SS Harpagon sunk by U-109/Bleichrodt 150 miles from Bermuda, 8 survivors spent 34 days on a raft

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

Harpagon – a fuzzy photo. Since there is one less mast and the funnel is further aft, this is believed to be the actual ship built in 1935 (there are other, clearer, photos of a later Liberty purporting to be the Harpagon of 1935 online). The falls for the forward lifeboat can be seen either side of the forward mast. It is easy to see why this boat would have been shattered by a torpedo to the bow area.

Photo source:

The steam ship Harpagon was built by Lithgows, Limited of Glasgow Scotland in 1935. By 1942 her owners were J. & C. Harrison Limited of London. Her gross tonnage was 5,719 tons and dimensions were 429 feet long by 58.1 feet wide and 26 feet in depth. Her two triple-expansion engines generated 475 net horsepower and propelled the ship at 11 knots when built. On her final voyage the ship was armed with a 4-inch gun, a 12-pound gun, four Marlin and two Hotchkiss machine guns, two strip Lewis machine guns, and four parachute rockets and kites.  

Altogether there were 49 men (and boys) aboard the Harpagon: these included six naval gunners and two military, or army gunners. The other 41 officers and crew were merchant mariners. These men were led by Captain Robert Edward Laycock. Captain Laycock had been in command of Harpagon for at least five years, as the Sydney, Australia “Morning Herald” of October 22, 1937 records her arrival from Vancouver British Columbia under his command that day. Aged 59 at the time of the attack on his ship, his parents were Robert and Sarah.

On her maiden visit to Newcastle Australia in January 1938 the local paper ran a description of this ship, saying that she was owned by the Willis Steamship Company Limited of Glasgow at the time. The article states that the ship “has a cruiser stern with freeboard,” as well as “quarters for a few passengers.” Captain Laycock was still in command. She arrived from Sydney in ballast to load general cargo for Saigon, then Indochina, now Vietnam. On other voyages she carried lumber from the Pacific Northwest (specifically Vancouver). During World War II she sailed from New York on the 18th of July, 1941 as well as the 17th of April 1942, on her final voyage.

Captain Laycock’s able second-in-command was Chief Officer Roy Dudley Creser. The ages on board ranged from 61 to 16. Cadet Derek Lynn Hudson was 16, while Donkeyman Francis White Whitfield was 61. Cadet William John Rees was 18 and there were at least 18 members of the crew who were in their twenties. Duncan Lumsden was the Chief Engineer and Herbert Gage Perkins the Second Officer, there was a greaser named Robinson, and Able Bodied sailor named John McBride.

For her final voyage the Harpagon’s men loaded 5,415 tons of general cargo, much of it military. This included 2,602 tons of explosives, as well as aircraft and tanks, and a consignment of explosive fuses. She also carried a large consignment of bags of US and Allied mail. The ship left New York Harbor on Friday the 17th of April, bound for Bombay India via Cape Town South Africa for bunkers. They received orders from the H.C.S.C. (High Command Shipping Control?) to pass north of Bermuda en route to Cape Town.

One day into their voyage, on Saturday the 18th, a Canadian radio station provided a new position for the Harpagon to pass through, and though the message was not replied to, the contents were complied with. The same day Chief Officer Creser detected a smell of smouldering wood, which he was unable to locate anywhere on board except possibly the galley. That night another radio message confirmed their change of course. Conditions were pleasant: slightly hazy, calm seas, light and variable breezes and no large seas running, though before crossing the Gulf Stream the April seas and nights would have been cold.

Just before the midnight watch on Sunday the 19thof April the Harpagon was being steered towards the south-southeast at 9.5 knots. Degaussing, or a means of reducing the magnetism of the hull through electrical current, was on at the time. The ship was 140 miles north-northwest of Bermuda and 525 nautical miles southeast of New York when, at 11:15 pm ship’s time a torpedo from the German submarine U-109 under KorvettenkapitänHeinrich Bleichrodt penetrated the forward starboard side of the number one hold.

Korvettenkapitän Heinrich Bleichrodt, Commander of U-109 which sank the Harpagon off Bermuda on 20 April 1942.
Photo source: Foro Segundo Guerra Mundial,

Ajax’ Bleichrodt graduated in the crew of 1933 and was a Kapitänleutnant at the time, achieving Korvettenkapitän late in 1943. His decorations include the Knights Cross early in the war – in October 1940, followed by an addition of the Oak Leaves in September 1942 and the U-boat War Badge with Diamonds a month later. In January 1945 he was given the War Merit Cross Second Class with Swords. His total tonnage was an impressive 24 ships of 151,260 tons, plus a warship of 1,060 tons and two ships damaged for 11,684 GRT. U-109, on its fifth of nine patrols, was sailing from and to Lorient for the Second Flotilla. This patrol began on the 25th of March and ended on the 3rd of June.

