Ugo Guidice, who sank the Charles Racine, is on the far right of this 1942 photograph of the following four Italian submarine commanders in Bordeaux France, being honored for thier work in the German joint-venture flotilla Betascom: Fecia di Cossato (smg. TAZZOLI), Olivieri (smg. CALVI), De Giacomo (smg. TORELLI), Giudice (smg. FINZI).
Since they are interwoven, the story of the loss of the Charles Racine is told in part from the perspective of the British tanker Athelqueen, another ship from the same convoy sunk in the same general area and the same week:
The convoy which Charles Racine and 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.
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.”
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.
There is no known photo of the Charles Racine, however you can see a photo of her owner, Mr. Bergesen at http://www.wrecksite.eu/wreck.aspx?138937, credit also goes to http://www.warsailors.com/singleships/charlesracine.html and www.uboat.net, and www.regiamarina.net