Once before, the Ausonia had been struck by a torpedo, off the south coast of Ireland, in June, 1917, while on a voyage from Montreal to Avonmouth. In this case she was fortunately saved, and her valuable cargo of food stuffs safely discharged.
On the second occasion, while sailing from Liverpool, she was less fortunate. The Ausonia was some 600 miles west of the Irish coast at 5 p.m. on May 30th, when a torpedo struck her, causing a terrific explosion. As her Commander, Captain R. Capper, afterwards said, he saw rafts, ventilators, ladders, and all kinds of wreckage coming down as if from the sky, falling round the after part of the ship. Captain Capper who, at the moment, was at the entrance of his cabin, at once went to the bridge, put the telegraph to ' Stop ' — ' Full Speed Astern ' but received no reply from the Engine Room. All hands were at once ordered to their boat stations, and the wireless operator tapped out the ship's position on his auxiliary gear. Ten boats were lowered, and, within a quarter of an hour after the ship was struck, they had safely left her. When about a quarter of a mile astern, Captain Capper mustered them together and called the roll. It was then discovered that eight stewards were missing, having been at tea in a room immediately above the part of the ship struck by the torpedo.
Half an hour after the vessel was torpedoed, a periscope was sighted on the port bow, and an enemy submarine came to the surface and fired about 40 shells at the ship, some of these dropping within fifty yards of the boats. After the Ausonia had sunk, the submarine approached the boats, and Captain Capper, who was at the oars was ordered to come alongside. Upon the submarine's deck several of her crew were lounging, laughing and jeering at the shipwrecked survivors. After enquiring as to the Ausonia's cargo, the submarine commander ordered the boats to steer in a north- easterly direction ; in callous disregard of the peril which confronted the Ausonicfs crew the submarine herself then made off northwards.
Captain Capper gave orders to the officers in charge of the boats that they were to keep together, and endeavour to get into the track of convoys, the weather being fine at the time. Until midnight the boats were successful in remaining in each other's company, but the wind, having risen in the night, two boats, one of them in charge of the first officer, and the other in charge of the boatswain were, on the following morning, not to be seen.
Captain Capper had assembled the survivors in seven boats, and he now gave orders to the remaining five that they should make themselves fast together. In this formation, they continued throughout the following day and night, when the ropes began to part. They were also retarding progress and were therefore cast off, the boats, however, still continuing to remain pretty well together.
On Sunday, January 2nd, to add to the misery of their occupants, the weather became bad, heavy rain falling and soaking them all to the skin. On Monday and Tuesday, conditions improved a little, but on Wednesday a storm broke, and by mid-day a heavy sea was running, and a gale blowing from the north-west. The boats were now running before this, with great seas breaking over them and saturating everybody on board. These conditions continued until Friday the 7th, when land was at last sighted, turning out to be Bull Rock.
A wise and strict rationing had been enforced, only two biscuits a day, 7 and one ounce of water having been allowed for the first two days, and one biscuit and a half and four tablespoons of water the subsequent ration. The crew were approaching the extremities of exhaustion when hope of deliverance was awakened in them.
Fortunately, on sighting land, the wind fell a little, but it was another fifteen hours before the unhappy survivors were picked up by H.M.S. Zennia, an American Destroyer also assisting. Captain Capper's boat had only 25 biscuits left together with half a bucketful of water — but one day's meagre supply when the terrible ordeal ended.
The little boats, it was calculated, had covered 900 miles since the Ausonia disappeared before their eyes. Under these conditions the conduct of the Cunarder's crew was of the highest order, that of the stewardess, Mrs. Edgar, of Orrell Park, Aintree, the only woman on board the vessel, being particularly courageous.
Special mention must also be made of the butcher's boy, Robinson. At the moment of the explosion, together with the pantry boy, Lister, he was in one of the cooling chambers, and the explosion made it impossible for the two boys to get out. Robinson had several wounds on his hips and thighs, and his left arm was lacerated. Both boys, in addition, had both legs broken above the ankle. Robinson, however, managed to crawl out on both his hands and knees and secure a board and place it across the gaping hole in the deck, thus enabling Lister also to reach a place of comparative safety. The two boys then crawled on hands and knees up two sets of ladders to the boat deck, and were placed in the boats. The doctor attended to the boy Robinson's injuries, as far as was possible, but it was not for 30 hours that Captain Capper was able to transfer him to the boat in which Lister was lying, so that he also might receive medical aid. In spite of their experiences and injuries, both boys remained calm and cheerful, and indeed in high spirits, but it is sad to record that Robinson subsequently succumbed in hospital, as the result of his injuries.
More, however, to Captain Capper than to any one man, was the salvation of the live boat loads due, and it was in recognition of his dogged determination and splendid seamanship that his Majesty the King afterwards bestowed upon him the Distinguished Service Cross.
Source: A Merchant Fleet at War (1920) by A. Hurd available on-line at http://www.archive.org/details/merchantfleetatw00hurd