NOTE: The author interviewed survivor Alan Shard in person in Vancouver, BC, Canada.
The British 5,216-ton motor ship Putney Hill was built in 1940 by William Doxford and Sons Limited of Sunderland, England. Her first and only owners were Counties Ship Management Company of Oakley Court, Windsor. The ship was 130.3 meters long, 17.2 meters wide and was propelled by an oil-fired engine at 12 knots.
The 38-man crew of the Putney Hill was led by Captain Donald MacWilliam Hughson, a man neither well liked nor well regarded by some of his Apprentices in light of his perceived severity. Captain Hughson was more charitable towards his crew in his reports to both US and British interrogators, commending them highly. There were four Naval Gunners and two described simply as “military” who must have come from the army artillery. The ship was armed with a 4-inch gun, another 12-pounder, two Marlin machine guns, two strip Lewis machine guns and rockets and kites.
It was towards the end of a long voyage from Haifa, Israel in the Red Sea via Suez and Cape Town South Africa for bunkers. The ship was only a week away or so from her destination of New York. In New York she was to load a military cargo for a convoy to Archangel or Murmansk, Russia. Up until that point her only voyage was to the west coast of Canada and back to the UK via Panama in convoy HX 72. Then the cargo to the Middle East which precipitated this trip. At the time of her demise Putney Hill was travelling in ballast.
U-203 under the youthful Rolf Mutzelburg came across Putney Hill quite by chance according to her crew, at 12:50 pm. This began a pursuit of nearly twelve hours. At about 1 pm the sub plotted the ship’s speed at 12 knots in partially cloudy and rainy conditions as it struggled to keep up with the ship on the surface – undetected by the men on the merchant ship. At 2:12 pm the sub crash dived and at 2:35 fired a torpedo at an angle of 90 degrees from 3,300 feet and 10 feet of depth. It missed as Mutzelburg had overestimated the ship’s speed. He noted in the submarine’s log book that “due to broaching of torpedo the miss was probably detected,” however it appears to have been missed by the four lookouts on the Putney Hill.
The position at the time of the second attack, which began late on the 25th of June, 1942 was 24.20N by 63.16W. This is roughly midway between Anegada and Bermuda, and 450 miles northeast of San Juan. At 11:24 pm the submarine fired another torpedo, which detonated amidships. The ship was mortally struck. The submarine was so confident that it surfaced only six minutes later to finish the job by shelling. In that short time the freighter had already been abandoned.
There were four men on the bridge at the time of the attack – Third Mate S. Jenson had the watch and was lookout on the starboard side, Apprentice Allan Shard who had the port bridge wing, an Able Bodied Seaman at the helm, and a Standby A. B.. A Gunner stood lookout aft and Captain Hughson was either on lookout on the lower bridge or in his cabin. The Standby A. B. was just preparing to wake up the graveyard, or midnight watch and had just made coffee by “throwing a few handfuls of grind into a converted 5-pound jam tin with a wire handle and letting it stew on the galley stove.” Just as he began to head below to collect and distribute the coffee, he and Shard “were thrown into the air from the blast of a tremendous explosion at the waterline in Hold No. #2, slightly aft of the bridge structure.”
Oddly enough, even though the ship was hit on the port side, she assumed a list to starboard. This has to do with the fact that the ship was in ballast – when a large hole was ripped into the port side below the water line, all the water ballast spilled out, some of the water being replaced by air, which was buoyant, whereas the starboard tanks had only been mildly ruptured, and remained largely intact. As the starboard tanks started to drain into the half-empty port tanks, the ship gradually equalized its trim. In the meantime the guns, whose platforms had been damaged in any event, were pointing at useless angles.
Shard tried to figure out how he had missed seeing the torpedo, and concluded that it must have streaked down one of the moonbeams. There was a slight sea with a northeasterly wind blowing roughly 12 knots. The Putney Hill had been making 11 knots in a northwesterly direction – 279 degrees. She had been zig-zagging for three weeks since leaving Cape Town. Though equipped with degaussing equipment as an early warning system to detect U-boats, it was not activated at the time.
Captain Hughson dashed from one deck below to the bridge and quickly recognized that his ship would not remain afloat for long. He noted a vivid blue light which he attributed to fuel gasses traveling throughout the entire ship from the oil stored in double-bottom tanks throughout the length of the vessel. The explosion of the torpedo destroyed the galley and started a fire in the engine room. Both port lifeboats were smashed beyond repair, one of them with its back broken. The starboard side of the deck was bulged upwards and a crack or “split” spread down the ship’s side and half way across her deck. Gun posts, hatches, and beams had all collapsed and were in disarray on deck. Five minutes after the attack Hughson ordered abandon ship.
The only boats available to the 38 men were the starboard lifeboat and a small workboat designed for shuttling in enclosed harbors which is called a Jolly boat. The three Radio Operators (Cunningham, Stringfellow, and Greaves) managed to send as many SSS or SOS messages before leaving. Three rafts were let go in addition to the boats. Hughson became the twelfth man in the Jolly boat. Because the boats had never been launched, the wood was dried and water poured in between the seams. As a result the Jolly boat filled with water and became unstable. When the men in it became fidgety (“panicky and restless”), the boat capsized, and the men were forced to struggle onto the nearby rafts.
On the larger lifeboat things were not faring any better – it too filled to the gunwales, or tops of the sides, and capsized. As the clambered onto rafts and held onto the upturned boats the men’s attention was drawn to Mutzelburg’s submarine, which had surfaced and began shelling Putney Hill with 53 rounds from his 8.8-centimeter gun, of which 40 are estimated to have struck the ship. Roughly half an hour later, at ten minutes after midnight on the 26thof June, Putney Hill sank bow first. The Assistant Cook, J. Campbell was seen “hanging on the propeller, which was clear of the water… he was never seen again.”
