U-Boats now operate from France

It is thought that, in view of the better repair facilities available in French than in Norwegian ports, this policy will be increasingly pursued in the future, and that Norwegian ports will largely be used as stopping places for submarines homeward bound for Germany after 2 or 3 cruises, to give leave. There is no reason to believe that any. of the submarines in Lorient came there by way of the English Channel, and it is possible that fear of air attack, has made them take the long sea route from Germany.

U Boat U-37
The Germans were now able to make use of the French port of Lorient as a base for their U-Boats. U-37, one of the most successful U-Boats of the war, was in Lorient for a month from 22nd October.

Enemy Attack on Seaborne Trade.

During the [the week up 24th October] 36 ships (150,091 tons) have been reported sunk. Of these, 17 British (89,199 tons), 3 Norwegian (14,080 tons), 3 Swedish (13,533 tons), 3 Dutch (10,878 tons), 2 Greek (7,408 tons), 1 Estonian (1,186 tons), 1 Belgian (5,186 tons) and 1 Yugo-Slav (5,135 tons) were sunk by submarine. Three British vessels (1,722 tons) were sunk by mine, 1 British (1,595 tons) was sunk by E-Boat and a British trawler (169 tons) was sunk by aircraft.

The U-Boats were particularly successful during this period, U-37 had continued to be active since April. They had ready access to the Atlantic and well co-ordinated tactics were now being used to hunt in Wolfpacks, often in response to sightings by Condor aircraft.

British Naval Intelligence worked hard to follow developments in the U-Boat fleet and now established that Lorient was being used as a U-Boat Base:

U-Boats.

The main German U-boat dispositions remain as in the last few weeks. Four or possibly five have been at work in the North-West Approaches and further out, one or two well to the Northward between 580 N. and 600 N. There have been indications of submarines on passage both to and from Lorient, and of one homeward bound via the Norwegian Coast which, after being damaged by air attack, entered the Skagerrak. Since the beginning of October it has been noticeable that there have been few reports of submarines on passage through the North Sea; on the other hand, the use of Lorient as a base has steadily increased.

For some time after the 22nd July, when the first U-Boat arrived in Lorient, the port was only used for short visits, but latterly there has been evidence from photographic reconnaissances of as many as 8 or 9 U-boats in the port, and that these are docked and repaired there. It is thought that, in view of the better repair facilities available in French than in Norwegian ports, this policy will be increasingly pursued in the future, and that Norwegian ports will largely be used as stopping places for submarines homeward bound for Germany after 2 or 3 cruises, to give leave. There is no reason to believe that any. of the submarines in Lorient came there by way of the English Channel, and it is possible that fear of air attack, has made them take the long sea route from Germany.

See TNA CAB /66/13/9

The Wolfpack moves on to Convoy HX79

0015. Three destroyers, line abreast, approach the ship, searching the vicinity. I went off at full speed on a south-westerly course and very soon regained contact with the convoy. Torpedoes from other boats exploding all the time. The destroyers are at their wits’ end, shooting off star shells the whole time to comfort themselves and each other. Not that that makes much odds in the bright moonlight. I am now beginning to pick them off from astern of the convoy.

Kapitänleutnant Otto Kretschmer, also known as Otto der Schweigsame (Silent Otto), November 1940.
Kapitänleutnant Otto Kretschmer, also known as Otto der Schweigsame (Silent Otto), November 1940.

The attack on SC7 continued into the 19th October. This time the record of action is from the German perspective.

This was the war diary of Otto Kretschmer, commanding U-99, for the period around midnight 18th/19th October:

18.10

2330. Now attacking right wing of the last line but one. Bow shot at a large freighter. The vessel zig-zagged, with the result that the torpedo passed in front of her and hit instead her even bigger neighbour after a run of 1,740 yards. The ship, about 7,000 tons, was hit below the foremast and sank quickly by the bows with, I presume, two holds flooded.

2358. Bow shot at large freighter approx. 6,000 tons. Range 750 yards. Hit below foremast. The explosion of the torpedo was immediately followed by a high sheet of flame and an explosion which ripped the ship open as far as the bridge and left a cloud of smoke 600 feet high. Ship’s forepart apparently shattered. Ship still burning fiercely, with green flames.

19.10

0015. Three destroyers, line abreast, approach the ship, searching the vicinity. I went off at full speed on a south-westerly course and very soon regained contact with the convoy. Torpedoes from other boats exploding all the time. The destroyers are at their wits’ end, shooting off star shells the whole time to comfort themselves and each other. Not that that makes much odds in the bright moonlight. I am now beginning to pick them off from astern of the convoy.

0138. Bow shot on a large, heavily laden freighter of some 6,000 tons. Range 945 yards. Hit below foremast. Ship sank at once.

0155. Bow shot on the next ship, a large vessel of approx. 7,000 tons. Range 975 yards. Hit below foremast. Ship sank in forty seconds.

Those U-boats that still had torpedoes following the attack on Convoy SC7 were now ordered to join up with U-47, commanded by Gunther Prien. He had spotted another Liverpool bound convoy, this time unescorted. Although the Royal Navy, alarmed at the losses to SC7 and aware of the probable danger to HX79 sent ships to the scene, they were no deterrent to the night time attack by the Wolfpack.

A further 12 ships were now sunk, with no loss to U-Boats.

The casualties from HX79 were:

Wandby – 8900 tons lead, zinc and lumber for Middlesbrough, sunk by U-47 Oct. 19, no casualties.
Loch Lomond steel/lumber for Methil, straggled, sunk by U-100 Oct. 20.
Shirak – Kerosene for London, damaged by U-47 Oct. 19, sunk by U-48 Oct. 20, no casualties.
Sitala – 8444 tons crude oil for Manchester, sunk by U-100 Oct. 20, 1 died.
Caprella – 11 300 tons fuel oil for Mersey, sunk by U-100 Oct. 20, 1 died.
Whitford Point – 7840 tons steel for Liverpool, sunk by U-47 Oct. 20, 37 died.
Bilderdijk – 8640 tons grain/general, sunk by U-47 [Uboat.net says U-38] Oct. 19, no casualties.
Janus – fuel oil for Clyde, straggled, sunk by U-46 Oct. 20.
Ruperra – steel/scrap iron/aircraft for Glasgow, sunk by U-46 Oct. 19, 30 died.
Athelmonarch – Molasses for Liverpool, damaged by U-47 Oct. 20.
Matheran -3000 tons iron/1200 tons zinc/general for Liverpool, sunk by U-38 Oct. 19, 9 died.
Uganda – 2006 tons steel/6200 tons lumber for Milford Haven, sunk by U-38? Oct. 19 [Arnold Hague says U-47], no casualties.
La Estancia – 8333 tons sugar for Belfast, sunk by U-47 Oct. 20, 1 died.

