May 27th, 1942, about 9.00pm, position 29.54.5° N., 72.25.5° W.; very deep water …
German submarine U-506, under the command of twenty-eight-year-old Kapitänleutnant Erich Würdemann, is knifing through the North Atlantic on her way back to base at Lorient on the north-west coast of occupied France, accompanied by another, smaller U-boat. This is her second patrol. She left port on 6th April. After crossing the ocean she registered her first kill, sinking the small Nicaraguan merchant ship Sana off the southern coast of Florida. By the end of the patrol she will sink five more ships, render another a total loss and damage three others, before arriving back at Lorient on 15th June.
U-506, 251 feet long, with her twenty-two torpedoes and a complement of forty-eight, is a Type IXC vessel, assigned to the 10th U-boat Flotilla (emblem on right), which consists of eighty submarines. Würdemann was awarded the Iron Cross, Second Class, on 16th April, 1940; he’ll progress to a First Class Iron Cross on return from this, the most successful of his five patrols.
The boat may be going home, but its crew must stay vigilant, not only to be ready to attack any Allied shipping they encounter but also to remain invisible to enemy planes and warships. The sea is calm, no whitecaps, the wind Force 1, from the north-east. Visibility is good. There are no currents, no clouds, with a full moon.
“Periskop nach oben”, says Würdemann, quietly. When raised, the periscope leaves a barely perceptible wake on the flat calm surface, certainly unseen by any of the three lookouts on the ship on whose silhouette he now homes in. He notes its British flag. He’s already made eight successful attacks during this patrol but this is the first time he’s encountered a potential British target.
On board the S/S Yorkmoor, in a complete blackout, eighteen-year-old apprentice Able Seaman George Barringer, from the fishing town of Whitby on the east coast of Yorkshire, has just put the kettle on to make a cup of tea for the Master of the ship, Captain Thomas Mathew Harris (whom I believe is pictured below, with young George on the left).
George (destined to be my father-in-law), went to sea around a month before his sixteenth birthday. Although he’d been happy exploring the cliffs around Whitby with his mates, cycling around the town and messing about in rowing boats in the harbour – sometimes with his friend Jeanne Crooke (later to be my mother-in-law) – he yearned to get away from the stifling home life he led in the company of his three older sisters. He took the decision to join the merchant navy “just for something to do”, though he did get his mother’s blessing.
Relatives and friends would line quaysides around UK ports to see off the crews in emotional farewells to vessels, like the Yorkmoor pictured below, about to cross the treacherous, sub-infested waters of the Atlantic.
This is George’s second transatlantic journey on the Yorkmoor, a Moor Line Ltd cargo ship (registered tonnage 2,768 tonnes). His first voyage was to Toronto, where the vessel, chartered by the British Ministry of War Transport, picked up a mixed haul of mostly minerals, together with other essential supplies for the war effort. The trip took the boat through ice fields and treacherous currents, not to mention the unseen menace of any lurking U-boats.
Fortunately, on that first crossing, in convoy, there was at least the reassuring presence of escorting corvettes.
Yorkmoor left St Thomas in the Virgin Islands four days ago, bound for New York City, with a cargo of 6,700 tons of bauxite loaded in four hatches. But this time the ship is unescorted, on instruction from the Naval Control Officer on St Thomas. “Madness”, thinks George.
She is steering 337 degrees to true north (ie north northwest), at a speed of 7.5 knots. The three lookouts have a difficult task at this time of night. There’s a trained Able Seaman on watch on the forecastle head, twenty feet above water, but with no binoculars. He’s been in position for fifteen minutes. The Third Officer, on watch since 8:00pm, is on the bridge thirty-five feet above water and is using binoculars and a telescope, though both are in very poor condition. A gunner is also on the lookout on the gun platform. He’s one of four Navy gunners aboard and is furnished with binoculars.
Now, just below the waves, Würdemann retracts the periscope and orders the submarine to break surface about a mile from the Yorkmoor, on the port side. The moment U-506 surfaces, his gunners rush swiftly and silently to their stations and arm the wet-mounted 10.5 cm (4 inch) C/32 Schnelladekanone (quick loading cannon – see example right) and their 3.7cm (1.5 inch) SK C/30 gun.
At 9.15pm, without warning, U-506 opens fire on the Yorkmoor, in co-ordination with the smaller sub, which soon also appears on the port beam. All hell breaks loose aboard the ship, as single shots at first, followed by bursts of rapid fire come in, interspersed with the sending up of star shells, which illuminate the whole scene. The Third Officer immediately sounds a general alarm and the Captain begins giving orders from the bridge. Despite the full moon, the fact that the submarine is a mile away on a dark night means that she is never visible to the Yorkmoor’s gunners.
