HMCS St. Laurent’s race to rescue the enemy
In July 1940 a German U-boat sank the British liner Arandora Star, dumping 2,000 men into the North Atlantic. By an irony of war, 1,600 of them were German and Italian prisoners. The Canadian destroyer St. Laurent picked up 861 enemy survivors in a rescue that has no equal in the annals of the sea
Vice-Admiral Harry G. DeWolf
UNTIL JULY 2, 1940, I had never met the enemy personally. All I knew about him was that he could fly bombers, sail U-boats and drive tanks with deadly efficiency. Then, quite unexpectedly, I was confronted in the Atlantic by large numbers of the enemy — all crying for help.
They were anything but arrogant representatives of a victorious master race; instead, they were rather an abject, miserable-looking lot. scattered about the ocean and halfdead from shock and exposure.
I was commanding the destroyer St. Laurent at the time and our rescue that day of 8b I German and Italian prisoners and their British guards is probably a unique experience for so small a ship.
But what made it so bizarre was that through an ironic reversal of fortune these enemy aliens and prisoners of war, on their way to Canada from Britain in the liner Arandora Star, had been torpedoed by the most widely acclaimed U-boat ace in Germany.
1 signalled to an RAF flying
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When the RAF pilot discovered we were rescuing Germans, he could only say, “How bloody funny”
boat that circled above us during the operation that we were picking up enemy prisoners, and the pilot summed up our feelings neatly: "How bloody funny,” he replied.
Less than a year before, the Arandora Star had been one of the most luxurious cruise liners in the world, with elegant ballrooms, cocktail bars, swimming pools and all the paraphernalia that serve to make an ocean voyage the most romantic of vacations.
When war broke out she was transformed into a troop carrier, stripped of expensive furnishings, painted a functional battleship grey and equipped to carry nearly 2,000 troops in quarters originally designed to please 400 farepaying passengers.
At the same time the British authorities were undertaking another necessary, if slightly repugnant, act of war — the rounding up of thousands of enemy aliens who had lived and worked in England for many years without ever bothering to become naturalized.
Among them were famous chefs and maîtres d’hôtel from the finest clubs and restaurants in London's West End, stage and screen celebrities and respected businessmen. As there was neither the time nor the organization to weed out the obviously innocent from the potentially dangerous, they were confined in camps until some effective screening process could be devised.
Then France surrendered and the British, faced with the threat of invasion and
subjected to the blitz, could no longer guarantee the safety of the enemy aliens in the United Kingdom.
By arrangement with our own government in Ottawa it was decided to send them to internment and prisoner-of-war camps in Canada, an arrangement that also served to rid Britain of a possible fifth column in her rear should the Germans decide to invade.
The Germans and Italians could hardly complain. They would exchange a bleak, uncertain existence in bombed, rationed and blacked-out Britain for comparatively easy imprisonment in a land of safety and plenty. Of course, to reach Canada they would have to cross the Atlantic, constantly menaced by their own bombers and U-boats.
The first 1,500 of these civilian internees were sent to Liverpool and herded aboard the Arandora Star. Normally, there would have been no particular hardship involved in the passage; but by mischance they were joined by nearly a hundred prisoners of war — Nazi merchant seamen and U-boat personnel — who were officially regarded as determined and dangerous men.
For this reason unusually stringent precautions were imposed to prevent a breakout at sea aimed at taking control of the ship. Two hundred British army guards were put aboard and barbed-wire fences were erected to confine the prisoners to their quarters below decks.
These fences were strung down both sides of the ship and across her decks.
They not only formed an impregnable barrier between the prisoners and the liner’s crew but also barred access to the lifeboats.
While I have no personal knowledge of what took place before she sailed, I have since learned that she became an escape-proof floating prison camp. Apparently, her captain protested strongly to the military authorities in Liverpool that the barbed wire would make a death trap of the ship if she were torpedoed.
His protests must have been unavailing, if prophetic, because the Arandora Star sailed independently for Canada on July I, 1940, relying on her speed and constant zigzagging to avoid U-boat attack.
