How soldiers sang their way to safety

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 March, 2009, 12:00am

Signaller Sydney Catt was just 18 when he sailed out from the English port of Plymouth aboard the Tyndareus.

He and colleagues from D Company, part of the 25th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, went first to Freetown in Sierra Leone before sailing along the South African coast, where the ship hit a German mine off Cape Agulhas on February 6, 1917. He described in his memoirs the moment the Tyndareus hit the mine.

'At about six in the evening, with the sun still shining, I was again working out our speed from the log ... a terrific explosion occurred forward and the ship shuddered. We stood agape, and some nit said, 'We've burst a boiler.' Within seconds the colonel shouted from the bridge; 'Stand steady. Now is your opportunity to behave like Englishmen. Get to your stations and await orders.'

'I had been allotted to a raft with about 20 others and so we stood by. I kept going to the side to see how fast we were sinking, and made a mental note that when the ship was down to a certain mark, I would get out of it and get clear of the ship.

'Then something happened which will remain in my memory as one of the highlights of my life. Someone forward ... started to sing: There's A Long, Long Trail A'Winding, a song we were mad on at the time; one of the great war songs. In no time, the whole battalion was singing and the colonel looked down in amazement.'

Catt went on to describe how several ships came to meet them and the men were offloaded into lifeboats. 'I am glad to have experienced it all, and seen how a well-disciplined crowd of men will behave at a nerve-wracking moment. Had there been panic to get on one of the few lifeboats, how differently it could all have ended.'

Catt would head on to Singapore, while A and B company of the 25th Battalion came to Hong Kong. Tyndareus was saved and repaired, and continued to work until 1960.