U-Boat Activity Around WWII Bermuda

As with any battlefield, the human toll is the saddest element. Steel on steel is one form of warfare—the young men who cling to life on a barren life raft for weeks in the Atlantic tell another type of tale, one of tenacity and of perseverance. The men from ships like the Muskogee, abandoned by their antagonists to die a slow death on the windswept crests of North Atlantic waves, would of course never live to tell their tale. They leave it to others to piece together.

Were it not for Bermuda sticking its stubborn, reef-strewn hide out of the northern seas astride the Gulf Stream, over a thousand Allies would likely have perished, two U-boats escaped, and the carnage in the nearly half-million-mile-wide region been vastly more devastating. Thanks to the kindness and generosity of strangers, the men and women from disparate backgrounds who landed on the island were treated humanely, welcomed by kindred souls whether in the African Methodist Church, the Anglican graveyard, a sailor’s canteen, the hospital or the Sailor’s Home, not to mention private homes. The fact they were not treated like commodities (shipwrecked Allied sailors in Archangel Russia were forced to work in factories), speaks volumes to the spirit of hospitality of the tight-knit island community.

These exemplary characteristics can still be found today, and tenets of which are still practiced by members of the Guild of Holy Compassion, as they patiently tend the graves of those lost nearly three generations ago, with no thought to the recognition they are unlikely to receive in any event. No offspring having been borne of the survivors’ short sojourns in the Somer’s Isles, these white-washed grave sites stand silent sentinel for the hundreds more who made it off the island’s war-ravaged coast and back into the fray. There are not likely to ever be U-boats waging war off Bermuda again, and the hulks of most of the victims lie still tantalizingly beyond our grasp.

The Allied ships came from all over—mostly British, US and Norwegian flagged, they also hailed from Latvia, Canada, the Netherlands, neutral Sweden, Uruguay, and Argentina. They steamed ploddingly from Portuguese East Africa or raced from New York, from the Caribbean to Canada, the Pacific to the US, from up South American rivers to US ports like Baytown and Weehawken. Most of them were on their way between Europe and the Americas, ports like Liverpool and Halifax or New York, or the islands and US Gulf to Halifax to convoy east.

During World War Two, there were 1,224 survivors landed in Bermuda from 24 ships (one US Navy, one Canadian Navy), between 17 October 1940 and 27 February 1943. Most of them were passengers on liner ships, followed by merchant sailors and then naval officers and men. The largest number of survivors was from the City of Birmingham (372 landed 1 July 1942, nine fatalities), and the Lady Drake (256 landed 6 May 1942, twelve deaths). The fewest were the schooner the Helen Forsey and the Melbourne Star with four each. Some men from the following ships were landed by air: the Derryheen, USS Gannet, the San Arcadio, and the Melbourne Star. Only the following succeeded in rowing and sailing their way to Bermuda on their own: the Helen Forsey (four Canadians) and the James E. Newsom (nine Canadians).

While other merchant ships picked up most survivors, a number were rescued by naval vessels: the Jagersfontein, the City of Birmingham, the Lady Drake, HMCS Margaree, the British Resource, and USS Gannet. Of those landed in Bermuda, most (twelve ships with 243 men) came from British ships, five ships from the USA accounted for 506 survivors and three Canadian vessels for 299 persons. Other ships whose men landed in Bermuda had been flagged to Uruguay, Sweden, Norway, and Netherlands (one ship each). Six ships experienced the longest survival voyages on open boats or rafts: the Melbourne Star for thirty-eight days; the Empire Dryden for nineteen days; the Fred W. Green for eighteen days; the San Arcadio for fifteen days; the Helen Forsey for twelve days; and the Stanbank for ten days. All the other eighteen ships experienced voyages of nine days or less, with five ships’ crews on the water for one day or less. There were several weeks of particularly intense activity on shore when several ships’ survivors arrived in Bermuda:

Late October 1940: the Uskbridge on 28 October and HMCS Margaree on 1 November 1940.

Mid-March 1942: the British Resource on 16 March and the Oakmar on 24 March 1942.

Late April 1942: the Agra and the Derryheen on 22 April, the Robin Hood on 25 April, and the Modesta on 26 April

Early May 1942: the Lady Drake on 6 May, the Empire Dryden on 8 May, the James E. Newsom on 10 May, and the Stanbank on 15 May.

Mid-June 1942: the West Notus on 5 June, USS Gannet on 7 June, the Melbourne Star on 10 June, the L. A. Christiansen on 12 June, and the Fred W. Green on 17 June 1942.

Early July 1942: the Jagersfontein on 28 June, and the City of Birmingham on 3 July 1942.

Some, like the Derryheen, Maldonado, Uskbridge, and West Notus, only had a portion of their crew landed in Bermuda. The others were rescued by ship or air and taken to different ports. Excluding the passenger ships, the average number of men per ship with survivors landed in Bermuda was 27. Including all ships attacked around Bermuda, but excluding the Uskbridge and HMCS Margeree, which happened before Operation Drumbeat, the attacks began on 24 January with U-106 under Rasch’s attack on the Empire Wildebeeste and ended on 27 February 1943 with the attack by U-66 under Markworth on the St. Margaret some 1,140 nautical miles from Bermuda.

