USS Sealion sinks Rakuyo Maru – and 1300 PoWs


12 September 1944: USS Sealion sinks Rakuyo Maru – and 1300 PoWs

It was now 4am and most of the rafts had drifted close together. A lot of the English POW’s drifted into burning oil and a lot also died after being hit by rafts and hatch covers which were being thrown into the water. The English had been on the starboard side of the Rakuyo Maru. A few men had still not abandoned ship and they found a lifeboat that the Japanese could not launch but which they managed to launch. They also found one terrified Japanese Jig-a-Jig girl still on the ship whom they took with them. Once in the water they met up with a boatload of Japanese and handed the Jig-a-Jig girl over to them.

The Rakuyo Maru was part of Convoy HI-72 and transporting 1317 Australian and British prisoners of war (POWs) from Singapore, when it was torpedoed and sunk in the Luzon Strait by USS Sealion on 12 September 1944. A total of 1159 POWs died as a result of the sinking.
The Rakuyo Maru was part of Convoy HI-72 and transporting 1317 Australian and British prisoners of war (POWs) from Singapore, when it was torpedoed and sunk in the Luzon Strait by USS Sealion on 12 September 1944. A total of 1159 POWs died as a result of the sinking.

On the 9th September 1944 FRUPAC, the US Fleet Radio Unit, Pacific, intercepted a Japanese message about a convoy en route to Japan. As a consequence a US submarine wolf pack, the USS Growler, USS Sealion and USS Pampanito were sent to lay an ambush. They rendezvoused together late on the 11th September and then, in the early hours of the 12th, began a joint attack when the Japanese ships crossed their path.

They were not to know that on board two of the Japanese transports in the convoy, the Rakuyo Maru and the Kachidoki Maru were 2,217 British and Australian Prisoners of War. They were being taken to Japan to be used as slave labour, most of them already having survived the horrors of the ‘death railway’ in Burma – Thailand. The majority of the 1317 men on the Rakuyo Maru were in the hold. A relatively fortunate few were being kept on deck – they had a grandstand view of events:

We were sleeping topside on the Rakuyo Maru. At about 2 o’clock in the morning a two-funneled destroyer was hit by a torpedo and blew up. [This was the attack made by the GROWLER.] There was a lot of gunfire and flares, and then everything was quiet. At about 5 a.m. or 6 a.m. a red flare went up on the port side of a tanker right ahead of us. Then a torpedo struck and the tanker burst into flame, literally blew up, and threw flaming oil high in the air.

Then the ship on the port bow (presumably a transport) swerved in and almost collided. She looked disabled, for she just seemed to drift toward the burning tanker and caught fire aft. In a moment there was a puff of smoke around the bridge and she was in flames forward.

Then there was a thud forward on our ship followed by another thud aft, and the Rakuyo Maru began to settle in the water. The Japs took to the boats at once and about five minutes later we went into the water, too, and climbed aboard some rafts. The tanker was burning fiercely and we tried to keep away from fire on the water. A half-hour later the tanker sank.

The Rakuyo Maru took a list to starboard but looked as if she would remain afloat for a while. Some survivors started back, but before they could get to her she began to keel over and settle. So we changed our minds about getting provisions and water. She sank about 6 p.m.

Shortly afterwards a destroyer picked up Japs in long boats. We were held off with revolvers. Later another destroyer came up escorting passenger-freighters. They rescued the remaining Japs and all three ships steamed off. I believe they were loaded with raw rubber.

This account originally appeared in Polaris , October 1985..

Many men had survived the attack but the Japanese had made off with eleven out of the twelve life boats. There was a struggle to escape from the Rakuyo Maru and build rafts before she sank some 12 hours later. Another account comes from Australian Roydon Cornford :

The first torpedo hit us in the bow at No.1. hold. The explosion nearly washed us overboard. It flooded the hold containing the POW’s causing panic because ten seconds after the first torpedo hit, the second torpedo hit the engine room causing the ship to list and sink ten feet, after which it just floated. I can remember the Japanese in the lifeboats on our ship singing out “torpedoes” before we got hit. I did not see them but some of the POW’s said that they did.

How lucky we were, with a torpedo hitting both sides of the hold containing the POW’s. By now we realised the ship was not about to sink immediately. The POWs in the hold calmed down and climbed the ladder to the deck in an orderly manner. The shock of the water washing us around the deck and water pouring into the hold is something hard to forget. The torpedoes killed a lot of the Japanese, mostly in the engine room and blew those on the gun turret overboard.

The Japanese on our ship had abandoned ship with no word to us. They had taken 11 lifeboats and 2 small punts. Some Japanese just jumped into the sea and any POW’s trying to get into the lifeboats were kept back with guns and bayonets. I saw one Japanese boat drift into the flaming oil and you could hear the screams of men burning and drowning. Since there were lots of Japanese from other ships also in the water, approximately 15 POW’s did manage to get into a lifeboat with about 20 Japanese.

Our ship had settled with a serious list to the port side, sitting about 10ft lower in the water. The POW’s were tossing overboard 6ft by 6ft rafts, hatch covers and anything else that would float, with POW’s jumping overboard to hang onto the rafts. In some cases the English POW’s killed a few of their own men by tossing rafts onto men in the water. These rafts were not made for you to sit on, just to hang on to the ropes on the side of the raft. By now most of the POW’s had left the ship so we left four men to guard the last raft that we had for seven of us while we found water. We all had a good drink, donned our life jackets, tossed our raft overboard and jumped into the sea.

The seven of us paddled and kicked the water to get away from the slowly sinking ship. We had only got about 100 yards away when a Japanese naval escort came back, flashing signal lights when it also got torpedoed and exploded. That torpedo exploding made us sick, causing us to lose all the water we had drunk.

It was now 4am and most of the rafts had drifted close together. A lot of the English POW’s drifted into burning oil and a lot also died after being hit by rafts and hatch covers which were being thrown into the water. The English had been on the starboard side of the Rakuyo Maru. A few men had still not abandoned ship and they found a lifeboat that the Japanese could not launch but which they managed to launch. They also found one terrified Japanese Jig-a-Jig girl still on the ship whom they took with them. Once in the water they met up with a boatload of Japanese and handed the Jig-a-Jig girl over to them.

Now quite a few POW’s swam and paddled back to the ship and climbed back on board. By daylight the ocean was heavily dotted with debris, POW’s on rafts and lifeboats. There were also a lot of Japanese on rafts. By now we realised that the ship was doomed since it was slowly sinking into the water. However you could still see men walking around the decks. While all this was going on two Japanese naval ships appeared on the horizon and slowly nosed their way through the oil and floating debris.

Our spirits soared, after spending so long in the water, thinking rescue had arrived. The frigates picked up all the Japanese from the lifeboats then lowered a motorised lifeboat which moved among us picking up all of the Japanese and Koreans in the water. While this was going on an old Japanese transport ship also arrived but did not do any rescuing.

The lifeboats the Japanese left in the water were soon filled with POW’s, 350 or so spread evenly between the 11 lifeboats. Luckily, I did not get in one. By now it was late on the first day with the two Japanese ships and the transport ship still close by when our ship suddenly went down nose first, tossing blocks of rubber high into the air and generating great spouts of water. Men who had remained on the ship went down with the sinking ship.

The two Japanese naval ships and the oil transport ship just sailed off and left us floating around in the water. It soon became dark so we tied two rafts together and pushed bamboo and bits of timber under them. Eighteen of us could sit on the rafts and the kapok life jackets took the rest of our weight.

During the first night the rafts drifted apart and our two rafts were 100 yards from the next raft. There were lots of rafts and men spread all around the ocean, with dead Japanese and POWs floating around in life jackets. Any POW’s who did not have life jackets took one off a dead Japanese. We spent the first night floating around listening to POW’s calling out for friends.

Read the whole of Roydon Cornford’s account at Prisoners of the Japanese.

