Photo source: http://freepages.family.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~treevecwll/athelqueen.htm
The British tanker Athelqueen was completed by the Furness Shipbuilding Company Limited of Harverton Hill-on-Tees, Middlesbrough, England in 1928. She was fitted with two modern motor oil engines from J. G. Kincaid and Company of Greenock, Scotland and had two propellers. Her owners were the Athel Line, also known as British Molasses, or the United Molasses Company Limited, of Bush House, Aldwych, London. She was registered to Liverpool.
Athelqueen’s dimensions were 471 feet three inches long by 62 feet five inches wide and her tonnage was 8,780 gross tons. Her engines generated 3,800 indicated horse power and propelled the ship at was 10.5 knots. Mike Holdoway from Convoyweb.org.uk writes that “the service speed of Athelqueen was 11 knots (not 10) ref: Die Handelsflotten der Welt 1942 by Erich Groner). The ship was armed with a 4.7-inch gun, another gun capable of firing 12-pound shells, two Lewis machine guns, two Marlin machine guns, two other “strip” Lewis guns, and four P.A.C. rockets with kites.
The P.A.C. stood for “parachute and cable”, and was an anti-aircraft weapon. The theory was that the ship would fire a parachute on a cable high into the air and it would snag and ideally bring down enemy aircraft which were strafing or bombing the ship. These weapons were collectively manned by one Royal Marine in charge of three Naval and two Army Gunners, as well as volunteers from among the crew which totaled 49 men.
During her early life the Athelqueen traded in the Far East, where on the 1st of September 1933 the ship was the site of a deadly explosion off Yokohama, Japan, while en route to Manila, in the Philippines. So bad was the destruction that both Chief Engineer Knott and the First Officer Putt were killed, as were three other crew; Apprentice A. M. Rae, Carpenter M. Johansen, and Deckhand W. Read. During World War Two the ship distinguished itself for the Allied war effort by safely completing eight Trans-Atlantic convoy from Halifax to Liverpool alone: HX 16 in January 1940, HX 35 in April of that year, HX 68 in August, and HX 88 in November of 1940. In 1941 she contributed to HX 107 in February, but had to return to Halifax for repairs, then joined HX 127 in May, and HX 141 in July. She appears to have carried her specialty dedicated cargo of molasses in all instances.
On her final voyage Athelqueen was in ballast. Her Master was Captain Charles R. J. Roberts, aged 33, born in Bootle and residing at 54 Man Lane, Thornton, Liverpool. There were a total of 50 men on board Athelqueen for her final voyage, including three Apprentices; Mark John Foster, Roy Sampley, aged 20, and Phillip Roland Freshwater, 22. Harold Jones, aged 21 served as an Able Bodied Seaman, Willia Proctor, 30, as a Senior Third Engineer, and David W. Firth, aged 52 was a Greaser on board. The First Mate or Chief Officer was George Keedwell, aged 57, or Tockington, the Second Mate was Edwin Harvey Simmonds, 23, of Coventry, and the Third Mate James Read Hearse, 25, of Peasedown, Saint John.
Athelqueen’s First Radio Officer was George Leslie Anderson, 23, of Burghead. V. L. Coleman, a Deckhand, aged 41 from Buxted, was to prove himself in the role of gunner on the voyage ahead. The Third Radio Officer, Alan B. Heald, from Leyland, outside Liverpool, was kind enough to correspond with the author and with Tony Bennett of the Wyannie Malone Historical Museum of Hope Town Abaco, regarding his experiences. Captain Roberts left detailed accounts of the incident with both US and British authorities.
Third Radio Operator Alan Heald, aged 19, first joined the Athelqueen in November 1941. The ship had been in Birkenhead, which is across the Mersey River from Liverpool,, to repair her “broken back”, which is as significant as it sounds and would have required at least a month’s work. From Liverpool the Athelqeen sailed for Loch Ewe which was a convoy collection point north of Oban, Scotland which the Luftwaffe had succeeded in attacking in the past. She then joined Convoy ON 42 which contained 50 merchant ships and 10 escort ships. This convoy left Liverpool on the 1st of December 1941 and dispersed in position 47.44 N by 45.16 W two weeks later, on the 14th. The position is 300 miles from Newfoundland and 2,000 miles from her destination, Port Everglades Florida. Athelqueen arrived on about the 21st of December and her crew would have celebrated Christmas there whilst loading molasses.
From Florida the fully laden tanker sailed to Halifax. On the 13th of January 1942 Athelqueen joined Convoy HX 170 in Halifax and spent the next 15 or so days steaming to Liverpool, where he arrived on the 28th. There were 31 merchant ships in the convoy and 19 escorts. On 29 January she left Oban in a 13-ship convoy with no escorts, sailed across the north of Scotland, and arrived Methil, across the sound from Edinburgh, on the 1st of February. Then she sailed to the port of Hull on England’s east coast, where she discharged the cargo of molasses in a terminal called Saltend Jetty which is still extant today. Athelqueen would have remained in Hull between roughly the 3rd and 9th of February, and then proceeded roughly 160 miles south to the port of Southend, which is on the Thames River estuary and downstream from London. There, on the 15th of February 1942 she joined coastal convoy FN 632 and for the next two days sailed north to Methil, Scotland, arriving on the 17th.
There were ten merchant ships and no escort vessels in the convoy. A day after arriving in Methil the Athelqueen joined Convoy EN 48 which consisted of 19 merchant ships and three escorts. This convoy returned around the north tip of Scotland and arrived in Oban on the 21st of February, where the ship awaited instructions to load its cargo. Oban is north of Glasgow and in a long, deep and safe Loch named Linnhe, protected from the Island of Mull on Scotland’s west coast.
There is some confusion as to whether the Athelqueen left from Hull, England, or Oban, Scotland. The fact is that she left from both ports, but her final departure point was Oban. Athelqueen came across the Atlantic in Convoy HX 170, leaving Halifax on the 13th of January 1942 and arriving in Liverpool on the 28rd of January. She was carrying molasses and was in position 32 in the convoy of 31 merchant ships and 19 escort ships. The Athelqueen sailed for Hull England, on the central east coast, presumably to discharge the last of her cargo from the Americas. On the 9th of February she sailed to Methil, Scotland, which is just across the sound from Edinburgh. The following week, on the 18th of February she sailed in Convoy EN 48 (Series 2) for Oban, Scotland, arriving the 21st of February for orders.
In Oban Captain Roberts, who was clearly a man of forceful personality and opinions, vied for the best, fastest and safest convoy for his ship and his men. The ship’s next destination would be Port Everglades Florida and the Captain didn’t want to dither and dally in a slow-moving convoy to bring her back westwards across the Atlantic. She would be in ballast, or empty of cargo. Captain Roberts advocated that his ship join a relatively fast convoy of ten knots, given that his ship was capable of ten and half knots, and was equipped with double engines.
Even though there was a ten-knot convoy leaving at about the same time, the N.C.S.O. (Naval Control Shipping Officer) performed some research and in two hours or less determined that the captain before Captain Roberts had registered the Athelqueen as a nine-and-a-half-knot ship, a knot slower than her rated speed. Exasperated, Captain Roberts resigned himself and his ship to joining what he described as “a slow Freetown convoy” sailing from the UK to Freetown, Sierra Leone, West Africa. The independently routed ships would peel out of the convoy in the vicinity of the Azores Islands.