Attacks inside the central circle lasted eighteen months, though the U-boat patrols lasted longer—into 1944. The busiest month of attacks was April 1942 with twenty, followed by May 1942 with fifteen and March 1942 with fourteen. The only months during which there were more than one attacks were January to July 1942, generalizing that the sustained attacks lasted for the first seven months of 1942, though many patrols transited the area and random attacks were made after that period.

Four attacks took place on 20 April 1942: the Agra, the Empire Dryden, the Steel Maker, and the Harpagon; another four happened on 5 May 1942: the Lady Drake, the Stanbank, the Santa Catalina, and the Freden.

There were 3,942 people aboard eighty ships attacked by U-boats between 24 January 1942 and 27 February 1943 (thirteen months—excluding the Uskbridge, sunk off Iceland). A total of 957 men were killed, or a mortality rate of roughly twenty-five percent. Luckily, 2,985 men survived. Of the survivors, approximately forty-one percent of the survivors and thirty-one percent of the overall number of people attacked landed in Bermuda. The majority, or forty-four, of Allied ships were steamships laid out to carry general, or dry bulk cargo, as opposed to tankers or other types. There were eight motor ships that carried dry or general cargo, meaning fifty-two out of eighty (sixty-five percent) were dry cargo ships. There were twenty-one tankers, of which eighteen were the more modern motor tankers, and three were steam tankers. Thus, twenty-six percent of the ships carried liquid cargoes, and most of them were motorized, whereas steam-driven machinery propelled most of the dry ships.

Additionally, there was a US Navy minesweeper, two schooners, and four passenger ships, of which three (the Lady Drake, the San Jacinto, and the City of Birmingham) were steam and one (the Jagersfontein) was motorized. Some other ships, including the Fairport and the Santa Catalina, carried passengers as well as freight. There were only five ships (the Frank B. Baird, the Leif, the Astrea, the Anna, and the Freden) between 1,191 and 1,748 tons, and two—both schooners—less than 1,000 tons: the James E. Newsom at 671 tons and the Helen Forsey at 167 tons. The total gross registered tonnage of all eighty ships was 473,420 tons, so the GRT of the average ship would be 5,918 tons. The largest ships were the San Gerardo (12,915), Victolite (11,410), and Montrolite (11,309). There were four ships between 10,000 and 10,389 tons: the Narragansett, the Opawa, the Jagersfontein, and the Koll.

Generally, the tankers were larger than their dry-bulk cousins; of the top twenty-five ships by tonnage, all except the Lady Drake, the Westmoreland and the Hardwicke Grange were either tankers or motor ships. Out of eighty ships, twelve of them, or fifteen percent were proceeding in ballast—in other words, their cargo holds or tanks were empty except for water or sand, carried to keep them at a safe trim for ocean passages. The Halcyon, for example, was 3,531 tons and carried 1,500 tons of ballast to keep the ship steady in rough seas.

On the dry cargo side, the cargoes were the most varied. They included coal, motor boats, military stores, beer, nitrates, motor trucks, chrome ore, cement, bauxite ore, phosphate, aircraft, locomotives, timber, manganese ore, mahogany, anthracite coal, refrigerated cargo (i.e. meats, butter), gas storage tanks, metal piping, flour, automobiles, wine, cereal, canned meat, wool, eggs, leather, fertilizer, explosives, and bags of mail. The variation continues, with ships carrying wheat, tungsten, nitrate, fuel in drums, steel, tires, small arms, fats, flax seed, tobacco, licorice, rugs, ‘war supplies,’ construction equipment, cigarettes, tanks, lead, asbestos, chrome ore, copper, resins, cotton, zinc concentrates, asphalt, burlap, rubber, linseed, and tea.

On the tanker side, cargoes varied from petrol and paraffin to linseed oil, crude oil, fuel oil, aviation spirit, high-grade diesel oil, gas oil, lubricating oil, gasoline, heavy crude oil, benzene and white spirit, kerosene, furnace oil, and petroleum products. The Helen Forsey was not a tanker, but rather a schooner; nevertheless, she carried molasses and rum—presumably in barrels, not in bulk.

Ships attacked in the Bermuda area flew the flags of eleven countries: Great Britain (thirty-four ships), USA (fifteen), Norway (twelve), Canada (five), Sweden (four), Netherlands (three), Panama (two), Uruguay (two), Argentina (one), Latvia (one), and Yugoslavia (one). Great Britain accounted for forty-three percent of ships lost in the region, the US eighteen percent, and Norway fifteen percent, with the others trailing significantly. Nine out of the thirty-four British ships, or twenty-five percent of them, were tankers. In contrast, only two out of fifteen US-flagged ships (thirteen percent) were tankers. On the Norwegian side, five out of twelve (forty-two percent) were tankers.

