Worst ever maritime loss – the Wilhelm Gustloff

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.

Japanese massacre surviving crew of SS Jean Nicolet

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.

580 men die as SS Paul Hamilton explodes

The ammunition-laden Liberty ship SS Paul Hamilton
The ammunition-laden Liberty ship SS Paul Hamilton is completely destroyed after being struck by a German aerial torpedo launched from a Junkers Ju 88A, 20 April 1944. None of the 8 officers, 39 crew, 29 armed guards, and 504 troops aboard survived. About 21:00 hrs on 20 April the convoy UGS-38 had been heavily attacked with torpedoes from 23 German aircraft of III./KG 26, I. and III./KG 77, just north of Algiers in the Mediterranean Sea. During the engagement five ships were torpedoed, three of them being sunk. Sunk were the destroyer USS Lansdale (DD-426) and the SS Paul Hamilton. The SS Royal Star was torpedoed aft and was abandoned by her crew. The SS Samite and the SS Stephen F. Austin were both torpedoed in the bow, but managed to reach Algiers.
The Liberty ship SS Hamilton had been fitted with anti-aircraft positions. It is possible the ship was targeted because of tracer fire from these guns.
The Liberty ship SS Hamilton had been fitted with anti-aircraft positions. It is possible the ship was targeted because of tracer fire from these guns.
One of many rescued by Coast Guardsmen of two Destroyer Escorts  CG Photo No. 2140; photo by PhoM 1/c  Arthur Green, USCGR.
One of many rescued by Coast Guardsmen of two Destroyer Escorts during a German bomber attack off the coast of North Africa, a U.S. Navy seaman relaxes as two Coast Guardsmen scrape a thick coating of oil from his body. The survivor’s ship, the USS LANSDALE, was sunk by Nazi planes (April 20, 1944 in the Mediterranean). The Coast Guardsmen in this picture are: Virgil Mathis (left), Motor Machinist’s Mate, of St. Augustine, Fla.; and Melvin Howard of Pittsburg, Kansas. These men are on board the Coast Guard-manned Destroyer MENGES (DE-320), when it picked up 119 survivors of the ill-fated destroyer LANSDALE. Virgil Mathis later was himself a survivor when the MENGES was torpedoed by a Nazi submarine on May 3, 1944.”; 20 April 1944; CG Photo No. 2140; photo by PhoM 1/c Arthur Green, USCGR.
During an air-battle off the coast of North Africa,  CG Photo No. 2141; photo by PhoM 1/c  Arthur Green, USCGR.
During an air-battle off the coast of North Africa, the Coast Guard rescued many seamen and officers after attacking German torpedo bombers sank a Navy destroyer, the USS LANSDALE. The Nazis swarmed over in the early morning. In this picture, taken by a Coast Guard combat photographer, aboard one of the rescue ships, survivors are aired after their removal from the oil-covered waters. Left to right: Coast Guardsman James P. Dewey, Radioman Third Class, of Tulsa, Oklahoma; one of the unidentified rescued sailors; Coast Guardsman Elmer C. Hoffman, TM 2c, of Hale’s Corner, Wis.; Coast Guardsman Virgil B. Mathis, of Saint Augustine, Fla.; and two more of the survivors.”; 20 April 1944; CG Photo No. 2141; photo by PhoM 1/c Arthur Green, USCGR.

One of the iconic images of the war was the picture of the SS Paul Hamilton being blown up after being struck by a German glider bomb. It was used extensively during the war to illustrate the hazards of supplying the front lines by convoy. However, the authorities did not want the whole truth to be told and much of the story remained classified for the next fifty years. Many of the relatives of the men who died that night never lived long enough to learn the true circumstances of their fate.

The German aerial ambush of convoy UGS-38 was devastating, torpedoing five ships and sinking three of them, including the destroyer USS Lansdale

Ensign Charles C. Wales was the Torpedo and Commissary Officer on the USS Lansdale:

When Lansdale sank, the water temperature was estimated to be about 60 degrees, very cold in which to spend much time. In addition, the water was covered with fuel oil from LANSDALE’s bunkers. Combat ships are not equipped with life boats in the manner of a passenger ship. Combat ships are equipped with life rafts and floater nets, which are cargo nets with floats incorporated in the weave of the net. They are intended to deploy when a ship sinks by merely floating free of their stowage in baskets. A person does not sit on a life raft but one hangs on to the ropes around the outside or stands inside on a floor supported about five feet below the raft by netting. The floater net is spread out on the water and a person lays on the net or hangs on around the perimeter. Whether life raft or floater net, one is in the water, and survival in 60 degree water covered with fuel oil is quite difficult.

