U 69 and the sinking of the British vessel Robert L. Holt
In early April 1941 the U-boat High Command (= BdU) examined whether and how a type VII C U-boat could execute longer range missions, for example to Western Africa. The Navy High Command in Berlin had interest in extending the war at sea as wide as possible, to bind as many British Forces, even in these sea area, as it would require running a system of escorted convoys. Besides many technical improvements the new Type VII C U-boat had much greater fuel reserves and stronger engines, and they were able to sail longer distances than their older predecessor Type VII A and VII B boats. Of great advantage was the flat and narrow silhouette of the Type VII C. The Navy High Command in Berlin had particular interest in mining the important ports of Tokoradi and Lagos at the west coast of Africa. Following the support of these plans the U-boat High Command assigned Kapitänleutnant (= Lieutenant Commander) Jost Metzler and U 69 to execute such special mission, as he met the require-ments for that best. He has been an officer in the Merchant Navy, with amble of nautical knowledge and great experience in seamanship, and he was commanding a superbly trained crew, which could endure such long mission without any major problems.
U 69 departed from its base at Lorient on 05 May 1941 for her third combat patrol, destination was the coats of West Africa. The U-boat was well prepared and sufficiently equipped. There were only a few torpedoes on board as the main weapon load was mines. Therefore, capabilities to attack ships by means of torpedoes were restricted only. Most important task of the U-boat was to block the ports of Tokoradi in today´s Ghana and Lagos in today´s Nigeria by means of mines, and to explore the port of Accra in today´s Ghana.
But, already during its outbound leg to the sea areas of Western Africa the U-boat sank two vessels. The first one was the British freighter Robin Moor with 4,999 GRT, being stopped on 12 May 1941 in compliance with the law of prize, to then being sunk by one torpedo and 30 rounds from the 8,8 cm U-boat gun. The same day another British vessel, the Tewkesbury with 4,601 GRT was sunk by another torpedo and gun fire, to go down shortly after midnight on the 22 May following a coup de grâce torpedo.
Following that, Jost Metzler executed his special mission of mining showing great skills, and the crew of U 69 managed to drop 4 mines at the port of Tokoradi on 27 May 1941 and another 8 mines at the port of Lagos on 28 May 1941, where the penetration of the port had been a particular skillful achievement.
The effects of both mine barriers were somewhat restricted. Only on 04 June 1941, the British freighter Robert Hughes hit one of the mines placed by U 69 at the port of Lagos and sank.
On 31 May 1941, after his mining operation, U 69 torpedoed the British freighter Sangara with 5,445 GRT in the port of Accra. The vessel sank over its stern to the ground, water depth was 10 meters only. Its forecastle was still rising above the surface. Later, the Sangara was raised again and repaired, but re-commissioned not before 1947.
During her return leg U 69 got contact to convoy SL 76 on 27 June 1941. The first attack torpedo failed, which was fired at 01.19 hrs against a target in sight. Nevertheless, due to a detonation heard it was assumed that probably a hit was achieved at a vessel having sailed behind the target ship. At 01.49 hrs a second attack was launched against the convoy. This time, the British freighter River Luga with 5,423 GRT was hit, which sank shortly afterwards. The last torpedo of the weapon load having been taken along hit the British vessel Empire Ability with 7,603 GRT at 02.37 hrs. With that, all torpedoes on board U 69 had been used and the homebound leg was resumed.
On 30 June 1941 in mid-Atlantic a successful resupply and replenishment operation was carried out with the German tanker Corientes. In the end, U 69 had managed to pass the relatively long distance between France and Western Africa and back through maintaining always economical speed and lowest possible fuel consumption, provided the operational situation allowed to do so.
In the afternoon of the 02 July 1941, while sailing at northerly headings, a vessel came in sight, steering southerly courses. Initially, only a faint smoke cloud could be spotted, and occasionally a mast head peeked over the horizon. Since the sea was calm Metzler decided to pursue the vessel. His intent was to attack during the night with artillery. U 69 followed the vessel at the surface keeping the mast heads always in sight. The speed of the vessel was about 12 knots. The artillery attack was to be facilitated by means of the 8,8 cm gun at the forward deck and the 2 cm AA-Gun at the rear area of the conning tower.
