An extraordinary WWII story of heroism and forgiveness involving a Liverpool-born sailor has emerged after 80 years.
William Swinchin, of Dingle, was serving on the steamer Etrib when she was torpedoed by a German U-boat in the Atlantic on June 15, 1942. The ship sank, the second officer and an able seaman were lost, but the rest of the crew of around 40 were saved.
But Mr. Swinchin himself managed to survive in an amazing way. Thanks to his ability as a swimmer, he managed to swim alone in the dark for an hour and a half. Then he bumped into what he found to be a raft and climbed aboard. The raft was designed for 20 men and supplied with basic provisions for food and drink.
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He then drifted alone in the raft for no less than 75 days – a total of 11 weeks – during which time he saw no human beings or ships to rescue him. Mr Swinchin ran out of food and in his last three weeks on the raft he had nothing to eat, only water to drink. She was nearing the end of her endurance when, on August 29, she was sighted by a German U-boat. He hadn’t seen it himself, being too weak and exhausted to keep a lookout.
The submarine. U-214, came alongside and took it. He was under the charge of Lieutenant Commander Gunter Reeder, who – despite being his enemy in war – proved to be a true friend. Mr. Swinchin was well cared for, wrapped up, placed in a berth and, for six weeks in the submarine, he was restored to good condition.
He later said that without the friendly care the submarine crew gave him, he could not have survived. When at last they landed him in Brest and handed him over to the German authorities, he exchanged with the lieutenant-commander the promise that they would write to each other after the war.
Mr Swinchin then spent the rest of the war in POW camps, along with a number of other Liverpool sailors, from October 1942 until Germany’s defeat in May 1945.
His astonishing story was finally revealed when it was told by the Liverpool Daily Post in October 1945. The report said of Mr Swinchin, then aged 40: “He is a very modest man and he does not like the stories; and when he arrived home and joined his wife and two children a few weeks ago, he kept his experiences a secret… The facts, however, were brought to the attention of the Daily Post yesterday , who authenticated them down to the smallest detail.”
True to his promise to the commander of the German submarine that had rescued him, Mr. Swinchin later received a typed letter from Lieutenant Commander Reeder. In it, he reveals that the submarine he commanded at the time was sent to the bottom of the sea two years later, near the south coast of England.
The letter adds: “At the time I was not on board, as I had been seriously injured some time ago by an English plane, and I was just in hospital. Because of this injury, my left hand and arm are partially paralyzed, so it’s hard for me to find a job, and I’m no longer a Navy officer.”
With the typical British understatement of the time, Mr Swinchin said of him: “He was a German, but, believe me, he was a very decent fellow.”