1942 was the height of the Battle of the Atlantic, allied ships were being lost in great numbers to the ever present U Boat, especially on the convoys plying between the UK and US and the UK and Africa.

One of these convoys sailed from Liverpool on the 12th May 1942, bound for Freetown, Sierra Leone and one of the ships on this convoy; designated OS 28 was the Royal Fleet Auxiliary 2,000 ton class tanker RFA Montenol.  The ship was making the journey in ballast and in company with the other 32 ships of the convoy, was proceeding with extreme caution.

 

1942 was the height of the Battle of the Atlantic, allied ships were being lost in great numbers to the ever present U Boat, especially on the convoys plying between the UK and US and the UK and Africa.

One of these convoys sailed from Liverpool on the 12th May 1942, bound for Freetown, Sierra Leone and one of the ships on this convoy; designated OS 28 was the Royal Fleet Auxiliary 2,000 ton class tanker RFA Montenol.  The ship was making the journey in ballast and in company with the other 32 ships of the convoy, was proceeding with extreme caution.

Montenol

RFA Montenol

The evening of the 21st of May was a fine calm one as the convoy approached the Azores, and unbeknown to the ships in the convoy, a silent menace was stalking them beneath the waves in the shape of U 159, under the command of Korvettenkapitan Helmut Witte.

 

Helmut_Witte_2

Helmut_Witte

Korvettenkapitan Helmut Witte

The U Boat commander was intent in making sure as many of the ships in the convoy as possible did not reach their destination.

u_159

German Submarine U 159

At 27 minutes past midnight, U 159 fired four torpedoes from her bow tubes, a few minutes later onboard Montenol, a dull thud was heard throughout the ship, followed a few seconds later by an almighty explosion as a torpedo detonated against the port side of the ship between the engine room and the boiler room, as the weapon exploded a huge column of steam was expelled from the boilers, the sea rushed into the engine room killing two of the ratings on duty, but fortunately for the third engineer and a greaser, propelling them upward to the engine room skylight, from where they were able to escape.

The ship immediately went to abandon ship stations after the explosion, the master, Captain Edward Emile Le Sage rushed onto the bridge to take command of the situation and it was then found that the lifeboats on the Port side had been destroyed by the blast from the torpedo, so the lascar crew proceeded to lower one of the remaining boats with the remainder of the crew taking to the other serviceable lifeboat and three officers launched the starboard forward life raft.

Shortly after the torpedo hit RFA Montenol, one or possibly two of the other torpedoes fired by U 159 found a target in the United Molasses tanker ‘Athelknight’ killing 9 members of her crew, the rest taking to the lifeboats to be rescued by convoy escorts.

 

Athelknight-03

Athelknight-05

Athelknight

The survivors from Montenol steered their boats toward the corvette HMS Wellington and were taken aboard the escort, after checking that his crew were safe the master of Montenol requested permission from the Captain of HMS Wellington, Lt Cdr W. F. R. Segrave to return to the stricken tanker with volunteers from the officers and DEMS gunners, until daylight as the ship was still afloat.

 

Wellington-02

HMS Wellington

At 01:00 hrs the officers and gunners re-embarked in one of Montenol’s boats and pulled back to the ship, where it was found that the tanker was slowly settling deeper into the water and listing to starboard, so the boat returned to HMS Wellington until daylight when the officers and gunners from Montenol rowed over to HMS Woodruff to obtain warm clothing and Montenol’s Captain could confer with the Captain of Woodruff, Lt Cdr F. H. Gray to plan a re-boarding in daylight.

 

Woodruff

HMS Woodruff

As soon as the sky was light enough the volunteer crew from Montenol got back into their boat, along with a Lieutenant and Chief Petty Officer from the corvette and made their way back to the stricken tanker.  After boarding a full inspection of the ship took place and it was found that the list to starboard was now between 8 and 10 degrees, the engine room was flooded with the main engine lying against the starboard side of the ship, where it had been thrown by the force of the explosion, the boiler room was flooded as was the port bunker tank and the forward pump room was slowly flooding.  The main deck was awash and the amidships accommodation was flooding.

A hurried conference was called on the flooded deck and it was agreed that it would be impossible to salvage Montenol, so the ship was again abandoned with the crew returning to Woodruff.  Captain Le Sage then informed the Captain of Woodruff of the damage and the decision not to try and salve the tanker, the Captain of Woodruff decided to sink the tanker with gunfire as he needed to rejoin the convoy and also get out of the area where a U Boat was known to be operating.

All of the survivors were landed at Freetown when the convoy arrived there on the 30th May and eventually returned to the UK.  HMS Wellington was sold out of service after the war and became the headquarters of the Honourable Company of Master Mariners and is moored on the Thames by the Embankment.

 

 

Copyright © 2008 – 2017 Christopher J White

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