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The Atlantic Convoy - remembered on DDay weekend
Last uploaded : Tuesday 10th Jun 2014 at 23:20
Contributed by : Carol Gould


A survivor of the Atlantic Convoy -- 85 year old Sheila

by Carol Gould


This DDay weekend I have heard many stories from veterans and civilians but one that resonated with me was the story of Sheila Coupe, my 85 year old neighbour in Little Venice, who survived the perilous Atlantic Convoy. Although the convoy is regarded as a military operation there were also civilian passengers and Jewish refugees hoping to escape the war and Nazi terror.

Her mother decided in 1940 that she and her brother should be evacuated and she managed to secure passage on the Orduna, one of many ships provided for the removal of children to locations abroad. (In my 2006 film about evacuees I interviewed British historian Alistair Horne who was evacuated to Washington DC to live with a young William Buckley Jr’s family.)

In 1939 German Jewish refugees on the Orduna were refused entry into Cuba, the USA and Canada, This became known as the ‘voyage of the damned;‘ the ship returned to England and that is where Sheila’s story begins.

The sea journey from Liverpool on 12 August 1940 took three weeks. Sheila remembers her little brother looking over the side of the ship and wondering why people ‘were swimming.’ The Atlantic voyage was proving catastrophic for many vessels being sunk by German u boats. What Sheila’s brother was seeing were passengers, mostly young people, in the throes of drowning.

Sheila was seasick for the entire journey and there was little comfort for the family when the captain told her mother that the seas were so rough the lifeboats would have been useless had they been torpedoed. On one occasion everyone had to stand at lifeboats station for twenty-four hours. The ship was strafed -- its rudder slightly damaged -- but managed to complete its journey.

The first stop of their ship was Nassau in the Bahamas where the family stayed until 1944. At that time the Duke and Duchess of Windsor -- he was Governor of the Bahamas -- ‘fought all the time and drank a lot’ according to Sheila. Without doubt they were extremely kind to the children arriving from Britain and provided entertainment and every possible luxury for the visiting Canadian and British troops on leave. Soldiers fortunate enough to have been given leave in Nassau never forgot the comforts afforded them by the Windsors. Every Saturday Sheila’s mother, Beatrice Davis, presented a radio show.

No sooner had Sheila and her family returned to London in 1944 than the doodlebugs -- German V1 rockets that cut out overhead, leaving scarce time for one to shelter before a huge, destructive explosion. Her mother arranged for Sheila to be sent to a rural boarding school, Bartram Gables, and her war was spent in safety.

Sheila says that the images of the passengers drowning before her eyes is indelibly etched in her memory seventy-four years on. She is part of the Greatest Generation and the reason why I have written this today is because I want to continue -- as I did in ‘Spitfire Girls’ in in my stage play ‘A Room at Camp Pickett’ -- chronicle the memories of this fast-disappearing legion of wartime survivors. May they all live to 120.


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