Tonnage: 490 gt.
Dimensions: 150.8 x 26.7 x 15.3, Steel hull.
Machinery: Triple Expansion (Helsingør) 41nhp, 10 knots.
Delivered from Helsingørs Jernskibs- og Maskinbyggeri, Helsingør, Denmark as Austri to A/S D/S Thore, Copenhagen, Denmark. Sold in 1912 to Det Stavangerske Dampskibsselskab, Stavanger together with the sister ship Vestri, and used in the regularly scheduled coastal service Sandnes/Stavanger-Oslo. Modernized at some point in the 1920. (This info from T. Eriksen, Norway).
Under German control from Apr. 10-1940 and used as troop transport, but later returned to civilian owners.
Captain Adolf Christiansen. Sunk by 235th Sqdn. from "Banff Strike Wing" shortly before arrival Leirvik, Norway on Febr. 21-1945. She was unarmed and was clearly marked "Norge" on her sides. 18 Norwegians were killed, as well as at least 5 Germans and at least 2 of their Polish prisoners. Of those who were rescued, 76 received medical treatment for various degrees of injuries.
He starts off with some information on the Banff Strike Wing, consisting of 3 British squadrons, operating with the Norwegian B flight of the 333rd squadron, and based in Banff (North Scotland), their main task being to sink German and German controlled shipping along the Norwegian coast. The 3 squadrons usually operated as a group, with the Norwegians acting as "outriders" (sort of guides, or scouts), and also helping to identify local shipping in order to avoid attacking Norwegian civilian ships, but this time the 235th squadron of the Royal Air Force went out alone, with 12 Mustangs from the Peterhead base as escorts. Strike leader was Wing Commander A.H. Simmonds in his Mosquito "A" / 235.
Austri departed Haugesund at 7 in the morning for Leirvik with about 130 people on board, around 50 of those being German military personnel, 42 Norwegian passengers and 16 Polish and Russian female prisoners, some of whom had babies with them. These prisoners were on transport from Sauda to a camp at Åsane near Bergen. At around 09:34, the pilot Anton Rebnor spotted the aircraft passing on Austri's port side, and the engine was immediately stopped. At the same time, 3 Mosquitoes, which nobody had seen hit Austri with 6 rockets below the waterline and 6 above, while the 20 mm guns and the machine guns also caused a lot of human injuries as well as considerable damage to the ship. The lights went out, and hot steam gushed out from the engine room through holes caused by the guns, making it difficult for the passengers to see what was going on in the chaos of scattered luggage and injured and dying people. One of the passengers, Otto Horneland and his friend found a door leading out to the foredeck on the port side and managed to get out, but had to throw themselves down when a second attack occurred, all this having taken place in less than 1 minute.
Just before the 3 Mosquitoes attacked Austri the Strike Leader had spotted another ship, namely D/S Ibis which was anchored at A/S Stord Verft (yard), and nearby was the seal catcher Søndmøringen (Fylkesbaatane's D/S Gula was also present, but not seen by the attackers as she was partly hidden by Ibis. Gula was there for extensive repairs to damages resulting from another air attack on Nov. 14-1944). At 09:36 the Strike Leader and 11 aircraft from the 235th squadron attacked these ships. Ibis' captain, Olav Helland, a stoker and some workers from the yard were on board. Stoker Isak Nordvik, who was in hold 3 at the time ran as fast as he could up on deck, but as soon as he saw what was happening he managed to get himself to a safe spot on the port side. None of Ibis' complement was hurt, but some of the yard workers received minor injuries. While all this was taking place the cook on Gula peeped out of the galley to see what was going on, but quickly withdrew when the knife he was holding was shot out of his hand. Ibis was burning fiercly and was about to sink, as were Gula, which had also been hit, and Søndmøringen.
The aircraft pilots observed at least 17 rocket hits below the waterline and 19 above and on Ibis' deck, in addition to several grenade an machine gun hits. They broke off, turned and 9 of them came in for another attack on Austri, this time from the starboard side. Though the aircraft no longer had any rockets left, the the 20 mm guns and the machine guns had a devastating effect on the people in the crowded ship, with terrible scenes ensuing among the mutilated people in the inferno of flames and steam.
By then Austri was listing to starboard, and though the crew was able to launch the boats they were of no use, being penetrated by bullet holes, like everything else on board. One of the pilots even remarked later that he himself saw one of the boats, with its load of desperate people crash into the icy cold water. During this 3rd attack, several pilots were able to see the name Austri on the side of the ship, and the following was noted in a report:
Otto Horneland and his friend had also survived the last attack, hiding behind the steel plates in the foreship, together with a dog that had also sought refuge from the rain of bullets. On the other side of the fjord another passenger vessel, M/K Aakrafjord had just departed Tittelsnes and the crew witnessed the attacks. The last attack was over in less than a minute and as soon as the aircraft headed back out the fjord Aakrafjord approached Austri at full speed to help in the rescue operation. Also, small and large vessels from various other places, including the ship yard were manned and headed for Austri. Otto Horneland saw Aakrafjord approaching, but he knew that he and his friend had to wait as long as possible before they could jump into the cold water. Someone threw lifebelts down from the bridge and they grabbed one each. Then they spotted one of the Polish women; just sitting there staring in front of her, without a sound, though she bore the signs of having been shot in the chest and most of her shoulder was gone. Otto offered her his jacket, but she just looked at him, shaking her head.
