M/T SVENOR, Attack & Survivor’s Narrative
By Eric T. Wiberg, Esq. www.uboatsbermuda.blogspot.com, November, 2014
M/T Svenør sunk by U-105 under Heinnrich Schuch on the 27th of March 1942.
Photo source: http://minnehallen.no/skip_2/svenor-mt
The motor tanker Svenør was built by Swan Hunter and Wigham Richardson, Limited of Wallsend, Sunderland, England in 1931. She was 7,616 gross registered tons (GRT), 461 feet long, 59.4 feet wide and 34.1 feet deep. The ship was armed and a 1010 net horsepower engine propelled it at 11 knots. The hull was steel and the Swan Hunter engine was diesel.
She was owned by the Sam Ugelstads Rederi A/S of Klingenberggaten, Oslo, Norway. The ship was capable of carrying 11,410 deadweight tons of petroleum products. The owning firm only owned three ships and was engaged in tramping trades worldwide. From 1940 the Svenørwas in British Admiralty service. The ship was involved in dozens of long-haul wartime voyages, starting in the Middle East, including India, Egypt, Malta, Gibraltar, then in late summer 1941 from New York and Curacao to Halifax, the UK and Iceland. From February 1942 the Svenør was involved in shuttling cargoes between Curacao and New Orleans.
On March 17th 1942 the Svenør left Curacao for Halifax sailing independently past Bermuda. Her specific voyage charterers were the Norwegian Shipping and Trading Mission, or Nortraship. In Halifax the ship was to join Convoy HX 183 on the 2nd of April. She had a cargo of 11,400 tons of fuel oil. Her master was Captain Hans Nicolai Thormodsen, aged 66. The Chief Officer was Harald Sønneland, aged 31.
Among the crew were individuals from Malta, Sweden, Newfoundland, Brazil Canada, Belgium, England and Scotland – the others were Norwegian. The total complement was 37 souls. Radio Officer John Dinnie was 19 as was Egil Moen, Able Seaman. Erling Konrad Nilsen, aged 29 was both second officer and radio operator. Some of the men were from the Norwegian military and were there to man the large gun mounted aft and two machine guns in the bridge, however it appears the guns were not manned around the clock.
Captain Hans Nicolai Thormodsen, master of the Svenør when she was sunk north of Bermuda.
Photo source: http://minnehallen.no/personer-2/hans-nicolai-thormodsen
Harald Sønneland, chief officer of the Svenør on her final voyage. He, the captain and seven other deck officers were killed when the first torpedo ignited oil around the bridge.
Photo source: http://minnehallen.no/personer-2/harald-sonneland
U-105 under (later Fregattenkapitän) Heinrich Schuch patrolled north of Bermuda for 12 days between the 21st of March 1942 and the 1st of April. It was one of eleven subs assigned to the fourth wave of Operation Drumbeat. It left Lorient as part of the 2nd U-boat Flotilla on the 25th of February and entered the region northeast of Bermuda westbound on the 21st of March.
Fregattenkapitän Heinrich Schuch who sank the Svenør on 27th March 1942.
Photo source: http://www.uboat.net/men/commanders/1139.html
It proceeded west then southwest, performed a dog-leg and sank the British tanker Narragansett of 10,389 tons on the 25th. Late on the 26th or early on the 27th of March U-105 attacked a ship with a torpedo and heard a detonation, however no confirmed damage or sinking has been attributed to this attack and the Eastern Sea Frontier Enemy Action Diary (US) is silent as to ships reporting an attack in this location.
By the early morning of Friday the 27th of March 1942 U-105 and the Svenør were equidistant between Bermuda and Nantucket – 315 nautical miles northwest of Bermuda and 315 nautical miles south of Nantucket. The ship was motoring on a non-ziz zag course of 64 degrees north-northeast at 10 knots. It was a dark and overcast night with a light breeze of 3-4 knots and a slight chop to the sea. There were lookouts posted on both sides of the bridge wings. The ship was running blacked out, no navigation lights were burning. There was a 4.5-inch gun of foreign manufacture and a number of machine guns, but no indication that these were manned.
At 2:28 am local or ship’s time Able Seaman Wackenier Florent from Belgium was below, having just been relieved of watch. Schuch chose this time to send his first torpedo hurtling towards the ship from a submerged position. The missile struck the Svenør on the port side just forward of amidships. The effect on the bridge and the men in it was immediate and devastating: since the torpedo was set at a shallow depth it struck near the waterline and ignited and dispersed the furnace oil stored in the ruptured tanks.