The convoy which Athelqueen joined was Convoy OS 20 which is listed as having left Liverpool on the 22nd of February and arrived in Freetown on the 12th of March 1942. Rather than sail south from Scotland to Liverpool to join a convoy in a crowded anchorage then sail north past Scotland again, the Athelqueen remained in Oban and simply jumped into the convoy and was assigned a spot as it sailed past Scotland. As Holdoway writes, “This was quite normal since the convoys had to sail north around the north of Ireland before setting course south to Sierra Leone and vessels from Scotland joined en route” (Convoyweb.org.uk).
There were at least 34 ships in the convoy according to renown convoy expert Arnold Hague. Including 15 ships that split off en route and seven ships which for various reasons never sailed, there were 56 merchant ships total affiliated with the convoy according to convoyweb.org.uk. Two ships which were ultimately sunk from this convoy were lost in the greater Bahamas region (extending to a line Bermuda – Anegada): the Charles Racine and the Manaqui, by Italian submarines.
The Charles Racine was attacked on the 9th and sunk on the 10th of March 1942 some 500 miles northeast of Puerto Rico by the Italian submarine Giuseppe Finzi. The Manaqui was sunk on 16 March 1942 outside the immediate area, and southeast of Barbuda. Often incorrectly attributed to U-504, which had instead sunk the ship Stangarth earlier, the Manaqui succumbed to torpedoes from the Morosini under Capitano di Corvetta Athos Fraternale. The primary reason for the confusion is that all men in both ships – 41 from the Manaqui – were lost, and thus it was not known by the Allies where and when the ships were sunk, or if they had been attacked at all.
At 5:30 pm on the 28th of February 1942 the Athelqueen was in position 42.00 north by 21.50 west, when the ship was ordered to disperse from Convoy OS 20 and proceed to Port Everglades independently. She was roughly 1,000 miles southwest of Liverpool, 350 miles northeast of the Azores, and a full 3,000 miles from the entrance to the Northeast Providence Channel in the Bahamas. Captain Roberts opted not to zig-zag across the Atlantic but preferred instead to take a direct route. The next two weeks continued “without incident” in the words of Captain Roberts. Then, at 9:00 am on the 11th of March, when the Athelqueen was roughly 600 miles northwest of Puerto Rico and heading southwest for the Bahamas, “an American plane circled the ship several times and then flew off to the southward without making any signal.”
The Athelqueen presumably continued on her course, until about ten hours later, at 5:00 pm “…either this or another American aircraft returned, circling around and signaling with his Morse lamp, but as we had to look right into the sun to see him at all, we had great difficulty in reading his signal. However we managed to read S.O.S. several times and they he signaled S.O.S. Follow me… I altered course and followed the direction he indicated by flying backwards and forwards towards a south easterly direction. I knew that a ship had been torpedoed in this direction and thought perhaps we were being directed to pick up survivors.”
The Athelqueen turned on all its lights so that survivors in boats could see the ship and signal it for help, however of course they became a much easier target for any Axis submarines in the area, which there clearly were. This was the beginning of a crucial 27-hour diversion for the ship which Captain Roberts blames for the loss of the Athelqueen, and as such it deserves to be analyzed sufficiently to understand the reasons underlying the Allied request for the diversion, which was based on an actual attack on a ship from the same convoy as the Athelqueen.
Based an exhaustive study of ships struck in the region, the most likely candidate for the rescue were the officers and men of the Charles Racine, from Convoy OS 20, which was sunk in position 23.08 north by 60.28 west (according to the Finzi’s actual log, and 23.10 north by 60.28 west according to the ship’s officers) by the Italian submarine Giuseppe Finzi under Commander Ugo Giudice. This position is some 425 miles northeast of San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Roberts had reason to be nervous, because he states that he was aware a ship had been sunk to his south – the Charles Racine sent off at least three SSSS and SOS messages which were confirmed transmitted and heard by the Finzi. There were at least two submarines in the region at the time, as testified to by the fact that the Finzi was refueling the sister submarine the Morosini at the time it sank the Norwegian tanker. What is unusual about the request for the Athelqueen to divert to the Charles Racine is the fact that the British tanker was some 600 miles northwest of the reported position of the Racine, which was steaming for Baytown, Texas in ballast, having detached from the same convoy (OS 20) on the first of March, a day after the Athelqueen had left it.
On March 10th the Athelqueen would have been 350 or so miles southwest of Bermuda at the time (at an average of ten knots) and thus 600-plus miles northwest of the Charles Racine sinking and only 400 miles or so from the entrance to the Northeast Providence Channel. Though it is possible that the aircraft in question were sent from the Naval Air Station in Bermuda (part of the lend-lease agreement), and not likely they were sent from Nassau, since the new military airfield would not have been completed by then), it is most likely that they were US Navy or US Army aircraft sent from near San Juan, Puerto Rico, which was the nearest base to the Charles Racine sinking.
On the 9th of March the Finzi had proceeded to a rendezvous with the Morosini northeast of Anegada and on the border of the greater Bahamas area. According to the Finzi’s war diary the transfer began on the 9th of March but was interrupted by the sighting of an enemy tanker, the Norwegian 9,957 vessel Charles Racine. The Finzi broke off its fueling operations to sink her with at least four torpedoes between just before midnight on the ninth of March and just after dawn at 6:00 am on the tenth. There were 41 men on the Racine, all of whom got away in four different boats.
As it turned out three of the boats with Captain Arthur Svendsen and a total of 34 men were rescued by the US Navy Destroyer USS Moffett under Lieutenant-Commander Gilbert Haven Richards Junior on the morning of the 12th of March, just over two days following the sinking. They were taken to San Juan Puerto Rico the following day and voyaged from there to New York on the 22nd of March, arriving on the 27th (warsailors.com). The fourth and final boat, with seven men in it under First Mate Nils Nilsen were rescued by an Argentinian ship and taken to Trinidad, West Indies. All were saved.
The USS Moffett is the same ship which along with USS Jouett and Mariner aircraft sank the U-128 off Pernambuco, Brazil on the 17th of May 1943. The U-128 is the submarine which under Ulrich Heyse sank the O. A. Knudsen off Abaco Bahamas on the 5th of March 1942). Returning from the Charles Racine to the Morosini, the Finzi completed transfer of twenty-one tons of fuel on the 13th and departed back to France. According to Regiamarina.net she arrived back at Le Verdon on the 31st of March.
The men of the Athelqueen meanwhile spent an exhausting night looking for survivors of a ship she did not know the details of, at a location they were not given. In the words of Captain Roberts, “I was very annoyed at having had to steam for 12 hours away from my course and risk the dangers of a night torpedo attack by keeping my lights burning and then not finding any survivors or receiving further directions. If the plane had signaled the position of survivors I could have found them.” At sunrise, not finding any other airplanes to take directions from and not knowing for what he was searching or where, Captain Roberts ordered the helm put about to the northwest, effectively turning in a U-shape, back towards their last position and the Bahamas.
At around 4:30 that afternoon, which would have been the 11th of March, the Athelqueen reached its original track and resumed its course southwest for the Northeast Providence Channel. As Captain Roberts summarized the diversion with noticeable bitterness, he and his men had “lost a full 24 hours and ha[d] accomplished nothing.” As noted, most of the men from the Charles Racine were rescued on the 12th of March by the USS Moffett and taken to Puerto Rico, though seven men in the fourth lifeboat under the First Mate remained at sea for an indeterminate time until rescued by an Argentinian freighter.
The 12th of March seems to have been uneventful on board the Athelqueen as they undoubtedly lay on steam for the Bahamas and their original itinerary. Then on Friday the 13th of March (not an auspicious day in the Christian calendar), the men on the Athelqueen learned the sad fate of their colleagues on the British freighter Daytonian, which had been torpedoed by the Italian submarine Enrico Tazzoli under Count Carlo Fecia di Cossato while emerging from the Northeast Providence Channel on the 13th of March and sunk (the men were rescued two days later by the Dutch tanker Rotterdam).
