Margaret Maberley Gordon

Margaret Maberley Gordon (1910-1999)

It is right that ‘This is not Yesterday’ should embark with my Great Aunt Margaret.

Margaret Gordon’s story is of compelling and utter fortitude in the face of the most desperate of situations. Never once in her ninety years did she dwell upon her ordeal. A practical, engaging stalwart of a woman; here follows her story, which has been compiled from her personal chronicle, an obituary, and other papers left in the security of her nephew Stuart Gordon.

The following appeared in the Melbourne News shortly after Margaret’s death in May 1999:

“One night, at the height of World War II, a man and a woman sit in a small lifeboat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and recite Gray’s Elegy. They are alone; the other 14 on the boat have perished from exposure and dehydration. They finish the timeless poem but are so weak the effort means they almost lose their voices.

Later the two are picked up by a Brazilian Corvette, ending a 52 day ordeal that is one of the most remarkable stories of survival of the entire war. It involved a partnership of two people overcoming the odds through great reserves of strength, mental toughness, improvisation and sheer will to live.”

The man was James ‘Knocker’ White, a Scottish ships officer; the woman was Margaret Gordon, from Melbourne. Using makeshift sails as crude as blankets attached to oars, they travelled more than 2000 miles, weathering storms, huge seas, a lack of food and water and the horror of observing fellow boat members die one-by-one in an epic struggle for survival at sea.

In her lifetime Margaret Gordon never talked publicly about her survival. That was her fortitude. She did write a 13 page account for her mother, but insisted it was not for publication.

Margaret was awarded a British Empire Medal in recognition of her ‘exceptional qualities of fortitude and endurance’. But even in the days of empire fervour, this generated little Australian interest. One factor perhaps, was a widespread local assumption that women could not be among war’s real heroes, that their role was limited to nurturing support. Margaret Gordon’s story jarred with this wisdom. She displayed a bravery and grace that few – men or women – could even aspire to.

In 1936 Margaret Maberley Smith stopped off at Quetta, India, to stay with family and friends, en route to England to attend the Coronation of Edward VIII. There she met Crawford Gordon, a Scot and a deputy chief-engineer with the Bengal-Assam Railways in Baluchistan. They married in St Thomas Cathedral, Bombay, in October 1937, when she was 27 and he was 40.

According to Ralph Baker, in his Book Goodnight Sorry for Sinking You, Margaret’s features ‘were too strong for stereotyped feminine beauty’ but she was a ‘handsome woman’ while her husband had the ‘orthodox good looks of the ascetic Scot’.

After Japan forced the British out of Burma, Crawford Gordon fled to the Himalayan foothills by river boat. He was struck down with Dengue fever, an eruptive and infectious disease that caused excruciating pain in his joints accompanied by acute prostration and debility. Margaret also suffered the same condition while nursing her husband, but stamina and mental toughness inured her against the post-sickness depression that inflicted him. Crawford Gordon did not fare well and as a result of his Dengue suffered a nervous breakdown and was a victim to a persecution mania.

Crawford’s doctors advised him to leave India. The couple secured a passage on the SS City of Cairo, an 8000 tonne passenger boat that had seen better days but with cabins that retained traces of an Edwardian charm. There were 300 passengers and crew, a uniquely war-affected group of returning elderly Indian civil servants, judges, businessmen, young war widows and tradesmen returning from an ill-fated British war-time glider project in India.


Setting sail from Bombay, the Cairo crossed the Indian Ocean to Durban, rounded the South African coast to Cape Town, moved further up the west coast of Africa, and then headed across the Atlantic for South America. From there the plan was to hug the American coast as far as Halifax, Nova Scotia, then make the final crossing to England with a Royal Navy escort.

The Cairo’s lone trans-Atlantic voyage, with an average speed of barely 10 Knots, made it a sitting duck for a U-boat wolf pack. The German Navy had already ordered the Polar Bear Group, consisting of four submarines, to attack allied ships off Cape Town. In earlier forays, individual U-boat captains had gone to the rescue of the passengers of the boats they had sunk, but this piece of naval chivalry was made verboten by headquarters in Berlin.

