Lost at Sea

John Charles Alphonse Jenks

J. C. A. Jenks was a Sub-Lieutenant in Royal Navy, in the summer of 1917 Jenks went out on patrol in a small boat with another individual referred to as 'Robinson'. However, whilst they were out a mist came down, causing them to lose all sight of their landing point. They ended up lost at sea for over a week with little provisions. Eventually they found some land, and were escorted for several days towards a town. At this point they found they had landed in Turkish territory, and were imprisoned as prisoners of War. Below is reproduced the tale was printed in the Chronicle April 1918, reproduced from Jenks' first letter to his parents after his capture, telling them the story. It is an incredibly light-hearted account of an incredibly difficult 8 days, during which they had close to no sustenance or any idea of where they were. Jerks was awarded the French Croix de Guerre less than a month after his capture.

The Grammar School Chronicle

April 1918

Page 316

Observer Sub-Lieut. J. C. A. Jenks, R.N.,

Prisoner of War,

Under Turkish Commander Nafiz Bey,

Tripolis,

via Konstantinopol

18/07/1917

 

My dear Mother and Father, - Another new address at last! You must have had a very anxious time waiting – while I was reported missing, so I had better tell you how I managed to get here. On Sunday, 8th July, about 10.15, I was in the ante-room having some selections from “Tina” on the gramophone all to myself, when up comes a messenger to say I was to go out on patrol with Robinson. Hurried down to the machine, and in a few minutes we were off. It was only supposed to be a short trip, so we put nothing special on. Robbie, in fact, had no coat, collar or tie.

. . . After being out two hours, we found a mist had sprung up and that we had lost the island. About two o’clock we missed our only chance of being rescued. A French hospital ship, with escort, came into view, but Robbie thought it too rough to land, so we continued to search for the island. At three we came down for an hour, saw nothing, and decided to stay on the sea all night. In the morning we thought the wind was blowing away from the island, so flew for thirty minutes, and with the same fear in the evening flew another thirty minutes. Still we saw nothing, and at last our petrol was exhausted and we had to stop on the water whether we liked it or not. By careful calculation, we reckoned we were only 35 to 40 miles from home, and we still think we were more or less right. About seven o’clock on Tuesday evening our hopes rose high – two steamers came up over the horizon, but did not approach nearer than fifteen miles. We waved furiously, and fired off Very lights, and thought that help would surely come in the morning. Just after this we had an awful fright – Robbie thought he saw a periscope a little way off in the water and we were mortally afraid we should be bagged by a submarine before our rescue came. Submarine or no submarine, it never came near us – nor did any ship or sea-plane. Wednesday afternoon we were very down-hearted. All we had to eat was a small bottle of Horlick’s Malted Milk tablets, and were obliged to drink the dirty water from the radiator of the engine – which, luckily, was water-cooled.

 Another hope: Wednesday evening, smoke on the horizon, but it never materialised into anything more solid. The wind was now blowing N W., taking us S. E., away from the island. The days were hot and the nights bitterly cold and damp, and we had only one old coat between the two of us! During the day I rigged up an overhead W.T. aerial, but our instruments were too weak to so any good. From time to time one of us would get the hump, and then the other would do the cheering up game. Our malted milk tablets were now running low; we could only have half a one for breakfast, same for lunch and dinner. They were great times – those meal times! if Robbie happened to be keeping the machine into the wind – he would yell out “Lunch ready to be served, sir! What will you have, sir? Horlick’s soup or malted lamb cutlets” And we would forthwith spit out the lump of paper or string which we happened to be chewing and slap our lips over half a tablet. By jingo, they were fine, with those and the water we just managed to live. Every day, right from the start, we said to each other, “Oh, something will turn up; we can last out another two days, anyhow!”

Thursday was our worst day. The wind and sea came along hard from the N.W.; the rollers – which fortunately, did not break – were anything from 30 to 50 feet high. We felt bally awful. Still, the great hope of seeing “England, home and beauty” once more – if eating strawberries and cream in Brown’s Café, made us hang on with the skin of our teeth. About 11.40 p.m. an awful accident happened – the starboard (right) wing tip float (the thing which keeps the wing out of the water) broke away, and so the beastly boat would not balance. Hereafter, we had to take turns sitting on the other wing to balance matters up. We were always afraid the other float would go – there was now so much strain on it, and, of course, if it had gone, well, the whole jolly show would have turned turtle, or sunk till only the top plane was left. That never happened – that’s why we’re here! We were getting so exhausted and tired by now, that night watches were practically a wash-out.

