Tønsbergfjord (survivors met up with those from the Montevideo on Dutch Telamon)
The Norwegian twin-propeller freighter Tønsbergfjord was built by A/S Götaverken of Gothenburg, Sweden in 1930. According to Siri Lawson of Warsailors.com she was launched on the 24th of March almost exactly a dozen years before her demise and delivered to her owners, n Norske Amerikalinje A/S (the Norwegian-American Line) of Oslo in May of that year. She was propelled by two oil engines, meaning her redundant propulsion was more advanced than most single-screw, steam-driven ships of the time. Weighing in at 3,156 gross tons, her dimensions were 349 feet in length by 50.2 feet wide and 20.6 feet deep. The day after the invasion of Norway on April 9, 1940 Tønsbergfjord arrived in Madras, India and made her way back to convoys in the North Atlantic via Marseilles and Gibraltar. Her 1941 voyages are documented in the Norwegian National Archives (warsailors.com/singleships/tonsbergfjord).
From winter to spring 1942 Tønsbergfjord sailed under Captain Storm Jørgensen with a crew of 33 men. She left Bombay bound for New York carrying a cargo of rubber and tea, calling in at Cape Town and Trinidad to refuel along the way. On the first of March Tønsbergfjord sailed from Trinidad on the final leg of her voyage and by the evening of the 6th had reached a point roughly 120 to 165 miles southwest of Bermuda. According to survivors reports (NARA2), she was steaming on a course northwest at a speed of 11 knots, blacked out and not zigzagging at 6:20 pm in the evening local time when attacked. There were two lookouts, one on the navigation bridge and another atop it (on what is called the monkey island), the radio was silent, and the seas were rough and visibility low. The Tønsbergfjord was unarmed thirty of her crew were Norwegian and three of them – cabin boys named Lee Ah Hing, Lee Tww Ping, and Lee Ah Yok, were Chinese.
According to the attack report by Carlo Fecia di Cossato (obtained from researcher Platon Alexiedes of Montreal, Canada), the Royal Italian submarine (R.Smg. for short) Enrico Tazzoli first saw the Tønsbergfjord at 6:36 pm, presumably Greenwich time. The ship was steering 330 degrees north-northwest and was seen at a distance of 18,000 meters, which was the outer limit of visibility. Pursuing the Tønsbergfjord from a concealed submerged position took longer than had the submarine opted for a surface attack, and it took many hours before the sub was in a position to fire two torpedoes. From 01:05 Greenwich time until 04:10 the sub chased the merchant ship, keeping an eye on it through the periscope. At 05:00 the Tazzoli fired its first torpedo, and two minutes later it struck the ship. Ten minutes later – at 05:12 the sub fired a second torpedo, which also found its mark.
The first torpedo hit the engine room and the second one just aft of the same space. Thirty two of the thirty three men abandoned ship in two of the port lifeboats which had been undamaged by the explosion. On making a head-count they presumed that their ship mate, Mechanic Olav Larsen Hagen, had been killed in the engine space below. In another case of “back from dead” however (see the survivors of the Illinois, who fortuitously popped up after the ship had sunk), Hagen in fact survived. Here is what he experienced, as recounted to a journalist in the Norwegian Magazine “Krigsseileren”, Issue No. 3 for 1976 (Warsailors.com):
“…he was on duty in the engine room when the torpedo hit, causing all the lights to go out and the water to start rushing into the room. He swam around in the dark and by feeling his way around he was able to recognize certain items which helped him determine where he was so that he eventually found the ladder leading up to the boat deck. The ship was being shelled “by the Germans”, but he managed to get to the top bridge where a small lifeboat was located. However, just as he was about to get into it the “Germans” fired again and destroyed the boat. He moved across to the other side of the deck for shelter but just then another torpedo(?) hit, knocking him over and injuring his back. He tried to launch another lifeboat but it was crushed against the side of the ship, so he turned his attention to the rafts, but again “the Germans saw him” and started shooting, hitting one of the buoyance tanks underneath the raft. He launched it and lay completely still in it until morning, when he was somehow able to dress the wounds on his back and elsewhere on his body with the help of the first aid kit found on the raft.”
The position given by di Cossato for the attack was 30.15N by 67.45W, and by Captain Jørgensen as 31.00N by 67.40W, accounting for the varying distances from land. Once the two lifeboats full of crew pulled away from the ship, di Cossato moved in with artillery to finish her off. According to survivor reports, “the submarine surfaced about 22:30 [local time], …and shelled Tonsbergsfjord six times at the rate of one shell per minute from a distance of fifty to sixty yards” – which is the equivalent of point-blank range. The Norwegian survivors claimed that their ship was attacked by two submarines, though they never sighted more than one. This claim must be discounted as a result of the fog of war, as Tazzoli was the only Axis sub in that area at the time, and her movements are well documented (she had sunk the Astrea not far away only the day before). The ship’s codes were thrown overboard by Captain Jorgensen, and Tazzoli’s crew were not seen to board the ship.
Tonsbergsfjord was witnessed sinking at 22:40 local time according to the crew, which would be twenty minutes after the first torpedo struck. Di Cossato reports that at 05:30 Greenwich time, also twenty minutes after the first torpedo was fired, the ship sank. Before sailing off at 06:00 the crew plucked a life ring from the surface of the sea which had the name Tonsbergsfjord printed on it – photos of her wildly successful mission show her crew brandishing the life ring as a trophy from the conning tower. Yet di Cossato in his contemporaneous report does not give the ship’s and only (over) estimates her tonnage as 5,000.
