‘I’ll always have a German to thank for saving my life’

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BALLYCLARE man Isaac Higginson’s incredible experience on the RMS Laconia has been retold in a new BBC drama.

Isaac was on the ship when it was torpedoed and sunk by the Germans - he then spent 16 hours in shark infested waters before being rescued by the very same Germans that sunk his ship.

“I’ll always have a German to thank for saving my life,” the 92-year-old told the Times this week.

On Saturday, September 12, 1942 the RMS Laconia was eight days out of Cape Town and 600 miles off the African coast when it was torpedoed.

A converted P&O liner, it was carrying over 2,000 passengers, military personnel, and Italian Prisoners of War.

“There was a dance on that night and I had just taken over the watch at 8pm when the torpedo struck,” said Isaac.

“We helped as many as we could onto the lifeboats and there was one left for us - but it only slipped at one side and it was lost.

“Me and two others were left with only a small raft made of Balsa wood to cling onto in the water.

“It took the ship an hour to sink and we spent the night and the next morning in the water.

Isaac went on: “It was shark infested; that was the fear, that something would come.

“We were completely on our own, there was no sign of the rest of the crew or passengers - it was a terrible night.”

Then at around 1pm the following day, the German submarine U-149 surfaced in front of the sailors.

“We thought that was it then, it had been known that they would turn the machine gun on you,” said Isaac.

“But instead they rescued us. We were fed and given clothing, the Germans were very decent to us.

“But it didn’t go down too well with the Nazi headquarters, they didn’t like it one bit.

“The sub’s Commander said he tracked our ship for eight hours. I asked him why wait until 8pm to strike - on my watch - and he just shrugged his shoulders.”

Another German submarine, the U-156, also helped with the rescue effort and came under attack by an American bomber.

However, Isaac being cut off from the rest of the survivors, was spared from the ordeal.

Of those on board the ill-fated ship 1,621 souls were lost and 1,104 survived.

Isaac and his fellow survivors were then put onto lifeboats and spent a week at sea before they were picked up by a Vichy French cruiser. They were then interned in a camp outside Casablanca for eight months.

“My wife, Isa, had no idea what had happened,” Isaac said.

“There was a notice in the Larne Times that said I was ‘missing presumed dead’.

“The Vichy French Admiralty would not send word to the British about us. It was a desperate time, for us and our families.”

Following his release in 1943, Isaac returned to Ballyclare on leave.

However, there was one small obstacle put in the way of his homecoming.

He said: “There was a taxi waiting at the docks in Larne and I asked him to take me to Ballyclare.

“He said he couldn’t because they had a 10 mile limit and it was 11 miles away. So I told him what I had been through and he told me to get in - and he never took a penny for the journey.

“When I walked through the door Isa was in floods of tears, and then she gave off about my beard, but I told her I had no choice as there was no razor in the camp.

“I was ordered straight to the bathroom for a shave there and then.”

Isaac signed up to the Royal Navy during peacetime in 1934. He was a member of the Royal Naval Band prior to war breaking out and served on the HMS Valiant before he boarded the Laconia for his scheduled leave.

During his two-and-a-half year spell on the Valiant Isaac served with a young Prince Philip of Greece, who was then courting Princess Elizabeth.

Isaac went to the cinema with the future husband to the Queen and was in the same turret as the Prince when the British sank most of the Italian fleet at the Battle of Taranto.

“He was a wonderful young man,” added Isaac.

“He was mentioned in the dispatches for being on the searchlights during Taranto, but he was in the same turret as me - I used to rib him about that and he would laugh.

“There were many nice times, but you never forget the nasty times and the horrors you experience through war. I’ll never forget.”

Isaac left the navy in 1948 following campaigns in Japan with the HMS Black Prince and joined the civil service where he worked in the Department of Agriculture and became a Colour Sergeant in the Territorial Army.

Isaac, a father to eight, is still a popular figure in the British Legion branch in Ballyclare.

He recalled: “I’ll always remember Les Ray saying to me in the camp in Casablanca, ‘Higgy I remember you saying a prayer on that raft that night - well somebody answered’.”

Following the Laconia incident, Admiral Karl Donitz was so incensed at his officers he issued the ‘Laconia Order’ which prevented the Germans rescuing civilians at sea.

‘The Sinking of the Laconia’ was screened on the BBC and is available to view on the Corporation’s website.