The Cairo took evasive action, zig-zagging across the South Atlantic, making the journey more than 4000 miles.

Six days out of Cape Town, on the 6th November at 8.30pm, a German U-boat fired a single bow tube torpedo at the Cairo from a range of 500 metres. Twenty-nine seconds later it struck ‘with a sickening thud’, to use Margaret Gordon’s words. ‘There seemed to be no panic – we went quickly down to our own cabin on the sloon deck, collected our warm clothing, survival bags, and the torches we had placed ready and returned to the deck’

Margaret’s lifeboat was cast adrift from the ship before Crawford Gordon had time to enter it. Later he jumped on another lifeboat, but it took on water and its occupants were caught in the suction as the Cairo went down, and he drowned. Margaret’s boat capsized after the U-boat fired another torpedo and she was thrown into the sea. She was pulled into the same boat, which had righted itself, and later transferred to the smaller 21-feet long boat four, commandeered by the Cairo’s Third Officer, James ‘Knocker’ Whyte, then only 25.


Margaret & Crawford Gordon as newly-weds

The U-boat surfaced 2 hours after torpedoing the Cairo. Kapitan Karl-Fredrich Merten gave the survivors of his own torpedo-attack the position of St Helena, the nearest island, and the final resting place of the exiled Napoleon Bonaparte. It was 500 miles north-west. Then Merten bade them farewell:

‘Goodnight, sorry for sinking you’ he said, and his U-boat disappeared.


The U-boat Commander, Kapitan Karl-Fredrich Merten

The six surviving lifeboats headed for St Helena and tried to stick together. They managed to tie up every night for seven nights, but after that, the small lifeboat, boat four, which included Margaret Gordon, became separated from the main group.

On boat 4 they hoisted a makeshift sail and used the prevailing breezes to head for St Helena.

Rations were sparse, consisting of 2 kegs and 2 tanks of water, tins of dry biscuits, pemmican – a form of dried meat, once traditional fare at sea – chocolate and Horlicks milk tablets.

Each day rations for one person consisted of about 2 spoons of water, one biscuit, one teaspoon of pemmican, one piece of chocolate and a Horlicks tablet at noon; and in the evening one biscuit, chocolate and pemmican. ‘The chocolate was pleasant to eat, but the others were incredibly difficult to get down with such a small ration of water’, Margaret wrote. They also had six blankets and a few warm clothes.

At 32 Margaret Gordon was the oldest on boat four, one year older than ‘Solly’ Solomon, one of the returning glider men. On total there were 16 on board: 10 Lascars, or Indian Cabin Crew, and 6 European crew members and passengers.

Margaret trailed clothes over the side to clean and dry them. She made moccasins out of the canvas sail cover for men who had no shoes and massaged their legs with whale oil, and she made rakish, brigand-like hats out of the sail cover, sewing them with lengths of binder twine.

The apparently trivial made a big difference to morale. Clean mouths, for example, had felt ‘incredibly dry and felt horribly crumby after eating the dry tack.’ She worked out that rinsing mouths out with sea water immediately before the fresh water ration didn’t make them thirsty. She used her Elizabeth Arden cold cream to treat cases of sunburn, and, with the aid of a mirror, helped others – and herself – to improve appearances.

Those first nights were cold, although the days were warm. Whyte and two other Cairo crew members shared watches at the helm. ‘We were now adjusting ourselves to the routine of life in the boat.’ Margaret wrote. ‘A couple of the lads had been torpedoed before, but we were all young and had no idea really of what we should do to keep ourselves fit, except that we had instructions about massaging our feet and legs with fish oil … The only other thing we were certain of were that we must try to eat as much as possible, and never drink salt water’.


Ralph Barker says there was ‘no one stronger on the boat than Margaret. She wasn’t critical and didn’t complain.’

Knocker Whyte did not find her anymore approachable than he found most women, but he admired her for her composure and adaptability and he found her, in his own vernacular, ‘easy on the eye’.

By this stage, ‘the chief trouble was to find something to pass the time’ Margaret wrote. ‘One day they made a fish hook and spinner out of old tin, but the rope was nearly all rotten and the first fish just went off with the line and hook and all…. something to read would have been a godsend, but there was nothing except some papers which parkie (Humphries, the Cairo’s electrician) and I had in our bags’.