Friday. – This day bring the 13th, we had high hopes of something happening – especially as Robbie had just won a “pony” in a raffle with No. 13! The wind happily moderated, but quite a lot of water got into the hull of the boat, which had to be baled out. And, by the bye, the dirty, rusty water in the radiator was now tasting like champagne! About now our poor little Marys were getting so empty that we suddenly remembered only too well how fine were the times we had at home in calmer times. I told Robbie that when “the” ship came along (a ship, it was understood, was bound to come some time or other), we would get leave, and that he should come and stay with us and see if we couldn’t beat Canadian strawberries and cream!

Saturday morning arrived, and when we had thawed a little we settled down to our sumptuous breakfasts. By now we had cut out “lunch” altogether. Revived by “Brekker,” I had a tremendous brain wave: By careful calculation, we thought we might be going about 2.5 to 3 knots an hour, and that therefore, if the wind kept steady, we might by Tuesday fetch up on the coast of Africa. This bucked us up muchly, till the afternoon – when the wind dropped. So did our hope, as we knew we must now be much too far south of the shipping between Port Said and the island.

Sunday, the 15th. – You remember the grand picnic I was going to have, I made all arrangements, invited everyone, and lo, the great day arrives and I am floating round on the sea and have been for a whole week; Robbie turned cheerful, though, and wished me “Many happy returns of the day” – though whether he meant them to be spent on this earth he discreetly did not say!

About ten o’clock we noticed that the sky towards the S.S.W. looked very red – as though from the reflection of heat from sand, and a little later Robbie – who was sitting on the front plane – really thought he had gone balmy, for he fancied he saw sails in the distance; and later still he jumped up with such a bump that the boat lost its balance, and one wing slipped into the water. By much straining of eyes, small sticks like trees could be seen on the horizon. Great excitement; a rush for the top plane. The coast line seemed to be N. and S. a little inclined to South, and as we were moving South, too, it took quite a time to get near the shore; in fact, though we first sighted it at 11. a.m., it was not till evening that we were close enough to see what kind of country it was. About 7 p.m., we sighted a ship, and found we were making right for her – but alas! she was an abandoned ship on the rocks. By 9 p.m., we could hear breakers on the shore, which looked much indented, and at 10 p.m., we were rushing full tilt for the shore. By a strange coincidence, we made straight for the wrecked ship, and were just able to miss it and crash upon the rocks in the shelter it afforded. All the evening we had thought we had seen a village close, and had wondered what kind of stew we should be made into; whether we should be met by a gentleman in flowing robes on a prancing gee-gee, or a gleeful black warrior with large earrings and an ever-growing “pot”!!! We had great ideas, too, of capturing tigers and lions with a Very’s light pistol!! But, most of all, we thought we were near the Italians, and that we should be home once more.

 

Well, the old seaplane slid on the rocks very well, and, not withstanding the quite big seas, we got off practically dry. After eight days on the sea, our legs were so weak that we reeled about the shore like drunken men, and, as it was about five in the morning, and as soon as possible had a good look round. The old steamer had evidently been wrecked for months, so it was no good trying to get food from her. It was a heart-breaking coast, nothing but sand hills and flat country covered with small, stubby bushes. We were very thankful when we found footprints in the sand – rather recent, they seemed, too – for, mounting a little knoll and looking round, we spotted a man about a mile off, who, however, pushed off when he saw us looked at him. Though feeling very groggy on our pins, we started a little tour in the same direction, but could not get near the person we had seen. Still, we found a kind of berry growing and made a meal off them. Then, just as we were thinking of returning to our “base,” we heard a shout, and on looking round saw an Arab soldier complete with camel. This was really great and fortunate (so we thought, then), and we were soon sitting down gulping great mouthfuls of meal and water. This johnnie had apparently found the machine in our absence, as he had with him my coat and our shoes and socks, etc., and. as he seemed desirous of pushing on, we decided that it would be wiser to go with him. So, turning our backs on our old pal, the seaplane, we marched along with the Arab. By this time (11 o’clock) it was fearfully hot, and after a few miles I felt so done up that I had to have a lift on the camel.

 

About five miles further on, the camel konked out, and I then had to walk. Happily our guide knew of a hermit who lived among the sand hills all around, the colour of very light biscuit, and in the little dell in the middle two fresh water springs with cucumbers, tomatoes and melons growing. The old hermit, a most repulsively dirty wretch, sat in a spot sheltered from the sun. The water was fine. Our lips were swollen and so were our tongues, feeling like pieces of dry leather. Here, the soldier gave us to understand that we were en route for a large town, and that we should reach it by sunset. This seemed a deuce of a way; still we were cheered up by the idea that we should soon see a British consul and be lodged in a comfortable hotel – we determined we should rest for at least three days and regain our lost strength on choice fruits, afterwards leisurely journeying back to our base We talked in this strain the whole journey, and it was only that which made us keep our peckers up.

