On the 23rd November 1942 around midnight, British India Steam Navigation Co’s (BI) 10006 ton cargo passenger liner, TILAWA, which was positioned 07 36′ north 06/008′ east, about 500 miles east of the coast of Socorta, sunk into the cold Indian Ocean minutes after it was attacked by the Japanese submarine JP 1-29.

I was one of the passengers on the board Tilawa that night. It set sail from Bombay on the 20th November 1942, bound for Mombasa, East Coast Ports and Durban. On the night of the 19th November 1942, friends and relatives bid me bon voyage as I left my home in Navsari, India. Early the next morning my mother woke me up to get ready as the appointed taxi would be calling to take us to the station to board the train named, Flying Queen bound for Bombay. On that dark winter morning the station platform was packed with commuters and I could see the train’s bright engine lights miles away, near the plains of Gujaraat, as it approached the station. At exactly 5.30am the train stopped at the station and we anxiously boarded. I managed to find a seat for my mother on this packed train, and I casually placed my suit case in the aisle and sat on it. At 8.30am the train pulled into the Bombay Central Station. There we were met by a relative who took us to his flat to freshen up. Later that morning I went to the ship’s chief agents, Messrs. Mackinnon Mackenzie & Co. at Ballard pier and collected my passage ticket.

Due to the war at sea, BI’s regular passenger sailing schedule was disrupted, and instead of a fortnightly Bombay-Africa service, there was one sailing only every 6 to 8 weeks. South African residents were becoming frantic as they had to return home within three years, or loose their rights to enter South Africa. There was a long waiting list and the demand for passage was so great, the sub-agents were bribed to secure passage tickets. Many people were stranded in Bombay hoping that their name would come up on the waiting list. Passengers embarking were due to return at the 14th hour. After going through customs and emigration clearance, I boarded the ship. By now the pier was overcrowded with people. The White and Indian police officers had a difficult task of controlling the huge crowd. There were so many passengers, friends and relatives trying to board the ship to say their good-byes, that police later had to stop them.

The ship carried 1st class, 2nd class and deck passengers. When I got on to the ship, I noticed there was hardly any room to move. I had a deck ticket and trying to find my bunk on the lower deck amongst all the confusion was a difficult task. My bunk quarter was next to a friendly newly married couple from my home town. My mother greeted and chit-chatted with them, asked them to take care of me and left the ship. After placing my trunk and bedding on the bunk, I went up to the upper deck to watch as the ship departed. At exactly the 17th hour, the ship set sail and left Bombay harbour. Once at sea, a boat drill was carried out and we were told not to light matches or torches on the upper deck. There was a blackout on the ship. The portholes were painted black and kept shut at night. There was a constant fear amongst passengers and crew of a enemy submarine attack. I made sure that I kept a life jacket close at hand. On board the ship, there were 958 people, consisting of 222 crew members and officers, 732 passengers and 4 gunners. All the passengers were bound for Eastern and Southern Africa.

The Tilawa also carried 64,752 tons of general cargo and mail. Its maximum speed was 12 knots. The Tilawa carried 9 life boats, one motor boat and many small and large rafts. The ship had three kitchen/dining facilities, viz. Hindu vegetarian and Muslim non-vegetarian on the lower deck and Western European dining facility on the first class saloon. On the morning of 21st November, another boat drill was carried out and Captain F. Robinson informed the passengers of the safety measures, in the event of emergency. The Tilawa was cruising at 12 knots, zig-zagging ever since it’s departure from Bombay. On the night of 23rd November, when I just about falling into a deep sleep, I heard a loud violent explosion. I awoke with a terrible fright. Expecting the worst I grabbed my life jacket and headed for the upper decks to reach the life boats. There was chaos and panic among the passengers and Indian Crews (Khalasis) as they all headed to the upper boat saloon decks.