In addition, there were a machine gun MG-34 and a German Army type MG/30. The First Watch Officer, Oberleutnant zu See (= Lieutenant) Hans-Jürgen Auffermann, was to command the engagement of the artillery fire. U 69 shadowed the vessel from a distance of three to five thousand meters, keeping, therefore, the vessel in sight throughout. The name of the vessel could not be identified, although the U-boat sailors were well experienced to look out also during night. Metzler wanted to launch his attack not before the moon had gone down. It also allo-wed enough time to prepare for the attack. Meanwhile, they shadowed the vessel for more than ten hours.
Shortly after moonset the commanding officer increased the U-boat´s speed and closed the distance to the vessel to about 1,000 meters. Carefully, the vessel darkened its lights while the dawn began. Notwithstanding, the vessel´s silhouette was to be seen well as the distance decreased. Without a moment´s hesitation Jost Metzler ordered “Action station for artillery fire!”, and following the preparation required he ordered “Open fire!”. Metzler increased U 69´s speed another time reducing the distance to the vessel to less than 800 meters.
The artillery fire from U 69 was precise, and initially there was no defensive action by the vessel. The surprise attack seemed to have worked. Alternately, the 8,8 cm gun fired high explosive and incendiary shells in short sequences. Apparently, the vessel´s radio room had been hit by one of the first salvos, as the U-boat´s radio operator reported “Ship has not sent any emergency signals!”
Meanwhile one recognized at the U-boat´s conning tower that the vessel was armed considerably after all. There were guns of greater caliber each at the fore-castle and the stern. Now, the vessel started to open fire as well, but none of its shells hit U 69. Just the opposite, its artillery fire was so un-precise that the bridge crew at the U-boat assumed all fire control equipment of the vessel must have been destroyed already hindering any directed gun fire at all. After a short fire break Metzler changed the side of the attack. U 69 moved behind the vessel´s stern to re-attack it from the other side. Soon the vessel was hit several times below the water line, causing damage to the boiler room.
Immediately, the typical blowoff of steam was to be heard, and a large steam cloud could be seen. In the mean-time, the vessel hardly made any way. The vessel´s guns seemed to have been destroyed or could not be used any longer. As a maneuver of last resort the ship´s master attempted to ram the U-boat, but did not manage to do so because of the vessel´s small speed. U 69 had closed to the vessel that much to allow identifying the superstructure of the ship in detail, with almost everything completely destroyed. The vessel was burning across its entire length and was dead in the water. Because of the hits at the waterline the vessel started to sink slowly over its stern. There was no sign of any life among its crew. Metzler ordered to seize fire. The freighter showed a scene of destruction: The entire superstructure demolished and flames everywhere, the masts bended and the funnel riddled. U 69 left the burning vessel in the morning of the 03 July 1941 which now was about to sink definitely. Kapitänleutnant Metzler had to be aware of enemy Naval forces or aircraft rushing to the scene at any moment.
The events of the combat engagement were noted in the U-boat´s war diary. It was not possible at that time to clearly identify the vessel, but it could be described, including its armament. The freighter was equipped with a minimum of four guns, one each at the bow and the stern, two more nearby the bridge, from where at one time rounds were fired against U 69. Also, there were some light Bofors AA-guns. U 69 ´s war diary lists the following expenditure of ammunition:
102 rounds of ammunition 8,8 cm high explosive shells
34 rounds of ammunition 8,8 cm incendiary shells
220 rounds of ammunition MG C/30 (2 cm)
400 rounds of ammunition MG 34.
U 69 resumed its return voyage to arrive at St. Nazaire, France, on 08 July 1941.
Only long time after the war the few veterans, which had be detailed away from U 69 before it was sunk by the depth charges of the British destroyer HMS Fame on 17 February 1943 off Newfoundland, and which were lucky enough to survive the war, learned what ship U 69 had sunk during the night 02 to 03 July 1941. It has been the British vessel Robert L. Holt with 2,918 GRT under Master John Alexander Kendall. The freighter was sailing under ballast and was declared missing by the British on 27 August 1941. The crew was stated to be 42 men, plus another 8 soldiers to man the guns on board. In addition, Vice Admiral Norman Atherton Wo-dehouse and his staff of five went down with the Robert L. Holt, who had been reactivated in World War II to serve as Convoy Commodore, his last appointment was to command Convoy OB 337, which had been dispersed, leaving the Robert L. Holt as strangler.
The vessel sank west off the coast of the Western Sahara and south off the Canary Islands at position 24° 15´N and 20° 00 W in the German Naval quadrant DH 5544.
Written by Hans-Joachim Röll and German U-boat Museum, pictures: German U-boat Museum