & McGrath A.B.s were dead.

We took 13 men on board our boat making us 25 in all and leaving them 26, two of whom were severely injured. The Captain told us the sub Captain had promised to radio our position when he was clear of the area. The sub had given No. 3 boat a bucket to bail with and several loaves of hard German black bread. The Captain passed over 2 loaves to us.

Arranged with the Captains boat to keep in touch if possible & flash a light at night....

Tried to keep Captains boat in sight but had lost a lot of way. Rudder had been shot to bits, and oar is difficult to steer with. When darkness fell, we lost No. 3 boat altogether. Continued rowing until about  10.00 pm and then packed up and brailed sail for the night. Hands tried to sleep but not much success owing to cramped positions.

Food Supplies in Lifeboat


on May 26

on June 10

on June 21

Biscuits 35 (16-oz) tins 22 tins - ration cut from 1 to 1/2 biscuit per meal. 4 tins
Milk Tablets 35 (16-oz) tins
(1 tablet = 1/3 oz)
29 tins 16 tins
Pemmican 97 (6-oz) tins (1 level teaspoon  = 1/6 oz) 79 tins 23 tins
Condensed Milk 48 (14-oz) tins 21 tins 16 tins
Chocolate 35 (16-oz) tins (1 piece = 1/5 oz) 21 tins 2 tins
Drinking Water Got an extra 8 gals. from an abandoned raft. Later made an awning to catch rainwater.

Thursday 28 May - Day 2

4.00am. Breeze freshened from ENE. All sail set and proceed course WSW. true. Lost steering oar. It's hard to judge speed but I should think we're doing 3-4 knots in this good breeze.

Breakfast 7:00 am - 1 bisc. 2 choc. 2 milk tablets, 2-oz water.
Dinner noon - 1  bisc. 1 tsp pemmican, 2 milk tablets, 2 1/2 oz. water
Tea 6.00 pm. 1 bisc. 1 tsp. pemmican, 2 milk tablets, 2 chocs., 3 oz. water.

Day ends with gentle breeze ENE.  Compass WSW true.

Monday 1 June - Day 6

Ready-made cigarettes are gone, also cigarette papers.  There are 4 lbs. of shag tobacco and a few plugs aboard, so we are using shag tobacco and pages of Nautical Almanac for rolling cigarettes.  Nautical Almanac is of no use to us, for we have not a sextant aboard. 

Thursday 4 June Day 9

0300 heavy rain commenced and continued until 0700.  Collected 14 gallons and refilled empty service tanks. 

Monday 8 June Day 13

Issued the milk myself today, and used about 2/3 of a tin, against 1 tins when I passed the tin round for each man to help himself. 

Thursday 11 June - Day 16

What a stench there is in the boat, 25 men havent had a bowel movement for 17 days and all packed in a boat like sardines in a tin.

Saturday 13 June Day 18

Men are complaining about there being no issue of condensed milk for last 3 days, but well have to cut down rations still more if these calms continue.  All hands in water about six times today.

Sunday 14 June - Day 19

Checked stores again, and have about enough for 12 days if we cut them by half again.

Wednesday 17 June - Day 22

Everyone feeling weak and thirsty now.  Some of the men are drinking salt water, but if one stops them during the day, they drink twice as much at night time.

Sunday 21 June - Day 26

Opens cloudy, calm & smooth sea.

Breakfast: 1/2 bisc; 1 choc; 2 milk tablets; 1 tsp brandy; 1 oz water; 1/6 oz pemmican
Dinner noon: 1/2 bisc; 1 choc; 2 milk tablets; 1/6 oz pemmican; 1 oz water.

1400 approx. sighted ship. Picked up by SS 'Empire Austin', bound for Capetown. All hands aboard by 3:45 and lifeboat sunk.

In Capetown, the Chief Officer requested a copy of the log. An edited copy was made and given to him before we left Capetown for Glasgow aboard the 'Warwick Castle'.

Captain Wm. Cook, Victoria BC Canada

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Updated on August 24, 2009