For more details on this and other wartime convoys see Warsailors

After leaving the remains of HX79, the U Boats went on to attack an outward bound convoy from Britain – HX79A – and sank a further seven ships on the night of the 20th/21st.

It was a terrible period for the Royal Navy, despite having the escort ships on the scene of the action, they had been unable to prevent a determined night attacks by U-boats on the surface in the middle of convoys.

Gunther Prien
Gunther Prien, the German U-boat ‘ace’.

The star of the German show was once again Gunther Prien who provided another great propaganda boost for the the Nazis. His tonnage sunk may well have been exaggerated to push him along. He was now awarded the Oak Leaves to the Knights Cross.

The entire crew of 40 were saved from the merchant steam ship Uganda when it was sunk on the 19th October 1940, possibly by U-47 commanded by Gunther Prien.
The entire crew of 40 were saved from the merchant steam ship Uganda when it was sunk on the 19th October 1940, possibly by U-47 commanded by Gunther Prien.

Meanwhile Admiral Karl Doenitz, directing the U-Boat war, felt that his tactics had been vindicated. As he afterwards recorded in his memoirs:

In three days, then, and almost exclusively in night attacks delivered together, eight boats had sunk thirty-eight ships belonging to three different convoys. In these operations no U-boat was lost.

The conclusions to which I came and which I entered in my War Diary were:

1. These operations have demonstrated the correctness of the principle which since 1935 has governed the development of U-boat tactics and been the basis of all U-boat training, namely, that the concentration which a convoy represents must be attacked by a like concentration of U-boats acting together. This has become possible thanks to the advances made in means of communication.

2. It is only possible to carry out attacks of this kind when captains and crews have been thoroughly trained for the purpose.

3. They are only possible when the requisite number of U-boats are present in the area in question.

4. The greater the number of U-boats in any given area of operations, the more likely it becomes that with more eyes (i.e. more U-boats) more convoys will be spotted – and the more numerous will become the opportunities for these concerted attacks.

5. Again, the presence of a greater number of U-boats means that, after an attack of this kind, the sea lanes of approach to Britain will not be free of danger for the time being. At the moment, nearly all the operational U-boats, after having exhausted their load of torpedoes, are forced to return to their base.

6. Success such as was achieved in the operations under review cannot always be expected. Fog, bad weather and other factors can sometimes completely ruin all prospects of success.

The decisive factor, however, is, and always will be, the ability of the captains and their crews.

Karl Doenitz: Memoirs: Ten Years And Twenty Days

US FLAG

 

U-Boat Wolfpack savages Convoy SC7

22:40 – Sighted a “U” boat on surface straight ahead steaming fast on the same course. Distance 3000-4000 yards. Opened fire with star shell. The “U” boat and her wake were clearly visible but not sufficiently for the Gunlayer of “A” gun to get his sights on before she submerged a few minutes later. Contact by echo was obtained at about 3000 yards range and was held on the run in up to 800 yards.

October 1940, On board the escorting destroyer HMS Vanity on an east coast convoy. Views of the Convoy going north up the East coast.
October 1940, On board the escorting destroyer HMS Vanity on an east coast convoy. Views of the Convoy going north up the East coast.
The leading ship of the convoy as seen from the bridge. The Captain, Lieut Cdr Ouvry, is on the left.
The leading ship of the convoy as seen from the bridge. The Captain, Lieut Cdr Ouvry, is on the left.

The longest lasting campaign of the war, the U-boat war, was still gathering pace. Although the Royal Navy had quickly instituted the convoy system, based on its experiences in the First World War, they were facing a determined enemy. The threat to Britain’s capacity to continue the war was potentially even more serious than that of the Blitz.

Thirty-five merchant ships had set out from Nova Scotia on the 5th October for Liverpool. The original escort of the convoy HMS Scarborough had fallen behind whilst attacking another U-Boat, so HMS Leith was sent with the Corvettes HMS Heartsease and Bluebell to see the convoy through the final stages. They were later joined by HMS Fowey.

Unfortunately the Germans had now formed up a Wolfpack of five U-boats, including the experienced Otto Kretschmer in U-99. They now made a co-ordinated attack on the convoy, sinking 16 ships over the 18th and 19th October. The post action report of HMS Leith’s commander shows how busy these ships were and how hard their task was:

Friday 18th October

01:15 – In company with Heartsease. Course 129° Speed 14. Sighted S.C. 7 ahead in position 58 50N 14 12W. Wind SE, Force 2, moon behind cloud, visibility good, sea calm.

01:26 – Ordered Heartsease to position [?] intending to take station myself.

01:34 – Red Very’s light observed in direction of convoy.

01:38 – An unknown ship astern of convoy signalled he was hit port side.

01:45 – Heard explosion to port of convoy. Altered 90° to port to search across convoy’s wake. From the above it would appear that two ships had been torpedoed and two ships were certainly seen at this stage. Later however only one ship Carsbreck could be found and other ships of escort stated next day that only one ship was missing. The discrepancy cannot be explained.

01:55 – Sighted Bluebell and stationed her one mile port beam. Searched 3000 yards up port side of convoy wake. When estimated position was abeam convoy searched back.

02:45 – Sighted Fowey and Heartsease who had also searched port side.

03:50 – Ordered Fowey back to convoy. Stationed Heartsease.

04:15 – Turned back towards convoy.

05:20 – Reported attack on convoy. Sighted ship and closed.

05:50 – Sighted lifeboat near ship.

06:10 – Spoke ship Carsbreck who stated she could steam 6 knots and would probably stay afloat. Ordered Hearstease to pick up survivors from boat and escort Carsbreck.

06:25 – Stationed Bluebell one mile port beam and set course for convoy at 14 knots.

08:15 – Sighted convoy.

09:48 – Stationed escort

09:58 – Spoke Commodore.

13:05 – Sighted two rafts ahead, searched in vicinity with Bluebell then picked up Master and crew (18) of Nora (Estonian) torpedoed on 13th October about 50′ (30′?) west of Rockall.

