The 8,940-ton molasses tanker Athelknightwas launched by her builder, Robert Duncan and Company in the Port of Glasgow on Tuesday, 10th of December, 1930. It was the yard’s 394thship. Athelknight’s owners were the United Molasses Company of London. Her dimensions were; 475 long, 63.9 feet wide and 35 feet deep. The twin oil engines generated 709 net horsepower and were built by J. G. Kincaid of Greenock, Scotland – just down river on the Clyde. At the time of her demise in May of 1942 the Athelknight was owned by the Athel Line, part of the United Molasses’ fleet.
On May 12th 1942 the Athelknight left Milford Haven in Convoy OS-28. She was in ballast heading to load cargo in Curacao Dutch West Indies, via a stop in Trinidad to obtain fuel and probably join a Caribbean convoy. The voyage proceeded uneventfully until the 21st of May, when Athelknight left the convoy just southeast of the Azores islands. The other ships were going to the Mediterranean, South Africa, South America and elsewhere. As they were steaming away in the night they could hear the convoy coming under attack and saw flashes and explosions as the ships New Brunswick and Montenol were struck and sunk by U-159 under Helmut Witte.
This was a harbinger of things to come, as the German submarine U-172 under ace skipper Kapitänleutnant Carl Emmermann was on the prowl on the Athelknight’s track as she steamed southwestward. On the evening of the 27th of May 1942 (all times local, not German), the Athelknight was as close to being in the middle of nowhere as one could get in the North Atlantic. At 27.50 degrees north and 46 degrees west, the ship was essentially equidistant from all island groups: 1,000 nautical miles east-southeast of Bermuda, 1,000 miles southwest of the Azores, 1300 miles west-northwest of the Canary Islands (but downwind from both of those groups), and 1,100 northeast of Saint Bartholemew, or St. Bart’s in the West Indies.
Emmermann and his crew had left Lorient France on 11 May only 17 days before. They were just over 2 weeks into a patrol that would last 72 days and take them to the mouth of the Panama Canal and back. In that time U-172 would dispatch nine ships worth over 40,000 gross registered tons – they hadn’t even started. Since his first patrol of 12 days was simply a positioning patrol from Kiel Germany to Lorient, Athelknightwould be Emmermann’s first offensive attack in enemy waters – with 25 more to follow it would not be his last, and he would go on to accrue 152,080 and earn the coveted Knights Cross with Oak Leaves amongst other awards.
At 10:19 pm local time on May 26th 1942 while a bit south of the track ordered in its voyage instructions Athelknight was struck without warning by a torpedo from U-172. The torpedo hit on the starboard side near tank #6, roughly amidships underneath the bridge, damaging #6 and #7 tanks and the pump room. The submarine was probably trying to disable the radio room as quickly as possible and it achieved this with shells. The weather was clear, light wind from the south – there was good visibility and only a slight swell. The ship was making roughly 10.5 knots in a westerly direction.
Athelknight was armed with a 4.7” gun mounted aft, a 12-pound gun (the missiles were each 12 pounds), an Oerlikon and two Marlin machine guns, two single Marlins, and some parachute rockets with kites. The gunners were never able to find and hit the submarine as it always stayed beyond the quarter-mile range of the guns. There were four Royal Navy and four army gunners to man the ships weaponry and 44 merchant sailor officers and men, for a total complement of 52 men on board. All were British. Athelknight had been zig-zagging defensively to throw off submarine attack most of the time according to Chief Officer Davis.
According to Davis “The track of the torpedo was not seen, the explosion was not loud (did not even wake me), there was no flash, but a column of water was thrown up, flooding the decks. The lids were closed but no screwed down, and there appeared to be only slight superficial damage to the deck. No. 6 tank was full of water ballast, the fore and after bulkhead was pierced by the explosion, and the water from the starboard to the port side of No. 6 tank. A hole was torn in the shell plating on the starboard side, and the jagged plates were bent outwards.”
Captain Roberts was also in repose at the time of the attack. He wrote a diary after the war which has graciously been shared with his family. By his account, “At the time I was reading a book in my room, a thing I rarely did at sea in time of war. The engines were stopped and orders given to abandon ship. The boats were being lowered when the submarine began to shell the vessel, and no gun flashes could be detected.” From other accounts it is clear that Captain Roberts raced to the bridge, ordered the engines stopped and for the men to wait at their stations to abandon ship.
Third Officer William H. Cook picks up the narrative: “10:15pm. Torpedo hit on starboard side in No. 6 tank. Captain came on bridge and ordered engines to ‘Stop’. Chief Engineer came on bridge for instructions and Captain said we would stand by with engines stopped & boats swung out. Sub gave us about 10 mins. or ¼ of an hour before she struck us on port side with shell under the port midships boat. Submarine kept ahead about 2 points on port bow ¼ of a mile so that we could not use our aft gun.”
