This article has been previously published elsewhere, so if some readers have seen it before I apologise for wasting your time, but I felt it might benefit this new forum (and my ego) as some of the newer members may not have had the opportunity to read it.
THE SINKING OF THE ARANDORA STAR
Anatomy Of An Italian Tragedy
There are a myriad of stories, reports, blogs etc. out in cyberspace already about the Arandora Star, many of them quite detailed, some better than others and I had no wish to add to the list just for the sake of it. My resolution therefore was to try and find a different angle from which to tell the story of the ill fated liner whilst at the same time sticking to the established facts of the event. In the end I have written the piece as a cross between raw fact and reportage; and fiction. A sort of ‘faction’ if you will. To that end, all the facts in the essay are indeed fact. The technical information regarding U-47 comes from official Kriegsmarine sources, as do the procedures detailed therein. The only invention in the text is the dialogue between captain and crew aboard the submarine, though that too is based on established standard operating procedures of the time.
Within the published sources there are some differences of about one hour in the various timings surrounding the event, I put this down to the opposing parties using their own versions of ‘official time’ or, possibly more simply that someone had set the main clock aboard the U-47 incorrectly… who knows? So for clarity I have chosen to use those timings in the official patrol report from U-47 and adjusted others to reflect this. In writing the piece even after almost 71 years following the incident, it became somewhat difficult to ignore the emotion surrounding those involved and remain dispassionate as I tried to portray the actions of those above and below the waves, as a consequence and of necessity some elements of the story have been truncated (though not the timings), so if there are any errors, they are mine and mine alone.
Some readers may be of the opinion that I have been too sympathetic toward U-47 and her crew or, that I have glamorised and trivialised a human tragedy. This was not my intention. It is clear from the evidence that the Arandora Star gave no clue as to her purpose and cargo on that fateful voyage and that Prien and his men were simply doing their job. If anyone feels that I have done the Arandora Star an injustice, then I beg their indulgence.
For anyone that might be interested, you can find a list of the Italian victims via the link below. For many it will understandably be no more than a roll of faceless names from unknown places. For me, when I read through the document it became much more personal; as although I could not possibly know any of the victims personally I did recognise the names of a number of the towns and villages listed as being in the same area from which my family emanates. I also recognised a number of the surnames of those listed and began to wonder whether or, not I might know any of their descendants and relatives. Bardi, for example is a picturesque hill town in the NW of Italy close to my family home and before this exercise began I had only a vague unrelated memory of being taken there as a child to visit a nearby castle and an even more vague recollection of mention of a memorial to a ship lost in the war located elsewhere in the same town. Now that childhood memory has been brought back to the fore as I discovered that the people of Bardi were among the hardest hit by the events of that tragic July’s summer’s morning a lifetime ago.
[url=http://www.colonsay.org.uk/ASItalian casualties 2.pdf] List of Italian Casualties: SS. Arandora Star 02/07/1940[/url]
THE SINKING OF THE ARANDORA STAR
Anatomy Of An Italian Tragedy
“ALAAAARM !!!” “RAUCH AM HORIZONT STEUERBORD!”
The shout came from the lookout atop the submarine’s conning tower and set in motion a meeting of two very different ocean voyagers. One a gentle giant, a 15501 ton steam powered former cruise liner pressed into her nation’s service The Arandora Star. The other, one of Hitler’s silent hunters, a Sea-wolf, a well-practiced ship killer, commanded by one of Germany’s most ruthless aces, Unterseeboot U-47.
The Arandora Star the grande dame of the Blue Star line left Liverpool unescorted on 01 July 1940 bound for St Johns, Newfoundland in Canada. A ship designed to transport 400 passengers in sumptuous comfort, her manifest for this voyage consisted of, 734 Italian & 479 German civilian internees as well as 86 German POW’s. Crew compliment was 200 British military guards & 174 merchant crew. Within 24 hours of departure, The Arandora Star would lie at the bottom of the Atlantic with more than 800 souls lost, 486 of them Italian.