Captain Roberts writes that following his learning via “a signal” about the demise of the “DETONIAN” (he made a natural misspelling), he received a message from the British Admiralty regarding the Athelqueen’s route. “My course was through the north-west Channel,” he writes, “but I received a message from the Admiralty altering my route round the north-wesdt coast of the Bahamas and taking me through the position in which the DETONIAN had so recently been torpedoed. However I altered course on the 14th and proceeded as ordered by the Admiralty.” This is confusing, as it appears that the Admiralty’s instructions are consistent with the Athelqueen’s original itinerary. If that were the case, though, why would Captain Roberts refer to so pointedly to “Admiratly altering my route” and “I altered my course”? One explanation may be that the Admiralty was in fact trying to route the Athelqueen away from the attack on the Daytonian towards which the ship was obviously steaming.
It is possible that the Admiralty intended the Athelqueen to abandon the Northeast and Northwest Providence channels altogether and pass north of Abaco and Grand Bahama, effectively to the northwest of the Bahamas altogether, before steaming south for Port Everglades, Florida, its final destination. From the estimated position of the Athelqueen at the time the voyage would have been roughly the same distance – some 400 miles – either way. If the Admiralty intended him to utilize the Northwest Providence Channel and he had intended to use it, then there would have been no need for Captain Roberts to point out that he was “altering course” or indeed mention it all. It is clear that he is trying, indirectly, to blame the Admiralty for sending him to a place of high and known peril, however his own words are confusing at least and possibly damning to him. It appears that the Admiralty was trying to warn him away from a place of danger by diverting the ship to the northwest and away from any channels through the Bahamas altogether, and that Captain Roberts either misunderstood their signal or ignored it and maintained his original course for the Providence channels.
Since there seems to be some confusion in the mind of Captain Roberts about the difference between the Northwest and Northeast Providence channels, it should be noted that they each feed into one another. Ships transiting through the northern Bahamas utilize first the Northwest Providence Channel then the Northeast Providence Channel, the two being divided and named according to which side of the island of New Providence, on which Nassau sits, they lay. In other words the entire route, which is roughly 100 nautical miles from Great Isaac Light off Bimini in the Gulf Stream opposite Florida to Hole in the Wall Light on the southern tip of Abaco on the Atlantic side. Ships going east to the Atlantic enter by keeping Great Isaac Light to starboard and Abaco to port and steaming east, and ships heading into the Straits of Florida and the Gulf Stream head west, keeping Abaco to starboard and Great Isaac Light to port.
On the 14th and 15th of March, while Captain Roberts on the Athelqueen steamed knowingly towards his ship’s doom, Carlo Fecia di Cossato had finished with the Daytonian (and the Cygnet before it off San Salvador) and was waiting more prey. Between 8:56 am (submarine, or European time), and 7:25 pm – a span of ten and a half hours, he had the Enrico Tazzoli patrol the Northeast Providence Channel. Daringly, considering they had just sunk an Allied ship there, the submarine remained on the surface all day. They were hoping for a large Allied prize would be routed to that shipping chokepoint, as indeed the Athelqueen was about the drop into his lap.
The Tazzoli had missed seeing and attacking the Dutch steamer Rotterdam just the day before – the Rotterdam had succeeded in rescuing all 50 men of the Daytonian east of Abaco, just hours after the men in the lifeboats had seen a submarine on the surface charging its batteries (Tazzoli was the only submarine in the area at the time). In fact the men on the Rotterdam claim to have seen the periscope of a submarine submerge and depart nearby, however the log of the Tazzoli indicates that neither the lifeboats nor the large Dutch ship were sighted by the officers and crew of the Italian sub.
At 10:00 am on the 15th Captain Roberts noted that the Athelqueen passed over the position of the sinking of the Daytonian, which was 26.33 north by 74.43 west, or about 135 miles east of Elbow Cay Light and Hope Town, Abaco. Athelqueen proceeded on an almost westerly course (285 degrees true), for the next five hours, averaging just over ten knots and covering 55 miles distance. At 3:00 pm ship’s, or local time on Sunday the 15th of March 1942 the Athelqueen was in position 26.50 north by 75.40 west, which is 80 nautical miles due east of Hope Town Abaco and the large Elbow Cay Light there, and 105 miles northeast of Hole in the Wall Light on the southern tip of Great Abaco Island, Bahamas. She was only 88 miles – or almost equidistant – from Dunmore Town, on Harbour Island, Eleuthera to the southwest. The ship was roughly 250 miles from Port Everglades (which is in the town of Fort Lauderdale) and some 650 miles southwest of Bermuda.
At roughly 12:26 pm local time di Coassato in the Tazzoli had sighted a tanker – the Athelqueen – on the horizon on what he estimated was a course of 290 degrees, which only five degrees off the actual ship’s course, at 18,000 meters or 11 miles’ distance. The diarist Maronari notes that she was “obviously coming from an African port,” and that “the sea was incredibly calm.” At 1:45 pm, after lining up the best angle to approach and fire torpedoes, the Tazzoli dove for the attack, apparently unnoticed by the Athelqueen lookouts, probably since it was up-sun of the target, meaning firing from the same direction as the blinding sun. According to the Tazzoli log, di Cossato sent two torpedoes at the Athelqueen at 2:35 and 2:38 respectively and they took 78 seconds to reach the target. Only one of them appears to have hit.
On board the Athelqueen there were five men on watch: three gunners on the poop deck aft by the 4.7-inch gun, one on the bridge and the highest standing on top of the bridge. The torpedo was seen by lookout atop the bridge roughly a quarter mile distant, three quarters forward of the port beam. The lookout shouted his sighting to the Second Mate, Edwin Simmonds, aged 23, who was officer of the watch and standing one deck below. Before sounding the alarm Simmonds turned the Athelqueen on an emergency course to starboard, in order to minimize the target for the torpedo. This maneuver seemed to work, as the lookout on the bridge observed the torpedo running roughly 100 yards off the port side and parallel with the ship for a short time.
Then the torpedo “suddenly turned in towards the ship and struck us in the engine room on the port side, about 20 feet from the stern of the ship” recounted Captain Roberts. Since it is not believed that Italian or German torpedoes at the time and in this theater were magnetic or capable of turning so sharply and quickly towards their target, it can also be assumed that the torpedo which struck the ship was the second torpedo fired, and that the missile which ran parallel to the Athelqueen continued on without striking the ship. However eye-witness accounts counteract this assumption.
Roberts noted that the impact was muted: “None of the crew saw a flash from the explosion, nor did they see any column of water thrown up.” Immediately after impact the engine room and bunker (fuel) tanks began to fill with sea water, though all the men in the engine spaces managed to make the deck safely before they did. The weather was fine and visibility good. There was negligible and variable wind and the seas were only slight. Captain Roberts was below in his cabin. He reported that his cabin door was blown open by the explosion and that the ship experienced “….a small explosion and a small amount of concussion.” Soon thereafter, as the Captain rushed into the alleyway, he experienced a “much larger explosion” which may have been the boilers exploding as they were hit with cold Atlantic water. The second explosion occurred only ten seconds after the first. When Captain Roberts made the deck he could already see that the oil from the ship’s bunkers was pouring into the sea. He observed that “The ship did not list, but rapidly settled by the stern.”
Captain Roberts and his officers and men immediately began effective preparations to abandon ship. On deck there was not much visible damage, however internally the ship was badly wounded. In the words of Captain Roberts, “…all the internal fittings in the accommodation and wireless room collapsed.”
