In order to understand the conditions in Convoy TAW12J in which the Michael Jebsen was struck with two other ships, it would be instructive to read about the Empire Corporal (sunk) and Standella (damaged), as both of them were struck at roughly the same time by the same U-boat, U-598 under Gottfried Holtorf on the 14th of August 1942.
The 2,323-ton cargo ship Michael Jebsen sailed under the British flag, but apart from four British naval gunner who signed on as seamen, she was manned by 11 Danish officers and 32 Chinese crew. She was built by Howaldtswerke A.G. of Kiel Germany in 1927. From her construction until 1940 she was owned by Rhederi Jebsen M. A/S of Aabenraa, Denmark. Then we was taken over by the Ministry of War Transport in London. Her operators were David Alexander and Sons of Glasgow.
The Michael Jebsen’s dimensions were 85.7 meters long, 12.8 meters wide and 6.7 meters deep. Her 180 n.h.p. engines propelled her at 11 knots. She was armed with a four-inch gun and six Lewis machine guns. On her final voyage the Jebsen left Bridgetown, Barbados on the 5th of August destined for the UK via Trinidad and the convoy TAW12 which would take it from there to Guantanamo Cuba, Key West Florida and up the US and Canadian coasts to Halifax Nova Scotia, all going well.
The mixed crew of Danes, Brits and Chinese were led by Captain Rasmus Arendal Dyrhoj Nielsen, a Dane. They loaded 2,750 tons of sugar in Barbados and sailed in a convoy of 18 ships from Trinidad on the 8th of August 1942. The convoy commander, an American, was aboard the merchant ship Delmundo, which was subsequently sunk in the Windward Passage off Guantanamo Cuba, where the convoy had grown to an unmanageable 40 ships.
When the HMS Churchill under Commander P. J. Fitzgerald left the convoy to transport the Delmundo survivors to Guantanamo and the Latvian ship Everelza was also sunk, it took with it the Commodore Commander, retired US Navy Lieutenant Commander R. L. Lovejoy and did not return with him. As a result, chaos and anarchy reigned. The tankers which had joined in Curacao sailed independently under their original convoy commander, until a Norwegian ship called itself provisional convoy commander and corralled them back.
As the flock rounded Cape Maysi and headed to the south of Ragged Island, Bahamas and up the Old Bahamas Channel the American destroyers USS O’Bannon and USS Fletcher joined the group and took up flanking positions, however they did not alert the HMS Churchill of their presence. There were three submarine chasers, including SC 498 which were buzzing around, as were aircraft, which carried full navigational lights and periodically dropped flares ahead of the ships, alerting any prowling submarines to the presence of the convoy. In the words of the US Navy intelligence officer W. M. Cole who composed a report on the USS Fletcher in Guantanamo on the 14th of August,
“The composite story of the masters of both vessels [Michael Jebsen and Empire Corporal, both sunk], is one of utter confusion, lack of co-ordination, lack of command, and lack of organization. There were apparently no individual orders for each ship, no information on assembly points, no daily secret rendezvous, no one set of orders for the entire convoy after smaller groups joined it, no standard time for all ships and no designation of stations, courses of speeds. It was noted by both masters that none of the small escort vessels took command or designated one of the convoy to take command.”
With this as a backdrop we find the Jebsen steaming up the Old Bahama Channel. Just before dawn on the 14th of August she was in position 62 in the convoy and making 8.5 knots on course 290 degrees true in position 21.45N and 76.10W which is only 30 miles or less from the southern islands of the Ragged Island group in the Bahamas. There were lookouts posted, the sea was smooth with a light breeze from the northwest. Though there had been an electrical storm the night before illuminating vessels for three miles, the morning of the 14th was described as very dark.
At 06:24 local time Gottfried Holtorlf in U-598 fired two spreads of torpedoes, each spread of two torpedoes, for a total of four missiles. The impact on the Michael Jebsen, which was hit amidships on the port side, rolled over and sank in under two minutes. The other ships in the convoy, including the six escorts, did not even notice, and neither did Holtorf, who lined up a shot from his stern tubes. A torpedo from the second salvo barely missed the Empire Corporal on which the (presumably new) Convoy Commodore stood, and it hit instead the Standella, a British tanker, damaging it.
The Empire Corporal was ultimately hit by the stern torpedo. It is believed that U-598 moved down the column of ships on the port side of the convoy at periscope depth and after firing its salvoes hid under the ships themselves. Other reports by survivors have her on the surface at least part of the time. Though half a dozen or so depth charges were dropped by SC 498 the sub was never pinpointed or pinned down. One account has the sub on the surface throughout the entire engagement.
When the torpedo struck the Michael Jebsen the damage was immediate and catastrophic. The projectile penetrated the boiler room and exploded the boilers located there, killing anyone in the engine space. Steam escaped everywhere, effectively cutting off the men in the bow from those aft. The funnel collapsed to starboard, crushing the lifeboats on that side and bringing down the aerials. At first the Jebsen listed to starboard, then it swung over to port and “within a minute turned completely over and sank.”
Two rafts were freed for the 40 men in the water, and the Second Officer and five gunners managed to release the small boat located on the poop deck astern on the starboard side. Most of the survivors, especially those in the bow, simply jumped off the rapidly sinking ship and into the water. At about 8:30 am the US submarine chaser SC 498 came back to pick the men up. The Jebsen men joined the 49 survivors of the Empire Corporal, sunk the same morning in the same convoy.
At noon all 89 men were then transferred to the destroyer USS Fletcher, which along with the O’Bannon had only joined the confused convoy that very morning. Fletcher deposited the survivors in Guantanamo, presumably later that afternoon.
No trace of the seven missing men was found, and it was presumed that they were either killed whilst on duty in the engine room or drowned while trapped in their cabins or escaping from the stricken ship. The captain noted that two were engineering officers, three were engineering crew, and two were thought to have perished in their living quarters.