The sun had risen at 03.59hrs on 02 July 1940 over an empty sea, The Arandora Star was making headway close to her cruising speed of 15 knots and zigzagging (approx’ speed of advance 10 knots) heading West. During peacetime she was known affectionately as ‘The Chocolate Box’ or ‘The Wedding Cake’ because of her colourful paint scheme. As a ship carrying civilians she was entitled to have a large red cross painted on her flanks which theoretically would have protected her from attack. However on this voyage she was painted in a dull battleship grey which served to identify her solely as a belligerent. Her colouring would come to play a not insignificant part in her fate. The Chief Officer, Mr. F. B. Brown and the Third Officer, Mr. W. H. Tulip, were both on the bridge. Four extra lookouts were posted but no threat to the vessel was visible as she continued westward some 50 miles off the west coast of Ireland.
Contrary to common belief, in WWII a submarine spent most of its time on the surface and relied as much on the Mk.1 eyeball as it did on its technology to find its prey. The distance to the horizon for a U-Boat was five miles, further for anything visible above the skyline. So it came as no surprise when the lookout’s cry of “Alarm. Smoke on the starboard horizon” galvanized the crew into immediate action. For the boat’s Skipper Kapitanleutnant Günther Prien this could mean only one of two things, either an improbable friendly vessel or, more likely, an enemy ship. Either way prudence, standing orders and the situation demand that he not be sighted.
“DIVE, DIVE, DIVE THE BOAT!”
“Make your depth 20 meters! Slow to one third on the batteries” “Sound room give me a screw count and bearing on the contact.”
Kapitanleutnant Prien had a problem. After a month at sea and with only about three days left to run before he returned to U-47’s home port of Kiel, Prien’s sixth war patrol during which they had already accounted for seven allied merchant ships (35688 Gross Registered Tons in total) U-47 had another possible target. What he didn’t have, was a working torpedo! He needed time to think.
“ Kapitan!” “I have a sound bearing approximately 160 degrees to the U-boat, single contact, possible twin screws, very feint, range estimate 16000+ metres.”
“Very well.” “Helm. Come about heading 180 degrees!”
“Sound Room Sir!” “Still holding the contact on the hydrophones, Indicators seem to be getting stronger. I think she’s coming toward us.”
“First Officer, put us on the roof and go to full speed on the main diesels, I want a full look-out up top. We’re close to Ireland and still within range of allied air cover.” “ I’m going to close the range a little and try and identify the contact.” “Have the Weapons Engineer report to me immediately! I want that dud fish, fixed!”
“Yes Sir!” “All hands standby to surface the boat. Topside watch ready to man your stations. Engine room stand ready to engage the diesels full power.”
“SURFACE, SURFACE, SURFACE!”
It is the nature of a U-Boat captain to be aggressive and competitive, to be a hunter and Prein was one of the best. His was the boat that crept into the Royal Navy’s heavily defended harbour at Scapa Flow 10 months earlier and sank the Battleship HMS Royal Oak, so he was not about to let an opportunity pass by if it wasn’t absolutely necessary and knowing that his close friend Kapt’Lt Endrass and U-46 had sunk an impressive 50000 tons of allied shipping on their last patrol he was anxious not to be outdone. Prein had several options open to him if he decided to attack the vessel he was now hunting.
(1) Attack the ship with his 88mm deck gun. Dangerous, because he would be on the surface and at risk from the target’s own defensive armament and also from possible air attack.
(2) Attack using his last torpedo. However these had proved to be temperamental, a number had already failed in previous attacks and the one he had left refused all attempts to repair it. Or,
(3) He could radio the contact in, and get 7th Flotilla HQ to call in another boat to sink her. If, there was one close enough.
All he knew at the moment was there was a contact out there, somewhere off his port quarter. It could be a lone warship or, possibly the outer screen escort of an enemy convoy, in which case he would need help. It could of course be a single merchantman, in which case she would belong to U-47. He needed information.
“Kapitan!” “Ship sighted on the port horizon”
“Well done lookout!” “Battle sight to the bridge!” “Let’s take a look at her.” “Sound room any further contacts on the hydrophones?”
“Nein Her Kapitan, she’s alone.”
Using some of the most powerful optics the Kriegsmarine could provide Prein and his officers scanned the horizon assessing their target.
“Range?” ……. “8000m”
“Classification?” ……. “She’s big and she’s gray. Possible troopship. Perhaps 12000 tonnes.”
“No Neutral or Non belligerent markings.”
“Notices?” ……. “Nothing reported Kapitan.”