Photo source: La Segunda Guerra Mundial,
Aboard the Harpagon, Chief Officer Creser was awoken in his cabin by a “heavy explosion”. The ship’s power remained on for just 20 seconds before a second torpedo struck, this one knocking out the electricity on board (Creser kept a small blue light on in his cabin specifically to know if the ship’s power supply was on). He grabbed a torch and his kapok rubber life vest and ran for the deck. On the way he met with Second Officer Perkins.

On gaining the deck Creser ascertained that the first torpedo had hit #1 hold, and the second the #3 hold, further aft. Fortunately the 38 tons of explosive fuses in the #2 hold between them was not struck and did not explode. As a result of the impacts, “a terrific column of water [was] thrown up on the starboard side of the ship, also a large column of water came up through the engine room skylight. The men on the boat deck were washed overboard by this column of water.”

Men were not the only things smashed and washed around by the water: the davits of both starboard life boats were smashed. And the explosions continued: “…there was a series of small explosions in all directions which I took to be small arms ammunition going off, the ship caught fire and appeared to be blowing to pieces.” Added to this hellish inferno, the water was rapidly gaining, providing very little time for the survivors to think. According to Creser, there were already three feet of water on the deck – above knee height. Perkins and Creser stepped off the ship into the ocean, which was mere feet from the top of the rail.

As he swam away with his life jacket under his arm Creser saw the Harpagon sink by the bow. He was pulled under water by the suction and when he made the surface again he witnessed the stern of the ship poised for a final plunge and “disappearing in a blaze of flame” which lit up the hazy night. The experience must have been both terrifying and surreal, considering that mere minutest before he had been comfortably asleep in his cabin.

As the survivors floundered around in the water trying to collect flotation devices and each other, they never saw the attacking submarine. Perkins and Creser found each other by shouting, and the Second Officer helped the First Officer into his life jacket. Then they had a dram of brandy which Creser kept in his mackintosh jacket. At around midnight, 45 minutes after the attack, they heard shouting and shouted back, then waited ten minutes for a reply. Then they heard someone say that they were on a raft. It was John McBride, sailor. The two officers clambered aboard and they huddled together for warmth, occasionally shouting in order to find other survivors.

At about 1:30 am they heard another shout and paddled in the direction from which it came. They used driftwood for paddles, as the oars had been washed off the raft when the ship sank, releasing it to the surface. After turning on Creser’s powerful torch they were able to find the Third Wireless Operator, Lachlan Cameron, aged 30. He was sitting on a bag of kapok and paddling with driftwood. Cameron was so exhausted that the men on the raft were forced to drag him on board.

On learning from Cameron that the Chief Steward was nearby floating on some tire inner tubes, they shouted and heard a faint reply. It took an hour to find the man, who was delirious from exhaustion and also from the brandy in his flask. By now it was nearly 3 am, a few hours before dawn. These five men took turns sitting in the square well sunken into the center of the raft in order to gain some shelter from the cold night breeze.

On Monday 20th April dawn broke, providing the men on the raft a chance to gather up other survivors. One on raft they found Chief Engineer Lumsden and the Fifth Engineer. In the port lifeboat which was badly waterlogged they found the ship’s Bosun and a Greaser named Robinson. The boat was “badly smashed.” Robinson and the Bosun tied two rafts to the life boat. On Creser’s orders all nine men assembled on the Chief Officer’s raft. The weather became cold and a heavy rain set in, along with a fresh wind.

Amongst the floating debris the men saw many bags of U.S. mail as well as a floating box of kapok lifejackets. Radio Operator Cameron noted with regret that before being swept overboard he had moved the emergency transmitter radio from the kapok box into the port lifeboat, which was now totally waterlogged. This bothered him more and more in the days ahead as they awaited rescue. Given their proximity to Bermuda – the Harpagon was sunk closer to those islands than any other ship in World War II – the men reasonably expected to be rescued in fairly short order. But Creser was taking no chances, and immediately rationed their supplies.

