The Derryheen was the only vessel stricken by U-Boats in the region whose survivors were rescued on the open ocean by an airplane. Built in 1942 by the Burntisland Shipbuilding Company Limited of Burntisland, Scotland. She was 420 feet long by 58 feet and 7,217 gross registered tons. She was owned by McCowen & Gross Limited, London. Derryheen’s crew of 51 men were led by Captain Harold Richardson. She left Norfolk, Virginia on her maiden cargo-carrying voyage on the 19th of April bound for Cape Town.
Her cargo consisted of 11,036 tons of general cargo, which included 6,400 tons of military stores amongst them beer, trucks and nitrates, destined ultimately to aiding the war in North Africa via Middle-East ports. Her original port of departure was Philadelphia. According to Captain Richardson he was ordered to divert his course several days out of Norfolk, however the ship never received or followed those instructions. Instead, at 03:00 local time (09:05 according to the submarine), U-201 commanded by Adalbert Schnee (adorned with the logo of a snowman, as the skipper’s name meant snow in German), caught up with here in an abrupt manner.
The weather was described as “fine and clear but very dark” by the captain, who had just taken off his work clothes for the first time during the three-day passage, on the 22nd of April. The ship’s course was east-southeast or 150 degrees and her speed 11.75 knots at position 31.20N by 70.35W (70.55 according to her master) when she was struck on the port side. A G7e torpedo penetrated the aft part of the ship by way of the Number 5 hold, setting fire to the cargo of nitrates stored there and filling the air with an acrid smell of cordite and burning nitrates. Since the torpedo struck directly beneath the naval gunner’s quarters (the ship was armed with guns manned by 8 military gunner), their bunks collapsed on one another like pancakes. All 4 of the navy and four army gunners just managed to pry themselves out of the single exit to their Spartan accommodation.
The crew acted with commendable order in the circumstances and within ten minutes managed to launch all four lifeboats. Captain Richardson yelled down the hatch for the engine room staff to abandon ship, and the engineer assured the Master that the engines had been secured. However they had not been, so the Chief went below to do so himself. Up until then the engines had been racing even though the propeller shaft was broken. All three boats except for number one cast off, the latter standing by to collect Captain Richardson.
Seeing that the ship was fiercely afire the entire crew were off from the ship within twelve minutes. At that time a second torpedo slammed into the mid-ships port side and sent a column of water in the air. According to Captain Richardson, “it was noisier than the first torpedo, but not nearly as loud an explosion as I expected.” Though they could not see U-201 prowling nearby, they could “distinctly hear her engines close to the boat” (ADM 100/2140 p.216). Though the crew hoped to re-board their ship and send a mayday for a tug to come out and tow the burning hulk to shore, the second torpedo accomplished it’s sender’s objectives, and at 330 AM local time the Derryheen sank.
Thus began an interesting and varied survival exercise for 51 men in four boats for between one and twelve days. Boats with motors found that the engines did not work (their magnetos had been soaked), the smaller boats with only 8 persons fared better than their larger cousins in that a boat load were literally air-lifted out in the days before helicopters, and the men ended up as far apart as Havana and eastern Florida. At dawn the Master divided the crew – 8 each in the smaller boats and 17 each in the larger lifeboats. They agreed to steer west-southwest towards the Carolinas.
In order to get the emergency rations out of the rafts they had to chop them up. At noon on the same day – 22rd April – an Allied airplane spotted their smoke floats and after circling around, dropping its two bombs into the sea to free up weight, it landed on the surface of the sea. The captain selflessly suggested that 8 men from the Third Mate’s small boat be rescued, which they were. However when the plane returned the water was too rough. Unable to speak to the plane via the emergency transmitter, it flew off, not to return.
The following day, 23rd April, the weather was blustery with a strong wind and rough seas. The line between the captain and first mate’s boat was separated by the seas. The Chief Officer tried to signal by whistle, but he men in the Captain’s boat were too busy bailing to interpret the signals. By that night the Captain’s boat was riding with a sea anchor and the boats had been separated for good. Though the other two boats had engines, they were, as mentioned, unusable due to saturation of their key parts. The Master had again selflessly taken the smallest boat and the only one left with no engine. Fortune shone on him, however.
On the 24th the weather was “fine and clear, with a fresh wind blowing enabling us to sail well”. (Id). The next day the wind abated, causing them to row. That morning, the Chief Engineer pointed out a bottle floating nearby to the captain, who wrote that “as I turned around toe took at it I saw two masts and a funnel of a ship on the horizon which appeared to be coming towards us.” (ADM 199/2140 p.217). The lifeboat crew set sail to attract attention, however the observant master of the ship, a British motor ship called variously Lobos (Uboat.net) and Globo (Master’s statements, partially illegible), had seen the broken up liferafts 20 miles from the sinking and had posted extra lookouts.
The Lobos was heading south for the Straits of Florida and took the men to Havana, Cuba. There they learned that the two other boats and their occupants had all been saved. Apparently they were “picked up within 60 miles from the coats by local Patrol Vessels. One boat was 10 days and the other 11 days adrift before being rescued.” It had been an unusual ordeal afloat for the men, who obviously kept their heads. The varied landings of the survivors – an airport, a beach, a city – demonstrate the vagaries experienced even by members of the same crew.
As we have seen in the cases of the Koll and Kollskegg, Tonsbergsfjord and Montevideo, Potlatch and Tysa, and Ocean Venus and Laertes, often men from different boats found themselves mixed in with the crews of even other ships on the high seas. These mid-ocean mixings (called the “extraordinary meetings of the stragglers club” by one wry humorist – Moore), are often a boon to the survivors but a challenge to those documenting the ultimate dispensation of the crews. In the case of all 51 of the Derryheen’s crew, all was well that ended well.