Everyone was scrambling and stamping about as they tried to climb up the stairs, I was pushed and jolted from one end to the other. Before I knew it, I was hurling down the stairs and injured myself. The ship’s Indian crew and deck passengers were all panic strickened. The chaos, hysteria and panic was causing the rescue operation to be hampered. While the launching operation of life boats were in process, I grabbed the rope holding the life boat which was almost halfway down, and slid into the boat. I injured myself even further in the process. The boat was half filled already, mostly with crew and a few passengers. The crew unhooked the boat and we fell free and drifted away slowly.

The time now was 02H00 on that bright moonlit night. I could clearly see the Tilawa’s lights and flare signal. With tearful eyes, I watched as the other frantic passengers stampeded into life boats, trying to lower them and save themselves from a terrible fate. I could hear their panicked screams and mournful tragic cries.

The ship, though it’s head had already sunk, was still afloat. About half an hour later, while the frantic activities were still going on, a second torpedo exploded on the port side and within 5 minutes the Tilawa heelded over and sank. There was a loud noise and debris fell all around as the Tilwana was sinking. The remaining passengers and crew either jumped or were thrown overboard and hysterically made for rafts or boats. Others were too scared and shocked to move, and sank with the ship.

All this time, Mr. E.B. Duncan, the first radio officer, was at his post transmitting SOS messages. The last one broke off abruptly in the middle, as he went down with the ship, but his gallant sacrifice was not in vain. The distress call had been picked up, and the cruiser HMS Birmingham was on its way to our rescue. There was a barrel of drinking water and biscuits on the life boat, but this obviously did not last long. Arguments arose between the crew as to which direction to follow. The tension among all of us was rising. We drifted for an entire day and night. The sea was choppy and a cold wind was blowing. All I had to keep me warm was the pajamas I was wearing. During the day, rain came and the sea developed a considerable swell, tossing our life boat perilously.

On the morning of 25th November, we sighted a small plane (swordfish), that was approaching and signaling us. Later we saw a ship on the horizon, coming closer and closer. It was the HMS Birmingham that had come to rescue us. We were picked up and taken aboard, hospitalized, given blankets, coffee, tea, sandwiches etc. The medical staff of the HMS Birmingham worked extremely well. They successfully dealt with 5 major operations; 20 minor operations and 400 cases of burns, abrasions and shock, due to the immersion.

During the night of the 25th and 26th November, 2 survivors died and the next morning were buried at sea. The survivors were accommodated as follows: · White men – ward room, gun room · Warrant officers – mess and cabins · White women and children – Captain’s day and sleeping cabins · Tilawa crew – in the waist · Indian women and children – in admirals day and dining cabins · Deck passengers (men) – on hangar deck and starboard hangar Goanese stewards from Tilawa assisted in the pantries and were very helpful. As the Tilawa sank in the middle of the night, unsuspecting European passengers were either in night clothes or very lightly clad. In many cases, Indian survivors were very inadequately clad. The European men were kitted up with shirts and shorts, but towels and shoes were required. The Indian survivors were borrowed towels and blankets, while their clothes, if any, were being hung out to dry. Those without clothes, were given a few yards and cleaning cloth to cover themselves. They used this to make sarongs. Practically most of the survivors were unable to get on board without assistance and had to be lifted or carried. HMS Birmingham carried two small planes (swordfish) which helped in locating boats and rafts and rendered a most useful service.

The HMS Birmingham arrived in Bombay and berthed at Ballard pier at 17h00 on Friday, 27th November 1942. The quay side was packed with anxious relatives and friends inquiring of the safety of their loved ones. A massive reception awaited the survivors. Tables were laid out with food, refreshments and warm clean clothing. My mother spotted me in the crowd’s hustle and bustle and was so overjoyed she started telling everyone that because of her generosity in donating rice to the destitute and poor, she has been blessed with the survival and safe return of her son. 641 passengers were rescued by the HMS Birmingham and 4 by the HMS Cartage. 285 passengers and 28 crew members were lost at sea on that tragic night.

The young married couple in whose care I had been placed was not among the survivors.

Special thanks to: The National Maritime Museum, London
Imperial War Museum, London
P & O Steam Navigation Co, London
Professor Masanori Hattori (Department of Military History), Japan For supplying photographs of the MV Tilawa, HMS Birmingham, Submarine JP 1-29