He continues that “…in spite of this the Wireless Operator [George Anderson, 24, assisted by James Sinclair, 21 and Alan Heald, 19] managed to fix up enough of his equipment to get out an S.O.S., to which a reply was received from American authorities. Indeed the Enemy Action Diary of the Eastern Sea Frontier notes that at 3:12 pm that “SS ATHEL QUEEN (8780 ton British Tanker) torpedoed and shelled east of Great Abaco, Bahamas, position 26-50 N., 75-40 W”. The men on the stricken tanker could take some consolation from the belief that help would be on the way in the form of Allied aircraft or rescue vessels. Captain Roberts meanwhile ensured that the confidential codes were dropped overboard in a weighted bag.
Third Radio Operator Alan Heald of the Athelqueen, Photo credit: Alan Heald, Preston, England
Attention was focused on abandoning ship, and for over quarter of an hour the men were allowed to go about their tasks unmolested by the submarine lurking beneath the waves nearby. Second Mate Simmonds, fresh from his effort to avoid the torpedo, ran aft to begin launching the boats. Recognizing with prescience that if the bow could be flooded the trim of the ship might be stabilized (though the ship’s engines were still permanently immobilized), Captain Roberts, at the time only 33 years of age, and First Officer George Keedwell, aged 57, ran forward and opened the valves which would normally enable the forward tanks to flood and the ship to stabilize. However because the Athelqueen was tilted so far aft, where the torpedoes had allowed the tanks and engine spaces to flood, the water would not flow forward to the bow fast enough for there to be an effective counterbalancing. If the ship were a see-saw, the weight of the person which the two most senior officers were placing at the high end was not enough to bring the other, lower end, up off the ground, or in this case out of the water. It was a good idea undermined by the reality of gravitational pull.
Roberts and Keedwell then returned aft to assess and assist with the launching of the lifeboats.
The only life boat which had been swung out in readiness for deployment (it was literally hanging over the side, held to the shop by davits) was the only boat damaged by the upward push of the explosion when the torpedo hit on the port quarter. As a result it sank as soon as it was launched. The other boats, however, appeared undamaged, and three of them were launched in a short space of time. The port aft boat, directly above the explosion, was undamaged, because it was housed between decks.
Meanwhile the Tazzoli was not idle, and neither were the Athelqueen’s gunners. At 2:58 pm, or twenty minutes after the initial torpedo attack, the submarine surfaced on the starboard quarter roughly 2,000 yards, or a mile and 240 yards away. The gunner were ready, and Marine Gun-layer V. L. Coleman, aged 41, promptly opened fire with the 4.7-inch gun, which he had evidently loaded in preparation for just such an opportunity. Captain Roberts was later to commend Coleman for not waiting for orders. He noted that “The ship was down by the stern, making it very difficult to get a foothold on the sloping deck and fire accurately. However these shots made the submarine crash dive”. As an indirect result Coleman put one of the deadliest submarines in the region out of commission for a patrol which had claimed over half a dozen ships in just ten days.
Realizing that it was being fired on (though all three shots missed) the Tazzoli crash-dived to avoid a lucky hit. He wrote in the log that the sub surfaced at 21:58 submarine time (about 2:58 pm local time), “but noticing that the tanker’s stern gun is ready to fire, we dive and surface again at 22:34” – that would be 36 minutes later. Crucially, di Cossato by his own admission did not adjudge its distance from the ship or the submarine’s forward momentum correctly, and the Tazzoli collided with the middle of the starboard side of the sinking ship, badly damaging its bows and putting the forward torpedo tubes out of commission. Maronari observed that di “Cossato miscalculated the distance and when he tried to take another peek with the periscope, he still had not crossed to the other side and sighted the enemy ship so close that he could distinguish the bolts on the hull. The submarine tried to go deeper but seconds later, there was a shock and the submarine had obviously collided with the enemy ship.”
Moronari reports that a powerful jolt forced the crew to tumble to the deck and a cry went out of “What happened over there?”. After a pause came the reply “all normal,” to which di Cossato mumbled “thank goodness,” accompanied by a great sigh. Di Cossato took the submarine to 40 meters (132 feet) to test the vessel’s seaworthiness. No water leak was reported and the submarine and everything appeared under control. “Tazzoli surfaced and it was observed that the bow was smashed on a length of three meters and the torpedo tube doors were apparently deformed and no longer usable.” As Maronari wryly observed, the sentiment on board was that “We’ll see later.” They had a sinking ship to contend with and put out of its misery.
It was a devastating end to one of the most aggressive patrols of the war, and Tazzoli was to see a number of otherwise easy prey fall by the wayside unharmed as a result of Coleman’s bravery. There is no record that the men on the ship felt the ship lurch as they were otherwise occupied with saving themselves. While the submarine licked its wounds below the surface and checked frantically for any signs of the ingress of water which would signal that the key pressure hull had been ruptured, the men on the Athelqueen had been bought some time – though not much – to abandon ship in an orderly fashion.
Soon the Tazzoli re-surfaced ahead of the Athelqueen, while men from the Italian crew frantically ran forward to assess the damage to the bow and report back to their anxious skipper. From the perspective of Captain Roberts, the submarine “….surfaced ahead and lay there, knowing that we had no guns forward with which to attack. I realized that she was waiting for us to abandon ship and therefore gave orders to lower the boats.” The diarist Maronari notes that “The tubes III and IV were ready but it was observed that the enemy crew was lowering a boat and moving very calmly to evacuate. In these conditions, firing another torpedo could have caused a butchery. It appears that di Cossato wanted to move his submarine ahead [to be outside the field of fire of the enemy gun crew which was located aft] of the enemy ship to attack from the opposite side.” Italian submarine devote Platon Alexiades notes that “probably he hoped to surprise the enemy gun crew or perhaps fire his torpedo on a side where there was no lifeboat being lowered”.
Second Officer Simmonds again proved his mettle by “rushing around collecting sextants and chronometers” – something which was not done when the American steamer Potlatch was abandoned some months later, further from land. As a result Simmonds was not able to retrieve his personal belongings. According to Captain Roberts all 50 men abandoned ship in the three operative lifeboats at 3:15 pm. The gunners snuck a working Lewis machine gun on board their boat a well. As the men rowed away from their mother ship Captain Roberts noticed from the Plimsoll line on the side of the ship that the Athelqueen seemed to be leveling off – in other words that the water flowing to the bow seemed to be having the desired effect of righting the ship’s trim. He wrote that “…I thought that within an hour we should be able to re-board her if the submarine did not interfere.”
As the men pulled clear of the ship, however, di Cossato began circling the Athelqueen and firing into the ship with the submarine’s deck guns. According to di Coassato’s log, seven minutes elapsed between surfacing at 3:34 pm and when they opened fire at 3:41 pm. Altogether between the British crew count 40 to 60 shells fired into the Athelqueen, mostly at the super-structure which was still above water (in reality there were 128 fired- the confusion may stem from the fact that more than one gun was fired). Captain Roberts noted that “…the submarine did not seem to be concerned about how many rounds they fired. I counted 60 rounds from her guns until finally I saw my ship sink at 1530”. According to her Master, the Athelqueen had taken half an hour to die, but had spared bringing any of the officer or crew with her.
According to di Cossato, the attack took over an hour. In fact some reports state that the attack took four hours between 4:00 pm and ending when the Athelqueen sank at 8:00 pm. The difference between 30 minutes and four hours is astounding, and suggests that both renditions are in error. Since it seems highly unlikely that the torpedoing, boat launches, ship firing on the submarine, collision, sub laying off the bow, and firing 128 shells (which usually took 30 seconds to load, requiring at least one hour and four minutes) all occurred in thirty minutes, it is likely that the incident took closer to two to three hours than half an hour.
