M/T VICTOLITE, Attack & Survivor Narrative
By Eric T. Wiberg, Esq. www.uboatsbermuda.blogspot.com, September, 2014
Motor tanker Victolite at berth. Two lifeboats are visible aft, by the funnel. A traditional barrel-shaped crow’s nest for a lookout is visible on the foremast – the larger masts would have been to support the radio aerials, and the smaller, stockier ones behind the bridge for handling cargo hoses at the manifolds. The raised platform between the bridge, forepeak and engine area and crew accommodation aft served, among other things, as a walkway for the crew.
Photo Source: http://www.uboat.net/allies/merchants/ships/1328.html, courtesy of Donald A. Baker, also http://www.aukevisser.nl/others/id499.htm
The motor tanker Victolite was built by the A. Stephens and Sons Limited shipyard in Linthouse, Glasgow, on Scotland’s River Clyde. Launched on the 28th of November 1927 and completed in March 1928, this was the 517th vessel built by the yard. Her only owners were the Imperial Oil Shipping Company Limited of Toronto, who commissioned the modern vessel. This firm was in turn a subsidiary of the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey. At the outbreak of war there were nine ships with the “olite” naming convention. The ship was registered to Montreal, Canada – Auke Visser, an expert on tankers, states on his site that the vessel was steam-propelled, however other sources (Uboat.net, Wrecksite.eu) list the engines as diesel.
The tanker’s dimensions were 510 feet in length, 68.2 feet wide, and 38.1 feet deep. Two diesel engines were built by Friedrich Krupp Germaniawerft A.G. (Germania Krupp), in Germany. They developed 995 net horsepower and turned two propellers to move the steel ship forward at 11 knots. According to a contemporary article heralding the design innovations, the Victolite was built “on the Isherwood ‘bracketless’ system, which by elimination of the brackets connecting the longitudinals at the bulkheads greatly simplifies construction and reduces cost of upkeep.”
The same article went on to say that “…the Victolite will run in summer months between Colombia and the St. Lawrence, while in winter they will probably be employed between the Altantic Coast and South American west coast ports via the Panama Canal.” The deadweight cargo carrying capacity was given as 16,000 tons, and the Sulzer-type engines were described as two four-cycle, two-stroke, “developing a combined horsepower of 3,300 b.h.p. at 100 r.p.m.” In another article each engine was listed as capable of developing 1,800 b.h.p. or brake horsepower.
Victolite was named for Victoria, in British Colombia, just as her sister ships were named for Canadian locales (Canadalite, Ontariolite, Vancolite, Trontolite, Montrolite, etc.). She was the second ship to carry the name for the same firm. In Canada there was considerable pride in this large and highly modern fleet of efficient vessels, as evidenced by the headline “Largest and Finest Oil Tankers Sail Under Canadian Ensign,” in the Brandon Daily Sun, September 21st, 1928. In the article the Victolite is listed as being capable of carrying 15,600 tons of petroleum.
The “Kingston Gleaner” of Jamaica for April 24th 1930 records how another Canadian vessel, the passenger and cargo ship “Lady Hawkins,” went to the aid of the Victolite. On February 27th 1930 the Victolite sent out an emergency wireless message stating that the ship’s engineer Norman Buckley, of Dublin and Halifax, had appendicitis and required urgent medical attention. The master of the Lady Hawkins, Captain Manning altered course by 100 nautical miles and picked up Mr. Buckley, taking him to St. Kitts in the Caribbean, where he was operated on. (The Lady Hawkins was subsequently attacked and sunk by U-66 under Richard Zapp between Hatteras and Bermuda on the 19th of January, 1942 with the tragic loss of 251 lives).
During World War II the Victolite participated in roughly a dozen convoys. The outbreak of war found her arriving in Montreal and by October 19th 1939 she called at Bermuda in transit for Jamaica and Aruba. She returned to Bermuda on November 4th en route to Halifax, sailing independently. Other voyages took her to France, the Mediterranean, North Africa, the UK, and Philadelphia and New York in the US. From August 1940 to February 1942 the ship was dedicated to sailing independently between the Caribbean basin (Colombia, Venezuela, Trinidad, Aruba, for example) to ports in the northeast, from Norfolk Virginia to Halifax and Montreal.
On her final voyage the Victolite set out from Halifax on Thursday the 5th of February bound for Las Piedras, Venezuela. She had just completed a laden passage from Caripito, Venezuela (for cargo) and Trinidad (for bunkers, or engine fuel), between the 21st of January and the first day of February, and was heading back down south without any cargo, but rather with just ballast water in her tanks. Las Piedras is located on an isthmus of land between Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela, and Aruba, Dutch Antilles.
Canadian Captain Peter McLean Smith, aged 45, was the Master of the Victolite at the time. He was responsible for a total complement of 47 men, of whom two were Gunners manning the ship’s defensive weaponry, usually consisting of a large 4-inch artillery gun, possibly with a smaller 12-pound gun and a number of mounted and hand-held machine guns. With the exception of two men (Gunner John Richmond Archer Lawson, aged 29 and British, and Engine Wiper Fritjof Søderberg, aged 27 and Norwegian), all of the crew were Canadian nationals. There were six teenagers aboard, all but three of them 19 years of age. The youngest was Engine Wiper Daniel Ralph Stone, aged 16, followed by Saloon Messman Charles H. Tooker and Ordinary Seaman Gerard Roy Martell, both aged 17.
There were 25 men who were aged in their twenties, including the other Gunner, William Manzell, an Able Seaman in the Royal Canadian Navy. The oldest man on board was Antoine J. Arsenault, a boilermaker – he was 49. The senior officers assisting Captain Smith were First Officer David Propert Harries, aged 39, Chief Engineer Officer Neil Munro, aged 40, Second Officer Joseph Albert Ouellet, aged 26, and Third Officer Harold Frank Getson, aged 23. The Radio Operator was Frank G. Taylor, aged 28.
By the afternoon of Tuesday the tenth of February Captain Smith and his men had made it to a point 260 nautical miles north-northwest of Bermuda, 400 miles east of Cape Hatteras, 400 miles southeast of New York, and 325 miles south-southeast of Nantucket. This position is 42 miles southeast of the Caryn Seamount. At that time and in that place the hapless tanker sailed across the sites of the German submarine U-564 under the command of the aggressive veteran skipper then-KapitänleutnantReinhard Suhren.