M.S. Opawa at dock in Oamaru, New Zealand in pre-war paint scheme. The caption, from the New Zealand National Archives, reads “In April 1939 the 10,107-ton New Zealand Shipping Company cargo liner Opawabecame the biggest ship to visit Oamaru.”
Photo Source: NZ History, http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/media/photo/opawa, part of www.nzgovt.nz – New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage.
The motor ship Opawa was built by Alexander Stephen & Sons of Linthouse, Glasgow, Scotland in 1931. The 10,107-gross-ton vessel was launched on the River Clyde on the 20th of January 1931 and delivered to the New Zealand Shipping Company Limited of London on the 25th of April of the same year. Later in her career the gross tonnage was upped to 10,354.
The yard number was 532 and her total cost was 325,000 pounds sterling. Her cargo carrying capacity was 12,815 deadweight tons and dimensions were 471 feet in length and 67.4 feet wide and 32.5 feet deep. Described as a refrigerated cargo liner the Opawa was propelled by twin nine-cylinder Sulzer diesel engines developing 9,400 bhp (2,248 net horsepower). Her twin propellers pushed the ship at 16 knots (Clydesite). The ship was fitted with two steel decks and a third deck in the forward holds. She had a cruiser stern, duct keel forward and both radio-direction-finding and depth-sounding apparatus (benjdog).
On her maiden voyage out to New Zealand the Opawa went to the aid of the ship City of Kimberly which because its propeller fell off could not move. The Opawa towed the Ellerman & Bucknall vessel between the 23rd of June and the 2nd of July all the way to Auckland. In mid-February 1936 Opawa is listed as having arrived in New Zealand from Liverpool via Cape Town to discharge general cargo in sheds. She was equipped with six sets of cargo derricks of varying sizes, enabling her to independently discharge and load a great deal of her cargo. The ship was the center-island type and was capable of carrying passengers as well. She appears to have traded mostly between the UK and Australia and New Zealand.
With the outbreak of World War II Opawa was requisitioned by the British government as part of the Liner Division, however she spent four months as a mechanical transport vessel that year before being returned to its owners. On the 14thof January 1941 while at Avonmouth port in the UK the ship was nearly hit by bombs from German aircraft (Clydesite). Her Captain at the time was H. J. Wilde and “the shell plating on her port side being holed and doors and deck fittings smashed.” (Waters, “Ordeal by Sea,” p. 79). On the 20th of February 1940 Opawa is listed under “Cargo Route Listings” as carrying 1,500,000 pounds sterling worth of gold between South Africa and Australia (Cape Town to Sydney).
On her final voyage the Opawa left Lyttelton, the port for ChristChurch, New Zealand, bound for the UK on the 6th of January, 1942. She cleared Balboa and Cristobal in Panama on the 28th of January and made her way to Halifax, where doubtless the ship was to join a convoy to England. The ship was laden with 8,575 tons of refrigerated food, 3,000 tons of lead and general cargo. This included 4,000 tons of copper and 2,000 tons of sugar loaded in Australia. In New Zealand she topped up with 262,120 lamb and mutton carcasses, 1,533 bales of wool and 300 tons of butter (Waters, Uboat.net). This was the ship’s twenty-second commercial voyage in 11 years, an average of two long trips a year.
In early 1942 the Opawa’s Master was Captain Wilfred George Evans. The Evans family was no stranger to the merchant marine, or for that matter to war. Captain Evans’ brother Captain Benjamin Evans had already been torpedoed aboard the ships Hurunui (by U-93 under Claus Korth west of Scotland on the 15thof October 1940) and the Piako (by U-107 under Gunter Hessler off West Africa on the 18th of May, 1941) (Waters and Uboat.net).
There were a total of 71 men on board the Opawa on the passage to the UK. The youngest was engine-room Greaser Neil MacKinnon, aged 17. There were six other teenagers serving on board and twenty-six others who were in their 20s. The most senior of these was 22-year-old Engineer Officer Ralph Frederick Taylor, below the Chief Engineer, Mr. S. Halls. There was also a Chief Refrigerator Engineer, James Ball on board, aged 44.
The officers and crew were mostly British, however there was one South African (John Dennis Lindholm, 19, Ordinary Seaman), an Irish Able-Bodied Seaman named Matthew Massey (26), and six New Zealanders: Assistant Steward Reginald Patrick Casey (24), Second Radio Officer George James Edwards (29), DEMS Gunner Edmund Saxelby Hartnett (26), MacKinnon the young Greaser, DEMS Gunner George Eric John Stilton, Royal New Zealand Navy (34), and Taylor the Engineer Officer. At 44 Ball was the oldest man on board.