Meanwhile the Japanese convoy continued and the USS Pampanito set off in pursuit. After dealing with a ‘hot running torpedo’ – a torpedo that began running inside the torpedo tube on the submarine – the USS Pampanito was in position to attack:

2240 Fired five torpedoes forward; three at large transport and two at large AK…. Swung hard right and at 2243 Fired four stern tubes; two at each of the two AK’s in the farthest column. Saw 3 hits in large AP, two hits in large AK (Targets No. 1 and 2) and one hit in AK (farthest column) heard and timed hit in fourth AK (Leading ship in farthest column)….

In all, seven hits out of nine torpedoes. From the bridge we watched both the large AP and the large AK (one with two hits) sink within the next ten minutes, and saw the after deck house of the third ship, on which we saw one hit, go up into the air with the ship smoking heavily.

The fourth ship could not be observed… because of much smoke and haze in that direction. A short interval after the seven hits, the escorts started dropping depth charges at random, but for once we didn’t mind.

Amongst these ships hit was the Kachidoki Maru with 900 British Prisoners of war on board. It appears that there were very few survivors, probably only men who happened to be on deck. They were taken on board the Kibitsu Maru, which was to successfully complete the journey to Japan.

It was only as the USS Pampanito returned along the route she had taken that three days later that she came across a number of men in the water clinging to rafts, most of them were covered in oil and very weak. With the sudden realisation that they were too tall to be Japanese, the Pampanito launched a rescue operation and summoned the USS Sealion back to the area to help.

Captain Summers, commander of the USS Pampanito:

All were exhausted, after four days on the raft and three years of imprisonment. Many had lashed themselves to their makeshift rafts, which were slick with grease. Some had nothing but life belts. All showed signs of pellagra, beri-beri, immersion, salt water sores, ringworm, and malaria. All were very thin and showed the results of undernourishment.

Some were in very bad shape, but with the excitement of rescue they came alongside with cheers for the Yanks and many a curse for the Japs. It was quite a struggle to keep them on the raft while we took them off one by one. They could not manage to secure a line to the raft, so we sent men over the side who did the job.

The survivors came tumbling aboard and then collapsed with strength almost gone. A pitiful sight none of us will ever forget. All hands turned to with a will and the men were cared for as rapidly as possible.

There is another account of the action at Maritime Org.

Film of the rescue taken on board the USS Sealion:


Not all who survived the sinking of the ship were able to survive their time in the sea. Albert Albury was one who survived but gave this account of the last hours of John Chalmers, one of the Australian Army Medical Officers who were amongst the PoWs:

Late in the afternoon of the fourth day Ted and I came across the doctor drifting alone on a hatchboard. He was delirious. He had dysentery, and I could see that he was dying. We pulled him on the raft and sat either side of him so that he could not roll off.

He kept asking for water. His bottle, of course, was empty . I dipped my hand into the sea and let a few drops splash into his mouth. It would make little difference to him now if he drunk it or not. Once or twice we had to hold him down as he found a little strength in his ravings.

But as darkness came he lay quiet, unmoving. In the torpor that came with the night we forgot he was there. Throughout the early hours of the next morning I kept on falling across him, forgetting who or what his body was. It was something to rest my head on.

At dawn we found he was dead. And as I looked at him, his mouth agape, his face a thousand years old, his eyes still fixed with pain and delirium, I remembered all he had done for me, and for so many others. And for a few moments I became a human being, and was filled with sorrow and compassion. He was one of the finest men I had ever known

….We rolled his body off the edge of the raft

See Prisoners of War of the Japanese, for more on John Chalmers life. See also Roll of Honour for a list of casualties. Also available are the war patrol reports of the USS Sealion and the USS Papanito and Australian War Memorial has more details of other accounts.

China Sea. Oil-soaked British and Australian prisoners of war who survived the sinking of the Japanese transport Rakuyo Maru by the submarine USS Sealion, being picked up three days later by that submarine.AWM 305634.
China Sea. Oil-soaked British and Australian prisoners of war who survived the sinking of the Japanese transport Rakuyo Maru by the submarine USS Sealion, being picked up three days later by that submarine.AWM 305634.

USS Parche’s surface attack on Japanese convoy


31 July 1944: USS Parche surface attack on Japanese convoy

In the mounting fury of fire from the damaged and sinking tanker, he calmly ordered his men below, remaining on the bridge to fight it out with an enemy now disorganized and confused. Swift to act as a fast transport closed in to ram, Comdr. Ramage daringly swung the stern of the speeding Parche as she crossed the bow of the onrushing ship, clearing by less than 50 feet but placing his submarine in a deadly crossfire from escorts on all sides and with the transport dead ahead.

The national ensign blows in the breeze as the Parche (SS-384) is launched at Portsmouth Navy Yard, Kittery, ME, 24 July 1943.
The national ensign blows in the breeze as the Parche (SS-384) is launched at Portsmouth Navy Yard, Kittery, ME, 24 July 1943.
Balao class boat possibly USS Parche underway off the Atlantic coast , september 1943.
Balao class boat possibly USS Parche underway off the Atlantic coast, September 1943.

Many of the top scoring German U Boat captains had achieved their scores by getting in amongst the Allied convoys before beginning their attack. It was a risky business, coming in close to and bypassing the escorting warships, yet had much potential to take advantage of the surprise and confusion created amongst the convoy ships.

Commander Lawson P Ramage

The opportunities for Allied submarine commanders to adopt such tactics were far fewer. The actions of Commander Lawson P. Ramage on the 31 July 1944 were a notable example of a US submarine making such an attack, leading to the award of the Medal of Honor:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as commanding officer of the U.S.S. Parche in a predawn attack on a Japanese convoy, 31 July 1944.

Boldly penetrating the screen of a heavily escorted convoy, Comdr. Ramage launched a perilous surface attack by delivering a crippling stern shot into a freighter and quickly following up with a series of bow and stern torpedoes to sink the leading tanker and damage the second one. Exposed by the light of bursting flares and bravely defiant of terrific shellfire passing close overhead, he struck again, sinking a transport by two forward reloads.

In the mounting fury of fire from the damaged and sinking tanker, he calmly ordered his men below, remaining on the bridge to fight it out with an enemy now disorganized and confused. Swift to act as a fast transport closed in to ram, Comdr. Ramage daringly swung the stern of the speeding Parche as she crossed the bow of the onrushing ship, clearing by less than 50 feet but placing his submarine in a deadly crossfire from escorts on all sides and with the transport dead ahead.

Undaunted, he sent 3 smashing “down the throat” bow shots to stop the target, then scored a killing hit as a climax to 46 minutes of violent action with the Parche and her valiant fighting company retiring victorious and unscathed.

"Come and get it! "Red" Ramage, the first C.O. of the Parche (SS-384) serving it up hot to the Japanese. In this night surface attack on a heavily guarded convoy off Formosa, the lone sub played havoc with the enemy. "Commanding Officer courageously remained at his station on the bridge to maneuver his ship more effectively."
“Come and get it! “Red” Ramage, the first C.O. of the Parche (SS-384) serving it up hot to the Japanese. In this night surface attack on a heavily guarded convoy off Formosa, the lone sub played havoc with the enemy. “Commanding Officer courageously remained at his station on the bridge to maneuver his ship more effectively. Drawing by Lt. Cmdr. Fred Freemen, Courtesy of Theodore Roscoe, from his book “U.S. Submarine Operations of WW II”, published by USNI.”

The following fuller account used to be available from from – http://www.parche.org/history.htm – Parche.org.It may be possible to access this from the internet archive.

During the Parche’s second war patrol, she engaged in a predawn attack on a Japanese convoy on July 31, 1944. During this daring night surface action Parche worked her way in inside two escorts and began an approach on a medium AK at 0354. The target slid by about 200 yards away and then turned to avoid two torpedoes Parche had fired at her. That move effectively blocked an escort who had sneaked in behind her and also opened up an opportunity for shots at two tankers and the AK.