Maronari, who was on deck at the conning tower of the Tazzoli, recounts the final minutes of the Athelqueen thus: “Both deck guns were manned and they opened fire delivering quickly some 128 rounds and the merchant ship was engulfed with fire. Apparently the reserve ammunition on her stern was hit and started a firework display forcing the submarine to move away by a few hundred meters but this explosion was apparently the coup de grace and the ship took a heavy starboard list and settled… The water around her was covered with fuel, oil and debris.”
Maronari was more poetic in describing the last moments of the Athelqueen. He described how the air whistled with exploding tracers and the whistle of tracers from exploding ammunition. The men on the Tazzoli became concerned that some of the ammunition might strike their already damaged submarine. They moved several hundred meters away. According to Maronari, di Cossato fired a coup de grace from the sub’s stern tubes and Athelqueen’s stern swerved to the right side. However di Cossato states simply that “128 rounds are expended”. It’s bow, “salt encrusted and covered with algae, thrust upwards with halyards pointing skyward.”
With a muffled roar, he wrote, there was a horrendous roar of torn sheet metal. Pieces of scrap jumped into the air, then the boilers exploded and the ship disappeared into a massive gorge in the water. The water swirled for a long time, spewing forth oil, naptha, and other wreckage. Then the water slowly calmed and silent closed forever over the tanker. She lies to this day in 4,452 meters, or 14,692 feet. As Maronari boasted, the submarine crew hoisted the sixth and final victory pennant for the mission.
After the Athelqueen sank, di Cossato took his ship amongst the survivors’ boats to ask questions, just as he had done with the Cygnet off San Salvador and the Daytonian off Abaco the same week, and as he had done with several other ships before that. Captain Roberts described his nemesis as “….mousy-coloured, very sun-burnt and wearing a blue shirt with blue shorts. He spoke with a distinct German accent. I talked with the captain of the DETONIAN later, he said that the Captain of the submarine which sank him was an Italian and showed a large Italian flag. The submarines seemed much the same on comparison but we certainly saw nothing of a flag, neither German nor Italian. The submarine looked clean and her nose appeared to be bent as if she had been diving in shallow water. The Captain told us that we were 80 miles from land and then leisurely steamed off on the surface, apparently without a care in the world.”
Of course we know that all was not well aboard the Tazzoli and the comparatively dampened reception they gave the Athelqueen survivors was because their own craft had been nearly mortally damaged and they knew they were effectively out of the war for the next few months, except as observers, and ideally survivors. As a result there would be no jocular showing of the Italian flag after this casualty. In his log, di Cossato does identify his victim as the “ATHELPRINCE”, an English tanker of 8,782 tons. Since this was a near sister-ship to the Athelqueen, he was near enough the mark. He rather laconically notes that “during the submerged attack we collided with the bow of the tanker. The resulting distortion to the bow damaged the forward tubes. When submerged we notice a leak in the port diesel room and decided to return to base and not to use the two remaining torpedoes” – the ones in the forward tubes, which had been damaged.
Di Cossato does not record the exact time which the submarine left the scene, but the ship having sank, and the men in the lifeboats having been interrogated, and bearing in mind that an S.O.S. had been sent and the Allied confirmed receipt of the messages, the Tazzoli turned away from her week of conquests in the Bahamas and headed northeast for home. She would arrive in Le Verdun, France, and then Bordeaux up the Gironde River at 6:20 pm on the 1st of April after a highly successful patrol lasting nearly two months.
Thus began a two-day open-boat voyage for the three surviving lifeboats. They set off from the site of the Athelqueen’s demise at roughly 4:00 pm on Sunday the 15th of March. Captain Roberts recounts how he “…ordered all the boats to keep together and to steer for Abaco Island, which was sighted about midnight on the night of 16/17th March.” The fact that little is written about the passage of 85 miles lasting 20 hours, at an average speed of 4.25 knots, speaks to the calm conditions and lack of adversity they must have experienced. Had there been a heavy sea running, had one of the boats been swamped, lost, separated, or men starved or drowned or gone mad or been injured, it is likely that the meticulous Roberts would have recorded it. The fact that he found nothing notable to report about the open boat passage speaks to the discipline with which he and the officers in charge of the individual boats were able to maintain up until land was sighted. As we will see some of this discipline was to erode with the immediate proximity of a friendly shore – after all, the islands were a British colony and the Athelqueen a British ship.
According to Captain Roberts, “As the sea was a bit choppy I decided not to land on the lee shore but to row round to the lee side of the island and look for a more sheltered spot. I was ahead of the other two boats and closed the land intending to pull round the northern end of the island, when suddenly the boat began pitching and rolling and then grounded on a reef. I shouted to the other boats to pull away out to sea and wait until daylight when I would try and rejoin them. We pulled hard to get the boat free but the tide kept sweeping us in more and more on the reefs. The crew were becoming very tired so I decided to turn and pull as hard as we could towards the shore and risk the boat being capsized. The boat suddenly freed herself’ and we landed without damaging the boat to any great extent.”
“Meanwhile the Third Officer’s boat had also reached the edge of the reef, and the first thing they knew was that the boat pitched and hit the reef, violently throwing the Third Officer right out of the boat, the crew thinking that that the boat had been holed and that the Third Officer had jumped for it got panicky and 5 of the men jumped overboard and started swimming for the shore. The Third Officer managed to climb back into the boat, which was undamaged, but owing to the darkness was unable to see these 5 men and after searching around decided they must have swum for the shore, he therefore pulled out to sea and remained until dawn in company with the Chief Officer’s boat. Two of the men who had jumped overboard managed to reach the island but the other three were drowned or eaten by sharks. As soon as it was daylight the other two boats rowed in and landed safely on the beach.”
“I looked round the island and saw some small boys looking at us so I spoke to them and asked if there were many people on the island, at which time they ran away and brought along the Commissioner and the Padre. The commissioner took us up to the village and billeted us in the various houses and sent for a yacht from Nassau. On the following day 18th March the yacht arrived and took us to Nassau, where we stayed for 8 days, afterwards going across to Florida. The gunners saved one Lewis gun together with a quantity of ammunition and this was left with a Military Officer at Nassau, who had it mounted in an official motor-boat.”
“I reported the incident of the aircraft which had been the means of taking us off course to the American authorities at Florida before I went up to Moorhead City for 14 days. When I returned to Florida the authorities informed me that they were unable to discover anything about this plane and asked for further information.”
The New York Times reported on March 21st under the subtitle “4th Loss is Reported Off Bahamas.” “The British also lost another ship off the Bahamas, a dispatch from Nassau stated. In their invasion of the waters of the Western Hemisphere, the enemy submarine packs seem to have followed a pattern of striking hard in one locality, then shifting to another. Bahama waters are undergoing – or have undergone – their share in the cycle, for this was the fourth ship sunk in that area in nine days.” The other ships were the O. A. Knudsen sunk off Abaco by U-128 on the 5th of March, then the Cygnet sunk off San Salvador by the Tazzoli on the 10th, and the Daytonian also sunk by the same Italian on the 13th of March off Abaco.
