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A survivor of the Atlantic Convoy – 85 year old Sheila
by Carol Gould          June 6, 2014

Carol Gould tells the story of one of the Greatest Generation

Sheila Vogel Coupe
Sheila Vogel Coupe today
This D-Day weekend I have heard many stories from veterans and civilians but one that resonated with me was the story of Sheila Vogel Coupe, my 85 year old neighbour in London's Little Venice, who survived the perilous Atlantic Convoy. Although the convoy is regarded as a military operation there were also civilian passengers and Jewish refugees hoping to escape the war and Nazi terror.

Her mother decided in 1940 that she and her brother should be evacuated and she managed to secure passage on the Orduna, one of many ships provided for the removal of children to locations abroad. In my 2006 film about evacuees I interviewed British historian Alistair Horne who was evacuated to Washington DC to live with a young William Buckley Jr's family. Many British children were evacuated to the USA and Canada and have stayed in touch to this day. Alistair Horne visited Washington every year until the 2000s.

In 1939, German Jewish refugees on the Orduna were refused entry into Cuba, the USA and Canada, This became known as the 'voyage of the damned'; the ship returned to England and that is where Sheila's story begins.

The sea journey from Liverpool on 12 August 1940 took three weeks. Sheila remembers her little brother looking over the side of the ship and wondering why people 'were swimming.' The Atlantic voyage was proving catastrophic for many vessels being sunk by German U-boats. What Sheila's brother was seeing were passengers, mostly young people, in the throes of drowning.

Sheila was seasick for the entire journey and there was little comfort for the family when the captain told her mother that the seas were so rough the lifeboats would have been useless had they been torpedoed. On one occasion everyone had to stand at lifeboats station for twenty-four hours. The ship was strafed – its rudder slightly damaged – but managed to complete its journey.

SS Orduna
SS Orduna during World War II
The first stop of their ship was Nassau in the Bahamas where the family stayed until 1944. At that time the Duke and Duchess of Windsor – he was the former King Edward VIII and now Governor of the Bahamas, she the American divorcee he gave up his crown in order to marry – 'fought all the time and drank a lot' according to Sheila. Without doubt they were extremely kind to the children arriving from Britain and provided entertainment and every possible luxury for the visiting Canadian and British troops on leave. Soldiers fortunate enough to have been given leave in Nassau never forgot the comforts afforded them by the Windsors. Every Saturday Sheila’s mother, Beatrice Davis, presented a radio show.

Sheila and her family returned to London but no sooner had they arrived than the doodlebugs started falling. These were German 'V1' rockets that cut out overhead, leaving scarce time for one to shelter before a huge, destructive explosion. Her mother arranged for Sheila to be sent to a rural boarding school, Bartram Gables, and the rest of her war was spent in safety.

Sheila says that the images of the passengers drowning before her eyes is indelibly etched in her memory seventy-four years on. She is part of the Greatest Generation and the reason why I have written this today is because I want to continue (as I did in my book Spitfire Girls, and my stage play A Room at Camp Pickett) to chronicle the memories of this fast-disappearing legion of wartime survivors. May they all live to 120.

Carol Gould is a broadcaster and author based in London; she has appeared on the BBC's Any Questions?, The Jeremy Vine Show and Woman’s Hour as well as many other BBC programmes, Sky News and ITV broadcasts. She is the author of Spitfire Girls and Don't Tread on me – Anti–Americanism Abroad.

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