The sinking of the Putney Hill

An undated picture of U- 203. She was on her seventh war patrol in June 1942 and was to have a lucky escape when she was depth charged repeatedly.

A convoy system had not been introduced for ships sailing the east coast of the Americas. The “Happy Time” for U-boats continued as they lay in wait for ships sailing up and down the known routes. Admiral Donitz’s objective was simple – to sink ships at a faster rate than the Allies could build them – an overall reduction in Allied shipping capacity would restrict the ability for the United States and Canada to supply Britain and Russia. The sinking of any Allied ship, anywhere, whether in cargo or not would contribute to this strategy.

German calculations greatly underestimated the rate at which ships would be built – but this made no difference to those in the cross-hairs of a U-boat periscope.

Alan Shard was an Apprentice Deck Officer on the Putney Hill en route from Cape Town to New York. On the 25th June they were about 500 miles north of Puerto Rico in the Caribbean.

The time was 2325. It was a brilliant moonlit night, warm, with little breeze and slight sea and swell. The lookout in the port wing of the bridge was a young Apprentice from Radcliffe, Lancashire, who was scanning an area from right ahead to right astern on his side. The Third Mate was keeping a similar lookout on the starboard side and an Able Bodied Seaman at the wheel. The fourth member of the watch, on Standby, had just made the coffee for the Middle Watch coming on at midnight. (Coffee on a British Ship in wartime consisted of throwing a few handfuls of grind into a converted 5lb jam tin with a wire handle and letting it stew on the galley stove).

The Standby man came up on the bridge to check the time before he called the 12 – 4 watch at 2330. As he left the wheelhouse to go below, the Apprentice enquired of the time. With a slap on the back, the Standby man replied 2325 and simultaneously both of them were blown into the air from the blast of a tremendous explosion at the waterline in Hold No. 3, slightly aft of the bridge structure. The reverbrations echoed through the empty holds like a giant hammer blow from Thor and Putney Hill went dead in the water. Neither of the two were hurt and they donned life-jackets immediately. Smoke from the explosion hung over the decks. The Captain came running out of his cabin on the Lower Bridge Deck and as the ship had now taken a heavy starboard list, he ordered ‘Abandon Ship’.

The Apprentice wondered why he had not seen anything out there on the port side and figured the torpedo must have come down a moonbeam reflection in the tropical waters. It was later discovered from the U-boat War Log that the first torpedo (also unsighted) missed. The two lifeboats on the portside of the ship were useless, having been blown inboard against the funnel, so everyone ran to the starboard side which was almost at sea-level. The Apprentice was carrying an old army gas mask case made of canvas known as the ‘grab bag’ in which he kept his Merchant Navy Identity Card, a Mars Bar, extra pair of socks, some private papers and his camera. He threw them in his designated Lifeboat No.3 which was already in the water and swarmed down the falls to join 15 others.

The Apprentice had never swam more than 50 yards in his life, but wearing his life-jacket, struck out for a life-raft floating a short distance astern. Several others had the same intention and eight clambered onboard. During this short swim he was stung by a ‘Portuguese man-o-war’, but felt nothing at the time. It later developed into a rotting hole about the size of a Canadian quarter which necessitated hospital attention in New York. The life-raft was about 8 feet square and consisted of wooden planks enclosing metal airtanks with a depression across the centre for survivors to set their feet whilst facing each other. Someone pointed to a man hanging on to the propeller which was clear of the water. It was the Assistant Cook and he was never seen again.

The Putney Hill was lying like a ghost ship on the gentle sea, the silence punctuated by occasional loud bangs as various bits of the structure gave way under the increasing pressure. Without warning an incendiary shell hit the funnel and started a fire. It was followed by a further sixty three shells into the hull, counted by those on the life-raft from their grandstand position.

Well at least Mutzelberg had allowed the crew to leave the stricken vessel before opening up with his deck gun. At approximately 0130 hours on June 26th, 1942, Putney Hill became almost vertical and still burning slid beneath the sea, bow first.

Read the whole of his account and how they survived 10 days in an open boat at Merchantships

An earlier victim – American tanker Harry F. Sinclair (6,151 tons) afire after being torpedoed by U-203 seven miles south of Cape Lookout April 11, 1942.
The vessel was traveling from Houston to Norfolk escorted by the destroyer USS Herbert (DD-160) and a US Coast Guard vessel. Her cargo of gasoline and fuel oil exploded and burned fiercely. Four of her officers, including the Master and six crewmen died. 26 crewmembers were picked up several hours later by the Herbert and the British trawler HMS Hertfordshire (FY-176). On April 15, she was towed into Morehead City and subsequently to Baltimore where she was repaired and returned to service in 1943 as the Annibal.

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