But there were up moments ‘One lovely warm day we really quite enjoyed ourselves swimming over the side, one at a time in our underclothes. It was wonderfully refreshing and did us all good’.

Eleven days after the sinking, the larger lifeboats from the Cairo arrived at St Helena. But boat four had few navigational aids. Whyte calculated that they must be near St Helena, but he believed they could spend precious days fruitlessly looking for the island. ‘It was a question of continuing to sail about looking for St Helena, which was like looking for a needle in a haystack, or turning west with the wind, and sailing for the coast of South America’About 2250 miles from the point of sinking.

They took the fateful decision to push on. ‘I’m going to sail this boat to South America’, Whyte swore to the rest of those on board, ‘if I die in the attempt.’ Margaret described this in her chronicle: ‘And when I think of the temerity with which we made this choice I don’t think anyone except Knocker realised what it entailed’.

At this point, a Lascar on their boat died from exposure and dehydration. Another died the next day, and a third the day after, ‘and by the end of the week they (the Lascars) had all gone, save one.’ Margaret wrote. But ‘he couldn’t stand being alone so one day he threw himself overboard’.

The faith of the Indians in the next world had never faltered, and nor did their comradeship. According to Ralph Barker, ‘Even when to the Europeans it seemed clear that life was extinct, the surviving Asians, many of them near death themselves, squandered their precious water ration in irrigating the mouths and nostrils of corpse in the vain hope of reviving them’.

Fearing she would die before the rest, Margaret collected all the names and addresses of those remaining and retained the information in a simple diary where she also crossed off the days.

‘Some of the lads began to lose heart and gave up hope’ Margaret wrote.

‘They would lie about all day and refused to make any effort to do anything or eat anything as it made their thirst worse.’ Bill McGregor (a Cairo passenger who had been shockingly burned in an earlier war time battle) gave up and lay most of the time in the bow. ‘I Liked Bill, we used to talk a bit and he would tell me about his wife and baby at home, but there was nothing I could do to help him, except massage his legs and ease the cramp in them’.

‘The men kept on asking for Brandy and sal volatile (a popular drink at the time) which Knocker and I felt was not very good for them.’ As the remaining men began to weaken quickly the water ration was doubled, and Knocker and Margaret tried to persuade the others to eat by mixing dry rations with water. But they could not keep down the ‘pemmican soup’ and Horlicks milk.

After eighteen days Freddie Powell, another Cairo crew member, died and ‘this cast a deep gloom over us all. No one knew the prayers for burial so we all said the Lord’s Prayer as they lifted him over the side. It was the best we could do’. Bill Pirrie, another crew member, began to lose his eyesight so, ‘Knocker taught me to steer by compass and I relieved him on watch in the day time’.

Then the makeshift sail gave out, but Knocker mended it with various pieces of cloth, made a new tiller and put up new halyards. To give them more speed he made another makeshift sail and attached it to the oar. It was ‘unwieldy and difficult to handle’, Margaret wrote, ‘but it was amazing to see the strength Knocker could still summon to do these things, when all the others were weak and helpless. He was just determined to sail the boat and get somewhere.’

After twenty days Bill McGregor became violent then jumped overboard, yelled for help, but quickly disappeared. Six days later Bill Solomon, another Cairo crew member, died, leaving four remaining. ‘Knocker and I did everything between us as the other two men were lying up under the cover and couldn’t be persuaded to eat at all.’ They kept the boat sailing day and night, with three hour watches at night. When she was on watch Margaret steered by the stars, like the old Viking sailors, although when there was cloud cover she operated by the moon. When not at the tiller she bailed. ‘We tried to sleep as much as possible to conserve our strength’.

‘Some of the clear tropical nights were beautiful. My first watch came when the stars were bright and twinkling and the boat seemed to scud along much faster in the darkness. Sirius, the dog star, shone brilliantly astern, and towards morning we sailed directly into the path of the moon.’