A stern shot took care of the cargo carrier and four bow tubes knocked out a tanker. CDR Ramage ordered “Right-Full Rudder” to bring the stern tubes to bear on the second oiler and fired three torpedoes. One missed ahead of the ship but the other two fish hit the forward section slowing down the tanker but not stopping her completely.

The escorts opened up with deck guns, machineguns and flares firing in all directions. The convoy started to mill about smartly with Parche in the middle. Suddenly a medium sized merchant-man with a sizeable superstructure came in sight. The torpedo reload crews forward and aft reloaded tubes as fast as they could and Parche fired two tubes as soon as the outer doors were opened. The two torpedoes broke the merchant-mans back, which sent her down within a couple of minutes.

With the merchant-man out of the way Parche came back after the first tanker to finish her off. Parche crossed her track astern at only 200 yards. At 500 yards the tanker opened up on Parche with everything she had, but her trim down by the bow kept her from depressing her guns enough to do any good. The small arms fire was peppering the bridge enough that Ramage sent all hands below except the quartermaster, who stuck to the after TBT until he had the set-up. At 800 yards Parche fired three torpedoes from the stern tubes at the tanker. All hit the tanker with terrific explosions effectively silencing the gunfire from that quarter. With five torpedoes in her the big tanker gave and went down leaving only a small oil fire.

The two escorts on the port quarter were now concentrating their machine gun fire on Parche. Ramage was about to come right to put them astern and head for the prize of the evening, a huge transport, when she spotted a ship coming in sharp on the starboard bow apparently intent on ramming. Ordering a full bell, Ramage sent the boat shooting across in front of the on-rushing enemy, then halfway across its track he ordered “Right-Full Rudder” swinging right the stern of the boat out of its path. The Japanese were screaming like a bunch of wild pigs as Parche barely missed being rammed by less than 50 feet. All hands exchanged mutual cheers and jeers.

Parche, now boxed in on both sides by several small craft and the big transport dead ahead had no alternative but to fire straight down the transports throat. The first fish started off to the right, so Ramage checked fire, spotted on, and fired two more. These were right in the groove and both hit the transport stopping her cold. Closing in on her starboard bow, the Parche swung hard left and fired one stern shot at 800 yards for a bull’s eye.

Stopping to take account of the situation, Ramage counted eight ships still visible on her RADAR screen. The bewildered escorts were still busy firing weapons in the darkness at Parche and at each other. The big transport was stopped and down by the bow, but showed no further signs of going down. Just as Parche started back to deliver the felling blow, the transport suddenly raised its stern into the air and went straight down, head first into the cold depths of the ocean. Parche then began an egress from the area yet one of the escorts continually challenged her with weapons fire amid the sounds of loud explosions in the darkness. The entire attack took 46 minutes.

When Parche was finished, she had gotten the Japanese ships to open fire at one another, and had sunk a 10,238 ton tanker, a 4,471 ton passenger-cargo ship, damaged several thousand tons of Japanese ships ,and had disrupted yet another convoy. She also worked together with Steelhead in sinking an 8,990 ton transport. Steelhead sank two other ships, a transport and a cargo vessel.

Commander Lawson P. Ramage, Medal of Honor
Commander Lawson P. Ramage, Medal of Honor

Badly wounded pilot’s determination sinks U-Boat


18 July 1944: Badly wounded pilot’s determination sinks U-Boat

During the next five and a half hours of the return flight he several times lapsed into unconsciousness owing to loss of blood. When he came to his first thought on each occasion was for the safety of his aircraft and crew. The damaged aircraft eventually reached base but it was clear that an immediate landing would be a hazardous task for the wounded and less experienced second pilot. Although able to breathe only with the greatest difficulty, Flying Officer Cruickshank insisted on being carried forward and propped up in the second pilot’s seat.

Oblique photograph taken from Consolidated Catalina Mark IVA, JV928 'Y', of No. 210 Squadron RAF during an attack on German type VIIC submarine U-347 west of the Lofoten Islands. After an initial attack in which the Catalina's depth charges failed to release, the captain, Flying Officer J A Cruickshank, made a second run from astern, through intense fire from the U-boat which killed the navigator and seriously wounded Nicholson and three other members of the crew. The photograph shows the splashes from the first of six DCs dropped on the second attack, landing astern of the U-boat which was making violent 'S' turns in an effort to escape. Machine gun fire from a gun housed in one of the Catalina's 'blisters' can also be seen at top left. The submarine was later confirmed sunk.
Oblique photograph taken from Consolidated Catalina Mark IVA, JV928 ‘Y’, of No. 210 Squadron RAF during an attack on German type VIIC submarine U-347 west of the Lofoten Islands. After an initial attack in which the Catalina’s depth charges failed to release, the captain, Flying Officer J A Cruickshank, made a second run from astern, through intense fire from the U-boat which killed the navigator and seriously wounded Nicholson and three other members of the crew. The photograph shows the splashes from the first of six DCs dropped on the second attack, landing astern of the U-boat which was making violent ‘S’ turns in an effort to escape. Machine gun fire from a gun housed in one of the Catalina’s ‘blisters’ can also be seen at top left. The submarine was later confirmed sunk.
Catalina Mark I, W8406, of No. 4 (Coastal) Operational Training Unit based at Stranraer, Ayrshire, on a training flight over the Irish Sea. It was shortly afterwards transferred to No. 210 Squadron RAF operating from Oban.
Catalina Mark I, W8406, of No. 4 (Coastal) Operational Training Unit based at Stranraer, Ayrshire, on a training flight over the Irish Sea. It was shortly afterwards transferred to No. 210 Squadron RAF operating from Oban.

For hours on end and for patrol after patrol Coastal Command aircraft patrolled the oceans, rarely spotting any shipping let alone any U-boats. There were only moments for action once one was sighted and then the attack had to be precisely executed to have a prospect of success. At the same time the Anti-Aircraft gunnery from U-boats was no small threat.

It is this context that the actions of 24 year old Flight Lieutenant John Cruickshank on his patrol of 17th/18th July 1944 must be seen. The Victoria Cross citation explains what happened in some detail:

Flight Lieutenant John Cruickshank VC
Flight Lieutenant John Cruickshank VC

The KING has been graciously pleased to confer the VICTORIA CROSS on the undermentioned officer in recognition of most conspicuous bravery: —

Flying Officer John Alexander CRUICKSHANK (126700), Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. No. 210 Squadron.

This officer was the captain and pilot of a Catalina flying boat which was recently engaged on an anti-submarine patrol over northern waters. When a U-boat was sighted on the surface, Flying Officer Cruickshank at once turned to the attack. In the face of fierce anti-aircraft fire he manoeuvred into position and ran in to release his depth charges. Unfortunately they failed to drop.

Flying Officer Cruickshank knew that the failure of this attack had deprived him of the advantage of surprise and that his aircraft offered a good target to the enemy’s determined and now heartened gunners.

Without hesitation, he climbed and turned to come in again. The Catalina was met by intense and accurate fire and was repeatedly hit. The navigator/bomb aimer, was killed. The second pilot and two other members of the crew were injured. Flying Officer Cruickshank was struck in seventy-two places, receiving two serious wounds in the lungs and ten – penetrating wounds in the lower limbs. His aircraft was badly damaged and filled with the fumes of exploding shells. But he did not falter. He pressed home his attack, and released the depth charges himself, straddling the submarine perfectly. The U-boat was sunk.

He then collapsed and the second pilot took over the controls. He recovered shortly afterwards and, though bleeding profusely, insisted on resuming command and retaining it until he was satisfied that the damaged aircraft was under control, that a course had been set for base and that all the necessary signals had been sent. Only then would he consent to receive medical aid and have his wounds attended to. He refused morphia in case it might prevent him from carrying on.

During the next five and a half hours of the return flight he several times lapsed into unconsciousness owing to loss of blood. When he came to his first thought on each occasion was for the safety of his aircraft and crew. The damaged aircraft eventually reached base but it was clear that an immediate landing would be a hazardous task for the wounded and less experienced second pilot. Although able to breathe only with the greatest difficulty, Flying Officer Cruickshank insisted on being carried forward and propped up in the second pilot’s seat. For a full hour, in spite of his agony and ever-increasing weakness, he gave orders as necessary, refusing to allow the aircraft to be brought down until the conditions of light and sea made this possible without undue risk.

