S.S. LOCH DON, Attack & Survivor Narrative
By Eric T. Wiberg, Esq. www.uboatsbermuda.blogspot.com, August, 2014
The British 5,249-ton steams ship Loch Don was built in 1937 by J. L. Thompson & Sons, Limited of North Sands, Sunderland, England. Capable of carrying 9,480 tons of cargo, the ship was 437.2 feet long, 58.11 feet wide and 25.11 feet deep. Loch Don’s speed was 10.5 knots. She was steam-propelled and designed with a shelter deck. Her owners were Maclay & McIntyre Limited of 21 Bothwell Street, Glasgow, and more specifically their subsidiary, the Glasgow Navigation Company Limited.
Loch Don was involved in a number of convoys, including BHX 55 and BHX 85 from Bermuda to Halifax in July and October 1940. In April 1941 it sailed from New York and in June in Convoy EC 29 from Southend to Clyde. It was involved in convoys from Methil to Oban in the UK in January and March 1941 and in February 1942 and in convoys as varied as Freetown, West Africa, Sydney Nova Scotia, Liverpool, and Gibraltar in its relatively short working life.
Of 41 convoys the ship participated in from September 1939 to March 1942 four OB type were from Liverpool across the Atlantic with dispersal points (one of which was escorted all the way to Halifax), and six were HX convoys from Halifax or Sydney Canada to Liverpool UK – the dangerous North Atlantic convoys. By all accounts she stood up well and was not a straggler.
On her final voyage Loch Don was to have sailed from New York to Alexandria Egypt via Cape Town South Africa on the 26th of March 1942. However the vessel was delayed and did not sail until Sunday the 29th of March. It would prove a fateful delay, putting the ship right in the path of the German submarine U-202 under 29-year-old Kapitänleutnant Hans-Heinz Linder three days later.
Linder was a highly successful U-Boat commander who sank seven ships worth over 45,000 as a watch officer aboard Lehmann-Willenbrock’s U-96 early in the war as well as seven ships under his command of U-202 and another damaged. On the way to a position southeast of Bermuda in end March 1942 he hit the large 8,882-ton British tanker Athelviscount hundreds of miles northeast of Bermuda. The ship was towed to Canada by the large ocean salvage tug Foundation Franklin (and immortalized in Farley Mowat’s book “Gray Seas Under”).
Kapitänleutnant Hans-Heinz Linder of the U-202 which attacked and sank the Loch Don.
Photo source: http://www.uboat.net/men/commanders/737.html
On board the Loch Don Captain Malcolm Wright Anderson, a Scotsman, was in command. Beneath him were Chief Officer J. Robertson, three naval gunners, two Army gunners and 40 other merchant mariner officers and men for a total of 47 souls on board. All of them were British, except for one who was Russian. The ship was armed with a four-inch gun, a 12-pound gun, two Twin Hotchkiss machine guns, a pair of Savage Lewis machine guns, a pair of P.A.C. rockets as well as various defensive rockets and kites.
Loch Don finally sailed from New York at 11:30 am on Sunday the 29th of March (not the 28thas reported elsewhere). Her voyage instructions were issued by the British Consular Shipping Advisor in New York. The route was to take her to Alexandria Egypt via Cape Town. Her cargo consisted of 6,000 tons of military stores and equipment, including some airplanes on deck.
On the late afternoon of Wednesday the 1st of April 1942 the ship was heading southeast in moderate weather with a fresh northwest breeze of about 15 knots with a swell. It was daylight at 5:15 pm local time, and visibility was good though hazy and limited to three miles for the four lookouts. The Third Mate had the con in the bridge, a Seaman was posted in the crow’s nest, and there were two gunners on watch at the ship’s stern. The ship’s “red duster” British ensign was not flying at the time.
Loch Don was making 9.5 knots, not zig zagging when without warning a torpedo slammed into the engine room amid-ships on the port side. Three men – the Third Engineer Robert Gray, aged 31, and two Firemen, Charles Grantham, aged 18 from Hull, and Harold Batte, aged 32 and also from Hull, were trapped in the engine room and either killed outright or drowned trying to escape. According to the Chief Officer Robertson there was a “big red flash” and “a small column of water was thrown into the air.” The attack took place 190 nautical miles east-southeast from Bermuda.