That same day, U-47, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Günther Prien, who nine months earlier had startled the world by penetrating the British Home Fleet anchorage at Scapa Flow to sink the battleship Royal Oak, was returning to her Biscayan base after a three-week Atlantic patrol. Prien’s only remaining torpedo was defective and his crew worked on it all night in the hope that it could be put to good use before they reached harbor. At 4 a.m. on July 2, the torpedo was repaired. Two hours later, Prien brought U-47 to periscope depth for his dawn check around the horizon.
To his astonishment, a liner was steaming smack into the crossed hairs of his periscope lens — and she was alone.
He wrote in his official report: “We were in a perfect position to attack with our last torpedo. I prayed it would work. After I gave the order to fire we waited, counting the seconds. They slipped by with painful slowness . . . Then suddenly, right amidships, a column of water rose above the target’s masthead and immediately afterwards we heard the crash of the detonation. In great haste, some lifeboats were launched and hundreds of heads bobbed in the water ... we retreated underwater.’’
As dawn broke that day, the 15,305ton Arandora Star was steaming at fifteen knots about a hundred miles west of Northern Ireland. It was a perfect summer’s morning with a cloudless sky, brilliant sun and a light southerly wind — if you had to be torpedoed you couldn’t wish for more ideal conditions.
Most of the prisoners, the guards and the liner’s crew — in all about 2,000 men — were still asleep. Then U-47’s last torpedo crashed through the thin steel hull on the starboard side and exploded in the engine room. It was exactly 6.15 a.m.
Two minutes later the engine room was Hooded to sea level, the main generators were out of action, the ship plunged into darkness and all communications had broken down. Bulkheads buckled under the weight of water, which poured through the ship in pursuit of frantic prisoners scrambling up iron ladders toward the boat deck.
According to reports, their flight came to an abrupt halt at the barbed wire. The front ranks were pushed against the fences, which they tried to tear down with their hands. In those first few terrible minutes five hundred men died in their bunks, while dozens more, overwhelmed by panic, threshed at the wire and became hopelessly enmeshed.
At this point the British guards behaved magnificently, hacking down the fences with bayonets and channeling the prisoners to the deck where the crew were trying to launch those lifeboats that had escaped damage.
Here there was more chaos as the prisoners, in sight of possible safety, tried to take control of the boats. Not knowing how to handle davits or rope falls,
they merely brought about the destruction of more boats and the loss of their occupants. Of the available lifeboats, only ten got away with about sixty men apiece.
The liner’s crew threw about forty rafts over the side and shouted to the prisoners to jump after them. The internees, numbed and afraid, refused. At 7.20 a.m. there was no longer any choice. The Arandora Star lurched heavily to starboard. tossing hundreds of prisoners into the sea. and then slid slowly beneath the surface.
Not quite a hundred miles to the south, the St. Laurent was part of a destroyer screen protecting the British battleship Nelson, bound for the Mediterranean. We picked up the stream of SOS messages from the Arandora Star and 1 wondered if the Nelson would detach a destroyer to the liner's assistance.
I had my answer at 1 I a.m. when we were called up by the flagship and told to proceed to the scene with utmost dispatch. We turned away from the fleet and headed northward to what I thought would be just another search for a handful of survivors. It would take us two and a half hours at full speed to reach the position last signalled by the Arandora Star, and I was sure other ships would be there before us.
Some time later, a Sunderland flying boat came in sight and flashed the news that the sea ahead was littered with survivors. The pilot told us he had been circling the area for two hours, dropping ration kits, first-aid outfits and cigarettes and matches in watertight bags. He offered to direct us and we headed to a point on the horizon where he began circling again.
Black blobs floated aimlessly
Few who served with me in the St. Laurent will ever forget the fantastic sight that greeted us at 1.30 p.m. As I gave orders to reduce speed, the engines ceased their throbbing and the vast silence of the Atlantic closed in about us. Only a gentle swell disturbed the surface of the sea. On the horizon a bank of creamy clouds towered skyward like some distant range of snow-covered mountains. No other ship was in sight. There was nothing, only a huge circular patch of black, oil-covered water about three miles in diameter in which hundreds of black blobs floated aimlessly in the dazzling sunlight.
