The steam ship Montevideo was built as the Italian ship Adamello in 1920. What is remarkable about her fate are the many connections which her crew had with other world events. Her commander, Navy officer Jose Rodrigues Varela was in charge of the Uruguayan Navy delegation investigating the loss of the German battleship Admiral Graf von Spee off Montevideo in 1940 after a critical battle with three Royal Navy ships who waited offshore while the von Spee scuttled. Jose Lopez, aged 52 at the time of Montevideo’s loss, had been part of the successful expedition to rescue Sir Ernest Shackleton’s men from Elephant Island, off Antarctica in 1917.
The Montevideo survivors shared the Dutch ship Telamon as a rescue vessel and were landed in Jeremie Haiti together. The US steam freighter Explorer, under charter to the War Shipping Administration, was the same ship which later rescued survivors of the Raphael Semmes in the same general area. The final irony of the Montevideo is that it was built and traded as an Italian merchant ship and was sunk by the Royal Italian Navy submarine Enrico Tazzoli under Count Carlo Fecia di Cossato, at the outset of his rampage through the eastern Bahamas (a similar situation was faced by Ulrich Heyse in U-128 when he sank the O. A. Knudsen, which had been built in Germany).
Montevideo was launched as the Adamello on the 13th of September 1920 by the Northumberland Shipbuilding Company Limited of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, England. She weighed 5,785 tons, was 121.9 meters in length, 16.1 meters wide, and 10.1 meters deep, and her triple expansion engine of 572 n. horse power drove her at an impressive 11.5 knots. Being coal-fired, her high-consumption engines required refueling, which was to force the ship to deviate to St. Thomas for coal and set her up for the ultimate fate in the area east of the Bahamas in early March 1942. Her original owners were Lloyd Adriatico Sociieta di Navigazione of Venice, Italy. In 1929 ownership was transferred to the Garibalid navigation Company of Genoa. At the outbreak of war the Adamello was interned in Uruguay along with another ship – the German passenger freighter Tacoma.
When the Tacoma broke the rules or neutrality by secretly sneaking many members of the Graf von Spee’s crew aboard her in the dead of night prior to the battleship’s scuttling, the Uruguayans decided enough was enough and impounded both vessels. Renamed Montevideo after that nation’s capital city, Uruguay was fitted out for trading with the United States by the Uruguayan government. The Italian crew were landed ashore, and replaced by the naval Frigate Captain Jose Rodriguez Varela and Chief Engineer Captain Magiorino Bianchi (1y2gm.com/t2171-torpedoaron-al-montevideo).
There was precedent for this move, as in November 1917 the Uruguayans had requisitioned a fleet of German merchant ships laying in their waters and used them as an “Emergency Fleet” for the United States. Uruguay experienced a number of teething issues with its first merchant marine fleet, and the Second World War was not much more forgiving, with another of its ships, the Maldonado, ex-Fausto, sunk on August 1st 1942 (see below – the other two ships requisitioned were named Rocha and Cologne).
The Montevideo left Uruguay at 6 pm local time on the 9th of February 1942, bound for New York with a crew of 49 Uruguayans, many of them young men from the country. Camilo Saralegui, Cabin boy, was 19, Ramon Hermes Sarli, a cook, was 20, as was Americao Rao, another cabin boy. Nelson Rodriguez Varela, who we can only assume was the captain’s son or relative, was only 20. It was to be Montevideo’s maiden – and final – voyage under the Uruguayan flag, and she was ordered to fastidiously follow neutrality laws by keeping her lights ablaze at night, shining on Uruguayan flags painted boldly on either side of the ship, lest Axis submarines mistake her for an Allied vessel. She was not armed.
The cargo consisted of wine, cereal, canned meats, wool, eggs, leather, and fertilizer and amounted to a total of 5,998 tons (Omar Medina Soca, Director of the Maritime Museum of Montevideo, in the Windward Magazine, No. 68, Dec. 1998 – ISBn 1510-0774, Naval Academy of Uruguay, 1y2gm.com/t2171-torpedoaron-al-montevideo). Her charterer was the Marina de Guerra, or War Navy of Uruguay. Heading north as quickly as 12 knots, she passed Porto Allegre, Bahia and Rio de Janeiro and then Pernambuco, ultimately entering the Caribbean sea and heading for Saint Thomas, United States Virgin Islands, to refuel.
