U 32 and the Sinking of the Empress of Britain – and Her Own End shortly afterwards
On 24 October 1940, the Type VII A U-boat U 32 under the command of Oberleutnant zur See (= Lieutenant) Hans Jenisch left Lorient for the North Atlantic Ocean, which eventually should be it´s last combat patrol. Around noon on the 26 October the U-boat received a message saying that the Empress of Britain, a passenger liner under Canadian flag of 42,348 GRT and being used as troop-carrier, has been damaged by bombs from a German Luftwaffe aircraft about 300 nmi west off the northern tip of Ireland. The Commanding Officer of U 32 decided not to act in response to the message, since the reported position was too far off the departure track of U 32 towards its assigned area of operation, and also, the message was not clear enough. Moreover, another U-boat, U 31, was believed to operate in the neighborhood of the incident reported.
When the message of the bomb attack was repeated early next morning, with the additional information of the Empress of Britain being in flames and unable to move, Jenisch decided to change course and intercept the crippled vessel.
How did the bombing of the Empress of Britain happen in the first place?
The troop-carrier was enroute to Liverpool coming from Suez, Egypt, where a contingent of forces had been disembarked. There were 416 crewmembers on board, plus two more gunners to operate the AA-guns, and some 205 passengers, mostly members of the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force and their families. Because of the high speed the Empress of Britain was able to steam, no escorts were tasked to accompany her. About 09.20 a.m. on 26 October 1940 a Luftwaffe four-engined Focke Wulff 200 (Fw 200) under the command of Oberleutnant (= Flight Lieutenant) Bernhard Jope spotted the vessel some 70 nmi off the Aran Islands at Irelands western coast. Straight away, Jope carried out several attacks, while Master Charles Havard Sapsworth ordered full speed ahead for his Empress of Britain, and to open fire from his AA-guns against the aircraft. The crew of the FW 200 managed to drop several 250 kg bombs on the troop-carrier.
Three bombs grazed the vessel, whereas two bombs hit directly. The first bomb penetrated the vessel´s “Mayfair” lounge, the second hit the upper deck damaging several life boats. Immediately, fire started and thick black smoke began to cover the outer decks. At the same time, the crew of the FW 200 tried to neutralize the defensive AA-fire from the vessel. In fact, the strafing by the Fw 200 caused some damage and killed several persons on board the Empress of Britain.
Soon after the return of Jope´s Fw 200 the Germans realized what ship has been attacked actually. Naval and Air Force headquarters were alerted immediately. However, it was not clear yet whether the Empress of Britain had sunk or whether she was still afloat.
In fact, the troop-carrier had not sunk yet. The hull was still alright, but the Fw 200 bombs had caused a blaze which quickly spread without any chance to get it under control. The fire destroyed many of the life saving appliances and most of the fire-fighting equipment. Already half hour after the bomb hits Captain Sapsworth ordered to abandon ship. The British destroyer Echo and the Polish destroyer Burza as well as the British ASW sloop Cape Arcona, all having rushed to the scene, managed to rescue most of the crew and the passengers. Just a few crew members stayed behind to save their vessel.
The main engine had shut down due to the blaze raging through the vessel. The ship could not be driven by own forces any longer and was drifting at the rough seas without any propulsion. The British destroyer Broke reached the scene at the forenoon of the 27 October. At once, Broke came alongside the Empress of Britain, sending few men on board the troop-carrier to tie together both ships with the help of the remaining crew of the Empress. Soon after, the British tugs Marauder and Thames arrived and quickly started towing the Empress. Escorted by the Broke and the Sardonyx which was another destroyer having approached in haste, the towing train moved with a speed of about 4 kn slowly towards Northern Ireland. Additionally, “Sunderland” seaplanes in rotation covered the convoy from the air.
Meanwhile, U 32 tried to close to the crippled vessel. About noon on the 27 October the masts of the troop-carrier came in sight due in good visibility. The Commanding Officer did not decide to submerge to save valuable time, as now even the Empress of Britain came over the horizon clearly to be seen.
The vessel was surrounded by several other mast tips from destroyers, and there were sea planes circling above the vessel. Soon a sea plane approached and forced U 32 to dive quickly. During the following afternoon the Commanding Officer could spot through his periscope repeatedly aircraft above the crippled vessel. Having set to maximum underwater speed U 32 closed to its target gradually. At evening dawn the U-boat surfaced but lost sight to the Empress. Since further optical search was unsuccessful Jenisch decided to submerge again for attempting to re-detect the vessel by means of hydrophone. Objects were detected quickly, but, as it was established, they were rather distant, about 20 nmi apart.
