Commodore's Narrative of Events
Times are E. Atlantic Summer Time (until evening of May 20, at which time clocks were set to GMT).
May 12 to May 18:
Convoy was exercised daily, visibility permitting. On May 16, after turning 180° to starboard together perfectly, a signal was made for rear ships to drop one smoke float. Hindustan was turned back through the smoke so that effect could be studied from far side of screen. It proved most effective. Convoy was informed by signal that if signal SM by day or sound signal at night was made, each ship was to drop ONE smoke float.
Picked up Westport from slow convoy in 53N 42 53W. Being a 10 kts ship she was joined up.
Sighted another straggler from slow convoy, but as she could only do 7 kts Aurania turned her back to Halifax (this was the Panamanian Calobre, see Notes on Page 1). It should be noted here that in spite of many hours of fog no ship of HX 126 ever straggled or lost the convoy. The co-operation of Masters, officers and engineers to keep good station was beyond praise.
Convoy course 320°, 8 knots night of May 19/20, clear calm, ca 3-4 miles. About 10 minutes before midnight (May 19/20, E. Atlantic Summer Time) Norman Monarch, starboard wing ship was torpedoed.
23:55 - Turned convoy 45° to port together by emergency signal.
00:00 - Made SM by sound signal twice. All ships dropped two smoke floats. When completed at 00:25 turned again 45° to port together using sound signal executive only, i.e. 2 short blasts. Very's light was NOT fired.
At 03:10, a full 2 hours after attack, convoy was turned 90° to starboard together to original course of 320°. Then by wheel to 000°.
06:40 - Altered course to 035°. No other attack developed in dark hours.
08:45 - Tongariro (71) intercepted U-boat W/T signal bearing 076 (see her report, which has been added below). As turning would possibly assist the enemy's plan course 035° was continued.
About 09:37 Aurania hoisted signal Sub in sight 080° and almost immediately afterwards at 09:38-09:39 Darlington Court first, and British Security immediately after, were hit. Darlington Court rolled over onto her port side at once and sank in 2 minutes. I consider 2 torpedoes hit her. British Security burst into flames fore and aft. A few men were seen getting away in her starboard quarter boat on the weather side. As soon as it was seen that attack was from starboard 9T was hoisted and a long blast blown followed by 2 short blasts. All convoy turned 90° to port together perfectly, just as at exercise, but some were hampered by the blazing tanker whose rudder was hard aport, evidently put on to avoid Darlington Court when she was torpedoed.
09:45 - Signals TR, Proceed at utmost speed - and SM, Drop smoke float were made and obeyed.
09:50 - "Scatter" was made. Whilst scattering, roughly between 09:55 and 10:00 John P. Pedersen (33) and Cockaponset (63) were torpedoed. John P. Pedersen was still afloat, burning before the bridge structure as late as 11:50. She had fuel oil cargo.
At 10:50, a very heavy explosion* shook the ship. No cause for it could be seen. So heavy was it that Nicoya 4 to 5 miles on our starboard quarter stopped and blew off steam. Dorelian 2 miles astern had some men, at work on boat deck, blown overboard. She stopped and lowered boats. The Master explained later that he lowered boats to pick them up, but the question as to why all boats were lowered is not yet answered. She got the men on board and proceeded but abandoned the boats.
At about 15:13 Rothermere** 6000 yds on our port quarter was torpedoed aft and sank slowly giving ample time to abandon ship. Hindustan zig-zagging at 12 1/2 knots in a northerly direction now started to work round to 070° to get closer to 6 other ships. Then in direction 040° from whence should come escort.
About 15:50 Burwell sighted. She informed me remainder of escort were 240° 30' steering towards scene of sinkings. She ordered all ships in sight to steer about 040°.
At 16:00 I made a signal course 044° and hoisted Commodore's broad pendant. Burwell disappeared to S'ward.
About 17:00 Harpagus signalled she was hit in 58 36N 39 32W which was to E'ward 25 miles.
