M/T MONTROLITE, Attack & Survivor Narrative
By Eric T. Wiberg, Esq. www.uboatsbermuda.blogspot.com, September, 2014
Motor tanker Montrolite at anchor. The first torpedo from U-109 struck just forward of the bridge where Jim Boutilier was steering the ship.
Photo Source: Glenbow Museum Archives Photograph #IP-2d-57, http://www.uboat.net/allies/merchants/ships/1316.html
The motor tanker Montrolite was built completed in February 1926 by the Friedrich Krupp Germaniawerft AG shipyard in Kiel, Germany. A large tanker of 11,309 gross registered tons, the ship was 511 feet long, 68.2 feet wide, and 38.1 feet deep. Twin diesel engines turned two propellers with 905 net horsepower, giving Montrolite a turn of speed of 10.5 knots when built. The vessel was built for, and only ever owned by the Imperial Oil Shipping Company Limited of Toronto Canada. This used to be a subsidiary of the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey.
Montrolite was named for Montreal, just as her sister ships were named for Canadian locales (Canadalite, Ontariolite, Vancolite, Trontolite, Victolite, etc.). In Canada there was considerable pride in this large and highly modern fleet of efficient vessels, as evidenced by the headline “Largest and Finest Oil Tankers Sail Under Canadian Ensign,” in the Brandon Daily Sun, September 21st, 1928. In the article the Montrolite is listed as being capable of carrying 15,600 tons of petroleum. She participated in Convoy HX 12 leaving Halifax on December 12th1939 for Liverpool.
On Christmas Eve 1934 the Montrolite is reported having loaded at the Gulf Refining Company in Port Arthur Texas and having sailed at noon for Le Havre, France, according to the “Port Arthur News” of that date. The Kingston, Jamaica “Daily Gleaner” of September 11, 1936 reported that the Montrolite was within radio range of Kingston on that day, most likely hauling Venezuelan crude oil from the Dutch West Indies (Aruba or Curacao) to the east coast of Canada.
During World War II the ship arrived in New York Harbor on 30 December 1940 and again on March 28th and October 9th 1941. Presumably most of its voyages were from the Caribbean to Halifax and via convoy over to the UK. On March 3rd1940 she sailed from Liverpool then Southampton for Gibraltar, arriving March 11th. Her final destination was Tripoli, Libya.
In late January 1942 the Montrolite loaded a cargo of light diesel crude from Venezuela to her effective base of Halifax (the ship was registered to Toronto). It would appear that the tanker stopped in Trinidad to top up on bunkers. There the local NCSO (Naval Control of Shipping Organization) officer provided a course that would take the ship well east of the U-boat carnage effecting the Cape Hatteras region as Operation Drumbeat experienced its later waves of attackers.
In command was Captain John White, aged 40 and born in Scotland. The Chief Engineer was John Lundy, aged 43, born in Belfast, Northern Ireland (McKee). There were at least two teenagers on board: Jim Boutilier was 17 and served as quartermaster, or helmsman – he had been going to sea on tankers in World War II since the age of 15. Robert S. Kincaid, an Ordinary Seaman, was 18 years of age.
There were eleven young men in their twenties, the youngest of whom were 21-year-old Fourth Officers Gaston J. Lachance, Mess Room Boy James Edward Thompson, aged 21, Messman James Benedict Clannon, 20, and Junior Engineer Officer Albert Joseph Aubie, aged 20. Altogether there were 48 souls aboard the Montrolite on her final voyage, of whom four were armed guards operating the ship’s guns. One of the DEMS (Defensively Armed Merchant Ship) gunners was named Axel W. Hukkanen, RCNVR (Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve).
Crew (possibly officers) of Montrolite with a guest named Rosaire Arcand, from the name on the back of the photo. The name “MON” from “Montrolite” is clear on the bow of the ship. The Caption from Auke Visser’s tanker site is “’Montrolite (2)’ tied up.” It does not say when the photo was taken, but presumably in the late 1930’s or early 1940’s.
