No Room For Mistakes – British and Allied Submarine Warfare 1939-1940


No Room for Mistakes is a thoroughly researched account of British and Allied submarine warfare in north European waters at the beginning of World War II. Haarr has compiled research from a wide range of primary sources to create one of the most readable, comprehensive accounts of early war submarine activities. With detailed, accurate maps and many previously unpublished photographs, No Room for Mistakes documents the birth of a new kind of war and the courage of the men who learned to fight it.

In early April 1940 the British were becoming suspicious of German intentions towards Norway. On the 7th April all available Royal Navy submarines were ordered to sea to investigate German shipping movements in the North Sea. Amongst the boats already on station was the Polish submarine Orzel:

Further south-east from [HMS] Seal, the Polish submarine Orzel was cruising at periscope depth in the Skagerrak during the morning of the 8th. She was on her fifth war patrol after escaping the Baltic for Britain in September 1939. The first patrols had been rather uneventful, but this time it was clear that something was different.

After a meeting with Flotilla Command just before departure, Lieutenant Commander Ian Grudzinski had arrived back at the boat visibly excited and ordered everything to be made ready for sea — on the double.

At nightfall on 3 April, Orzel had left Rosyth, arriving off southern Norway two days later, having been delayed by a minor defect in one of the fuel pumps. The first days of the patrol were quiet, except for a few distant explosions on the 7th. Nothing was seen when surfacing shortly afterwards, but the tension remained and the lookouts were very alert throughout the night.

The next morning, at 09:45, submerged off Lillesand, the officer of the watch sighted the smoke of an approaching merchantman. So far in the war, they had encountered no German ships at all, and it was routinely assumed this was just another neutral ship. Hence, Grudzinski took his time before arriving in the control room.

The merchantman carried no flag and no markings but her course was suspicious, coming from due south, apparently heading for Norwegian waters. Grudzinski approached slowly with the periscope at maximum magnification. Eventually he was able to read the name Rio de Janeiro on her bows. Aft, the home port had been painted over, but rather sloppily, and to his joy he could read ‘Hamburg’ when close enough. Finally – a legal German prey they could attack.

Unknown to the Polish submariners, Rio de Janeiro was one of the transports assigned to the transport group heading for Bergen. Originally a 5,261-ton liner carrying cargo and passengers between Europe and Latin America, she was now loaded with large amounts of military equipment, including four 10.5-cm guns, six 20-mm A/A guns, seventy-three horses, seventy-one vehicles and 292 tons of provisions in her spacious hull. In addition there were 313 passengers and crew, most of them wearing uniform.

Grudzinski brought Orzel to the surface and hoisted a series of flags signalling: ‘Stop engines. The Master with ship’s papers is to report on board immediately.’ The freighter appeared to slow down in submission, but turned shoreward and did not stop. Orzel could do 20 knots on the surface and closed rapidly. No activity was observed on board, but a few bursts from Orzel’s machine gun across the freighter’s bow resulted in the signal ‘Message read and understood’ being hoisted and Rio de Janeiro started to slow down in earnest.

Orzel followed suit, pointing the torpedo tubes in her direction as well as the breech-block-less deck gun, hoping that the Germans would not notice its deficiency. When fully stopped, a boat was lowered from Rio de Janeiro. It stayed close to the ship, however, in spite of a few sailors pretending to be rowing. After a while, Grudzinski and First Lieutenant Piasecki agreed that they were just putting on a show and had no intention of coming over. Something was really strange about the vessel as well — all the more so as Orzel’s radio operator reported intercepting a coded radio signal from it.

At 11:20, Grudzinski hoisted a signal to abandon ship as he was going to fire a torpedo in fifteen minutes. Still, there was no reaction other than another ‘understood’ flag being hoisted. No lifeboats were made ready or even swung out, not even when a repeat signal notified them that only five minutes remained until the torpedo would be fired.