Eleven ships left from New York, followed by ten from various ports in the UK and ten from Trinidad—the three lead destination ports. Eight left Bermuda, and seven left Curacao in the Dutch West Indies (invariably tankers loaded with petroleum or distillates), five from the US Gulf, and two from British Guyana. Five ships had made stops in Cape Town on their way from Middle Eastern and Indian ports. Four ships sailed from Halifax. Ten ships had last called at Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, to receive bunkers, or fuel, on long voyages from South America or South Africa. One sailed from Buenos Aires, with another four from Norfolk or Hampton Roads. Three sailed from Panama (having left New Zealand or Australia), and four left Philadelphia. One left from Savannah, another three from St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands. One ship left Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique), and another from Recife, Brazil. Yet another sailed from Montevideo, Uruguay. Small ports like Turks and Caicos and Barbados were hailed by the schooners. Ship destinations are somewhat clouded by the reality that, if the ship is included in this study, it was attacked by an Axis submarine and most likely never made it to port. Twelve were going to Halifax, but sixteen were going to Canada; two to St. John, as well as Sydney Nova Scotia and Montreal.

Sixteen were going to New York. Six were destined for Bermuda, one for Aruba, one for Baltimore, one for Iran, eleven to Cape Town and thence the Middle East or India. Two were destined for Venezuela, one for Cuidad Trujillo, Dominican Republic, three for Curacao Dutch West Indies to load petroleum products, one to Freetown Sierra Leone, one for Georgetown, British Guyana. One was bound for Iceland, two for Norfolk, two for Philadelphia, one for Pernambuco, another for San Juan and yet another for Rio de Janeiro. One ship was bound for Texas City and another for Trinidad, and yet another for Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe.

The average distance of victim vessels from Bermuda (excluding the Uskbridge), was 350 nautical miles. The Modesta, sunk on 25 April 1942, was the closest to Bermuda at 121 miles, or ten hours’ steaming at 12 knots. Next came the Harpagon the same week, at only 164 miles distant, followed by the Raphael Semmes and theWestmoreland, both 175 miles away. The Tonsbergfjord was sunk 176 miles from Bermuda by the Italian submarine the Enrico Tazzoli in March 1942. The Astrea was sunk the same week by the same sub 194 miles from the island, and the Ramapo and the Fred W. Green roughly 185 miles away. There were twenty-two ships struck between 200 and 300 nautical miles from Bermuda, and thirty-three between 300 and 400 miles away. Eight Allied merchant ships were attacked between 400 and 500 miles from Bermuda, and four between 500 and 600 miles away; more if Cape Hatteras was included in this study. These ships would have been sunk to the east and south of Bermuda. Five ships were sunk more than 600 miles from the island, but were included in this study because their survivors were landed on Bermuda: the Uskbridge and the St. Margaret. The other three ships were the Pan Norway (sunk 743 miles away), the Triglav (919 miles), and the Athelknight, sunk 1,000 miles away. Since this study is about the men and women who landed in Bermuda during World War Two, their stories are included.

Ultimately, history is told not so much in statistics as through the eyes of the participants. Behind every number in this analysis are the tales of men and women caught unawares and pitched into the merciless North Atlantic. The fact that the majority of them survived and a good number made landfall in Bermuda is a testament not only to the tenacity of their rescuers, who came across the seas and from the clouds, but also to the survivor’s good fortune. For many, the ordeal was not over, as they had to ship out on other vessels and brave the same seas again to reach North America or Europe.

The people of Bermuda—both civilian and those in uniform—did the very best they could under the circumstances to welcome, accommodate, and resuscitate the survivors so that they could sally forth and adjust back into their individual roles in an all-consuming, global war that continued for a further three years. These are the victors of the campaign; men and women who were given up on by both Germans and perhaps by their colleagues ashore, but who battled to survive—and did. By comparison, in the Bahamas only 257 sailors made it ashore from many more ships (130). And in New England 547 landed from thirty-five vessels.

Were it not for fortress Bermuda providing a welcome landing platform for these desperate souls, who would have faced some 650 more nautical miles to make the mainland, most of them would undoubtedly have perished. Bermudians managed the integration of over 1,000 people into a population of 30,000 with aplomb and grace, tending to survivors of all creeds and ages, ranks and genders—the living and the dead. Not only that, but even before the United States joined the fight, they had fortified the island colony with runways and air bases for land as well as sea planes, so that they could not only collect survivors from the air, but avenge the attackers as well. What more could Allied mariners, their passengers, and navy sailors ask of any small and isolated populace?

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2 thoughts on “U-Boat Activity Around WWII Bermuda

  1. My late father was torpedoed on the British Council and was in a lifeboat with others for nine days. This is outside the area written about. I just included it to illustrate that the enemy submarines were everywhere. The survivors made landfall at Barbados and were also extended every hospitality. Thanks for all the information Lots of people don’t realise how far reaching WW2 was

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