When the aerial attack against UGS38 began, I was not at my battle station which was on the bridge, but aft on the fantail giving some instruction to my torpedomen who were manning the depth charges there. After the torpedo hit LANSDALE, I attempted to return to my battle station on the bridge.

When I had made my way to amidships on the top of the deck house, I found Marion Anthony Porter there suffering from his broken leg, the femur. I abandoned thought of ever reaching my battle station, and decided to help Porter. When the rising water put the top of the deck house awash, I assisted Porter to his feet, and, facing him, fell backward into the water, pulling him with me. However, the water was very turbulent and we were dragged under and thrashed about very severely. When I surfaced, Porter and I were separated. I don’t think that I was of much help to poor Porter, and I have always wanted to meet him again to apologize. Unfortunately we were never able to locate him when our reunions began, and he has not attended one.

Eventually I made my way to a floater net, and found myself next to Eugene R. Foley, Torpedoman second class. We exchanged greetings. “Hi, Foley.” “Hi, Mr. Wales.” “How are you Foley.” “I have lost an eye, sir.” With that he put his hand to the wound, and , in doing so apparently pushed aside a flap of skin which was covering his eye, and he exclaimed that he could see out of that eye. So here we were, swimming about in the fuel oil covered sea, cold and with no rescue in sight, but happy as could be that he had not lost an eye. He never made it to a reunion, but, at the 1994 reunion in Boston I spoke with his daughter, Janet Foley, and she said that he always had a very prominent scar on his forehead. She was very pleased to learn finally how that scar came to be.

I was in the water for about two and one half hours. Eventually a ship loomed into view, and when it seemed close enough I swam for it. It was NEWELL. When I arrived at the side of the ship, I found that they had rigged up a cargo net over the side for us to climb up on. The waves were running maybe three to five feet at the time, so I waited until I was lifted by a wave and grabbed the cargo net. However, I was so weakened by the cold that I could not hold on and fell back into the sea. The next time I tried, when the wave lifted me and I reached for the net, two sailors grabbed me by the seat of my pants and heaved me up on deck. The sailors there stripped me of my wet clothing, wrapped me in a blanket, and gave me a cup of coffee. I was shaking so much from the cold that I slopped the coffee all over my front when I tried to drink it.

I was escorted to the mess hall where I found that the crew had gotten all of the uniforms and clothing which were in the laundry to be washed, and had dumped them in a pile in the middle of the deck for the survivors to dress in. I selected a pair of 13-button drop front pants and a denim shirt, and was escorted to a bunk in the chief petty officer’s quarters.

I remember watching as the last survivor out of the water was carried below. He had been in the water for three and one half hours. He was wrapped in blankets and was shivering violently and mumbling, “I’m so cold. I’m so cold.” over and over again. He was Lt(jg) Alvin S. Caplan, USNR. Years later, at one of our ship reunions, the first of which was held in 1994, we discovered that he thought he had been rescued by a British frigate. We finally convinced him that there was no such as a British frigate in that convoy, and that he had been rescued by USS NEWELL DD322. In further conversation, we discovered that he had no recollection of events that night from the time he waded down the side of LANSDALE into the water until a couple of days later when he realized that he was standing in line in a mess hall with a mess tray in his hand. The extreme cold he had suffered was sufficient trauma to erase his short term memory of events in the water, his rescue and activities of a day or so afterward.

Read the whole of his story and a complete account of the sequence of events at The Story of USS Lansdale DD426