At most the men had four rafts and a damaged life boat. One raft was so badly damaged that they stripped it of all provisions and cast it adrift, tying the three remaining rafts to the boat. Then they collected all water and food and put those aboard the two largest rafts. Altogether the nine men had 25 gallons of water and both British and American pemmican, or dried paste meal. The British was of meat base and the American of dried fruits and nuts – the men preferred the latter, as it was “made from dried fruit – coconut, raisins, dried apples, and nuts and tasted like fruit fudge, we never became tired of this food. There was no fishing equipment – lines or hooks – aboard the rafts, something Creser bemoaned. Also there is no report of saving rain to drink.
For the first seven days the ration was ¾ of a pint of water per man per day. Food was rationed to 2 biscuits, 3.5 ounces of US pemmican, 3 ounces of milk tablets, 2/3 ounces of the UK pemmican, and a portion of chocolate. On Tuesday the 21st of April the weather worsened, with a swell, heavy rain, and rising wind. The lifeboat was deemed useless and cast off. Aboard the best raft the men constructed a tent to protect themselves from the sun and elements. They dragged the two other rafts behind them to act as a sea anchor and a buffer from the sea conditions.

The following day, Wednesday the 22nd of April, the men heard a plane high overhead and burned smoke flares, however the plane, which was no doubt bound for or from Bermuda, was never seen. The next day, the 23rd, a gale sprung up and with it a heavy sea which broke off one of the rafts, which had no provisions. By the 29th of April the weather had again settled down, and remained stable for the balance of the tortuous voyage.

Though the nights were cold the days were quite warm, and when they felt that nearby sharks were far enough away the men exercised by swimming back and forth between the rafts – a distance of about 20 feet. On Friday the 24th of April, a week after they left New York, Third Wireless Operator Cameron came down with pneumonia and never recovered. It took him nearly three weeks to die, which he did on Thursday the 14thof May, which had the effect of lowering the morale of all his shipmates “considerably.” He was presumably buried at sea.

On Sunday the 26th of April the water ration was cut to ½ ounce of water instead of ¾. This was further reduced a week later, on Sunday 3rd of May and the crew were disgruntled about the ration as well as Creser’s insistence that they keep watches of 1.5 hours every night for ships. The men felt that as merchant ships would be blacked out, keeping a watch for them would be futile. On Sunday the 17thMay mutiny raised its ugly head when Greaser Robinson, angry about the reduction in water rations, went after Chief Officer Creser with an axe. Fortunately Second Officer Perkins saw the attack and “caught hold of him in a throttle grip while I [Creser] knocked him for six. After that we had no trouble with him.”

Creser relates how the men grew extremely painful boils which grew to the size of a fist. They used the message oil provided on their feet, which helped. As a dietary supplement they found seaweed floating, and enjoyed savoring the youngest shoots. They also rinsed their mouths in salt water which was refreshing, as were hour-long swims. With saltwater immersion the insteps of their feet festered, and their skin became very sunburnt.
By the 33rd day in the raft – Saturday 23rd May – the men were able to swim three times each, however “we found it a tremendous effort to climb back into the raft.” By this point the men were so think that “the taller members of the men appeared almost skeletons with their hip bones sticking out like knives.” Then Creser’s policy of night watch paid off: at 5 am on Sunday the 24th of May the watch sighted a single white light to the southwest. As Creser relates, “the excitement was terrific.”

Immediately the Harpagon men started lighting their red flares and signaling with the emergency torch. To their great relief around 6 am the red port light of a merchant ship loomed towards them. There was a heavy swell and rough sea which made signaling difficult. They send an S.O.S. signal and the ship asked if they were a life boat, to which the men replied that they were on a raft. Creser’s men cut the second raft free to give themselves more maneuverability. Invigorated by the prospect of rescue the men paddled like mad towards the ship and managed to make it to the pilot laddered lowered for them, despite the strong wind and confused seas.

As Creser wrote, “I think the fact there were sharks swimming around helps us up the latter. When we arrived on deck we saw a number of sailors standing by with life-jackets on ready to assist us in case they were needed. None of us were able to walk when we reached the deck. …The crew looked after us very well.” Although there wasn’t a doctor on board, the survivors were on a strict diet of Castor Oil and black coffee for the first 30 hours. Then they were permitted mashed potatoes with butter.
As luck would have it, the following day, Monday 25thMay was Argentina’s Revolution Day and a large celebration ensued on board, to which the Harpagon men were invited. Creser writes that “….we made up for all we had missed during the last 34 days. We had a four or five course dinner, wines and champagne. I can’t understand why none of us suffered any ill effects from this feast because we all ate a terrific amount of rich food.”