“Heading?” .…… “Due West.”
“Speed?” ……. “Estimate 10 - 12 knots”
“Take us down No1.” “20 metres.” “I’m going to put us in a position where we can make a positive identification and attack her as she crosses our bows.”
Prien was worried. Gray meant Navy and Navy meant guns, big ones and that essentially precluded his attacking on the surface. That left one very dodgy torpedo. The G7e(T2) was intended to replace the much older G7a torpedo but essentially it was a piece of junk. When they worked, they worked well. The problem was they were grossly unreliable, needed constant maintenance and had to be preheated to 30ºC before launching. Electrically powered as opposed to steam and with a larger warhead but much shorter range than the G7a they had twin detonators, one magnetic and the other a contact exploder and both were prone to failure, so even if the weapon scored a direct hit on the target there was no guarantee that it would detonate, as was the case on 21 June when U-47 attacked the Merchantman Gracia. Thus far in the war, the failure rate of the G7e torpedo across the Kriegsmarine was averaging around 40%.
U-47 was by now within 2000 metres of the Arandora Star and Prien was closing in on his next victim. Ordering the boat to periscope depth he began the first stage of the attack procedure. Observation & Identification. Using the graphs etched into the glass lens of the attack periscope, he carefully estimated the size and configuration of the approaching ship and consulted the boat’s ship silhouette reference book.
What Prien saw was the proverbial sitting duck. A huge grey painted liner which suggested she was acting as an armed merchantman/troopship. 150 metres long. Draught 10 metres. Vertical bow and stern. Twin funnels set amidships above an open weather deck promenade. Radio mast forward between the bow and the bridge. Cargo derricks set aft of the funnels above the sun deck. Lifeboats mounted above the weather deck between the funnels. More importantly she was low on the waterline, which meant she was fully loaded. With what, he neither knew, nor cared, beyond the fact that she was an enemy vessel carrying a maximum load of cargo that would be used to aid the allied war effort against the Fatherland.
If he was going to do this, he was going to do it right!
“Target! Passenger Liner probably Arandora Star. Likely Troopship 13600 Tonnes. British Registry. Draught 10 metres. Down scope. Battle stations Torpedo”
“Helm come right 5 degrees! Both engines full power on the batteries! We need to make time to warm up our last torpedo.”
There was no point in arriving too early. This target belonged to the U-47.
“Weapons engineer start the preheating sequence on the remaining torpedo!”
Aiming a torpedo is essentially an exercise in complex trigonometry (with a modicum of guesswork thrown in for good measure). In order to hit the target, it is necessary to launch the weapon toward a point where the target (unless it is stationary) is going to be at a moment in space and time in the immediate future, as opposed to where it is now whilst in your sights. To do this Prien had to assess a number of variables. It was 07:50am.
“Raise the attack periscope!”
As Prien takes his position at the periscope, senior crew members get ready to copy down the information required to achieve a firing solution on the target vessel.
“ Speed. Navigator start the clock on my mark ………… MARK!”
“Target course, 280 degrees.”
“Range….. 2500 metres.”
“Angle on the bow……20 degrees.”
After several minutes had passed;
The new course range and angle readings are read out;
“Navigator. Speed check on my mark………..MARK!” “Speed 14 knots Her Kapitan.”
With the targeting information generated, each detail is entered on to a grid, and then using a set of pre-printed tables called the Torpedoschusstafel a preliminary firing solution is conceived.
“Primary solution set Kapitan.” “Recommend we come to course 195 degrees and slow to one third.”
“Very well. Helm come to 195 degrees magnetic. Engines slow to one third on the batteries.”
“Weapons engineer set torpedo running depth at 5 metres and load tube!”
In order to ensure a hit on the target, as far as it was possible to ensure anything on a U-Boat, it is necessary to refine the target variables by repeating the targeting process at least once before launching the weapon.