USS Lansdale (DD-426) off the New York Navy Yard, 22 October 1943. Official U.S. Navy
USS Lansdale (DD-426) off the New York Navy Yard, 22 October 1943. Official U.S. Navy
The Destroyer Escort USS Menges (DE-320) was named for Herbert Hugo Menges, born in Louisville, Kentucky on 20 January 1917.  He enlisted in the Naval Reserve as seaman second class at Robertson, Missouri on 3 July 1939.  He was appointed as a naval aviator on 24 July 1940 and after flight school and commissioning was assigned to Scouting Squadron 6 on the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CV-6) on 28 November 1940.  ENS Menges was killed during the 7 December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
The Destroyer Escort USS Menges (DE-320) was named for Herbert Hugo Menges, born in Louisville, Kentucky on 20 January 1917. He enlisted in the Naval Reserve as seaman second class at Robertson, Missouri on 3 July 1939. He was appointed as a naval aviator on 24 July 1940 and after flight school and commissioning was assigned to Scouting Squadron 6 on the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CV-6) on 28 November 1940. ENS Menges was killed during the 7 December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Picked up from the sea by Coast Guardsmen on two destroyer escorts, survivors of the USS Lansdale (DD 426), CG Photo No. 2144; photo by PhoM 1/c  Arthur Green, USCGR.
Picked up from the sea by Coast Guardsmen on two destroyer escorts, survivors of the USS Lansdale (DD 426), sunk off the coast of North Africa, are brought safely to port by the rescue craft. The destroyer was sunk during an attack by a force of German JU 88 bombers in the dark of early morning. Two of the Nazi planes were knocked out.”; no date; CG Photo No. 2144; photo by PhoM 1/c Arthur Green, USCGR.
 A German bomber pilot, who gave the name of Peter Gerlich,  CG Photo No. 2143; photo by PhoM 1/c  Arthur Green, USCGR.
A German bomber pilot, who gave the name of Peter Gerlich, is taken down the gangway of a Coast Guard-manned destroyer escort at a North African port after his plane had been shot from the sky and he had been picked up from the sea. At the foot of the gangway are the commanding officers of two DE’s — Coast Guard Commander Russell J. Roberts (hand to mouth) of . . . Washington, D.C., and Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Frank M. McCabe, of Arlington, Virginia.”; no date listed; CG Photo No. 2143; photo by PhoM 1/c Arthur Green, USCGR.

With ‘The ‘Plywood Navy’ – duel with plane in the Med

From the bridge of an MTB showing the aft Bofors gun and MTB 378 at speed astern in the Mediterranean. These vessels were part of a small force of British MTBs which, together with American patrol boats, turned the 45 mile stretch of enemy held coast between Sezi and Genoa into their hunting ground.
From the bridge of an MTB showing the aft Bofors gun and MTB 378 at speed astern in the Mediterranean. These vessels were part of a small force of British MTBs which, together with American patrol boats, turned the 45 mile stretch of enemy held coast between Sezi and Genoa into their hunting ground.
MTB 511, underway at speed, coastal waters.
MTB 511, underway at speed, coastal waters.

In the Mediterranean the Allies were increasingly asserting themselves at sea. The days of struggling to get convoys through were past. Even with the Italian Navy out of the fight, they were still not dominant. In the east the Royal Navy was still having a bad time in the Dodecanese islands. But gradually they were pushing the Germans back. An important contribution was made by the Royal Navy Motor Torpedo Boats and the American ‘Patrol Torpedo’ boats, whose role was to go out looking for trouble, just as they did in the Pacific or the English Channel.

John Steinbeck was covering as many diverse aspects of the war as possible, avoiding the conventional material, looking for the experiences of the common man. After covering the war in England and Africa, one of the last pieces in his memoir is about a night action somewhere off the coast of Italy:

November 15, 1943

The orders were simple. The naval task force was to destroy or drive German shipping out of the sea in the whole area north of Rome. German convoys were moving out of various ports, possibly evacuating heavy equipment from Italy to the south of France. The task force was ordered to break up this traffic.

It is not permitted to say what units comprised the force but a part of it at least was a group of torpedo boats, some British MTBs and some American PTs. The British were not quite so fast as the Americans but they were more heavily armed.

The spray came over the bow in long, swishing spurts as the PT put her nose down into the easy swells and the light wind picked up the splash. Their faces were dripping. Now and then the First stepped the three steps down to the tiny chart room, where a hooded light glimmered on the chart. (One line deleted by censor.) The First checked the course and put his head through and climbed back to the bridge.

A call came from aft – “Aircraft at nine o’clock! ”

The men at the turrets and at the after gun swung their weapons sharp to the left and elevated the muzzles, and the gunners peered uneasily into the milky moonlit sky. Unless they come out of the moon, and they never do, they are very hard to see. But above the engines of the boat could be heard the hum of aircraft engines.

“Ours or theirs? ” the First asked.

“Ours have orders not to come close. It must be theirs,” the master said. Then off to the port side in the sky there was the dark shape of a plane and not flying very high. The gunners stirred and followed the shape with the muzzles. It was too far off to fire. The master picked up his megaphone and called, “He’ll come in from the side if he’s coming. Watch for him.”

The drone of the plane disappeared.

“Maybe he didn’t see us,” the First said.

“With our wake? Sure he saw us. Maybe he was one of ours.”

He must have cut his motors. Suddenly he is overhead and his bomb lands and explodes just after he has passed over. The roar of the explosion and the battering of the machine guns come at once. A wall of spray comes over the side from the explosion, and the boat seems to leap out of the sea.

The lines of the tracers reach for the disappearing plane and the lines seem to curve the way the stream from a hose does when you move the hose. Then the guns are silent. The master calls, “Watch out for him. He may be back. Watch for him from the same side.” The gunners obediently swing their guns about.