As a result of the first torpedo the ship lost the bridge, which was enveloped in flames, and the men lost most of their deck officers, who would usually be the experts at leadership and boat handling when it came to abandoning ship and navigating to land. The eight killed included young Dinnie the radio officer, 46-year-old steward Alf William Johansen, 19-year-old Egil Moen, Nilsen the second officer, Sønneland the chief officer, Captain Thormodsen and 24-year-old Able Seaman Leif Marius Øien.
One of the Norwegian Navy gunners Torger Larsen Vaaga, stated that after the first torpedo, “….the smoke and flames from the fire on the bridge made it impossible to train or point the gun; that after the second torpedo hit, the stern of the ship struck up at such an angle that it prevented any firing of the gun.”
Realizing that a second torpedo was probably not far behind (it wasn’t), the 29 survivors scrambled to launch and man two lifeboats from the aft end of the ship. The word went round to abandon ship. The engineers came out of the engine room and Chief Engineer Arnold Abrahamsen shut of the deck-mounted fuel valves, effectively stopping the engines. When the port lifeboat made it to the water the Svenør was still making headway, however by the time the starboard boat was launched the ship had stopped.
The starboard boat was filled with 15 men under the command of the boatswain (bosun) Nils Cornelius Nilsen. The port boat initially had 11 men in it, but one of the boats managed to retrieve three swimming men from the ocean. One of these was ship’s carpenter Anton Jacobsen. All three men were fortuitously wearing Vaco protective suits which no doubt saved them from hypothermia.
As soon as they had abandoned U-105 fired another torpedo, this one at 2:35 am, seven minutes after the first. This had little effect, so Schuch sent a coup de grâce into the Svenør, however even this did not sink the ship.
At one point the submarine came as close at 10 to 25 yards from one of the lifeboats, allowing the survivors to see men in the conning tower, however at no point did Schuch’s attempt to interact with the mostly Norwegian sailors. Probably they could read the name on the ship without being told. The men on U-105 were never observed trying to board the ship either.
Between 5:45 am and 6:19 am U-105’s men pummeled the hull with 76 rounds of deck artillery. Survivors say there were 47 shots fired from 2,000 to 900 feet away from the ship, and that the first two missed and the balance were hits, and that the shelling lasted until 8:00 am. Svenør finally sank at 6:40 am, over four hours after the attack began. Norwegian Navy gunner Karl Fause in the other lifeboat said they did not see the submarine until 4:30 am and that it used some tracer shells, “….but apparently none were of an incendiary nature, as fired did not seem to break out as a result of the shellfire…” on the laden tanker.
The mostly Norwegian survivors had ample opportunity to observe the enemy submarine in action, and reported the details back to later interrogators in the US Office of Naval Intelligence. They described seeing a symbol on the conning tower which was either a swastika or a blue star. This was corroborated later. In fact, the symbol of U-105 is a black star with four points.
The black star emblem for U-105 which Allied and neutral witnesses described.
Photo source: http://www.uboat.net/boats/u105.htm
After sinking the SvenørSchuch took U-105 to a nearby ship which the survivors in the lifeboats had sighted from as close as 2,000 yards (they also thought they saw a ship ablaze as though it had too been attacked, however this might have been the neutral ship Cunene illuminating the Portuguese flags painted prominently on its sides, and in any event there is no record of another ship being sunk by a submarine so close to the sinking of the Svenør.)
Schuch challenged the Cunene and quickly realized it was a harmless neutral. This happened about 8:15 am, or about an hour and a half after the ship sank, though Svenør may have sunk later (the use of multiple time zones makes clarity of chronology a challenge). In any event Schuch spoke with the Cunene’s captain and advised him that there were specifically two lifeboats of survivors drifting nearby and gave tacit permission for the neutral ship to rescue them unmolested.
According to Captain Arruda, “….a submarine approached their vessel and displayed signal flags, ordering them to stop immediately. …the submarine pulled within 20 to 25 yards of their vessel and hailed them by megaphone, advising them of the approximate location of lifeboats bearing surviving crew members of torpedoed vessels, and ordering them to assist in their rescue.” So in this account the opportunity to rescue goes from suggestion to an order. Arruda complied.