In peacetime ships would normally take the most direct route to their destination to save time, money and fuel. In time of war and given the level of the U-Boat threat, ships’ Masters would routinely order the ship to zigzag across its base course. Principally there are two types of zigzag pattern, (1) the standard pattern & (2) the random pattern. Each has its virtues and vices, the standard pattern is relatively easy to navigate and much easier to conduct when multiple vessels in convoy are sailing together. However the one big problem with sailing a pattern is that it is predictable. Once established it becomes comparatively easy for a U-Boat captain to predict where the ship or, convoy will be at any given time along its course. The random pattern is much more difficult to navigate and an absolute nightmare for convoy station keeping, because of the arbitrary changes in course, speed, and time when applied to each leg of the pattern whist keeping to the base course line. For the submariner, such complex changes make it all but impossible to predict alterations to a ship’s heading, thus making the launching of a torpedo as much an exercise in guesswork as it is in geometry.
“Up scope! Final observation.”
“ Speed. Navigator start the clock on my mark ………… MARK!”
“Target course, 275 degrees.”
“Range….. 1500 metres.”
“Angle on the bow……13 degrees.”
“Navigator. Speed check on my mark………..MARK!”
“Speed steady at 14 knots Her Kapitan.”
“Sound Room. Confirm target course and contacts!”
“Sir I have her holding at 275 degrees. Constant revolutions. No other contacts in the area.”
“Firing solution set Kapitan, running time 3 minutes.” “Torpedo depth set at 5 metres. Gyro angle set. Tube three loaded. Outer doors are closed.” “Sir, the weapon is ready in all respects.”
“Down scope!” “Flood tube!” “Open outer door!” “Match bearings to the solution and shoot!”
There followed a few moments of frantic arm waving, hand signals and shouted commands, and then …….
07:55am “TORPEDO LOS!!!”
“Torpedo away Kapitan! Running straight and normal.“
Prien was a highly experienced submariner and he understood that just because there appeared to be no other vessels in the immediate area, that didn’t mean that there weren’t any at all, just that he had been unable to detect any. If by some miracle the torpedo functioned correctly, anyone within range of a radio message, or functioning hydrophones would know within minutes that there was a U-Boat in the area. Having just despatched his last weapon, and there being no advantage in remaining on station, the last thing Prien needed was to hang around waiting for the Royal Navy to come along and depth charge him and his boat to pieces. It was time to clear the area.
“Emergency deep 100 metres! 30 degree down angle on the planes! Helm come about heading NNE! Full ahead both! Flank speed!”
Prien and the crew of U-47 had little faith in the torpedo they had just released, since leaving Kiel it had defied all efforts to get it to work and hours of maintenance effort seemed likely to be for nought. Either way, they would know one way, or another very shortly.
The Captain of The Arandora Star, Edgar Wallace Moulton had ordered a zigzag course to be set for the transit to St Johns. His purpose in setting such a course was not to directly evade any torpedoes that might be launched against his vessel per se, but to ruin the complex trigonometric targeting solution needed by a submarine to launch a weapon against him. On the bridge, the Arandora Star’s navigation officer was in the process of updating the ship’s plot on the chart as had been done every thirty minutes since leaving Liverpool per the captain’s orders. The lookouts. They had their eyes on the Horizon looking for the approach of any potential threats. What no one realised was; that it was already too late.
It is said that Death rides a pale horse and that Hell follows with him. In this case, Death was a pale grey
Sea Wolf and when Hell came to The Arandora Star, it did so without warning and with utter devastation!
07:58am. Position 56.20N 10.40W Approximately 75 miles West of the Bloody Foreland Ireland
The torpedo struck on the starboard side adjacent to the engine spaces. When it did the inertia released a hammer which forced one half of a contact block onto its partner, thus completing an electrical circuit. This in turn generated an electrical pulse which was sufficient to detonate a small volatile primary charge inside the warhead which consisted of 200Kg/640Lbs of Hexanite high explosive. In less time than it takes to blink an eye, the main charge blew, ripping into the belly of The Arandora Star and mortally wounding her. On the exterior the blast threw white hot debris and tons of water high into the air, high enough to reach the level of the boat deck where the flames, shockwave and lumps of jagged steel destroyed one of fourteen lifeboats and completely and smashed the davits of another preventing it from ever being launched (two more would be lost during the evacuation). Below the waterline the destruction to the engine room was immediate and total.
On the U-47 the first person to realise that their attack had been successful was the crewman monitoring the hydrophone sensors.
“ HIT HIT!” “ Sir I have an explosion along the target bearing. We got her!”
“Kapitan! Secondary explosions sir, same bearing.”
