Italian Royal Submarine Giuseppe Finzi, part of the Betasom flotilla. It sank the Melpomene, of which I am unable to find a photograph.
Photo source: Cristiano D’Adamo http://www.regiamarina.net/detail_image_with_list.asp?nid=209&lid=1
The 7,011 gross ton British tanker Melpomene left Belfast, Ireland on the 12th of February 1942 in convoy O.S. 19, bound for New Orleans. On the 22nd of February, when south of Azores, she was dispatched from the safety of the convoy to sail independently, which she did uneventfully for two weeks. The ship was in ballast under the command of Captain A. Henney and a crew of 49 persons total when she was routed away from the Old Bahama Channel and towards the Windward Passage per an Admiralty message on the 27th of February.
At 21:10 local time on the 5th of March, after hearing warning of submarines for the past week, the Melpomene was struck by a torpedo on the port side, underneath the bridge near the number four tank. She was then in position 23.35’ North and 62.39’ West, or northeast of Puerto Rico and between Bermuda and Anegada. Her attacker was the Italian submarine Giuseppe Finzi under Ugo Guidice, sailing for the joint venture Betasom flotilla out of Beardeaux, France along with compatriots Morosini and Tazzoli.
When the Finzi returned to base in Bordeaux it’s exploits were heralded by Bremen radio and picked up by the Associated Press in London – this dispatch made it to the Utica Observer/Dispatch on 8th April 1942: “The Melpomene formerly was a French vessel trading with Mediterranean oil ports before the ware began in 1939. She figured in the news on Aug. 3, 1940 when British naval authorities at Port Said, Egypt refused to permit her to sail for France, fearing she would fall into Nazi hands.” As with the Hanseat, we will see that this was not the first time that a ship’s past was to catch up with her.
After the first torpedo struck Captain Henney sent the second officer to see that the gun crews safe and ordered a strict look-out to be maintained. Three men in the accommodation, three men including Howell, the cabin boy, were badly injured – Howell in his right leg. They were placed in the Port lifeboat which was partly lowered. Since the ship appeared fairly balanced the Master decided to try to save her and sent Mr. Andrews, the Chief Engineer, the 2nd Engineer Mr. Bramald and Fireman Beard to re-start the engines and assess the damage. At great risk to themselves these volunteers did so, however when the ship resumed her headway it only went in circles – the steering gear had been damaged.
At 2130 (1130 PM) Captain Henney decided to abandon ship. This was a smart move, for all three boats were lowered at 2140 and as they pulled away a second torpedo slammed into the ship on the port side. This was followed at 2200 by a third which brought down the main mast between numbers 7 and 8 tanks. The ship settled by the stern, the bow reared up, and the vessel disappeared from sight at 2225 while the 49 men in three lifeboats watched. Just after the sinking, a flash and a splash was witnessed 1,000 yards away – probably some jetsam sent from the wreck as its fire-hot boilers were enveloped in cold water and exploded, though perhaps it could have been an errant (and unnecessary) shell from the Finzi.
They waited till dawn to survey the wreckage. An eerie sight greeted them, according to Captain Henny. “I sighted a vessel in the vicinity of the sinking of our shop and we made towards it. We sent out radio signals with the lifeboats’ emergency set, but she vessel did not take any notice. She just maneouvered in circles, every now and then giving out belches of reddish smoke, which hung over the ship. I think this vessel must have been a supply ship for the submarine. Realizing that we were not going to get any help from this vessel, I ordered the crew to make for San Juan” (ADM 199/2140 National Archives of the UK). One can only assume that this was an allied vessel which did not see the survivors (who were admittedly being coy) or a neutral ship that didn’t want to get involved at all and was just poking around for bounty. There were so few Axis merchant ships on the high seas at that point that they were called “blockade runners” and given U-Boat escort into and out of Axis ports.
Thus began a five-day ordeal of survival for the men, who set course southwards for Puerto Rico. Captain Henney allocated the wounded one per boat amongst the lifeboats, with the wounded the cabin boy receiving 5th Engineer, “who was an excellent first aid man” going in Boat # 3 with the Captain. The Master’s instructions were to keep the boats together insomuch as possible and to row to the South on the first night. On the first full day of the ordeal – March 6th – all three boats set sail and course for San Juan. By the next day there were out of sight of each other all day but at dusk the Captain sighted the 2nd Officer’s boat ahead. The next day, on the 8th of March, Captain Henney espied salvation: “…at 1021 I sighted a vessel ahead steaming towards us and sent out a radio message [on the emergency set] and the ship came over and picked us up at 11:05.” A.M. (Survivor Statements, ADM / 199)
Their savior was the American motor vessel Idaho, and either her master was a true Good Samaritan, Captain Henney had a very forceful personality, or perhaps just the brotherhood of the sea defies shipping schedules. In any event the Idaho abandoned her course for South Africa, went ahead and found the second officer’s boat [at 1:57 PM, then went back to find the 1st Officer’s boat [at 3 PM], and once all the crew of 49 men were on board, altered course of its planned route and steamed to San Juan to drop them off. As Henney wrote, “The Captain considered that the Cabin Boy was too badly injured to stand the journey” to Cape Town. The Master of the Idaho was truly a savior – he is next heard about in Uboat.net rescuing 39 survivors of the Norwegian Fernhill, sunk by U0757/Deetz off Sierra Leone, on 9 August 1943 (UBoat.net). There is little other readily available information about the ship except that she was not sunk by a German submarine during the war.