The order of survivors landed were: eighteen in Haiti on 16th March, one survivor in Halifax on or after the 17th of March, and fourteen in New Orleans on the 23rd. As we shall see, because of the prevailing winds (from the southeast), the proximity to Bermuda was of little relevance to the survivors, who were landed far apart, those landed in New Orleans having been picked up of Jacksonville, twelve days sailing to the southwest from where the ship was sunk . It simply didn’t make sense for a lifeboat to try and sail upwind to the nearest land. Indeed Captain Jorgensen set off to the south-southwest, and was rewarded by rescue from the Dutch steamer Telamon on the 13thof March at position 29.20N by 70.00W. The Telamon was the same ship which rescued the survivors of the Montevideo, a Uruguayan steamer sunk two days after the Tonsbergfjord and further to the south.
According to her survivor reports, the lifeboats from each respective ship met – amazingly – on the high seas. They had been sunk by the same submarine roughly two days and 200 miles apart. According to the Montevideo survivors, “…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). The Norwegians were surprisingly reticent on this point, making no mention in their survivor statements about meeting Montevideo survivors. This mix of nationalities – Uruguayan, Norwegian, Chinese and Dutch – sailed together on the Telamon for only a few days before being cast off along the north coast of Haiti three miles from the port of Jeremie, to which they were obliged to row. Ashore they were met with deep suspicion by the locals, who felt that a boat load of Nordic-looking types might be Nazi submariners come ashore to set up a base.
The story of how the two groups of survivors (the Montevideo crew say they were fifty total, in fact they were 49 – 31 plus 18 from Tonsbergfjord), is well told in the chapter on the Montevideo. The difference in narrative styles – the Uruguayans bemoaning that two of their injured crew who were left behind in Jeremie, and singing to keep away the blues as they wended their way across the mountains of Haiti to Port-au-Prince and the Norwegians stoicly withstanding the oracular onslaught in silence in the same bus – provides an interesting cultural contretemps. Here is a quote from the Uruguayan survivors describing the truck ride:
“The boys distracted themselves from the shaking by singing off-key renditions of old tangos and song that brought back memories of loved owns. …Sometimes voices became hoarse and choked silent by a knot of anxiety that pressed very hard in the throat. …It was in those moments that you could appreciate the efforts of some of the muchachos trying to tell stories and jokes to distract others from their sad thoughts. It was useless, as every heart had an image, a mother, wife, girlfriend… the deep tenderness that he wanted to crystalize in loving, kissing…” (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).
The Norwegian reaction to the trip and recorded narrative or this portion of the trip? Nothing on record. They did however give depositions to Naval authorities on arrival in the capital, as “The maritime inquiry was held at Port-au-Prince, Haiti on March 20-1942 with the captain, the 2nd mate, the boatswain and Mechanic Stockvik attending (all of whom had been asleep in their cabins when the attack occurred)” (Warsailors.com). Unlike the Montevideo survivors, who had a Pan Am plane chartered to take them to Trinidad, little is known of the final disposition of the Tonsbergfjord survivors after Haiti.
We continue with the story of Mechanic Hagen, who was all but lifeless, lashed to a raft in the wide expanse of the Atlantic, utterly alone for nearly a week:
“Due to the gale force winds he had to tie himself to the damaged, lopsided raft to keep from ending up in the sea, until he on the 7th(?) day [at 10 pm local time, on the 12th of March at position 31.29N by 67.49W] saw a tanker coming straight towards him. To his horror the tanker turned around and headed in the opposite direction, but thanks to Petter Skodje, who had spotted movement on the raft, Arthur W. Sewall [under Captain Wilhelm K. Pallesen] came back and picked him up. He was taken to a hospital in Halifax and later settled there, as so many other Norwegian seamen did after the war.” (Id., Lawson, Warsailors.com). The Arthur W. Sewall was built by Sir W. G. Armstrong of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne England in 1926 and owned by Prebensen & Blakstad of Risor, Norway. She was later sunk after stubbornly refusing to sink southwest of the Canary Islands by U-109 under Heinrich Bleichrodt on 7 August, 1942 (wrecksite.eu and uboat.net).
Chief Officer Inge Kristian Svendsen’s boat with a total of fourteen crew in it sailed southwest to Florida for nearly two weeks. When they were discovered by the fellow Norwegian ship Velma at 10:40 pm local time on March 18th, (they must have used lights or flares to be seen as the ship would have been blacked out), they were only 60 miles east of Jacksonville, Florida. Had they altered course more to the South they would have landed on Abaco probably several days earlier. They were landed in New Orleans on the 23rd of March, the last survivors to make it ashore. The Velma was a 9,720-ton tanker which like the Tongsbergsfjord was build int Gothenburg in 1930. Her captain was Agvall Bertrand Henriksen and she was operated by the Anglo American Oil Company of London for the Ministry of War Transport in the UK from June 9, 1940 for the duration of the war, which she survived. She had been owned by Halfdan Ditlev-Simonsen and Company of Oslo (Warsailors.com). Renamed Valmar and flagged to Liberia in 1956, she was broken up in Venezuela in 1962 (Id.).
Eventually the tales of all three sets of survivors – totaling 33 men – were woven together to make the kind of survivor tableau which, while geographically exotic, was not uncommon at the time. One cannot help but think of the survivors of the Mariana, Albert F. Paul, Mamura and Muskogee who toiled away in their lifeboats and rafts waiting for the kind of rescue afforded the three groups of Tonsbergfjord survivors, only to have their hopes dashed, dying lonely deaths on the high seas – in the case of Mariana a mere day’s sale from land.