With his assistance the aircraft was safely landed on the water. He then directed the taxying and beaching of the aircraft so that it could easily be salvaged. When the medical officer went on board, Flying Officer Cruickshank collapsed and he had to be given a blood transfusion before he could be removed to hospital.

By pressing home the second attack in his gravely wounded condition and continuing his exertions on the return journey with his strength failing all the time, he seriously prejudiced his chance of survival even if the aircraft safely reached its base. Throughout, he set an example of determination, fortitude and devotion to duty in keeping with the highest traditions of the Service.

Seventy five years after the event John Cruickshank is the only VC recipient from World War II still with us.

Air and ground crew of No. 202 Squadron RAF check equipment and ordnance issued to Consolidated Catalina Mark I, AJ159 'AX-B', on the slipway at North Front, Gibraltar, in preparation for a patrol.
Air and ground crew of No. 202 Squadron RAF check equipment and ordnance issued to Consolidated Catalina Mark I, AJ159 ‘AX-B’, on the slipway at North Front, Gibraltar, in preparation for a patrol.
Consolidated Catalina Mark II, FP530, of No. 45 Group, Transport Command, based at Bermuda, prepares to taxy while visiting Lagens. Parked behind it are Vickers Wellington GR Mark XIVs of No. 179 Squadron RAF which maintained a Detachment at Lagens between November 1943 and April 1944.
Consolidated Catalina Mark II, FP530, of No. 45 Group, Transport Command, based at Bermuda, prepares to taxy while visiting Lagens. Parked behind it are Vickers Wellington GR Mark XIVs of No. 179 Squadron RAF which maintained a Detachment at Lagens between November 1943 and April 1944.

Japanese massacre surviving crew of SS Jean Nicolet


2 July 1944: Japanese massacre surviving crew of SS Jean Nicolet

And then I kicked my way, I kicked my way up to the surface. This was a long ways, but I made it, and I got my nose up there, and, it seemed like a long ways, but I got up there. I had my hands tied behind me, still, and I was laying back, getting my nose up in the water and kicking, and trying not to inhale water. And I was treading water that way for quite some time. And it was pitch black at this time, and the only thing you could see was the ship, still floating and burning in the distance.

A Liberty ship similar to the SS Jean Nicolet with extra accommodation built on deck. Aerial photo of the Liberty ship SS John W. Brown outbound from the United States with a large deck cargo after her conversion into a "Limited Capacity Troopship."
A Liberty ship similar to the SS Jean Nicolet with extra accommodation built on deck. Aerial photo of the Liberty ship SS John W. Brown outbound from the United States with a large deck cargo after her conversion into a “Limited Capacity Troopship.”

The large Japanese submarine I-8 had been the only submarine to successfully complete the round the world trip to Germany and back in 1943. In 1944 she gained notoriety for her actions under the command of Tatsunosuke Ariizumi.

In March 1944 the surviving crew of the Dutch freighter SS Tjisalak were brought on to the deck of the I-8, and made to run a gauntlet of Japanese crew members who beat them and slashed at them with knives and bayonets, before being dumped in the water and left to die. On that occasion six men found a life raft and survived. There were no survivors from other ships sunk by I-8 during this period.

Then on 2nd July I-8 torpedoed the US Liberty ship the SS Jean Nicolet in the Indian Ocean. Amongst the 100 men on board was William Flury, an eighteen year old cook. After the torpedoing he managed to get into one of the ship’s boats. They were soon rowing away from the scene of the sinking:

The moon came up. A nice, big, yellow moon, you know, like you get in the tropics. It’s just like daylight. And we were manning the oars, and we heard a noise, which was the engines of the sub coming. And it was coming pretty fast, you know, and the mate says, “Put down your oars.” You know? And the sub glided up there. And there was an English-speaking Japanese on there, and they hollered at us to get aboard the submarine, you know? And no damned monkey-business, you know? And, so, I looked up there, and and there were machine guns trained on us, and pistols and everything. We didn’t have any weapons at all.

And I just I didn’t know what the hell to do, I felt really helpless, you know. You had to do what they said.

And so they took us, one at a time, and stripped our watches, shoes, and tied our hands with ropes and wires. And I noticed that they had already picked up some survivors. They were, back of the conning tower. Where we were on the boat was just about where the conning tower is, in the middle of the submarine, by then. And they were, took me, stripped me, took me and tied my hands behind my back, and set me up ahead of the conning tower, right under the deck guns on the sub. When they set us down on that deck, they told us to keep our heads bowed down. And, I looked up, kind-a, you know, to glance around, see what was going on. I didn’t notice that Japanese dude behind me. And he slammed me in the back of the head with something. And he grabbed me, by my front shirt, and started working on me with his right fist. And there was another that came over, and he started kicking me.

They had been taking men from up forward back behind the conning tower. Yelling and screaming, and all this.

And all of a sudden, I heard this hissing. You know, this air hissing. And, God, it dawned on me that they were going to submerge, you know? Which they did. And I started getting to my feet, which my legs were cramped, and I was having a time to, have, get up, and this big wall of water just come and hit me, and just slap me right against the back of the conning tower — or back of the front of the gun. And I kind of got hooked underneath that gun while it was going down, you know, the force of the water and everything. And finally, I kind of rolled to the side or something and got loose of whatever it was.

And then I kicked my way, I kicked my way up to the surface. This was a long ways, but I made it, and I got my nose up there, and, it seemed like a long ways, but I got up there. I had my hands tied behind me, still, and I was laying back, getting my nose up in the water and kicking, and trying not to inhale water. And I was treading water that way for quite some time. And it was pitch black at this time, and the only thing you could see was the ship, still floating and burning in the distance.

And I was trying to get my air, my breath, the best I could, and a fellow came up out of the dark. He heard me splashing, I guess, or something. Anyway, he came over and he asked me if I was untied. And I said, “No, I wasn’t,” and he untied me. So the both of us swam around, trying to find and release people. All that we could.

Oh, I heard screams all the time, throughout the night. The sharks were getting a lot of people. I swam for, oh, I don’t know, maybe an hour or so, and I run onto another guy, who is a navy personnel – an armed guard from the Nicolet. And we swam together, and he was getting cramps regularly through the night, and I would go over and hold him up and help him and drag him along, so he could rest a little bit, and things like that, throughout the night, all night long. Well, I personally didn’t get in contact with a shark, but a lot of the men did.

They took a heck of a toll. You could hear them screaming, screams all night. I thought about sharks. I still do. It’s a fear there, I’ll tell you, it’s a big one. You can’t see anything around you, and you know that they’re in the water with you. And there’s nothing you can do to prevent ‘em from taking you if they want ’em.

It was just pure luck that I got through, you know, the way I did. It was just absolute luck. I was all the time swimming towards the ship, it was burning in the distance, you know? It’s all I had — it’s all we had to swim for. I held this guy up when he had cramps, and we swam together through the night. And the sun came up, and the ship, the Jean Nicolet, was still burning. We were still swimming towards it, and later, I could see it going down. It went down bow first, and you could see the propeller. And it just went down. And it left me with a sense of loneliness and – way out there in the middle of the ocean.

When I’d get to the top of a swell, I would turn around and look around quick as I could, to see if I could see anything, you know? And I was doing that. And at one turn, like that, I thought I saw something, you know? So when the next swell lifted me up, I concentrated on that area over there, you know. And there was something over there. So I started, I changed course a little bit, and started swimming over towards this.

And as I got closer, every time, on the top of a swell, I finally saw that there was three, looked like three or four guys on a raft, You know, well, hey, man, this is good time! So I swam right over there and I told the navy guy there, you know, he’d seen it, too, and I said, “Well, looks like we got something over there.” And he just took right out, boy, like he was in a relay race all of a sudden, you know. I don’t know where the hell he got all his energy, you know, but he got it. I mean, he was — Anyway, I finally got to the raft, and it was, it was really neat.