17:15 – Commodore signalled his intention to alter 40° to starboard at 20:00 and 40° to port at 23:30.

18:00 – Ordered Fowey to search 5′ astern of convoy at dusk.

19:25 – Observed very distant glare on horizon bearing 180°.

20:00 – Convoy altered course 40° to starboard.

20:20 – A ship torpedoed on port side of convoy in position 57 22N 11 11W. Altered course 120° to port, and increased to full speed firing star shell. Proceeded 10′ and then turned towards convoy.

21:30 – Sighted Fowey who had been 5′ astern of convoy when attack took place. Stationed Fowey abeam 3000 yards and searched up wake of convoy at 14 knots (Fowey’s maximum).

22:05 – Sighted two horizontal red lights then some miles ahead. They burnt for about 15 seconds. Heard explosion ahead.

22:10 – Heard explosion ahead.

22:20 – Heard explosion ahead. Increased to 15 knots and sighted several ships.

22:37 – Heard two explosions ahead.

22:40 – Sighted a “U” boat on surface straight ahead steaming fast on the same course. Distance 3000-4000 yards. Opened fire with star shell. The “U” boat and her wake were clearly visible but not sufficiently for the Gunlayer of “A” gun to get his sights on before she submerged a few minutes later. Contact by echo was obtained at about 3000 yards range and was held on the run in up to 800 yards.

22:55 – Contact was then lost. Meantime Bluebell who was in the vicinity had been ordered to join the hunt which continued until

23:55. About the time “U” boat was sighted a sheet of flame was seen on the starboard bow. It was assumed to be a tanker exploding.

23:55 – Detached Bluebell to pick up survivors and stand by four torpedoed ships which were afloat in the immediate vicinity. These four ships were Empire Miniver, Gunborg, Niritos, Beatus. Set course to rejoin convoy, speed 16 knots. Made two signals to Admiralty and C-in-C W.A. (Signals 3 and 4 timed 23:26 and 23:58).

Saturday 19th October

00:09 – Sighted Fowey and ordered her to join me stationing her 1′ on port beam, speed 14. She stated she had picked up survivors of Convallaria, Hurunui, Shekatika and Boekelo. [The British Hurunui was from the westbound Convoy OB 227, sunk by U-93 Oct. 15]

00:28 – Saw flashes on starboard bow on horizon. Turned towards to investigate.

00:50 – Sighted ship which proved to be Blairspey.

01:00 – Master stated that ship had ben torpedoed but that he considered she would keep afloat and that he could steam 6 knots. Detailed Fowey to escort her and reported to C-in-C W.A. (Signal 5 timed 01:26/19).

01:16 – Set course to rejoin convoy, speed 16 knots.

01:45 – Sighted and closed ship on port bow in position 57 10N 10 38W. Found the Commodore’s ship Assyrian slowly sinking, having been torpedoed at 00:30, with the wreckage and survivors of two other ships in her immediate neighbourhood.

02:15 – Picked up survivors from Assyrian, Empire Brigade, Soesterberg amongst whom was the Commodore (Vice Admiral L.D. I. Mackinnan).

04:00 – Proceeded on course of convoy route (130°), speed 16 knots, searching for ships.

The Royal Navy was still developing its tactics for responding to U-Boat attacks. Not realising that the attacks were being made by U Boats on the surface between the ships within the convoy, much time was spent looking for submerged U-Boats outside the the area of the convoy.

Warsailors.com has full details of all the ships in the convoy, the casualties and much more.

The Royal Navy Sloop HMS Leith
The Royal Navy Sloop HMS Leith was sent out to escort Convoy SC7 into Liverpool . Shortly after she arrived the convoy was subjected to sustained attack by U-Boats.

Troopship SS Mohamed Ali el-Kebir torpedoed

Open fractures were reduced under local anaesthesia (2% novatex) roughly splinted and debridement followed by instillation of powdered sulphonamide. Debridement was assisted by staining the wound with an alcoholic solution of 1/1000 Gentian Violet – all stained and dead tissue being removed. Only one death occurred – a naval rating, name unknown (body transferred to Naval Authorities, Greenock) from multiple fractures of tibia, femur, pelvis and humerus.

The SS Mohamed Ali el-Kebir had previously operated out of Alexandria before being requisitioned as a troopship in 1940.

From the War Diary of Captain Lieutenant Liebe, Commandant of ‘U–38’ :

21.00

Surfaced. After surfacing, again surprised by 1 passenger steamer (10,000t) escorted by two destroyers forward to port, distance 8–9000m. Owing to swell and heavy sea, full view not possible before surfacing, an unpleasant situation, which has twice already led to surprise situations.

21.46

Torpedo spread within escort. Distance 1000m. Two clicks, then detonation. 1 torpedo definite hit. According to acoustic surveillance, steamer immediately stopped. Further observation not possible owing to immediate pursuit, depth–charges, s–equipment. Heavy damage definitely to be assumed. More exact details on steamer could not be established. In course of pursuit, 3 more depth–charges further away. At one point s–equipment precisely overhead. Impression of steel wire dragging over boat, heavy knocking and noise, as if glass being crunched. However, no depth–charges dropped at this point.

The Chief Officer of the SS Mohamed Ali el-Kebir , Mr L.C. Hill was interviewed by the Shipping Casualties Section, Trade Division, Admiralty, on the 12th August 1940 and provided a full account of the sinking:

‘We were bound from Avonmouth to Gibraltar with a cargo of military stores. The colour of our hull was black, superstructure buff and funnel buff. Wireless was fitted and we were armed with a 4″ HE gun and 6 Lewis guns belonging to the military. We were flying a Red Ensign at the time of the attack. The crew including the Captain numbered 164 of whom 2 are slightly injured, 4 Europeans (Captain, Chief W/T Operator, Doctor and a quartermaster) and 6 natives are missing. We also had on board 26 officers and 706 other ranks. I believe some 40 or 50 of these are missing, and I know that 36 are injured and in hospital. The confidential books were all thrown overboard in the weighted bag. The ship had just been degaussed at Liverpool and the apparatus was switched on.

We left Avonmouth at 20.00 BST on 5 August bound for Gibraltar, sailing independently with one destroyer as escort. We continued without incident at a speed of 15 knots, zig-zagging on No. 15 (a predetermined sequence of course changes), until the 7 August. On this day there was a big swell, but not much sea, a moderate breeze, good visibility but overcast. The destroyer kept ahead of us most of the time, but also on a zig-zag course.

