SS King Alfred, standard WWI cargo ship of British class, sister-ship to the SS Maldonado.
The steamship Maldonado of 5,285 tons was the second Uruguayan ship sunk by the Axis in the region in the space of a few months, the Montevideo having been sunk by the Enrico Tazzoli in March. The ship had a colorful history, starting when it was built by Ropner and Sons, Limited of Stockton-on-Tees, England, in 1919. It was launched on 21 October 1918 and managed by Stamp Mann and Company, and not completed till January 1919.
The ship’s original name was War Mallow and she was operated by The Shipping Controller (TSC) of London and put to work winding down the logistics of World War I. She was sold the same year to Constantine and Pickering Steam Ship Company (Joseph Constantine Shipping Limited) of Middlesburgh, UK. At that time she was renamed Briarwood.
The following year the Woods, Tylor and Brown – Tower Steamship Company and Woodfield Steamship Company of London bought her, but again for only a year. In 1921 the same firm (Woods Tyler etc.) renamed her Heathfield, a title which was to stick until 1933. Between 1933 and 1938 Anastase Dennis Callinicos of A. D. Callinicos of Ithaca and Athens owned her and renamed the ship Nedon. In 1938 Italian interests led by Hugo Trumpy purchased her and named her Fuasto. September 1941 found the Italians on the side of the Axis and the Fausto interned in port in Montevideo, Uruguay. She was seized by the Uruguayan government (National Admiralty of Ports, Montevidio) and renamed Maldonado in 1942.
The Maldonado’s dimensions were 122 meters long by 15.9 meters wide. Here 517 n.h.p. triple expansion engine drove a single propeller which pushed the ship at 11 knots. On her final voyage the master was Captain Mario Giambruno and her officers and crew totaled 49 Uruguayans. The cargo loaded in Montevideo and destined for New York included 5,800 tons of tinned corned beef, 1,000 tons of general cargo and fats, and 1,000 tons of leather and wool, for a total of about 7,800 tons. The ship left Montevideo on the 8th of July and steamed up the South Atlantic, across the Equator, and almost to New York without refueling.
On the evening of the 1st of August 1942 the Maldonado was roughly 260 miles south-southwest of Bermuda, in position 28.20N by 63.10W (others say 27.55N 66.27W) and steaming northwest at 312 degrees true at 10 knots in 16,800 feet of water. Her sides were fully lit with two reflector lights illuminating the national flag of Uruguay on the stern. At 7 pm a submarine had been sighted trailing the ship and so the crew were on high alert for the next five hours. Captain Giambruno maintained course and asked the Radio Operator not to send any messages to convince the skipper of the submarine that it was a genuine neutral and meant no harm. The ship was unarmed. It was a calm night with a gentle wind from the east, a full and bright moon, and clear visibility. There were two lookouts on the bridge, and two on the monkey island above it.
Meanwhile on the submarine, U-510 under the command of Karl Nietzel, there were frantic radio signals being exchanged with Berlin. Assuming the flag was Greek not Uruguayan, and that the cargo was contraband, he requested permission to sink the ship. The reply which finally came back instructed him that so long as the ship was not Argentine, Portuguese, Swiss or obviously chartered by the Red Cross, then the ship was fair game. On that basis at 11:45 pm Neitzel fired three warning shots across the bow of the ship and signaled by Morse lamp that the crew were to abandon ship immediately. So promptly did the Montevideo’s crew comply that within three minutes all the men were away in two boat. The sub stood by 1,000 meters off the port beam.
At 11:55 on the 1st of August Karl Neitzel fired a torpedo into the port side amidships of the Maldonado. The engines were destroyed and the lights on the ship went out. At roughly five minutes after midnight local time on the 2nd of August Nietzel fired another salvo of either one or two torpedoes, which appeared to have broken the vessels’ back. The Maldonado sank immediately on impact.
The men had abandoned ship in for lifeboats. After dispatching their vessel Neitzel nudged the submarine amongst the boats and demanded that both the Master and Chief Engineer board his submarine. By the time that Captain Giambruno was aboard he apparently no longer required the Engineer. The Captain was taken aboard as prisoner, most likely to help verify the neutrality or at least the status of the ship and clear up any misunderstanding. U-510 then submerged and headed off in a northwesterly direction, leaving 48 men hundreds of miles from land.
Thirteen men in one boat were spotted by the USS Owl, rescued, and landed in Hamilton, Bermuda on the 6th of August. Another boat with thirteen were retrieved by USCG 491. They were landed in Cape May, New Jersey on the 16th of August. The last batch of survivors of the Maldonado were sighted by a US Navy Catalina patrol plane on the 5th of August. which vectored the British troop transport Capetown Castle under Captain E. H. Thorton to the two boats with 22 men in them. They were landed in Halifax on the 8th of August.
Embarrassed at having captain the officer of a non-belligerent neutral ship, the Germans released Captain Giambruno, who escaped through Switzerland and managed to return to Uruguay by November 1942. There were riots in the streets of Montevideo over the treatment of the Uruguayan ship and the men who manned it. One can only imagine that the tenor would have been angrier were it not for a remarkable series of rescues as a result of which none of the crew died or were seriously injured.