They all arrived in Puerto Rico on the evening of the following day – the 9th – and “the wounded me were immediately taken to hospital, while the rest of the crew up in hotels which the American Red Cross had arranged to await transportation home”. What happened next can best be described as a diaspora. We should be grateful for Captain Henney’s detail regarding the disposition of his crew, because it shows how quickly and distantly a shipwrecked crew can be separated and to how many different functions. By naming ships he also provides an insight into the fates of these vessels. Five crew signed on board the HMS Archer, which was in port and looking for crew, just like in the days of press gangs when men were “Shanghaid.”
The balance of the crew (presumably without the three injured men who would have stayed in hospital), left for New York on the S.S. Seminole – according to the Master on the very same day as they arrived (which means they would not have slept in a hotel overnight). They arrived in New York on the 12th of April and were officially paid off on the 14th. The Seminole was launched in1926, as a passenger steam ship of 2,557 tons. She was built for the Clyde Steamship Company (Clyde Line) and sold to the New York & Porto Rico Steamship Company, trading from San Juan to Tampa and other ports. Seminole carried the survivors of other ships, including the Ampala, C. O. Stillman, and Esso Boston back to the US from Puerto Rico.
At that point they men joined the “New York pool” of seamen looking for ships, and the officers returned to the UK on board the Sourabaya, the Jamaica Planter, the Empire Razorbill, which the 2nd Officer joined as Chief Officer. Mr. Wheller the Cook opted for the Empire Dunedin (presumably a misspelling as no ship by that name appears to exist), and the Chief Officer returned on the Ocean Venture. Most interestingly, the Radio Officer, who had hunched over the emergency set in the lifeboats and managed to send off a signal in the dying moments of the Melpomene (though it was not received) took passage on the Norwegian whaling factory tanker Peder Bogen, which would feature prominently in this study in short order. Suffice to say it would not be his only shipwreck of the season.
Though Regiamarina.net refers to the tanker as French, in fact she was British – something the French research site concedes (u-boote.fr/arrivee.htm). This is reinforced from the fact that on arrival in San Juan five of the crew volunteered for – and were accepted aboard – the British Naval ship HMS Archer without question. Had the crew been French, more security measures would have been taken, given that country’s divided loyalties at the time. The HMS Archer began its career as the US-flagged merchant ship Mormanchland and was transferred to the British as an escort carrier in 1941. Her transmission problems plagued the ship though, and she was converted to a behind-the-lines aircraft transport then after the war the passenger ship Anna Salen and finally Tasmania and Union Reliance before scrapping in 1961.
Since the Master of the Melpomene dispersed his crew on so many different vessels, they deserve passing mention here as their fates are illustrative of the dangers of wartime trade to both ships and crew. The Sourabaya was a whale factory ship which was subsequently sunk on 27th October 1942 by the U436 under Seibicke southeast of Cape Farewell, Greenland (Uboat.net). The Jamaica Planter was a 4,098 fruit ship owned by the Jamaica Banana Producers Steam Ship Co. She sank after a collision with the S.S. Wellesley in Barry Roads, Wales, on December 27th, 1944. (francisfirth.com). Empire Razorbill, 5118 tons and British flagged, had survived a convoy attack by U-96 under Lehmann-Willenbrock on 14 December 1940 between Iceland and Scotland – it limped back into port and was sold to Greeks after the war and scrapped in 1947.
The Ocean Venture was torpedoed and sunk by U-108 northwest of Bermuda on February 8th, 1942 while en route from Vancouver to Virginia via Panama (mariners-l.co.uk/Ocean2 has the ship sunk on September 8th which would mean the ship was not available to Melpomene survivors). Since Uboat.net is generally unimpeachable, we must assume that the Chief Officer obtained passage on another of the many Ocean-series ships. (The Master’s note on the Empire Dunedin is likewise unverifiable).