The cavernous engine spaces of the Opawa, where two engineers were killed by U-106’s torpedo. The men were working below, which was flooded with fuel oil. The Junior Engineers working above, from the vantage where this photo was taken, managed to escape the machinery space alive.
Photo Source: http://www.benjidog.co.uk/MiscShips/Opawa.html
At dawn the fateful Friday the Opawa was 440 nautical miles east southeast of Nantucket and roughly equidistant from Bermuda to Halifax: 395 nautical miles northeast of Bermuda and 390 nautical miles south southeast of Halifax. Unbeknownst to the lookouts and gunners on board the Opawa, Rasch and U-106 had been stalking the ship for nearly four hours, or since about 2:32 am local time when she had first been spotted by the submarine’s lookouts.
At 6:10 am, just as the Opawa was turning on the port leg of a zig zag, an enormous explosion wracked the fuel tanks forward of the engine room space. This disabled the steering gear as well as the main engines, electric generators, and wireless transmitters. It also killed Chief Refrigerator Engineer Ball, the oldest of the crew, along with Thomas Frederick Appleton, 36, the Second Engineer Officer. Fortunately the junior engineers on watch (of which there were ten on the roster) were engaged on the upper platform in the engine room. Although the space was flooded with fuel oil they managed to escape top-side.
Initially the Opawa took on a treacherous list, however this corrected itself over time. Because the engines were stopped the lifeboats were able to be lowered away. U-106 had by this time submerged and ranged closer to the merchant ship, where it observed the four boats getting clear. By the time the 69 survivors made it into the boats the hatch covering the forward well-deck was immersed in the ocean. Two hours after the initial concussion Captain Evans, who managed to get away with a sextant, chronometer, and some charts, decided to attempt a return to the ship. His intention was to salvage clothing for the men (it was early February in the North Atlantic after all, and the men were in what they were wearing when they abandoned ship), as well as a Nautical Almanac and nautical tables to calculate sun sights and longitude. He also wanted to try to send a distress message.
Evans’ counterpart Hermann Rasch, however, had different ideas. At 8:17 am he surfaced U-106 and approached the Opawa with guns bristling. Captain Evans observed that “he had a four-inch gun forwards and possibley a three-inch quick-firer abaft the conning tower. He had to fire between sixty and seventy rounds into our ship before she showed any signs of sinking. The Opawa was well ablaze amidships. The U-boat then ceased fire and passed ahead of the ship as if to read her name. It then moved off in a southerly direction without trying to contact the lifeboats. Five minutes later [around 8:59 am local time] the Opawa turned slowly on to her port side and sank quietly, bows first.”
Kapitänleutnant Hermann Rasch, commander of U-106 which sank the Opawa with a torpedo and 93 rounds from the submarine’s deck guns.
Photo Source: http://www.uboat.net/men/rasch.htm
Overall U-106’s gunners had pumped a torpedo and 93 projectiles from their deck guns into the sides of the Opawa before she sank, doing her builders proud. Since Rasch left without questioning any of the survivors, the four boats assembled and Captain Evans assessed the best course of action. They decided that without much warm clothing they had better make for Bermuda to the southwest rather than risk running into the northern climes, though there would be more shipping and a greater land mass to aim for in colder waters.
Within an hour, by 9:00 am local time, they all turned for the south southwest. Captain Evan’s boat had 15 men in it and had a hand-cranked propeller for propulsion as well as sails. All the boats had food and water provisions in them, though the soaked men did not avail themselves of these until the second day. They did not lack fresh water as it rained heavily all of the first day. From the outset there were heavy seas and the first night a particularly heavy downpour of rain.
Though the wind abated somewhat there was a short choppy sea and confused swell, at times reaching 30 feet in height. This made life in the boats uncomfortable at best and at worst dangerous – fatally so for the occupants of the other three boats. It took all of Captain Evans and his men’s efforts to keep the boat afloat, including streaming a sea anchor. However this fouled the boat’s propeller and had to be cut away. A course change to the northwest and then north was forced upon them. Then came an intense electrical storm.
By daybreak of the second day (Saturday the 7th of February) the three other boats boats “were nowhere to be seen.” (Waters, p. 119) The fifty-four officers and men, including two Gunners, were never seen alive again. Presumably their boats foundered in the rough seas that night or thereafter. We will never know their exact fate.
