The Vault

One Sailor’s Sketched Memories of a World War II Shipwreck

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Artist John Kingsley Cook, a wireless officer in the British merchant navy, sailed for Malta on the ship Empire Guillemot in the summer of 1941. The island held strategic importance for the British war effort, and served as a base of operations beginning in 1940.

Because of its position, Malta came under periodic attack from the air, and supply lines to the island were under threat. The Empire Guillemot, sailing in disguise, successfully delivered fodder for Maltese livestock. Its sailors spent a few weeks on the island, awaiting ship repairs.

When they finally sailed in October 1941, they suffered an attack by an Italian torpedo bomber, and the ship sank. The two images below represent Cook’s memories of the time the crew spent on a crammed-full lifeboat.

I particularly like the cross-section view of the sailors underneath the canvas at night-time. Cook wrote in his unpublished memoirs:

We were so tightly packed that our limbs and bodies seemed all mixed up. Some of us lay hugging each other for warmth and I can remember a hand that reached out in the darkness and held mine. We seemed to derive some comfort from this human contact for we lay like that for some time though neither of us knew whose hand we held.

At the ship’s mate’s behest, Cook kept track of whose turn it was to stand watch while the men were on the lifeboat.  He jotted the list on the back of a navigational chart, Half of the men on this list drowned when the lifeboat capsized a few days after the shipwreck.

Cook and his surviving compatriots swam to shore and found themselves in Algeria (then under control of Vichy France). The sailors were imprisoned for a year, and set free after the Allies arrived in North Africa in 1942.

The above excerpt from Cook’s memoirs is used by permission of his daughter Bridget Cook. John Kingsley Cook’s drawings are on display at the Royal Museums Greenwich, as part of the exhibit “War Artists at Sea,” through August 2014.

“The lifeboat amongst the wreckage.” John Kingsley Cook.

Collection of Royal Museums Greenwich.

“Under the canvas at night.” John Kingsley Cook.

Collections of Royal Museums Greenwich.

“List made in the lifeboat to divide the watches.” (L: List side. R: The back of the scrap of chart.) John Kingsley Cook.

Collection of Royal Museums Greenwich.