SS Margot, sunk by U-588/Vogel, men given uncorked rum bottles on a string, rescued

U-Boats New England: Margot


SS Margot.

Source: The Allen Collection, c/o http://www.uboat.net/allies/merchants/ships/1697.html

The British steam ship Margot of 4,545 gross registered tons was built by Lithgows, Limited of Glasgow in December, 1926. Her owners in 1942 were Kaye, Son and Company Ltd. of London. During World War II she only sailed from New York Harbor once, on the 21st of May, 1942. Her cargo was 5,500 tons of airplane parts, tanks, explosives, and other military stores intended to support the Allied push against Rommel in North Africa and her charterers were Elliman Bucknell, whose agents were a firm named French Edy. The shipowner’s agents in New York were Furness Withy. Her initial voyage was to Trinidad to refuel, then Cape Town and Suez via the Red Sea. She was only fated to make it a day from her point of departure.

On the final voyage Margot’s Master was Henry Bell Collins, aged 36. Duncan Stuart Miller, aged 21 was radio operator and one of the firemen was Mohamed Aham Hassan, aged 20 – all British citizens. There were 39 men on board, seven of them from the subcontinent. At 3:30 pm local time on May 22nd Margot was several hundred miles southeast of Nantucket when she was struck by a torpedo from U-588 under Victor Vogel. The ship’s defensive armament, including a 4-inch gun, Twin Marlin, Hotchkiss and Lewis machine guns, a 12-pounder gun, Oerlikon, and PAC rockets and kites, as well as two military and three Royal Navy gunners on board to man them, were never used against U-588. Captain Collins sailed per British routing instructions. He was given no forewarning of enemy submarines in the area.

At the time, Captain Collins and his men had the ship going 9.75 knots on a course of 114 degrees or southeast. They were not zig zagging and four lookouts scanned the horizon: two aft, one on either side of the monkey deck above the bridge. Though all of them were equipped with strong binoculars, none of them sighted the torpedo streaking towards them until it was too late. That could be due to a considerable swell and a roughly 15-knot easterly breeze, however visibility is described as “excellent.” Degaussing – a form of torpedo detection utilizing live wires on the hull – was active at the time but ineffective.

Vogel’s torpedo slammed into the coal stokehold on the starboard side, causing a dull explosion and a smell of burning cordite fuses. Fireman and trimmer Hassan was killed on impact. The accommodations cabins on the starboard side were flooded by a high geyser of water. The impact caused the ship’s exhaust funnel to crash down, bringing with it the aerials, so no distress message, either SOS or SSS, could be sent. Despite all this, the actual detonation caused just a dull thud, with some of the men not even realizing right away that the ship had been torpedoed. Even though the men closed the watertight doors between the holds, or partitions of the ship, as a precaution before the attack, both the engine room and stoke hold quickly flooded with seawater, and the engines died. Margot was dead in the water, a sitting duck of a target for U-588’s gunners.

The merchant ship was equipped with a pair of small jolly boats for harbor work as well as two larger lifeboats, the starboard of which was destroyed by the torpedo attack. Collins threw the confidential codes and wireless books into the sea in a weighted, perforated box. Three of the men were injured and one missing. Ten minutes after the attack the three remaining boats were ordered to be lowered and the ship abandoned. Then at 3:40 pm U-588 surfaced about half a mile off the port side and hastened the abandonment by firing six or so machine gun rounds. Since the ship was rapidly swinging around, the machine gun volleys mostly landed off the starboard side “as a warning to us,” in the words of Captain Collins.

Soon the crippled ship had pivoted to port so that the starboard side was exposed to the sub. Just as the abandonment was completely effectuated, U-588 began shelling the Margot. It was roughly 3:45 at the time and Collins finally had the 38 survivors distributed in three boats and clear of the ship. Collins counted 20 explosive shell shots pumped into the Margot. Only nine, or less than 50% of these were observed to have hit the hull, however these had the effect of collapsing the bridge and setting the ship ablaze from stem to stern, with ammunition exploding.

Vogel first brought his submarine to Second Officer J. Robinson’s boat and asked standard questions about cargo and destination. Eight German sailors were observed in the conning tower and manning 50-caliber-looking machine guns. Two officers, one about 29 dark complexioned and clean shaven, and the other with a naval insignia on the chest of his uniform, a dark mustache and goatee, who was described as Latin, did not speak, but stood on deck with his arms folded across his chest. Vogel apparently remained on the conning tower, as when the talkative clean-shaven officer gave the Brits the commander’s name he pointed at the conning tower. After questioning the second mate the officer offered them a bottle of rum. However this bottle was not easy to transfer, as a wash of waves around the sub made it dangerous to approach in a frail life boat. Muller then tied a line around the neck of the bottle and tossed the line to men in the boat, who untied it and returned the line.

Next they motored over to Captain Collins’ boat. Vogel was described as “a dark man with a black beard, slim and about 5 ft. 10 in. in height.” Vogel did not address the Allies directly, rather he deferred that errand to his lieutenant, named Muller, who asked Collins lots of questions about his family, why he went to see, and demonstrated Vogel’s name by flapping his arms to imitate a bird, for which Vogel stands in English. The Germans were given South Africa as a destination, which was only partly true.

Captain Collins was also offered and accepted a bottle of rum, a sample of which he saved for naval officials to analyze. The German officer ordered a sailor below to retrieve the second bottle. Since they didn’t have an opener in the jolly boat, Collins asked Muller to pull to cork for him, to which the German replied, “Oh yes, excuse me. This will do you for Saturday afternoon.” Collins could not resist asking him “Well, why the hell did you sink me on a Saturday?” to which Muller retorted “Oh well, the fortunes of war.” Collins feels he would have been offered cigarettes except his personal packet was visible to Muller at the time, so they were not offered. After the rum had been opened Muller re-corked it lightly and threw it across the water to Collins, who caught it.