At 20.45 BST on 7 August when in position 550 North 150 West about 250 miles from land, there was an explosion aft. I was amidships on the promenade deck, I felt the ship vibrate, as if a gun had been fired. I could not see aft from where I was, but as far as I know there was no flash or smoke, but a column of water was thrown up which I saw descending on the port side. There was no smell. The ship immediately settled aft, but did not list. When the explosion occurred, the destroyer was on our port quarter. A few hours earlier she had been listening, but I do not think she was doing so then, as there was no sign of the U-boat, nor of the wake of the torpedo.

I immediately went to the bridge to report to the Captain, then I saw that the watertight doors were properly closed (they were operated electrically from the bridge) and went aft to see what damage had been done. I think we were hit slightly on the starboard quarter, very near the stern, at the after end of the gun platform. The gun had fallen forward, against the davits of a boat, jamming the falls. At the point of the explosion was a house, then the poopdeck with the dynamo house, the gun and 4 boats. The magazine was between the dynamo house and the hospital on the after side of the gun with the steel house intervening. We had two bulkheads in the engine room, the after peak bulkhead which presumably went right away, and another bulkhead between nos. 4 and 5 holds.

The 2nd. Officer who was aft heard the second bulkhead go. The deck at the after end was sloping into the water, there was no fire, and amidships everything was intact. I went back to the bridge and reported the damage to the captain. He had already given orders to man the boats; I superintended the lowering of them and launching of rafts. The outboard boats were perfectly alright, as they were ready for lowering, but the inner boats (we had two rows) were more difficult. One of these inner boats was smashed by the explosion, another had the davits buckled, all the after boats were put out of action. None of the boats capsized.

The ship was badly down by the stern but upright during the launching of the boats, and all serviceable lifeboats and rafts were got away before she went down. Everyone had a Board of Trade lifebelt.

The last I personally saw of the Captain we were both on the bridge together, he gave the order to jump, so I went onto the deck and thought he followed me. I jumped into the water and was picked up by the destroyer about half an hour later.

The destroyer immediately after she saw the explosion, dropped depth charges one side, swept straight across our quarter and dropped more charges on the other side. After about 1hr 50 minutes, the ship which had been going down by the stern all the time, rose absolutely vertical, with the bow out of the water, then plunged straight down. After that the destroyer dropped no more depth charges, but began picking up the various boats and rafts. She lowered two whalers in the position where the ship sank, then returned and took the whalers back on board, after steaming round in all directions.

She brought us back to Greenock where we arrived at 5 am on Friday 9th August. A number of men had their legs broken by the explosion. Everybody of every rank was exceedingly helpful. We owe a deep debt of gratitude to the naval ratings on board, they were magnificent. Some of the military personnel spoke very highly of Quartermaster Anderson, particularly the way he kept up morale of the boat’s crew and got them away from the ship.’

TNA ADM 199/ 2133

Surgeon Lieutenant G J Walley was the Medical Officer on board the destroyer HMS Griffin, which effected the rescue, later recorded the treatment of the casualties:

Late in the evening this ship was called on to rescue the survivors of the troopship Mahomet el Ali Kebir. For various reasons rescue work proceeded throughout the night. A variety of injuries were encountered – the majority being fractures of the leg and arm – splints were entirely inadequate for such a large number and a large amount had to be contrived.

Open fractures were reduced under local anaesthesia (2% novatex) roughly splinted and debridement followed by instillation of powdered sulphonamide. Debridement was assisted by staining the wound with an alcoholic solution of 1/1000 Gentian Violet – all stained and dead tissue being removed. Only one death occurred – a naval rating, name unknown (body transferred to Naval Authorities, Greenock) from multiple fractures of tibia, femur, pelvis and humerus.

It was reported in the Times that many deaths occurred on board from exposure. In view of the facts, this was felt to be a gross error and was much resented by my willing helpers in the ship’s company and myself.

In all, 766 survivors were landed at Greenock comprising 704 uninjured or mildly injured, and 62 discharged to Hospital (59 to the Military Hospital and 3 to Naval Hospital).

I should like to mention the superb assistance given by members of the ship’s company during a trying 36 hours, special reference being made to RNASBR Dix and Chief Stoker Kent RN.

TNA ADM 101 /564

For much more on the ship and the sinking see Mohamed Ali el-Kebir

It may be possible to access this from the

<a href=”https://archive.org” rel=”noopener” target=”_blank”>internet archive</a>

try searching for:

http://mohamed.ali.el-kebir.freewebspace.com/index.htm

Worst ever maritime loss – the Wilhelm Gustloff

The young man next to me had fallen inside the net. He stared at me and saliva came out of his mouth. I tried to lift him up, but couldn’t. Across from me was a young seaman. He begged his comrades for one cigarette and told us about his daughter that had been born on Christmas and that he had not seen her. Then he fell backwards into the water. Finally he was gone. The remaining other two started to talk very negative – how our feet will be amputated, etc., etc. Then they complained about my feet. I tried to move to hold them still. I bumped against theirs and that hurt.

May 5, 1937: As Adolf Hitler watches Wilhelm Gustloff's widow, Hedwig Gustloff, breaks a bottle of champagne on the bow christening the ship at the launch ceremony. The ship is named after the former head of the Swiss Nazi Party who was assassinated in 1936.
May 5, 1937: As Adolf Hitler watches Wilhelm Gustloff’s widow, Hedwig Gustloff, breaks a bottle of
champagne on the bow christening the ship at the launch ceremony. The ship is named after the former head of the Swiss Nazi Party who was assassinated in 1936.

As millions of Germans fled west from the eastern side of the Nazi Reich (now largely Poland and the Baltic states) many gathered in the Baltic ports hoping to find a ship that would take them out of the grasp of the advancing Soviets. The Kriegsmarine now launched Operation Hannibal, a massive shipping evacuation of nearly a million civilians. German warships cleared mine free lanes in the sea and bombarded Soviet positions on the shore to prevent the Red Army reaching the ports. The German Navy fired more shells during the remaining 15 weeks of war than they had in the preceding five years.

The Nazi cruise ship Wilhelm Gustloff, with cabins for 1,465 people was brought back into service after having being used as a floating barracks. On 30 January she was crammed with over 10,000 people desperate to escape the Red Army. No passenger list was completed in these chaotic times – but as well as many wounded and a large contingent of female naval auxiliary staff, there was a high proportion of women and children. Perhaps as many as 5,000 children were on board.

