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On a calm, tropical afternoon in the South Atlantic Ocean in April 1942, a British tramp steamer, the SS Willesden, was shelled, torpedoed and sunk by a German raider, the KMS Thor. The Willesden was carrying 47 officers and crew, and a cargo of vital war supplies destined for Britain’s 8th Army in North Africa. Five of Willesden’s crew were killed in the attack. Among the survivors was Second Mate David Millar, who – along with his crewmen – was rescued by the Germans and interned on a succession of prison ships, before being handed over to the Japanese. Badly wounded, David spent the rest of the war as a POW in a camp at Fukushima, north of Tokyo.
The Thor was also responsible for sinking two other steamers, the SS Kirkpool and SS Nankin. Their survivors, including 38 women and children, were dispatched to the same POW camp.
What is remarkable about this story, apart from its inherent drama, is that these civilian POWs – numbering more than 130 in all – were officially listed as ‘Missing at Sea’: their presence in the camp remained a closely guarded secret. This meant that it was many months – in some cases, years – before the fog of mystery surrounding their disappearance lifted, and family and friends knew whether their loved ones were dead or alive. Lost at Sea tells the little-known story of these survivors. It is a tale of honour between enemy naval commanders; of suffering, courage and endurance, as months of imprisonment turned to years; and of the powerful relationships that form when people are forced together in life-threatening circumstances. Greatly enhancing the poignancy of this story is the fact that David Millar was the author’s father.
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