SS Hardwicke Grange, sunk south of Bermuda by U-129/Witt on 12 June 1942

Hardwicke Grange, Photo credit: Paul Johnson Collection, from

The British-flagged refrigerated passenger / cargo ship Hardwicke Grange as launched on Wednesday the 20th of April, 1921. Her builders were William Hamilton and Company of Port Glasgow, on the River Clyde, Scotland, and she was yard number 306. Weighing 9,005 gross registered tons, she was a big ship: 430 feet long and 61.1 feet wide. Her owners during the war were the Houlder Brothers and Company Limited (Houlder Line Ltd.), of London, to which port she was registered. It was named after a country house in Hadnall, Shropshire, which was built for Viscount Sir Roland Hill before 1808 and destroyed in 1931 due to “insufficient wealth.”

             At the time of her sinking Hardwicke Grange was under the command of Captain Timothy McNamara and had a total crew of 78 persons, including five gunners, two of them military and three of them from the Royal Navy. The ship had left Newport News, Virginia on the 8th of June 1942 with an incomplete cargo of 700 tons of refrigerated goods. Her destination was Buenos Aires, Argentina, with a planned stop in Trinidad, West Indies.

 What is remarkable about this casualty is not just that she was sunk and added such a large feather to the cap of Hans-Ludwig Witt of U-129, but that 75 of the ship’s crew managed to survive for up to two weeks in four open boats, and that each landed in an entirely different country; Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. For the discipline and success involved in this singular feat, Captain McNamara was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for the bravery he exhibited and instilled at sea.

 It would appear from the track of the Hardwicke Grange that Capt. McNamara intended to bypass the Caribbean Sea altogether, and instead opt to head east of the Windward Islands. The course of southeast was taking the ship past the Windward and Mona passages, and the Anegada Passage as well. This was the route as dictated by the N.C.S.O., or Naval Control Service Officers who were instructed by the Admiralty in London. The routing may have been to avoid the U-boats reported to have been ravaging ships in those areas since March and April.

 Indeed the watch standers on board the Hardwicke Grange were brought to extra alert on the 11th of June, their fourth day at sea. Though the Third Officer, E. L. Warren stated that they “received no warning of submarines and were not expecting to be attacked,” the held a zig-zag course during the day. Soon after sunrise on the 11th of June the First Officer sighted an aircraft, probably on patrol south of its base in Bermuda. Spotted about three miles away and too far for identification purposes, the plane kept its distance, did not investigate or challenge the Hardwicke Grange, and ultimately flew out of sight.

 At midnight on the night of the 11th/12th June the ship was heading south on a straight course roughly midway between San Juan, Puerto Rico and Bermuda, and had reached position 25.01N and 66.04W. Though the night was very dark, the air was light and variable (no wind to speak of) and the seas were smooth – being mid-June it would no doubt have been a pleasant temperature. The Grange continued at 13 knots until at 0230 local time (08:54 German time), when it was struck by a torpedo at position 25.45N by 65.45W.

 The projectile struck the starboard or west-facing side of the ship though the only sound was a dull thud, the concussion which followed rocked the ship and everyone in it. It also killed Greaser Henry Catterall, aged 21, John James Lancaster, Third Assistant Engineer, aged 36, and John Joseph Lynd, 45, a Greaser, in the engine room. After a huge column of water, smoke and debris showered the bridge the fore top mast collapsed, followed closely by the two derricks. The insulation for the refrigerated holds was cork, and the refrigerating units operated on a particularly pungent gas, leaving a strong odor of burnt cork throughout the ship.

 Second Officer Warren witnessed a second torpedo strike the Hardwicke Grange between the engine room and the number four hold, the hatches of which were blown off. The engine room was flooded, the alarm sounded, and the ship listed 20 to 25 degrees to starboard and began to loose forward momentum. As the water rushed in from the second torpedo the ship slowly regained an even keel and began settling down very low in the water.

 Though the Wireless Operator attempted to send an SSS or SOS on the emergency set (the main aerials having been destroyed), it is not thought that he managed to do so. The Firemen whose job it was to feed the boilers with coal could not come up through the engine room and had to clamber up through the stokehole shute where the coal was loaded.

 Captain McNamara ordered abandon ship, the idea being that the boats would be manned and lowered to within a few feet of the surface of the sea until the ship stopped moving, then lowered the final distance, so that they would not swamp. Two of the boats on the starboard side were useless: number 5 was smashed by the explosions and number 1 could not be broken free from the davits. As a result four boats were lowered: number 3 on the starboard side and numbers 2, 4, and 6 on the port side.

 Second Officer Warren received a scare when he left number 3 boat on the starboard side to ask the captain for final instructions on the port side, only to find that the three port-side boats had cast off. He ran back to the starboard side and found that the boat he had helped launch was now only attached by a line called a painter. He just managed to clamber aboard before the line was released from the ship. Though all of the lifeboats sank as deep as the benches due to the timbers having dried out and the seams having become permeable, all four boats managed to clear the ship by 3 in the morning.

 As soon as the boats were clear Hans-Ludwig Witt in U-129 moved in with the submarine’s deck guns to finish off the large ship. The men in three of the boats were astern of the ship on the port side, on the northeast quadrant, and the sub surfaced and began firing from the southwest quadrant, or the starboard bow of the ship. However the first shots were too high and thus sailed over the top of the ship and landed amongst the boats on the opposite side of the ships. Alarmed, the boats moved further off.

