Andalucia Star: The Tale of a Rescue at Sea
By Catherine Kirby
Gillian Ash at 3 years old, when she travelled Jill at 7 years old - Leicester (1944)
with her parents on the Andalucía Star.
Nothing more apt than the maxim “Truth is stranger than fiction” in this tale about to unfold - the catalyst was a brief e-mail that arrived last September in the ABCC’s e-mail box asking for information: “(...) I was a passenger on the Andalucía Star with my father (...) I am trying to find a passenger who was a bit younger than I, her name was Gillian Ash...” signed Jill McNichol-Harrell. Wow, thought I as soon as I read this letter published in the Bulletin - I can provide Jill with the information...! When I was commissioned to write a biography on Bill Storey by his children (a task yet to complete!), most of my research material came from two historically valuable documents: a detailed ‘War Diary’, and an autobiography. In the latter, Bill includes a description of his journey as a WWII volunteer on the Andalucía Star... Little was I to know the results of answering Jill’s request...
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On September 26th, 1942, Blue Star Liner Andalucía Star set sail on its way to the U.K. carrying the Blue Star ships’ usual cargo of refrigerated meat and other food (literally tons of eggs) to war-torn Great Britain.
On board were a crew of 170, plus 83 passengers, comprised mostly of dozens of WWII volunteers – for the purpose of this story, here are some of the travellers: Bill Storey, 33 years old, married, torn at leaving behind in Argentina his pregnant wife Evelyn and two children; Claud Ash and his wife Lilwen with their daughter Gillian, age 3; and a British widower on contract in Chile when the war broke out, S.G. Bicheno, with his daughter Jill, age 5. There were 22 women on board, and 3 children.
Although during the voyage there were emergency boat drills every day and everybody was obliged to carry life belts all the time, the younger volunteers were determined to have a good time. The night of October 6th, a musical show had been organized in the lounge, and all the men dressed up as women in a parody of a fashion parade.
Captain Hall was also roped into the show; he had come through WWI as a ship captain and had not lost a single boat, so a song about “sailing safely with Captain Hall” had been made up by one of the volunteers. However, “he was to regret his song 20 minutes later...” wrote Bill, because suddenly a terrible explosion was heard: a first torpedo had struck the Andalucía Star in the stern hold, just under the lounge and all the lights went out. Bill managed to feel his way to his cabin and there picked up some things including a flat pocket torch that went into his coat pocket.
As soon as Captain Hall sent word that it was time to leave, everybody started climbing into their own boats; Bill sat in the bow of his boat next to the sailor in charge of the tackle. When the boat was swung out, ready to be lowered, suddenly the ropes at Bill’s end of the boat came loose and started falling into the sea, while the stern still hung from its ropes at a very steep angle.
Drawing by Capt. Peter M. Stacey*
Everybody in the boat fell on top of Bill and the sailor in charge, and they in turn fell into the sea. Bill found himself underwater. He managed to push himself free and came up about 10 metres away from the side of the ship. Others had managed to scramble back into the boat and were pulled up again, or dispersed among the other boats. “The only exception,” wrote Bill “was a little girl of about 4 years who was travelling to the U.K. with her father. She fell into the sea.”
Bill continued to tread water, almost in total darkness. The sea was rough and waves kept breaking over him. On the horizon, he watched as the ship slowly sunk. Suddenly he heard the cry of a child in the water somewhere in the near distance - but it was too dark and there were too many waves to pinpoint its position. Then, on the crest of another wave, he saw a lifeboat about 100 metres away. Bill suddenly remembered the torch he had put into his coat pocket - he quickly took it out and it worked! He flashed it on and off in the direction of the boat. The rowing stopped and Bill never swum with so much purpose in his life as then! As soon as he was in the boat, he told the crewmen about the child he had heard crying out nearby.
A crewmember switched on a kind of searchlight powered by two car batteries in the bow. Everyone was very quiet, listening. Bill wrote: “Suddenly, on the crest of a wave we saw a little girl’s head appear in the beam of the searchlight. A sailor jumped into the water, swam over and pulled her back into the boat.” According to Bill, the little girl had on a child’s life-jacket which kept her head and shoulders above water, and this saved her life. She was also clutching a doll.
As the ship’s wireless officer had managed to send off some S.O.S.’s before abandoning ship, on the afternoon of the third day at sea, to the Andalucía Star’s survivors’ joy, British corvette H.M.S. Petunia suddenly appeared and in about one hour had all the survivors on board – some 250 people. The corvette set sail for Freetown, arriving that same evening. About a week later, the survivors boarded two different boats, on their way to the port of Glasgow.
