Richard Hardegan commanding U-123 was back at sea again, on the U-Boat’s eighth war patrol. He made his way slowly across the Atlantic to conserve fuel. Then he made his first sinking on the 22nd, three weeks after leaving France, and then spotted a tanker late on the 23rd. Not every attack went smoothly, this overnight action was accompanied by a thunderstorm:
Sighted mast tips on port side ahead out of a rain squall. Turned towards it and soon recognized a tanker. He is zigzagging irregularly and wide from 3° up to 8° around course 45°. I am ahead of his general course.
He seems to run about 10.5 knots. Before dusk he was on course 90° for 1½ hours. At nightfall he turned to 0°, after ½ hour to course 30°. Had difficulties staying in contact. A cunning fellow. Every time I try to approach him he turns away. Bright moonlit night with thunderstorms. Eventually I am able to attack with a big rain squall behind me that covers the moon for a short time. It is a very modern motor tanker with short masts and a low big funnel. Similar to NORNESS and I estimate about 9500 GRT.
24.03.42 01.57 CB 8172 SW by W 4, 4/10, Sea 3-4, Vis. 6 nm
From a distance of 500 to 600 meters I fire one Ato from the bow, depth 3 meters, enemy speed 10.5 knots, target angle 70°. When the hydrophone operator reported that the torpedo was running I turned hard to starboard. A miss was not possible from this close distance. Nothing happened. Report from bow room: tube runner! Due to a misunderstanding the boat had already turned too far to fire a prepared second torpedo on target angle 80° or 90°. I continue the hard turn to fire an also prepared stern torpedo. I was now showing my broadside to the tanker from a distance of 300 meters, so he finally saw me and turned away to starboard, target angle 180°.
Ordered: Stop and secure. After some time it is reported that the torpedo was fired from tube V. The crewman had fired it manually on his own because he was waiting for the order to fire and believed he heard it in the speaking tube. He did not look at the communication apparatus. The torpedo was heading to anywhere. The tube runner had moved ¼ m in the tube and was jettisoned with the mine discharge. It became a “dead man”. Examination of the tube showed that an edge of the retaining pin was sheered away and the opening lever was scrubbed bare. The tube remains empty.
It is hard when during a difficult attack everything goes well on the bridge and then old, experienced crewmen make preventable mistakes and cut the boat out of an easy victory. Tanker is sending a U-boat warning. Position 10 nm south of our dead reckoning position.
It is the EMPIRE STEEL (8150 GRT), built in 1941. This showed again that one tends to overestimate tankers at night because they don’t have as many features as freighters. Had one gun of 8,8 cm aft and one 6 cm gun with protective shield on each side of the funnel forward. There were machine guns and spotlights at the side of the bridge. Everything modern, not makeshift. Overtaking again. The thunderstorm is over and now I am standing before the bright horizon with the moon. Due to his zigzagging I get ahead and on the other side.
I almost lost him in the dark horizon due to his wild turns. He now runs at 12 knots and is zigzagging for his life. Because I had seen his particularly strong armament and he now pays attention, I can’t get as close and decide to fire a spread of two torpedoes from a greater distance.
03.01 CB 8173 W by S 3-4, 8/10, Sea 3, Vis 1-2 nm, thunderstorm
Fired torpedo spread. Distance 900 meters, target angle 75°, enemy speed 12 knots. Stayed on straight course to not reveal us by turning. Then he turns away hard to port, slows down and is manning the guns. It is amazing in this case that he had not already manned them to give us a hot welcome. I turn hard away at AK. There – after 61 seconds – hit ahead of the foremost mast. High, dark explosion plume and shortly thereafter the whole tanker seems to blow up. He had a load of gasoline in the forepart. Several explosions followed and we saw a sea of flames, which one observes rarely. Just when we believed that he sank he used the radio. Oops! After 5 minutes we can see that he is still afloat on an even keel. The bow is burning very fiercely and the upper deck and superstructure aft is burnt, but due to the fire-extinguishing system the blaze is concentrated on the forepart of the ship. The fuel tanks aft are not burning and the wind is pushing the flames away from the ship. A lesson for us that not every “exploded” tanker is lost. We all would have sworn to find not a single piece of the wreck. But in this case the men in the water and the lifeboats could have re-boarded the tanker after the fire in the bow burned out and continued the voyage with the probably intact engines.
03.41 Fired six rounds from the deck gun into the engine room. That was enough to flood it and the ship now settled aft slowly. Then set the aft fuel tanks on fire with 3 rounds. Now the whole ship is burning fiercely and the sinking was hastened.
Apparently he had loaded diesel oil aft and his ammunition is detonating constantly. It is amazing that he did not fire a single shot from his cannons and machine guns during the attack, even when they were for sure manned. Bad lookout and bad training on the guns.
Tanker is capsizing to port. The bow is rising and protruding steeply 20 meters out of the water, burning fiercely.
The hole from the torpedo is quite visible. It is about 15 meters from the bow and the side plates are ripped open from the keel to the railing.
24.03.42 0956 EMPIRE STEEL (8150 GRT) This one is tough and only sinks completely after 5 hours. The oil keeps burning on the surface of the water for some time. Continued on old course 260°.
Read the whole war patrol at U Boat Archive