MT Ensis attacked by U-572 Hirsacker, survived 3 torpedo attacks in WWII

MT ENSIS, Attack & Survivor’s Narrative

 by Eric T. Wiberg,, July, 2014

Photo courtesy of the Library of Contemporary History, Stuttgart, Germany, from and

The British tanker Ensis was built in 1937 by the NV Rotterdamsche Droogdok Mij, at Rotterdam as hull number 195. The name refers to a genus of razor clams, appropriate for an owning firm named Shell and whose symbol is a shell. Her tonnage was 6,207 gross registered tons and call sign was GZLP. The ship’s owners were the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Company Limited of London, later known as Shell Tankers of the United Kingdom. One of her sister ships was the Opalia, which was also struck by a U-boat off Bermuda.

The Ensis was a blessed ship. She has the rare distinction of having survived not just one or two torpedo attacks by U-boat, but three of them During one attack this fiesty vessel, under command of Captain William Turnbull, OBE, counter-attacked and rammed the offending submarine, sending the U-boat (U-46 under Engelbert Endrass), back to base for repairs.
The attack occurred in the North Atlantic on 8th June 1941. Two torpedoes hit Ensis, and one of them exploded, making a hole in the hull, however the other was a dud. According to the Associated Press, this became “one of the most dramatic stories of the Battle of the Atlantic yet told.” Snippets from news articles at the time tell the story: “For three days and nights the hardy crew of the torpedoed British tanker Ensis bobbed in a lifeboat in the North Atlantic, radioing frantic messages foe help with a portable radio they had rigged up…”
“….Radio operators at sea heard it and sympathized. ….they assumed that other ships in the area were afraid to make the rescue for fear of running into the submarine that hit the Ensis. …One British seaman said they passed close to the lifeboat, then about 600 miles north of the Azores…. After the third day the radio was silent. Listeners assumed the ship and its crew were gone. …[But]… the Ensis crew returned to their ship after sending volunteers aboard to close tanks and watertight bulkheads. The crew then sailed her more than 1,000 miles across the Atlantic.” They arrived at St. John’s Newfoundland on the 15th of June and the crew returned to the UK in early July 1942.

Another news article, this by UP rather than AP, quotes Wireless Operator Alan Gillett and says that after hitting Ensis with a single torpedo, Endrass approached the ship to within 20 yards and then sent two more torpedoes into her (, claiming a spread of two torpedoes, is more reliable as it is based on Endrass’ KTB or War Diary).

The men were by this time hauled clear in lifeboats. Several hours after the U-boat departed some of the merchant sailors re-boarded the stricken tanker to grab blankets and provisions. “The next day the ship was still above water. Although her back seemed likely to break at any moment, the chief wireless operator and others boarded her again, repaired the transmitter and sent out an SOS. When rescue ships arrived, the captain and crew decided to sail for Newfoundland – and eight days later they crept into the harbor at St. John’s.”
In the course of World War II the Ensis participated in over 66 convoys. Four of these (BHX 43, 70, 86 and 111) originated in Bermuda between May 1940 and February 1941, with Halifax as the destination. Many others were Trans-Atlantic convoys between Halifax and Liverpool or to Gibraltar. In January 1942 Ensis sailed from Halifax to Liverpool in Convoy SC 66.

From Liverpool to Trinidad (to refuel) and Curacao the Ensis appears to have sailed independently. She was under the command of Captain William Turnbull, and as we have seen her radio operator was presumably still Alan Gillett. One of the junior engineers on board was Norman W. J. Henney, who was also a member of Ensis’ gun crew. Many of the ship’s crew were Chinese. In Curacao the ship loaded some 9,000 tons of aviation spirit destined for Iceland for Allied patrol aircraft stationed there.

Ensis was unaccompanied on her voyage when she sailed into the sites of U-572 under Kapitänleutnant Heinz Hirsacker. U-572 began its patrol in Brest, France on the 14th of March and ended in La Pallice on the 14th of May, exactly two months later. The two First Watch Officers were Uwe Christiansen and Hans-Günther Brosin. Though Hirsacker developed a reputation for rather patchy execution in his attacks (see photo caption below for his court-martial for cowardice and subsequent suicide), he went on to sink two ships on this patrol: the Desert Light of Panama on 16 April and Empire Dryden of the UK on the 20th.

