During the Second World War, one of the most famous of Germany's U-boat commanders was Kapitanleutnant Otto Kretschmer of U-99. Kretschmer, whose nickname was "Silent Otto", gained his notoriety by sinking more Allied shipping, in terms of tonnage, than any other U-boat commander. He had made a bet with two of his fellow U-boat skippers, Gunther Prien and Joachim Schepke (who were also contenders for the top spot), that he would beat them both in their personal tonnage race. This was, of course, a race that Kretschmer was destined to win, and the event that put him squarely on top, never to be dethroned, occurred on the night of Sunday, November 3rd, 1940, off the coast of Northern Ireland's infamous "Bloody Foreland".
HMS Patroclus pictured in 1940 not long before she was sunk in the U-boat attack. This painting, by a sailor called R Heyward, has been reproduced with the kind permission of Barry Miles. Barry has produced a fine web-site tribute to his father Alfred, who served aboard the Patroclus. This can be viewed by clicking on the image above.
Kretschmer's U-99 was patrolling this area at periscope depth when, some time after 10:00 p.m., he spotted a lone merchant steamer. He gave the order to surface, and U-99 made its way toward the tempting target. As it did so, Kretschmer suddenly spotted another, much larger, ship looming toward him out of the night. Making a quick calculation of this new contact's speed, bearing, and distance, he decided that he had time to sink the steamer before the other ship reached his position. Shortly before 9:00 p.m., after a final range calculation, he gave the order to fire. The torpedo struck the steamer just aft of the bridge, sending up a sheet of flame and water. The steamer started to list almost immediately, and the crew began abandoning ship. U-99 then swung around to face the second ship. Kretschmer saw that it was still some distance away, but he was surprised to see that a third ship had now appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and was just over a mile distant.
The radio operator aboard U-99 had his hands full intercepting the flurry of plain language message traffic between the three ships. The merchant steamer identified herself as S.S. Casanare (6000 tons), and was frantically reporting that she had just been torpedoed. The second ship, which identified herself as H.M.S. Laurentic (18,000 tons), was reporting to the third ship that there was an enemy U-boat in the vicinity. The third ship acknowledged the message, and identified herself as H.M.S. Patroclus (12,000 tons). Kretschmer soon discovered that, while both ships were listed in Lloyd's Register as merchant vessels, they were also in the Royal Navy List as armed merchant cruisers, which, as warships, were a very real threat to his submarine.
Patroclus had, in fact, been shadowing Casanare since the morning of the 3rd, acting as an oceangoing escort to protect the steamer from German surface raiders. When the Casanare's distress message was received on Patroclus' bridge, her commanding officer, Captain William Wynter, decided to rush to the scene to pick up survivors. His senior officers argued against such a course of action, since a U-boat was still prowling the area. The senior executive officer, Commander R. P. Martin, told Capt. Wynter "If we go over there and stop, we shall be sunk within half an hour, sir!" But Wynter's decision was final. He dismissed their arguments, saying, "If I don't stop, I will never be able to show my face in Liverpool again! I'm going to help those poor chaps!" When Martin reminded him that Admiralty orders forbade needlessly exposing H.M. Ships to U-boat attacks, Wynter angrily rebuked him, saying, "The Admiralty is not in command of this ship!" Laurentic's presence was purely coincidental, but she now, by chance, found herself much closer to the quickly foundering steamer than her escort.
James Paddock pictured in the summer of 1940. In the attack on HMS Patroclus Mr Paddock, grandfather of the author of this article, was badly injured and spent several months in hospital. Click on the picture to see a larger image and biographical details.
Wasting no time, Kretschmer calculated the range to Laurentic as 1500 yards, and fired a torpedo at her on the turn (a move he was famous for). The torpedo struck the ship amidships in the boiler room, but, as the smoke and flame of the explosion dissipated, Laurentic gave no sign of listing or settling in the water, despite the fact that an enormous hole had been torn in her side.
This confused Kretschmer, who watched as the crew began abandoning ship. He decided to sit tight and watch for evidence of sinking. A fire had broken out below decks, and thick clouds of smoke were billowing out of every hatch and opening on the ship, but nearly thirty minutes later the ship had still not settled much lower in the water, and had radioed that she was under attack. U-99 then fired another torpedo at Laurentic, which struck near the stern. Again, amazingly, this had no discernable effect on the ship. A now totally bewildered Kretschmer decided to fire a third torpedo at the hole made by the first in order to break the ship's back. This time he closed to 250 yards, casting increasingly nervous glances at the onrushing Patroclus, and fired the third torpedo at Laurentic, which struck the ship exactly where he had intended. This seemed to do the trick, and Laurentic began to settle noticeably in the water. The ship fired starshell, which illuminated the whole area, and her forward gun opened fire on the U-boat. This, plus the rapidly approaching Patroclus, forced U-99 to withdraw some distance from the scene.