The ship is turned hard to starboard to put the submarine astern; but because of damage to the steering apparatus by initial shellfire the rudder remains fixed. “Bloody hell, we’re going to get torpedoed!”, thinks George. The more likely truth is that Würdemann has used all his torpedoes in other attacks, or is holding back from using the remainder, as he calculates that his guns are powerful enough to sink the Yorkmoor.
The submarine’s gunners are expert – hardly any of their fifty or sixty shells miss the target. The first shot hits the aft and midship deck on the port side. The second smashes into the base of the funnel. The third hits the foc’sle head. Firing becomes continuous and George sees many of the shells penetrating the ship’s hull below the water line.
“There was a right shamozzle on deck”, George remembered.
Yorkmoor’s gunners start returning fire within five minutes of the first shot from U-506. At about the same time, her radio operator manages to begin sending out a distress message: “SSSS YORKMOOR 29.54.5 N, 72.25.5 W”. The “SSSS” is probably a version of the newly-adopted distress call “SSS”, which signifies that a ship is being attacked by a submarine. But no sooner has the positional information been transmitted than the aerial is torn apart by shellfire, preventing both further transmission and receipt of any replies. The vessel’s gunners are unable to see the submarines themselves, so they aim at the flashes from their guns. The Yorkmoor has a very mobile 4″ gun on the stern, on a special mounting which allows depression and elevation, as well as two Marlins and two Hotchkiss machine guns and other defensive equipment in the locker. But besides its superior fire power, U-506 has had surprise on its side. And when ammunition on the Yorkmoor’s gun platform runs out, it has to be replenished from magazines below deck. The Yorkmoor’s rate of fire is no more than two shells every three minutes.
The ship begins to list to port, while sinking at the bow end. It’s clear that it will soon be necessary to take to the lifeboats. The submarines stop firing.
As the situation deteriorates, confidential documents – British radio codes, for instance – are put into a perforated metal box, which is weighted and thrown overboard by the Third Officer, A. Clark, at 9.30pm.
The Navy gunners perform brilliantly. They have been undertaking regular gun drills. They remain at their posts until the end, later receiving Special Commendations for “behaving with gallantry, obeying instructions implicitly and staying by the gun during the heavy gunfire “. Indeed, there was also a commendation for all officers and men of the crew who stood by the ship under continuous shellfire and abandoned her only when all hope of defensive and offensive action was gone. Perhaps even more to the point, it seems nothing short of miraculous that none of the crew received any injuries, let alone that none were killed.
Captain Harris orders “Abandon Ship!” at about 10:00pm. Here again crew members are well-drilled, their last practice at abandoning ship having been performed at Halifax. With the two submarines still on the surface, Yorkmoor’s crew take to the lifeboats. The ship’s list doesn’t make this easy, but eventually they get them into the water. The Captain assumes charge of the starboard boat, along with twenty-two men. The port lifeboat is in the charge of the Chief Officer, and this is the one that George gets into, together with the twenty-two others. Fortunately the weather is warm. At around 10:15pm, an hour after the start of the attack, Yorkmoor slips, bow first, beneath the waves.
What a terrifying experience all this must be for an eighteen-year-old, clambering into a small lifeboat in the pitch black Atlantic Ocean, knowing that his ship is sinking and in the intimidating presence of a huge, powerful German submarine and its smaller companion, both watching every move – so different from the days not so long ago when he messed about in rowing boats in Whitby harbour!
The time is 10:25pm. In the starboard boat, Captain Harris is being questioned by loud-hailer by Würdemann. He wants to know the name of the ship, where it’s from, where it was headed, its tonnage and its cargo. It is noted that the submarine commander speaks English well but with a definite German accent, using excellent grammar. At around 10:30pm, Würdemann decides to leave, submerging U-506 and turning the vessel to an easterly direction. The other submarine also disappears.
No sooner have George and his shipmates got into the port lifeboat than it becomes clear that it’s not seaworthy, having been badly damaged by shell splinters. So the port boat is abandoned for a while and everyone transfers to the starboard boat. After some discussion, the Chief Officer, carpenter and a salvage squad get back into the port boat to attempt to effect repairs. This is easier said than done: not only is water gushing in, but numerous sharks are circling, their dorsal fins tracing menacing patterns through the starlit waters. One man stands on the bow and does his best to chase away the sharks with an oar. There is a pump, but bailers also use tin helmets to remove water – they don’t hold as much water as buckets but are easier to hold and don’t tire the men out so quickly. There is about six inches of water in the boat most of the time. Replacements take over from tired bailers, whilst keeping a watchful eye out for the sharks as they shift across.