Captain Evans and his 14 crew-mates continued to face challenge after challenge. After heading north they had to shape a course for the southeast with one reef in the sail and managed to alleviate some of the seas coming over the gunwales. By Saturday night the men were cold, tired, very wet and hungry. Evans rationed the water but was able to feed them fairly well with pemmican, chocolate, biscuits and milk tablets. When it was found that they had made no headway south and the wind veered to the southwest – the direction they were trying to go towards Bermuda – they decided to head northwest towards New York or New England.
On Sunday morning the 8th at 3:00 am the boat was scudding before gale-force winds of 40 to 50 knots and higher, making eight knots itself with a double-reefed sail. Water was spilling into the boat and so they decided to heave-to and rest. The men tried to keep the bow of the boat into the roaring seas by means of the hand-turned propeller, however it only exhausted them further. The sea anchor merely skipped over the surface and did not dig. A galvanized bucket on 50 feet of line did the trick and with the boat relatively stable in the storm some of the men managed to rest. Captain Evans commented on how their morale held up despite the hardships. He wrote “I am convinced that this bucket saved the boat and prevented its capsizing.” (Waters, p. 120).
Sunday morning the seas continued momentous – over 30 feet – but by 4:00 pm the waves had begun to die down and sails were again set to the northwards. Before sunset Evans ascertained that they had made 70 nautical miles to the north. By 2:00 pm on Monday the 9th of February the wind veered north-west and piped to over 35 knots. By now the men were ravenously hungry and thirsty as well. Since the boat had provisions for three weeks on board, Captain Evans was able to give them a pint of water a day. But despite massage oil their feet swelled at times to twice the usual size, and their hands and knees ached with pain. The men hove-to in this new gale as well.
At 4:00 pm on Tuesday the 10th of February – their fifth day adrift – they experienced downpours of rain. They had been hove-to for a day and a half, still on the bucket on a rope which held their bows to the weather. The seas built up again, and with them the swell. It was rough and uncomfortable going for all on board, but none gave up.
On Wednesday the 11th of February it was their sixth day, and since the weather had abated they were able to hand-pedal their way northwards between 4:00 am and sunrise. Then they set sail with a single reef in (a reef reduces the size of the sail and thus the force of the wind on the boat and the speed the boat makes). Because of the wind they were only able to head north-east, further out into the vast wintry North Atlantic, but closer to shipping lanes. Indeed at 4:00 pm the men espied the distant hull of a large, 10,000-ton ship, however though they lit flares the vessel must not have seen them an plodded over the horizon.
Undaunted, they saw another vessel at 7:00 pm that same evening and again they burned flares. This time the ship – a mid-size Dutch steamship of nearly 30 years’ age named Hercules – saw them and diverted course. “She put about and in a short time the fifteen survivors of the Opawa were taken on board… Owing to the risk of a U-boat attack, no time could be lost in picking up the lifeboat which was abandoned….” (Waters, p. 121).
When discovered the men in Captain Evans’ lifeboat had sailed and been pushed 135 miles north northeast of where the Opawa had been sunk. They were 285 nautical miles southeast of Halifax and 440 miles just south of east from Nantucket. They were further east and north of New York than when they had begun. But they had succeeded in crossing the shipping lanes and sighting two freighters. The little boat had averaged just under one nautical mile per hour (.83 knots) “distance made good” towards the north, not counting the time beating to the west and sailing to the southeast.
The Dutch steamer Hercules was built in 1914 and briefly (1918-1919) renamed Canton when requisitioned by the US Government. Built in the Netherlands and owned by the Royal Netherlands Steamship Company of Amsterdam, she was 2,317 gross tons. The ship’s dimensions were 339 feet long, 45.1 feet wide and 20 feet deep. She was capable of nine knots. The name of her master at the time of rescue is not known, however the ship survived the war. In 1953 it was sold to Turkey and renamed Herguler (The Ship’s List).
The fifteen survivors were very well looked after aboard the Hercules, which was bound westward across the Atlantic. Two days later, on Friday the 13th of February, eight days after they were thrown into boats by the loss of the Opawa, the men were landed in New York Harbor. The names of the 56 men who perished on board the ship (two men) and in the three lifeboats (54 men) are immortalized at the Tower Hill Memorial in London and elsewhere. It is assumed that each of their boats foundered in the overwhelming winter seas which raged unabated for nearly a week following the attack.
Captain Evans was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) on 18 August 1942 for managing to rescue his boat load of survivors. Fourth Officer Robert Campbell Downie was awarded the Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE). Peter Frank Luard, an Apprentice on the Opawa, received the British Empire Medal, having lost two of his fellow apprentices in the casualty. Two Able Seamen, John Fisher and John Levins (also spelled Levine), “were officially commended for good service” (Waters, p. 121).