S.S. MODESTA, Attack & Survivor Narrative
By Eric T. Wiberg, Esq. www.uboatsbermuda.blogspot.com, September, 2014
SS Modesta in pre-war colors carrying a large cargo of lumber on deck. Note the two large masts and funnel which U-boat skipper Klaus Scholtz described in his report on the attack on the ship. She has the symbol of J. W. Paulin, Finnish owners, on her mast: she traded for them from 1933 to 1941.
Photo Source: Steamship Historical Society of America (www.sshsa.org), and http://www.uboat.net/allies/merchants/ships/1567.html
The British steam ship Modesta was built by Sir John Priestman and Company, Limited of Southwick, Sunderland, England in 1917. Originally she was owned by Furness Withy Company Limited’s Gulf Line Limited and was British-flagged. From 1920 the ship was owned by A/S Ivarans Rederi (Ivar Anders Christensen) in Oslo before being sold in 1926 to Leeston Shipping Company Limited (Chubb & Holley) of London (Uboat.net). Then in 1933 she was sold to J. W. Paulin of Viborg, Finland. At the time of her loss in March 1942 the owners were the Euxine Shipping Company, Limited of 88 Leadenhall Street, London and her operators were the Ministry of War Transport (MoWT).
The Modesta was 3,830 gross tons, and could carry 6,250 deadweight tons of cargo. Her dimensions were 357.9 feet long, 50.10 feet wide and 21.6 feet deep. Her single triple-expansion engine developed 319 net horsepower and could propel the ship at 9.5 knots.
On November 27, 1920 the steamer Modesta was listed as being in distress off the Orkney Islands, North Sea, while on a voyage between Philadelphia and Bergen, Norway. She was owned by the Gulf Line Limited at the time. In January 1921 the vessel is said to have brought two passengers (emigrants) to Ellis Island, New York, and in November of that year one more. She is listed as arriving in New York on the 25thof October, 1940 as a Finnish steamship.
In 1941 the Finnish ship was taken over by the UK. Specifically, according to the British War Cabinet Resume, on the night of 4/5 June 1941 a British “….trawler on patrol intercepted the Finnish s.s. Modesta (3,830 tons) and sent her into Kirkwall under armed guard.” There the ship was taken over and sent to sea under the British flag. On March 5th 1942 the harbor master of Portland Maine allowed the Modesta to remain in port for an extra night before sailing, placing the ship in the northeast US in the spring of 1942.
The Master on the Modesta’s final voyage was Captain James Robertson Murray, aged 50. Under him were 40 men including three Naval Gunners and two Army Gunners. There were at least three teenagers in the merchant crew: Mess Room Boy Robert Borthwick, Assistant Cook Johnstone Harvey, and Sailor Donald John MacLeod, all 19. There were also three Trinidadians, who possibly signed on as recently as the stop there on this voyage: Fireman Cyril Lashley, aged 24, Fireman Clement Sealy, aged 23, and Fireman Lewis Waldron, aged 37.
The ship was armed with a four-inch gun, two twin Marlin machine guns, two Lewis machine guns, four P.A.C. rockets and a variety of kites. During the voyage from Trinidad and St. Thomas, Virgin Islands to New York her anti-mine degaussing equipment was turned off. The ship loaded 5,800 tons of bauxite, which was used for the aluminum industry, and sailed from St. Thomas on Friday the 17th of April, 1942.
All went well until the early morning of Saturday the 25th of April. At that point the ship was 100 nautical miles northeast of Bermuda and 900 nautical miles north of St. Thomas. The weather was partly rough, with winds fresh from the east at over 25 knots and a rough sea. It was quite overcast and visibility was low.
At about 11:12 pm on Friday the 24thof April Fregattenkapitän Klaus Scholtz in command of the German submarine U-108 fired a torpedo from Tube II from 1,200 meters at the Modesta, however his aim was thrown off by the pale moonlight in and out of the clouds. The relatively small size of the target as well as the yawing of the submarine in the seas combined to make the torpedo miss, however the lookouts on the Modesta did not see either the torpedo or the submarine.
Fregattenkapitän Klaus Scholtz of U-108
Photo source: http://www.uboat.net/men/scholtz.htm
Second Officer John Dewar was pacing the port bridge. His lookout duties supplemented another lookout on the bridge as well as a gunner aft at the gun. At 2:15 am Scholtz took another shot, this one from Tube IV at 500 meters. It detonated against the side of the Modesta after just two minutes and 29 seconds.
