“Sorry for Sinking You” says U-Boat Commander to Survivors of A Merchant Ship He Had Just Sent to the Bottom of the Sea

 “Goodnight. Sorry for sinking you”

Kommandant of U-68 to survivors of SS City of Cairo which he had just sunk.

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Korvettenkapitän Karl-Friedrich Merten

Kommandant of U-68

Photo courtesy of Uboat.net

The words in the headline were spoken by Korvettenkapitän Karl-Friedrich Merten, Kommandant of U-68, after sinking the British merchant ship City of Cairo on 6 November 1942. After the ship went down he surfaced, came close abeam one of the lifeboats, and made enquiry of what ship he had sunk.

After being told, he gave them the best course to steer for land and apologized for sinking them. (U-Boats often surfaced in the early years of the war to ask survivors what ship they had sunk)

(Source: Life Line: the Merchant Navy at War 1939-1945 by Peter Elphick. Three stars)

 

 

In 1984, Karl Merten was invited, and attended, a reunion of some of the survivors of the SS City of Cairo.  

 

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(Left) Esther Langley nee Simms, (Centre) Karl-Friedrich Merten (Right) David Simms
(photo courtesy of courtesy of David Simms via the Ellerman Lines)

 

 

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And even a cake. Merten is in the center of the photo surrounded by survivors.
(photo courtesy of Sarah Quantrill via Ellerman Lines)
“We couldn’t have been sunk by a nicer man”, one of the survivors said.

Most had been small children when Merten torpedoed the ship. They were lucky to have survived. While only a handful of passengers and crew had been killed in the initial torpedo attack, 104 people out of a total of 311 passengers and crew died in lifeboats as they tried to reach the nearest land which was 1,000 miles away.

 

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Ellerman Lines steam passenger ship City of Cairo, 8,034 tons

(Photo courtesy of Allan C. Green Collection via Uboat.net)
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Author Charles McCain sitting in the Captain’s chair on the bridge of HMS Belfast in November 2014. Photo by Jak Mallman-Showell.

 

The Ellerman Line hosted the reunion aboard the World War Two British cruiser, HMS Belfast, preserved as a museum ship in London by the Imperial War Museum.

More details about the re-union can be found on the official page maintained by the Ellerman Lines here:

 

 

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Karl-Friedrich Merten

(Photo courtesy of Uboat.net)

 

Karl-Friedrich Merten was one of the most successful U-boat kommandants of World War Two. Merten ranks as number seven in the list of U-Boat aces, having sunk 27 ships totaling 170,151 GRT during his five patrols.

The complete list of UBoat aces can be found here: http://www.uboat.net/men/aces/top.htm

 

He commanded U-68, a Type IX C boat on five war patrols between 11 February 1941 through 21 January 1943. (The U-boat featured in the movie Das Boot is the smaller, Type VII which comprised two-thirds of the U-boat fleet. U-505, on display at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry is a Type IX boat. These boats were slightly bigger and had greater range.)

He was born in the city of Posen in 1905,  at that time the capital of the Prussia Province of Posen. This province was ceded to Poland in 1919 as mandated by the Treaty of Versailles. At age 21, he entered the German Naval Academy at Murwick and became a regular naval officer.

He was a member of Crew 26, which in the German naval academy signifies the year one enters and not the year one graduates. By the end of the war he had risen to the rank of Kapitän zur See (these last two words in his title literally translating as “of the sea” indicated he was an officer able to take command of a warship at sea and not an engineer or some other specialty.

This was- and remains-a major dividing line in the German Navy with the zur See having far greater prestige. The Deutsche Marine is the only Western navy to still observe this custom, originating in the era of the first steam warships when engineers were not thought to be gentlemen.

 

Hitler in Kriegsmarine award ceremony. Merten, Lüth, Guggenberger & Tonniges

Let us not romanticize these men. Lest we forget, they fought for Adolf Hitler, one of the most evil men of the 20th Century. Above, Der Fuhrer presents the Knights Cross to Merten, Luth, Guggenberger and Tonniges.

photo courtesy of 2.bp.blogspot.com via Wikipedia

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U-boat War Badge with Diamonds. 

(photo courtesy of feldgrau.com)

Karl-Friedrich Merten was awarded the Knights Cross in June 1942 and the Knights Cross with Oak Leaves in November of 1942. Merten was one of the few men in the German Ubootwaffe to be awarded the U-boat War Badge with Diamonds or in German, U-Boot-Kriegsabzeichen mit Brillanten.

Charles McCain comments on the sinking of the SS City of Cairo:

“What I find shocking is not that the ship was torpedoed but that she was allowed by the Royal Navy to proceed alone, the waters where she was sunk known to be a hunting ground for the U-Bootwaffe.

She could only make 12 knots on a good day and, according to a description on Uboat.net  her engines smoked very badly. This was a major handicap since U-Boat lookouts could see dark smoke at a great distance on a sunny day. SS City of Cairo and should have been in a convoy. Why she was allowed to sail by herself  I have been unable to discover.

In spite of Merten’s chivalrous apology, one should bear in mind that while most of those aboard SS City of Cairo survived the torpedo attack by U-68, 104 people out of a total of 311 passengers and crew died in lifeboats as they tried to reach the nearest land which was 1,000 miles away.”

More details about SS City of Cairo can be found here:  http://www.uboat.net/allies/merchants/ships/2383.html

As an aside, SS is the abbreviation of steamship. RMS, the initials before many of the best passenger liners of the English Merchant Marine, stands for ‘Royal Mail Steamer.’ This means the ship is carrying Royal Mail and was built with a subsidy from the British Post Office.

 

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Karl-Friedrich Merten

 

Merten survived the war and had a successful career as a shipbuilder, somewhat ironic given all the ships he sunk. He died in 1993, age 87.More details about Merten and his time in the Kriegsmarine along with his burial place can be found here: 

http://ww2gravestone.com/general/merten-karl-friedrich

 

blog post by Charles McCain, author of An Honorable German, a World War Two naval epic told from the point of view of a heroic yet deeply conflicted German naval officer.

Says bestselling author Nelson DeMille:  “A truly epic and stirring tale of war, love, and the sea.   An Honorable German is a remarkable debut novel by a writer who has done his homework so well that it seems he was an eyewitness to the history he portrays in such vivid detail. An original and surprising look at World War II from the other side.”  

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/