Kapitänleutnant Heinz Hirsacker whilst commissioning U-572 in Hamburg. He was court-martialed for cowardice and upon being sentenced to death killed himself on 24 April 1943 at 28.

Photo source:

When Hirsacker came across the Ensis at about midnight local time (7:37 AM German time), he described it in his war diary as “A dimmed tanker” and noted that though the ship was defensively zig zagging, the general course was 60 degrees, or northeast – the heading for Iceland from Curacao. The wind at the time was about 15 knots, the sea fairly settled, visibility 5 miles due to a bright moon.

Hirsacker fired his first of three torpedoes less than two hours after sighting the Ensis. From a range of 2,000 meters it missed. Next he tried a stern shot over an hour later, calculating ship’s speed at 10 knots. It too missed. At 10:53 German time he tried a shot from about 900 meters, close-in, and another “unexplained” miss. At this point the commander notes that:

“On the last approach I must have been seen, he turned away and gets the boats ready. Now I shoot at him with machine guns and 8.8 cm. Range 600 meters. Machine gun hits were observed on the forecastle. He shoots with his machine guns and his cannon again, I must turn away, because his shots lie close by me and it is bright. On the 600-meter wave the tanker gives his name and position. It is the armed tanker “ENSIS” 6702 GRT from London.” 

The attack woke up junior engineer Norman Henney, whose son relates: “My father was on the 4-8 watch, and during the afternoon was catching up on his sleep. The ship was passing just off Bermuda, when the ship’s alarm bells sounded. My father looked out of the porthole and there, lo and behold, approximately 400-500 yards away, was a German U-boat!”

This sighting of a U-boat in broad daylight was reported to US naval authorities but is only partly corroborated by U-572’s war diary. Hirsacker writes that on the afternoon of 3rdApril a “heavily yawing mast sighted about 3nm. I dive, so at to approach submerged. After about 4,000 meters nothing is seen. Again surfaced. Sighted mast has disappeared in the short time and at the short range this is inexplicable. The presumption is that it was a U-boat with a far extended periscope.”

Henney continues: “The crew of my father’s ship was Chinese, and there was a 4.7in gun mounted on a platform at the aft end of the vessel. My father was a member of the gun crew. They opened fire on the U-boat, who returned the fire from a gun mounted on their foredeck. You can imagine my father’s feelings at sitting on top of 9,000 tons of aviation fuel, and involved in a serious conflict with a German U-boat. My father’s ship was hit once on the foredeck, but luckily the deck was not punctured, and there was only superficial damage to the steam and vent pipes.”

Wireless Operator Gillett performed his job well, as both the US and British navies recorded the distress call. The first call is logged in the Eastern Sea Frontier Enemy Action Diary at 6:10pm, giving credibility to Henney’s account that the action began in daytime. The position given was 460 nautical miles east of Wimble Shoals, North Carolina. Then at 5:10 AM on April 4th the Ensis reports being machine-gunned by a submarine, and again at 7:30 AM that the submarine is “still following – require assistance.”

The British received a similar message, with the addition that the Ensis is fighting back: “machine-gunned by U-boat, engaging (Ends)”. This message was received in Bermuda, sent to Halifax, and from there to Admiralty in London. The US naval Operating Base in Bermuda took prompt action to come to the aid of the Ensis, sending its night patrol aircraft to the scene of the attack, where the plane effectively deterred U-572 from driving home a fatal attack. The order to send the plane to the Ensis went out at 10:00 PM: “ordered the night patrol plane to cover the ENSIS, who had sighted a submarine on survace about 150 miles away, about 7:30 P.M.” The weather was described as “partly cloudy.”