Muller (or Mueller – his name has not been corroborated with available crew lists for U-588 at the time), refused a tow towards land, saying the U-boat was “too busy and in a hurry,” however he promised to send an SOS on behalf of the men of the Margot. Collins then wagered that he wouldn’t, and Muller didn’t. Collins observed an emblem of a pair of white roosters “with heads erect, wings furled, facing each other,” sparring off painted on the conning tower, which aligns with U-588’s emblem.

The conversations having played themselves out, Muller wished the Brits good luck and motored over to the burning hulk of the Margot, into which they poured a further 24 shells into the bow section of the ship whilst circling it, from a distance of roughly two ship’s lengths. The stricken vessel finally was seen to sink at 6 pm the same afternoon which the attack began. Roughly half an hour later, after taking film footage of the attack and probably meandering around the wreckage looking for items of interest for half an hour, U-588 motored off “leisurely to the Southward apparently quite confident of not being spotted by aircraft or by surface vessels,” according to Collins.

Without a mother ship and no one ashore knowing of their fate, Collins had to choose his next moves carefully, and he did. First, he divided the men equitably according to the size of their boats: Collin’s jolly boat had eight men, Chief Officer F. W. Gardiner’s boat had nine, and the balance of 22 occupied the larger lifeboat. Collins rationed water to half a dipper four times a day, doled out ample rations, including chocolate and the less popular, thirst-inducing Horlicks milk supplements, and determined that whether they had wind or not, the men would keep busy. That meant that after the breeze died, ending a night of sailing some 40 miles on the 24th, Collins put the sailors to rowing in shifts of half an hour, followed by two hours of rest.

Most importantly, Collins insisted that the boats stay together, and that they retrace their route from New York in the hopes of meeting traffic outbound from that port. Captain Collins’ strategy paid off. Apparently morale and health remained high in the lifeboats, and the three injured men remained alive. The night of the 23rd, around midnight, Collins witness a blue flare resembling a star shell which went high in the air but did not come down and originated in the direction of the attack. Could it have been Hassan on some flotsam, signaling for help? On the 24th planes were heard overhead but not seen – probably traffic to Bermuda or the Caribbean. For over three days, until the 26th of May all boats remained in sight of one another, however on that date fog set in and the lifeboat was separated from the two jolly boats.

The following day Collins used a portable wireless set to try to reunite with the lifeboat but to no effect. Then in the evening Third Officer G. F. Eaton in command of the lifeboat (Second Officer J. Robinson must have been injured or incapacitated), managed to attract the attention of the Swedish refrigerated ship Sagoland. According to Captain Collins they were roughly 85 miles from the U-boat attack and 165 miles from the US coast when found. Of course Eaton prevailed upon the Captain of the Sagoland to look for the men in the two jolly boats, however the Swede was understandably concerned for the vulnerability of his ship whilst stopped to retrieve survivors in waters clearly known to be infested with U-boats.

Good fortune continued to shine on the Margot’s survivors, favoring the prepared. Sagoland posted extra vigilant lookouts, who spotted the jolly boats 25 minutes later, at 6 pm. Collins and Gardiner and their men lit off smoke floats which were sighted. By 6:40 pm all the survivors of the Margot were safely aboard the Sagoland. An exception was made for the boats however – after they had been stripped of equipment their plugs were pulled and they were scuttled, rather than put the new mother ship at risk whilst retrieving them.As luck would have it, the survivors were taken directly to their original port of departure, New York, arriving on the 28th of May – the following day. The three injured men were hospitalized and the British consular officials supplied them all with “a complete new set of cloths and all toilet necessities.” According to John Mozolak Jr.’s list of New York departures, Sagoland was a refrigerated cargo ship of  3,243gt which departed from New York seven times in 1940 and 1941, and three times in 1942, sailing on 23 May 1942, roughly three weeks after delivering the Margot officers and men. The Sagoland was a 3,068-tons freighter built in 1939 and owned by Svenska Orient Linien 1927-1984 (Swedish Levant Line / Swedish Orient Line.)

She was built by Eriksbergs Mekaniska Verkstad of Göteborg and survived the war. In 1963 she was sold to Zafir Co., Inc, Panama renamed Cyclades, then again in 1971 sold to Marmarine Shipping, Co, Panama renamed Apostolos M. Finally in 1975 the ship was sold to Marimar SA, Panama, and in 1978 it was grounded and wrecked.

Interrogation by naval officers in the US and UK revealed that the Allied sailors felt that the submarine was exceptionally small – less than 100 feet long – and just out of drydock. The sailors also deduced that since the submariners had little facial hair and lots of rum and cigarettes, they must have resupplied from a base in the Caribbean or elsewhere. Finally the fact that aircraft were heard by the men in the boats at the same time every day indicated to them that the enemy could predict and anticipate their arrival, and thus avoid the Allied planes.

Radio Operator Miller was sunk on another ship, the City of Athens, in October of the same year and survived again. Captain Collins was not so fortunate: when his ship the Empire Turnstone was hit and sunk in October of 1942 he perished. No doubt the survivors of the Margot benefited with their leaves from his level-headedness, discipline, and care for his men. Though he was criticized in subsequent reports for abandoning ship too quickly and not firing back, had he fired on the approaching submarine, which remained at least half a mile away and had far greater range with their guns, the death toll would likely have been a lot higher than one.

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