We were appalled at the number of blobs in the water, hundreds of them, seemingly lifeless, weighed down and blackened by thick coatings of heavy fuel oil. Wreckage was everywhere — cabin doors, deck chairs, tables, bundles of clothing, even empty suitcases washed from the liner while still empty because their owners had died before they could be filled.
The rafts were empty, but clinging to their sides were more blobs. I learned later that the survivors were too weak to lift the weight of their oil-sodden clothes into these rafts.
I ordered our four boats away and spread my officers along the decks to supervise embarkation of the living. There would be no time for the dead. Ropes and scramble nets were slung down our sides and the immense work of rescue began. I had no idea how many could be saved; nor did I know how many the St. Laurent could take and still remain afloat as a fighting ship.
Whatever had to be done, we had to do it quickly. We would be at slow speed, sometimes stopped, and therefore a sitting duck for a U-boat. Our asdic opera-
tors maintained a constant all - round sweep as I nosed the St. Laurent slowly into the oily waters among the survivors.
A few yards away to port a long wooden bench, of the kind liners provide on deck for passengers, floated upside down. Sitting on it, close together in a row, were three men. hunched forward with their heads bent down toward their knees. They were covered with oil — perched there for all the world like three sleeping black owls.
Tiny ripples of water fanned out from our bows, rocked the bench slightly, and
the three figures toppled forward and vanished. We did not see them again.
Beyond the perimeter of the oil patch lay the lifeboats, herded together. One was a motorboat and it spluttered toward us with the others following under oars. When it pulled alongside the prisoners were too weak to climb our scramble nets and our own men had to clamber down, place ropes round their shoulders and heave them inboard.
By the time the motorboat was empty, the other boats arrived. The awful business of pulling each man aboard was
taking longer than 1 had anticipated and I was concerned at being stopped for so long — a tempting target if a U-boat should feel inclined to attack.
The state of the survivors hampered us further on deck. Oil seeped from their clothes and spread over the decks so that it was difficult to maintain a footing. Some of the survivors were fully dressed, others wore overcoats over pyjamas, but in each case the man had to be stripped and his clothes thrown overboard.
Many had swallowed large quantities of fuel oil; it clogged their throats, mak-
ing breathing difficult. They could barely speak and we had no doctor aboard, only a sick-bay attendant. Efforts to clean the oil from their bodies were pretty unsuccessful because it is almost out of the question to give a man a strenuous rubdown when he is dying of oil asphyxiation.
One of my officers had some five-gallon kegs of rum brought on deck and tried giving a mugful to each survivor as he came over the side. This made them sick and the result was an even worse mess on deck.
About a hundred had been pulled aboard before word reached the bridge that we were, in fact, saving the enemy. I asked about the men manning the Arandora Star's boats, then returning to help our own boats, and I was told they were members of the liner’s crew. Although in not much better shape than the prisoners, they worked splendidly, making trip after trip among the seemingly endless groups of blobs.
I noticed that most of the survivors were elderly men, incapable of withstanding the rigors of shipwreck for prolonged periods. They were much too weak to swim and they had been kept alloat by their cork lifejackets. The Atlantic can be bitterly cold, even in summer, and these men had been immersed in it for at least seven hours.
The only one who climbed aboard by himself stood erect on deck and demanded to see the captain. He was brought to the bridge and introduced to me as a Major Dury, second-in-command of the British guards. He explained what had happened aboard the Arandora Star and asked that those of the "most dangerous” prisoners of war who might have survived should be confined under guard. The result was that our No. I boiler room became an impromptu jail packed with forty-odd prisoners of war with an armed sentry outside.
The rescue fell into a logical pattern. While the lifeboats fished amid the wreckage for survivors, I took the St. Laurent on wide asdic sweeps around the area before returning to stand by as close to the lifeboats as possible.
All officers and men, myself included, emptied lockers, suitcases and kitbags of every article of personal clothing and distributed it among the shivering survivors. There was not nearly enough. Four men died during the night and their bodies were removed to a gun platform.