The Captain continued: “One of the first shells hit the ship’s side above the 3rd Mate’s boat and the boat fell into the water with only five men in it. I had to haul my boat forward as jagged plates where the torpedo had hit were damaging it. When I went over the side into the boat I found it full of water, it had been badly damaged and obviously would not keep afloat very long. Shells were constantly pounding the bridge. Sparks, or the Radio Officer had sent out the SOS message but he could not say if it had been successful, and anyhow, no one was likely to come near.” In fact, the radio antennae had been knocked down and no one is recorded having heard the SOS. The men in the damaged boats were on their own on the wide expanse of the sea.
A photo purporting to be of the Athelknight burning, however a jagged torpedo hole on the starboard side near the bridge is not showing, so it is likely another vessel of the thousands attacked in WWII. The photo does illustrate the large poop deck – 140 feet long – and the distance between the lifeboats forward (#1 starboard, #2 port) and those aft (#3 and #4).
During darkness the men in #4 boat (port side aft) under the command of First Officer Davis supported by Third Officer Bill Cook tried to rescue the men in the #2 boat (port side midships), and braved serious shellfire which went over their heads mostly. The situation was so “hot” and dangerous that three men were injured: Cook in the left hand, McAlinden in the faced, and Sheehan in the finger. Also a crewman named Dewar was lost overboard, and was fortunately hauled back in by Cook and Davis.
Realizing that the shrapnel and shell fire made it too dangerous to rescue the five men in the damaged boat (Gaisford, Moore, McGrath, Poulsen and a gunner named Oliver), Cook ordered them to jump into the sea and they would be rescued by the men in the good lifeboat. But, as they had ignored him when he told them to abandon the boat and go aft earlier, they were too panicked to do so. It was a deadly mistake for all but one of them. Meanwhile Davis and Cook felt that they had done all they could and backed away from the ship to await developments. Unfortunately three men were not all that were damaged by the shellfire: the pintle holding the boat’s rudder to the hull was damaged by shellfire, ultimately rendering the rudder useless.
Towards dawn Cook’s boat headed towards what they thought was the other lifeboat, but it turned out to be the submarine maneuvering, so the lifeboat kept its distance. The Captain’s boat was not so fortunate. Because of the sinking state of the motor boat (#1, midships, starboard side), the 19 men in it were able to encounter boat #3, under the 2nd Mate, D. Crook. All men were just able to transfer to boat #3 boat before the motor boat sank. With it went the portable radio set.
Then, at around 3 am before dawn, Emmermann brought his submarine close to the # 3 boat. Second officer Crook described the German commander as “short, dark, thick-set, with bow legs, and he spoke English with a strong German accent.”’
Carl Emmermann of U-172. Source: http://uboat.net/men/emmermann.htm
Crooks continued: “All the time we lay alongside [the sub] we were covered by ‘Tommy’ guns mounted on the conning tower. The crew wore tropical kit, wearing kharki shirts and shorts, some had forage caps, and some a kind of ski-ing cap with a peak.” Captain Roberts relates how he was ordered on board the sub’s deck and interviewed whilst a German sailor covered him with a machine gun: “I was then ordered aboard by the Commander who asked if we were an American ship. When I said we were British he still maintained we were American and that we were from Freetown. …. he asked if we had provisions, I said yes, but could do with more, whereupon he gave some orders, and a bag containing half a dozen loaves of bread were passed into the boat. When he ordered me back to the boat, he also remarked that he was sorry for us, and I replied that he could not possibly be sorrier for me than I was for myself and all ahead of us.” Roberts was thinking of the huge distances he and his men were from land – Crook says that before motoring away the commander waved his megaphone to the west, “as if telling us to make in that direction.”
Captain Roberts continued: “Before he left I asked him if he would tell our other boats to get in touch with us so that we could place some more of our men in them. He said he would, but apparently he did not do so. When he left us he circled out of our sight at a fast speed and later resumed the shelling of our ship, causing the starboard side bunkers to catch fire which later enveloped the whole after end. This fire continued all night, we lost count of all the number of shells fired, but the number was considerable.”
The actual emblem of U-172 under Emmermann.
Source: Hogel, Georg, “U-Boat Emblems of World War II, 1939 – 1945,” Schiffer Military History, Atglen, PA, 199, page 68
SS Empire Austen as the SS Freecrest after the war. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SS_Empire_Austen
Water dipper from lifeboat submitted to the BBC by Edmund Crichton whose father served as an engineer on the Athelknight and kept this souvenir as he boarded the Empire Austen.
Acorn Archive, Hearts of Oak: A good site for Athel Line tankers: http://freepages.family.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~treevecwll/athelknight.htm