M/T Finnanger lost to U-158/Rostin with all 39 hands on March 1st 1942 between Bermuda and Canada

MT FINNANGER, Attack & Survivor’s Narrative

 by Eric T. Wiberg, www.uboatsbermuda.com, July, 2014


M/T Finnanger, from the Steamship Historical Society of America (www.sshsa.org)
The Norwegian motor tanker Finnanger was built in 1928 by the Nederlandsche Scheepsbouw Mij NV in Amsterdam, Netherlands as yard number 191. She was 9,551 gross tons, with a carrying capacity of 14,530 deadweight tons of petroleum. The ship was 473.6’ long overall, 64.3’ wide and 36/6’ deep. Her twin 4,000 horsepower Werkspoor engines propelled her at 10.5 knots. Finnanger was home-ported to Bergen Norway, where her owners were the Westfal-Larsen & Company A/S.

The Finnanger had an exotic early career. In October of the year she was launched (1928) whe was carrying “Soviet oil from Batoum” and “grounded in the river at Fult-a-Point” on the Hooghly River in Calcutta, where Captain Ellertsen was forced to jetison 3,000 tons of oil valued at $200,000 in order to refloat. The oil was eagerly taken up by locals in all manner of craft, some even dabbing it up with rags and wringing it into pails. In June of 1936 Finnanger was involved in the salvage of cargo from the grounded 9,600-ton tanker Magnolia, which went ashore off Moppo, Korea. At that time the Finnanger was described as American flagged, perhaps because she hauled oil to and from San Pedro (Oakland area) California.

Starting in 1940 the ship was involved in multiple convoys – over fifteen. In July 1941 she joined Convoy BHX 59 from Bermuda to join HX 59 off Halifax. She returned to Bermuda in February 1941 and again in March of that year. From 1941 the Finnanger was in Admiralty service as part of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. For the next year the ship shuttled petroleum between the Caribbean, New York, Halifax and Liverpool.

On the 14th of February 1942 the Finnanger sailed from the Clyde River estuary off Glasgow on a voyage from Greenock Scotland to Curacao via Halifax. Initially she joined the ill-fated Convoy ONS 67 which lost many ships, however she straggled behind and missed much of the onslaught in mid-Atlantic which culminated on the 24thof February. A week or so later found the ship 480 nautical miles northeast of Bermuda and 550 miles east-southeast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The ship was maintaining a course of 215 degrees south-southwest for Curacao, having evidently decided against calling at Halifax at all.

On board the Finnanger were 39 men under Captain Bernt Anton Thorbjørnsen, 52 years of age of Baerum, Norway, who was supported by First Mate Ingjald Harletvedt. The Radio Operator was Edvin Kristoffersen. Out of the men in the crew all were Norwegian except for Canadian Oiler James Clifford, Galley Boy Bernard Stephens, Saloon Boy Francis Sheridan and Chief Lewis Gunner Color Sargent William Thomas Whitmore, all of whom were British.

The afternoon of Monday 28thFebruary 1942 was a choppy night aboard the Finnanger. There was a wind blowing of over 30 knots, and seas were over five feet in height. A full moon provided preying submarines with clear visibility – ten miles – with which to attack. One of those submarines was U-158 under Kapitänleutnant Erwin Rostin, aged 34.

Erwin Rostin

Photo source: http://uboat.net/men/rostin.htm

The submarine and its crew of over 50 men had been at sea over three weeks, since leaving Helgoland in Germany on 7 February. In that time, despite tracking at least one convoy, they had sunk the British tanker Empire Celt and damaged another British tanker, the Diloma, both on the 24th of February in the aforementioned attack on Convoy ONS 67 from which the Finnanger had fallen behind. Now the men, under the aggressive commander Rostin, were hungry for more action, despite the sea state.

At 9:00 pm German time (roughly 3 pm local time) on the 28th of February Rostin recorded in his war diary “two masts in sight” roughly 8 nautical miles away. He describes Finnanger as a tanker of 8,000 tons, which is not far off her 9,551 tonnage. Rostin decided against attacking during the day time because of the rough sea conditions, instead opting to stalk the ship into the night. At 2.34 am German time Sunday 1st March Rostin lined up his shots from forward tubes 3 and 4. Both shots missed and ended up in the wake of the tanker, which was making 9 knots on a course of 220 degrees.