About midnight of 27 / 28 October the Empress of Britain came in sight again. Two tugs towed the huge ocean liner, and one destroyer each was spotted at portside and starboard side. U 32 followed the crippled vessel for about 2 hours, with course and speed of the convoy being determined firmly. Suddenly, both destroy-ers opened up a gap while maneuvering, allowing U 32 to penetrate the screen and to take attack position. The attack was executed textbook-like, with the U-boat launching one torpedo each against the forward and the stern mast of the 232 meters long Empress. When U 32 turned away the first torpedo experienced an advanced ignition after having passed the minimum safety distance of 125 meters. Immediately Jenisch turn back towards the target and launched a third torpedo, this time aiming at the middle funnel of the Empress.
U 32 came rather close to its target while carrying out this maneuver, allowing it to observe many details on board the Empress, which still was on fire by the FW 200 bombs of the 26th of October. When U 32 turned away again the second and the last torpedo launched hit almost at the same time, causing the boiler of the Empress to explode. The steam mushroom cloud following that raised high above the vessel. The Empress of Britain quickly started to heel towards its portside taking a 15° list. The tugs casted off their ropes, while the destroyers were searching for the U-boat with their spotlights in the area of the assumed attack position portside ahead. At the same time, pre-flooded but still at the surface U 32 used its electric engines to sail in the wake of the Empress, to slowly fall behind. The further scenario could be monitored from the conning tower of the U-boat. The destroyers were continuing to search for the U-boat around the crippled vessel and fired now and then, but obviously without having any firm detection of U 32. A “Sunderland” seaplane passed over the U-boat at low altitude, but did not see anything due to the little speed of the boat.
In the meantime the list of the Empress increased, until the vessel capsized after some 10 minutes, to sink eventually. The 42,348 GRT Empress of Britain was the biggest vessel ever in World War II being sunk by a German U-boat. 25 crewmembers and 20 passengers of the Empress lost their lives due to the air attack, the following fire and the sinking of U 32.
However, the crew of U 32 could not enjoy its success for long. Two days later, on 30 October, the boat operated in the Northern Atlantic west off Ireland, waiting for a convoy reported eastbound. The convoy was not found, instead an individual steamer was detected, whom the Commanding Officer considered being a straggler of the convoy. About noon, Jenisch attacked, but also this torpedo experienced advanced ignition, revealing the U-boat´s position. The vessel turned away and tried to make way with full speed. Laborious maneuvers began to reach a forward attack position, while visibility changed permanently.
This lasted for several hours, enabling U 32 to reach an underwater attack position not before the evening. Meanwhile, the merchant vessel had called for help. Consequently, the U-boat executing its attack was detected and pursued by two destroyers. These were the new British destroyers Harvester and Highlander, both being equipped with state-of-the-art ASW devices. Two series of depth charges hit U 32, one at 120 m, another one at 80 m diving depth.
The pressure hull experienced several leakages and the U-boat took in quite a lot of water, particularly in its aft section. The complete electric power generation was dead and the compressed air system was not tight any longer, causing compressed air to float into the inner boat. Overpressure generated by this inside the U-boat became almost unbearable. When the compressed air remaining had fallen to just 30 units of plus pressure the Commanding Officer ordered “Get to the surface” in the knowledge that this was to be the last chance for that, although two destroyers would be waiting for them up there.
Once having surfaced the U-boat crew managed to start the diesel engines, despite heeling down by the stern. However, the rudder was jammed at hard angle, enabling the U-boat to navigate in circling maneuvers only. Another torpedo was fired at one of the destroyers, but the discharge pressure was not sufficient enough. Therefore, the torpedo left the U-boat with some delay only and subsequently missed its target. The second destroyer tried to ram U 32, but failed to do so. Both destroyers fired at the U-boat with all guns until it started to sink.
The head was already washed over by sea water and there was no real chance left to U 32 to defend itself any longer. Hence, the Commanding Officer ordered to abandon ship. Oberleutnant zur See Hans Jenisch and the Chief Engineer, Leutnant (Ing) Anton Thimm, made sure that all men had left the boat, before they opened the decompression valves, to then leave the boat as well. Shortly afterwards U 32 straightened up once more, with the bow rising to the skies. Then it sank over its stern. Nine crewmembers of the 42 strong crew fell, some by the destroyer´s shelling, others by drowning. The majority of the crew was rescued by the Harvester about one hour after the sinking.
The Highlander began to search for survivors as well, in response to a request by the Commanding Officer of U 32. Three hours later the Highlander actually managed to find four more men and took them on board. The treatment of the German U-boat men on board the British destroyers was exemplary. The survivors of U 32 remained in PoW camps in England and Canada for the remainder of the war.
Text: Hans-Joachim Röll and Deutsches U-Boot Museum – Pictures: Deutsches U-Boot-Museum