The Times article continued: “A dispatch to the New York Times last night said that forty-six survivors from a torpedoed ship had arrived in Nassau Wednesday night. It was the second British ship recently hit in Bahama waters. In addition, a large Norwegian vessel and a Greek ship have been sunk. The sinking of the British ship occurred last Monday. The survivors reported that a tragedy occurred when one of the three lifeboats, within sight of land, struck a reef. Three of the men who had survived the torpedoing were drowned attempting to swim ashore, only a mile away. The Associated Press, in a round-up of the losses in Bahama waters said that 171 had survived and six had died in four sinkings.” The breakdown of the six dead were the three from Athelqueen, two from O. A. Knudsen, and one from Daytonian. There were 50 survivors from the Daytonian, 47 from the Athelqueen, 49 from the O. A. Knudsen, and 36 from the Cygnet, so their numbers were off by five men, which given censorship and other obfuscations and the many different government channels is quite impressive.
From Alan Heald: “the captain and chief engineer stayed at the Rozelda, the crew were in another one and the officers – the one I stayed in – were in a place which was built in the form of a quadrangle but it didn’t provide meals. I should think that by now it has long been demolished to make way for something more modern. I also remember going to a local night spot where we enjoyed the company of other youngish people, some of whom were expatriates who had escaped from war-time Britain and some were other torpedoed survivors, although none was Norwegian. I think it was in Nassau that we were all given a new set of clothing, as the only things we possessed were what we were wearing at the time of the incident. My survival kit was a pair of canvas shoes which were covered in oil from the damaged tanks, a reefer jacket and a pair of shorts. That was how I was I dressed when I met the Duke. We none of us smelled too good either.”
From Alan Heald: “the only contact with the Tazzoli was with the commander who spoke to us through a megaphone to ask if we were all right and to give us a course to set and an estimation of the length of time it would take to arrive at the Bahamas. There were no gifts from, or chats with, any other member of the sub. crew. I actually have a short video clip of the commander somewhere on my computer and will download it to you when I find it, but it not relevant to these matters.
It was a steel built vessel of between three and five thousand tons (not a sail in sight) and powered by steam engines. It was not the property of any member of the royal family. It was owned by the nation and crewed by members of the Royal Navy.
Among other things it had an annual outing to take the royal family to allow the king or queen to review the fleet at Spithead, an area of sea between the mainland at the bottom of Southampton Water and the Isle of Wight. Its prefix was H.M.R.Y. (His/Her Majesty’s Royal Yacht) followed by its name. The latest, recently retired one was named Britannia but I cannot remember the name of the one we’re now writing about. It was, of course, ocean-going and had accommodation for royalty, v.i.p’s and the crew – a veritable small liner. Somewhere in Nassau there must be many who remember it and it must surely be mentioned in the local war-time section of the Bahamian museum.
From Alan Heald: “Torpedoed at about 3 p.m. Torpedo struck on the port side. Engine room damaged and imobilised ship. 3 lifeboats launched – one containing our only casualty, the ship’s second engineer whose arm was broken by the explosion. Sub. – Italian called the ‘Tazzoli’ captained by Carlo Fecia di Cossato – surfaced for a while but submerged and came to the surface on starboard side where the lifeboats were being let down. All boats cleared the ship and the sub. passed across us after a machine-gun had been mounted and manned by three men.
Commander raised a megaphone and in perfect English asked if we we o.k. He told us how far away we were from land and gave us a course to set and said that with fair weather we should make landfall in about three days. Boats separated during first night, The one I was in struck coral on the third night and three men got out and refused to re-board. The boat got away from the coral to avoid damage which could have been disastrous, and we waited until daylight before being spotted by 2 fishermen who came to tow us in – one navigating and the second steering through the reefs. No sign of the 3 men who decided against re-boarding.
Abacoans fed us and found places for us to sleep. I was housed in the Methodist missionary’s house with others. An R.C. priest asked if we would like him to contact our families and we all said yes, but no messages were ever received by our people, perhaps because of war-time restrictions on radio traffic.One islander took me round his ‘plantation’ consisting of coconut palms and sugar canes and another – a young woman – made me a straw hat.
Rescue was by the royal yacht which was stationed at Nassau for the duration of the war.We were towed out to it, again by the fishermen who had towed us in. We left our lifeboats with the islanders. There was no room on the ship to allow us to sleep in normal accomodation but we were quite happy to sleep in deckchairs on the open deck because it was so warm. The royal yacht was not in the usual wartime camouflage; it was in its everyday livery. Because it was so conspicuous it came in the middle of the night and went back to Nassau only after darkness had fallen again.
On arrival in Nassau we were housed in various hotels but we were ordered to go to the Roselda the following morning because the Governor wanted to meet us. We were badly clothed and unshaven but we lined up to be received. It was a surprise to find that the Governor was the former King Edward 8th and his wife the former twice-married Mrs. Simpson. At that point someone came down the line and said to each one of us ‘when you meet him you address him as Your Royal Highness, but when you meet her you address her as Your Highness because she’s not royal. We never found out who he was but we presumed he was the adviser to the public on royal protocol.”
Whilst in Nassau, the ice-importing family – the Farringtons – took and interest in me and looked after me very well. I got friendly with one of their sons who was student at a military academy in Jacksonville, Florida. He and his friend Peter took me around and I went with them to the Methodist church where I met the minister who was known locally as Father Armstrong. He kindly provided Sunday lunch for me. I also went to a local dance hall where I met young people who had been evacuated from England. I still have a four shilling note from my time there.
The Italian sub. – whilst going from one side of the sinking Queen to the other under water – collided with her and was damaged to such an extent that it took no further part in the Battle of the Atlantic, but sailed back to Italy for repair. Subsequently she had a short life and was lost with all hands after being depth-charged by a British destroyer .
From Alan Heald: “The Royal Yacht I refer to was the large steam ship named, I think, Victoria and Albert (about 4000 tons and built about 90 years ago) and was the immediate predecessor of the now-retired Britannia which is currently being used as a tourist attraction in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The Farrington family I knew were the ice importers to Nassau. They had three children, one of whom was Hubert – a very talented pianist; Sloane, who was at a military school in Jacksonville; and a daughter with whom I danced on the family’s verandah to music played by a wind-up gramophone, but I cannot remember her name. When my daughter’s mother-in-law visited Nassau some years back, she called on Sloane but he seemed to have no recollection of me. For a short time we corresponded but that was ended by summer of 1942. The family was warm and generous and I remember going to the local Methodist church with them and having lunch with the minister referred to – rather strangely – as Father Armstrong. I don’t easily forget such people. We had one casualty from the torpedoing – the 2nd engineer whose arm was broken by the blast of the explosion. I’m afraid I have no idea where he went to for treatment.”
Our arrival at Abaco in mid March 1942 happened during the hours of darkness and, without charts, we were unaware that the island on our approach route was fronted by coral reefs. It was when we struck these that three of the crew decided to get out thinking that we had landed. Orders to re-board were ignored for some time, and because the boat was grinding on what we thought were rocks, we had to push off into deeper water and leave the three men to fend for themselves. It seemed hours before daylight came and when it did we could see no sign of the men who had left the boat, but coming towards us was a small boat in which were two men – one steering and one in the bow indicating directions. We were secured to this motor driven boat and towed to the beach where we were met by the islanders and taken to houses where we were given food and found a place to rest. I think the main burden fell on the local Methodist minister and his wife whose home was swamped by the addition of some 20 odd crew members. I should imagine that something similar happened to the men in the other boat who landed much earlier that night than we did.
Our immediate concern was for the three men who has left the boat but no-one seemed to have any knowledge of them and a search for them proved fruitless. We had been followed by sharks ever since we were torpedoed and we suspected that they had all met an unfortunate and messy end, although we shall never know.
Photo source: http://freepages.family.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~treevecwll/athelqueen2.htm
The islanders couldn’t have been kinder to us and went out of their way to accommodate us. The Roman Catholic priest visited us and offered to let our families know that we were safe by sending cablegrams to them, but my parents received nothing. I could only conclude that such good intentions had become subject to wartime restrictions which did not permit such traffic.
