SS Eclipse damaged off Fort Lauderdale FL by Teddy Suhren of U-564 on 4 May 1942

Eclipse, Photo source:

The 9,767-ton tanker Eclipse was built in August, 1931 by Scott’s Shipbuilding & Engineering Company Limited of Greenock, Scotland, on the banks of the River Clyde, which leads to Glasgow. Registered to Hong Kong, its owners were the Standard Transportation Company Limited of that colony (she would ultimately return to the Far East to be broken up, as the Ionian Star in Yokohama Japan in May of 1954, Before joining a convoy to cross the Atlantic Eclipse departed Avonmouth, England on the 7th of April, called at Milford Haven on the 15th, and arrived in Belfast the following day.

 Under Captain G. Legg the Eclipse left Belfast, Ireland on the 16th of April 1942 in Convoy O.N. 87 for Halifax – the entire convoy consisted of Allied tankers. On the 30th of April the convoy dispersed, and the Eclipse continued on to Port Arthur, Texas in ballast to load a cargo of petroleum. She was armed with one 4.7-inch gun, two twin Merlin machine guns, 2 Hotchkiss guns and two P.A.C. rockets. Her complement was total 47 persons, the First Mate being Chief Officer M. Earl, and included for British Navy gunners and 2 other military gunners.

There are two unusual facets to the attack on the Eclipse – firstly that though the ship was only one and a half miles from Boynton Inlet and surrounded, in the captain’s words, by “a number of small pleasure boats within easy distance,” the submarine apparently attacked from the landward, or shallow side – presumably surrounded by the small boats and in much greater peril of grounding or being detected and attacked.

Also unusual was the US Coast Guard report, published during the war, which claimed that before the attack “…her master had become suspicious and had run aground in attempting to dodge what he thought was a submarine. He was right. But the Nazi didn’t launch his undersea bomb until the Eclipse had pulled herself off and had again regained headway” (USCG Report, pp.29-31). As we shall see, Eclipse grounded several times during her ordeal, but not before being struck by a torpedo.

 The attacker was U-564 under Reinhard “Teddy” Suhren, one of the great aces of the war. A perusal of his memoir reveal proof that he attacked so close inshore, when the submarine had a full 50 miles of open water from there to West End Grand Bahama to the eastward. He writes: “…the Eclipse sank in the shallow waters of the Straits of Florida with its funnels sticking out, round which we had to make a wide berth”. U-564 would only have “had to” make a wide berth around the tanker if the submarine was essentially trapped to landward of it – forcing the submarine to go around the tanker (Suhren, “Ace of Aces” pp.111).

 It is likely that Suhren brought his sub close inshore during the night, laid low at the bottom, and in daytime came up to periscope depth to choose the best target and simply fire to seaward, then escape. That would make a lot more sense then risking going in amongst the many pleasure craft during daylight hours, especially as even the shadow of the submarine on the sea floor bottom could be sighted from boats – and certainly planes – in the translucent waters and white sandy bottoms off Florida.

Three things about the attack are certain: the Eclipse was heading south, the torpedo came from the landward side, and the starboard side of the ship was most badly damaged. Since this is the landward side, and since the ship was salvaged and spent over half a year being repaired without anyone disputing that the landward side of the ship was damaged (in other words no diving on a wreck was required to ascertain which side of the ship was struck), this was from all the evidence a highly daring and effective attack by Suhren.

 The attack was not, however 100% successful for Surhen inasmuch as the ship was salvaged. Somewhat contradictorily he shows a photo of the Leslie resting “down by the stern” and claims it “caught fire and sank by the stern and alarmed the whole of the Straits of Florida” whereas in reality it neither caught fire nor sank, and nor was it the only or first ship to have been destroyed on the coast, as even Suhren would have known at the time from radio transmissions (Suhren, “Ace of Aces” pp.111, 122-123).