Seconds later the entire crew heard a series of dull crumps and rumbles as the sound reached down into the ocean and passed through the steel hull of the U-Boat. For an instant all other noise aboard U-47 was lost into the background as a huge cheer ran through every compartment.
The explosion had completely wrecked the turbines and both the main and emergency generators were put out of action, This resulted in the ship being pitched into complete darkness. All communications between the bridge, engine-room and radio room were destroyed. The two engineering officers and all the men below were either killed in the blast or, drowned as millions of gallons of sea water poured into the engine spaces. Burning fragments had been blasted throughout the stern on the starboard side starting numerous fires and with no power to the pumps it proved impossible to prevent them spreading. Within seconds the after end of the Arandora Star was flooded to the waterline. The once proud liner was broken, stricken and dead in the water.
On the bridge, with stark realisation of what had happened to his command, Captain Moulton immediately ordered the issuing of an S.O.S message detailing his ship’s position and situation to be radioed to the mainland. With the after-end flooding rapidly the ship began to list. Lacking any form of power and given the severity of the damage to the vessel, Capt’ Moulton was left with little option but to order ‘abandon ship‘.
In the passenger spaces chaos reigned. Having been converted to a troopship early in the war, the Arandora Star was further converted into a prison ship when it was decided that enemy alien internees would be deported to camps overseas for the duration. She had been fitted out with temporary cages, padlocks and barbed wire, designed to restrict the movements of her internee passengers. Now, mortally damaged the law of unintended consequences raised its ugly head. That which had been intended to make it easier for the guards to manage their charges, now served to trap them all below decks, passageways that might have been used to facilitate getting people off the ship were either locked, blocked or, jammed solid by the explosion. Those that were fortunate enough to make it out onto the upper decks had at least a slim chance of survival.
A large number of those on board were asleep at the time the torpedo hit, when they were awoken by the dreadful thundering roar. Unsurprisingly there was panic, particularly among the Germans, of the undamaged 12 lifeboats, 10 were lowered, only to be overcrowded by hordes of prisoners going over the side down ladders, ropes and nets. The auxiliary rafts and floats were also heaved overboard to assist those already in the water. There was a rush, which seriously hampered the launching of the lifeboats, Some of the British troops on board made rancorous comment on the conduct of the German detainees. They described them as;
'Big, hulking brutes, who tried to sweep aside the Italians and had to be forcibly restrained'.
In interviews with British survivors it was reported that a great deal of animosity was shown by the Italians toward the Germans not only because of the torpedoing of the liner without warning but also because of the ruthless conduct of the Germans in attempting to rush the lifeboats afterwards. Some survivors declared that when the ship was sinking the Germans made it clear that nobody was going to stand in their way of being rescued.
'They swept aside all opposition in their clamour for a place in the lifeboats', one British observer told a reporter. 'The poor Italians did not stand a chance against them'.
The list of the ship increased rapidly and by 08.15 a.m. it was apparent she was going to sink. Shortly thereafter Captain Moulton and his senior officers walked over the side as the water came up to meet them. And so at 08.20 a.m. the once proud Arandora Star rolled over, pointed her bows vertically in the air and slid beneath the waters of the Atlantic. She went down in 6500ft/2000m of water carrying with her many hundreds who were unable to reach safety including her captain E.W Moulton who would be posthumously awarded the Lloyds War Medal for Bravery At Sea. Left on the heaving surface were 10 lifeboats and an ever widening patch of oil littered with rafts, wreckage and the bobbing heads of the survivors.
By now several miles away and clear of any threat, the crew of the U-47 received their last report regarding their final victim.
“Kapitan.” “Sir , I’m getting break up noises from the target bearing. She’s going under!”
“Sehr gut.” “Navigator, take us home.”
The Arandora Stars’ S.O.S. message had been picked up at the Malin Head station on the coast of Ireland at 08.05am and re-transmitted to Lands End and Portpatrick. An aircraft of Coastal Command was rapidly on the scene by around 10.30hrs, when a Royal Air force Sunderland flying boat appeared and dropped first-aid kits, food, water and cigarettes in watertight bags together with a message to say help was on the way. The aircraft circled overhead until about 13.30 p.m., when the Canadian destroyer HMCS. St. Laurent, Commander H. G. De Wolf, being the nearest vessel arrived at maximum speed to commence urgent rescue operations.