This time he didn’t cut his motors. Maybe he needed altitude. You could hear him coming.

The guns started on him before he was overhead and the curving lines of tracers followed him over and each line was a little bit behind him. And then one line jumped ahead. A little blue light showed on him then. For a moment he seemed to hover and then he fell, end over end, but slowly, and the blue light on him got larger and larger as he came down. The rest of the guns were after him as he came down.

He landed about five hundred yards away and the moment he struck the water he broke into a great yellow flame, and then a second later he exploded with a dull boom and the fire was sucked down under the sea and he was gone.

“He must have been crazy,” the captain said, “to come in like that. Who got him?” No one answered.
The captain called to the port turret, “Did you get him, Ernest?”

“Yes, sir,” said Ernest. “I think so.”

“Good shooting,” said the captain.

See John Steinbeck: Once there was a War.

USS PT-105 running at high speed, during exercises off the U.S. East Coast with other units of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Five, 12 July 1942
USS PT-105 running at high speed, during exercises off the U.S. East Coast with other units of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Five, 12 July 1942

U-boat Wolfpack ‘Arrow’ attacks convoy SC-118

The USCG Cutter USS Bibb disobeyed orders to stay with the convoy and went to the aid of the SS Henry Mallory troopship, saving 202 men out the 498 passengers and crew on board.
The USCG Cutter USS Bibb disobeyed orders to stay with the convoy and went to the aid of the SS Henry Mallory troopship, saving 202 men out the 498 passengers and crew on board.

As the Battle of the Atlantic reached its peak in the early months of 1943 there were to be numerous sinkings of Allied ships on the way to Europe, like the Dorchester. When the U-boats came together as a wolfpack their impact on a single convoy could be devastating. The thirteen U-boats in Wolfpack Pfeil – Arrow – operated between 1st and 9th February .

The slow convoy SC-118 had left New York on the 24th January. German radio intercepts knew that there was a convoy en route and organised their U-boats accordingly – they were strung out in a long line intersecting the probable route. In that way a large sea area was covered. It took just one sighting by one U-boat for all the other boats in the wolfpack to be brought in for a concentrated attack.

Convoy SC-118 was first spotted on the 4th February when attacks began. By the 7th February the U-boats had converged on the Convoy which had just eight escort ships.

Now the Escort ships faced a terrible dilemma, did they hunt down the U-boats or did they pick up survivors. The seas were freezing and hypothermia set in within minutes.

Photo courtesy of Sjöhistoriska Museet, Stockholm and U-Boat net
At 1.25 the Norwegian Motor tanker Daghild was hit, Photo courtesy of Sjöhistoriska Museet, Stockholm and U-Boat net

at 2.48 the Robert E. Hopkins,

at 2.50 the Toward, the convoy rescue ship,

at 3.15 the Harmala

at 3.40 the Afrika

At the troopship Henry R. Mallory, a veteran of the First World War was hit. The torpedo  hit accommodation occupied  by the US Marines.
At 3.48 the troopship Henry R. Mallory, a veteran of the First World War was hit. The torpedo hit accommodation occupied by the US Marines.

at 6.00 the Kalliopi.

William F. Deyak was on the USS Henry R. Mallory:

I went to bed that night with all my clothes on to protect me from hypothermia if anything happened. I think this saved my life later. When the torpedo hit us there was a tremendous explosion which blew me out of my bunk. I headed up to the hatch but I couldn’t get the hatch to open. I started banging on it with a dogging wrench. There was something on top of it keeping it from opening. Pretty soon somebody opened it from on top and we got out.

I headed for my post to get the life rafts free. There was nothing to cut the lines with to free the life rafts, we had to untie them by hand. I would say most everybody was pretty levelheaded and calm during this time.

There were two army soldiers who didn’t want to get on a raft, I tried to tell them the ship was sinking, but they still didn’t want to go.
Finally I picked one of them up and threw him in the water. The second guy still didn’t want to go, so I told him I would throw him in too if he didn’t go on his own. Finally he did go on a raft.

When we got all the life rafts off that I was responsible for I got on a raft with C. C. Pacifico (he is listed with the survivors picked up by the USCGC Ingham) and about 10 or 12 other guys. I don’t remember all their names. I would say I was one of the last to leave the ship.

Our raft did not capsize like some of the rafts did, but it was rough and we were constantly battered and splashed by the waves. The Deck log from the USCGC Ingham says the winds were 6 knots, dry bulb temperature was 47 degrees and water temperature was 50 degrees. At least half of us had hypothermia by the time we were rescued by the Ingham.

