“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.”  

Life Line: the Merchant Navy At War 1939-1945

Life Line: the Merchant Navy at War 1939-1945 by Peter Elphick.

This is not a history of the British merchant navy in World War Two but a collection of well researched anecdotes. As such, it does not provide a sweeping view of the war but instead provides a series of personal stories which make this book special. I rate it three stars.

Some outtakes:

…seaman of the Jewish faith, from Britain itself or from other countries, who were considered to be under special risk if captured by the Germans…were given the option of sailing under names other than their own; if the option was taken up they were issued with identity papers in that false name.

British merchant sailors had traditionally been paid by the voyage. Pay began when one began working whether painting the ship, helping load the cargo, et al. Pay ended when the ship returned to port and the men were discharged. Few sailors worked for specific shipping lines. As we would say in our time, they were all “independent contractors.” This was not the case in the US. What made this system especially unfair to British sailors was that pay stopped if the ship sank. So if a British merchant sailor was on a ship which was torpedoed and sank, his pay stopped the moment he left the ship, hopefully in a lifeboat. Every day the sailor drifted along in the lifeboat was “his time.” The shipping company did not pay him. Even in the worst circumstances after men had survived brutal conditions in open lifeboats, they were not paid for that time. This did not change until a decree from the British government changed how merchant sailors were paid and guaranteed pay between voyages.

Unlike the British forces, lads as young as fifteen worked as cabin boys on merchant ships and officers long in retirement were recalled at ages more advanced that the army or navy would have accepted.

60% of British merchant ships sunk in World War Two were sailing independently when they were sent to the bottom by a German U-Boat.

At the start of the war, the British had few weapons available to arm their merchant ships so weapons were invented using existing equipment. The most dangerous was the Holman projector:

…basically a steel tube linked to the ship’s deck steam supply… The idea was to build up steam pressure to the maximum, drop in a hand grenade, and release the steam pressure, which would, hopefully, blow the grenade clear of the ship, and even more hopefully, destroy any very low flying enemy aircraft. The device was a mañanas not so much to enemy aircraft but to the crew of the ship it was fired from.

This is why I am an armchair sailor. The following occurred in the North Atlantic. According to Captain James Roberts of the US liner President Harding

…his ship ran into one of the worst storms in living memory, during which a giant wave towered over the bridge of the 14,000 ton ship before falling on her decks with a tremendous force, injuring seventy-three people.

USS Indianapolis – Overhaul 1945

I’ve spoken previously about the USS Indianapolis and my father’s time on it. Commissioned in November 1932, the Indy spent most of the 1930’s on goodwill missions. She spent the first few months of World War Two in the South Pacific before heading to Alaska to participate in the campaign there against the Japanese in the Aleutians. In late 1943, she became the flagship of Admiral Spruance and during 1944 and 1945 participated in operations in the Gilbert Islands, Marshall Islands, Marianas Islands, Peleliu Island, Iwo Jima, the Japanese home islands, and the Ryukyus. Her final mission was to transport atomic bomb components from California to Tinian Island in the Marianas. She sailed for the Philippines after and was sank on 30 July 1945 by the Japanese submarine I-58 resulting in the largest single loss of life at sea in the history of the US Navy.

The following pictures are of the USS Indianapolis during her last overhaul in the summer of 1945. Naval overhauls were common events during World War Two as older ships were modernized in an attempt to match the capabilities of younger ships. World War Two forced many countries, especially the United States, to drastically increase their military funding which enabled these overhauls to occur more frequently. This process also occurred as new technologies became available for more wide-spread use and warfare tactics evolved to face specific threats. Examples of this include the development of radar and a focus on anti-submarine and anti-air armament.

USS Indianapolis (CA-35). Off the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, 10 July 1945, after her final overhaul.

USS Indianapolis (CA-35). Off the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, 10 July 1945, after her final overhaul and repair of combat damage.

USS Indianapolis (CA-35). Off the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, 10 July 1945, after her final overhaul.

USS Indianapolis (CA-35). Bow-on view, taken off the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, 10 July 1945, after her final overhaul.

USS Indianapolis (CA-35). View from astern, off the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, 10 July 1945, after her final overhaul.

USS Indianapolis (CA-35). At the Mare Island Navy Yard after her final overhaul, 12 July 1945. Circles on photo mark recent alterations to the ship. Note stripped Cleveland class light cruiser in the right background, with YC-283, an open lighter, alongside.

USS Indianapolis (CA-35). Closeup view of 8″ turret # 2 and the ship’s superstructure, from ahead and to starboard, at the Mare Island Navy Yard following her final overhaul, 12 July 1945. Circles on photo mark recent alterations to the ship. Note Mk13 radar on Mk34 director, atop Indianapolis‘ tripod foremast, and many other antennas on masts and superstructure. A stripped Cleveland class light cruiser is in the right background, with YC-283, an open lighter, alongside.

USS Indianapolis (CA-35). Closeup view of ship’s forward stack, superstructure and hull, from alongside her starboard side amidships, at the Mare Island Navy Yard following her final overhaul, 12 July 1945. Circles on photo mark recent alterations to the ship. Note float for a SC-1 floatplane stowed behind the stack, liferafts and floater nets, and bow of USS Hercules (AK-41), a cargo ship, in the left distance.

USS Indianapolis (CA-35). Closeup view of her after superstructure and hull, from alongside her starboard side amidships, at the Mare Island Navy Yard following her final overhaul, 12 July 1945. Circles on photo mark recent alterations to the ship. Note SC-1 seaplanes being placed in hangars, aircraft crane, port side catapult (and removal of starboard catapult), 5″/25 guns, rear view of Mk34 gun director and many other details. A stripped Cleveland class light cruiser is in the background, with YC-283, an open lighter, alongside.

[Images courtesy of the Department of the Navy – Naval History & Heritage Command.]

The Carley Float Killed More Men Than It Saved

The only thing worse than being in a lifeboat in the open sea was being aboard a raft or a float. Those crewmen who ended up on rafts rarely survived if not rescued quickly. The standard raft aboard Allied merchant ships and warships was the “Carley float”. They were manufactured in three different sizes, designed to fit one inside the other in a stack of three. The raft was easy to construct. A long tube of copper from 12 to 20 inches in diameter was bent into an oval. Kapok or cork was wrapped around the tube, covered with canvass and waterproofed. The pipe was divided into a number of water tight chambers to provide additional flotation. The bottom of the raft was made of slatted wood which made it impossible to stay dry.

Getting stuck on a raft rarely saved one’s life. It just prolonged it for a few days. The Carley floats were a disaster. The following is from: Churchill’s Navy (3 stars)

…the largest was 10 feet long, 5 feet broad, and 17 inches deep and designed for twenty men…It offered no protection against the cold and rain, and was designed so that half the men would be outside the raft clinging to ropes, and the rest, sitting round the rim, were never completely dry. It was barely adequate for war in the North Sea or Mediterranean, and completely unsuitable for the Atlantic or Arctic, where rescue might be delayed and the men were vulnerable to exposure.

An inquiry of 1946 reported, ‘Time and again large numbers who have reached their refuge (the Carley float) have collapsed from cramp and cold, and died before rescue arrived.’

While the rafts had provisions and water and paddles secured in boxes and lashed inboard, those were often lost if the raft was thrown into the sea in heavy weather. And that’s how they were usually launched. The men threw them overboard and jumped in after them. Storms often flipped rafts over and flung the men off whether they were in the raft or outside the raft. Trying to find the raft in a stormy sea, then swim back to it and climb aboard, or grab a rope on the outside, was often beyond the strength of most of the men particularly if the water was cold.