It was a task of the utmost difficulty which took some 5-10 hours in all to complete. Picking up people in the boats was relatively straightforward, but rescuing small parties or individual people clinging to rafts or wreckage required patience, judgement, expert seamanship and considerable nerve given the possibility that the U-Boat might still be in the vicinity. Few of the survivors could help themselves aboard, or even grasp a rope, because of the scum of oil with which they and the sea was covered. Sailors had to be put over the side with bowlines with which many of the swimmers were hoisted bodily on board. Later in the day a British destroyer, HMS. Walker, arrived and scoured the area; but no further survivors were found. It was the evening by the time HMCS St. Laurent had rescued all she could find: some 853 people, who were landed next day at Greenock, Scotland. With a thousand people on board, counting her own crew, the St. Laurent was a very crowded ship. How she cared for a crowd of exhausted survivors which completely filled the mess-decks, officers’ quarters, and one boiler-room, leaving a number to be accommodated behind the dubious shelter of canvas screens on the upper deck, is difficult to appreciate.
The disaster took the lives of Captain E. W. Moulton and 12 other officers, together with 42 of the crew of the Arandora Star. Of the military guard 37 were drowned, with 486 Italians and 243 Germans, a total death toll of 820 souls of the 1,673 aboard when the torpedo struck.
Tens of thousands of words have been written about what happened during those frantic minutes which elapsed before The SS Arandora Star finally sank, with official Government versions, Board of Trade enquiries and press reports of events differing significantly from those related by some of the survivors. Stories of insufficient lifeboats with neglected tackle, panic amongst the passengers and crew, fighting between the various nationalities, accusations of civilians and POWs being shot at by guards in the mistaken belief that they were attempting to escape and even reports of empty lifeboats being found adrift weeks later replete with bullet holes plugged with scraps of linen, all added to the controversy that surrounded the event for many years to come. Certainly many of the passengers were unable to gain access to the lifeboats, in particular those who were old and sick or who were on the lower decks of the ship, whether they were simply abandoned to their fate as every man fought for his own survival (and in truth who would say that in similar circumstances they would act differently) or, deliberately left locked up below decks by the crew and guards to facilitate their own escape will never be fully known.
The British Government’s harsh deportation strategy was gradually relaxed after the sinking of the S.S. Arandora Star. The disaster prompted a number of vigorous protests from home and abroad regarding Britain’s policy toward enemy aliens, which led directly to the eventual change from the policy of deportation to that of the internment of enemy aliens in camps within the British Isles. Any event such as this would be rightly classed as a tragedy for the victims and their families whichever side they were ‘on’. But for the Italians in particular it was tragic in extremis. Many of them had not only been friends, neighbours and colleagues in their adopted home towns in Britain, but a significant number had also come from the same villages in Italy, as a consequence the collective grief and loss felt in these tiny communities was wholly devastating.
Today The Arandora Star lies a thousand fathoms down at the bottom of the Rockall Trough. Günther Prien and the crew of U-47 did not survive the war. Ironically they were reported missing presumed lost in the same region as the Arandora Star around the Rockall Banks in the North Atlantic west of Ireland 8 months later on 07 March 1941. She became a small portion of the grim statistic that tells of 90% of all German submariners who would be killed in action during WWII.
I offer neither pay, nor quarters, nor food; I offer only hunger, thirst, forced marches, battles and death. Let him who loves his country with his heart, and not merely with his lips, follow me.
- Location : Lancs & Emilia Romagna
Posts : 81
Join date : 2013-05-27
A very interesting and poignant story about which I knew nothing previously. Thank you Centauro.
- Posts : 143
Join date : 2013-06-03
Thanks Centauro, great, but sad read.
A sad story. Let's hope that History will not repeat itself.
- Posts : 1840
Join date : 2013-05-20
If my memory serves me right, I think there used to be a small Museum in Barga (Tuscany), dedicated to the link between Scotland and that Italian town; I remember seeing a a largish display and various documentation there, dedicated to those who lost their lives on the Arandora Star as there were quite a few from that region who died. Very tragic.
- Location : nr. Bagni Di Lucca. LU
Posts : 809
Join date : 2013-05-25
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