Meanwhile the messdecks were overflowing. The officers’ quarters came next —ten to a single cabin, seventeen to a double and more than sixty in the wardroom. Then the cooks started to ladle out hot, meat-filled stew, using tin mugs, plates and every conceivable container. A murmur ran through the ranks of the survivors. How, they asked each other, were these Canadians able to produce so fine a stew in so short a time for so many people? Half a dozen Italian chefs made their way to the galley and volunteered to help. They gaped at the rows of pots filled with chunks of meat. It was all quite bewildering to them.
In no time at all the story was put about that we had performed a second Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes. None of us disillusioned the survivors by telling the truth. Early that morning our refrigeration gear had broken down and without it our entire supply of fresh meat would have gone bad. I had given orders for it to be cooked and the galley staff had filled every pot and pan they could find. It had been simmering merrily ever since.
By 4 p.m. the St. Laurent was beginning to feel dangerously overloaded. If anything was to cause a panicky dash
from one side of the ship to the other, she might capsize. All living quarters were crammed; even the boiler and engine rooms had taken their share, and the less fortunate survivors sat or lay in ranks along the upper deck.
Only the dead and wreckage remained in the water. The Sunderland, which had stayed with us throughout the afternoon, signalled that he was returning to base and we began a last search of the area.
This was nearly finished when the British destroyer Walker arrived with an offer to take some of our survivors. 1 rejected the proposal because the transfer would have meant another long delay in the area and the enemy could not be expected to leave us alone much longer. In addition to this, the survivors needed medical care urgently; many lives would depend on our getting back to harbor quickly.
Had we been attacked by aircraft or U-boats we could not have fought outship. Movement on deck was downright dangerous, with men packed tight from
stem to stern and the decks themselves covered with a mess of oil and filth. Ropes were slung to prevent the weaker survivors from slithering overboard with the rolling of the ship, and then I stopped all traffic on the upper deck.
1 had to remember that although our passengers looked harmless enough they were still prisoners. At dusk sentries were placed at strategic points throughout the ship and the only men allowed to move about freely were our sick-bay attendant and two enemy doctors—Dr. Ruhemann, a German, and Dr. Otvos, an Austrian. Exhausted as they were, these two worked throughout the night until all our medical supplies were exhausted.
I had signalled my expected time of arrival to Greenock and when we docked at 6.30 a.m. the next day we found the military authorities were taking no chances. What looked like a whole regiment lined the dockside with bayonets fixed. This obviously ludicrous situation developed into pure comedy w'ith the sound of singing from the wardroom.
One of my officers had been comforting the prisoners there throughout the night with a jar of rum. Now they were
ready to sign armistice terms with anyone. As they prepared to go ashore they were inspired to signify their appreciation to the ship and could think of no better way than several choruses of There'll Always Be an England. Somehow, the bayonets seemed less menacing.
The army counted 861 survivors and when they were all ashore 1 made a painful inspection of my ship. She was in a dreadful state. Shore - based working parties, accompanied by about twenty Scottish charwomen, tried to make our living quarters and messdecks habitable
again. Weeks passed before we were rid of the stifling smell of oil and vomit.
Much to our surprise we received an early expression of thanks from the Italians. On September 17, 1940. they sent a message to Ottawa through the Brazilian Embassy in London asking that their "profound gratitude be conveyed to the officers and crew of the Canadian destroyer St. Laurent . . . for all they did in their endeavor to save the shipwrecked . . .”
An unexpected and pleasant postscript came seventeen years later. In November
1957, Rear-Admiral Bernhard Rogge, the regional commander of the German defense forces, told visiting Canadian officers of the new St. Laurent at Kiel that the German president. Dr. Theodor Heuss, wanted him to thank the officers and men of the old St. Laurent.
"Only by the brave and unselfish work of the crew and the ship's command,” he said, “and in spite of the danger from German submarines, could 861 German and Italian shipwrecked people be saved. The German nation . . . will not forget this rescue operation.,.. '' +