As Patroclus approached the scene, she dropped two depth charges set for 150 feet, with the intention of scaring off the U-boat that they believed, wrongly, had submerged. When the ship reached the Laurentic she immediately began the slow process of hauling up lifeboats. The crew of U-99 had both heard and felt the dull booming of the Patroclus' depth charges, but the only effect this had was to clue Kretschmer into the fact that she did not know where his U-boat was. He turned U-99 around to face the warships once again. Since the starshell fired by the Laurentic had gone out, the area was again cloaked in darkness. U-99 closed to within 300 yards without being spotted, and fired a torpedo, which struck Patroclus near the stern, immediately beneath a loaded lifeboat that was being hauled aboard. The lifeboat, the men aboard it, and a huge section of Patroclus' hull were blown to pieces. Kretschmer and his officers were astounded to see a large number of empty oil drums erupt from the ship's newly torn hull to bob like corks on the ocean swell. U-99 then fired another torpedo at the same section of Patroclus' hull, but it malfunctioned and yawed wildly off course, striking the ship below the foremast.
A large section of the forward well deck disintegrated, and several of Patroclus' crew vanished into the smoking void. Another volley of escaping oil drums confounded the U-boat's commander, and Kretschmer concluded, correctly, that they had been placed in Patroclus' hold in order to sustain the ship's buoyancy and survivability in the event of a torpedo attack. He further concluded that Laurentic's reluctance to sink was likely due to the same reason. A sudden salvo of high explosive shells from Patroclus' guns landing within feet of his submarine broke his train of thought and tore him back to reality. Kretschmer knew that a single hit would likely render him unable to dive, making U-99 a virtual sitting duck. The submarine powered up to full surface speed, and sheered off in the general direction of the spot where Casanare had gone down. All that remained of her now was two lifeboats full of survivors, who stared, transfixed, as U-99 sailed past them. The roar of an aircraft engine suddenly got Kretschmer's undivided attention. He looked up to see a British Sunderland flying boat, bristling with machine guns and depth charges, swooping down on him barely 50 feet above the water. An already iffy situation had just become infinitely more perilous, and Kretschmer cleared the conning tower and ordered an alarm dive. Meanwhile, aboard Patroclus, the crew had gone to "mine and torpedo" stations, falling in abreast at their assigned lifeboats with life vests and warm clothing, while a few crewmen disarmed the fuses on the ship's remaining depth charges. After a few somber words of encouragement from Commander Martin, the crew began abandoning ship.
Leveling off far below periscope depth, the U-boat's crew waited fearfully for the explosions of the depth charges they felt sure were plunging toward them. Amazingly, nothing happened, and Kretschmer ordered the forward torpedo tubes reloaded. He decided to wait another 30 minutes before resurfacing, in case the Sunderland was still circling the scene. When U-99 surfaced once again, at about 3:30 a.m., her commander saw that the flying boat had indeed departed. The sub made its way back to Patroclus. When they reached the scene Kretschmer was astounded to see that Laurentic was still afloat. She and Patroclus sat on the surface like two harpooned whales, hardly moving in the swell. All around the ships were the surviving crewmen of Laurentic and some from Patroclus: men in lifeboats, on carley floats, and in the water. Many of Patroclus' crew remained aboard her, however.
A conning tower lookout aboard U-99 suddenly called Kretschmer's attention to a destroyer coming toward them on the horizon. The U-boat's crew had been at action stations all night, and the men were weary, but now "Silent Otto" was seeing red, and he wasn't about to let it go. The armed merchant cruisers floated mockingly on the surface before him, and Kretschmer said angrily "We have got to sink those ships before the destroyer gets here!"
U-99 turned and closed to within 250 yards of the nearer of the two ships, the Laurentic, before firing. The torpedo struck the ship in the stern, a large section of which fell away and sank immediately. This section contained the ship's depth charges, which were still strapped into their racks, and had not been defused. Some of these charges had been set shallow (set to explode a short distance underwater), and quickly detonated just after the stern section disappeared from sight. This, of course, set off the rest of the charges, and the resulting underwater explosion was tremendously violent. The blast shook Patroclus, forcing many of her remaining crew into the freezing water. It bounced the wooden lifeboats off the surface like rubber balls, and pitched U-99 over onto her side at a dangerous angle, slamming Kretschmer and his officers against the inside of the conning tower, and throwing the submarine's crew into panic and confusion for several minutes. As the U-boat righted itself, the officers on the conning tower saw Laurentic's bow rise into the air, and quickly slide beneath the waves.