Another Apprentice, K. F. Hancock, had an eventful time of it. He could not swim but had a life jacket and found an oar to support himself on. He was joined on the oar by Naval Gunner Jeffrey Banks, aged 20, from Northophall, North Wales. They drifted nearly a mile from the ship and then Banks panicked and tried to bring Hancock down with him, a sadly not uncommon reaction to drowning. Hancock says he managed to fight Banks off the oar and the latter drowned. He writes:
“I think the submarine spoke to the men in tone of the rafts, they asked the Captain to help them right their buat but he simply said You’ll be alright.” After putting her searchlights on to the lifeboats she cruised along at 5 or 6 knots, towards me; I was swept aside by the bow we and managed to catch hold of one of the slots along the side about three-quarters of the way from the after end to the conning tower. I climbed on deck an domes German sailors came along and helped me up, and on reaching the deck I collapsed.
Hancock was half naked, wet and miserable. Some German sailors gave him cigarettes but no food or clothes. About 30 of them – or most of the crew – came up on deck at various times to take in the action of the shooting. Mutzelburg did not address Hancock until he had been on deck for 15 or so minutes and the firing had stopped. When told that the ship was in ballast they did not believe it. “They were all young – ages between 18 and 24 – and looked healthy and cheerful, they were all dressed in tropical kit, shorts and singlets.”
When it was time for the submarine to submerge and leave the scene there were some awkward moments, as Hancock was strident to Mutzelburg about not being able to swim. There was no problem with communication, since Mutzelburg demonstrated that he knew Hancock’s neighborhood of Chelmsford very well, and claimed to have lived in East London for six years. The problem was that Hancock was not satisfied with the options the submariners gave him. The first raft they found was empty and half sunk, so they moved to another which was manned by eleven men. Hancock said they would never take him, but Mutzelburg got them to agree to do so. Second Officer J. D. MacKenzie then swam over to meet Hancock about halfway between the sub and the raft. Then the submarine motored off to the south.
Captain Hughson recognized that the first order of business was to right and bail out the lifeboat and Jolly boat. Leaving the non-swimmers on the raft, he obtained eight volunteers to turn the large boat broad-side to the swell and rock the boat upright. Hughson heaped praise on Able Seamen W. Dutton and D. Barry, and Greaser A. Turnbull for their efforts in righting the boat. Once that was achieved after “twenty minutes of real hard work” they succeeded, and Hughson and other began the laborious task of bailing and pumping the boat as dry as they could get it until the seams swelled together eight hours later. At dawn they repeated the process for the Jolly boat.
Once they had rounded up all the men on the rafts – including Hancock – and taken a roll call they realized that only two men were missing; Banks, who Hancock had seen drown, and Campbell, who several men on the raft had seen perish on the propeller. The Fourth Engineer, K. T. Cowling, was badly burned by scalding steam in the engine room. He was being looked after in the captain’s lifeboat by his brother, Third Engineer H. C. Cowling. There were 23 men in the lifeboat and 12 men on the Jolly boat, which had lost its oars and sailing equipment. The rafts were stripped of all food and water and anything useful, as a result of which the lifeboat had 36 gallons of fresh water and the smaller boat 14 gallons.
The boats set of together for the West Indies, the larger boat towing the smaller with a 90-foot line. Fortunately rained on the first three days and slaked the crew’s thirst. According to Shard the nights were cool but the scorching days were harder. Men who tried to cool their feet in the water found that they swelled. Although sharks were sighted, it was more frustrating to see fish sheltering underneath the boats and not be able to catch them. Two flying fish landed in the boats, and the Bosn, H. Davies ate one of them whole. Three of the Apprentices (Shard, Hancock, and J. R. Pearse) covered themselves with some torn canvas from the lifeboat cover until Third Mate Jenson (“a hulking Dane”) opted to liberate it from them. They didn’t object.
Seven days into the voyage Kenneth Cowling, the Fourth Engineer who had been scalded, died at the age of 28 on July 2nd. Oil from a burst pipeline in the engine room had burned him over two thirds of his body. His brother saved his gold wedding band and his body was committed to the deep. Two days later, on the afternoon of the third of July, a Royal Navy Corvette (Flower Class) named HMS Saxifrage came cautiously towards them, at first mistaking their boats for the conning tower of a submarine. When the learned that the men had been adrift over a week they stopped and pulled their countrymen aboard.
Though they could hardly stand the survivors were treated to baths, food and clothes. Shard met a young man from the same area he had grown up (Prestwich) named Ralph Posner, and was able to share the fellow’s cabin. The Saxifrage took the 35 men to their destination, San Juan, Puerto Rico, arriving on the 5th of July 1942. The Red Cross gave them more tropical clothes, though in Shard’s case this consisted of green striped pants and a pink shirt. As for food he admitted to his parents in a letter that “I would eat anything that didn’t bite me first.”
In San Juan two men were hospitalized at the Presbyterian Hospital. They were suffering from the exposure and shock. All of the experience an earthquake while on the island. Some were interviewed by E. F. Wilmerding, Lieutenant, Junior Grade in the US Naval Reserve. From San Juan Shard and others embarked on the United Fruit Company steamer Veragua, which took them to Norfolk Virginia. From there they spent “three glorious weeks” in New York City, where Mrs. Spalding ran the British Apprentice Club. Their repatriation to Europe took place under the designation ‘DBS’ for Distressed British Seamen, and was accomplished aboard the Norwegian N. T. Nielsen Alonzo, which took them to Greenock, Scotland.