Dewar tells what happened next: At 2:15 am “I was crossing the bridge to speak to the look-out man, there was a violent explosion in the way of No. 3 hatch amidships. I saw a flash and a lot of water and debris was thrown up. There was a nauseating smell of bauxite and the hatches and beams were flying everywhere. It was very difficult to see anything in the ensuing confusion.” However the radio operator was able to get off an SSS message, which the U-boat was able to intercept and identify the victim with. Scholtz took pains to count the number of masts, funnel, hatches, etc. and mark them in his war diary.
Amidst this chaos Dewar managed to don a life jacket and regroup with some of the men on the boat deck below. Fortunately the Chief Engineer was able to stop the engines from the emergency levers on the boat deck, as those in the engine room had been destroyed. But as the men milled around looking for ways to escape the First Mate, “who was very excited by this time, kept shouting to the crew to jump overboard.” This added to the confusion and threatened to permeate panic among the crew.
Efforts to lower two lifeboats were only partially successful. When the forward falls of the starboard boat were let go too quickly the boat hung helplessly by the stern, dumping two men and much of the survival gears like oars into the water, whilst at the same time partially filling the boat with seawater. Apparently only one man was in each boat as they got away.
The ship meanwhile took on a heel and began to settle rapidly. Seeing both boats drifting away astern, Dewar jumped into the water in his life vest. He swam towards the starboard boat and was pulled into it by two firemen, a steward, and a gunner. They saw a light and presumed it was the port lifeboat, however it was U-108 cruising among the wreckage on the surface. Five minutes after the attack the ship was sinking rapidly by the bow. Modesta finally turned its stern into the air and sank at 2:20 am. U-108 submerged to re-load torpedo tubes and head for Bermuda, without interacting with the desperate survivors scattered about in the water.
In the starboard lifeboat the situation looked grim. The boat was waterlogged and all the oars except two had been washed overboard, as well as the sea anchor. They did have a pump and a bucket, which the steward and gunner put to immediate use bailing the boat. The original five men then picked up another gunner and a mess room boy. Sighting a raft with no lights they paddled over to it and found the Chief Engineer. They took him aboard the boat and stripped the raft of water and food, which had also been lost from the lifeboat.
After some time they met with the port lifeboat, which was also in a waterlogged state. The port lifeboat was towing a raft. They learned that the Third Mate, John McLeaod had managed to cut the port lifeboat adrift and had then used it to pick up a number of men from the water. Using a torch to communicate, Second Officer Dewar took charge of the group, the Captain not being amongst the survivors. Dewar instructed the Third Mate to stay within hailing distance during the night. It became clear that the port lifeboat was in far worse condition than Dewar’s, so all the men, water and provisions were transferred to the starboard boat, and the other vessels were cast adrift.
Whilst it was still night the men in the remaining boat heard shouting and discovered six men holding onto Modesta’s wooden topmast. Fortuitously they also found a fireman clinging to a hatch cover as well as a sailor on another hatch. By that time there were a total of 24 survivors in the boat, from a complement of 41. When daylight came they searched the horizon for any other survivors and then, regretfully, set a course for the south-west towards Bermuda, leaving their 17 crew-mates, officers, gunners, and sailors, to their fates.
Lewis Waldron, aged 37, Fireman on the Modesta who lost his life, leaving four children (one of them Oscar not being born until August 1942, four months after his father was lost), as well as a widow, Clarissa Waldron of Trinidad and parents Joe and Mary Waldron.
Photo source: http://caribbeanrollofhonour-ww1-ww2.yolasite.com/resources/MNWW2/Waldron_L.jpg
Because of the heavy seas sailing was difficult. Since the mast had been lost the men jury rigged an oar and employed a boat hook as a yard and the dodger as a sail. Conditions were very cold as the wind blew strongly. Because the seas sloshed aboard the men were bailing continuously. Under these trying conditions the 24 men carried on through Saturday the 25th and into Sunday the 26th of April.
On Sunday the sun came out, and though the seas continued rough, the fact they were able to dry out their soaked clothes and blankets cheered the men considerably. Many of them were very thinly clad, and six of them had no pants at all. At 10:00 am whilst sailing westwards the men saw two US Navy airplanes overhead. The planes must have seen the red-colored hood of the lifeboat, as they crossed over above the boat. Dewar thinks that in the roughly 40 hours since they had left the ship the lifeboat had covered some 70 nautical miles.
This is borne out by the Eastern Sea Frontier Enemy Action Diary for April 26th which states “Bermuda reports planes sighted lifeboats 25 miles East of Bermuda. Plane guided “BELGIAN AIRMAN” to scene. …. Planes will continue search other possible survivors at dawn.” If the survivors were 100 miles from Bermuda when sunk and 25 miles away when rescued, then they covered 75 miles towards their destination. The War Diary of US Naval Operating Base Bermuda for the same day records that “The survivors were located by two of our patrol planes yesterday off Bermuda, and rescued by the S. S. BELGIAN AIRMAN, directed to the scene by one plane, while the other circled over the survivors.”