There were disputes between the various senior officers on board the ship, both military and civilian, about the best route to take, whether to avoid mines or submarines. There were military units on board and the Germans did not seek to claim she was a hospital ship, which might have been lit as such. However there is confusion as to why the ship was displaying some lights.

Paul Vollrath was the senior second officer on the Wilhelm Gustloff:

I was on watch from 16.00 to 20.00 hours and up to that time nothing really happened. But when darkness fell, shortly after 4 p.m., I noticed that the steaming and position lights had been turned on. This is normally the duty of the officer of the watch and I stormed into the wheelhouse to demand an explanation and was told that a convoy was expected ahead of us on a converging course and to avoid collision the lights had been turned on. I had never heard such nonsense during all my war time career; no lights, absolutely no lights were to be shown under any circumstances and the fact that perhaps we might run the risk of colliding with another ship in the dark did not worry me as much as showing tell-tale lights to prowlers. We might as well have smoked openly on deck.

Anyway I strongly objected to this and eventually the steaming lights were turned off. At 20.00 I was relieved and before leaving the bridge I passed on course and all other details to the next officer of the watch. Shortly before a German aeroplane passed nearby and we exchanged recognition signals and I was wondering why that had been done.

The command position was rather confused. Here was a merchant ship, with a merchant crew, assisted by naval personnel and all sorts of suggestions were passed on – suggestions made by naval personnel. In short disagreement between the two commands was in evidence, which certainly did not help.

Our supper was brought up into our cabins, as that was about the only place left, since the whole ship was taken up by refugees and naval personnel. After supper we talked shop for a little while and at about 21.00 hours the two officers of my watch left for their own quarters to retire.

At 21.09 I was just about to swing myself into the bunk, of course, fully dressed, when we received the first hit. ‘Mine’ was my immediate reaction but shortly after that a second and third explosion almost tore the ship apart. There was no doubt any longer, these were torpedoes.

Wilhelm Gustloff in Gotenhafen (Gdynia), Poland in 1942. Gotenhafen would be the last port the Wilhelm Gustloff would sail from.
Wilhelm Gustloff in Gotenhafen (Gdynia), Poland in 1942. Gotenhafen would be the last port the Wilhelm Gustloff would sail from.

The Wilhelm Gustloff had been attacked by Soviet submarine S-13 commanded by Alexander Marinesko. The three torpedoes which struck hit; the off duty crew quarters, the section of the ship where the female naval auxiliaries were housed – killing the majority of them, and the engine room, completely disabling the ship. The air temperature was −18 to −10 °C (0 to 14 °F) and there was ice on the sea. The ship began to list immediately and took forty minutes to sink.

Helga Knickerbocker was fleeing from Konigsberg with her aunt and sister. When they first saw the size of the Wilhelm Gustloff her sister had said:

a nice ship to be torpedoed, but better to drown than to fall into Russian hands

After the torpedoes struck they managed to get up on deck despite people climbing over them as they crawled up the stairs. Then they saw ‘frames’ or rafts being dropped into the sea:

My sister went over the railing and let herself down on the rope, where the lifeboat went down on. We had doubled our clothes after we go back from our first attempt to get to Berlin. I still see my sister’s skirt from her dress floating in a circle around her, then I thought about her riding boots she had on, and then, the water must be icy.

When I got on that rope down, her “frame” had drifted away. So I took the next “frame”, pushed myself up on it and looked for my sister all around. My aunt was still standing on the railing. Then I saw my sister with her waist out of the water, her heavy self-knitted sweater, green with white stripes showed off clear by night.

Then I saw the lights from the ship flare up. People screamed. The tail went up and the ship was gone.

The waves were high and it was -18º Celsius. We had to balance our “frame” so we would not turn over. Someone called, “Boys, don’t forget to move your legs!” After a while, “frames” were floating by empty. We had been 18 sitting or hanging on the raft. Now I counted 4 seamen. Their uniforms were hard as a board (frozen). Our “icicle hair” started to dry.

The young man next to me had fallen inside the net. He stared at me and saliva came out of his mouth. I tried to lift him up, but couldn’t. Across from me was a young seaman. He begged his comrades for one cigarette and told us about his daughter that had been born on Christmas and that he had not seen her. Then he fell backwards into the water. Finally he was gone.

The remaining other two started to talk very negative – how our feet will be amputated, etc., etc. Then they complained about my feet. I tried to move to hold them still. I bumped against theirs and that hurt. One said he had been torpedoed before and said it had never taken this long to be rescued. Waterbombs were being detonated under us.

Finally we saw searchlights on the horizon. We yelled and waved our arms. Finally they came near us and called with the bullhorn. They had to turn around to get us from the right angle to the “frame”. There my two companions complained again. But the rescuers kept their word.

Helga Knickerbocker never saw her aunt or sister ever again.

Read the whole of these accounts and others at the comprehensive memorial site Wilhelm Gustloff.com

The BBC Radio programme ‘Witness’ has an interview with survivor Horst Woit who was ten years old at the time. He vividly describes his traumatic experiences getting into one of the few remaining life boats with his mother.

A total of 1,252 people were saved from the Wilhelm Gustloff, a remarkable achievement in the circumstances. However it has always been believed that between 7,000 – 9,000 people did not survive and the latest research puts the figure at 9,343. By a wide margin this makes it the largest loss of life resulting from the sinking of a single vessel in maritime history.

Captain Alexander Marinesko, commander of the S-13.
Captain Alexander Marinesko, commander of the S-13.

Soviet submarine captain Alexander Marinesko was to sink another German cruise liner, the SS General von Steuben, eleven days later, killing at least another 3,000 people. In terms of numbers of casualties caused he is by far the most lethal submarine commander in history, as well as being the most successful Soviet submarine commander in terms of gross registered tonnage (GRT) sunk. However he had a significant drink problem and was not regarded as suitable to be a ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’ at the time. He received the award posthumously after his death in 1963.

HMS Stratagem – escape from a flooded submarine

The first I managed to reach had a defective valve on the oxygen bottle and I could not move it. The second was in working order and I put this over the head of one of the older ratings who was panicking and in tears due to the pressure effect on his eyes. The pressure in the boat at the time was immense and the chlorine content in the air considerable. The water all round us must have been full of oil fuel as we were all drenched with it, although I did not notice it at the time. The air could be heard to be escaping through the hull forward and the water was still rising fast.

