Record breaking survival

A feature of the Abandon Ship! exhibition is the story of the Richmond Castle and the crew’s survival adrift in the Atlantic ocean. However, there were other remarkable stories of survival.

Poon Lim, a Chinese merchant seaman, was working as a steward on the SS Benlomond when it was attacked in 1942. to this day he holds the record for the longest survival at sea on a life raft.

Photo of the ship at dock
SS Benlomod

At a little after 2pm on 23 November 1942, the SS Benlomond was sailing off the coast of Brazil when it was hit by two torpedoes from German U-boat 172. The ship sank within 2 minutes.
Of the 52 crew on board, there were 23 Chinese and 29 British merchant sailors. The youngest were two cadets, 17 year-old Ralph Thomas Hamilton and 18 year-old Robert Lees. (Full details of the crew can be found here.)

 

There were just six survivors of the initial attack, and records show that the German captain questioned them before leaving the area.

Poon Lim (or Lim Poon) was just 25 years-old and the only one to live to make it home. Poon Lim managed to make it to a life raft with a few supplies. After these ran out, he survived by drinking rainwater and catching fishing, making a line from part of a torch and using a knife made from a biscuit tin.

Poon Lim missed several chances of rescue, including a freighter that passed him without stopping. US Navy patrol planes dropped a buoy to mark his position but Poon Lim was separated from it by a severe storm. He was eventually saved by three Brazilian fishermen who spotted him as he drifted closer to the coast.

While the British crew took on roles such as defensive gunner and Able seaman, and all officers on board were British, the Chinese crew had vital – but less glamorous – roles such as Donkeyman. The Donkeyman was in charge of the Donkey-engine, which fed the boilers of the propelling engines.

Poon Lim had the rank of Second Mess Steward. He was rescued on 8 April 1943, after an incredible 133 days alone on a raft. He was awarded the British Empire Medal.

Watch the British Pathé footage here:

Written by SNiF

NOTE: The exhibition is closed on the 26th of June.


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