I mean, it was a good sized raft. It was one that had barrels in it, with wooden top and bottom, so no matter which way it fell in the water, you could still get into the containers inside, see. And we had water in there, and food, and we even had some fishing gear – hook, and a, some pork rind for bait, and a canvas glove, you know, you could maybe use it for a hand-line, you know. Well, being on a, on a life raft after swimming all night is like a first rate hotel.

From the oral account of William Flury which can be heard at Smithsonian History, a full account of the whole incident can be found at Armed Guard. Around 23 men survived out of the 100 crew and passengers on the SS Jean Nicolet. The commander if I-8 Tatsunosuke Ariizumi was believed to have committed suicide at the end of the war, although some believe this incident was faked and he survived the post war years anonymously in Japan.

HMS Storm torpedoes a Japanese destroyer


15 April 1944: HMS Storm torpedoes a Japanese destroyer

Two muffled depth-charges were heard shortly after the first two explosions, but the hit on the destroyer seemed to have demoralised the screen, as no further attempt at a counter-attack was made. I was able to watch the whole affair quite happily from a range of two miles or so, and Petty Officer E. R. Evans, the T.G.M., was able to have a look at his victim burning furiously.

The First Lieutenant, Lieutenant R Bulkeley at the periscope of HMS TRIBUNE.
The First Lieutenant, Lieutenant R Bulkeley at the periscope of HMS TRIBUNE.
Royal Navy helmsman at the controls of an "S" Class submarine, Holy Loch.
Royal Navy helmsman at the controls of an “S” Class submarine, Holy Loch.

Just eight months earlier Lt Edward Young had been putting the newly built HMS Storm through her paces in Scottish waters. Now he was on the other side of the world in the Indian ocean, operating out of the Royal Navy base at Colombo, Ceylon [now Sri Lanka].

His second patrol took HMS Storm near the Andaman islands. On the 14th April he had got his first kill – a Japanese freighter outside Port Blair. He was still in the area, despite the presence of an anti submarine force that had given Storm a depth charging following that attack:

04.58. Dived eighteen miles ESE of Port Blair. Ran in at four knots.

0810. Sighted merchant ship steering eastward from Port Blair, escorted by same “screen” as for previous day’s target, namely one destroyer, one submarine-chaser and one other AS vessel rather like a river gunboat. At first I thought, pessimistically, that the target was the ship I had attacked yesterday, but on closer examination she was seen to be larger, about 4,000 tons, with a large derrick for’ard which the other ship did not have. Moreover, asdic counted 9 5 revs with reciprocating H.E., and the smoke was coming out of the funnel in typical coal-burning fashion.

I ran in at speed for as long as I dared. Even then the range was large on firing. I had only two torpedoes remaining in my bow tubes, and the stern torpedo. I considered firing the two bow tubes and then turning quickly to complete a salvo of three with the stern tube.

However, by the time I could have turned and steadied for the stern shot, the first two torpedoes would be well on their way to the target, and before the other could be of any use the first two would either have hit or been sighted, resulting in either case in an alteration of course on the part of the target. I therefore decided to fire the two bow tubes only, and reserve the stern tube for a possible coup de grace if I managed to damage her.

0837. Fired two torpedoes. Range on firing 5,000 yards. Three and a half minutes later there were two sharp explosions. The periscope was dipped at the time of the bangs, but a moment later this is what I saw:

Target turning hard-a-port just past the line of fire, half hidden by a veil of thin smoke; the destroyer, this side of the target, also just past the line of fire with a column of what looked like spray or white smoke just astern of him.

I thought at first that this must have been the aftermath of a shallow depth charge, until I looked at him again two minutes later and saw black smoke and orange flame pouring out of his stern. He was obviously hit. It looked very much as though the target had been hit too; she seemed to be making more smoke than usual, began to pursue a very erratic course, and finally almost stopped, pretty well beam on. Seeing this I began to manoeuvre to attack her with my stern torpedo.

Two muffled depth-charges were heard shortly after the first two explosions, but the hit on the destroyer seemed to have demoralised the screen, as no further attempt at a counter-attack was made. I was able to watch the whole affair quite happily from a range of two miles or so, and Petty Officer E. R. Evans, the T.G.M., was able to have a look at his victim burning furiously.

The target was now at a range of three miles, zig-zagging wildly in all directions at a plotted speed of five knots. (Asdic counted 6 5 revs.) From her reduction in speed I felt certain she must be damaged. However, in spite of speeding up I could not get near enough to shoot with any chance of success.

Young was very persistent and his hunt went on all day into the evening. Yet in circumstances like these the tables could turn very quickly:

2134. Obtained radar echo bearing 360°, range 6,400 yards.

This was very satisfactory so far, as the target was only four minutes adrift on the position expected from our previous estimations. I was, however, slightly ahead of her and on her starboard bow. I slowed down and turned south, aiming to get into a position 6,000 yards on her starboard beam to obtain accurate plot.

Unfortunately the target chose this moment to do one of her starboard zigs, and began coming almost directly towards me. Radar showed range was closing rapidly, and then detected a smaller echo at 4,200 yards, also closing.

I increased speed and turned south-west to open the range, but it seemed that I had somehow been detected by one of the escorts, for his range now began shortening very fast and at 2202 he swept a searchlight through an arc of about 60°. The beam crossed over the submarine but he did not appear to have spotted us.

However, at this point I dived and went deep, expecting a hail of depth-charges. To our surprise, although his H.E. was heard at intervals for some forty minutes afterwards, no depth-charges were dropped. Either he was not sure if he had seen anything, or else he had used all his depth-charges on us the previous day.

I reckoned it would now be impossible to get into an attacking position until the following afternoon at the earliest. In view of my shortage of torpedoes, I decided to abandon the chase and go home. Moreover, lack of sleep during the last two days was beginning to have a dangerous effect on the efliciency of the crew.

Edward Young wrote one of the classic memoirs of the war, a candid account of the whole operational life of HMS Storm from launch through to action, see Edward Young: One of Our Submarines.

Officers of HMSM STORM playing a board game.
Officers of HMSM STORM playing a board game, possibly Ludo, in the wardroom of the submarine at Portsmouth. Left to right: Lieutenant (E) W H Ray, DSM, RN, of Alton, Hants; Lieutenant C B Mills, DSC, RN, of Belfast; Lieutenant Commander E P Young, DSO, DSC, RNVR, of Enfield, Commanding Officer; Lieutenant R L Blake, RN, of Crewkerne, Somerset; and Lieutenant R G Wade, RNVR, of Reigate. Lieutenant Commander Young was the first RNVR officer to command an operational submarine in the war.
Back from a successful patrol in Far Eastern waters, HMSM TEMPLAR arrives at the depot ship at Colombo, Ceylon.
Back from a successful patrol in Far Eastern waters, HMSM TEMPLAR arrives at the depot ship at Colombo, Ceylon.

USS Task Group 22.3 gets 2 U-boats in 2 days


10 April 1944: USS Task Group 22.3 gets 2 U-boats in 2 days

Suddenly, the siren was sounded for a crash dive. The survivor helped secure the 37 mm. gun and then noticed that one of the gunners had been wounded. He struggled forward with the wounded man,attempting to bring him into the boat. As they approached the conning tower hatch, it was slammed shut and the U-boat began to submerge. In a moment, the 2 men were in the water, pulled under by the suction, but clear of the boat.