HMS Stratagem, sunk off Malaya on 22 November 1944.
HMS Stratagem, sunk off Malaya on 22 November 1944.
IJN Subchaser CH-35, which depth charged Stratagem and then picked up 10 survivors.
IJN Subchaser CH-35, which depth charged Stratagem and then picked up 10 survivors.

The fortunes of submariners could change very quickly. Once a submarine was detected they were invariably subjected to relentless depth charging. If successfully attacked the chances of anyone on board surviving were very slim. The accounts of men who did survive a depth charge attack and escape from a submarine are rare.

In November 1944 HMS Stratagem, commanded by Lieutenant G. R. Pelly, was patrolling off Malacca, Malaysia, attempting to discover, from periscope depth, what use the Japanese were making of the port. The officers were aware of a Japanese destroyer working close inshore and of a flying boat apparently searching the area, so thought that their presence might be suspected. Exactly how they were discovered is not clear from the surviving officers account.

Lieutenant D. C. Douglas, Royal Navy, had finished his watch at 0830. He was only able to submit his official report after he was released from POW camp in 1945:

At approximately 12.10 I was awakened by the order, ‘Diving Stations’. As soon as I arrived in the tube space the order, ‘Shut off for depth-charging,’ was passed.

This was carried out and a report sent to the control room. About four minutes elapsed without any further orders coming through — no one in the fore ends knowing what was taking place – then the thrash of the Japanese destroyer could be heard very loud as she passed overhead.

Almost immediately a depth-charge exploded somewhere extremely close under us, lifting the stern and causing us to hit bottom hard. This charge extinguished the greater part of the lighting although one or two of the emergency lights held. About five seconds later a second charge exploded, as far as I could calculate, right amidships, extinguishing the remaining lights.

By this time I had a torch in operation and could see water flooding through the door at the after end of the torpedo stowage compartment. Immediately I gave the order, ‘Shut water-tight doors’ and turned to make sure that the three ratings in the tube space were brought out of that compartment before the door was shut.

By the time this door was shut, the water was flooding very much faster and had risen above the deck boards in the torpedo stowage compartment. It was now above our knees. It was flooding through the after door so fast that the ratings were unable to shut this door. The position of the stop (retaining door in ‘open’ position) on this water-tight door was such that to remove it one had to stand in the doorway as the port side of the door was blocked by stores. Hence, due to the furious rate of flooding, this stop could not be removed.

According to Able Seaman Westwood, who came forward from the control room, the captain gave the order for main ballast to be blown as soon as he found that the ship was being flooded. The valves on the panel were opened without effect.

In what appeared to be an incredibly short time, I was keeping above water by clinging on to a hammock which was slung from the deckhead. The crew in my compartment began to sing but I ordered this to stop and told the crew to get out and put on DSEA sets.

The first I managed to reach had a defective valve on the oxygen bottle and I could not move it. The second was in working order and I put this over the head of one of the older ratings who was panicking and in tears due to the pressure effect on his eyes. The pressure in the boat at the time was immense and the chlorine content in the air considerable. The water all round us must have been full of oil fuel as we were all drenched with it, although I did not notice it at the time. The air could be heard to be escaping through the hull forward and the water was still rising fast.

At this time Leading Seaman Gibbs was in the escape hatch trying to slack back the clips. He shouted to me that he could not move the third clip. Speaking was nearly impossible due to the pressure. I swung up into the trunk alongside Gibbs and tried to remove the clip. After what seemed like an hour, and what I suppose was really a minute, I managed to move the clip by hammering it with my fist. By this time there was no hope of using the escapetrunk as the water was already up to the metal combing which houses the twill trunking.

I took off the last clip and as I did so, the hatch commenced to open. Immediately this clip was free the hatch was blown open and Leading Seaman Gibbs was shot out so suddenly that I cannot remember him going. The hatch slammed shut again and hit me on the top of my head but immediately blew open again and I was shot out in a bubble of air.

Ten of the men in the compartment, which contained 14 at the time, are known to have left the submarine alive although only eight were picked up. The ship’s cook was later seen to be floating, face downwards, on the surface but was obviously drowned. Another rating was seen, while in the submarine, to have on a DSEA set and apparently working it correctly; although he was observed to leave the boat he was not seen on the surface. The Japanese destroyer had dropped two more charges after we were hit but these were not so close and did not seem to harm us although they probably accelerated the flooding.

Throughout the above experiences the behaviour of the crew in my compartment was magnificent. I should especially like to mention the ship’s cook (Leading Cook Weatherhead) who kept up a cheerful narrative about the wonderful fruit cake which he had recently cooked and who showed great bravery and coolness throughout the dreadful experiences in the flooded submarine. This rating was responsible for the singing and by his behaviour greatly assisted in preventing panic. It is with deepest regret that I have to report that this extremely brave rating failed to survive the ascent to the surface.

Lieutenant D. C. Douglas was one of only three men out of the ten survivors to survive Japanese POW camps.

New Davis Breathing Apparatus Tested at the Submarine Escape Test Tank at HMS Dolphin Gosport, 14 December 1942 At the submarine service school, HMS DOLPHIN, a trainee submarine rating coming through the 'escape' hatch into the instructional tank wearing the Davis Breathing Apparatus. An instructor stands nearby.
New Davis Breathing Apparatus Tested at the Submarine Escape Test Tank at HMS Dolphin Gosport, 14 December 1942 At the submarine service school, HMS DOLPHIN, a trainee submarine rating coming through the ‘escape’ hatch into the instructional tank wearing the Davis Breathing Apparatus. An instructor stands nearby.

USS Sealion attacks and sinks battleship Kongo

0406: Tracking indicates the target group now zigzagging. We are holding true bearing, maybe gaining a little. Called for maximum speed from engineers – they gave us 25% overload for about thirty minutes, then commenced growling about sparking commutators, hot motors, et al , forced to slow to flank. Sea and wind increasing all the time – now about force 5 or 6 – taking solid water over bridge, with plenty coming down the conning tower hatch.