The Harpagon men must have been content with their Argentinian hosts, since when a US Navy cruiser and destroyer intercepted the ship and came on board, and they were invited back to the naval vessels, the British merchant sailors opted to remain on the Rio Diamante. The rescue vessel proceeded to Buenos Aires, bringing the nine men along. They arrived on the 21stof June 1942. Exactly how the sailors were repatriated from Argentina to the UK is not known, however Creser at least appears to have made it back to London by the end of September 1942 in order to report on the casualty to the authorities, who had probably written all of the officers and men off as “overdue – presumed lost at sea.”

The S.S. Rio Diamante under her previous (Italian) name of Ines Corrado. She had been a Cunarder.

Photo source:

The Rio Diamante, a 5,159-ton steamer, began the war as the Italian ship Ines Corrado. However she was seized by the Argentinians on 25 August 1941 at Bahia Blanca and was renamed by them and pressed into service for the Argentinian merchant marine, or Flota Mercante del Estado. Built by Sir W. G. Armstrong, Whiteworth and Co. Ltd. of Newcastle UK for the Cunard Line in 1918, it originally served New York and Liverpool and Rotterdam.
The ship has several previous names: River Tigris (1925-1931), Vellavia (1919-1925) and War Setter (1918-1919). She was 412.9 feet long, 52.5 feet wide, and 25.3 feet deep. In 1946 she was returned to the Italians, and the Argentinians built a new vessel the same year, naming her Rio Diamante. She was broken up in Tokyo Japan in 1959.
Chief Officer Creser received the Lloyds War Medal of Bravery at Sea on the 3rd of February 1944 and was cited in the London Gazette on 5 January 1943. He also received the George Medal from the king. Chief Engineer Duncan Lumsden received the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (M.B.E.) on the same date, as did Second Officer Herbert Gage Perkins. Able Seaman John McBride received the British Empire Medal. The citation reads:

“The Chief and Second Officers jumped overboard and swam to a raft on which there was another survivor. They were able to rescue five others of the crew and collect stores and water from other rafts. The Chief Officer was in charge of this party throughout and it was due entirely to his foresight and judgment in securing food and water and providing shelter that the party survived this tremendous ordeal.”

The citation continues: “His dauntless courage sustained the spirts and hopes of his party and the discipline which he maintained, particularly in regard to the rationing of food and water, ensured that with the strictest economy supplies lasted throughout the voyage of 34 days. But for outstanding qualities of leadership which the Chief Officer displayed, very few, if any, of the party would have survived. The Chief Engineer and Second Officer showed courage, fortitude and resource, while the cheerful demeanour and willing assistance given by Able Seaman McBride set a fine example to the rest of those on the raft.”

Early in his career Bliechrodt served on both the Gorch Foch and the Admiral Hipper, moving to U-boats in October 1939. He also served as First Watch Officer (second in command) of U-564 under Teddy Suhren. In one patrol as commander of U-48 in 1940 he sank eight ships of 43,106 tons. Moving ashore in July 1943 he went on to command the 27th and 22nd training flotillas. He lived until 1977, passing away in Munich at the age of 67.

Busch, R. and H.-J. Röll, German U-boat Commanders of World War II, 1988, Franz Kurowski, Knights Cross Holders of the U-boat Service

Creser’s awards see
Ellis Island website for history of the Rio Diamante –

Foro Segundo Guerra Mundial, for numerous candid photos of U-109 officers and crew on 2nd patrol,

Jordan, Roger, The World’s Merchants Fleets 1939, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1999

La Segunda Guerra Mundial,, for the photo of U-109 returning to port.

London Gazette, for citations for four mariners:

Mercantile Marine Memorial, London, for names and details of crew:

Mozolak, John, for the details of when the Harpagon sailed from New York in WWII:

Newcastle Morning Herald and Miner’s Advocate, Saturday, January 8, 1938 – for a description of the Harpagon on her first visit to the port, en route between Sydney and Saigon.

Sydney Morning Herald details of Harpagon’s arrival in 1937 see

The National Archives, Kew Gardens, London – for a detailed survivors’ account given by Creser. “Shipping Casualties Section – Trade Division. Report of an Interview with the Chief Officer, Mr. R. D. Creser, S.S. Harpagon, …Sunk by 2 torpedoes from U-boat on 19th April ’42, [dated] 30th September, 1942.” ADM / Admiralty section.

Tyne Built Ships, for an image of the Rio Diamante as the Ines Corrado, for much of the information on the Harpagon, survivors, and Bleichrodt, including photos of U-boat Commander and its victim, for specifications and history of Harpagon:

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