Hirsacker continues: “On the 600-meter wave he gives further: ‘Machine gunned by sub engaging. Request assistance.’ I believe that he is damaged. His speed slows, circles and shoots more with his cannon. His fire lies laterally well, however, 1 nm short. By radio gives his tuning code and radio call sign. I dive to attack submerged, however can not reach shooting position, and must hold contact on the surface. He now steers general course 90° with zig zags of 40-50° to port and starboard. Attempt once more to attack submerged. Again can not gain. From 16.55 hours the tanker has air escort.”

Henney continues from the Allies’ perspective: “The fight continued until nightfall, when my father’s ship was out of ammunition and still had not hit the target! They slid away from the danger in the darkness, and made Iceland in due course.”

Ensis in front of Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa, probably before or after WWII as there is no deck gun visible and she is not painted dull gray.

Photo source: Helder Line website:

For over four hours – between 4:55 and 9:15 PM German time – Hirsacker stayed within sight of the Ensis, however he was deterred from pressing home a 6th attack (or fire a 4th torpedo), however the air cover prevents him doing so. After breaking off the attack due to air attacks which forced them to crash dive three times, Hirsacker made a rendezvous with fellow U-boat U-202 under Hans-Hienz Linder.

After this oddly social behaviour in the middle of an attack, Hirsacker notes that the U-572 “Dived for sound bearings. Tanker is still heard well. Continued pursuit. Is not found again in the night.” Nearly 20 hours elapsed since the first attack yet none of his torpedos ever did find their mark. Ultimately Hirsacker set course for south-southwest and Cape Hatteras where he would have better luck.

Later the same month the Ensis successfully crossed the Atlantic in convoy HX 184 from Halifax to Liverpool, then joined Convoy WN 272 bound from Loch Ewe to Methil and FS 784 from Methil to Southend in the UK. By May she was back in business, sailing in Convoy TO 3 between Trinidad and Curacao, having crossed the Atlantic in ON 93 from Liverpool. Later that Fall Captain Turnbull was back in the UK in order to receive an “Order of the British Empire,” or OBE award for his bravery and determination in the face of the attack by U-572 in the Ensis.
The citation for his award, published in the London Gazette on the 6th of November, 1942, reads:

“Twice on the same day the ship, while making an independent voyage, sighted an enemy submarine. The second time it was clear that an attack was imminent. The Master sounded the alarm, and ordered everyone to action stations. The enemy opened fire and the ship replied. Her shooting was so go that she almost certainly damaged the enemy who, when last seen that day, has ceased fire with her main gun. The next morning the submarine was again sighted. The ship opened fire and the enemy moved off and was soon out of sight. It was due to the Master’s resolute courage and seamanship that the ship was saved.”

In February 1944 U-407 under Herbertus Korndörfer caught the Ensis off the coast of Turkey near the Syrian border in the Mediterranean Sea. Once again the ship survived the attack, anchoring off Latakia Syria on the 29th of February (a leap year), for repairs. Ultimately the ship lasted over 21 years, being sent to the knackers, or breakers, in 1958 after an extraordinary career. 




AP / Associated Press: High Point, North Carolina paper, Thurs. July 3, 1942 “Story of Heroism of Seaman Related, British Crew of Torpedoed Tanker Survives.” By John A. Moroso, III, NY

BBC, WW2 People’s War, an oral history by Norman Henney about his father who served on the Ensis, dated 30 Jan. 2004

Blair, Clay, Hitler’s U-Boat War, Volume I: The Hunters, 1939 – 1942, paged 306 and 539

Busch, R. and H.-J. Röll, German U-boat Commanders of World War II, 1988

Cooper, Tony, for exemplary information on the convoys in which Ensis sailed

www.fold3.comBritish Admiralty records as well as Eastern Sea Frontier Enemy Action Diary

Hague, Arnold, convoy database maintained by Tony Cooper,

Helder, Kees, Helderline website, for photos, ship specs

Helgason, Gudmundur, Rainer Kolbicz,, 2014

Mason, Jerry, for KTB of U-572:

Mason, Jerry, for Enemy Action Diary on Ensis, Forum post with the OBE citation by Steve Huk Nov. 11, 2001:,3,349

Wynn, Kenneth U-boat Operations of the Second World War, Volume 1 and Volume 2, 1997