Montevideo arrived in Saint Thomas after 27 days of steaming, on the 5th of March. Her crew enjoyed a much-anticipated shore leave to stroll the historic port. On shore they learn of “a heavily guarded convoy completely wrecked two days after sailing from St. Thomas, returning with only three ships out of a complement of six….” (Soca, Id.). With attacks by Allied submarines just beginning to make the news (the Finzi had shelled Mona Island not far to the West just two days earlier), the crew were on the alert, and their state of readiness would increase in proportion to their proximity to the American mainland.
The Montevideo steamed out of St. Thomas in short order – before the port closed on the same day as her arrival – the 5th of March. Captain Rodriguez Valera implemented strict war-time regulations – no smoking outside of the accommodation, absolute darkness on board (he abandoned the practice of lighting the ship with her flags visible, according to historians). The ship also zigzagged.
Three lookouts were posted at all times, two officers on the bridge and the young seaman, cabin boy, Camilo Saralegui in a crow’s nest near the top of the mast forward of the bridge. So equipped and manned, the Montevideo steamed without incident until the morning of March 8th, 1942 when the crew sighted what they thought was a submarine, however some of them felt it was a water spout (Italian records say the night of the 8th/9th of March).
The consensus amongst survivors afterwards is that they sighted a submarine which was trying to hide amongst water spouts. “That same day at four in the afternoon but now much closer, there should be no longer any doubt that the mass re-emerging from the water had all the feature of the back of a submarine” (Id.) Tensions rose on board, but by evening some of the crew dared to believe that the worst danger was behind them. Their course was 321 degrees true and speed 8.5 knots (as against the 17 knots that the Tazzoli was capable of surfaced). Conditions were choppy with a wind from the northeast at Force Four, or about 30 knots, and visibility was good. They were 330 miles from Puerto Rico.
At 7:20 pm, while the crew wait to relieve the 15 men on shift in the engine rooms at 8 pm, the Tazzoli fired a torpedo at the Montevideo that missed the ship. Aiming again, di Cossato sent a torpedo into the starboard side of the freighter, forcing the ship to heel over 35 to 40 degrees and bringing down the mast. The young cabin boy Gonzalez Larralde had “fallen from the crow’s nest and lay inert on the lookout deck” (Id). A wave swept across the deck destroying the cranes and injuring two crew including Baigorri. Officer Cabrillana’s arm was broken, and he was dragged to safety by Leguizamon and Arroya. A number of men managed to struggle against the inrushing water to the deck, including a “gaucho” or cowboy named Galara.
Captain Varela realized that his ship was doomed and ordered everyone to their lifeboats. The boats on the starboard side having been stoved in, 31 men managed to launch a port lifeboat and push off a safe distance. Unbeknownst to them, the Radio Operator, Orosimbo Machado, had been trying to transmit SSS and SOS messages but have to give up due to damaged equipment. He managed to cut one of the rafts free, which he boarded with three other crew men. However as they struggled to get free of the sinking ship it took quick action by Suarez who had a large knife and managed to cut the raft free. Because they were on the starboard side of the ship and night time had set in, there were never in communication with the survivors in the lifeboat on the other side of the ship. The raft was pushed by the swell away from the ship.
From a distance of 300 meters the men in the captain’s life boat watched the Montevideo slowly sinking. The captain wrote that “our people could clearly distinguish the officer and sailors on the cover” or deck of the submarine (Id.). “The gunners loaded a gun”. The submarine manouevered astern of the ship and shone a bright search light on the stern, enabling them to read the printed name. “The light from the reflector was fixed for a long time on that word – Montevideo” (Id.) The cries of Cabrillana, who suffered the broken arm pierced the nights, as did the exhortation of the young sailor Benitez who shouted at the Italian submarined “You are just cowards – Viva Uruguay!”
