Action photo of German U-boat commander Helmut Möhlmann, commander of U-571.
U-Boats New England: Hertford
The steamship Hertford was launched in 1917 in Germany as a general cargo ship of 10,923 gross tons. Her builder was Bremer Vulkan of Vegesack and her launched name was Rheinland, however due to the exigencies of World War I she was not completed for the Hamburg-Amerika Linie (Hapag) until 1920, when she was renamed Friesland. Two years later the British claimed her as a war reparation and renamed it Hertford, putting the ship into the New Zealand and Australia trades carrying frozen carcasses.
It was in those trades on 7 December 1940 that the Hertford ran into a mine lain by a German deep-sea raider named Pinguin in Australia’s Spencer Gulf. The ship was laid up and in and out of repairs for over a year until 20 January 1942. Weeks later, in February of 1942 she loaded a full cargo of 11,000 of Australian and New Zealand produce – including sides of lamb and mutton.
The Hertford sailed from Sydney end February and Captain John (Tuckett) Collier complained that the authorities seemed unaware or new regulations for safety and provisioning of lifeboats. He therefore took the initiative to have a number of water tanks welded into the bottoms of his ship’s four lifeboats; an initiative which would help save lives.
After Sydney the Hertford topped up cargo in Wellington, New Zealand and then sailed across the Pacific for the entrance of the Panama Canal in Balboa. The left the Caribbean, or western side of the canal from Colon Panama on the 21st of March 1942. At first the voyage proceeded uneventfully, in part via the Straits of Florida and then, further north, on the 27th of March the ship was routed to seaward on instructions from Bermuda. Her final destination was the UK via convoy from Halifax.
On the 29th of March 1942 the Hertford was approximately 240 miles from Halifax and 190 miles from Capt Sable, southeast Nova Scotia. They were heading northeast at 11.5 knots. The winds were roughly 18 knots from the southeast at the time, only a slight swell prevailed, and visibility was described as “very good” by the Captain Collier. The ship was armed with a 4-inch gun, a pair of Vickers machine guns, which were manned by a British and an Australian gunner. In total there were 61 persons on board the ship. An anti-torpedo and anti-mine detection system of booms and electrically charged cabled called degaussing was turned off at the time.
Captain Collier was in the bridge at 2:40 pm local time with three lookouts and the second officer when they experienced an explosion behind and to the right of them, on the starboard side of the Number Four hatch. Although no water column was seen, there was a strong smell of cordite burning. Right away the Hertford stopped moving and began sinking on an even keel. The Number Four hold rapidly filled with seawater and the engine room was becoming inundated as well. Soon the entire aft-most deck was awash. The ship was doomed. The radio officer managed to transmit that the ship had been attacked was well as that the men were abandoning ship shortly thereafter.
Captain Collier appears to have anticipated just this set of circumstances. He threw the codes in the ocean and ordered all lifeboats readied for lowering. As the Number 3 boat was destroyed by the torpedo, that left lifeboats 1, 2, and 4, which were launched by 2:50 pm, 10 minutes after the attack began. Roughly 10 minutes later, at 3 pm, a second torpedo slammed into the middle of Hertford on the starboard side, blowing the hatches off Number Three hold and damaging the bridge wings badly. Had Captain Collier and others still been on the bridge they probably would have been killed. Hertford quickly sank after that, disappearing by 3:10 pm but in the meantime disgorging some of her cargo into the cold water.
In a dramatic twist, the submarine of an enemy submarine was seen by the mostly British crew to round the bow of the sinking ship. It was heading to the northward when roughly half a mile from them it emerged to the surface. When the U-boat approached the boats, Captain Collier want alongside the sub in his boat. A German officer asked the ship’s name and whether the Allied sailors required water or food, or medicine or medical treatment, or a course to land. Then it broke away to cruise amongst the debris for 15 or 20 minutes, probably trophy-hunting. Collier witnessed Germans picking up mutton carcasses out of the water to eat. Then the U-boat motored off – still on the service as though unafraid of reprisal – in a southwesterly direction.
Whilst alongside the sub Captain Collier noticed a net cutter as well as an emblem of a white shield and red cross on the side of the conning tower. This is similar to the symbol of a red cross on a white background with a blue rectangle which the Hertford had on its’ funnel for FedNav. Apparently on the German cross a dagger protruded into the right side of the shield. To Captain Collier the submarine looked freshly painted.
This is the emblem of Freiburg im Breisgau, a city and region in Germany founded in 1120.
The funnel emblem of the Federal Steam Navigation Company painted on the Hertford’s stack.
Collier was very specific in describing the German officer who interacted with him, describing him as a “short, stocky man aged about 36-38. He was clean shaven and was not wearing a hat, and walked with a jerky step.” Probably, if this was Möhlmann, his legs were stiff from the cramped conditions of the U-boat.
At 4:45 pm, roughly two hours following the initial torpedo, the occupants of the three lifeboats agreed to head north together. Then, an hour after that, at 5:45 an Allied flying boat circled them, indicating that they had been seen. Then two more of these waterborne airplanes appeared, one of them communicating that a ship was being vectored to the boats. The planes continued to circle them until about dusk, when the flew off advising the boats to stick together. At 10 pm that night they burned red flares repeatedly until dawn and continued northwards.
The next day, 30thMarch the boats continued together, however that night foul weather sprung up, visibility plummeted, and all three of them were separated. Captain Collier sailed onwards and in a remarkable feat of seamanship arrived at the sea buoy off Liverpool Nova Scotia on April 3rd. A local tug guided, possibly towed, them into the harbor, and the men in the boat tied up at 10:30 am, after a lifeboat voyage of just under six cold days and nights.
Only Captain Collier was able to walk out of the lifeboat – all the 18 others had such swollen feet from the cold and immersion that they had to be carried or at least assisted. The Chief Steward, 32-year-old Benjamin McMahon, was in such a bad way that he contracted pneumonia in hospital and perished. All the men suffered from exposure and the effects of swelling of the feet. The same day that Captain Collier’s boat made it ashore, the Third Officer’s lifeboat with 18 men was rescued by a ship named Fort Townsend (built 1936) and taken to Halifax. Meanwhile the Chief Officer’s boat with a total of 21 men were rescued by the British steamer Glen Strae on about the 31st of March after nearly three days.
Captain Collier spoke of manufacturing extra water tanks in his lifeboats during long months of repairs in Sydney, and how he laid on extra portions of Pemmican meat paste as well as Horlick’s milk tablets. He did not give the men their first ration of water until the day following the attack. He complained that though the boats were said to accommodate over 40 men, his was crowded with under 20.
When men crowded under the cover in the bow to escape the cold, the stern of the boat was lifted out of the water to the extent that it became difficult to steer. He felt that the boats should have had a small heating stove with which to cook a morale and healt-boosting hot drink daily. Overall while 57 men survived the sinking of the Hertford, four men, including the Chief Steward, were killed. The other three were 40-year-old C. Bick, fireman, Hugh McGinnity, 63-year-old greaser, and 22-year-old Seventh Engineer Officer Timothy Gunn Stratton.