Photo Source: http://www.aukevisser.nl/others/id1051.htm
Just after noon on Wednesday the 4thof February 1942 the Montrolite was having a heavy time of it in rough seas. The ship was roughly 285 nautical miles northeast of Bermuda, and 585 nautical miles southeast of Halifax, its destination. Nantucket was 600 nautical miles to the northwest. In the words of helmsman Jim Boutilier, seventeen years old at the time, “It was raining and sort of rough and we weren’t expecting anything that night, but things happen when you least expect it (Parker, pp.82-83). “I was at the wheel at the time, steering the ship.”
What youg Boutilier didn’t realize is that by 6:45 pm the German U-boat under Korvettenkapitän Heinrich Bleichrodt had been stalking the ship for over four hours – trying, in the poor visibility and rough seas, to line up a torpedo shot. Here are Bleichrodt’s own words about what transpired that afternoon, from his war diary, or KTB (Krieg’s Tag Buch) – all times are converted seven hours from German to Eastern Standard Time:
2:21 pm, 4th February (EST): Sighted mast tips to starboard ahead. Informed U-130 [under Ernst Kals nearby] and asked him to wait for me. Headed towards the steamer. It gets closer fast. It’s a tanker with two high masts in the first third. Turned on parallel course and overtake him. Tanker is steering a base course of 320-330° against the seas. I get ahead well against the heavy seas with both engines at LF x 10. Boat is taking much water over the conning tower. Bridge watch has to be strapped down.
5 pm: At dusk I am well ahead of the tanker. Turn to 170° towards him so as not to lose him.
5:15 – 5:50 pm: Steamer moves out of sight in a heavy rain squall. Turn to 280° to pass his course.
6:00 pm: Sighted tanker again on port side abeam. It is a very dark night and the visibility bad due to the rain showers. I position myself directly ahead of the tanker at low speed and let him come closer, so that I can turn away for a stern attack. Tanker is slowly coming closer.
6:37 pm: Turn to starboard for a torpedo spread from the stern tubes.
6:42 pm: Fired torpedo from tube V, after 15 seconds fired torpedo from tube VI: The torpedoes are running across the seas and are thus less influenced by depth changes within the high waves. Hit aft after 90 seconds, between the mast aft and funnel. A high darting flame and thick black detonation cloud. Now the crew gets active on deck, boats were lowered. The tanker turns to port and remains afloat. The second torpedo missed. Tanker sends SSS and position on the 600 meter frequency. It is the British tanker MONTROLITE (11,309 GRT). Tanker is now drifting in the seas. It seems that some boats are returning to the torpedoed ship. I decided to fire a coup de grace because the steamer is not settling.
7:25 pm: Approached for a single torpedo shot from tube I
7:34 pm Hit after 110 seconds. High, lasting darting flame, black cloud of smoke. Torpedo also hit between mast aft and funnel, but this time on the port side. Initially the tanker settled slowly, then more over the stern. The bow rises steeply and is gone after about 5 minutes.
7:40 pm: Turned towards the rendezvous point with U-130. [Ernst Kals, from whom Bleichrodt needed fuel for the return voyage to Europe].”
The Radio Operator’s SSS, meaning attacked by submarine, message, was received and logged in the Enemy Action Diary of the Eastern Sea Frontier at 6:47 pm: “S.S. MONTROLITE SSS at 2347 GCT in 35-14N, 60-05W.” This message was received in Tuckerton wireless radio station (ironically a tower originally built to facilitate traffic by German Zeppelins), in the central coast of New Jersey. They relayed it to the headquarters of the US naval defense establishment in New York. The British Admiralty duly received the information as well.
Detail of U-106 showing the dual swordfish emblems.
Photo Source: http://www.u-historia.com/uhistoria/historia/huboots/u100-u199/u0106/u106.htm
Korvettenkapitän Heinrich Bleichrodt, commander of U-109 which sank the Montrolite.
Photo Source: http://www.uboat.net/men/bleichrodt.htm
In his oral history Boutilier relates to Mike Parker how “a bit of hell broke loose, I can tell you that. I never saw a flash or experienced anything like it since. …The torpedo hit right about midships., between the midships and the pump room and tore one awful gash into her. …It was sort of a blinding flash.” Boutilier was thrown into the flag locker and knocked out. By the time he made it onto the boat deck a boat had been launched and was gone. Another boat was fortuitously pushed back along the side of the ship by following wind and seas, and Boutilier jumped into the water by the bows and was pulled into that boat.