The Ingham’s deck log also says the Ingham rescued survivors from 12:10 p.m. until about 3:45 p.m. I was told that I was among the last rescued so we were in the raft about 8 to 10 hours. I was suffering from severe hypothermia by the time I was rescued and I still have a lot of stiffness in my legs today from this. I was in the infirmary on the Ingham for several days and was in the hospital in Rejkavic, Iceland for a while also.

Read many more stories about the men who served on the USS Henry R. Mallory at Freepages which has many personal stories about the survivors and memories of those who were lost.

Rescue was a horrible business for those on the rescuing ships, a seaman on the USS Bibb was to remember:

I never saw anything like it, wood all over the place and bodies in life jackets … never saw so many dead fellows in my whole life. Saw lots of mail bags, boxes, wood, wood splinters, empty life jackets, oars, upturned boats, empty life rafts, bodies, parts of bodies, clothes, cork, and a million other things that ships have in them. I hope I never see another drowned man as long as I live.

Read more about the US Coast Guard Cutters, at USCG.MIL

The Battle of Tassafaronga, off Guadalcanal

United States Navy Task Force 67 just before the Battle of Tassafaronga on November 30, 1942. USS Fletcher is in the foreground, followed by other destroyers and, in the distance, cruisers.

The Japanese were now struggling to maintain supplies to their troops on Guadalcanal, where the surrounding sea was [permalink id=24767 text=”fiercely contested”]. Henderson Air Field had been reinforced and the US planes made daylight re-supply missions by shipping impossible.

The Japanese had started sending munitions by a nightly submarine drop but this was only able to provide the bare minimum that was needed. Now they resorted to half filling oil drums with supplies – these would be tied together in long chains and would be dropped at night to float in the water. They would then be pulled in to the shore by the land forces.

The plan was for Japanese fast destroyers to deliver the first of these drops on the night of the 30th November. Coastwatchers were able to spot the departure of this force – the intelligence was passed along and the US Navy despatched Task Force 67 to intercept. The US ships should have been well placed to effect an ambush as they had the significant advantage of Radar on a proportion of their ships. The US ships did identify the Japanese force by Radar and launched 24 torpedoes at them.

If most, or even any, of the 24 torpedoes had hit their targets the subsequent controversies about the Battle of Tassafaronga would probably have never emerged. Unfortunately they did not. The US Navy had yet to recognise that their Mark 15 torpedoes used from ships, like their Mark 14 torpedoes on submarines, were not effective. Amongst other problems they usually ran too deep and passed under the ships they were targeted at.

So in this action when the Japanese realised they were under attack they were able to swiftly respond. Their Long Lance torpedoes were very effective and did terrible damage to the US ships.

USS Minneapolis at Tulagi with torpedo damage a few hours after the battle, on December 1, 1942
USS New Orleans near Tulagi on 1 December 1942. The bow was blown off forward of turret two during the Battle of Tassafaronga the night before, killing 180+ of the ship’s crew.

On the USS New Orleans a torpedo hit ignited the forward magazine and blew the whole of the front of the ship off.

Herbert Brown, a seaman on USS New Orleans described the scene after the torpedo hit:

I had to see. I walked alongside the silent turret two and was stopped by a lifeline stretched from the outboard port lifeline to the side of the turret. Thank God it was there, for one more step and I would have pitched head first into the dark water thirty feet below. The bow was gone. One hundred and twenty five feet of ship and number one main battery turret with three 8 inch guns were gone. Eighteen hundred tons of ship were gone. Oh my God, all those guys I went through boot camp with – all gone.

A close up of damage to the USS Pensacola during the battle of Tassafaronga.

The Battle did, however, prove to be a turning point. Despite the damage done to the US ships the Japanese were still unable to complete the resupply mission. Subsequent attempts to drop resupply loads in the water were shot up by the US planes from Guadalcanal. Soon the Japanese had to recognise that their attempt to dislodge the US forces from Guadalcanal had failed and they would have to withdraw. They would be retreating all the way back across the Pacific to Japan for the rest of the war.

It is striking how both the Japanese and the Germans were forced to recognise, by the harsh realities of war, that they were over-extended. In the space of little over a week both discovered that their most advanced units could not make any further progress and were in fact isolated and vulnerable. But the strategists in both countries took a very long time to face up to what that really meant.

The U.S. Navy heavy cruiser USS New Orleans (CA-32) camouflaged at Tulagi, Solomon Islands, some days after she was torpedoed during the Battle of Tassafaronga on 30 November 1942. Note that her stern is riding high, and that her forward end is low in the water. The torpedo and subsequent explosion had severed her bow between No.1 and No.2 eight-inch gun turrets.

