Sunday, June 16, 2019

Two girls in a lifeboat

When World War II broke out, there was a shift in the criteria for receiving a Lloyd’s Medal that was formerly “For Saving Life at Sea” and was changed to “For Bravery at Sea”. Only a handful of women received them.*

In 1942, the Blue Star vessel SS Avila Star was en route from Buenos Aires to England when she was torpedoed by a German submarine off the Azores in the North Atlantic. Those passengers who survived the initial explosions took to the lifeboats. Tragically, only one lifeboat was rescued after its passengers endured nearly three weeks at sea. The number of saved passengers was 29, although several more died in Lisbon in following days.

Among those few survivors were two young women, Mary/Maria Elizabeth (nicknamed “Johnnie”) Ferguson and Patricia Maud Traunter, born in 1923 and 1924 respectively. Both were daughters of Englishmen who lived and worked in South America and both were heading to England to sign up for the WRENs (Women’s Royal Naval Service) or the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force).

Mary Ferguson was to receive accolades for her actions and bestowed with the BEM (British Empire Medal) as well as the Lloyd’s Medal for Bravery at Sea while Patricia did not receive any similar recognition although she went through the same ordeal.

Mary's exploits were told in a book published years later in 1963,  A Girl Called Johnnie: Three Weeks in an Open Boat by John Frayn Turner. Unfortunately it is very scarce and unavailable to me at present, but some of what it probably contains can be read online in Chapter 16 of another book by the same author, Fight for the Sea: Naval Adventures from the Second World War.

The preview does not include the full chapter, but it is astonishing that nowhere in the available pages is there any reference to the second woman, Patricia Traunter, being in the lifeboat as well!

Nor is there any mention of her in this detail from the Imperial War museum attached to an item that belonged to Mary Ferguson, although in her obituary in The Times of 8 July 2006, there is passing reference to Patricia Traunter, that the two women were as one when they “refused to accept any positive discrimination in their direction” and when offered more water than the men “stoutly declined it”.

Copyright London Times

This amazing struggle between life and death is dramatic in itself but one has to wonder as to what went on between the two female survivors to result in rather different stories in the newspapers.

This following article from the Daily Mirror of 15 November 1942 casts quite a different spin on the bravery of Mary Ferguson and in fact even goes so far as to make her look like the weak ninny of the pair. The newspaper image is difficult to read and the text too long to reproduce in full here but the two opening paragraphs display all the titillation for which the DM is famous:-

Two girls in a lifeboat … men dying, men going mad … alone on the vast Atlantic …

Patricia was in her slinkiest dance frock when the torpedo struck. That, a brassiere and panties, was all she was wearing when they dragged her, dazed and oil-smothered into one of the lifeboats.”

Being the DM, there are further references to how they were wedged close to men with their “flimsy frocks clinging wetly to their bodies” and how they had to slip over the side at certain times to discreetly attend to personal matters.

Mary Ferguson plays a subservient role to Patricia throughout the DM article in which Patricia is the nurse in charge. It looks as if she might have told the reporter that her female compatriot certainly didn't deserve any medals:-  

Johnnie Ferguson would sit all day staring into space and Pat Traunter had to slap her to keep her awake.” 

The last line though hints that Patricia’s state of mind was understandably shaky and perhaps her retelling of the traumatic adventure couldn't be relied on:-

She [Pat] is being treated for a strange, though temporary, mental affliction.” 

Clearly it is the surviving men who would have reported back to the authorities that it was “Johnnie” who demonstrated extreme bravery in the circumstances and deserved the medals. What they thought of Patricia, who knows. She may have done her bit too. It would take guts for anyone to survive three weeks in a lifeboat with diminishing fresh water and food supplies plus dealing with daily death and madness around you.

Other factors may have been at play as well, including the intractable British class system. Mary Ferguson had a posh Chelsea address whereas the Traunter family hailed from the working classes of Sheffield, Yorkshire. Even during the war, such social subtleties could make a big difference in who got recognition for their efforts.

As in The Times obituary, Mary Ferguson died in Rutland, UK, in 2006, apparently unmarried. However, an announcement in that same newspaper back on 14 February 1945 is for her engagement to Lieut. P E Marsh, RNVR, son of Rev Sidney Marsh of Ryde. For whatever reason the marriage did not eventuate. The obituary also states that Mary went on to become a personal secretary after the War and concludes: “She remained steadfastly reticent about her wartime exploit.”

An engagement notice also appears in some newspapers late in 1942 that Patricia was to marry a Welshman, Henry Griffith, who was serving in the Merchant Navy, but there was no subsequent marriage reported for this either, and instead she was married in 1944 to Lieut. Michael Timothy Hickie, destined later to become a Lieut. Commander in the Royal Australian Navy. 

From the records, it appears that Patricia had at least two children, but did not make the headlines again. She also died in 2006, her last address being in Australia - Kalaru, near Bega, New South Wales. 

Her husband Michael recently self-published a story of his life and access to this might verify some more facts about his wife’s role in the famous lifeboat event. 

Ferguson's WRNS uniform jacket, bearing her medal ribbons, is now an exhibit in the Imperial War Museum 

There is a plot here for an amazing drama of survival including possible rivalry and if anyone reading this can tell me more about the lives of either or both of the young women who survived the SS Avila Star, I’d be delighted to hear from you.

* See my earlier blog post on Victoria Drummond, another WW2 recipient of the Lloyds Medal 


Jen said...

So very interesting!!

Unknown said...

Dear Regina,

I have read your blog with interest. It so happens that I have been researching the story of the "Avila Star" for a few years and I can clarify on a few points. First of all: three boats were rescued by the ship "Lima" a few days after the "Avila Star" was sunk, with 120 survivors aboard. I do have John Frayn Turner's book at home; it mentions Patricia Traunter quite often and it does show Johnnie as a brave young woman. Both the book and the actual commendation show that she received the medal not only because of her actions while she was on the boat with Pat (and I agree that they basically shared the same horrible conditions), but because on the night when the "Avila Star" was sunk, Johnnie had been on a boat that was destroyed by a torpedo, and although she herself was hurled into the ocean when this happened, being only 19 she managed to help save and nurse four wounded sailors on the remains of this boat that had been irreparably damaged, until they were all tranfered to the boat that was finally lost at sea for three weeks. On another note, although Johnnie's mother lived in Chelsea and worked for the Red Cross, Johnnie herself spent most of her life in a tea plantation in the province of Misiones, Argentina (we are talking remote subtropical jungle, especially in 1942), with her father. Pat lived in Belgrano, an upscale neighbourhood of Buenos Aires. So I'm not sure if class issues played such a big role here... Hope all this has been helpful. Yours, M. J. Roger, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Regina of Arbeia said...

M J Roger - Thanks for your comments. Always good when people can add more to such stories. The Argentinian connection is most interesting.

Anonymous said...


I can't tell you many facts about her experience - but can confirm it happened as Pat was my great Aunty (her sister Josephine was my nana). She does have two children, a son and daughter, both of whom still live in Sydney. I was young when she died, so don't have too many memories of her, but can tell you she was greatly impacted/scarred by this event. She marked the days she was stranded at sea on a silver bracelet she had since a teenager, which her daughter now wears. Her husband Michael is still alive (if you google him you'll find recent articles), but has severe dementia.