Boutilier relates how “About fifteen to twenty minutes later, they hit her on the other side with another torpedo, but we were all clear of it by then. It hit we figure between the fuel tanks and cargo tanks. You take, with diesel oil mixing with the Venezuelan crude – it was a good grade of light crude – boy she just went, everything went. She caught fire and all you could see was the flames and the smoke, The first thing, she was gone.”
Three boats got away, and there were a total of 20 men in Boutilier’s boat. He heard that only three men occupied the mid-ships boat, indicating that there were 25 men – overcrowding conditions – in the third boat, and under-manning conditions in the other one. This did not bode well for the odds of survival of the men in those boats. Jumping ahead of himself Boutilier notes that “All the officers were lost; the fourth engineer and the electrician were the only two [saved]. We don’t know what happened to the other two [lifeboats].” Along with the fourth engineer and electrician were three navy gunners, making up a quarter of the occupants of the surviving lifeboat. Without a senior deck officer it would seem that chances for this boat, too, were slim.
What followed for Boutilier and the 19 other men was a “nightmare” of a small-boat voyage lasting three days. He estimates they were near the northern edge of the Gulf Stream and were pushed north in a continuous gale, meaning the waters were cold, the wind was cold, and there was even February sleet. They managed to hold the bow to the wind and seas by tying a sail and dumping it over the bow on a line. Other times they had to take to the oars to keep the boat steady. They bailed continuously with a pair of buckets and whatever they found at hand. Of course the men became exhausted to the core. They even tried to keep the water out by pulling the sail from the sea anchor aboard and lashing it around the boat. It didn’t work.
By pure luck the men were sighted on Saturday the 7th of February by “an old British merchantman who got astray from a convoy” named the Winkleigh. Boutilier says that “It was really rough, around noon, and the ship’s carpenter happened to be out on deck up around the midships and he reported to the bridge that he was something over there. They couldn’t see us from the bridge. He reported it tow or three times – ‘There it is again’ – and pointed it out. First thing, Gog, we were here and they were right abeam of us, pretty near going by. He altered the course about ninety degrees and came towards us. That was a sight. They put a scramble net over and we had enough energy to get up it. We were getting pretty weak, I’ll tell you, but managed to get enough reserve strength for that.”
The British steam ship Winkleigh, about which blogger Benjidog writes: “She was a 5,468 GRT steam cargo ship that was completed in 1940 for W. J. Tatem Ltd. She was renamed to St. Anthony in 1960 on transfer to Saint Anthony Sg Co Ltd and broken up in 1966.”
Photo Source: The Allen Collection, http://www.benjidog.co.uk/allen/Images/Images%20T/TATEM014.jpg
The Winkleigh was a 5,468-ton steam ship built in 1940 for W. J. Tatem Limited in the UK. Her men, Boutilier says, “were good to us, we shared bunks with them and they fed us good. Course, we had no clothing or anything either; all I had was a pair of denims and a singlet comin’ in here [Halifax] in February. One of them gave me a jacket and something else.” The men were landed in Halifax on Tuesday the 10thof February, 1942.
As for the 28 missing officers and crew, Boutilier says “Course, when we landed here [Halifax] there was a lot of their relatives and next of kin and they started inquirin’ about the others. Well, you don’t just tell somebody it was a miracle that we were picked up and they may never be found. So there was different stories circulated, said they think they were picked up and headed for another port and all this and that stuff.”
Exterior of the Allied Merchant Seaman’s Club, 40-43 Hollis Street, dated 1942 (the men lounging on the front steps might be Montrolite survivors, however this does not appear to be taken in February).