See Navy Department, Office of Naval Intelligence, Combat Narrative for much more.

HMS Edinburgh’s last battle

The light cruiser HMS Edinburgh had lost most of her stern in a torpedo attack on the 30th April. She was being towed back to Murmansk when German destroyers attacked.

On the 2nd May HMS Edinburgh was under tow making her way back to Murmansk at around two knots. She was without her stern but the ships company had miraculously managed to shore up the damage, after being torpedoed on the [permalink id=19023 text=”30 April”]. If she could make it into port there was every chance the ship could be saved.

The Luftwaffe had been monitoring everything and on 2nd May a force of Germans destroyers appeared off Bear Island. In the fight that ensued HMS Edinburgh damaged the destroyer Hermann Schoemann so badly that she had to scuttled later, the other German destroyers being beaten off. But HMS Edinburgh was once again torpedoed, on the opposite side to the previous attack – she was now almost cut in two. Once again a frantic battle for survival took place below decks, as Able Seaman William Wallis recounts:

All the lights went out and we were left in darkness – a blackness that defied description. Amid the deafening roar of scalding steam erupting from burst steam pipes, thick fuel oil spurted in all directions from a dozen or more fractures enveloping us in its filthy black slime. In trying to breathe we found we were swallowing the stuff. In the blackness, trying to feel our way we kept losing direction. Our one hope was to find the ladder and by clearing the lockers I eventually managed to find it. But I had a man with a broken leg hanging around my neck and as I tried to climb the ladder he was slipping from me. The ladder was also covered in oil and I couldn’t get a proper grip. I managed to hold him on to me, pulling him up and out towards a glimmer of light coming from a gangway somewhere high above. I could hear them screaming down below, ‘Help me – help me’.

By this time, my eyes were getting used to the darkness and I went down again. At the bottom of the ladder they were fighting to get up. I managed to grab one man and it turned out to be a pal of mine. Coated in the black oil however you couldn’t tell one man from another. By this time I had to get out because my lungs were bursting with the smell and having swallowed some I was vomiting. After a few minutes I went down to the hatch again to see if I could do anything, only to discover that the heavy cover had fallen down with the listing and had jammed shut. I got some help but although we tried, we couldn’t move it. They were still screaming when we left.

I remember hearing the hoarse cries of one man in particular. He was from our mess, a real tough guy and a bully; everybody was afraid of him, he made life a misery. He died with the rest down there.

But we had to go as the list was increasing. We went up on deck and found that one of the minesweepers had come alongside and was already taking the wounded and passengers aboard. While we waited our turn, we huddled together behind the hangar out of the freezing wind. We were all in pretty bad shape and I went across to the wardroom to find a cloth to wipe the oil from our eyes. I went back to wipe my pal’s eyes and the back of his neck and as I did so the flesh came off with the oil. He must have caught the full force of one of the steam bursts.

Read the whole account on WW2 Cruisers See also HMS Edinburgh for another account of her final hours.

The German destroyer Hermann Schoemann sunk by HMS Edinburgh in her last battle.

Kenneth Campbell attacks the Gneisenau

The Bristol Beaufort torpedo bomber used by RAF Coastal Command.

After the German battle cruisers Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau arrived in the port of Brest the RAF had mounted a series of bombing attacks, none of which brought conclusive results. Coastal Command now ordered an “at all costs” attack using three aircraft carrying mines to first breach the expected torpedo nets and to silence the flak ships. Three torpedo bombers would follow this wave and attack the Gneisenau.

Bad weather caused the six aircraft in the raid to become separated. Kenneth Campbell, flying a torpedo bomber as part of the second wave, arrived at the grouping point off the harbour alone and no other aircraft joined him. He then launched a single aircraft attack against the target knowing that the defences had not been eliminated. He flew directly into one of the most heavily defended targets in the whole of Europe, encircled with up to one thousand anti-aircraft and other guns.

Tracer from German anti-aircraft gun fire (flak) vividly depicted in a vertical aerial photograph taken over the Port Militaire, Brest, France, during a night raid, possibly that of 4/5 January 1941.
Tracer from German anti-aircraft gun fire (flak) vividly depicted in a vertical aerial photograph taken over the Port Militaire, Brest, France, during a night raid, possibly that of 4/5 January 1941.

Flying Officer Kenneth Campbell, 22 Squadron, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve.

