SS Freden attacked by U-201/Schnee and U-98/Schulze in Spring 1942 and survived both unscathed

S.S. FREDEN, Attack & Survivor Narrative
By Eric T. Wiberg, Esq., August, 2014

Freden while in port. Note the Swedish flag off transom, and wooden bridge rails. The diminutive size of the ship, as well as wear and tear, is evident in this image.

Source: Steamship Historical Society of America,
The Swedish steamship Freden was delivered from the A/S Kvaerner Moss Vaerft shipyard in Moss, Norway on 10thNovember 1924 as yard # 41. The name stands for “Peace” and would serve her well in the waters around Bermuda. Her first owners were the Bechs Rederi A/S of Tvedestrand, Norway, and she was managed by C. Bech. The ship’s dimensions were 231.3 feet between perpendiculars and her beam was 36.6 feet. Her 2-cylinder, triple-expansion steam engine with a single boiler drove one propeller, giving the vessel a speed of 9.5 knots when built. The ship’s tonnage was 1,191 gross (also given to US authorities at 1,172).  In 1929 Freden was sold to the Swedish firm of Rederi A/B Ferlef (also known as Anders Smith, given to US authorities as A.N.D. Smith), of Udevalla – a firm that operated from 1875 to 1953.

On February 8th, 1929 the Freden was sailing between Venezuela (Maracaibo) and Cuba, with a bunkering call at Kingston Jamaica that day (“Kingston Gleaner,” Feb. 8, 1929). In May of 1942 the Freden was plying a route between New York and Bermuda, often in company of another small Swedish tramp ship named the Anna. The Freden went on to survive at least two submarine attacks between Bermuda and the mainland US. The first recorded attack on the Freden began at 9:30 pm on Monday, May 4th, 1942.

Freden sailed from Bermuda on the Sunday the 3rd of May under the command of Captain E. Svensson, who was Swedish. The ship sailed in ballast, with no cargo, and her destination was New York, there to load more urgently needed supplies for the islands – she and another Swedish tramper named Anna were accustomed to the route from Bermuda to the US by this time. She was plodding along at 81/4 knots heading northwest. The vessel’s draft was a mere six feet deep below the water line forward and ten feet six inches aft – a difficult target for a submarine to reach with a torpedo. Hitting an underbelly that shallow would be like having a short table cloth too high for a puppy to jump up and reach with its teeth, try as it might.

Conditions were good that evening: the weather was fine, the stars were out, and the moon rose at midnight. Though visibility was good the seas were rough and there was a wind of some 20-25 knots out of the southwest. What happened next in fairly quick succession was that an unseen assailant fired four torpedoes at the ship. To clarify the foregoing activity, here is a condensation:

  • ·        9:30 pm: first torpedo observed forward of ship passing right to left, starboard to port, 20-50 feet deep
  • ·        10:00 pm: second torpedo passed beneath the Freden amidships from starboard to port (same side) – passing deep
  • ·        11:00 pm: third passed beneath the ship forward of the bridge, time left to right/port to starboard, about 10 feet below the hull.
  • ·        11:30 pm: fourth and final torpedo passed just forward of the Freden, very close, from port to starboard, again about 10 feet beneath the surface

What is interesting is that at no time during two hours of attack did the merchant ship send out a radio SOS or SSS (submarine sighted) signal on its (presumably functioning radio – it’s radio antennae are clearly visible in the photo above). Also no evasive action was taken by Captain Svensson until after the torpedoes had all been fired (the submarine had only two left at that point and didn’t wish to expend them on so unlikely a target) and the submarine surfaced. Nor did the attentive Swedes, who all rushed up on deck, hear any of the torpedoes exploding in what is called an end-run detonation.

At the time of the initial attack there were two lookouts on duty from a crew of just 19 men – one on each bridge wing. The Swede standing on the starboard bridge wing witnessed the first torpedo zip past less than a ship’s length ahead of the Freden. Soon all of the officers and most of the men from the ship’s complement were on deck waiting to see what happened next. Half an hour later they found out – a second missile passing right under the ship, seen heading away on the port side after missing the hull. Captain Svensson said he saw “the white stripe of a torpedo pass under the vessel at a considerable depth.”

An anxious hour passed as the Freden plodded slowly on her original course. Then a torpedo set for a shallower depth – but not shallow enough to make contact – buzzed past, from port to starboard just forward of amid-ships. The fourth and final projectile passed ahead of the bow half an hour after the third. This one was set to so shallow a depth that it porpoised out of the water, and even changed its course one it passed ahead of the Freden, but still did not make contact. The missile made the noise of an airplane as it passed and was heard in his cabin by one of the ship’s stewards. No smoke was observed coming from any of the torpedoes.