USS Chatelain turns hard to Starboard to bring all guns to bear on U-515
USS Chatelain turns hard to Starboard to bring all guns to bear on U-515
Chatelain has turned 180 degrees - her 3"/50's have started a fire aboard U-515
Chatelain has turned 180 degrees – her 3″/50’s have started a fire aboard U-515
Hydrogen bottles on Platform I of U-515 burn as the crew abandons ship
Hydrogen bottles on Platform I of U-515 burn as the crew abandons ship
U-515 sinking by the bow
U-515 sinking by the bow
Some of the 40 survivors from U-515 are brought on board USS Pope
Some of the 40 survivors from U-515 are brought on board USS Pope

In the Battle of the Atlantic the advantage had now shifted decisively in favour of the Allies. In an ever more desperate attempt to halt the waves of men and munitions that were arriving in Europe from America, the Nazis kept sending U-boats to sea. It was by no means an entirely one sided battle – but the chances of survival for an U-boat crew were becoming increasingly slim. Allied air cover, together with much improved radar, now extended across the the ocean.

On the 9th April a US anti submarine Task Group 22.3 led by the USS Guadalcanal had caught the U-515 on the surface and successfully sunk her following a five hour hunt. In doing so they captured Kapitänleutnant Werner Henke, a Nazi hero awarded the Knights Cross with Oak Leaves. Henke was later to be shot and killed while attempting to escape from a detention facility at Fort Hunt, Virginia.

Nazi U-boat ace Werner Henke
Nazi U-boat ace Werner Henke

The very next day planes from the Task Group found and sunk another U-boat, U-68:

10th April 1944 0625

VT24 (Lt. S.G. Parsons) flying on instruments at 300′ following radar indication picked up at 8 miles broke into a clear spot and sighted U/B. Sub put up heavy anti-aircraft fire, but with VF4 (Lt. R.K. Gould) strafing, VT24 and VT22 (Lt. H.E. Hoerner) delivered a series of attacks, the last two after the U/B had submerged.

There followed a terrific underwater explosion, with large air bubbles, debris, oil, battery acid, torpedo air flasks and several survivors coming to the surface and again a large glowing light underwater. VT30 then out of ammunition stayed over the scene giving a blow-by-blow description. Sinking occurred at 3325’N 1859’W (corrected by Nav. LAN). Submarine was U-68, Captain Loutzinas, outbound.

There was just one survivor from U-68, 19 year old Seaman 2nd Class Hans Kastrup who had been manning the deck gun. He only survived because he was left behind when U-68 made an emergency dive. The hatch was slammed shut just in front of him – and he was left swimming in the sea with an unconscious casualty. This was the account he gave to US Naval Intelligence:

The survivor stated that U-68 was proceeding fully surfaced early on the morning of 10 April when a lookout reported the approach of enemy aircraft. The deck guns were ordered manned and the survivor took his station at the 37 mm. gun, which he served.

In the ensuing action, 200 rounds were fired from this gun but, in the general confusion, the survivor could not ascertain what damage was done to the U-boat or to the planes. He recalled 4 distinct attacks, a strafing run from astern, and an attack by a plane crossing the U-boat from the starboard beam. He did not know how many planes attacked U-68 at this time.

Suddenly, the siren was sounded for a crash dive. The survivor helped secure the 37 mm. gun and then noticed that one of the gunners had been wounded. He struggled forward with the wounded man,attempting to bring him into the boat. As they approached the conning tower hatch, it was slammed shut and the U-boat began to submerge. In a moment, the 2 men were in the water, pulled under by the suction, but clear of the boat.

The survivor, whose life jacket had been punctured by bullets and was comparatively ineffective, remained with the wounded man for some time. The latter, wounded in the stomach and leg, had turned very pale and was unconscious. The sole survivor stated that 2 planes came over after he had been in the water for a few minutes and dropped more depth charges; finally, one of the planes dropped a rubber boat. The survivor lost consciousness shortly thereafter from the effort of supporting himself and the wounded man in the water.

.

This report was originally available at [http://www.uboatarchive.net/U-515INT] U-boat Archive. It may be possible to access this from the internet archive.

The task Group included the USS Pope (DE-134) whose crew were having a rather better war than the crew of USS Pope (DD-225), which had been sunk at the Battle of the Java Sea in 1942.

The final moments of U-515
The final moments of U-515

Destroyer HMS Laforey sunk as she closes for the kill


29 March 1944: Destroyer HMS Laforey sunk as she closes for the kill

After what appeared to be an eternity, I spotted the darker shape of an approaching vessel. Suddenly there were cries of, “ Swim you German bastards, swim!” Our would be rescuers, were convinced that we were German survivors from the U-boat, which Tumult and Blencathra had eventually sunk. They were unaware of the fact that Laforey had gone too.

The destroyer HMS Laforey, a veteran of the war in the Mediterranean.
The destroyer HMS Laforey, a veteran of the war in the Mediterranean.

The Battle of the Atlantic may have been effectively won in 1943 but this did not lessen the danger of individual U-boats. Their chances of surviving a patrol had now been much reduced but the Germans were doing everything possible to fight back. Improved anti-aircraft guns played a part. Even more innovative were torpedoes guided by sonar. In the right situation a targeted ship might be able to cut her engines to avoid such missiles. It was not always possible.

On 29 March a submarine was detected by HMS Ulster during a routine sweep north of Palermo. Soon HMS Laforey was leading the hunt in company with the destroyers HMS Tumult, HMS Tuscan, HMS Urchin, HMS Hambledon and HMS Blencathra. They did not know it at the time but their quarry was the U-223, which had been responsible for sinking the US Troop Ship Dorchester. Like many U-boat hunts it was a waiting game. The latest sonar might not be able to give a precise position of a submarine, good enough for a kill but it would be difficult for a submarine to sneak away undetected:

At noon, just before we arrived in the area where the U-boat had been sighted, we were joined by Tumult, Blencathra. Quantock and Lammerton. And soon the metallic clang of the Asdic indicated we had located our quarry.

Attack after attack failed to bring the U-boat to the surface but as darkness fell, our Asdic team was confident that during the night, lack of air would bring her to the surface and my gun-teams have the chance of delivering the coup-de-grace.

Shortly before 0100 hrs the next day, the message was passed to the transmitting station from the bridge, that the U-boat was blowing her tanks and we were to prepare for ‘starshell’ firing to illuminate her.

Captain Armstrong, for reasons best known to himself decided not to sound off full action stations. The crew were therefore at defence stations, only half the armament manned and many men were asleep in the mess-decks. With hindsight, one can say that many of the 179 men who lost their lives, would have been saved, had they been closed up at action stations. The order came suddenly to open fire and within moments, night became day, as the starshell illuminated the area where the U-boat would break surface.

“ Gunner’s mate to the bridge.” Sub/Lt Ticehurst, the youngest officer in the ship – for reasons that I was never to discover – made the call that was to save my life. When I got there, I found the U-boat was clearly visible on the port bow. Our 4.7 armament was soon straddling the target and when the Gunnery Officer arrived on the bridge. I jumped down over the bridge screen to the Oerlikon, determined to ensure that the U-boat’s deck was raked with fire in case resistance was offered.

Then came the order to switch on the searchlight. It proved to be the opportunity the U-boat skipper needed. Suddenly there was a deafening explosion and I found myself hurtling upwards and then landing with a thud on the Oerlikon’s safety rails.

The U-boat had torpedoed us and I was conscious between bouts of blackness and pain, that Laforey was breaking up in her death throws. I tried to stand but had no movement in my legs. Using my elbows, I managed to propel my body to the ship’s side. Laforey was sinking and I clung to the rigging as she started her final plunge. Frantically, I tore myself free and with arms working like pistons, propelled myself as far from the inevitable whirlpool of suction as possible.

Suddenly, like a cork, I was whirled round and round and drawn towards the vortex where our beloved ship had finally disappeared beneath the waves. Fortunately, my half inflated life belt kept me on the surface.

Gradually, the black silence was broken with the cries of shipmates, dotted around the ocean. With the whistle always carried by a gunner’s mate for turret drill, I began to signal in the hope of collecting the survivors in a more compact group. Unconsciousness intervened and when I came round again, it was to hear the groans of a young London AB clinging to driftwood and obviously in a bad way.

At odd intervals, shipmates would swim to us to offer words of comfort and encouragement and them swim off to assist others. Two such gallant friends, Dave Barton the PO. Cook and Knocker White, the Yeoman of Signals both uninjured but sadly not to survive, continued to help their more unfortunate shipmates.

