Obituary: Capt William McVicar

Campbell Thomas
Friday 15 August 1997 23:02

William McVicar was responsible for guiding an open lifeboat packed with fellow survivors more than 1,500 miles to safety, in one of the epic examples of human endurance in the Second World War. His unrivalled qualities as a seaman saved many young lives and his achievements highlight the often forgotten part that civilian merchant navy personnel played in wartime.

The events followed the sinking of SS Britannia off the African coast on 23 March 1941. McVicar was a 26-year-old third officer aboard the 8,799- ton passenger vessel bound from Liverpool to Bombay when a German surface raider attacked with 70 shells from its six-inch gun. Britannia fired back to no effect and the 300 passengers and crew of 100 crowded into four lifeboats.

One of the grossly overloaded boats, carrying 82 survivors, was commanded by McVicar. He set a course for South America, 1,500 miles away, in preference to Dakar, which was 600 miles distant but inaccessible due to prevailing winds and currents. He put up a sail and immediately rationed the men to one ounce of water and one biscuit with a scraping of condensed milk per day.

The lifeboats had been machine-gunned and some of the men were wounded, but McVicar kept their spirits up and organised duties for those fit enough, including lookouts and the collecting of precious rainwater. After they were 23 days at sea, exposed to all the elements, land was sighted, but by that time 44 men had died of their wounds or from exposure and the remaining 38 were in very poor health. They dragged themselves ashore near Sao Louis, Brazil, where they were discovered the following morning by a group of fishermen who fed them and took them in canoes up river to a hospital run by nuns at Corupu.

The British Consul was informed by a note scribbled by McVicar and the survivors were repatriated after their recovery. McVicar was appointed MBE for his courage and leadership but rarely discussed the ordeal, apart from telling his friends and family that he could never face condensed milk again.

His pregnant wife Nina, a sister in the Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Service, was told he was missing on the night the Clydebank blitz wreaked havoc close to their home in Greenock. She received the news that he had survived on Easter Day, and it later emerged that 200 people, half of those aboard Britannia, had survived.

Only three months after the Britannia sinking, the next vessel he sailed on, the troopship SS California, was bombed and sunk by torpedoes and gunfire in the Bay of Biscay. McVicar, a non-swimmer, again found himself in the water, but was rescued with most of his crew within hours. He took part in the 1944 Normandy landings and put ashore a unit from the Green Howards on D-Day, finishing the war bringing home British prisoners of the Japanese.

McVicar was born at Southend, Mull of Kintyre, in 1914, a son of the manse, the third in a family of five sons and a daughter, and was educated at Campbeltown Grammar School. He joined the merchant navy as a cadet aged 17.

At the end of the Second World War, he resumed his lifelong career, with the (now long defunct) Anchor Line, sailing all over the world from Yorkhill Quay, Glasgow. His ship was trapped for weeks in the canal zone during the Suez Crisis of the 1950s.

He became a senior captain of the Anchor Line and was master of its last passenger ship, the Elysia. He retired in 1975 in the age of new technology, by which time he could pinpoint his position anywhere in the world to within 20 yards at the push of two buttons. However he spoke of having started his life at sea on an open bridge with no aides to navigation apart from compass, sextant and charts.

William "Mac" McVicar died peacefully at his home in Troon, Ayrshire, a stone's throw from his beloved sea.

Campbell Thomas

William McVicar, merchant seaman: born Southend, Mull of Kintyre 12 May 1914; married Nina Tawse (three daughters); died Troon, Ayrshire 9 August 1997.

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