]According to Captain Legg, Eclipse was on course 182 degrees south and steaming at 11.5 knots at 12:05 local time (EST) on a bright sunny clear and calm afternoon when a torpedo struck on the starboard side, between the stokehold and after fuel tank. Though the submarine was never seen by the crew (or the spectator fleet, which quickly gathered round the stricken ship), the Second Mate claims to have seen the torpedo break surface right after it was fired. The Master in fact saw the projectile only 5 seconds before it struck, and claimed “it was definitely not on the surface” (ADM 199/2140). He “rushed to the Bridge in an endeavor to swing the vessel towards the shore, hoping to avoid the torpedo” – perhaps this is the basis of the USCG claim that the ship grounded before it was hit.

 Only ten minutes after the torpedo ruptured the bunker and stokehold bulkheads (the walls between the tanks), flooded the engine room to the tops of the cylinders, and inundated the crew quarters on the aft end of the ship, the Captain managed to anchor using the port windlass. This brought the Eclipse into the light wind. Two crew were injured lightly and some were suffering from shock. Two were killed by the explosion, and “there was a large quantity of fuel oil [from the bunkers] on top of the water, which made the damage appear worse than it was. I think the ship was hit below the water line as the hole in the shell plating was just visible, extending about 20 feet by 25 feet, more in a vertical than horizontal direction” (ADM 199/2140).

Captain Legg decided to send non-essential crew to the nearby shore, which was so close that they did not bother sending a Mayday via radio at first, but when they did it was acknowledged from Fort Lauderdale at 1330. Since the aft starboard lifeboat had been destroyed, they launched the forward one on that side and the two from the port, or seaward side. Keeping sixteen men aboard to assist, he placed all the others in boats with the third mate in charge. There were so many spectator boats handy that two of them towed the lifeboats to shore at Boynton Beach.

Unbeknownst to Captain Legg, the US Coast Guard were busy requisitioning equipment to salvage his ship, during a 30-hour period that three ships were struck by U-boats in the same general area. According to the USCG report “…the Eclipse went aground in full wife  of several persons along the shore. The Coast Guard Auxiliary was alerted and was on the scene within a few minutes. The commercial tug Ontario was in the vicinity, with a tow. The Eclipse was loaded to the gunwales with essential war supplies [not true – she was in ballast] ….which would never reach pitifully outnumbered American fighting men on the other side of the world if the Eclipse was left to break up on a shoal off Boynton Inlet.

The commanding officer of Base Six, Fort Lauderdale, on direct orders from tie DCGO, 7th ND [Naval District], went aboard the Ontario, whilst she was still at sea, explained the situation to the captain, and asked that the Ontario release her tow and hurry to the aid of the Eclipse. After some discussion, during which the captain of the tug received strong intimation that if cooperation was not immediately forthcoming, his vessel would be commandeered and at a Coast Guard [crew] placed on board, the Ontario secured her tow, put about and seamed for Boynton Inlet.” (USCG, p.31). Additionally the Coast Guard were able to literally commandeer the tug Bafshe from Port Everglades, which went on to assist the Ontario on her efforts.

 The version of the ship reads at 1330 assistance was promised “within an hour, which proved to be the case, as a coast guard tug from Fort Lauderdale came alongside during the afternoon.” The ship was pulled from the shoal, and an hour before midnight they were towed to Port Everglades. At 0400 on the 5th of May she grounded two miles north of Hillsboro Inlet, were refloated and passed the inlet at 0935, and entered Port Everglades at 1350, or about 25 hours after being torpedoed. The actual berthing took place at 10PM on the 5th, nearly 36 hours after the attack. The disposition of the Eclipse after that is not relevant to this study, so suffice to say she was towed to Mobile Alabama, permanent repairs took almost half a year, and she loaded her cargo in the US Gulf in December 1942. She finally returned to Avonmouth, England on the 3rd of February, 1943 to discharge a cargo for the war effort.

 The Coast Guard were to have their hands full in the ensuring few hours, as the Delisle and Java Arrow found themselves in similar predicaments during that day and the following, and the Ontario and Bafshe had their work cut out for them by Suhren and colleagues.