* Strangely, this explosion is not mentioned by the captain of Nicoya in his report. But the captain of Cockaponset says the following: "About 20 minutes later (meaning, after all survivors of that ship had gone in the lifeboats) there was a loud explosion which shook the boat considerably and brought a quantity of dead fish to the surface. There was no water thrown up, but just before the explosion it felt just as if something was tapping under the boat". (I haven't been able to coordinate the times for all these reports to determine whether they are all tallking about the same explosion, as I don't know which time zones were used in each of them).
Also, a subsequent letter to The Director of Anti-submarine Warfare, dated June 7-1941 states the following (having quoted the Commodore's referral to this explosion, as well as a paragraph in Aurania's report - see May 20 in her report, which gives the time as 13:40 GMT):
"No satisfactory explanation of this explosion has yet been deduced, though three possible causes occur to D. A/S W.:
a) Darlington Court or British Security, which had been torpedoed at 09:38/20, blew up. - Unlikely, as the former's cargo consisted of 8000 tons of wheat, and the latter, a tanker, is reported to have still been blazing on the surface some hours later.
b) A U-boat blew up. - D. A/S W. doubts whether the simultaneous explosion of all the torpedoes in a U-boat could produce an explosion of the magnitude here reported.
c) That the shock was due to a subterranean earthquake.
The shock of the explosion and lack of any visible effect supports the view that the explosion occurred below the surface.
These reports appear sufficiently remarkable to warrant further investigation. It is therefore suggested that the Masters of all ships of this convoy be asked to describe their experiences at this time, and whether any eruption of the surface of the water was seen. It is requested that D. A/S W. may be informed of any facts which throw any light on the origin of this unexplained explosion".
** The Commodore's sequence of events is a little different from what can be found in "Axis Submarine Successes of WW II" by Jürgen Rohwer, who lists Rothermere as sunk at 17:29 German time, almost an hour before John P. Pedersen, at 18:17 German time. Time for Cockaponset is given as 15:16 German time, in other words, a little over 2 hours before Rothermere and 3 hours before John P. Pedersen. See also the external links at the end of Page 1.
About 20:00 I decided I would turn back collecting all ships in sight to reform convoy before dark and get them under escort's protection, starting to do so as soon as I saw escort astern.
At 21:00, althought no escort was in sight I turned 16 pts and signalled to all ships near CY-follow me. It appeared better to go back over comparatively safe water than to continue into possible danger to northward.
21:15 - Burwell came in sight right ahead.
22:20 - Turned back to 044°. Hoisted HK-Convoy is to reform at once. Speed 8 kts. 15 ships had now been collected and Dorelian and another TBD (Burnham) were astern 5-6 miles off. Eased down to 6 knots and Dorelian got into her place 2 hours later. Convoy was reformed by 23:30, i.e. 2 1/2 hours from time of turning back. A very credible performance by all ships concerned.
Set clocks to GMT (all times will now be GMT).
01:40 - Altered course to 004°. Speed 8 knots.
02:00 (about) - Saw red flares close to starboard wing column. These came from boats of Harpagus.
03:06 (about) - Starboard wing ship Regent Panther sounded 6 blasts, i.e. sub in sight.
03:12 - Turned convoy by emergency turn 45° to port together. I was on starboard side of bridge expecting an attack that side, when at 03:19 I saw 2 red tracer bullets pass over our stern from port to starboard. Whilst still wondering why someone had fired a burst from a machine gun Elusa (52) next ship on our port quarter, burst into flames from a hit on her port side.
03:26 - When ships were clear of Elusa, turned by emergency signal (without Very's light executive) 45° to starboard, i.e. back to 004°.
Regent Panther reported next day that a U-boat crossed from fine on starboard bow to port. I am of the opinion that the U-boat did cross the front of convoy and from a position on Hindustan's port bow fired a torpedo at her. This missed owing to the turn to port. She then went down between Cols. 05 and 04. Fired a burst of machine gun fire at Hindustan (which is the kind of thing an enraged Hun would do!) and then fired a successful shot at Elusa. The resultant blaze forced him to retire. Escorts fired star-shell and started a hunt. Burwell and Verbena caught the U-boat on the surface astern and continued the hunt until Verbena made a kill.