The battlecruiser Kongo had been built by the British shipyard Vickers in 1912. In 1929 she was re-bilit as a battleship as seen here in 1929-30.
The battlecruiser Kongo had been built by the British shipyard Vickers in 1912. In 1929 she was re-built as a battleship, as seen here in 1929-30.She was further modified in the 1930s to become a ‘fast battleship’.
The first USS-Sealion-(SS-195) had been sunk while in dock on the Philippines on 10th December 1941.
The first USS-Sealion-(SS-195) had been sunk while in dock on the Philippines on 10th December 1941.
The launch of the USS Sealion in October 1943, with Comamnder Eli Reich at right.
The launch of the USS Sealion in October 1943, with Commander Eli Reich at right.

The original USS Sealion had been sunk by Japanese during their initial assaults on US ships in December 1941. Less than two years later USS Sealion was reborn, launched on 31st October 1943. Exactly a year later she set off on her third war patrol, her commander, Eli Reich, having already been awarded Navy Crosses for “aggressive and well executed torpedo attacks” on each of the two earlier patrols. In September she had been responsible for the unfortunate sinking of the Rakuyo Maru, with 1300 POWs aboard.

Early on 21st November off Formosa, now Taiwan, the USS Sealion picked up such strong radar signals that at first they were thought to be bouncing off land. They were then revealed to be a group of Japanese battleships and battle cruisers, including, as it turned out, the IJN “Indestructible” Kongo.

Commander Eli Reich’s original patrol report tells the whole story:

21 NOVEMBER 1944

0020: Radar contact at 44,000 yards, on our starboard quarter, (Ship contact #3) three pips, very clear and distinct. Came to normal approach, went ahead flank on four engines, and commenced tracking. Overcast sky, no soon, visibility about 1500 yards, calm sea.

0043: Two large pips and two smaller pips now outlined on radar screen at a range of 35,000 yards. These are the greatest ranges we have ever obtained on our radar. Pips so large, at so great a range, we first suspected land. It was possible to lobe switch on the larger targets at 32,000 yards – we now realized we probably had two targets of battleship proportions and two of larger cruiser size as our targets. They were in a column with a cruiser ahead followed by two battleships, and a cruiser astern, course 060 T, speed 16 knots. not zigging.

0146: Three escorts now visible on the radar, at a range of 20,000 yards. One on. either beam on the formation, and one on the starboard far quarter. We are pining bearing slowly but surely. The formation is now on our starboard beam. Seas and wind increasing.

0245: Ahead of task force. Turned in and slowed for attack, keeping our bow pointed at the now destroyer who is now 1800 yards on the port bow of our target. the second ship in column. Able to make out shape of near destroyer from bridge. Kept swinging left with our bow directly on the destroyer, and at

0256: Fired six torpedoes, depth set at 8 feet, at the second ship in column, range 3000 yards, believed to be a battleship. Came right with full rudder to bring the stern tubes to bear.

0259-30: Stopped and fired three torpedoes, depth set at 8 feet, from the stern tubes at the third ship in column (ie the second battleship). Range 3100 yards. Range to near destroyer at the time of firing stern tubes about 1800 yards. While firing stern tubes, O.O.D. reported he could make out outline of the near cruiser on our port quarter. During the firing of the bow tubes the bridge quartermaster reported he could make out outline of a very high superstructure on target, he said it looked to him like the pagoda build of the Jap battleships.

0300: Saw and heard three hits on the first battleship – several small mushrooms of explosions noted in the darkness.

0304: Saw and heard at least one hit on the second battleship – this gave a large violent explosion with a sudden rise of flames at the target, but it quickly subsided.

The Japnese destroyer Urakaze which blew up and was lost with all hands.
The Japnese destroyer Urakaze which blew up and was lost with all hands.

In fact two torpedoes from the first salvo had hit Kongo and a third torpedo had passed beyond her and hit the destroyer IJN “Wind on the Sea” Urakaze, causing a catastrophic explosion which sunk her with all hands. With two compartments flooded the Kongo began to lose speed.

Eli Reich thought he had lost his opportunity, believing that he had set his torpedoes at the wrong depth for a battleship. His patrol report continues:

0304-07: Went ahead flank, opening to westward from target group. Noted several small explosions, flames, and probably lights in vicinity of target group.

0308: Heard a long series of heavy depth charge explosions from vicinity of enemy force – we are about 5000 yards from group. P.P.I. shows one escort opening and rapidly to east of target group. Continued tracking.

0330: Chagrined at this point to find subsequent tracking enemy group still making 16 knots, still on course 060T. I feel that in setting depth at 8 feet, in order to hit a destroyer if overlapping our main target. I’ve made a bust – looks like we only dented the armor belt on the battleships.

0406: Tracking indicates the target group now zigzagging. We are holding true bearing, maybe gaining a little. Called for maximum speed from engineers – they gave us 25% overload for about thirty minutes, then commenced growling about sparking commutators, hot motors, et al , forced to slow to flank. Sea and wind increasing all the time – now about force 5 or 6 – taking solid water over bridge, with plenty coming down the conning tower hatch. SEALION making about 16.8 to 17 knots with safety tank dry and using low pressure blower often to keep ballast tanks dry. Engine rooms taking much water through main induction.

0430: Sent SEALION Serial Number TWO. [?]

0450: Noted enemy formation breaking up into two groups – one group dropping astern. Now P.P.I. showed:(a) one group up ahead to consist of three large ships in column – cruiser. battleship, cruiser with a destroyer just being lost to radar view up ahead. Range to this group about 17000 yards. (b) Second group dropping astern of first to consist of a battleship, with two destroyers on far side. Close aboard – range to this group about 15000 yards and closing.

0451: Shifted target designation, decided to attack second group, which contains 1 battleship, hit with three torpedoes on our first attack. Tracking shows target to have slowed to 11 knots. Things beginning to took rosy again.

0512: In position ahead of target, slowed and turned in for attack.

0518: Solutions on T.D.C. and plot is getting sour – target must be changing speed.

0520: Plot and T.D.C. report target must be stopped, radar says target pip seems to be getting a little smaller. Range to target now about 17000 yards.

0524: Tremendous explosion dead ahead – sky brilliantly illuminated, it looked like a sunset at midnight, radar reports battleship pip getting smaller – that it has disappeared -leaving only two smaller pips of the destroyers. Destroyers seem to be milling around vicinity of target. Battleship sunk – the sun set.

0525: Total darkness again.

Before Sealion had a chance to make another attack Kongo had blown up. There were just 237 survivors from a crew of over 1400.