Thirteen men on watch in the engine room were killed by the explosion mid-ships on starboard, and the lookout meant fourteen killed. Amazingly all 35 other survivors, including the casualty with a broken arm and a man whose injured foot became gangrenous, survived the ordeal. Though in some interviews the Captain claimed to have seen the ship sink, according to the naval summary, the ship was not seen to have sunk, leaving open the possibility that routing codes were compromised. However as the ship sailed independently as the envoy of a neutral country it is doubtful whether such codes were on board in the first place. The life boat started to row away and then Captain Varela changed his mind and they rode a sea anchor until the morning, in order to look for survivors. At sunrise the horizon was empty all around – no sign of the ship nor of the raft with four other survivors. The boat then turned westwards and made for the Greater Antilles and Puerto Rico.
For four days they rowed and sailed until, by a striking coincidence, “another life boat was sighted carrying the Captain of the Norwegian SS Tonsbergfjord sunk a few days before, and eighteen crew members. The two lifeboats were picked up the following day, March 13th, by the Dutch steam ship Telamon sailing from New York to Curacao.” (Survivors Statements, NARA2, RG 28, interview by Lieutenant j.g. A. V. Franceschi and Ensign R. Wall, USN).
Since the Telamon rescue accounts for two boats of fifty men from two ships sunk in the relevant area, it bears describing: “Banchero first saw the Telamon. That was crazy. On the oars were eight flags being firmly held up by muscular arms as the banners fluttered with hope. At times the Dutch ship seemed uninterested in the shipwrecked, and only after making a long detour did they send a boat. They said they suspected that the lifeboat was a camouflaged submarine corsair [and] that they had no artillery to defend themselves if attacked …On board they were treated warmly and immediately provided first aid to Cabrillana and Silveira. The latter seemed more dead than alive in the opinion of the ship’s doctor, who said that one more day without medical assistance and he would have died.” (Ibid.)
All fifty men in two lifeboats were then dropped off on the coast of Haiti at Jeremie. They were treated with suspicion as invaders by the Haitians until they managed to convinced the locals that they were castaways. Eventually they managed to convince the Chief Engineer of an American rubber plantation to lend them a truck, which spent 20 hours over harrowing roads at 2,000 feet elevation delivering them to the capital, Port-au-Prince. The two wounded men remained behind in Jeremie. On the 6th of April all 29 men were flown via San Juan on a chartered Pan American seaplane (NC-16736) to Trinidad, where they were re-united with their four other crew mates.
Unbeknownst to the survivors in the lifeboat, who presumed that 18 of their crew mates had been killed in the sinking the four men in the raft managed to eke out an existence in extreme privation for 133 hours. They had no fresh water or food on the raft, but managed to suck on buttons, eat some seaweed, and catch and eat a fish. They were menaced constantly by sharks but made a spear using a table leg to ward them off with. Because of the sharks and to be on the look out for ships, they maintained a watch at all times. On the fourth day they spotted what they thought were supplies and rowed using whatever pieces of wood they could find for three hours, only to find it was an abandoned emergency float from another ship.
Two days after that they were spotted by the US freighter Explorer, Captain Arnold Smith, who approached them very delicately, believing they were just decoys for a submarine thought to be lurking nearby. The four survivors rather pluckily offered to row the lifeboat which was sent to them back to the Explorer, an offer which was politely refused. They were fed well and arrived in Trinidad two days later, on or about the 16th of March. The Explorer received orders to sail for India, which she did, having left New York in ballast. At that time they were able to get word via the Uruguayan embassy in Venezuela that they had been rescued. This resulted in a reunion with the rest of the crew from Haiti.
Together the 33 survivors arrived back in Montevideo to a hero’s welcome aboard the passenger packet ship Cape Horn on the 17th of May, 1942. The loss of the Montevideo, mistakenly attributed to a German submarine (though the Italians were operating under at least nominal German control at the time as part of Betasom), inflamed Uruguayan’s passions against Germany. The death of the 14 sailors was a catalyst which drove the country to declare war on Germany and the Axis months later.