Patroclus now sat alone on the surface, and Kretschmer estimated that he had about 15 minutes to sink her and get to safety before the destroyer arrived. U-99 turned toward her, and fired at a range of 300 yards. This torpedo struck her amidships again, and there was yet another deluge of empty oil drums, which fell like massive hammers among the men in the water, injuring many, and killing some. The U-boat then began shelling Patroclus with her deck gun, hitting her amidships and aft, and starting a fire in the aft well deck above the aft magazine. Luckily the magazine did not ignite, since the deck in that area was soon awash, and the fire went out. Patroclus responded with her S3 gun (starboard 3 inch), causing shrapnel damage to U-99's conning tower, forcing her gun crew off the deck, and forcing U-99 to back off.
An increasingly frustrated Kretschmer fired his fourth and fifth torpedoes in quick succession, the fourth striking near the bow, causing another deadly eruption of oil drums, and the fifth hitting amidships yet again, taking number S3 gun and her gun crew overboard. These two torpedoes smashed numbers 1 and 5 lifeboats, killing the men aboard them. With the fifth hit there were no more barrels, and Patroclus finally seemed to be sinking. The few crewmen remaining aboard her, mostly senior officers, flooded her magazines and threw confidential documents overboard. The wireless radio operator sent a report to the Commander-in-Chief, Western Approaches, that Patroclus had been torpedoed.
Kretschmer cast an anxious glance toward the onrushing destroyer, which had now closed to within gun range. Patroclus was sinking, but painfully slowly, and the U-boat's commander decided to give her one final deathblow. At about 4:30 a.m. the sixth torpedo slammed into the foundering ship's heavily damaged midsection, and broke her back. The ship convulsed, arching into the air like a cat, and, with a loud sound of buckling metal, she split in two. Patroclus' bow and stern rose into the air, and, as the few remaining crew aboard her scrambled frantically to get off, the stern section dropped out of sight in mere seconds, the bow sinking more slowly. The men floating in the water swam as hard as they could to get away from the roiling spot where the ship's stern had disappeared, in a desperate attempt to avoid being dragged under by the suction of the sinking ship. Most were successful, some were not. Patroclus' bow, in what seemed like a final act of defiance, was still sticking several feet out of the water. It would not sink for a further two hours.
Having all but exhausted his supply of torpedoes, Kretschmer decided not to engage the oncoming destroyer. He ordered an alarm dive, and U-99 left the area as quickly as it could. The destroyer, H.M.S. Achates, reached the scene moments later and immediately lit up the sky with several starshell. She began picking up survivors from the three sunken ships, and radioed for any other ship in the vicinity to approach and assist. Having made asdic (sonar) contact with the fleeing U-99, she dropped a couple of depth charges. This was quickly stopped, however, since it was determined to be too much of a danger to the men in the water. Some time afterward another destroyer, H.M.S. Hesperus, arrived on the scene and began picking up the few crewmen that remained in the water, including Commander Martin. The two destroyers then ferried the survivors of Patroclus, Laurentic, and Casanare to Greenock, Scotland. Some were on their way to naval bases for reassignment, others to hospitals for long and painful periods of recuperation.
Otto Kretschmer, while returning U-99 to her patrol area, recorded in his log the curious use of the empty oil drums, stacked by the hundreds in the holds of the armed merchant cruisers, as a torpedo countermeasure. Ultimately it didn't save the ships, but it did force him to exhaust the lion's share of his torpedo supply to sink them. He would record a very similar incident less than a month later, when, on December 2nd, he attacked and sank another armed merchant cruiser, H.M.S. Forfar. Her holds were also jammed with oil drums, and it took 5 torpedoes to sink her.
Kretschmer also recorded the following in his war diary: "It seems strange that the second cruiser, Patroclus, should have gone out of her way to approach the scene and deliver herself into my hands."
It is interesting to note that the commanding officer of the destroyer H.M.S. Hesperus, which was so instrumental in the rescue of the survivors, was Captain Donald MacIntyre. Just over 4 months later, in March, 1941, MacIntyre (in command of another destroyer, H.M.S. Walker) would finally corner and sink U-99, southeast of Iceland, taking "Silent Otto" and most of his crew as prisoners of war.
230 survivors, including the following Newfoundlanders:
Fred Gullage of Corner Brook (4th Contingent) was wounded and died in hospital in Scotland on January 1st, 1941.
The ship's Captain, William Wynter, was also lost.
The following Newfoundlanders survived the sinking of the Laurentic:
The merchant steamer S.S. Casanare lost 8 crewmen.
More information on HMS Patroclus is provided at The WWII Royal Navy Career of Alfred Miles, a tribute to his father by Barry Miles.
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