I have recollection of my stay on Abaco – all of them pleasant. One islander took me to his ‘estate’ to show me his crop of sugar-cane and his palm trees. He generously cut some cane for me to suck and he cut down a coconut so that I could drink the milk. A woman islander wove me a hat from some kind of vegetation, but whether I paid for it or not I can’t remember. The one thing that surprised me was seeing a small girl wheeling a pram which contained a recently born baby. I was under the impression that she was either looking after a younger member of the family or walking some neighbor’s child, but neither was the case. I was told that this 14 year old was a married woman and that the baby was hers.
Our thoughts about getting off Abaco and back to the wartime world were very much in our thoughts, but as there was no landing strip for aircraft and no quay at which boats could tie up, we were at a loss to think of alternatives. However, it was announced one morning that our rescue transport had arrived and was standing off the beach where we had landed, and on going down to the shore I immediately recognized it for what it was, for I had often seen pictures of it in magazines and newspapers – the then Royal Yacht.
When the time for us to embark came we were accompanied to the shore by many local people and as we got into our lifeboats again and became attached to the small vessel which had towed us in, the islanders began to sing something that was very familiar to me, it was the hymn the first line of which runs ‘God be with you till we meet again’.
On arriving at the yacht we walked up the gangplank and left our boats to be used by the islanders. I was glad about this, for we had no financial means of compensating those who had looked after us and to see them acquire some material gain was, in a sense, satisfying, although it cost us nothing personally.
The yacht did not leave Abaco until midnight, and, when it did we were obliged to sleep in deckchairs as the royal apartments were out of bounds to us. At that time the yacht had not been painted in the naval colour of the day – dull grey – but had been maintained in its normal livery. Had it set sail in daylight in those colours it would have been an outstanding target for any submarine. Its journey from Abaco to Nassau was completed before the sun came up and were accommodated in hotels during our stay there.
Again, the people of Nassau were kindness itself and I was fortunate to be ‘adopted’ by the Farrington family who were the ice importers of the island. We did, of course, meet the Governor and his wife in the Roselda hotel on the morning of our arrival and he generously bought us all a beer, something that was lost on me, being only 19 years old and a non-drinker.
We left the Bahamas some days later but my memories of my stay there are as fresh as ever, but with tourism as prominent as it is today, I wonder if Abaco has changed and become a different place altogether to the one I knew.
The Nassau Guardian of Thursday 19th March reports on its front page that “Forty-Six More Survivors Arrive in Nassau: Three drowned while swimming ashore from reef. Forty-six more survivors of the fourth lot from torpedoed ships to arrive in Nassau within ten days – were brought here last night after being landed at an Out Island in the Bahamas, from lifeboats [the other ships were O. A. Knudsen, Cygnet, and Daytonian]. Three others were drowned while attempting to swim ashore after their lifeboats struck a reef some distance off land. One had a fractured arm and a few of the men have minor scratches, but otherwise they are well. The Captain and officers are staying at the Rozelda Hotel and the rest of the ship’s company are at the Lucerne. Members of the Red Cross met the men and out-fitted them with necessary cloghint last night and this morning. His Royal Highness the Governor and the Duchess of Windsor visited the survivors this afternoon.”
In the article immediately below this one is a piece entitled “I.O.D.E. Canteen” which reads: “A large number of contributions of fruit, vegetables, and other food-stuffs have been received at the I.O.D.E. Canteen in the Masonic building, for the survivors from torpedoed ships and the military forces in Nassau. There is a great need there, however, for a Frigidaire, as the only appliance for preserving the food is a small ice box. The Canteen Committee would be very grateful if someone having an extra Frigidaire would lend it to the Canteen for this deserving cause. The seamen and soldiers have made themselves entirely at home in the friendly atmosphere of the Canteen and every night they entertain themselves with games of cards, darts, Chinese checkers, ping-pong, backgammon and other games and a radio and two gramophones furnish music. Many of the men are fond of the old English game of cribbage and would be very appreciative if a cribbage set could be donated to the Canteen.”
The Nassau Guardian of Saturday, 21st March 1942 (three days after the arrival of the Athelqueen survivors) carried the following piece, which is difficult to read in its entirety due to a crease in the microfiche scan: “A very generous gift [was made] by someone who [asked to remain] anonymous, on the last group of survivors [of a] torpedoed ship. These men [lacked] sufficient money [to contact] their families …so this gentleman paid for [them to send] five cables to Great Britain.”
From this it is clear that a local benefactor in Nassau who chose not to give his name to the press provided the funding or the means, or both, for the survivors of the Athelqueen to cable home to Great Britain news to their families that they were alright and had been rescued in the Bahamas. No doubt this was an invaluable service and an immense relief to the survivor’s families in the UK. It seems that at least five cables were paid for, which is about ten percent of the crew, so it is possible that messages from multiple crew got through on each cable.
A small blurb in the same paper thanks the public for continued donations to the canteen: “The I.O.D.E. Canteen Committee desire to thank all those who have so generously sent donations of money, games, and foodstuffs to the canteen for the survivors from torpedoed ships and members of the forces.”
Captain Roberts published an open letter of thanks to the people of Nassau and Abaco in the Nassau Guardian of Thursday 26st of March 1942 under the heading “Acknowledgement”. Since the copy is bifurcated an effort to stitch the text together has been made:
“Captain Roberts, the [Master]… the men of shipwreck [wishes to] thank His Royal Highness the Governor and the Duchess [as well as] members of the Red Cross for the [kind] administration shown them in [their hour] of need, and for their [welcome] into the colony. The good work …carried out by this … has been especially appreciated on account of the friendliness accompanied the …routine of their duties. Captain Roberts wishes to thank also the many expatriates in the colony who have helped them [offering] willing co-operation and eagerness [to assist] along many paths. To the many other [kindnesses] made during their stay all of the ship’s hands wish to express their enormous gratitude and …it is with much regret that they leave a Garden of Eden.”
Alan Heald is convinced that he rode aboard the “Royal Yacht” from Abaco to Nassau. Though this is not borne out by the historical record, the fact that a merchant seaman and someone’s whose first-hand accounts is so much otherwise in accord with the facts of the Athelqueen sinking, it is worth considering what he meant. The most striking link between the Royal Yacht is its resemblance to Axel Wenner-Gren’s massive yacht the Southern Cross.
The Royal Yacht “HMRY Victoria and Albert III” was built in 1899 under direct orders from Queen Victoria, though it was completed a year after her death. Her dimensions were 380 feet in length and forty feet in beam and weighed 4,700 tons gross. According to Wikipedia, she never came near the Bahamas and was effectively laid up in England during World War II.
The ship was utilized by four kings or queens, and participated in the Royal Navy fleet reviews of 1935 and 1937. After the latter “Coronation” review, she was withdrawn and decommissioned in 1939. During the Second World War she served as a depot ship, presumably in Portsmouth, Hampshire, England, and as an accommodation ship to HMS Excellent, which was really a “stone frigate” or Royal Navy base on Whale Island in Portsmouth Harbour. Victoria and Albert III was broken up in 1954.
Swedish industrialist Axel Wenner Gren (found of Electrolux)’s yacht Southern Cross not only looked a lot like the Victoria and Albert III, but her dimensions were eerily similar as well – she was 360 feet in overall length compared with the British ship which was only 20 feet longer (proportionately a negligible difference). Wenner Gren originally came to the Bahamas to buy the Southern Cross from American billionaire Howard Hughes.
