M/T Victolite, sunk by U-564/Suhren 260 miles NNW of Bermuda Feb. 11th 1942 – all 47 men perished

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.

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.
This photo was taken less than 15 nautical miles from the location where the Victolite was sunk. It shows conditions as taken from the ship A/B HrMS Zuiderjruis (A-832). There is no indication that conditions were this rough for the men of the Victolite when they abandoned ship, nor how long they survived in their boats, but it is forseeable that the longer the drifted the greater their chance of encountering this kind of weather – potentially fatal to men in open boats – in February in the North Atlantic.

Photo source: submitted to Google earth by jorrit73 of the Dutch Navy on 3 May, 2011. http://www.panoramio.com/user/4147750

Reinhard “Teddy” Suhren (later Fregattenkapitän and holder of the Knights Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords), entered the Bermuda area on the eighth of February 1942 and attacked two ships during eight days in the region – the other being the Opalia on 16th February. Suhren was heading west to Hatteras U-at the time he and his officers and crew came upon the zig zagging Victolite.

Fregattenkapitän Reinhard Suhren returning from patrol.

On Tuesday the 10th of February, German time (about six hours ahead of local, or ship’s time), Suhren observed that the wind was from the northwest about 15 knots, sea state was about 4-5 feet, and it was very cloudy. At 8:25 pm (about 2:25 pm ship’s time), his crew observed “1 smoke cloud in sight bearing 286°T.” Suhren “Maneuvered ahead and distinguished a tanker on course 210°” U-564 had discovered the vulnerable Victolite. Since we have no record from the Canadian crew’s perspective, it would seem appropriate to provide the exact observations of what happened next in full from the German’s KTB, Krieg Tag Buch, or war diary:
On Wednesday the 11th of February at 19 minutes after midnight German time (about 6:19 pm ship’s time) Suhren notes: “At dusk closed on the tanker at target angle 60°.  Waited until darkness and then attacked.” At 1:43 am, or 7:43 ship’s time, he fired a single torpedo from Tube 1, however Suhren had overestimated the ship’s speed and the projectile missed, presumably passing ahead of the Victolite’s bows.
Whether it was seen by the ship’s lookouts will never be known, however an Allied ship which has spotted a torpedo or detected an Axis submarine generally turns its heels towards the direction of the sub and races off at full speed, opening fire with any defensive armament it might have. This the Victolite did not do.

It would appear that Victolite’s men did not see the phosphorescent trail left by the torpedo, as Suhren then notes “Tanker steams on calmly. Enemy maintains speed and course the entire time, no zig zag is observed.” At 9:24 pm ship’s time Suhren “Shot from tube II with exact data. Hit amidships, running time 25 seconds. Tanker transmits on the 600 meter wave:  SSS VICTOLITE position 36.12N 67.14W torpedoed.  Position checks exactly.  Size 11410 GRT [gross registered tons].”
Clearly Radio Operator Frank Taylor had managed to get off an emergency radio signal, which was received in Hingham Massachusetts and relayed – this would indicate that despite having taken a torpedo amidships the Victolite’s two large masts with radio aerials were still standing at the time.
It would appear that the Victolite men moved with alacrity to abandon their stricken tanker. In the same entry Suhren observed that “Crew goes immediately into the boats.  I wait a moment and then shoot the stern and bridge of the tanker with artillery, which lies stopped with a slight list to starboard. No signs of life.
It was quite unusual for U-boat commanders to send over a boat to victims, unless they were totally confident that there would be no immediate Allied counter-attack from the sea or air, the weather conditions permitted it, and there might be something worthwhile achieved for the submarine and its crew by taking such a risk. In this instance not only were the first criteria met, but in Suhren was a commander of audacity as well. Again in the same entry he writes:

“Close up and shoot this time with machine guns the stern and bridge.  Nothing stirs.  The tanker is completely abandoned.  Rubber boat launched, to determine if the tanker has diesel oil for supply on board.  However, what is found is completely unusable because it is very thick and must first be heated to atomize.

