This is the 2nd installment in the Sheila Macbeth Mitchell story, from the scrapbook kindly donated for digitisation by her family. The scrapbook is available to view in its entirety on Capital Collections.
In November 1916, military nurse Sheila was in Southampton ready to join the HMHS Britannic on what was to be her sixth and final voyage. Time on board the Britannic began as normal. On returning to the hospital ship, Sheila wrote:
“Leave up – so back to Southampton to join our ship. Such a relief to find the same cabin and room-mate, and to see how homely it is now looking, with my chintz cushions and our nice jar of brown beech leaves.”
They were en route to pick up wounded troops via Naples where they re-fuelled and took on more supplies. The nurses were kept busy getting ready 3,000 beds and keeping fit:
“One of the sergeants gives us a gymnastic class each morning on the boat deck, much to the amusement of the M.O.s, who come up and take snapshots of us when looking most ridiculous and unable to retaliate”.
It was on the morning of 21 November when passing near to the Greek Island of Kea, that a loud explosion echoed around the ship. Sheila recalled:
“Up late – so only managed to get two spoonfuls of porridge before: Bang! and a shiver right down the length of the ship. Of course we all knew what it was! We had thought too much about torpedoes to be surprised to have met one at last. When the siren sounded, I went off to my cabin for my belt, and took my pillow, eider-down, and the first coat I could pick up…”.
“We were kept hanging over the side of the ship for a long while, as the Vice-Captain, who was looking after the lowering of the boats, had to dash off in the middle to call back some fourteen or fifteen firemen, who had gone off from the poop deck in a boat which should have held about eighty-four persons. They were made to come back to pick up a number of men who had jumped over-board…… We did not realize that while we were hanging over the side of the ship, the whole of the fore part of her was under water – we might have been more frightened if we had seen it. The Captain called out to hurry as she was sinking fast. In our boat, we got well away from the sinking ship and busied ourselves with the wounded, whom we picked out of the water”.
The Britannic disappeared fifty-five minutes after she had been hit. As no help had come yet in answer to the S.O.S. calls, Sheila and the rest of the medical crew waited until there was no likelihood of more explosions then sailed back to where the ship had gone down to see if they could find more survivors. After a time, they saw three trails of black smoke in the distance and knew that help was on the way. These were three British ships the Foxhound , Scourge and Heroic, and after three hours in a lifeboat, Sheila was taken on to the Scourge , a torpedo destroyer. Whilst waiting as sailors rowed around making a final search for survivors, Sheila saw a sailor pulling a chair bearing the White Star emblem from the water:
“and gave me a part of the back, which I guarded safely under my coat… they gave us all the food they had – tea, dog-biscuits and oranges out of sacks…Several of them gave us their cap-ribbons as souvenirs”.
After a few hours towing the lifeboats, they were transferred to HMS Duncan then on to a French ship Piraeus, and then transferred to the Russian Hospital in Piree [Piraeus] where after a few days they were:
“hurried away to Malta on the hospital ship ‘Grandtully Castle’ as Athens was getting a little too exciting for us….. After four days, when we were very happy – knowing we were at last on our way home – we reached Valetta, where we were met by the P.M. and all put into ambulances and sent to the different Hospitals on the island”.
After seventeen days on the island, they boarded HMHS Valdivia and set sail home to England.
Sheila ends her recollections:
“On Boxing Day we got into Southampton at about 9 am and left the boat after lunch as she had to go off to France that afternoon. We all crowded into the Waterloo train, where we were met by Miss Becher (The Matron-in-Chief) who told us that we might proceed to our homes to await further orders.
So ended my days as a refugee – at any rated for this trip”.
After her serving on the Britannic, Sheila nursed the wounded in France. In 1919 while on holiday in Switzerland she met her future husband John Fowler Mitchell who was home from leave from the Indian Civil Service. They were married in 1920 and returned to India where three of their four children were born. As a memsahib during the British Raj, she had to learn how to cope with a large household of servants and their dependants. They stayed in India until 1935 when John retired.
At the age of 86 Sheila answered an appeal from Jacques Cousteau for survivors of the sinking of the Britannic, and Sheila Mitchell flew to where Cousteau had located the wrecked ship on the bed of the Aegean. She was the only survivor who ever visited the wreck. She arrived on the Calypso, using the ship’s small helicopter, determined to retrieve an alarm clock and ring she had left in her cabin! With her she had brought her scrapbook filled with photos and notes. Sheila was able to give him her clear memories of the sinking. She even descended to the seabed in Cousteau’s mini submarine to see round the wreck. As the star of the film Cousteau in Search of the Britannic, she greatly enjoyed a six week publicity tour of the United States. One American fan in her seventies wrote to her:
“Mrs Mitchell, you have made me realise that I have been wasting my life”.
For many years Sheila and John, who was a founder member of the Scottish Genealogy Society, systematically recorded all the pre-1955 inscriptions in numerous Scottish kirkyards, creating an invaluable record for people tracing their ancestry. They are commemorated with a bench in the Archivists’ Garden at the National Records of Scotland. Sheila was appointed MBE for her services to genealogy in 1980.
Sheila Macbeth Mitchell died on 15th February 1994, aged 103.