Given the striking similarities between Victoria and Albert III (see photographs), and the fact that the Southern Cross was known to be in the Bahamas at the time and generally at the disposal of Wenner Gren, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and the Allied war effort in general, it is conceivable that the mega-yacht was sent to Abaco to collect the 47 survivors, rather than, say, the Content S which had rescued a similar number of survivors from the O. A. Knudsen roughly two weeks before. However the Master, Captain Roberts, told officials in Miami that the boat which carried the men from Abaco to Nassau was indeed the Content S, which would have been more maneuverable, shallower draft, and proven capable of such an errand by recent experience.
One reason why there is no third-party confirmation that the Southern Cross effected the rescue of Athelqueen survivors could be because the yacht and its owner were black-listed from visiting US ports including the Panama Canal shortly after the US entry into the war. This may preclude the Southern Cross as a candidate if the ship was also banned from Nassau during the war (it is known that the Duke and Duchess were guests on the yacht only before the blacklisting and that afterwards they could not, for obvious political reasons, be seen to fraternize with the Wenner Grens). It is entirely possible that with 70 years of time between the incidents and the recall, the witness Mr. Heald is not fully clear on which ship rescued them and aggrandized the vent, mixing and confusing the more modest motor yacht Content S with a grander ship. Probably to the survivors of a recent shipwreck any vessel which came to their aid would have looked like a veritable royal yacht!
VISITING STUDENTS AND EXPATRIATES:
The expatriates from England who Heald and his crewmates met in Nassau at the IODE canteen and other places would likely have included Mr. Cuthbert Jeffries, co-headmaster at the Belmont School of Hassocks, West Sussex in England, and his niece Elizabeth Jeffries. The other headmaster of Belmont, Max de Wharton Burr, had met Sir Harry Oakes on an earlier visit to Canada, and during the German bombing raids on England he kindly offered to loan Clerihew House on Bay Street in Nassau to Belmont for the students of Belmont to live and study safely away from war-torn Europe. Since the school catered mostly to children of parents posted overseas in the British empire, it was decided that thirteen boys would be accompanied by three of their older sisters (the remaining students relocated to Lichfield in Staffordshire).
The party of 18 boarded the ocean liner SS Orduna which sailed from Liverpool on the 13th of August 1940. The Orduna had a colorful history, having been built by Harland and Wolff in Belfast Northern Ireland and launched in 1914. She was commissioned by the Pacific Steam Navigation Company and chartered to Cunard Line and the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company after 1921. In 1926 she reverted to Pacific Steam Navigation, providing transatlantic passenger service. Her dimensions were 550.3 feet in length and 67.3 feet in beam and she weighed 15,507 gross tons.
During WWI and up to WWII the Orduna was involved in the rescue of men from Loch Torridon and Clitha, avoided a torpedo fired from a German U-boat in 1915, and collided with and sank the cargo ship Konkary in 1918.
In 1938 Robert Baden-Powell of the Boy Scouts took some of them on a Peace Cruise from the UK to Iceland, Norway, Denmark, and Belgium. In 1939 she visited the Greater Antilles as part of the infamous “voyage of the damned” trying to find new homes for Jewish refugees escaping from Nazi persecution. The refugees were turned away from the United States, and Canada and 40 of them were rejected from Havana, Cuba.
The Orduna sailed from Liverpool in convoy OB 197 with 52 Allied ships escorted by two destroyers: the HMS Heartsease and HMS McKay. According to Anne Patricia Atwood who was looking after her younger brother Brian Walton, the Orduna sailed in the direction of Iceland. Four days later, on the 16th of August, they were attacked by a wolf pack of German U-boats consisting of U-48 under Hans Rudolf Rösing, U-46 under aces Engelbrecht Endrass, and U-30 under Fritz-Julius Lemp.
The first a ship on their starboard side, the 2,325-ton Swedish ship Hedrun was torpedoed and sank by its bow in two minutes or so (eight died, 21 were rescued). Then a ship to their port was hit – she was the 6,189-ton Dutch ship Alcinous, but she was damaged and returned to Liverpool. A third ship, the 6,628-ton British Clan Macphee, was sunk with the loss of 67 men, with 41 of them rescued. Fortunately the Orduna blessedly avoided being struck. The children were mustered on deck by the lifeboats in their life jackets and witnessed these attacks.
The convoy scattered or “dispersed” the same day following the attacks and Orduna made for Bermuda. The ship arrived in Hamilton harbor on the 24th of August but the children were not allowed ashore. A week later they sailed to the lighthouse on the western end of Hog Island as Paradise Island was then known. This marked the bar over which the Orduna was too large to pass. Built in 1817 the light is 69 feet high, flashing white most of the time but red when conditions on the bar are too treacherous to allow entry. The students were shuttled ashore by smaller lightering boats and welcomed by the Nassau community. As Anne Walton writes, they “met many kind and generous people, English, American and locals, who invited us into their homes, held beach parties and boat trips.”
The students joined the choir of Christ Church Cathedral and can been in film reels of the time entering the Cathedral ahead of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. They were hosted by the Duchess of Windsor at Government House and Walton had this to say about their visits to the school: “he really enjoyed [the visits]; not so much the Duchess, who clearly felt it was all beneath her. They did however hold a Christmas Party for all the children, handing out super presents and serving delicious food and drink.”
Teachers at the school included Kenneth Brown, Father (later Bishop) Holmes, Baroness, Trolle of Sweden, and Mrs. Marcelle Goldsmith of London, who enrolled her two sons Teddy ad Jimmie (later Sir James, who became a noted businessman and social figure in London). The students included Norman Solomon, son of Sir Kenneth Solomon, Speaker of the House of Assembly (1905-1954), Richard (Dick) Coulson and up to 85 students drawn from the local community. By January 1941 enrollment consisted of 36 boys and 16 girls and it swelled to 100 within a year.
Though the imminent loss of the City of Benares carrying 90 other children evacuees, with the loss of 77 students on 18 September 1940 (it was sunk by Kapitänleutnant Heinrich Bleichrodt in U-48) effectively ended what was known as the Children’s Overseas Reception Board. It is noteworthy how close the Belmont students came to being the “poster children” for the perils of an Atlantic crossing at the time.
To return to the UK in January 1944 (Sir Harry Oakes had been murdered in the interim and the overseas school was proving very expensive), the students flew to Miami, entrained to New York for visas, took another train to New Orleans, and boarded the neutral ship Magallenes to Lisbon Portugal. From there they flew, on the 26th of February, aboard a British Short Sunderland Flying Boat to Foynes, Ireland and they made the final leg of the trip to Northolt England in RAF fighter planes, being met by no-doubt-relieved parents at 9:00 pm on the 28th of February, just in time to experience the last of the large German bombing raids on British cities.
According to Heald, “Repatriation was a short boat trip to Florida, then a three day train journey to Montreal where we stayed for a month before going to St.John’s, New Brunswick where we were accommodated on a ship bound for England.” He suffered the misfortune of being sunk on two ships immediately following the Athelqueen, and one can only assume that the death rate was much higher than experienced in the Bahamas. These sinkings would have occurred between April and May of 1942. Because they occurred in such a short span of time it can only have been that the ship carrying them from Saint John’s New Brunswick to the UK was torpedoed, and the ship that subsequently rescued them was also torpedoed. Either that or he was rescued from the initial ship, made it to the UK, and then immediately signed aboard another ship outbound from the UK which was quickly sunk.
In any event, though he survived all three attacks, he was listed as unfit for further sea service and moved to shore, where he tested radio sets for use at sea. The experiences were so gruesome in fact that Heald had refused to discuss the sinkings with anyone including his own children, for 70 years and will carry them to his grave.