Sought after secret documents, but the lockers were empty. Found that tanker was proceeding from Montreal to Venezuela. The tanker was armed with a 10.2 cm cannon on the stern and a 4 cm antiaircraft gun on the top deck, but no ammunition was found. 4 explosive cartridges were place[d] in the engine room. Despite this the tanker did not sink.  With a total of 98 8.8 cm shots shot all tanks and over deck.”
At 5:05 am German time (11:05 pm ship’s time) the U-boat commander noted “Tanker settled slowly, in burning condition, with bow still out, bridge and smokestack cap sunken.” Less than an hour later, at three minutes after midnight ship’s time, he notes “Flames extinguish suddenly, after the boat had moved off 6 nm [nautical miles].” Satisfied that the Victolite has sunk, Suhren moved off towards Hatteras without interviewing the survivors.
The US Navy’s Eastern Sea Frontier “Enemy Action Diary” for the night of Tuesday February 10th logged the SSS for “submarine attacking” message from the Victolite. The entry for 9:45 pm reads “S.S. [sic] VICTOLITE reported SSS and torpedoed at 36-12Nl 67-14W. British. Time approx. 110130 GCT.” It would appear that though they were in receipt of this critical information on a timely basis, the Allies at the time were ill-equipped to respond adequately to the information.

The region was effectively under siege by the Operation Drumbeat German attacks in February 1942, which had begun one month before, targeting tankers. In just a month’s time airplanes would have been sent from Naval Operating Base (NOB) Bermuda, however their War Diary does not even begin until a month later, on the ninth of March, 1942 (Fold3.com). So the men on the Victolite were on their own.

The US Fourth Naval District observed at 01:41 am on Wednesday the 11th of February that Victolite’s SSS message was “reported from vessels outside the limits of 4ND (HQ notified ESF in each case).” The war diary entry lists the Victolite by call sign (VGLK), position, and the notation “SSS TORPEDOED,” however it seems nothing was done about it.

The British Admiralty likewise notes the same day “VICTOLITE (torpedoed 10/2.) Intercept Hingham, Mass. Begins SSSS VICTOLITE, 36.12 N., 67.14 W. torpedoed (Valentia radio, 0142/11.). Despite all of this accurate and timely intelligence nothing could be, or at least was, officially done for the 47 sailors cast onto the surface of the North Atlantic in winter in small boats. In 1993 the Victolite was cited as the second Canadian tanker sunk in the Western Hemisphere in an essay (“’We’ll Get Our Own’: Canada and the Oil Shipping Crisis of 1942”) by historian and archivist Robert C. Fisher. The first was Montrolite, sunk by U-109, also off Bermuda, a week earlier.

On 11th March 1999 Canadian Parliamentarian Peter Goldring listed the Victolite amongst Canadian ships lost in World War II in an effort to obtain veteran’s rights for Canada’s merchant mariners. He referred to “Canada’s unknown navy, the navy shamefully not found in many of our school’s history text books, that navy Canada’s young don’t know about. Canada’s merchant navy of World War II developed into a force of 12,000 men and women who collectively sailed 25,000 merchant ship voyages.”

U-564 under Teddy Suhren transferring a torpedo to U-154 in the Caribbean region, Spring, 1942

Returning to the area off Bermuda on February 15th, Suhren managed to damage the tanker Opalia (British, 6,195 tons) with gunfire north of Bermuda on the 16th. The same day U-564 received fuel from U-107 north of Bermuda. Then the following day the sub left the area heading east to Brest, where it was part of the 1st U-boat Flotilla. The patrol began in La Pallice on the 18th of January and ended in Brest on the 6th of March.

Suhren is the author of an autobiography named Ace of Aces. In an extraordinarily successful career he attacked 23 ships and sank or damaged 125,351 tons of Allied shipping. He served aboard U-564 from June 1941 to July 1942, for 284 patrol days. Later in the war he served as commander of U-boats in Norway and then the North Sea.

Suhren accrued 284 days on six war patrols over his career. His career total of 18 merchant ships sunk for 95,544 tons, four more damaged for 28,907 tons and a warship sunk for 900 tons would earn him the Knights Cross with Oak Leaves on the last day of 1941 and the ultimate accolade, the Crossed Swords in Fall of 1942, followed by the War Merit Cross Second Class with Swords in January 1944.

Suhren’s autobiography Ace of Aces is highly readable and his post-war business career (starting with running a beer garden in the ruins of Hamburg) makes him a memorable commander. A Kapitänleutnant on his first voyage to the Bermuda and the Bahamas, he would end the war as a Fregattenkapitän in command of all U-boats in Norwegian waters and later the head of the North Sea region for the Führer der Unterseeboote (FdU, or Karl Dönitz). He served on U-564 between April and October 1941 – the boat was subsequently lost in the Bay of Biscay under a different commander. Born in Taunus in 1916, Suhren lived until 1984 and the age of 68, dying in Hamburg where he had become a businessman.