‘After the long night watch it was encouraging and rather wonderful as day dawned to see the light coming up behind the serried banks of clouds in the east. One felt very much alone – to be the only living creature awake on the dark surface of the waves and completely at their mercy in our frail craft, a meagre speck on the ocean, with the vast arch of the skies above streaked with the bright hope of the new day. And yet it seemed as if there must be some Power guiding and protecting us on our way.’

By mid-December, after 5 weeks adrift, Margaret was extremely weak, but she kept up her end of this remarkable partnership. Their vision had deteriorated, their nails had turned brown, and they were increasingly deaf and obliged to shout at each other, even in the close confines of the boat. To maintain morale, ‘we made a business of combing our hair and tidying up. Knocker was very proud of his beard which made him look like an Elizabethan sea dog.’

It was, as Margaret wrote, a ‘strange existence….. we were not really companionable in that we could not talk more than necessary ‘ – it was too exhausting – ‘and when one was at the tiller the other was usually trying to sleep.’ One night they recited all the words of Gray’s Elegy together, ‘but the effort left us parched with thirst.’

Six weeks after being torpedoed Sparkie died, and two days later Bill Pirie gave up the battle, leaving the two alone. By this stage the main sail was finished, but Knocker hoisted two blankets on another oar ‘to blow us along a bit faster.’

One night, while Margaret was steering, a black bosun bird perched on one of the oars. ‘I thought this might be a hopeful sign, but all knocker said was ‘we must be a hell of a way from land for a bird to come and perch there all night for a rest.’

On the 22nd of December they passed a wooden crate and a twig, raising hopes that they had entered the shipping lanes of the South American coast. On Christmas Day, after drinking the last of the Brandy, they saw a plane ‘flying towards us quite fast and low over the water.’ But before they could light a smoke flare the plane had passed over ‘in spite of our frantic waving and shouting, which of course was quite useless.’ At that stage they had less than a week’s supplies left.

A few days later they were deluged with rain – the first in seven weeks. They collected water in empty tins and ‘sat there in the early dawn, absolutely drenched, but happy to be able to drink our fill.’

Later that day Margaret was dozing, but woke to hear the cry ‘ships, ships, ships!’ They hastily dropped flares into the water. All failed until the last one sent a huge cloud of red smoke into the sky. They were taken on board by a Brazilian corvette, which was sailing about 80 miles off the South American coast. ‘The rail was lined with smiling, friendly faces and strong hands quickly lifted us up on deck, sat us down, and gave us huge mugs of coffee.’

For the next few days Margaret and Knocker Whyte shared a cabin on the Brazilian corvette as it sped to Recife. But even after the relief and sense of shared achievement the relationship remained ‘formal, physically distant.’

Margaret recovered at the Recife hospital, then stayed with the local English community. Refusing to travel by sea again in war-time, she flew to New York, where she was appointed a Librarian for the Australian information service. She later resigned to join the Womens Royal Navy Service in Washington, where she remained until the end of the war.

Knocker Whyte was in hospital for a short period then flew to New York, where he was feted as a war-time hero. He told United Press that Margaret Gordon ‘never complained and she was more help to me than the men before they died. She wasn’t a large woman but was of the athletic type. She was easy on the eye and blonde.’

Later, Whyte boarded the City of Pretoria, which was carrying munitions, and headed for England. However, she was torpedoed and blew up with no survivors.

In December 1943 in Washington, Margaret was awarded the British Empire Medal by the British Ambassador, Lord Halifax. Her award and her story received a short single column story in the Melbourne Herald. She returned to Australia after the war, and in 1947 married Roy Ingham. They farmed in Victoria at Officer then at Benalla, near Melbourne, until Roy Ingham’s early death in 1959 by suicide.

So at 50, Margaret went back into training and became a qualified Librarian. She began as childrens librarian at South Melbourne, and in 1965 was appointed to a new position, overseeing childrens library services in public libraries throughout the state. She was an enthusiastic innovator, travelled widely and held regular meetings of country and city librarians.

So there is the story of my Aunt Margaret, which is compelling, more so now that I realise what I did not in my childhood, that Aunt Margaret was one of the most remarkable heroines of World War II.

Margaret Maberley Gordon (1910-1999)