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That was Bill Storey’s side of his and “a little girl’s” rescue which I had in my notes. As I was putting together Bill’s biography, my attention was drawn to an article in the Clarín newspaper, telling the story of Gillian Ash, a lady living in Venado Tuerto, province of Santa Fe, who was a survivor of the torpedoed Andalucía Star; she had fallen into the sea and had been rescued along with her mother. In the article, Gillian said she was only three at the time, and as she did not recall anything of what had happened, she based her account on an article printed in the Buenos Aires Herald in December 1942, written by her mother Lilwen: “…the boat capsized, and we were all thrown into the water. Gillian was in an officer’s arms and with the shock of the boat twisting, she went right out of the officer’s arms. (…) Gillian came up beside me - I managed to catch her by her hair and hang on to her, wriggle over on my back, with Gillian on my tummy, until I was half in. Then a steward and one of the volunteers hauled me in.”
I’ve found the “little girl” in Bill’s account, I thought! The Clarín article gave Gillian Ash’s married name, Santis; so with the obliging help of Telecom and the Internet, I contacted Gillian and later met her and daughter Adriana – Gillian gave me all the articles she had collected over the years on the sinking. We concluded Gillian was the “little girl” in Bill’s story, even though his account and Mrs. Lilwen Ash’s story of 3-year-old Gillian’s rescue didn’t quite match up (Bill never mentioned the little girl’s mother, while Mrs. Ash’s story specifically mentions she had hold of Gillian all the time). I readjusted Bill’s account – after all, in those moments, I thought, some details can easily be left out when telling his recollection of the event.
Yes, you’re guessing right. As soon as Jill McNichol-Harrell gave me her account of her rescue, it became very obvious there had been TWO little girls who had fallen from the same boat.
After the initial contact with Jill - and through her, Captain Peter Stacey of Wellington, New Zealand, a former Blue Star Line officer - a most interesting exchange of e-mails helped shed light on the “Tale of the Rescues of Jill & Gill”; Peter, a knowledgeable historian regarding the Blue Star Line ships, had contacted Jill during her enquiry into the Andalucia Star sinking. The “little girl” heard by Bill Storey and rescued by Petty Officer Wheeler (lamptrimmer) was Jill, née Bicheno - he was later awarded the Bronze Medal for Bravery at Sea. Jill’s rescue story coincides completely with Bill’s account, including the fact that she was travelling alone with her father (a widower); her father had told her that if anything should happen to her, she must shout out for him as loudly as she could – she was shouting “Daddy, Daddy!!” - the cries heard by Bill. From Lilwen Ash’s account, she and Gillian were pulled up out of the sea into the same upturned No. 2 boat from which they’d fallen; and Bill and Jill Bicheno were pulled into the lifeboat in charge of Lamptrimmer Wheeler, Jill holding her doll (Bill mentions a teddy bear).
Thanks to Peter Stacey in New Zealand, who wrote: “It is five years since I first made contact with Jill, this following a request for information surrounding the sinking on the Blue Star website. I sent her some photographs of the ship from my collection and promised to go through a pile of Blue Star Line house magazines that I’d kept. To my delight I came across an article written in 1977 asking the question “Where is Gillian Now?” – problem solved I thought. On discovering Gillian Ash’s article for the Clarín, I have to confess I thought to myself, “Oh no, we have two of them.” So Peter and I, each having only half the story, had both arrived at wrong conclusions!
So in spite of two similar names, but thanks to an international across-the-planet search, Jill McNichol-Harrell’s search for Gillian Ash, and Gillian Ash’s search for survivors of the Andalucía Star has a “happy ending” – and it appears that both Jill and Gillian’s willingness to face and set to rest equally painful past histories is a measure of their bravery in surviving and enduring under incredibly difficult wartime events.
And perhaps we might eventually still get to know who the ‘volunteer’ was, in the up-turned No. 2 boat, that helped pull in Gillian and her mother..?
Author’s note: Bill Storey’s account is retold by kind permission of Gordon D. Storey.
(1) In his autobiography, Bill only mentions one explosion; but in his report, Captain Hall writes of two almost simultaneous torpedo hits, and a third one some 20 minutes later, when most lifeboats were already in the water.
(2) The Andalucía Star was sunk after being hit by 3 torpedoes from German U-Boat U-107, commanded at the time by Capt. Harald Gelhaus. Between 1940 and August 1944 (when it in turn was sunk by some three Allied aircraft off the Bay of Biscay) it had torpedoed and sunk 37 Allied ships.
* Drawing by Capt. Peter M. Stacey, born in the U.K. He started as a Deck Cadet in 1965 with the Blue Star Line, working at sea for the company for 15 years and reaching the rank of Chief Officer. Capt. Stacey currently is an active pilot in the port of Wellington, New Zealand. He has a “historical interest in most things nautical, but a ‘particular interest’ in my old shipping company the Blue Star Line.” He had done much research on the mys -
tery of the two “Gill/Jills” from the Andalucía Star, and had been regularly in touch with Jill McNichol before her e-mail to the ABCC.
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