Reich had earned a third Navy Cross on his third patrol. Not only was this the only occasion when an Allied submarine successfully sank a battleship during the war but it was the only occasion an audio recording was made of a live attack.

USS Sealion (SS315) later in the war flying her victory pennants.
USS Sealion (SS315) later in the war flying her victory pennants.

A U boat Captain returns to bombed out Germany

The subway ride spared me the sight of the ruins above, but not of the human ruins below; the thousands of homeless who lived in the underground, the hollow-cheeked women and children on the run, and bewildered soldiers on their way to shattered homes or battered fronts. Privation, hunger and lack of sleep, indifference and resignation marked the faces.

A German picture of the U boats in their massive concrete bunker at Brest in 1942. It was not until 1944 that the RAF developed bombs capable of penetrating them.
A German picture of the U boats in their massive concrete bunker at Brest in 1942. It was not until 1944 that the RAF developed bombs capable of penetrating them.
Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial showing damage to the concrete U-boat shelters at Brest, following two Bomber Command daylight raids: the first by ten Avro Lancasters of No. 617 Squadron RAF on 12 August 1944; the second on the following day by thirteen Lancasters of 617 Squadron, joined by fourteen others from No. 9 Squadron RAF. The target was attacked on both occasions using 12,000-lb 'Tallboy' deep-penetration ' bombs, which left the roof structure heavily damaged and perforated it in at least two places.
Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial showing damage to the concrete U-boat shelters at Brest, following two Bomber Command daylight raids: the first by ten Avro Lancasters of No. 617 Squadron RAF on 12 August 1944; the second on the following day by thirteen Lancasters of 617 Squadron, joined by fourteen others from No. 9 Squadron RAF. The target was attacked on both occasions using 12,000-lb ‘Tallboy’ deep-penetration ‘ bombs, which left the roof structure heavily damaged and perforated it in at least two places.
A forty-foot circle hole in the roof of a U-boat pen in Brest which had received a direct hit during the Allied bombardment. The capture of the deep water ports of Brittany did not greatly help the Allies, however, since the Germans had, as in Cherbourg, carried out thorough demolition of the port facilities before surrendering.
A forty-foot circle hole in the roof of a U-boat pen in Brest which had received a direct hit during the Allied bombardment. The capture of the deep water ports of Brittany did not greatly help the Allies, however, since the Germans had, as in Cherbourg, carried out thorough demolition of the port facilities before surrendering.

Herbert A. Werner had captained the last U-Boat to leave the German base in Brest France. U-953 had narrowly escaped RAF bunker busting bombs. She was crammed with evacuating naval personnel and valuable naval equipment – but no torpedoes – when she left Brest on the 23 August. After a perilous journey via La Pallice and Bergen in Norway, he finally arrived in Germany in late October.

U-953 suffered from a number of mechanical problems and needed a complete overhaul. It was the opportunity for Werner to take some overdue home leave. First he had to cross a Germany that was transformed by war:

It was a cold misty day in early November when I departed from Luebeck and headed for Darmstadt by way of Berlin. The express was packed with people who spoke with a hard Baltic accent, people who had fled their homes ahead of the advancing Russians. The refugees — mostly women and children and old folks — wore thread-bare clothes and carried humble housewares; they stood in trembling groups beside their boxes, bundles, valises, and bedding.

Along this pitiful human chain, alarming war news and rumors flashed through the train from compartment to compartment. The eastern front was moving west fast and Koenigsberg was in gravest danger, and the western front was moving east almost as fast.

I leaned at the window in the passageway, deep in forlorn thoughts. At my feet lay the suitcase with the presents for my parents and Trudy. The landscape rushed by, desolate and gray. In time, the monotonous North German plains were broken more and more often by larger and larger clusters of blackened walls, craters, rubble, and cut-off chimneys. Then the ruins themselves became a vast plain of destroyed city blocks, a whole civilization in ruins. We had arrived in Berlin.

People on the move, people in flight. Thousands filled the station. Women in Red Cross uniforms distributed food and a black gravy they said was coffee. Thin young infantrymen, heavily burdened with guns and knapsacks, wearing faded and patched uniforms, moved about like worn old men. I shoved my luggage through the crowded platforms and headed crosstown for the Anhalter Station.

The subway ride spared me the sight of the ruins above, but not of the human ruins below; the thousands of homeless who lived in the underground, the hollow-cheeked women and children on the run, and bewildered soldiers on their way to shattered homes or battered fronts. Privation, hunger and lack of sleep, indifference and resignation marked the faces.

Night had fallen over the city when my darkened train left behind the devastated world of Berlin and shrieked and clanked its way south. I passed the hours smoking, waiting, dreaming. I calculated that I would be home – if not in Darmstadt, then at Father’s new plant — by noon the following day, provided all went well.

However worse was to come. Werner was approached by a young woman who recognised him, even if he did not recognise her as a family friend from five years before.

She had indeed been my sister’s best friend when we had lived near Lake Constance. Then Clara told me that she had always liked my parents, that the long article about them in the local paper had been so well written. – A sudden chill clutched my throat, and I demanded, “What article are you talking about ?”

Her eyes widened, her mouth opened in horror. “Don’t you know?” she stumbled. “No, you didn’t know !” She covered her face with both hands. She did not have to tell me any more.

Everything around me began to turn, very slowly at first, then with a rush, as if a giant wheel had gone out of control. I heard the girl sobbing and saying far away, “Oh, forgive me, poor Trudy and your parents died in the air raid on Darmstadt two months ago.”

In my sickening dizziness, I pressed myself against the glass wal of the compartment to stay erect. The window, the wall, the people faded before my eyes. I clenched my teeth fiercely and fought back my tears; no one should ever see me crying. I closed my eyes and drew a deep, racking breath.

See Herbert A. Werner: Iron Coffins: A Personal Account Of The German U-boat Battles Of World War II

Recovering charred corpses  from underground bunkers following a bombing raid on Berlin, 1944.
Recovering charred corpses from underground bunkers following a bombing raid on Berlin, 1944.
Bomb damage to the elevated railway in Berlin-Schöneberg. The viaduct at the Buelowstraße was heavy distorted on 19 July 1944 after the explosion of a land mine .
Bomb damage to the elevated railway in Berlin-Schöneberg. The viaduct at the Buelowstraße was heavy distorted on 19 July 1944 after the explosion of a land mine .

ALSO ON THIS DAY …

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