British SS Clan Skene, sunk by Peter-Erich Cremer in U-333 on 10 May 1942 NE of Bahamas – 9 perished

 
Photo source: http://www.uboat.net/allies/merchants/ships/1623.html, The Allen Collection

           The British steam ship Clan Skene of 5,214 tons was launched as the War Adder for the British Shipping Controller and completed by C. Connell and Co. Limited of Glasgow in January of 1919 for the Clan Line Steamers Ltd.  (merchantnavyofficers.com).The following years she was transferred to the South American Steam Navigation Co. Ltd., under management of the Houston Line and renamed Halocrates. On April 7th, 1923 she was stranded in the Strait of Canso, Nova Scotia but managed to be refloated. That same year she was re-registered with the Clan Line Steamers. She was sunk by U-333 under “Ali” Cremer 360 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, in position 31.43. North and 70.43 West on the 10th of May, 1942.

            Clan Skene’s dimensions were 401 feet length overall, 52.3 feet wide, and 28.5 feet deep. Her master at the time was Captain Edward Gough. The ship was armed with a 4-inch gun, 4 Hotchkiss and 2 Marlin guns, one twin-Marline, 3 depth charges, and 4 rockets and kites. The crew included four naval and four army gunners, “Lascsars” from India, for a total of 82 persons – a considerable crew. The ship was en route from Biera, Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique) to New York via Cape Town South Africa, which she left on the 15th of April.  Her cargo was 2,006 tons of chrome ore, a highly dense cargo which lent itself to sinking damaged ships with extreme swiftness.
After leaving Cape Town on the 15th nothing of note occurred until the 3rd of May, which is when a signal from Admiralty in London diverted the ship to pass a point Northeast of Fernando do Noronha Island, and roughly 60 miles from Saint Paul’s Rocks – common navigational points off Brazil from ships steaming northwards. Having passed that point they steamed for a position midway between Bermuda and Cape Hatteras.

            Though they received no further warnings of submarines, they zigzagged until dark and on the 9th of May the resumed a course at 9PM ship’s time of 344 degrees and increased speed to 13 knots, with the ship blacked out. There were five lookouts – one on the forecastle head up front (indicating that the weather must have been fairly settled, or he would have been on the bridge), one on each bridge “wing” – the deck which extends outwards from the enclosed bridge, the Officer of the Watch, a cadet on the bridge, and two gunners manning their gun aft. The sky was heavily overcast with a Northwest wind of Force Four (roughly 30 knots), and visibility described as fair. The ship was 340 miles distant from the US coast and less from the nearest Bahama Island, and the depth was 2,900 fathoms or nearly 18,000 feet.

          Two torpedoes fired from U-333 penetrated Clan Skene – the first at 220 AM ship’s time on the starboard side, in the boiler room. All hands in the stokehold and engine room were killed except for the 3rd Engineer who was nevertheless scalded badly. Twenty seconds after the first, a second torpedo slammed into the ship just aft of the bridge and in the Number 3 hold, on the same side. Captain Gough commented that “large columns of water were thrown up from both explosions. Both lifeboats on the starboard side were destroyed.” To his dismay he found his day-room four feet deep in water, with everything covered in pieces of smashed lifeboat. He had to struggle out of the enclosed space and onto the deck. The Second Engineer had to use a hatchet (called a tomahawk) to hack his way out of the cabin.

          What the Captain did not realize at the time, but which soon became apparent was that the ships’ back had been broken. Her engines were “shattered,” the deck split cross-ways, and the funnel hung precariously over all. Even the shell plating on the port side were blown outwards by the explosion – damage consistent with what happened to ships like the Republic torpedoed off Florida. As Gough related, “when I was in the boat I should see the whole of the fore foot forward out of water. At the same time the propeller and rudder were out of the water aft. The ship was sagging in the middle in the shape of a ‘V’” (ADM 199/1490 pp.273-274). A mere twenty minutes after the first torpedo struck the men abandoned ship in two lifeboats. The ship was last seen at 1000 on the 10th of May in the same dire condition.

          Twenty-six men occupied the Captain’s boat and 47 the Mate’s. No wireless message had been sent. The following day they managed to sight some Allied destroyers escorting a convoy only five miles away, yet even at that near distance the emergency radio set failed to get through to them. At 130 PM local time on the 11th the US Navy Destroyer USS McKean (APD 5) caught sight of the boats after a passage of 36 hours, broke off from a nearby convoy, and picked up all the survivors from both boats. They were taken to San Juan Puerto Rico. Before that, however, because Clan Skene was not confirmed to have sunk a destroyer and airplanes were sent to look for her, with no result. Captain Gough commended the behavior of his crew, the majority of whom were Indians, called Lascars at the time. Once in the boats they became passive, and “just sat passively with their arms crossed and waited to die” (Id).. Nine Lascars were missing and presumed drowned.

          The Third Engineer had been scalded when a valve on the port boiler was blown off, and had been jammed underneath an engine platform. However fortuitously the second torpedo dislodged him when the engines were blown to pieces, and he “was blown through a small hatchway into the store room on the top of platform and eventually he was able to crawl on deck.” The Third Engineers are probably representative of dozens if not hundreds of near-death situations that engine staff found themselves in during the war, only with more tragic endings that did not go recorded.

          The submarine was not sighted by any of the crew and it must be presumed that she attacked from beneath the surface or intentionally remained out of sight of the crew. The American intelligence report, this one like most of them signed by A. J. Powers, Ensign, U.S. Naval Reserve at the office of the Chief of Naval Operations in Washington DC places a lot of emphasis on any intelligence gathered on the enemy subs and on the destruction of codes. Any situation where the enemy might have had the opportunity to board the submarine and obtain the secret routing instructions and Admiralty or US codes are always underlined – in this case it was a moot point as all confidential books were thrown overboard by Captain Gough in a weighted and perforated box provided for just that exigency. The importance of these precautions are made clear by cases where the submarine’s crew boarded abandoned ships like the Charles Racine and the Everleza (U-158 – where the codes were still on board).

          The ship which took the Second Engineer from San Juan to Tampa Florida on June 26th was the Seminole – the same vessel which transported survivors from Esso Boston, Melpomene, Amalpa and others.