Photo Source: Nova Scotia Archives, “’An East Coast Port’: Halifax in Wartime, 1939-1945”
Boutilier was injured with bruised ribs and bruises on the side of his head from being thrown across the bridge, but he stayed mum about it in order to ship out on another tanker. Though he was entitled to paid leave for three months, the pay was better going back to sea, and he followed the pay there. Some of the 20 men rescued that didn’t have family in Halifax stayed at the Seamen’s Club on Hollis Street in that city, however Boutilier went to stay with his people there. His was bonus did not apply while he was in the lifeboat.
Interior view of the Allied Merchant Seaman’s Club on Hollis Street, Halifax where some of the Montrolite survivors were put up until they could be repatriated or find another ship to serve on.
Photo Source: http://www.hmsfiredrake.co.uk/firedrake19.htm
In 1993 the Montrolite was cited as the first Canadian tanker sunk in the Western Hemisphere in an essay (“’We’ll Get Our Own’: Canada and the Oil Shipping Crisis of 1942”) by historian and archivist Robert C. Fisher. On 11th March 1999 Canadian Parliamentarian Peter Goldring listed the Montrolite amongst Canadian ships lost in World War II in an effort to obtain veteran’s rights for Canada’s merchant mariners. He referred to “Canada’s unknown navy, the navy shamefully not found in many of our school’s history text books, that navy Canada’s young don’t know about. Canada’s merchant navy of World War II developed into a force of 12,000 men and women who collectively sailed 25,000 merchant ship voyages.”
The 28 Montrolite men who died cold and lonely deaths on the open Atlantic north and east of Bermuda on the 4thand 5th of February are still remembered today.
Åkerberg, Dani Janer, for information and photos of U-109: http://www.u-historia.com/uhistoria/historia/huboots/u100-u199/u0109/u109.htm
“Brandon Daily Sun,” “Largest and Finest Oil Tankers Sail Under Canadian Ensign,” September 21st, 1928
Constant, Alan R., Sinking of the Montrolite An Internet Odyssey of Discovery Uncovering the Story of a Fateful Night in 1942,” Tobermory, ONT, Canada, 2002
Darlington, Robert and McKee, Fraser, “The Canadian Naval Chronicle,” Vanwell Publishing Ltd., St. Catharine’s ONT, Canada, 1996
Fisher, Robert C., “We’ll Get Our Own: Canada and the Oil Shipping Crisis of 1942,” The Northern Mariner/Le Marin du nord, III, No. 2 (April 1993), pp. 33-39
Fold3.com – for the war diaries and deck logs concerning Montrolite from US and UK navies
Hadley, Michael L., “U-Boats Against Canada: German Submarines in Canadian Waters,” McGill Queen’s University Press, Montreal, QC, Canada, 1985
Holm Lawson, Dame Siri, http://www.warsailors.com/convoys/hx12.html for Montrolite convoys
Holdaway, Mike, and Hague, Arnold, for details of convoys Montrolite sailed in http://www.convoyweb.org.uk/ob/index.html?ob103.htm~obmain
Jordan, Roger, The World’s Merchants Fleets 1939, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1999
Mason, Jerry, www.uboatarchive.net and http://uboatarchive.net/KTB654-3.htm
McKee, Fraser M., ‘Sink All The Shipping There, The Wartime Loss of Canada’s Merchant Ships and Fishing Schooners,” Vanwell Publishing Ltd., St. Catharine’s ONT, Canada, 2004
Mozolak, John, “New York Ships to Foreign Port, 1939 – 1945,” http://janda.org/ships/
Parker, Mike, “Running the Gauntlet: An Oral History of Canadian merchant Seamen in World War II,” Nimbus Publishing Ltd., Halifax, NS, Canada, 1994, “Jim Boutlilier” chapter, pages 81-84
Parliament of Canada, Edited Hansard No. 194, Thursday March 11, 1999, Mr. Peter Goldring (Edmonton East, Ref.), pp. 13-14, from 36th Parliament, 1st Session
Uboat.net for much of the information, including photos of U-boat Commander and its victim, http://www.uboat.net/men
Visser, Auke, www.aukevisser.nl for the history of the building of Montrolite plus photo of ship.
Wrecksite.eu for specifications and history of Montrolite: http://www.wrecksite.eu
Wynn, Kenneth, U-boat Operations of the Second World War, Volume 1 and Volume 2, 1997