“For I Knew Then that My Father Was Dead…”

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HMS Rawalpindi sunk on 23 November 1939 by the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. *

 “…we dined and went into the library to hear the news on the wireless…I was smoking a cigarette and drumming my fingers on the table, not concentrating on what was being said, when one word struck a chord in my brain and made me sit bold upright on my chair…’The Secretary of the Admiralty,’ came the impassive voice of the announcer, ‘regrets to announce the loss of the Armed Merchant Cruiser Rawalpindi…The voice drifted on, but I did not listen. For I knew then that my father was dead.”

From Sub-Lieutenant by Ludovic Kennedy. This short book was published in 1942 when the author was a sub-lieutenant in the RNVR (Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. He was 19 when his father was killed in action as Captain of HMS Rawalpindi. The ship was part of the Northern Patrol which covered the Denmark Strait between Iceland and Greenland to prevent German warships from slipping into the North Atlantic to attack British merchant convoys.

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The engagement took place between Iceland and Greenland in the Denmark Strait.

This ship was built as a passenger liner for the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company and launched in 1925. She was requisitioned by the British Admiralty in 1939 and quickly converted into an Armed Merchant Cruiser by equipping her with eight 6 inch naval guns from World War One. There was no centralized fire direction control and the gun captains fired the cannons at ‘guesstimated’ ranges and elevations. That the British even deployed these unarmored ships showed the paucity of their naval resources at the beginning of the war.

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Captain E.C. Kennedy, RN.

HMS Rawalpindi was commanded by Captain E.C. Kennedy, RN. The Captain was highly experienced but had been cut from the navy and placed on the retired list by the infamous Geddes Axe in 1923. Prime Minister David Lloyd George appointed Sir Eric Geddes as head of a committee charge with investigating public finances and recommending cuts in government expenditure which had grown dramatically during World War One. Massive retrenchment in government expenditure followed the recommendations of the Geddes committee and hardest hit were the services.

His task was to send sighting reports to the Admiralty of any German warships and then “run like a hare” as Captain Kennedy had put it. But he was caught between two German ships of far greater speed. The Germans twice demanded the British ship to surrender but Royal Navy ships never surrendered and Kennedy, an old sea dog of sixty, was hardly a man to do such a thing. He was heard to say “We’ll fight them both, they’ll sink us, and that will be that. Good-bye”.

The Germans pounded HMS Rawalpindi into a burning hulk and Kennedy along with 238 men were killed in action or went down with the ship.  Thirty-seven British sailors were rescued by the German ships and 11 more were rescued the next day by another Armed Merchant Cruiser,  HMS Chitral. The list of the men killed is here. It makes sobering reading. http://wow.naval-history.net/xDKCas1939-11NOV.htm

Sir Ludovic Kennedy, knighted in 1994, survived the war and went on to become a famous British journalist, author and television personality. He died in 2009 at age 89.

There is detailed information about the Rawalpindi both before the war when she served as a passenger line and during the war as an AMC. You will find that information here: www.pandosnco.co.uk/rawalpindi

A fascinating remembrance by one of the survivors of the terrible battle and subsequent sinking of the ship by the Germans can be found on the BBC’s World War Two People’s War  site here: www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar

*The scale model of the ship shows it as it was after being converted to an AMC during which process one of the funnels was removed. Photo T.C. Dring, British Ministry of Defence, from the collections of the Imperial War Museums. The photograph is in the public domain.

“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.”  

The Magnificent Northern Lights Above Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull Volcano

 

The Northern Lights are seen above the ash plume of Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano in the evening

 

The Northern Lights are seen above the ash plume of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano on April 23rd, 2013. Photograph credit to REUTERS/Ingolfur Juliusson courtesy of the London Daily Telegraph.

This would have been a familiar sight to Allied sailors. During World War Two, Iceland served as a key staging point for Allied convoys to and from the United Kingdom and other destinations including the Soviet Union. In the seas off Iceland was the CHOP line or Change of Operational Control when the British convoy escorts under the control of Western Approaches Command, handed off convoy protection duty to the US Navy.

Both the Brits and the Americans used Iceland as a base for repairing, refueling and resupplying of warships and merchant ships. To keep the Germans from occupying Iceland and choking off the sea lanes to America, British Royal Marines occupied the Iceland in May of 1940 and were later replaced by US Marines.

We did not consult the Icelanders who behaved rather badly. One wonders what they would have thought if their German cousins had beat the Allies to the punch. Throughout the war Nazi pamphlets and propaganda were sold in Iceland legally and openly by Icelandic sympathizers of the Nazis.

Many of the locals went out of their way to be rude to the British and later American Marines. I wonder how the Waffen SS would have reacted.

The body of water known as the Hvalfjörður was used as the main anchorage by Allied ships. Often the weather was so rough and the wind so strong in the anchorage no matter what the season that ships had to keep steam on to maintain their positions and not drag their anchors. Sometimes stationary ships were making revolutions for three to four knots to simply stay in place.

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A photograph taken in May 1942 from the aircraft carrier HMS Victorious of ships in the anchorage Hvalfjord, Iceland.

Original caption from the era reads: The convoy will sail at dusk. A striking silhouette of the convoy at it’s rendezvous, waiting for the order to sail. All these ships are loaded with vital war supplies for Russia. (Photograph courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)

Convoys to the Soviet Union either went to Murmansk or Archangel, the first being the only port in the Soviet Union ice-free year round. This was the most dangerous of Allied convoy routings. Ships sailed from Iceland through the Norwegian Sea to the Arctic Sea to the White Sea. For most of the voyage, these convoys would be under constant air attack by the Luftwaffe. U-Boats stalked every convoy and had great success.

85 merchant ships and 16 Royal Navy warships were sunk during the 78 supply convoys sent to the Soviet Union. Dozens and dozens more ships were severely damaged. Was it worth it? Yes. Over 80% of German soldiers killed in World War Two were killed by the Red Army and over 80% of the land engagements in the European theater were fought in the Soviet Union. Over 30 million Soviet citizens-half military and half civilian-lost their lives in World War Two.

Both the Allies and the Soviets were well aware of these figures which Stalin mentioned all the time in his dealings with the Allies. The number one strategic goal of the Anglo-Americans in World War Two in Europe was to keep the Soviet Union in the war. Strategy flowed from that reality.

The convoys to Russia were designated PQ (changed after the PQ 17 disaster) with the return convoys being designated QP. Of the several hundred convoy designations used by the Allies, this is the only one I am aware of which uses the initials of someone’s name that person being Peter Quellyn Roberts. This is a famous story in World War Two and some doubt its authenticity. Below is an excerpt from an email I received 18 months ago from the son of Captain PQ Roberts, RN.

“While he was at the Admiralty, father was involved in the organizing of the war relief convoys to Russia. My understanding was that they had run out of current numbers so he designated the next run PQ1 and then this would be reversed on the return to QP1 .
The question arose why these particular letters. Fathers name was PHILIP QUELLYN ROBERTS ……..PQR !”

So, there you have it from the horse’s mouth. The son is named, Paul Quellyn Roberts.