The submarine “U Boat” menace of the Second World War became commonly known as the “Battle of the Atlantic”, but it also extended to all oceans and the strategic point rounding the South African Cape became a focus point of the submarine war and German attention – and subsequently the attention of The South African Navy and her British Allies.
A typical example of the danger, survival and sacrifice in South African waters is the story of the sinking of the “City of Johannesburg” by German submarine U-504 (seen in the featured image above). U-504 was a Type IXC U-boat of Nazi Germany’s Kriegsmarine during World War II, the SS City of Johannesburg was a merchant vessel carrying supplies off the coast of East London, South Africa.
Of the merchantmen on board the SS City of Johannesburg, 90 in total, 4 perished and there where 86 survivors. Their survival in open water is remarkable considering the conditions in South African waters and typical to the dangers of operating at sea in WW2. This is one of many stories of the sinking of vessels and bravery of men off the coast of South Africa.
At 23.12 hours on 23 Oct 1942 the unescorted City of Johannesburg (Master Walter Armour Owen) was hit by one of two torpedoes from U-504 while steaming on a zigzag course at 10.75 knots about 80 miles east-southeast of East London, South Africa. The torpedo struck between the deep tank and #4 hold on the port side, blowing the hatches off the deep tanks and opening a hole that flooded these compartments immediately. All electricity failed and the engines had to be stopped when the engine room was flooded a few minutes later, causing the ship to settle by the stern with a slight list to port. No distress signals could be sent as the main aerial was brought down and fouled the emergency aerial and it was later discovered that the portable wireless set had been damaged while lowering into a lifeboat and was useless.
Two lifeboats had been destroyed and the rafts aft were jammed in the rigging, so the 21 crew members, 60 Lascars (Indian sailors) and nine gunners (the ship was armed with one 4in, one 12pdr, two 20mm and four machine guns) abandoned ship in the four remaining lifeboats which were launched safely within five minutes despite rough sea and high swell.
Before leaving the gunners tried to train the 4in gun, but it was damaged and could no longer be turned. The master was the last to leave the ship after making sure that no one was left on board. At 23.40 hours, the U-boat surfaced after firing a coup de grâce at the ship which was hit at #2 hatch on the port side, but only settled further on an even keel.
The Germans then questioned the survivors in one of the lifeboats and left the area after the City of Johannesburg suddenly broke in two amidships and sank at 00.00 hours. Four Lascars were lost.
The boat in charge of the master had 11 persons on board and rescued two men swimming in the water. Quartermaster H. Birnie was picked up by a boat with 28 persons and later stated that he was alongside the U-boat after it had surfaced and even touched the plates when he was told to swim astern to the lifeboat. He was asked no questions and the engines of the U-boat remained stopped until the man was clear.
The other two boats held 19 respectively 25 persons, but owing to the rough sea the lifeboats could not approach each other to even up the survivors in them. The master told the other boats to remain in the vicinity while his boat set sail in order to get help and made 140 miles in 24 hours before he and twelve survivors were picked up by the Dutch steam merchant Zypenberg about 8 miles from the coast in 33°50S/26°50E on 25 October and landed at Durban two days later.
However, the boat with 19 occupants also set sail and only made half the distance before they were rescued by the British motor merchant King Edwin on 26 October and landed at Cape Town three days later. The 54 survivors in the two boats that waited near the sinking position were picked up by the British steam merchant Fort George after 12 hours in 33°24S/28°31E and landed at Port Elizabeth on 25 October.
U-504: South African Patrol
This submarine had caused a lot of damage off the coast of South Africa, here is a short history of her 4th Patrol in South African waters:
U-504 left Lorient on 19 August 1942 and sailed south to the waters off South Africa as part of Wolfpack Eisbär. There, on 17 October, about 450 nautical miles (830 km; 520 mi) south of Cape Town, she torpedoed and sank the unescorted British 5,970 ton Empire Chaucer. On the 23rd she sank the 5,669 ton SS City of Johannesburg, and on the 26th she attacked the unescorted American 7,176 ton Liberty ship Anne Hutchinson. The crew abandoned their vessel after she was hit by two torpedoes and fatally damaged. However the ship remained afloat, and on the 29th was taken in tow by the South African armed trawler HMSAS David Haigh (T13) and a harbour tug. Lacking sufficient power to tow the ship to port explosive charges were set, cutting the ship in two. The aft section sank, and the fore section was towed into Port Elizabeth. Part of the crew were picked up at sea, while the rest made it to land in their lifeboats.
U-504 sank two more British merchant ships on 31 October, about 200 nautical miles (370 km; 230 mi) east of Durban. First the unescorted 7,041 ton Empire Guidon, then the unescorted 5,113 ton Reynolds, which, hit amidships and in the stern, capsized and sank within seconds.
Finally on 3 November she sank the unescorted and unarmed Brazilian 5,187 ton cargo ship Porto Alegre en route from Rio de Janeiro to Durban, off Port Elizabeth. Hit by a single torpedo, the crew abandoned ship before the U-boat delivered the coup de grâce. Only one crew member was lost. The survivors were questioned by the Germans, and later made landfall about 50 nautical miles (93 km; 58 mi) from Port Elizabeth on 7 November. U-504 arrived back at Lorient on 11 December 1942 after a patrol lasting 115 days.
The fate of U-504
U-504 also met a grisly fate. Whilst on her 7th Patrol U504 was depth charged and sunk with all hands on board (53 in total) on 30 July 1943 in the North Atlantic north-west of Cape Ortegal, Spain, in position 45.33N, 10.56W, by depth charges from the British ships HMS Kite, HMS Woodpecker, HMS Wren and HMS Wild Goose.
HMS Kite’s Commanding Officer at the time of the sinking of U-504 was the famous U-boat hunter Captain “Johnnie” Walker, DSO and three bars.
The Commander from her one patrol off South Africa to when she was lost are two different men (and possibly even different crew as well).
During the South African Patrol (4th patrol) the Commander was KrvKapt Hans-Georg Friedrich Poske (he command U-504 for the first four War Patrols). KrvKpt Wilhelm Luis did the next three patrols, his third being the fatal one.
This U Boat spent a total of 372 days a sea and sank 85,299 tons of shipping. All ships sunk were under her first commander KrvKapt Hans-Georg Friedrich Poske and on the second, third and fourth patrols. U-504’s most successful patrol in terms of tonnage suck was on her South African patrol.
KrvKapt Hans-Georg Friedrich Poske survived the war, he also served post war as well and retired in 1963. Note on the image provided he was awarded a Knights Cross.
Researched by Peter Dickens
Reference and thanks to Sandy Evan Hanes for additional input.
Related Observation Post links:
The Leonardo da Vinci The Leonardo da Vinci wreaks havoc off South Africa’s coastline
U-177 The worst maritime loss off Durban’s coast; The sinking of the SS Nova Scotia