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Issue 91 - Lost at Sea

Scotland Magazine Issue 91
February 2017

 

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Lost at Sea

Mary Gladstone discovers the story of her lost uncle

Exactly 75 years ago, in the middle of WWII, Major Angus Macdonald (of 2nd battalion Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders) disappeared. For seven years nobody knew where he was or what had happened to him. He was my uncle.

In 1949, at Edinburgh’s Court of Session, Corporal Walter Gibson revealed himself to be the sole European survivor of the sinking of the Rooseboom, a Dutch steamer that sailed in late February 1942 from Sumatra across the Indian Ocean towards Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Two nights into the voyage a Japanese submarine attacked the ship, which was packed with dozens of fugitives from the fall of Singapore, and it sank within minutes. Angus was on board.

Only one lifeboat was successfully launched and as many as possible of the 130 survivors clambered into the boat (designed for 24 occupants), while the remainder clung desperately to the side of the vessel. My uncle found a makeshift raft and occupied it with two other army officers. Towards the end of the first day, one of the officers swam to the lifeboat to say that Angus had drunk a flask full of brandy, was delirious, and had tried to push him off the raft.

During that night, my uncle slipped off the raft and disappeared. The army officer was, in turn, pushed off the lifeboat and he also drowned. Those left aboard fared no better. With scant rations, some drank sea water and others their own urine. Some hurled themselves into the sea. The ship’s engineer murdered his captain. Towards the end of their 26 days adrift, a handful of starving men cannibalized another dying serviceman.

In effect, my uncle died twice. Firstly when he drowned on 2 March 1942; then once again when Walter Gibson testified in court. Because Angus was to inherit a property in Lanarkshire, adopting the name of Lockhart when he became the 26th Laird of Lee and 6th of Carnwath, the press was interested and helped Gibson write more about his wartime ordeal. In 1952 he published a book, The Boat, wherein Angus is depicted unappealingly. This treatment understandably distressed my mother, Angus’s sister, and his mother, my grandmother. In the family, Angus was rarely spoken about.

Uncle Angus was born in 1913 at Largie on Argyll’s Kintyre peninsula. His parents were Daisy and John R. Moreton Macdonald, the 20th Laird of Largie. The Largie Macdonalds were Jacobite supporters and in 1745 the laird of the time set off with his followers for Culloden. On the way, he called in on the minister who tipped a kettleful of boiling water over his leg. This injury prevented John Macdonald from taking part in the battle and consequently his property was never confiscated.

In 1934, following family tradition, Angus joined the Argylls; he served first in the UK and then in India with the 2nd battalion. In August 1939, the Argylls — as part of the 12th Indian Infantry Brigade — moved to Singapore where their commanding officer, Colonel Ian Stewart of Achnacone, trained the battalion with such zest in the Malayan jungle that the 2nd Argylls came to be known as ‘the jungle beasts’.

In 1941, Angus was promoted to brigade major and become responsible for 3,000 officers and men. When Japan invaded Malaya on 8 December 1941 the brigade (as mobile reserve) was sent to repel them. In the north they held their own against a numerically superior enemy, but at Slim River in Central Malaya the brigade was thoroughly routed and many Argylls were killed, lost in the jungle or taken prisoner. On their return to Singapore, the Argylls fought hard alongside the Australians and Indians to defend the island. Before the surrender on 15 February 1942, Field Marshall Archibald Wavell, Commander-in-Chief of American, British, Dutch and Australian Command, ordered many personnel to escape and reassemble in India. Angus was one of these officers.

Soldiering was indeed in my uncle’s blood. As far back as 1330, Angus’s Lockhart ancestor, Sir Symon Loccard, joined Sir James Douglas’ group of knights to convey the embalmed heart of Robert the Bruce to the Holy Land, as he wished it to be buried at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Locked inside a casket and hung around Douglas’ neck, the heart was guarded by Sir Symon who held the key. The party failed to reach Jerusalem as they stopped in Southern Spain to fight for Alfonso XI of Castile against Muhammed IV, Sultan of Granada. Douglas was killed and the knights returned with Bruce’s heart, which was buried at Melrose Abbey.

The forebears of Daisy, Angus’ mother, were also soldiers. In 1845, David Cunliffe painted Angus’ great-grandfather, Colonel Eyre John Crabbe, with a group of officers of 74th Regiment of Foot to celebrate their adoption of Highland dress (although a Highland regiment it had long since ceased wearing the kilt). After some persuasion, Queen Victoria agreed to let the officers and men wear tartan again, but only trews — not the kilt!

From a young age I was aware of my uncle as his photo always stood on my mother’s dressing table, but nobody told me about his courage, humour or self-sacrifice. He was one of the many young men at that time to sail out to the East and never return. Always curious, however, I researched and retraced his footsteps in Scotland, England, India, Singapore and all the other places where he served in order to write a book Largie Castle, A Rifled Nest, which recreates his life from many points of view.

Further Information Largie Castle, A Rifled Nest, published by Firefallmedia, will be released in hardcover and paperback for the USA and UK simultaneously on 2 March 2017, the 75th anniversary of the death of Angus Macdonald. It will be available via Amazon and www.firefallmedia.com.