In recognition of most conspicuous bravery. This officer was the pilot of a Beaufort aircraft of Coastal Command which was detailed to attack an enemy battle cruiser in Brest Harbour at first light on the morning of 6th April 1941. The aircraft did not return but it is known that a torpedo attack was carried out with the utmost daring. The battle cruiser was secured alongside the wall on the north shore of the harbour, protected by a stone mole bending around it from the west. On rising ground behind the ship stood protective batteries of guns. Other batteries were clustered thickly round the two arms of land which encircle the outer harbour. In this outer harbour near the mole were moored three heavily armed anti-aircraft ships, guarding the battle cruiser. Even if an aircraft succeeded in penetrating these formidable defences, it would be almost impossible, after delivering a low-level attack, to avoid crashing into the rising ground beyond.

This was well known to Flying Officer Campbell who, despising the heavy odds, went cheerfully and resolutely to the task. He ran the gauntlet of the defences. Coming in at almost sea level, he passed the anti-aircraft ships at less than mast-height in the very mouths of their guns and skimming over the mole launched a torpedo at point-blank range.

The battle cruiser was severely damaged below the water-line and was obliged to return to the dock whence she had come only the day before. By pressing home his attack at close quarters in the face of withering fire on a course fraught with extreme peril, Flying Officer Campbell displayed valour of the highest order.

London Gazette, 13th March, 1942

The torpedo put the Gneisenau out of operation for six months. Flying Officer Campbell VC and his crew of Sergeant J P Scott RCAF, Sergeant W C Mulliss and Sergeant R W Hillman rest in Kerfautras Cemetery in Brest.

Portrait of Kenneth Campbell RAF, awarded the Victoria Cross: France, 6 April 1941.
Portrait of Kenneth Campbell RAF, awarded the Victoria Cross: France, 6 April 1941.

Bi-planes smash Italian Fleet at Taranto

reconnaissance for taranto attack
Aerial-reconnaissance vertical of Italian naval vessels moored in the outer harbour (Mar Grande) at Taranto, Italy. Photograph taken by No. 431 Flight RAF flying from Luqa, Malta.
HMS Illustrious in 1940 with Swordfish aircraft
Twenty one Swordfish were launched from the new aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious for the raid on Taranto. Fifty per cent losses were expected.

The potential for Naval Aviation to dramatically alter the strategies and tactics of the war at sea had been considered by many theorists since the First World War. At Taranto a single raid by slow, virtually obsolete old Bi-planes suddenly shattered many long cherished beliefs about the power of Battleships and naval gunnery.

A possible attack on the Italian naval base at Taranto had been planned and prepared by the Royal Navy before the war. The operation called for the Fleet Air Arm to make a surprise attack with the carrier aircraft they had available. In 1940 that meant the Swordfish aircraft would have to make a long distance approach with auxiliary fuel tanks.

The Fairey Swordfish biplane in flight with torpedo
The Fairey Swordfish biplane appeared obsolete but scored many notable torpedo hits during the war.

Lieutenant M.R. Maund describes the reality for the men in the open cockpits of the venerable old Swordfish aircraft:

Six thousand feet. God how cold it is here! The sort of cold that fills you until all else is drowned, save perhaps fear and loneliness. Suspended between heaven and earth in a sort of no-man’s land – to be sure, no man was ever meant to be here Is it surprising that my knees are knocking together?

We have now passed under a sheet of alto-stratus cloud which blankets the moon, allowing only a few pools of silver where small gaps appear. And, begob, Williamson is going to climb through it! As the rusty edge is reached I feel a tugging at my port wing, and find that Kemp has edged me over into the slipstream of the leading sub-flight.

I fight with hard right stick to keep the wing up, but the sub-flight has run into one of its clawing moments, and quite suddenly the wing and nose drop and we are falling out of the sky! I let her have her head and see the shape of another aircraft flash by close over-head.

Turning, I see formation lights ahead and climb up after them, following them through one of the rare holes in this cloud mass. There are two aircraft sure enough, yet when I range up alongside, the moon-glow shows up the figure 5A — that is Olly. The others must be ahead.

After an anxious few minutes some dim lights appear amongst the upper billows of the cloud, and opening the throttle we lumber away from Olly after them. Poor old engine – she will get a tanning this trip.

We are now at 1,000 feet over a neat residential quarter of the town where gardens in darkened squares show at the back of houses marshalled by the neat plan of the streets that serve them. Here is the main road that connects the district with the main town. We follow its line and, as I open the throttle to elongate the glide, a Breda AA gun swings round from the shore, turning its stream of red balls in our direction.

