SS Alexander Macomb sunk by U-215 East of Boston straggling from convoy BX 27 3 July 1942

U-Boats New England:
Alexander Macomb


A drawing of the wreck of
the Alexander Macomb on the seabed by salvor Roy V. Martin, from http://www.wrecksite.eu/wreck.aspx?18562.

            The Liberty Ship Alexander Macomb displaced 14,245 long
tons and weighed 7,179 gross tons. Built by Bethlehem Steel’s Fairfield
Shipyard in Baltimore for the US Maritime Commission, the ship had an average
of 40 crew and 10 to 20 gunners. She was 441.5 feet long, 56.9 feet wide and
27.8 feet deep. Her twin steam engines propelled at up to 11.5 knots for a
distance of over 20,000 nautical miles. Capable of carrying just under 11,000
long tons of cargo, the ship would have been armed with a four-inch stern deck
gun as a defense against submarines, as well as several anti-aircraft guns,
including a three-inch gun, four 20-mm and two .30-calibre guns. The ship was
named for an American general in the War of 1812.
            Alexander Macomb was launched on the 6th of May
and completed sea trials on the 2nd of June 1942. Thereafter, under
the command of Captain Carl Monsen Froisland she steamed for New York to load
cargo for its maiden laden voyage. Froisland was born in Norway and naturalized
a US citizen in San Francisco in May of 1916. That cargo consisted of urgent lend
lease supplies for the Soviet Union via Archangel: explosives, ammunition, P-38
airplanes whole and in parts, and Sherman tanks and totaled 9,000 tons. There were
also sixty sacks of ordinary US mail and 8 sacks of United-States-registered
mail for the Soviet Union aboard.
On
the way from City Island New York, which it left on the 1st of July,
to Halifax the Alexander Macomb stopped in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, then
joined convoy BX 27 of 41 ships in thick fog and headed northeast for Nova
Scotia. The convoy was zig zagging on the prescribed patterns of C 40 and S 11.
Among the vessels escorted the merchant ships were HMS Le Tigre, HMS Veteran,
and HMCS Regina, K 234, of Canada. HMS Le Tigre (or Tiger), FY 243 was a former
trawler converted to anti-submarine warfare, a thoroughbred in its hardworking
class. In March of 1942 the five-year-old vessel was loaned to the US Navy to
help defend convoys on the US eastern seaboard, where its services were sorely
needed. Aboard the Alexander Macomb were 66 men; 8 merchant officers, 33
merchant sailors, and 25 naval gunners.
On
the night of Thursday the 2nd of July 1942 between 11 pm and 5 am,
the Alexander Macomb fell behind the convoy, in part because of the fog, but
primarily because of Captain Froisland’s fear of collision. During that time
the engines were run at slow, sometimes with the steam, or propulsion
completely cut off, or the ship stopped. Worse yet, as the ship lagged and fell
out of the convoy the ship flashed lights from its bridge to warn other vessels
not to hit it, and the sailors were even told to tow a fog lamp astern of the
Liberty Ship to warn off other ships. Of course at the same time the effect would
have been to attract submarines, something for which the captain, who had
extensive experience in the Atlantic, was roundly criticized. The spar at the
masthead flew the signal 23, the ship’s convoy number.
At
6 am on the morning of Friday 3rd July Captain Froisland and his
lookouts thought that they saw the periscope of a submarine. Fifteen minutes
later they broke the seal of the emergency radio transmitter, but did not begin
using it yet. Then at 6:30 am the Alexander Macomb was trying eagerly to catch
up with the convoy when a torpedo from the German submarine U-215 under Fritz
Hoeckner hit her on the starboard quarter. Immediately the SSS or submarine
sighted on surface signal was transmitted by radio, using the KEYE letters and
with the alarm turned on. The German commander was actually on his way to mine
the entrance to Boston Harbor when he saw an opportunity he felt he could not
turn away from.
The
U-boat’s deadly missile hit the ship between the Number 4 and Number 5 cargo
holds at the stern of the ship, where it ignited the explosives and ammunition
stowed there. The area behind the bridge burst into flames and ultimately, by
the time the ship’s hull hit the seafloor, twisted off from the reset of the
ship. When it sank the Alexander Macomb went stern first. Apparently the
portion ripped off by the torpedo went down 10 minutes after impact, though
this is contradicted by the discovery of the wreck with the stern still
attached.
            The vigilant watch being kept aboard the Alexander Macomb
was no match for the fog. There were 25 naval armed guard gun crew in position,