An hour after sighting the planes, at 11:00 local time on Sunday the 26th the 24 Modesta men sighted a steamer approaching them cautiously. It was the Belgian Airman, a Belgian government ship of 6,959 tons which was having a very difficult voyage. In bad weather one of the ship’s life rafts had been swept away along with part of its deck cargo. The ship had been deviated by the weather off its usual track, enabling it to be quickly found by the planes and diverted to the scene of the Modesta survivors – their trials benefiting the survivors.
The Belgian Airman, steamship which rescued survivors of the Modesta and took them to Bermuda.
Photo source: http://www.uboat.net/allies/merchants/3488.html
The Belgian Airman was only delivered in February 1942 as the Empire Ballantyne before the British Ministry of War Transport transferred the ship to the Belgian government, who gave it the new name. The ship was 433 feet long, 56.3 feet wide, and 34.3 feet deep, and propelled by a single diesel engine of 490 net horsepower which gave it 12 knots speed. It was built by Harland & Wolff Limited of Belfast, Northern Ireland and Glasgow.
The Master of the Belgian Airman (possibly Captain E. Cailloux) skillfully brought his ship alongside the lifeboat and his men put over pilot ladders to enable the survivors, including the injured, to clamber up the side of the ship. Dewar notes that “we were treated extremely well.” Given their proximity to Bermuda they were able to be landed in St. George’s at 4:00 pm the same day, Sunday the 26th.
In Bermuda volunteers and aid workers were working around the clock to accommodate survivors from numerous ships sunk around the island in recent days. The “Herald-American” in Syracuse New York of Sunday 26th April 1942 titled a piece on page 12 “67 Reach Bermuda from 3 Lost Ships.” These were 33 men from the Swedish ship Agra, landed on Wednesday 22nd April after drifting two days, eight men from the British ship Derryheen landed the same day after drifting for a day, and 26 men from the US freighter Robin Hood who had been adrift for nine days and landed on Saturday the 25th of April, a day before the Modesta men arrived.
The “Bradford Era,” a Pennsylvania newspaper, reported on Monday the 28th: “spotted by aircraft and rescued by ship, survivors of an Allied merchant vessel torpedoed off Bermuda have been alanded at nearby St. George’s. The seamen reported their captain was among 14 [sic] believed lost. Seven officers were among the survivors.”
The most accurate reporting came, understandably, from the ground in Bermuda. On Monday the 27th of April the “Royal Gazette & Colonist” in Hamilton Bermuda described the plight of the Modesta survivors in great detail under a title “More Survivors Landed Here After Torpedoing: British Seamen 4th Group Rescued in Five Days.” It states that “The intensity of the submarine warfare in Atlantic waters has become a grim reality here. It is increasingly so to the many who are now tendering the wants of the seamen. Their number increases because of the heavy demands for accommodation, nursing and care. There are now 91 men in Bermuda who have escaped being the victims of the U-boat menace.”
The article, which takes two columns, continues: “The Naval Recreation Rooms in Hamilton have taken survivors from the last two groups [Robin Hood and Modesta] and are now turning their facilities over to the care of these men.” Caregivers “quickly prepared themselves for the emergency. Boiling water was made ready and food was cooked. Over the week-end they had brought comfort to the survivors they already were domiciling.”
Though the American House and Bermuda Sailor’s Homes, recently enlarged with an infirmary, were “taxed to beyond their capacity,” they fit six Modesta men and one officer. Eleven of the Modesta men were in the Naval Recreation Rooms’ dormitories in Hamilton. Five of the seven officers were put up in private homes in Hamilton, one was in the home of Mrs. Leland Barnes in St. George’s, and the seventh was at the American House. Their Officer McLeod is said by Dewar to have been placed in hospital, however he must have been released to coalesce in a private home shortly thereafter. Six of the crew were placed in the new infirmary of the Bermuda Sailor’s Home.
The author is sympathetic to the men’s plight, describing their ordeal and noting that “Some of the survivors had only managed to abandon ship with a minimum of clothing, and this added to their miseries. Those in the engine room found themselves one moment in warm waters and the next in the icy sea. Six of the men reached St. George’s minus their trousers. They were blue with the cold and suffering from exposure. One seaman had a badly injured foot.”