 Meanwhile three men – the Third Officer and two other men – cast off from the doomed ship aboard a raft. After roughly half an hour of shelling the vessel caught fire amidships. By 330 in the morning the silhouette of the ship disappeared and the Hardwicke Grange had been sunk. Witt took the submarine over to the three men on the raft. He told them that there were four boats astern and provided them with Dutch milk tablets.

 Witt was flanked by two sailors with machine guns while he spoke to the men on the raft – the fear amongst U-boat officers was that merchant ship survivors might stow weapons in their lifeboats and use them against submarine officers when they approached to question them. After telling the raft survivors that they would be picked up by the boats at dawn, Witt and U-129 motored off on the surface.

 During the balance of the night the boats and raft stayed close by the site of the sinking, and in the morning they all rendezvoused and split into four lifeboats, taking the three men off the raft. Warren transferred to the number 3 lifeboat which had a total complement of 23 men in it, including all three Royal Navy Gunners. Captain McNamara’s boat had a total crew of 20 men, the Second Officer’s boat had 16 men, the First Officer’s also had 16 including the Second Engineer.

 Warren provided each boat with a course and distance to the Bahamas from his last plotted position. Before heading southwest for the Greater Antilles or Bahamas they searched the debris field and discovered a sentry’s box with binocolars and (low and behold) a bottle of whisky. Of course all of the gunners denied ownership of the whisky, so Warren used it later to purify some putrifying fresh water, and mixed it with raisons and prunes to create a concoction which was popular with the men.

 After two days Warrens’ boat fell behind and the Third Officer said that he would take his boat south. By the third day (the 15th) all the boats had separated. The supplies in Warren’s boat consisted of 40 gallons of water in three breakers, fourteen pounds each of raisons and prunes, pemmican, milk tablets, chocolate and biscuits. All of this was rationed first for a voyage of 20 days and then for 40 days.

 During the day the men took 15-minute turns rowing, and total rowing amounted to 7 hours in the daytime and 5 at night, when the wind was lighter. Several men suffered from swollen feet due to the boat constantly having water in it (they left the UK in 1941 before pumps became mandatory for all merchant life boats, and had to bail by hand). After five days, on about the 17th, Warren decided to change their destination from the Bahamas to the Turks & Caicos, where he planned to rest the men for 24 hours before continuing to the Bahamas.

 On the 18th of June the men were looking weak and listless, so it came as a great relief when heavy rains enabled them to replenish their water supply. Along with the rain however came considerable thunder and lightning. In fact the lifeboat was struck by a thunder bolt, sending a ball of fire running along the edge of the dodger they had rigged before grounding itself out in the sea. The man on watch up forward was stunned, but otherwise unhurt. The large doses of fresh water re-invigorated the men, and two of the Welsh crew even contributed sing-alongs to improve morale.

 Eight days into their ordeal the men discovered driftwood and found flies on the boat, suggesting they were getting closer to land. The following day, on the 21st of June, they began steering south in the day and west at night in order not to miss the Turks & Caicos Islands. On the night of the 22nd and 23rd of June they actually passed just over one mile from some rocks, which they could hear but not see. Thus they can be said to have actually made it to the Bahamas and Turks & Caicos chain, though they were rescued the very next day by the British tanker Athelprince.

The Athelprince was a sister ship to the Athelqueen which had been sunk by di Cossato on the Tazzoli on the 15th of March off Abaco. Built in 1926 for Furness & Withy Lines, the Athelprince was 8,782 tons and had become “”an old ship engaged in the trans-Atlantic trade, which was fitted out to refuel convoy escorts, while underway, and also replenish their depth charges” ( She had already been attacked off Spain by U-46 under Engelbert Endrass, in 1941 and had survived. The Athelprince took the 23 survivors to Nuevitas, Cuba, where Warren was landed to be interviewed  by the British Consul. He returned to the ship and together with the other crew proceeded to Havana, where they disembarked. Warren had lost 18 pounds of body weight and one of the stokers lost 23 pounds.

 Captain McNamara’s boat made it to Monte Cristi, Dominican Republic by the 25th of June. The Third Officer’s boat landed at Mole Saint Nicholas, Haiti, and the First Officer’s boat was picked up by an Allied ship and the crew of 16 officers and men were landed in Jamaica.

“Report on an interview with the 2nd officer, Mr. E. L. Warren, S.S. Hardwicke Grange, 13th August 1942” ADM 199 / 2141 National Archives of the UK:

             “On the 20th [of June] we sighted pieces of drift wood and we saw flies on the boat and gathered we were near land. On the 21st June I steered south by day and west by night in case we should sail through one of the channels between the Caicos Islands without seeing it. We were picked up on the 24th June by the tanker SS Athelprince, actually the night before we had passed within 1 ½ miles of some rocks which we had not been able to see. The Athelprince took us to Neuvitas [Cuba] where I was landed and interviewed by the British Consul, the rest of the crew were ordered to stay aboard and were taken to Havana. The other three boats were picked up by the 26th of June. I lost 18 lbs., during the trip and one of the stokers lost 23 lbs. (p.58).”