This is the beginning. Then another two guns farther north get our scent — white balls this time — so we throttle back again and make for a black mass on the shore that looks like a factory, where no balloons are likely to grow We must be at a hundred feet now and must soon make our dash across that bloody water …

I open the throttle wide and head for the mouth of the Mar Piccolo, whose position … can be judged by the lie of the land. Then it is as if all hell comes tumbling in on top of us … the fire of one of the cruisers and the Mar Piccolo Canal batteries …

taranto attack
Taranto Harbour, Swordfish from ‘Illustrious’ Cripple the Italian Fleet, 11 November 1940
by Charles David Cobb (c) David Cobb; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

We turn until the right hand battleship is between the bars of the torpedo sight, dropping down as we do so. The water is close beneath our wheels, so close I am wondering which is to happen first — the torpedo going or our hitting the sea — then we level out, and almost without thought the button is pressed and a jerk tells me the ‘fish’ is gone.

This account, and many others, appears in Swordfish: The Story of the Taranto Raid.

The torpedo aircraft then had to launch their torpedoes from a steady height of 150 feet while travelling at 90 knots in order to cope with the relatively shallow water. This should have made them sitting ducks for the Anti-Aircraft guns of the Battleships and Cruisers that they were attacking, and heavy casualties were anticipated. In fact only two aircraft were shot down, the crew from one of them surviving as prisoners. Three battleships were hit by torpedoes, one was sunk and the two others seriously damaged.

artistic interpretation of taranto attack
A reconstruction of the British raid on Taranto with shipping, flares and searchlights in a night sky. The Italian fleet at anchor in the harbour is under attack from aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm. Searchlight beams shine brightly up into the night sky, there are low flying aircraft and numerous shell bursts also illuminate the sky. A torpedo moves rapidly through the water towards the Italian battleship Littorio in the centre of the composition.

[The title to the video mistakenly credits the RAF rather than the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy]

The other aircraft, carrying conventional bombs and flares to illuminate the target area, caused confusion as they attacked other targets. More ships were hit as well as dockyard installations.

The attack established beyond doubt the potential of aerial launched torpedoes, even in relatively shallow harbour waters. It was closely studied by other navies around the world, not least in Japan. Pearl Harbour was just over a year away.

More immediately it shifted the balance of naval power in the Mediterranean. Not only was a significant part of the Italian fleet put out of action, many of the remaining ships were swiftly moved to ports further north, out of harms way but further from their main area of operations.

The Italian Battleships Littorio and Vittorio in action during exercises before the war. Both were targets of the Fleet Air Arm at Taranto, the Littorio was badly damaged.
RAF reconnaissance view of Taranto harbour
After the Fleet Air Arm attack the RAF flew a series of high level reconnaissance flights to assess the damage caused.
ship sunk during taranto attack
The Italian battleship CONTE DI CAVOUR after the attack. Only her funnels and super-structure remain above the water.

Naval Intelligence monitors Gunther Prien

The Anti-Submarine Warfare Branch of Naval Intelligence monitored the patrols of individual U-boats. The October 1940 report shows the known sinkings by U-47 commanded by Kapitanleutnant Prien during his 28 day September patrol.

Almost a year earlier a young U-Boat captain had shocked the Royal Navy with his daring raid into their deep water anchorage at Scapa Flow. Gunther Prien had returned to Germany a national hero.

His activities were celebrated in the German press, much as they might follow a film star. Amongst those closely following the story was Royal Navy Intelligence.

Many U-boats patrolled without much success. But, for the moment, the Kriegsmarine had a small group of talented and highly motivated U-Boat captains who were determined to sink ships – and they were becoming very successful at it. They rivalled each other in a league table of ‘tonnage sunk’. Together they were rapidly becoming a threat to Britain’s ability to carry on the war. If every U boat had been as successful as Prien in September 1940 Britain really would have been in trouble.

September Cruise of Kapitanleutnant Prien

After six weeks in Germany, Prien carried out a cruise lasting approximately 28 days:

He started operations by sinking the Belgian Ville de Mons on the 2nd of the month, N.E. of Rockall. Proceeding westward he sank the British Titan on the 4th when N.W. of Rockall, and it is thought that he then fell in with convoy S.C.2, … sinking on the 7th the Norwegian Gro and two British ships, the Jose de Larrinaga and the Neptunian. Following the convoy south-eastwards towards Ireland until after dark on the 8th, he sank two more British vessels, the Poseidon and the Mardinian, about 100 miles N.W. of Malin Head.

If this cruise has been correctly estimated as set out above the total tonnage sunk was 37,441. Prien claimed 46,250. It is perhaps relevant to recall that he has so far managed to out-distance any competitors’ claims.

October 1940 Naval Intelligence Bulletin

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