DOWN MEMORY LANE How my heroic brother managed to cheat death

A Rose Green man has been remembering his brother who was one of just seven survivors of a U-boat attack nearly 70 years ago.

Ernie Ragless said Able Seaman George Ragless was a happy-go-lucky man who enjoyed his pint.

“He never did talk about his experiences. It was a mystery to me,” said Ernie.

AB Ragless was aboard the defensively-armed merchant ship Empire with a cargo of coal when she sailed from Durban in South Africa for Aden on July 8, 1943.

Their journey went smoothly until 4.01pm on July 15 when the ship was struck by two torpedoes 260 miles from Madagascar.

The Empire went down within 30 seconds of the explosion and all the lifeboats went with her.

“I was taken down by the suction but, after some difficulty, managed to swim clear,” said AB Ragless, who gave his account of the sinking and its aftermath to the Public Records Office.

“The sea was extremely rough and, although at first I saw lights in the water and heard whistles, I believe many men subsequently died.”

Six rafts had floated clear of the ship as she sank. AB Ragless swam on to one of the worst-conditioned ones after 45 minutes in the water.

That period had seen the submarine surface and pass some 200 yards away from him.

AB Ragless managed to attract the attention of four survivors on another raft the next morning.

He joined them and they steered for Madagascar using a makeshift sail and mast.

They had basic food supplies but little water and yet managed to survive until they reached land on August 2 or 3 after 18 days afloat.

They were washed up just north of Farafangana on Madagascar’s east coast. AB Ragless joined the two other survivors in good health walking inland until they found a small village and were invited to share a meal.

A French missionary visited the village and they made their way to Durban, with some 100 other survivors from torpedoed vessels, by ship.

They arrived back in England in a convoy on November 5.

AB Ragless returned to life as a fisherman in Bognor after the war.

The U-boat which sank the Empire Lake, the U-181, was commanded by Korvettenkapit Wolfgang Lüth.

He recorded the incident in his log: “Five men have been left floating on a piece of wreckage.

“Due to the high sea, and 180 mile distance from land, they will probably not be saved.”

Korvettenkapit Wolfgang Lüth failed to outlast the war by more than a week. He was returning to his quarters in Germany on May 14,1945, when a sentry shot him for failing to give the entry password.