an able bodied as well as an ordinary seaman looking out from the forecastle
head and on the bridge Captain Froisland, the first officer named Lilly,
another AB, and the naval officer in charge of the gunners. At the time of the
attack the ship was heading north-northeast at 11 knots, and the depth was
roughly 180 feet. The helmsman altered course occasionally but did not strictly
zig zag. Visibility stretched to two miles, the seas were settled, a breeze
filled in from the southeast, and in the distance half a dozen or so convoy
ships were visible less than three miles ahead.
            After impact the engines continued to run, with the
result that one of the lifeboats was swamped on launching. One reason for a 10
to 15 delay in stopping the engines has been that the first officer abandoned
ship in a boat with just five sailors in it rather than oversee the engines
stoppage. Captain Froisland disappeared for his stateroom and neither he nor
Lilly oversaw an orderly evacuation of the men under their care – some of the
gunner recruits presumably had never even been to sea. The gunners never formed
a bead on the offending submarine, and so none of the ship’s guns were ever
fired. Right away the crew and gunners rand for the boats. The ship’s codes
were sealed up in the skipper’s cabin or in the bridge and all are presumed to
have burned or gone down with the ship before submariners could get to them.  
            Many of the survivors, perhaps fearing that the
explosives-laden ship might blow up beneath them, simply jumped into the sea
and clung to wreckage. Overall three lifeboats and a life raft made it into the
sea, with one of the boats capsizing. In the next 45 minutes HMS Le Tigre and
HMS Veteran lived up to their names and counter-attacked the submarine,
destroying it on the spot with all 49 officers and men, mines and all.
            At the time of the attack and counter-attack the ships
were about 175 miles east of Cape Cod. Le Tigre rescued 31 of the men by 7:15
am the same morning. HMCS Regina managed to pull 25 other men from the cold
waters. Some of the survivors are convinced that they was U-215 “come to the
surface bottom up and sink again at 0700.” Although the officers and men on the
British and Canadian ships were convinced that they sank the U-boat, none of
them saw the sub surface bottom-up.
            By 11 am the following day HMCS Regina had landed 25 of
the survivors in Halifax. HMS Le Tigre deposited 31 including eight Navy Gun Crew
members at Woods Hole by 3:15 pm. The British commander had some choice words
to describe Captain Froisland, namely “irresponsible and unqualified,” and the
chief (or first) officer was also derided for abandoning ship before ensuring
the engines were stopped, and for leaving the men to fend for themselves.
Subsequent
US Navy interviewing officers concluded after interrogating Captain Froisland
that he was “incompetent and negligent and it was very difficult to pin him
down to details. He answered questions in a confused and contradictory manner.”
The rescuers generally felt that had the Alexander Macomb remained in the convoy
with the other ships the attack would not have taken place at all and she, her
cargo and personnel would have survived the morning.
            Chief Officer Lilly was hardly better, and his
interviewers state that he “also made a very poor impression… he was evasive
and contradictory.” In conclusion the interviewers state that “All the other 40
vessels in the convoy kept together during the night, despite the fog, and
there was no reason why subject vessel should have fallen astern.” Conditions
were after all, aside from the fog calm and virtually windless – a breeze of
some 5 knots or 1 on the Beaufort scale.
            After the war HMS Le Tigre was sold to the Hull Ice Company
in the UK, then renamed Regal, then Othello and in 1962 she was scrapped in
Ghent, Belgium. In the fall of 1964 salvors Risdon Beazley discovered the wreck
in about 180 feet of water, and although they considered it a dangerous wreck
to dive, by the following year the team from the salvage ship Droxford had
managed to retrieve the bulk of metal from the wreck.

In
2004 a team filmed by the Canadian TV program The Sea Hunters led by Mike
Fletcher managed to find the wreck of U-215, guided in part by disgruntled
fishermen tired of snaring their wrecks on the sub. The discovered that four
out of the sub’s five tubes were sealed, probably because it was a minelayer
first on that mission, and an attack sub second, and also because the Germans
didn’t have time to seal their torpedo tube before they were counter-attacked and
sunk. 

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