The Cunene was known as the Adelaide until 1916 – she was built in 1911 in Germany and was 5,875 gross registered tons. Her dimensions were 450 feet by 58 feet wide and 25.6 feet deep and when built she could make 12 knots. Her owners were the Sociedade Geral de Comercio, Industria e Transported Limitada of rua do Comercio, Lisbon. Her master at the time was Captain Carlos Sergio Arruda.
Arruda said that because he could not discern an accent of the submarine commander and his hair was black, that he was of the opinion the commander was Italian, not German. However his crew members were more open and told the Norwegians that Schuch, “on hailing their vessel, extended his right hand in the Nazi salute, at the same time shouting ‘Heil Hitler!’” Furthermore, “some of [the] crew members advised him that thiee Captain…had a reputation of being pro-Nazi.” This would explain why he refused to tell the Americans the nationality of the submarine.
The Portuguese steam ship Cunene, ex-Adelaide, built 1911 as seen on a Maldivian postage stamp.
Photo source: http://www.seemotive.de/html/frachter.htm
At 8:45 am the Cunene picked up the men in the first lifeboat, and at 9:25 those on the second. They had been in the lifeboats for seven and a half hours. The ship was carrying cork from Lisbon to Philadelphia. The survivors and their Portuguese rescuers arrived in that port on Tuesday March 31st. On arrival a boarding party from the US government’s Commerce and Travel Section went aboard to interview Captain Arruda.
The Fourth Naval District District Intelligence Office on Walnut Street wasted no time preparing their report, which was published the same day. The US Immigration and Naturalization Station in Gloucester, New Jersey, across the river from Philadelphia, interviewed Chief Engineer Arnold Abrahamsen, a gunner from the Norwegian Navy named Karl O. A. K. Fause, another gunner named Torger Larsen Vaaga as well as Second Engineer Nils Berg as well as bosun Nilson, A.B. Wackenier, and Third Engineer Johan W. Jensen.
There are some unknown aspects to the Svenør casualty – what caused a secondary explosion after the first torpedo? The war diary or submarine KTB indicate that seven minutes elapsed between missiles, but witnesses report an immediate second explosion. There were reports of a ship ablaze less than a mile away shortly after the attack began, however that ship, if it existed, has never been identified. Also reports of signals being flashed between the submarine and other vessels were seen but cannot be verified.
Finally the fate of the ship’s confidential papers and codes are not known with certainty, though it appears inevitable that they were destroyed along with the eight officers and men in the inferno which the bridge became. There was never an opportunity for the radio operator to send an SSS or SOS message, nor any opportunity for the men to man their defensive armament.
U-105 then headed east until the first of April, exiting just north of where it had entered the area. It returned to Lorient on the 15th of April. Schuch was born in 1906 and a member of the Crew of 1925, making him 35 years of age at the time. From 1938 to September 1939 he commanded U-37 without sinking enemy ships. His other command aside from U-105 was U-154. He moved ashore in 1945 a Head of the Weapons Division until the surrender. Overall he was responsible for sinking seven ships of 39,187 tons, three of them from U-154. Schuch received no decorations. He died in 1968 at the age of 61.
There was an interesting postscript to the loss of the Svenor. Apparently the Cunene did not bother to destroy the lifeboats once they were emptied of men – something which military vessels were in the practice of doing. At 4:45 pm the US Navy USS Stringham (APD6) found one of the Svenør lifeboats 165 nautical miles southwest of where it had been abandoned and 180 nautical miles east of Cape Hatteras. Since there were no occupants the commander of the US ship decided to destroy it with 20 millimeter cannons, which sank it.
Fold3.com – for the war diaries and deck logs and Eastern Sea Frontier and NOB Bermuda
Holm Lawson, Dame Sir, warsailors.com for a detailed analysis of Svenor and other Nortraships
Jordan, Roger, The World’s Merchants Fleets 1939, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1999
Mason, Jerry, www.uboatarchive.net
Mozolak, John, “New York Ships to Foreign Ports, 1939 – 1945,” http://janda.org/ships/
Newspaperarchive.com for the articles from the Associated Press
Uboat.net for much of the information, including photos of U-boat Commander and its victim, http://www.uboat.net/men
Wrecksite.eu for specifications and history
Wynn, Kenneth, U-boat Operations of the Second World War, Volume 1 and Volume 2, 1997