National Library of Australia

Margaret Gordon Ingham and the City of Cairo

Unknown photographer Margaret Gordon receiving the British Empire Medal 1943

gelatin silver photograph; 21.5 x 16.5cm

Australian Manuscripts Collection, MS 13372

Gift of Margaret Ingham, 1972

State Library of Victoria
Margaret Gordon receiving the British Empire Medal 1943

On 6 November 1942, in the mid-South Atlantic, a German U-boat sank the City of Cairo, which carried Margaret Ingham (Margaret Gordon then) and her husband, Crawford. Fifty-two days later, Gordon (1910–1999) and the ship’s Third Officer, 25-year-old Jimmy ‘Knocker’ Whyte, were rescued by a Brazilian minesweeper—the only survivors from a lifeboat that originally carried 17 people.

Gordon’s husband was killed when the second torpedo struck the ship, and he was unable to reach a lifeboat.

Gordon and Whyte sailed more than 3200 kilometres, helpless as their fellow survivors grew weaker and gradually died.

In 1943, Gordon received the British Empire medal for bravery and heroism. Whyte was killed as he returned to England—his ship was torpedoed.

Gordon’s typescript speaks volumes of her endurance, courage and dignity. On a single page of her pocket diary (this page was the only document to survive the lifeboat’s voyage), she recorded the details of those in her lifeboat who had died and, after her rescue, wrote to their families.

Gordon remarried in 1947. She went on to establish one of the most significant collections of children’s literature in Australia, at the State Library of Victoria.