Photo source: City of Vancouver Archives, CVA 447-2068, and http://www.uboat.net/allies/merchants/ships/1625.html
The 4,963-ton British cargo ship Cape of Good Hope was built by Lithgows, Limited of Glasgow, Scotland in 1925. She was owned and operated by the Lyle Shipping Company Limited (A. P. Lyle), also of Glasgow. Powered by a Kincaid diesel engine of 490 n.h.p. at 10.5 knots, the ship was 123.4 meters (405 feet) long, 15.9 meters wide and 8.4 meters deep.
On her final voyage the Cape of Good Hope was under the command of Captain Alexander Campbell and her total complement was 37 men. Amongst them was Second Mate Neil MacNeil, later of Barra. Born on the 29th of September 1918 he went away to sea in 1935 at the age of 17. By May of 1942 he had worked his way to Second Mate. His ship left New York on the 5th of May and was heading for Cape Town then the Iranian ports of Basra, Bandar Shapur and Abadan, the Middle East. Her cargo of 7,500 tons consisted of twin engine bomber airplanes and light tanks on deck, truck tires, ammunition other military equipment and some grain. This was ultimately destined to assist the Russians against the Germans in the Caucasus.
Detailed documentation of the ship’s cargo has survived and is worth noting. Most of it was consigned to the British Food Mission (2,152 tons in 25,22 of Canadian wheat), the British Purchasing Commission (3,740 tons), 644 pounds of rattan and steel furniture for the Iranian Government, 90 tons for commercial purposes, 206 tons for the Department of Munitions and Supplies, Canada, and 40 tons of cocoa in 1,782 cases for the Polish Consul General.
The 91 tons for the British Air Commission consisted of five Martin Baltimore bombers with manuals. The munitions consisted of 50 tons of 37-mm guns, 307,500 50-calibre tracer cartridges weighing 42 tons, with 7 tons of links, 68 30-caliber machine guns weighing one ton, 12 M-3 light tanks with armament, 38 Mack transporter trucks and 103 tons of barbed wire. There were also 41,983 anti-tank mines and 2,592 tons of M-160 lubricating oil. There were 7 tons of evaporated milk and 6 tons of cigarette paper.
The morning of the 11th of May was uneventful, MacNeil wrote to the British Virgin Islands Bulletin after the war, “…our ship plodded her way through the crystal clear tropical waters of the Atlantic in perfect peace and quietness.” The ship was steaming at 161 degrees tru at 10.2 knots, not zig-zagging. There were two lookouts each on the bridge and that aft gun – the ship was armed.
At 2:43 pm this tranquility was shattered when Jurgen von Rosenstiel in U-502 fired a torpedo into the side of the Cape of Good Hope in position 22.48N by 58.43W, over 300 hundred miles northeast of Antigua. As MacNeil noted, “a terrific explosion flung me fully four feet into the air and landed me flat on the bridge deck.” Fortunately for the men, the torpedo lodged in one of the cargo holds carrying grain, not explosives. But they weren’t going to take any changes.
An SOS was sent and the emergency signals and alarms sounded and despite the rapidly sinking ship, two boats were manned and cleared the ship. They lay-to roughly two miles off the starboard side and began discussing re-boarding their ship and prying it from the claws of the enemy. Just as they were considering their options U-502 surfaced nearby and began shelling their ship. It had the logo of an alpine deer head and a red rose painted on the conning tower. The submarine sent some 20 shells into the side of the Cape of Good Hope and at 3:35 pm one of them struck home in the ammunition hold. The ship was obliterated by the explosion and disintegrated.
Von Rosensteil brought his sub alongside the life boats and didn’t even bother inquiring about the ship’s cargo, since it was evident to all that she carried war supplies. There were seven men in the conning tower, including the skipper, the doctor, lookouts and an officer taking sun sights to determine the exact position. When he learned that one of the British merchant crew had sprained his ankle von Rosensteil offered to have the U-boat doctor apply a splint. When this offer was refused, some bandages and pills were handed over. Men on the conning tower were filming the exchange. Then the submarine motored off to the west-northwest, towards Bermuda, at roughly five knots’ speed.
The evening of the 11th the two lifeboats distributed the men, with MacNeil and the Captain Campbell having a total of 18 men in their boat and 19 men occupying the boat skippered by the First Mate, a man named James Hamilton. The weather was calm and their progress to the islands to the southwest until two days later.
At 10:30 am on the 13th of May Gunner Jack Boyer saw a plane approaching them from ahead. What was described as an American Catalina amphibious plane circled over them for ten minutes and dropped a canister of supplies with a detailed note of instructions. The note read: “Assistance is en route. Will arrive tonight or tomorrow morning. Remain on course 240 True continually. If assistance doesn’t arrive tomorrow, don’t worry – we can find you any time. Good luck.”
Unfortunately for the men, the weather piped up from the southwest, the very direction they were heading. After an invigorating meal and more water than was rationed (they were going to be rescued in a few hours anyway, right?), and a wait of two days in foul weather, the men were dispirited. No plane or ship returned. The boats split up, with the captain’s boat heading for the Virgin Islands and the mate’s boat making for the Dominican Republic to the west.
MaCNeil and Captain Campbell arrived the after a voyage of 11 days off the coast of Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands. They had lost their rudder after the storm and were using just a steering oar. Though they had run virtually out of water, the men slaked their thirst in rain squalls. That morning they had seen a coconut and green branch floating by. Early that afternoon Able Seaman William Vincent told MacNeil that he had been watching land for half an hour. Indeed, “there lying ahead was a beautiful green island.”
The men began to sing popular songs as they rowed for shore, and MacNeil observed that “even the Captain, whose face had just previously resembled a minimum-sized fiddle with eyes painted on it joined in.” The dangerous reefs and nightfall forced the men offshore again. The following day, their twelfth, they set sail and headed for land again. About mid morning they spotted a sail on the far horizon and made for it. It was the sloop Sparrow, out of Virgin Gorda and under the command of Captain Robinson O’Neal. They were thrilled to learn that the islands there were approaching were under British control.
They were spotted at noon on the 24rd of May by a Mariner patrol plane one and a half miles east of the island. Meanwhile at 12:30 pm the Sparrow began to tow the men and their boat to the capital, in Road Town, on the island of Tortola, where they arrived at 7:00 pm that night. There, “the Commissioner and nearly all Road Town were down to greet us with open arms. Soon every one of us was comfortably housed and enjoying the remarkable hospitality extended to us from every corner of the island” (www.pilotmag.co.uk/?s+cape+of+good+hope).
First Officer Hamilton’s boat arrived on the 29th of May after a voyage of 18 days, making landfall at Burgentura near Puerto Plata, on the north coast of the Dominican Republic. They were transported to the capital at Santo Domingo and from there flown to Miami, where they were interviewed by US Naval Intelligence. The men complained that they could not understand why a ship with a cargo of such clear military value would not have been escorted and protected.