After what appeared to be an eternity, I spotted the darker shape of an approaching vessel. Suddenly there were cries of, “ Swim you German bastards, swim!” Our would be rescuers, were convinced that we were German survivors from the U-boat, which Tumult and Blencathra had eventually sunk. They were unaware of the fact that Laforey had gone too.

Within moments, I was carefully and gently lifted from the sea and into the boat. Oil fuel fouled my mouth and eyes and hid the tears of relief and gratitude for my rescuers.

I was hoisted aboard Tumult, encased in a Neil Robertson stretcher, injected with a liberal dose of morphia and despatched to the gunners mate’s holy of holy’s, the Transmitting Station. From the usual illegal matelot’s hidden resources, a full tumbler full of Nelson’s Blood was added to the pain relieving morphia and I sank into peaceful oblivion.

Vaguely, I remember being shipped from Tumult to a waiting ambulance in Naples harbour and arriving at the 65th General Hospital. There, the doctors found I had three spinal fractures. To begin with, I was paralysed from the waist down but my self pity soon disappeared when I looked around the overcrowded wards at our terribly wounded soldiers, being shipped in from their personal hell holes of Anzio or Cassino.

Read the whole of Bob Burns account on BBC People’s War. There is a thorough review of all the sources relating to the sinking of U-223 and HMS Laforey at World War II Quarterly.

There are suggestions that the torpedo struck the stern of HMS Laforey causing her own depth charges to explode, resulting in a catastrophic explosion that caused the sudden loss of the ship.

Cremer’s U-333 survives attack by Walkers’ Group


21 March 1944: Cremer’s U-333 survives attack by Walkers’ Group

It was best to play possum and let nothing be heard of us – come what might. So I laid the boat on the bottom where it bedded itself softly in sand and mud. I ordered the crew to rest and as far as possible not to think of depth charges, though it was impossible not to hear them. I thought: whoever throws so many will soon have none left. Meanwhile the hands of our clock kept moving, the search dragged on and lasted into the night.

U-123 on patrol earlier in the war.
U-123 on patrol earlier in the war.
The days of U-boats expecting to return for propaganda medal ceremonies were long since gone. The number of U-boats lost had gone up dramatically since mid 1943.
The days of U-boats expecting to return for propaganda medal ceremonies were long since gone. The number of U-boats lost had gone up dramatically since mid 1943.

Peter Cremer was a lucky man. As a U-boat commander he defied the odds and survived the war to write his memoirs. He did so after surviving a series of very close encounters with the Royal Navy. In 1942 he had been badly wounded in an engagement with HMS Crocus in October 1942. After recovering from his wounds he returned to command U-333.

On U-333’s 10th patrol they came up against a formidable adversary – the 2nd Escort Group under the command of Captain Walker, the most successful of all the U-boat hunters in the war. Walker’s group of ships was returning to port when they were alerted to a possible U-boat spotted by an aircraft. After the war the Royal Navy examined the records of the Kriegsmarine and speculated that the 2nd Escort Group might have attacked U-333. Cremer was able to set the record straight in his memoir:

In English opinion ‘the move could well have taken the Group across the path of U 333, to which I can only say ‘it certainly did’ , for our courses definitely crossed.

After the reconnaissance plane had observed and reported me in the early morning of 21 March, at about 1100 strong propeller noises were heard approaching in a broad spectrum extending from west to south.

I tried to outmanoeuvre the enemy and break through to the south-west but it was a hopeless enterprise. The weather itself was bad. A long Atlantic swell was running which even at 40 metres depth made itself unpleasantly felt and swung the boat to and fro.

This Group came at U 333 from two sides in the attack formation preferred by Walker. In broad line abreast the ships dropped depth charges at very short intervals. As prelude numerous samples were dropped in a few minutes, their explosions merging with one another so that it was impossible to count them.

Their pressure waves were so enormous that the conning-tower hatch began to shudder and we were all thrown about. Then it became suspiciously quiet until the odious ping – ping – ping of a searching ship was first heard thinly, then louder. Then that, too, broke off and there was another pause, explained perhaps by the fact that the enemy did not succeed in locating us with certainty.

It may be that the weather was responsible. At any rate it was a situation of ‘no reports being made since their contact was not firm enough.’

This probably saved our lives, for suddenly all hell was let loose again. But now they were throwing them without aim, on suspicion. Escaping was not to be thought of. The ocean was too shallow here and the slightest of our machinery noises would have betrayed us.

It was best to play possum and let nothing be heard of us – come what might. So I laid the boat on the bottom where it bedded itself softly in sand and mud. I ordered the crew to rest and as far as possible not to think of depth charges, though it was impossible not to hear them. I thought: whoever throws so many will soon have none left. Meanwhile the hands of our clock kept moving, the search dragged on and lasted into the night.

It was deathly still in the boat, if that does not sound macabre. As distinct from in films and many a book, the U-boat men controlled themselves in precarious situations and only seldom lost their nerve. There were neither cries nor groans and even orders were passed in a whisper from mouth to mouth. Pst! The enemy is listening! Water is an uncanny conductor.

I myself crouched in the control room, knees and stomach wrapped in soft catskins. It was cold and old wounds were hurting.

The propeller noises of the destroyers sounded muted, then clearer. They came closer, moved further off, sometimes singly, sometimes several together. Time passed. The air was used up, the potash cartridges were nearly expended and I had to supply oxygen. Everyone was breathing in short, heavy gasps. After ten hours (but what hours!) I was forced to go up.

All hands — Action stations — Surface! At once they were wide awake. ‘Blow tanks!’ A high-pitched hissing noise. That was all – nothing else. The boat would not budge, an invisible hand was holding it down. This was something quite new. Again, the same manoeuvre. ‘Blow tanks!’ Nothing moved.

U-333 had bedded itself only too well into the sand and mud of the ocean bottom. There was an even more nerve racking period as they tried to free the U-Boat from the bottom of the ocean. See Peter Cremer: U-Boat Commander: A Periscope View of the Battle of the Atlantic

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel inspecting one of the U-Boat bunkers during his tour of the 'Atlantic Wall' in February 1944.
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel inspecting one of the U-Boat bunkers during his tour of the ‘Atlantic Wall’ in February 1944.

U-boat commander massacres survivors in the water


13 March 1944: U-boat commander massacres survivors in the water

He decided to destroy all pieces of wreckage and rafts and gave the order to open fire; on the floating rafts. He thought that the rafts were a danger to him, first because they would show aeroplanes the exact spot ofthe sinking, and secondly because rafts at that time of the war, as was well-known, could be provided with modern signalling communication. When he opened fire there were no human beings to be seen on the rafts.

The Greek ship SS Peleus, most of the crew survived the sinking but were killed on their life rafts.
The Greek ship SS Peleus, most of the crew survived the sinking but were killed on their life rafts.

Heinz-Wilhelm Eck was the only U-boat commander to be tried, convicted and executed for war crimes following the war. The record of the British military tribunal that tried him summarises the facts:

The “Peleus” was a Greek ship chartered by the British Ministry of War Transport. The crew consisted of a variety of nationalities; on board there were 18 Greeks, 8 British seamen, one seaman from Aden, two Egyptians, three Chinese, a Russian, a Chilean and a Pole.

On the 13th March, 1944, the ship was sunk in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean by the German submarine No. 852, commanded by the first accused; Heinz Eck. Apparently the majority of the members of the crew of the “Peleus” got into the water and reached two rafts and wreckage that was floating about. The submarine surfaced, and called over one of the members of the crew who was interrogated as to the name of the ship, where she was bound and other information.

The submarine then proceeded to open fire with a machine-gun or machineguns on the survivors in the water and on the rafts, and also threw hand grenades on the survivors, with the result that all of the crew in the water were killed or died of their wounds, except for three, namely the Greek first officer, a Greek seaman and a British seaman.