 

At 2 o’clock we had another three hours’ march – the camel being nearly done in, we all three had to march. Heavens! I shall never forget that tramp – nothing but desert all round, and the atmosphere was so rarefied that huge lumps of land seemed to be floating about in the air, or rather in a great sea of blue. About 4 o’clock we reached the tumbledown castle we had seen from the sea, and had another hour’s rest in the shade it afforded. While we were sitting there an Italian cruiser passed quite close in shore, and we thought we should soon be at the port en route for home. It was five when we again started – with mouths like bakers’ ovens and legs and feet like bars of lead. Evening was drawing on, however, and we thought we should be at our destination by sunset, and this gave us extra spirits.

 

By 8 o’clock the camel was done in, and we, being overtaken by a man with a donkey, decided to follow him and lose no time. About seven miles in front a hill loomed up from the awful desert, and, as far as we could make out, the town was just behind it. How we walked! Just as the sun went down we rounded its base, and, another seven miles off, there was another hill, but no town could be seen! That night we pushed on as far as the next hill, where some Arab shepherds were living in tents, and there we literally dropped. An Arab gave us a cane mat and a rug, and we went to sleep under the stars.

 

Early next morning we found our old friend, the soldier had turned up – though without camel and without food – and soon we were on the road again. The previous day we had set out on a good meal, and with plenty of water on the camel; but this morning we trotted off on empty stomachs and the old Horlick’s bottle half full of water. Our feet were badly blistered, and the sun came up with alarming rapidity. We were absolutely done to the world. Still, we struggled on, and at last came upon some palm trees and the semblance of a road. With many rests in the shade of the trees, we at last came to a tumbledown town. Everywhere the houses seemed to have been destroyed – where ever the people lived was a mystery. Anyhow, there was a well there, and about a bucketful of good, cool water disappeared beneath our waist lines.

 

Once on the road again, we had quite a following. Robbie induced a weird looking gent on a donkey to give me a lift for a few minutes, and later on, when I was on the last notch, he neatly knocked a young fellow off another so that I could get along better. About 11.30 we at last arrived at the gates of a city, and were very bucked up to see a modern building or two For the next half mile we were followed by a howling mob, with a gentleman in front yelling out “Inglaise!” at the top of his voice. By the time we had arrived at the main street, I should think hundreds were following, kicking up an awful din. It must have been the funniest sight going. We were marched into an old doorway, where we at once took the opportunity of sitting down. The whole place got crowded with Arabs, and Robbie yelled out in bull’s voice for the Italian! An Italian soldier brought us some water, and suddenly a voice said in English, “Oh, so you are English are you?” “Yes,” we replied, and the speaker went on, “Well, I am a German, and this place is in the hands of the Turks, so you are prisoners here!”

 

I’ve had many surprises in my life, but I think that one took the biscuit. Robbie’s face – with eight days’ rosy red growth, very dusty and dirty – was a picture, and no mistake. We soon found that we were in the town jail, and were pushed into a very dirty cell and given a bottle of water and a few dried dates. We remained there for several hours, and then were taken before the Turkish commander, where we also saw another German officer, who spoke English. They were exceedingly nice to us, and said that thought there was a great difference between Africa and Europe, still they would make us as comfortable as possible. At present we are still in the prison though moved to a slightly better room. It is not over pleasant, though. Arabs are imprisoned all round us, and the cries and groans do not make the sweetest music.

 

The general commanding the whole country is coming in a few days, and then we hope to be moved elsewhere. Our great hope is that they will send us to Constantinople, where there are many English prisoners, and where we should be much better off. We have a black fellow – Mahomet – for our servant, and he also speaks a little English, which is a great help. He also acts as our “armed escort” when we go out for a walk, which we are allowed to do at any time of the day, so long as he is with us. There are no shops or anything in the town, only tumbledown houses, and as it is awfully hot we go out very little. We have been told that you may send us small parcels – they must not be bulky or heavy. And, by jingo! we want lots of things… The food here is good, but too much of a sameness. … At present we have nothing to do but to look at each other, and, though a thing of beauty is a joy for ever, still, even Robbie’s cheerful mug gets monotonous after a time! Please write very often, as it is likely that letters may never reach this out of the way spot. Any letters are welcome, and everyone who writes shall be blessed! Best love to all at home and Maurice,

Your ever-loving son, Jack