The torpedo was aimed highly effectively, striking 250 feet from the bow in the bulkhead between the engine room and number one hatch. On deck there was tumult as “the hatch covers of the cross bunker and the coal dust were thrown into the air and also the two aeroplanes which were stowed across No. 6 hatches.” Loch Don lurched 25 degrees to port, then managed to correct itself. The Radio Operator managed to send off an SSS message indicating an attack by a submarine. The US Eastern Sea Frontier Enemy Action Diary for 6 pm on April 1st reads:
“Intercept SSS S.S. LOCHDON (British Cargo, 5249 tons) Torpedoed. Position 37 – 05 N, 61 – 40 W, 300 miles NNE of Bermuda. Time 1722. COLE sent to search region. Expected to arrive at dawn April 2.” Since the Loch Don’s radio receiver was not on, the merchant men did not receive acknowledgement that their message had gotten through.
Chief Officer Robertson ordered the engines stopped, however the wiring to the engine room was severed and the order was not carried out. Despite this he ordered abandon ship and within seven minutes both lifeboats were lowered away without incident, the boat on the port side first. As the boats cleared the ship the Number Four hatch was already awash in seawater. The Chief relates how “We had only pulled clear of the ship when her bows lifted out of the water, the foremast collapsed and the ship finally sank stern first at 1725, about 8 minutes after being struck by the torpedo.”
Just before Loch Don sank there was another explosion, either from bulkheads collapsing or boilers bursting. One account states that U-202 surfaced 5 minutes after the attack and witnessed the ship sinking. Another account, by Robertson states that about 20 minutes later, at 5:45 pm U-202 rose to the surfaced behind where the ship went down and motored around the boats, however Linder and his officers and men did not interact with the 44 men in the two boats.
Robertson said “I think the Captain of the submarine intended to question us, but as it was near dark and there was much wreckage floating around, he could not venture among it. The submarine remained in the vicinity until 1900 when we lost sight of it in the darkness.” He described what little he could see of the submarine, which included only seeing one gun and no distinctive markings.
Robertson consulted with Captain Anderson and they agreed to ride at the lifeboats’ sea anchors until daylight. It would prove a wise decision. The men shared water and milk tablets. The Mate’s boat leaked badly until the seams swelled shut with water but the Captain’s motor boat seemed to work effectively.
At about 10:30 pm Robertson burned a flare in case there were any ships coming to their rescue, and Captain Anderson did the same. They repeated this attention-getting practice an hour later at 11:30 pm and were rewarded when the Canadian schooner Helen Forsey loomed out of the darkness on their starboard beam.
Captain Jack Ralph of the Helen Forsey was in a hurry not to be caught by U-202 or any submarine (and indeed the schooner was later sunk by a U-boat: U-514/Auffermann on 6 September 1942). At 9:20 pm, about four hours after U-202’s attack on the Loch Don, Captain Ralph “heard a motor on his radio. Since the HELEN FORSEY has no motor, this may have been a submarine charging batteries. The position of the HELEN FORSEY would have been approximately South Southwest of the sinking.”
It would appear that the schooner narrowly missed being sunk by U-202, and that was probably only due to the fact that the schooner was silent as it had no engine. The absence of a motor makes the schooner’s maneuvering over to the lifeboats a testament to the sailor’s seamanship
As a result of the rush to get aboard the Helen Forsey, most of the food, water and equipment which the Loch Don had in the lifeboats was left behind, both because of time constraints and also for fear of damaging the wooden schooner with their lifeboats in the swell. It was a decision they would come to regret, as food supplies were marginal enough for the six men on board the schooner already, and were severely taxed with the addition of 44 men.
The 167-ton Canadian sailing schooner Helen Forsey was built as the J. Smith at Smith & Rhuland Shipbuilding Limited in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. She was thus part of the same naming convention as the Vivian P. Smith and her sister ship Francis W. Smith – all were built on spec by Smith & Rhuland and successfully sold. In the case of the Helen Forsey, she was bought and renamed by William Forsey Limited, also of Lunenburg.
Registered to Lunenburg, the schooner traded between the West Indies and eastern Canada’s Maritime Provinces, on the traditional runs carrying rum, molasses, salt from the islands and dried fish, lumber and other products south to the islands. This was a continuation of one leg of what had been known as the Triangle Trade.