The article was highly laudatory of the volunteers as well as hospital staff, noting that “While awaiting transportation [from St. George’s to Hamilton], elven of their number were given attention at the St. George’s Sailor’s Home, where Mrs. Barnes provided clothing and sustenance. In a very short time. Her efforts and those who assisted her were typical of the sympathy which is felt by everybody here. It is not possible to mention all the acts of kindness which are being performed. The staff of the King Edward VII Memorial Hospital, burdened as they are, have taken on new responsibilities with an undiminished vigour and they deserve a hearty commendation.” The newspaper notes that with the arrival of the Agra and Derryheen survivors “the Bermuda Railway Company operated its first night train (a special)… to bring the survivors to Hamilton.”
An inquiry was held in Bermuda in which Second Mate Dewar, the Chief Engineer, and the First Mate (who had generated some panic during the abandonment of the Modesta) were all interviewed. The Modesta survivors were brought back to the UK by the converted troop ship Durban Castle under the command of Captain R. C. T. Harris. Also on board were eight survivors of the British merchant ship Derryheen, which has been sunk by U-201 under Adalbert Schnee roughly 300 miles northwest of Bermuda on the Wednesday the 22nd of April 1942.
The S.S. Durban Castle, which repatriated survivors of both the Derryheen and Modesta.
Photo Source: http://www.bandcstaffregister.co.uk/page186.html
The Durban Castle was built in 1938 by Harland & Wolff of Belfast. She was 17,382 gross registered ton, 594.7 feet long, 76.4 feet wide and could achieve an impressive 18.5 knots of speed. Built for passenger service around Africa and named for castles which don’t exist, the ship was converted to a troop ship in 1939 and helped evacuate the King of Greece and his entourage to Egypt in 1941.
While en route back to Europe the 24 survivors would have passed over or close to the spot where 17 of their colleagues had perished that April morning. These included Captain Murray, teens Borthwick, Harvey, and MacLeod, and the three Trinidadians, Lashley, Sealy, and Waldron, who left three children alive at the time and one not yet born as well as a widow. Nine of the dead were in their twenties: First Radio Officer Thomas Bentley Holcroft, Lashley, Bosun George McCondach, Ordinary Seaman Hugh McFarlane, Greaser V. Murray, Fireman Reynold Prince, Ordinary Seaman James Scott, Sealy, and Fireman Herman Simon.
Late in the evening of Saturday the 25th U-108 observed two airplanes several times. These were most likely rescue planes sent out from Naval Operating Base (NOB) Bermuda to look for Modesta survivors. Late in the same night the submarine came so close to Bermuda that the skipper could observed Mount Hill (now Gibbs Hill) light bearing 315 degrees from 17 miles away. Scholtz also recorded in his war diary that he could clearly see the lights of Hamilton at around midnight local time on the night of 25/26 April, 1942.
The Belgian Airman was sunk off Cape Hatteras by U-857 under Rudolf Premauer while on a voyage from Houston to Antwerp via New York. All but one of the 47 men on board survived. It was 14 April 1945, with only weeks left in the war between Germany and the Allies.
Bermuda “Royal Gazette & Colonist,” Monday, April 27, 1942: “More Survivors Landed Here After
Torpedoing: British Seamen 4thGroup Rescued in Five Days,” c/o Ms. Ellen Jane Hollis Local Studies Librarian
“Bradford Era,” Pennsylvania newspaper, Monday 28 April, 1942 – “Survivors Landed”, www.newspaper.com
British & Commonwealth Shipping Company Limited website, for photo of the Durban Castle, http://www.bandcstaffregister.co.uk/page186.html
Caribbean Roll of Honor, for info on Waldron, Sealy, and Lashley, http://caribbeanrollofhonour-ww1-ww2.yolasite.com/resources/MNWW2/Waldron_L.jpg, including a photo of Lewis Waldron
Ellis Island website for the voyages of the Modesta in 1921 – www.ellisisland.org/shipping
Fold3.com – for the war diaries and deck logs
Jordan, Roger, The World’s Merchants Fleets 1939, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1999
“Herald-American,” Syracuse, New York, Sunday 26th April 1942, page 12 “67 Reach Bermuda from 3 Lost Ships,” www.newspaperarchive.com
Mason, Jerry, www.uboatarchive.net and http://uboatarchive.net/KTB654-3.htm
Mozolak, John, “New York Ships to Foreign Ports, 1939 – 1945,” http://janda.org/ships/
“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
War Cabinet Weekly Resume (No. 92) from May 29th to June 5th1941 – found online
Wrecksite.eu for specifications and history of Modesta and her engines: http://www.wrecksite.eu
Wynn, Kenneth, U-boat Operations of the Second World War, Volume 1 and Volume 2, 1997