Ironically the greatest level of activity took place after the four torpedoes had been fired, as U-201 under Kapitänleutnant Adalbert Schnee rose to the surface to observe its stubborn adversary. The Freden men saw the sub, its decks awash, off the port mid-ships roughly 1,000 yards (1/4 to ½ a mile) distant. At that point Captain Svensson was convinced that the Freden was due for an imminent attack by the U-boat’s considerable arsenal of deck artillery, and he decided to create as small a target as possible and abandon ship. He turned the Freden away from U-201 with the wind astern, and all 19 men safely boarded two lifeboats.
Then the story becomes even stranger: despite having every advantage over the unarmed and abandoned ship, the Germans did not press home an artillery attack. It turns out that Schnee considered the quarry to be suspiciously easy and very possibly a decoy (see below). At any event, the Swedish crew diligently followed their mother ship from the lifeboats for about nine hours, until daybreak. Together the three craft – ship and two boats – drifted between 10 and 15 miles.

When the men decided to re-board their charge at 8:30 am their position was roughly 36.00N by 69.20W. Seeing no German submarine around, they re-fired the engine and set course for New York on Tuesday the 5fh of May. They arrived and relayed their story to incredulous naval intelligence officers in New York after arriving on that Friday the 8thof May 1942.

Prof. Stephen Aranha, a native German-speaker, read the German attack diary, or KTB, and paraphrased it as follows: “Even before he fires the first shot, he suspects it’s a trap. Fires anyway, misses, blames faulty torpedo for steering in wrong direction. Fires three more, they all miss, and his suspicions that it’s a trap increase, which is why he decides not to attack with artillery. At this point, the Germans are down to their last two torpedoes.”

To understand the context of the other attack on the Freden while it sailed independently, it is important to remember what happened to U-boat commander Reinhard Hardegen when his sub U-123 attacked a US-navy-manned decoy ship (called a Q-ship) named Atik (former name Carolyn). In that instance the USS Atik (AK 101) while on its first night of decoy work, sailed a straight course in the day and zig zagged on no apparent course at night. On the night of 26/27 March 1942 Hardegen approached and unsuspectingly fired a torpedo into the ship’s bow cargo hold. No large plume of water or explosion resulted, since the cargo holds were stuffed with floatable kapok. The “panic party” of navy men dressed as merchant mariners duly scrambled from the ship in two lifeboats, though clearly the ship was afloat.

In fact as Hardegen approached to within firing range the Atik turned and tried to ram the sub, dropped down false bulkheads at the rails, and opened fire on U-123 with guns and machine guns, killing a midshipman. Infuriated, Hardegen hastily retreated out of range, but sent a deliberately lethal salvo into the ship’s engines – it had stopped to pick up the men in the boats (a fatal decision for all on board).
The weather turned foul, the men all abandoned ship, and the weather and miscommunication ashore (after all the mission was ultra secret) did the rest: altogether all 141 naval officers and men aboard the Atik perished that night, led by Lieutenant Commander Harry Lynnwood Hicks. Ironically the US commanders learned the details of the ship’s loss from German communiques.
Kapitänleutnant Adalbert Schnee, commander of U-201 during the Freden attack. Credited with attacking 26 ships of over 125,000 GRT tons, he went on to be awarded the Knights Cross with Oak Leaves, one of the Kreigsmarine’s highest honors. He began his naval career on the cruiser Leipzig in 1936 and ended it in late April 1945 aboard the new diesel-electric submarine U-2511.
According to the KTB or war diary of U-201 under Adalbert Schnee, the torpedoes were fired at or between the following coordinates CA 9831 35°39’00″N, 069°26’00″W which is a mere seven nautical miles from where Freden reported her attack (34.45N, 69.35W). This is 300 nautical miles east of Cape Hatteras, and 285 nautical miles northwest of Bermuda. Another position given for the ship was 35.36N, 69.35W – virtually on top of Schnee’s position.

Given the distances involved and the fact that both parties were navigating at night using only celestial navigation, the margin of error makes the difference negligible. In other words, the sub and ship were reported by their respective master/commander as being at virtually the same place and the same time. This is important since most sources in print and online credit (or discredit) Kapitänleutnant Hellmut Rathke with the failed attack on the Freden.