After over five hours of continuing to hound the unsuspecting Norwegian merchant, Rostin maneuvered ahead of the ship with the intention of attacking at the setting of the moon. By 10:06 am he lined up a shot from the U-boat’s stern tubes, however the Finnanger made a sudden zig zag, possibly inspired by a lookout spotting the submarine. As the ship continued frantic zig zagging, Rostin records laconically that he “Must assume that despite my utmost caution he has seen me.”

Finally Rostin put U-158 roughly 1,000 meters, or a kilometer ahead of the Finnanger and waited for the ship to pass in front of tubes 5 and 6, which were fired at 11:53 am (about 6 am). In less than a minute two explosions shattered the morning weather. Finnanger was struck beneath the forward mast and also at the forward edge of the bridge, from where Captain Thorbjørnsen controlled the vessel. The men on board fired light rockets in order to illuminate the submarine. Presumably they were preparing to fire defensive weapons into the submarine.

Rostin reacted with alacrity, ordering artillery stations and opening up with all weapons on the submarine’s deck arsenal from less than a kilometer away. By 12:15 pm the second shot fired by the 10.5-centimeter cannon struck the after part of the Finnanger, starting a fire. The ship was returning fire, forcing U-158 to back off to 4 kilometers away. Rostin then fires from the same large-caliber gun and is satisfied that despite the heavy sea, the “shots lie well in the after ship and the bridge….” The fire on the stern of Finnanger has now grown and burns heavily.

Rostin witnesses the Finnanger officers and crew taking to the boats. Then without the fear of counter attack the U-boat approaches the ship to within 400 meters to deliver coups-de-grace. Rostin notes that the tanker was fitted with both a medium and a light cannon, as well as “depth charges and bow defenses.” U-158’s men pump shells from the 3.7-centimeter cannon into the waterline of the Finnanger and though they “ventilated” the stern the ship sank “very slowly.” Ultimately the Finnanger capsized and sank at 16:17 Germa time, roughly 19 hours after Rostin had first sighted her.

It would appear that Radio Operator Edvin Kristoffersen was unable to get off an effective SSS or SOS message, as Rostin notes “Radio message was not determined.” Had it been, the Enemy Action Diary and Admiralty records would have recorded it, and Rostin himself would have noted the ship’s name. Rostin continued the patrol, attacking four more ships (Caribsea, John D. Gill, Olean, and Ario) before returning to Europe at Lorient on the 31st of March after 53 days. He would be sunk along with U-158 and all hands off Bermuda on the 30th of June that year.

Sadly lost with all hands would be the fate of the Finnanger. None of the 39 men survived their time in the wintry and rough North Atlantic. Young Pearl Whitmore was just 15 years old when, on the 24th of February her family were (prematurely, it turned out, as the ship was presumed lost in the convoy action of that date) informed that her father, Color Sargent William Thomas Whitmore, was lost. She writes that she was “sad, as it has always felt to me, that he went away and left us never to return.”



Blair, Clay, Hitler’s U-Boat War, Volume I: The Hunters, 1939 – 1942

Busch, R. and H.-J. Röll, German U-boat Commanders of World War II, 1988


www.fold3.comBritish Admiralty records as well as Eastern Sea Frontier Enemy Action Diary

El Paso, Texas Herald, Nov. 1, 1928 – for the story of the Finnanger grounding and jetison

El Paso, Texas, Herald, June 20 1936 – for the salvage of cargo from the Magnolia

Hague, Arnold, convoy database maintained by Tony Cooper, http://www.convoyweb.org.uk/hague/index.html

Helgason, Gudmundur, Rainer Kolbicz, www.uboat.net, 2014

Holm Lawson, Siri, Warsailors.com detailed entry for Finnanger (9 pages): http://warsailors.com/singleships/finnanger.html

Mason, Jerry, UboatArchive.net for KTB of U-158: http://uboatarchive.net/KTB158-1.htm

Mason, Jerry, UboatArchive.net for Enemy Action Diary, http://uboatarchive.net/ESFWarDiaryApr42APP7.htm

San Antonio, Texas, Light, June 29, 1936 – for details of the salvage of Magnolia by Finnanger

Whitmore, Pearl, internet posting re her father’s death: http://warsailors.com/gb4.html#whitmore

Wrecksite.eu, Finnanger entry http://www.wrecksite.eu/wreck.aspx?135696

Wynn, Kenneth U-boat Operations of the Second World War, Volume 1 and Volume 2, 1997