05:15 - Turned to normal course of 044° and reorganized the convoy with tankers in protected position.
01:40 - Having stationed leaders on a line of bearing beforehand, convoy turned by wheel 80° to starboard to 124°. Whether this big turn shook off shadowers or not is not known, but the result was no attacks came that night.
05:30 - Malcolm left and Gretavale, one of our missing ships rejoined.
P.M. - Home escort consisting of following ships arrived: Keppel, Venomous, Sabre, Lincoln (TBD's), Dianella, Mallow, Sunflower, Kingcup (corvettes and trawler), a Rescue Ship (this was Toward) and Lady Elsa and Springbank A/A ship.
Iceland escorts and tanker Rosewood left for Reykjavik.
Nicoya, straggler from convoy rejoined (ref. Nicoya's report).
Remainder of voyage was without incident.
Ships torpedoed: Norman Monarch, Darlington Court, Britsh Security, John P. Pedersen, Cockaponset, Rothermere, Harpagus, Elusa = 8 (Barnby is not mentioned by the Commodore, he probably did not know she had been sunk, as she was missing from the convoy).
Missing and unaccounted for: Ribera, Barnby, British Freedom and Eemland = 4
Missing and rejoined convoy: Gretavale and Nicoya
Diverted to Iceland: Rosewood
Ships in convoy at Butt of Lewis: Dorelian, Athelprincess, Baron Elgin, Hindustan, Karabagh, Empire Kudu, British Splendour, Bente Maersk, Westport, Tongariro, Havsten, Baron Carnegie, Regent Panther, Morgenen, Hada County, Gretavale and Nicoya = 17
See Page 1 for a list of ships sunk, and the U-boats that sank them, as well as Commodore's notes and names of escorts etc.
Report by the Captain of Tongariro
From Naval Control Service Officer, Avonmouth
To Director of Trade Division, Admiralty, London
Dated May 30-1941
Captain E. A. Burton, Master of the above ship reports as follows:
Ships was ordered to keep continuous D/F watch on 352 K/cs from 30°W until arrival in U.K.
Three ships were torpedoed at 03:00 GMT May 20 in 40 20W approximately, and continuous watch was kept from that time.
At 10:45 GMT May 20 signals were first heard on the starboard bow and for two hours afterwards increasing in strength and working round to the starboard beam and right aft, at 12:30 GMT. Commodore was informed of bearing of signals and, while the signal was being passed to the Ocean Escort, Darlington Court and British Security were torpedoed. At the same time two submarines were sighted by Ocean Escort, one ahead and one astern.
On May 21 from 00:50 GMT until 02:20 V.V.V. messages were received on various bearings - 024°(? hard to decipher) - 032° - 077° - 350°. At 03:28 Regent Panther made to Commodore by W/T "Submarine fine one starboard bow" i. e. on the bearing given by D/F and a few minutes later Elusa was torpedoed. The majority of these V.V.V. signals were intercepted at night when bearings could not be passed to Commodore or Ocean Escort.
It is considered that, if one or two destroyers had been working in co-operation with the guard ship and stationed close enough for bearings to be passed by a screened torch at any time, the attacks on the convoy could not have been successful. It appeared that one submarine was on the starboard beam of the convoy all the time, directing the operations of the other submarines; the Senior Radio Officer was almost able to predict the exact time when an attack would be made.
It is considered that unusually large torpedoes were used because Darlington Court appeared to disintegrate and disappear in a matter of seconds.
Few merchant ships have facilities for keeping continuous D/F watch because only one set of batteries is carried.
Signed: Captain R.N.R. N.C.S.O (signature illegible).
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Orders for ocean and local escorts (SC 31 & HX 126)
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