Royal Canadian Navy Able Seaman Manzell is memorialized on the Halifax Memorial, erected there by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, along with 2,846 other merchant sailors, soldiers, and nursing sisters who were lost at sea during World War II.

According to a government website there is a mountain in British Colombia Canada named for one of the victims of the loss of the Victolite. Mount Reid was “Named in memory of Canadian Merchant Navy Junior Engineer Officer John Royal (“Roy”) Reid, from Notch Hill  (near Salmon Arm); enlisted at Victoria in 1939, and served aboard several Canadian Merchant Navy ships; killed in action 10 February 1942 when his oil tanker “Victolite” – bound from Halifax to Las Piedras, South America – was torpedoed and sunk.” (Taylor, OBX History).


Åkerberg, Dani Janer, for information and photos of U-564: http://www.u-historia.com/uhistoria/historia/huboots

“Brandon Daily Sun,” “Largest and Finest Oil Tankers Sail Under Canadian Ensign,” September 21st, 1928

Constant, Alan R., Sinking of the Montrolite An Internet Odyssey of Discovery Uncovering the Story of a Fateful Night in 1942,” Tobermory, ONT, Canada, 2002


Darlington, Robert and McKee, Fraser, “The Canadian Naval Chronicle,” Vanwell Publishing Ltd., St. Catharine’s ONT, Canada, 1996

Derby Diesels, for construction specifications, http://www.derbysulzers.com/shipvancolite.html

Fisher, Robert C., “We’ll Get Our Own: Canada and the Oil Shipping Crisis of 1942,” The Northern Mariner/Le Marin du nord, III, No. 2 (April 1993), pp. 33-39 and for his assistance with Victolite’s sister ship Montrolite

Findagrave.com for details of the Halifax Memorial and Manzell’s entry on it, http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=cr&GRid=56172334&CRid=2198405&

Fold3.com – for the war diaries and deck logs concerning Montrolite from US and UK navies

Hadley, Michael L., “U-Boats Against Canada: German Submarines in Canadian Waters,” McGill Queen’s University Press, Montreal, QC, Canada, 1985

Holm Lawson, Dame Siri, http://www.warsailors.com/convoys/ for Montrolite convoys

Holdaway, Mike, and Cooper, Tony, for details of convoys Victrolite sailed in http://www.convoyweb.org.uk

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

Kingston Gleaner, Jamaica, “To the Rescue,” April 24th, 1930 – an article on Lady Hawkins diverting to assist Norman Buckley of the Victolite on February 27th, 1930.

Mason, Jerry, www.uboatarchive.net and http://uboatarchive.net/KTB564-4.htm
McKee, Fraser M., ‘Sink All The Shipping There, The Wartime Loss of Canada’s Merchant Ships and Fishing Schooners,” Vanwell Publishing Ltd., St. Catharine’s ONT, Canada, 2004
Mozolak, John, “New York Ships to Foreign Port, 1939 – 1945,” http://janda.org/ships/
Newspaperarchive.com for the articles on Victolite’s earlier career
Parker, Mike, “Running the Gauntlet: An Oral History of Canadian merchant Seamen in World War II,” Nimbus Publishing Ltd., Halifax, NS, Canada, 1994, “Jim Boutlilier” chapter, pages 81-84
Parliament of Canada, Edited Hansard No. 194, Thursday March 11, 1999, Mr. Peter Goldring (Edmonton East, Ref.), pp. 13-14, from 36th Parliament, 1st Session
Suhren, Teddy, with Brustat-Naval, Fritz, “Ace of Aces: Memoirs of a U-Boat Rebel,” Translated by Frank James, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 2006

Taylor, A.J., Outer Banks or OBX History, for details of Mount Reid being named for Roy Reid of the Victolite – http://www.sunkenshipsouterbanks.com/victolite.html
Uboat.net for much of the information, including photos of U-boat Commander and its victim, http://www.uboat.net/men
Visser, Auke, www.aukevisser.nl for the history of the building of Victrolite  (II) plus photo of ship. http://www.aukevisser.nl/others/id499.htm
Wrecksite.eu for specifications and history of Montrolite: http://www.wrecksite.eu

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

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