U-boat versus merchantman in mid Atlantic gun duel

Images from U-123 dated January 1942 with a merchant ship in the distance. This may well be the CULEBRA which was attacked from a position facing the stern. The photographer on board U-123, Seaman specialist Toelle, was badly injured during the attack when a shell misfired.

In the Battle of the Atlantic Reinhard Hardegen, the commander of U-123 had finished his patrol off the American east coast where he had narrowly escaped being sunk off New York. Having used up all his torpedoes sinking seven ships (he claimed eight) he was now heading home. On the 24th he received news that he had been awarded the Knights Cross and the crew presented him with an improvised medal during a formal ceremony on board the U-Boat.

He not yet finished with offensive operations during this patrol, as he was determined to make use of the deck guns if the opportunity arose during the slow return east to France. On the 25th he spotted the the Royal Mail Line steamship Culebra, a British defensively equipped merchantman:

25.01.42
Total: 192 nm
To date: 5734 nm
Submerged: 190 nm

14.31
40° to starboard a steamer in sight. Our Sunday roast. His course 220°, speed 9 knots. Overtaken, let him have it!

16.00 CC 7953 SW 4, 7/10, Sea 4, Vis. 12 nm Rain showers

17.02
We are ahead, running towards it. It is a small steamer with a frame around the bow for the use of minesweeping equipment. Heavily loaded, with deck cargo in crates. one gun, about 50 mm with protective shield. [text illegible]

17.57 CC 7982 SW 3-4, 3/10, Sea 3, Vis. 15 nm

about 600 meters behind him. Deck gun ready and opened fire. The first shots hit the stern, then one each under the bridge and in the engine room. Steamer mans the gun and fires. The firing pin of our MG C30 is broken, so we fired with the deck gun at his gun. Several hits underneath, but he continues to fire until a direct hit struck the pivot. Gun crew out of action, the barrel can’t be moved anymore.

We received 5 hits, which did not penetrate the pressure hull. Because they hit very low, I assume that they fell short, burst on the surface and only the splinters hit our hull. Some shots passed between conning tower and deck gun, one could hear them whistling past.

Ship is releasing steam, bridge is burning and the crew is abandoning ship in the lifeboats. Strangely they did not release the two big rafts that are intact on great slipways over the foremost and rearmost hatches. Perhaps because they were on the side we fired on.

Replaced the firing pin of the 20 mm AA gun. We fire a single shot into the scenery to test the weapon. This shot exploded in the barrel, apparently due to a defect in manufacture of the round. Premature detonation.

Special leader Art.Mt. Toelle is unfortunately hit by shrapnel on the back of his head and fell to the deck bleeding badly. MtrOGfr. Vonderschen has a 5 cm flesh wound on the left thigh, which is harmless. Not the fault of anyone. Vonderschen belonged to the AA gun crew, Toelle was standing near the aft periscope taking photos of the burning steamer. We were firing to right aft. Toelle lost very much blood and had to vomit several times

The steamer was only able to send “SSS” without name and position. We approach the lifeboats and the first officer told us that the ship was CULEBRA (3044 GRT) from Liverpool loaded with “general cargo”. There is water in the boats and the survivors only have one bucket with shrapnel holes in it. We provide them with several buckets and provisions for a few days consisting of bread, lard and sausages and additionally a knife to open the canned food. They have enough water.

Gave them the exact position and the course to the Bermudas. The [text illegible] were swimming in the water and will be picked up by the boats. On the CULEBRA the signal munitions on the bridge and the ready ammunition for the gun now detonates. Funny looking fireworks with parachute rockets. Bridge collapses. We are shooting holes into the waterline aft. As the stern settles, the deck cargo shifts and we detect aircraft. Wings with a blue-white-red cockade and yellow ring around it, fuselages and tail assemblies. An inflated tire of a landing gear floats on the water. And the gentlemen call this “general cargo”!!

Made a few more holes in the after part. Stern sinks, the bow rises and then our ninth steamer sank. Course 70°, both engines at HF.

For the whole report see U-Boat Archive.

The lifeboats from the Culebra were never found, the Master, George Bonner, together with 38 crew members and four Royal Navy gunners were all lost.

Naval History net has four Royal Navy casualties:

Culebra, steamship
BUDDELL, Thomas V, Act/Able Seaman, C/JX 291067, (President III, O/P), MPK
CORNELL, John F, Act/Able Seaman, C/JX 291074, (President III, O/P), MPK
FARLEY, Robert P, Act/Able Seaman, C/JX 290564, (President III, O/P), MPK
JOHNSTON, Graham, Ty/Act/Corporal, RM, PO/X 1325, (President III, O/P), MPK

HMS President was the administrative base for Royal Naval personnel. A full casualty list can be found by searching Convoy Web, also see the recent news report from Cayman informed. It was originally thought that the Culebra was lost on the 17th, just after she became detached from her convoy.

U-123 was to sink one more ship, a tanker, and return to Lorient on the 9th February after 49 days at sea, for more details see U-Boat Net.

These images were first used together with the entry for 2nd January 1942, since when I found the U-123 log.

A close up view of the deck gun on U-123 taken from the same sequence. Gunfire from the Culebra passed between the conning tower and the gun - the Royal Navy gun crew were unlucky not to have caused more damage.

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