These men remained in the water for over 25 days, and were then picked up by a Portuguese steamship and taken into port.

Later in the year, a U-boat was attacked from the air on the East Coast of Africa and was compelled to beach. Her log was found, and in it there was a note that on the 13th March, 1944, she had torpedoed a boat in the approximate position in which the S.S. “Peleus” was torpedoed.

The U-boat was the U-boat No. 852 commanded by the accused Eck and among its crew were the other four accused; three of them being officers; including the medical officer, and one an N.C.O.

Five members of the crew of the U-boat made statements to the effect that they saw the four accused members of the crew firing the machine-gun and throwing grenades in the direction of the rafts which were floating about in the water.

The court report makes no mention of the Peleus crewman who was called over to give an account of the movements of his ship. Clearly the U-boat crew knew he was there but there is no mention of whether he was invited to get back on his raft before being shot. Nor was there any testimony from the three survivors, just their affidavits, so they could not be cross examined. Perhaps the court felt it didn’t need any more evidence of what had happened. Eck openly admitted what he had done, he just claimed it was an ‘operational necessity’.

The court summarised the account of Eck:

His orders were, he said, that when operating in the South Atlantic he was to be concealed as far as possible because great numbers of U-boats had been sunk in that particular region. He manoeuvred the boat to the place of the sinking, and ordered small arms on deck to prevent danger to the boat arising out of the presence of survivors, as he had heard of cases where the loss of the U-boat had actually been caused by the presence of survivors.

He decided to destroy all pieces of wreckage and rafts and gave the order to open fire; on the floating rafts. He thought that the rafts were a danger to him, first because they would show aeroplanes the exact spot ofthe sinking, and secondly because rafts at that time of the war, as was well-known, could be provided with modern signalling communication. When he opened fire there were no human beings to be seen on the rafts.

He also ordered the throwing of hand grenades after he had realised that mere machine gun fire would not sink the rafts. He thought that the survivors had jumped out of the rafts. He further admitted that the Leading Engineer, Lenz, objected to the order. Lenz had said that he did not agree with it, but he,Eck, had told him that, despite everything, he thought it right and. proper to destroy all traces.

It was clear to him, he went on, that all possibility of saving the survivors’ lives had gone. He could not take the survivors on board the U-boat because it was against his orders. He was under the impression that the mood on board was rather depressed. He himself was in the same mood; consequently he said to the crew that with a heavy heart he had finally made the decision to destroy the remainder of the sunken ship.

The firing went on for about five hours.

In his address to the crew, he said: “If we are influenced by too much sympathy, we must also think of our wives and children who at home die also as victims of air attack.”

To the Prosecutor’s question: “Sympathy about the wreckage? “, Eck said it was quite clear to him that the survivors would also die. Eck realised that they would die as a result of his shooting. He gave the order to shoot to Hoffmann, Weisspfennig and Schwender, but not to Lenz.

The full record of the trial can be read at World Courts. there is also a longer exposition of the trial at U-Boat Net. It is argued that the Allies accepted ‘Operational Necessity” when they killed Japanese survivors at sea in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea and on other occasions but the court did not take this into account in Eck’s trail.

The defendants in the U-852 trial. From left to right: Eck, August Hoffmann, Walter Weisspfennig, Hans Lenz, Wolfgang Schwender. The leftmost three were executed.
The defendants in the U-852 trial. From left to right: Eck, August Hoffmann, Walter Weisspfennig, Hans Lenz, Wolfgang Schwender. The leftmost three were executed.

U-boat murder leads to last mass execution in U.S.


12 March 1944: U-boat murder leads to last mass execution in U.S.

The investigation in that case indicated that Drechsler had been used as an informant by G-2 or ONI to assist in the interrogation and processing of prisoners at Meade or some other installation in this vicinity. After his usefulness had been exhausted Drechsler was shipped to Papago Park for imprisonment. He was a submarine man, and Papago Park detains numerous Navy prisoners. Drechsler was recognized as a traitor to Germany and was murdered. This result could or should have been foreseen, to put it mildly.

The sinking of U-118 in June 1943. LTJG Fryatt's depth bombs straddle U-118.  Splashes from his turret guns can be seen as the Avenger pulls away after the attack. Two crewmen can be seen seeking shelter behind the conning tower.  U-118 is trailing oil after previous attacks by LTJG Stearns and LTJG Fowler.
The sinking of U-118 in June 1943 when U-118 was caught on the surface by planes from USS Bogue. LTJG Fryatt’s depth bombs straddle U-118. Splashes from his turret guns can be seen as the Avenger pulls away after the attack. Two crewmen can be seen seeking shelter behind the conning tower. U-118 is trailing oil after previous attacks by LTJG Stearns and LTJG Fowler.
Werner Drechsler, recovering from a bullet wound to his right knee, disembarks USS Osmond Ingram assisted by Hermann Polowzyk
Werner Drechsler, recovering from a bullet wound to his right knee, disembarks USS Osmond Ingram assisted by Hermann Polowzyk

On the 12th June 1943 planes from the USS Bogue had attacked U-118 and sunk her. There was a particularly good photographic record of the attack , and a number of survivors were picked up which helped document exactly what happened. Both the Royal Navy and the USN were assiduous in their interrogation of captured U-boat crews and were able to gain intelligence on a wide range of issues, not just relating to technical matters and operating procedures but also to the general morale of the crews, and the morale in Germany. At this stage of the war there were quite a few disaffected individuals who were prepared to be talkative.

Amongst the crew of U-118 Werner Drechsler proved to be especially forthcoming. In Nazi Germany saying anything negative about the regime was likely to mean a concentration camp sentence or worse. Werner Drechsler presumably felt he was safe in the hands of the US Navy, and by this time everyone could see which way the war was going. He agreed to go even further and under assumed identities spent time POW camps spying on his former colleagues, reporting back at the Joint Interrogation Center located at Fort Hunt., Virginia (just outside Washington, D.C.).

Unfortunately for Drechsler the US procedures were not as safe as he might reasonably expect. After the Navy had finished with him they sent him on to Army custody, responsible for detaining POWs. The Navy stipulated that he should not go to a camp with other Kriegsmarine prisoners. Somehow that instruction got lost and he was sent to Papago Park, Arizona, which housed a number of his former inmates, who had by now put two and two together. Within hours of arriving on 12th March 1944 Werner Drechsler was beaten and murdered. He was found hanging in the showers the next day:

Reference is made to the murder of Werner Drechsler at Prisoner of War Camp, Papago Park, Arizona, for which seven prisoners of war have recently been charged. The investigation in that case indicated that Drechsler had been used as an informant by G-2 or ONI to assist in the interrogation and processing of prisoners at Meade or some other installation in this vicinity. After his usefulness had been exhausted Drechsler was shipped to Papago Park for imprisonment. He was a submarine man, and Papago Park detains numerous Navy prisoners. Drechsler was recognized as a traitor to Germany and was murdered. This result could or should have been foreseen, to put it mildly.

It is recommended that some arrangement be made between this office and G-2 and ONI so that we will be alerted when prisoners who have assisted the American authorities are transferred to normal imprisonment. Under the present system, the responsible officers who are transferring such prisoners without taking any steps to provide for their safety are bringing about their deaths more rapidly and efficiently than our courts-martial are trying their murderers.

R. E. Guggenheim,
2nd Lt., CMP

In this case there was a court martial – for the seven U-boat men who killed Drechsler. They were convicted and later executed by hanging on July 28, 1945 at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. It was the last mass execution in the U.S.

The original documents used to be available at [http://www.uboatarchive.net/U-118ArmyInformantMemo.htm] – U-boat Archive.It may be possible to access this from the internet archive.

Front of Werner Drechsler's POW Personnel Record card - POWs were photographed fingerprinted, assigned their POW number, and asked to provide the information on the card as part of their initial processing
Front of Werner Drechsler’s POW Personnel Record card – POWs were photographed fingerprinted, assigned their POW number, and asked to provide the information on the card as part of their initial processing