When Aakrafjord arrived she came as close to the sinking Austri as possible, and several survivors, including Otto lowered themselves into the sea along a wire and swam towards the lifeboats from Aakrafjord. The water was full of people trying to cling to whatever they could find; bodies were everywhere, the screams and moaning from the mutilated people, coupled with the hissing of steam and the noise of the fire were terrifying. Austri now listed more and more.
Meanwhile, Trygve Oma, who was a member of Stord Røde Kors Hjelpekorps (Stord Red Cross Rescue Services) and Thomas Jansen were told to report to the quay at Leirvik where they were taken on board the German Fjord 20, and together with the German complement of 2 they headed towards Austri at full speed. By the time they got there Austri had sunk and they were faced by a horrendous scene, with the dead and injured floating in the water, mingled with the debris from the ship. Trygve saw several people clinging to some chairs, probably part of the cargo, while a German man desperately tried to hold on to a barrel, but it kept rolling around and around until he at last gave up and drowned. The 4 from Fjord 20 immediately started to pull people of various nationalities to safety; those who could walk unaided were placed in the salon aft, while the seriously injured and the dead were placed on deck. Having no first aid equipment on board their situation was very difficult, but they did what they could for the injured; Trygve was especially impressed with one of the Germans, Wallinger, who did a fantastic job with them, regardless of nationality.
On arrival Leirvik the quay was full of people, and the dead and injured were placed on trucks or vans, then taken either to a hospital or the jail, where the Red Cross had its base. A nearby barn was used as a morgue. Doctors and nurses and misc. volunteers worked desperately to save as many as they could, a sterilized saw was used for amputations. By 7 o'clock that evening 76 people had been given medical treatment.
Halvor Sperbund adds in his article that according to passengers and crew lists 9 passengers and 9 crew died. In addition to the 76 who were treated for various degrees of injuries, there were also some that escaped unharmed, among them 20 - 25 Germans and at least 2 of the prisoners. 2 Polish women were buried at Stord, while 5 Germans were buried at Solheim burial site in Bergen. He says that based on this it's reasonable to assume that around 30 people lost their lives.
This sinking was, naturally, used in the German controlled press as propaganda against the Allies and over 300 passengers were claimed to have been killed. Since then, this number has been established as "truth" in most accounts about Austri's sinking.
As mentioned, the attack was executed by the 235. Sqdn. alone, without the usual, Norwegian "outriders", who would probably have recognized the vessel. After this incident the Norwegian pilots at Banff talked about going on strike, though they knew full well this would be impossible. Several notes were exchanged between the 2 governments (the Norwegian government was in exile in London) and an explanation was demanded. However, this was not the first, nor the last such attack by the British on civilian Norwegian shipping.
I also found an account of this incident in an old book, "Norsk presse under Hakekorset" (The Norwegian Press under the Swastika), Vol. II, 1946 by Gunnleik Jensson, which is a collection of newspaper articles from the war years. As the newspapers were under German control, they are full of propaganda and anti-British (and anti-"bolsjevic") sentiment, so the account of this sinking is rather one-sided. The article appeared in the Oslo newspaper "Aftenposten", dated Febr. 21-1945, and says that 10 aircraft attacked with machine guns and bombs. The captain, Adolf Christiansen was killed on the bridge, and 20 people are feared dead. The attack happened off Kårevik near the south point of Stord. She was en route to Bergen with general cargo, food and agricultural goods, and a complement of 21 as well as 42 passengers. A subsequent article the next day says there were initially 25 British aircraft over Austri, but the formation split up, and while 10 attacked Austri, the rest of the "English bandits" attacked and badly damaged 3 other Norwegian ships near a herring factory at Leirvik. They are listed as the steamers Gula and Ibis, and the fishing vessel Limmingen. 4 people were injured in that attack. According to this article, 38 from Austri had been rescued, while 34 were missing. The next day the number of missing has changed to 20, 9 of whom are crew and 11 passengers. There's a long list of names of missing crew and passengers, as well as a list of names of crew and passengers who were rescued. I've added these names below, but can't guarantee that it's 100% correct.
Related external links:
Sorties Flown by Banff Strike Wing - The strike is briefly mentioned in the text under Febr. 21-1945.
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