Take a couple of turns out of Anne Ainsworth’s front door and you come to one of the most magnificent views in Britain.
ake a couple of turns out of Anne Ainsworth’s front door and you come to one of the most magnificent views in Britain.
The vista from the top of Portsdown Hill, across Portsmouth and the shimmering Solent to the Isle of Wight beyond, never ceases to enthral.
But it is a panorama which holds terrifying memories for Anne. It is a constant reminder of the most frightening night of her life and the moment fate intervened to keep her alive for another seven decades.
That view is largely filled with happy memories of her childhood home – the Isle of Wight.
But it is what happened on the Solent 70 years ago that remains, not surprisingly, as fresh as a daisy in her memory.
For Anne is one of the few survivors of the sinking of Passenger Ship Portsdown, an Isle of Wight ferry which hit a German mine near Spitbank Fort, just outside Portsmouth Harbour. It happened on September 20, 1941, in the middle of the night. After a huge explosion PS Portsdown broke in two and 23 crew and passengers were killed.
They had been in the front half of the ship. Eighteen-year-old Anne Smith, as she was then, had been directed to the first class saloon to keep her away from servicemen on board. It was towards the aft. That helpful pointer saved her life.
Now 88, as Anne sits in her flat at Crookhorn her recollection of that dreadful night is as sharp as the view from nearby Portsdown Hill on a bright, crisp autumn morning.
Anne was a Waaf, a female auxiliary of the Royal Air Force. By September 20 she had been a member for two months and was training to become a wireless operator. She succeeded and spent the rest of the war in Kent intercepting German signals, most of which were passed to the legendary codebreakers at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire.
She was sent on a course at Chiswick in London and the sinking of PS Portsdown just happened to coincide with her first leave.
Anne, who presents a weekly programme on the Havant-based nostalgia station Angel Radio specialising in music from the 1940s, said: ‘My first 48-hour leave pass has been signed and I was hoping to leave for my home on the Isle of Wight straight from college.
‘Unfortunately, we were summoned to a special meeting by our officer so when I eventually arrived at Waterloo station I discovered the connection for the last steamer to the island had long gone.’
The thought of spending the night on the station did not appeal so Anne decided to catch the next train to Portsmouth regardless.
‘It was a typical wartime journey that seemed never-ending. Stopping at every station and even between stations. The time was spent snoozing and chatting to fellow passengers in the dimly-lit carriage.’
When she eventually arrived in Portsmouth the train terminated at the Town station (now Portsmouth and Southsea). This meant a walk through the blacked-out streets to the harbour.
She said an ‘elderly sailor’ returning to the naval barracks offered to accompany her and despite her mother’s warning about strange men ‘I weighed up the fact that I was scared of the dark and I gratefully accepted his offer’.
When she reached the harbour she found the next ferry to leave was the mail boat at 3am.
Anne continued: ‘A member of the crew put me in the first class saloon, brought me a cup of tea and then advised me to stay put as the rest of the ship was occupied by troops going to the island for postings or on leave.
‘I settled down to get some sleep and when the time came for the steamer to leave I felt the throbbing of the engines as we pulled away from the dock.
‘The ship had just left harbour when suddenly there was a terrific explosion, a blinding flash and the sound of crashing timber and metal.
‘I was struck on the shoulder and the side of my face by falling debris, then thrown to the floor.
‘There were shouts, screams and the creaking and groaning of the ship. The noises all mixed together in the pitch black created a ghastly waking nightmare.
‘Someone found me in the dark and helped me to my feet. Voices came out of the dark asking if anyone was hurt but, apart from being badly shaken, we appeared to be in one piece.
‘One of the ship’s crew felt his way through all the debris around us and told us we’d either struck a mine or been hit by a torpedo.
‘It became clear that the ship had broken in two and by a miracle our half was stuck on a sandbank. How we blessed that sandbank.’
Anne and other survivors were helped into a lifeboat and one of the men produced a bottle.
‘The men drank from the bottle and then, to add to this unbelievable situation, a glass was produced for me to drink from. It was my first taste of strong liquor. To this day I couldn’t tell you if it was brandy or whisky. I know it made me giggle.’
She was brought back into Portsmouth where she was given a hot drink and a blanket until she could continue her journey. Anne added: ‘It was only then that we discovered the full horror of it all – the other half of the ship had sunk straight to the bottom. Everyone had been lost.
‘For a long time afterwards the top of the broken steamer could be seen at low tide on the sandbank. It brought back dreadful memories each time I passed.’