Meanwhile, the Norwegian coaster Lindebo and the fishing vessel Jenny chanced to pass nearby. They were not in harm’s way, though, and at 11:45 Grudzinski gave the order for one torpedo to be fired. At the time, Orzel’ s navigation officer estimated the German freighter to be 1.8 miles outside neutral Norwegian territory, although this may be an exaggeration according to Norwegian sources.

The range was point-blank and the torpedo struck amidships. Steam and dense smoke poured from Rio de Janeiro and suddenly her deck came alive with men in field-grey uniforms, falling or jumping into the sea. Lifebelts and pieces of wood were thrown over the side as more men followed into the water. Only after a while did someone start lowering some of the lifeboats.

‘Where on earth did all these men come from?’ asked Grudzinski, while observing the frenzy of activity in his binoculars.

Before anybody could provide an answer, an aircraft was reported approaching from landwards and orders to dive were given. At 11:15, the Norwegian sea defence sector in Kristiansand (SDS 2) had received a signal from Iustoya Coastguard Station that they could see the tower of a submarine on a westerly course just outside the territorial limit and a merchant ship, which appeared to be idling next to it. The nationalities of both vessels were unknown.

An MF.11 reconnaissance aircraft was ordered up from the naval air base at Marvika and took off shortly after. It arrived just as the torpedo struck and Loytnant Ragnar Hansen could see chaotic conditions on board the listing ship. People were running through flames and smoke, tumbling into the sea and trying to reach a few nearby floats. Several dead men were floating face down and horses were also in the water, adding to the horror. The submarine, which dived as the aircraft arrived, had vanished.

A brief signal was sent to Marvika at 12:07 as Hansen headed back towards Kristiansand to report. Lindébo and Jenny moved in to assist. Rio de Janeiro listed to starboard, but did not appear to be sinking. Grudzinski, who had taken Orzel around to the other side under water, fired a second torpedo from periscope depth. It struck at 12:15 and the bow of the transport broke off, vanishing quickly.

Splinters from the explosion flew over Lindebo’s deck and several of the rescued sailors were killed or wounded. The hull of Rio de Janeiro rolled over and sank minutes later, leaving hundreds of men to fight for their lives in the freezing water. Soon the surface was littered with lifeless bodies. The Norwegian destroyer Odin, which also had been sent to investigate, arrived at 12:45, and eventually some 150 men were rescued by the various Norwegian vessels.

Around 180 men perished, nineteen crew and some 160 soldiers, plus all the horses. An accurate cross-plot of the position made from Iustoy and Hovag coastguard stations concluded that Rio de Janeiro had been just outside the Norwegian 3-mile territorial limit when torpedoed.

Lieutenant Commander Grudzinski took Orzei away from the carnage and eventually surfaced to send a report. Odin headed for Kristiansand with seventeen wounded and eighteen dead under a tarpaulin on the deck, flying her flag at half-mast. Most of the others ended up in Lillesand. The dead were taken to the chapel at the local cemetery. The lesser wounded were treated by three local doctors in the harbour area while the seriously wounded were sent to the hospital in Arendal.

The Germans were wet and miserable and obviously shaken by their ordeal. The Norwegian police officer in charge of the operation in Lillesand, Nils Onsrud, became very concerned when he discovered that virtually all of the survivors were wearing uniforms and that some even had guns. Someone who was obviously an officer was trying to maintain some order, shouting: ‘Wehrmacht hier! Marine hier!’“ These men were no ordinary sailors!

Questioning them, Onsrud was told that they were soldiers heading for Bergen to assist the Norwegian Army against an Allied invasion — at the Norwegian government’s request. The officer, presenting himself with a salute as Lieutenant Voss, on the other hand maintained that Rio de Janeiro had been nothing but a merchantman loaded with general provisions.

Onsrud was certain the man was lying and that he had stumbled onto something of great importance. He cordoned off the harbour area as best he could and organised dry clothes, food and cigarettes to keep the Germans busy, while he went looking for a telephone. Unknown to himself, and anybody else in Norway, the German plan for Operation Weseriibung Nord, the invasion of Norway, had been unmasked.