U-Boats New England: Fort Binger
Free French flag, Source: revolvy.com/main/index
The steam ship Fort Binger was ordered in July of 1917 and delivered by shipyard Craig, Taylor and Company Limited of Stockton-on-Tees, UK in June 1919. In 1942 at the time of this attack she was owned by William Thompson and Company and was on charter to the British Ministry of War Transport (MoWT). The ship was 5,250 gross tons and her officers and crew were all Free French.
Fort Binger had a colorful history: the British Shipping Controller named her War Ferret to begin with, however by the time she was completed the war was over and her named changed to Cornish City with the St. Just Steamship Company Limited (Sir William Reardon Smith & Sons, Limited of Cardiff, Wales or Bideford, England) as owners. Ten years later, in 1929 the vessel was sold to French owners named Française de Navigation à Vapeur Chargeurs Réunis, of Paris. Then on the 29th of August 1940 the British MoWT seized here at Douala, Cameroon, French West Africa. According to Uboat.net between December of that year and May of 1941 the Free French Navy used her to bring troops to Port Sudan and then in 1944 she was returned to Chargeurs Réunis.
In May of 1942 her master was Captain Andre Jean Jacques Joly and the officers and crew were composed of 60 other Free French, who were fighting against the Nazi-backed collaborationist Vichy government in southern France. On this voyage the ship has left Liverpool, UK on the 6th of May 1942 and stopped in Belfast, Northern Ireland the following day in order to land an ill crew member until the 8th of May, then sailed for New York in ballast. As a result the ship fell out of Convoy ONS-92 and had to sail alone, unescorted.
By the night of 17/l8 May the ship was less than a third of the way across the mouth of the Gulf of Maine, between Cape Sable Nova Scotia and Cape Cod, Massachusetts. It was roughly 60 miles south of Yarmouth Nova Scotia in roughly 600 feet of water. Though it was a very dark night, a battle between lookouts ensued after roughly 10:05 pm local time on the 17th, with the eager eyes on the German U-boat U-588 detecting the ship and her skipper Victor Vogel sending two well-aimed torpedoes her way. However the Germans were outwitted by the Free French, whose lookouts managed to see and anticipate the torpedoes off the port bow, so the ship jammed the rudder left to turn to port, with the result that a torpedo passed harmlessly astern and another caused just a glancing blow off the port bow.
For two days the ship had been steaming at 11 knots and exercising zig zag pattern #14. She was manned with five evidently alert lookouts situated on the bridge and the aft gun. The wind was very light at zero to five knots, visibility was considered fair (also described as “pitch darkness”), and there were no other ships visible. At the time the Fort Binger was heading nearly due West at 251 degrees True and there was a slight swell.
The torpedo which missed passed roughly 60 feet astern and the one which struck the port bow dealt the vessel merely a glancing blow, causing a bump sensation amongst the crew but it did not explode. The initial torpedo had been detected when 1,200 feet away, giving the quartermaster at the wheel time to evade. The French were armed with a four-inch gun and small arms.
Captain Joly decided to use the Fort Binger itself as a weapon, and when U-588 surfaced roughly half a mile away 20 minutes later, the ship twice attempted to ram the German U-boat, throwing Vogel and U-588 off-guard and disrupting the attack. This did not prevent the Germans from pumping some seven 3-inch shells at the ship as well as roughly 50 rounds of machine gun fire. Some of these found their mark at the bridge and side of the ship, and one Free French crew – 42-year-old cook Maurice Poba – was killed and two others were seriously wounded and two slightly wounded by shellfire and gunfire.
The gunners on Fort Binger was able to avenge their crewmates somewhat by sending four rounds of 4-inch shells at the sub when only half a mile apart, causing them to believe the U-boat was hit at least once, however other sources say they all fell short of the mark. The French were also armed with half a dozen machine guns. They had to pause when one of the German shells nearly disabled their boiler, but then resumed the attack after sending emergency signals via radio.
These transmissions were successful as stations in Chatham, Cape Cod, Valentia, Canada, Camperdown Nova Scotia, and Portishead radio in the UK (presumably by relay) learned of the casualty and the attack, and that the Fort Binger was being shelled and abandoned. This led to at least one official report listing the Fort Binger as sunk.
The second attempt to ram was hampered by severed steam pipes, which reduced the speed of the merchant ship. Captain Joly then headed into nearby fog banks and laid a course to Nova Scotia and assistance. Vogel in U-588 was unable to re-discover the ship in fog.
Meanwhile Eastern Air Command received the ship’s Mayday and sent aircraft out to search for the ship and its antagonist, but were unable to locate either. To help both inform Fort Binger of their presence as well as warn off subs, the plane dropped pyrotechnic flares consisting of red Very lights and parachute flares. These were seen by the dueling vessels and the air command at least believed that this must have contributed to Vogel believing that an anti-submarine air attack was imminent and that he would be best advised to retreat, writing: “it is believed ship and sub sighted flares dropped by plane, and sub submerged fearing aircraft might be equipped with ASV.”
Just in case Captain Joly threw the British routing instructions and codes into the sea in a weighted box. Impressively, none of the 61 mariners abandoned their ship, which lesser sailors had done on numerous similar occasions. Within an hour, at roughly 11 pm local time (3 am Greenwich time), the sub sauntered off, having proved unable to sink the defiant ship.
Joly and the Fort Binger made the harbor at Yarmouth but because of the fog decided to anchor and repair the damaged steam pipes themselves. Apparently the radio set had been knocked out in the action against the submarine. The second officer was dispatched ashore to obtain medical aid, with a result that a Royal Canadian Air Force crash (or rescue) boat the RCAF M 305 Arresteur, delivered a physician on board, who was then able to tend to the wounded. Arresteur was built in 1937 by Ditchburn Boats Limited in Gravenhurst, Ontario for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. She was 40.66 gross tons (18 registered), had two 300-hp gasoline engines, was 67 feet long, 13.7 feet wide and 5.4 feet deep.
Fort Binger docked in Yarmouth at roughly 11:30 am local (4:30 Greenwich) on the 18thof May 1942. On the 19th Allied records record that the sailors upped their claim of hits on the sub to three. She ultimately made New York on the 22nd of June, 1942 and by 24th of June was aground but able to wriggle herself free.
The following day the merchant ship Ocean Honour claimed to have sighted U-588 at 12:33 pm local time and then proceeded unharmed into Halifax. Victor Vogel and all of his 45 officers and crew were killed east of Newfoundland and south of Greenland on 31 July 1942 by a depth charge attack on U-588 from HMCS Wetaskiwin and HMCS Skeena. It was the patrol after the one which brought it into contact with Fort Binger, which was scrapped in 1950 by Briton Ferry. The Arresteur was sold in 1947 and renamed the Linda Belle. That year she was wrecked and written off.