“when Does This Place Get To New York?”


Captain (later sir) Cyril Illingworth of the Mary was sailing on a prearranged zigzag course. What happened next was seven minutes of horror. It is awful enough to contemplate an automobile crash at thirty miles an hour. Consider a sailor’s feelings as he sees a razor-sharp skyscraper of 81,000 tons bearing down at thirty miles an hour, with four of the world’s largest propellers churning her through the sea.

The Mary first caught the Curaçao a glancing blow eleven feet from the stern, spun her ninety degrees, then clove her midships, slicing her in two. GIs ran from side to side of the Mary to see first the stern half and then the forward half of the cruiser sink, the sailors struggling and drowning in the water. Of their reactions, Deutschman recalled only that the word he kept hearing was “serious”: “Hey, this looks serious!” It was. The Mary radioed for help, but only 101 officers and men out of the 439 were saved, including the Curaçao ’s captain, a veteran of twenty-five years in the Royal Navy. The Mary did not stop to pick up survivors, but half an hour later she stopped for emergency repairs. Every GI had had hammered into his head two facts. One was that the Mary stopped for nothing . Another was that the waters around Ireland crawled with U-boats. The troops had a full hour to ponder these facts before the ship got under way again.

Two months later, on December 10, the Mary may have come within inches of the most apocalyptic disaster in maritime history. According to some, she was hit by a “rogue” wave. Waves are driven in trains of varying power and speed. Occasionally in stormy weather two waves will synchronize. Much more rarely, three and even four waves will gather together in simultaneous momentum to create a wall of water seven or eight stories high.

Seven hundred miles from the British coast, the Mary , carrying fifteen thousand troops, encountered appalling weather. One monstrous wave rose vertically to her starboard and fell on her, broadside. Aboard on that voyage was Frank H. Teagle, Jr., a technical sergeant in the 30th Engineers, today a retired printer in Woodstock, Vermont. “It was the Mary ’s ninety-first voyage,” he remembers. “The wave hit at 9:00 P.M. I was in my cot in the tourist-class lounge and held on. There was no panic, simply because of the men’s innocence of conditions at sea. They thought storms were always like that. I had had sea experience, and was more frightened.” He had reason to be. As the London Daily Mail subsequently reported, “The Mary listed until her upper decks were awash and those who had sailed in her since she first took to sea were convinced that she would never right herself. Her safety depended on no more than five degrees. Had she gone those inches further to port, Mary would have been no more.”


The mass of GIs on deck were sent rolling into the scuppers. Fortunately, the railings were boarded up to minimize the escape of light, otherwise many would have been thrown overboard. Miraculously, the Mary did right herself; if she had gone down with all hands, it would have cost a loss of life ten times that of the Titanic .

Nirvous consciousness of the Mary ’s vulnerability )ervaded the British war effort, and it affected everyme from Downing Street to the crews themselves. The ship was well enough armed for defensive purposes. But she was so vast. Laurence Naismith, a well-known peacetime actor, then a captain of Royal Artillery in charge of arming merchant ships, studied the Mary in dock. “All I could think of,” he has said, “was that a few Swordfish bi-planes of the Fleet Air Arm were enough to cripple the Bismarck , and leave her helpless for the Royal Navy to sink her. The Prince of Wales and the Repulse were sunk by a handful of Jap fighters. All it needs is a few Luftwaffe dive-bombers with pilots ready to die for the Führer and it’s ’bye ’bye Mary .” (Mr. Naismith’s postwar roles, incidentally, include that of the captain of the Titanic in A Night to Remember and commander of naval operations at the admiralty in Sink the Bismarck .)