Two rafts are spotted nearby – food and water tanks are taken off them. The Captain’s boat stays alongside the port boat for the entire night while bailing and repairs continue apace. Work has to be done from the inside to avoid being attacked by sharks. Eventually the port lifeboat is repaired, with sterling work being done by ship’s carpenter, James Cairns, of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. All equipment is replaced by food and water. Some sleep becomes possible, under the lifeboats’ protective covers. For a time the weather takes a turn for the worse, the sea becoming rougher. Twelve men in the port boat are joined by a further five. But the water becomes too rough for any more to transfer. The motor in the port boat has been damaged by salt water and fails to operate. There is no motor in the Captain’s boat, but it can proceed under sail, making around 1.5 knots. It takes the port boat in tow. By the evening of May 28th, with the wind picking up and water ingress in the port boat under control, the boats increase speed to four or five knots and they travel some thirty-five miles over the next twenty-four hours.
George is put in charge of rationing.
Food and water is rationed from the start. No medical treatment is required but two severe cases of diarrhea occur. The first meal was eaten at noon on May 28th, some twenty-six hours after the sinking, each man having one slice of bread and about two ounces of water. Five hours later the menu is three biscuits and a small quantity of beef – just enough to cover a biscuit, with the same amount of water. Other meals follow the same basic pattern at 08:00, noon and 17:00 each day.
May 29th sees the boats making even faster progress, covering some seventy miles.
At about 7:00am on May 30th, Captain Harris determines that the boats can split up, as the weather quickly improves and the temperature rises to 80 degrees. The port boat, now fully repaired, is likely to make faster progress and hopefully bring help. Its mainsail is set and with a force 3 northeast wind in a moderate to heavy swell, they manage a speed of around five knots, travelling an estimated forty-three miles that day.
At 08:00am on May 30th, having just parted company with the Captain’s boat, George and the others celebrate the Mate’s birthday. To mark this special occasion, each man has five biscuits, one with corned beef spread over it and one with beef paste, with the usual amount of water. The last meal is taken at 17:00pm on May 30th, consisting of four biscuits each, with beef paste spread over one, together with the standard ration of water.
For, unknown to the men aboard both boats, according to the report of the sinking produced by Headquarters Sixth Naval District United States Navy Yard, S.C, the short message which the radio operator on board the Yorkmoor managed to send out has been picked up by M.V. Laguna while at anchor in Bermuda. At 4:00am on the morning of May 31st, the crew of the port boat spot an approaching vessel and use flares to attract its attention. By 4:30am they are alongside the Laguna, having reached latitude 32.00 North, longitude 75.46 West. The assumed position of the Captain’s boat is latitude 31.14 North, longitude 75.28 West. The men have been in the lifeboat for three days and six hours.
George and his fellow crew-members in the port boat are brought to land at Charleston in South Carolina, The Charleston Evening Post headlining the story of their amazing survival and journey to safety.
Meanwhile Captain Harris and his compatriots in the starboard boat have to wait another three days to be rescued. But it was largely thanks to his clear thinking under immense pressure, together with the skills of other key individuals, that all forty-five crew members survive largely unscathed, except for sunburn.
U-506 went on to sink another eight ships, six of which were British, one Swedish and one Norwegian. In total, she sank fourteen ships and was involved in the notorious Laconia incident. Würdemann and his men met their end during their fifth patrol, just over a year after the Yorkmoor was sunk. They were attacked with seven depth charges by a US Liberator aircraft, off the Spanish coast, west of Vigo. The U-boat broke in two. About fifteen men were seen in the water by the plane’s pilot, who dropped a liferaft and a smoke flare, though only six survived, rescued by a British destroyer three days later.
On his return to England, George continued to serve in the Merchant Navy, voyaging to most corners of the world, including ports in Australia, India, South Africa, Canada and the USA. After the war, he served for many years in the Metropolitan Police, being awarded a medal for his exemplary service. He always maintained his love of sailing, an activity only rivalled in his affections by his huge love of golf. I never detected any long-term effects of the horrors of that dreadful night on the ocean.
Yesterday was the fourth anniversary of George’s passing away, at the grand old age of ninety-four. He remains in our hearts, sadly missed by the whole family and his many friends.
U-506’s sister boat, the U-505 (above), on display at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, IL. October 2005.
Credit: Jeremy Atherton. Link to license – https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/deed.en
10.5 cm SK C/32 – source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/falcon_33/38818115524/
Credit: Erik Ritterbach. Link to license – https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/de/deed.en