The Helen Forsey’s home port of Burin, Newfoundland was 1,000 nautical miles north, though her port of registry was St. John’s, Newfoundland. Though Halifax was only 820 and Cape Cod Massachusetts 750 miles away, they made for Newfoundland. Robertson bemoans that “We very much regretted that we had not been able to take the provisions out of the boats as food was short on the Schooner, but they did all they could for us and made us as comfortable as possible in their limited accommodation.” It must have been severely crowded on board, as the strangers outnumbered the schooner’s sailors seven to one.
Given that they were hungry and cramped and wished to be transferred, Robertson was disappointed that they “…did not see any air or surface patrol as we approached the Newfoundland coast in the Schooner although weather was fine and clear.” The Fifth Engineer was also injured and could have benefited from medical care. Robertson notes how on Thursday the 2nd of April, the day after the sinking, they “sighted and signaled by Aldis lam two airplanes, informing them that 44 members of the crew of the LOCH DON were on board and that we were short food.”
Indeed these were scout planes for USS Cole which was sent from Bermuda on Wednesday 1st April to search specifically for the Loch Don, and succeeded in finding the lifeboats. Robertson felt that though it was rough on Thursday when they sighted the planes – too rough for them to land – the seas moderated the following day, Friday the 3rd, and “I think it could have been possible for them to have rendered us assistance.”
US Navy destroyer USS Cole DD 155 in 1943-1944.
Photo source: http://www.navsource.org/archives/05/155.htm
In a summary of USS Cole’s operations for Thursday the 2nd of April obtained from the ship’s secret War Diary, the Lieutenant Commander Walter Leo Dyer detailed that the destroyer was guided by Bermuda-based PBM Mariner aircraft in a search for the Loch Don. At 12:10 pm local time the PBM signaled to the ship that it had sighted “two upright life boats.” Then the plane had to return to Bermuda for lack of fuel.
On coming upon the abandoned boats at 1:19 pm the Cole lowered its own small boat to investigate. At 1:45 this boat returned with an officer’s cap, a boat compass, an emergency radio receiver, a set of a dozen flares, box of tools and “several sets of rubber clothing,” which the Loch Don sailors had, in their rush, left behind in the boats.
Fifteen minutes later, at 2:00 pm Commander Dyer had his men destroy the lifeboat with gunfire. At 3:33 they found the other lifeboat and without taking equipment from it destroyed that as well. Then they “sighted debris in the vicinity of the lifeboats assumed to be from the LOCH DON. The condition of the lifeboats indicated the possibility that the survivors were rescued prior to the arrival of the COLE.” It’s investigation complete, the destroyer altered course for New York at 8:10 pm that evening. Apparently the Aldis lamp communications between Helen Forsey and the PBM airplane/s were not communicated in a timely fashion to the USS Cole.
The 44 survivors of the Loch Don were first taken to Burin, Newfoundland, where they arrived on Thursday 9th April, having taxed the hospitality of their Canadian hosts for over a week. From Burin they were taken to the United States Naval Operating Base (N.O.B.) in Argentia, Newfoundland, no doubt to be processed to join other ships in the Battle of the Atlantic.
Fold3.com – for the war diaries and deck logs of USS Cole
Jordan, Roger, The World’s Merchants Fleets 1939, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1999
Mason, Jerry, www.uboatarchive.net for U-202’s attack diary
Mowat, Farley, “Gray Seas Under,” The Lyons Press, Guilford CT, 1958
Mozolak, John, “New York Ships to Foreign Port, 1939 – 1945,” http://janda.org/ships/
Navsource.org http://www.navsource.org/archives/05/155.htm for USS Cole photo, info.
“Survivors Statements” including the Panama portion of Souza’s narrative, from NARA, in Washington DC, as found by Michael Constandy, www.westmorelandresearch.org. Formal citation: Survivor’s Statements (1941-1942) Series: Papers of Vice Admiral Homer N. Wallin, compiled 1941 – 1974. Record 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
The National Archives, Kew Gardens, London – for a detailed survivors’ account, “Shipping Casualties Section – Trade Division” ADM / Admiralty section.
Uboat.net for much of the information, including photos of U-boat Commander and its victim, http://www.uboat.net/men
Wrecksite.eu for specifications and history of Loch Don: http://www.wrecksite.eu
Wynn, Kenneth, U-boat Operations of the Second World War, Volume 1 and Volume 2, 1997