Rathke’s sub, U-352 was attacked and sunk five days later, on the 9th of May 1942, by the US Coast Guard Cutter Icarus off Cape Hatteras. Though 15 perished, 33 were rescued, including Rathke. What makes clarifying who attacked whom, it appears that Rathke admitted fruitlessly attacking a ship, and the attack was attributed to that on the Freden. However U-201/Schnee’s log book, or KTB, makes it emphatically clear that he in fact led the attack on Freden at the specific time in question and the specific location.

Chart showing movements of U-201/Schnee during before and after the attack on Freden.

Source: Google earth, author’s inputs based on and KTB data from

The second incident where the Freden was attacked but escaped has been verified as an attack by the German submarine U-98, under Korvettenkapitän Wilhelm Schulze on 19thMay, 1942. The war diary of U-98 under for the incident reads:

“At 1345 see “at least” three vessels. A US Coast Guard cruiser (Campbell class) [USS Heroic, AMc84] and two freighters [Swedish SS Freden and Anna], approx. 5000-6000 tons, doing approx. 11 knots. They are down to their last three bow torpedoes, so they plan to attack the cruiser first, then the two freighters.

At 1508, they try to fire the first torpedo, and have difficulty getting it out, but I don’t understand the details. It sounds like they fire the other two, before they discover a fourth vessel, a “U-boat hunter” [USS Owl] behind the second freighter (at 1519).

1535 – discover a fifth vessel, a converted fishing steamer (“guard vessel”), which turns and comes towards them, so they go down to 40m. [this is most likely the USS Heroic, an armed merchant cruiser – in reality there were only four vessels in the convoy total].

1555 two Wabo [water bomb or depth charges] damage the U-boat, which takes in some water, and becomes difficult to control. They manage to stabilize it at 85 meters [280 feet].

1618 two additional Wabo [depth charges] detonate at 45m, but aren’t as close as the previous ones.

1643 – can no longer hear enemy…..”

The Freden, Anna, and the entire convoy escaped since the submarine’s firing equipment was off calibration due to the depth charge attack/s. It was a close call by any standard and shots had indeed been fired, as the USS Owl personnel attested to having had a torpedo pass ahead of its bow. After this close call the Owl escorted the Anna and the Freden back from Bermuda to Norfolk, where they arrived in the Navy Yard on the 29thof May 1942.

Seemingly blessed, the Freden survived the war. A typical entry in various Allied war diaries is from the USS Reading (PF-66). It reads: “0600 – Ordered off station by C.T.G. 60.8 to intercept strange vessel identified as the Swedish freighter FREDEN.” This was dated 26 January 1945 as the USS Reading was escorting a convoy, towards the end of the war in the Atlantic. On 11 February 1944 the Freden was escorted from Argentia to St. John’s Newfoundland by two Canadian and one British warship (HMCS Goderich, HMCS Cailiff, and HMS Berkeley Castle) along with two other merchant ships.

In 1954 her new owners, Koehn & Bohlmann Reed. A.G. of Hamburg Germany renamed her the Ingeborg. The arrangement lasted for six years, until 1960, when Alnwich Harmstorf GmbH of Lubeck broke the little ship up. Freden arrived for its fate on the 8thof February, 1960.

Adalbert Schnee also survived the war after moving to shore and then back to U-boat command in 1945. After working as a commercial representative and heading up the leading German U-Boat crew association, he became the leader of a sail training school on the Mediterranean island of Elba. He lived until the age of 68, passing away in Hamburg in 1982.
Busch, R. and Röll, H-J., German U-boat commanders of World War II, 1999 – for the war diaries and deck logs of USS Owl and convoy notes for SS Freden
Gannon, Michael, “Operation Drumbeat,” Naval Institute Press, Annapolis MD, 2009 – for a detailed description of the U-123/USS Atik battle – the best account this author has found (I spoke with Mr. Gannon and his advice to me was “tell both sides of the story.”

Gentile, Gary, “The Fuhrer’s U-Boats in American Waters,” Bellerophon Bookworks, Philadelphia PA, 2006

 “Kingston Gleaner,” Feb. 8, 1929, Jamaica – for details of Freden’s movements before the war, as found at
Kurowski, Franz, “Knight’s Cross Holders of the U-Boat Service,” Schiffer Military / Aviation History, Atlglen, PA, 1995

Mason, Capt. Jerry, for English translation of U-136’s diary or KTB
“Survivors Statements,” from NARA, in Washington DC, as found by Michael Constandy, Formal citation: Survivor’s Statements (1941-1942) Series : Papers of Vice Admiral Homer N. Wallin, compiled 1941 – 1974Record Group 38: Records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, 1875 – 2006  Entry P-13.  National Archives at College Park – Textual Reference (Military) 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD 20740, Rainer Kolbicz and Gudmundur Helgason,