- Simon Biggs
Royal Marines Search for Survivors of the Lakonia Disaster 1963
Royal Marines Bandsman from HMS Centaur search for survivors from the Lakonia Disater which caught fire and sank north of Madeira on 22 December 1963, with the loss of 128 lives.
TSMS Lakonia was a Greek cruise ship 609 feet in length and 20,300 tons. She had sailed from Southampton on the 19th December bound for Madeira, the first stop in a cruise round the Canary Islands carrying 1022 on board, 646 passengers, all but 21 British, and 376 mainly Greek and German crew members. Smoke was first seen coming from the hairdressing salon and fire spread with ever increasing speed although passengers were unaware that the quietly-ringing bells heard for just a short time were trying to warn of the horrors to come. It was still dark as Centaur arrived at the scene at "dead slow", making just enough headway to keep her bow into the stream. As the sky began to lighten on that Christmas Eve, evidence of the shambolic evacuation of a ship in trouble was spotted in the heavy swell as the first body was seen in it's brightly-coloured lifejacket.
It was decided to launch the first of Centaur's cutters to search for survivors crewed by a junior officer as skipper, a stoker/engineer, a coxswain and two medics.......i.e. Royal Marine Bandsmen! These were Musn Richard "Bagsy" Baker, euphonium and cello and BR "Willi" Watson, horn player, Neptune House pals as boys with Baker the elder by just a few months. They were "2nd Watch" that day and, grabbing their "medical" kit, they embarked on the pitching cutter and set out into the heavy Atlantic swell.
The first body found and pulled aboard the cutter surprised the two bandies by how heavy it was. Full of sea-water it took a great deal of strength to haul it over the gunwale and as they succeeded they heard a loud groan coming from the victim, raising their hopes that there could be life there. It soon became apparent that movement and weight exerted pressure that forced air past the dead person's vocal chords... and they were to hear this dismal sound many times during the day.
Read more of the account from Willi Watson ex RMB 3599: HMS CENTAUR 1963/64HMS CENTAUR and the "LAKONIA" DISASTER, DECEMBER 1963. A 50th ANNIVERSARY RECOLLECTION.