In April 2017 an inquiry from Iceland reached the German U-boat Museum via it´s website uboot-recherche.de. The curator of a museum in Vík in the south of Iceland, in which the Skaftfellingur is on display asked for photos of U 464 and it´s commanding officer KptLt. Otto Harms as well as for the boat data sheets for their exhibition. The museum presents itself on facebook under https://www.facebook.com/skaftfellingurmuseum/.
The Icelandic ship Skaftfellingur rescued the crew of U 464 after it had been sunk by an US flying boat south of Iceland. One member of the Icelandic crew was honored and decorated for this rescue by the German navy and the German Submariners Association during a German friendly fleet visit by submarines in Iceland shortly before the millennium.
So much was known from the outset and made this inquiry more than just a routine one. It quickly became clear for the German U-boat Museum that we wanted to provide the requested photos and documents for free as a token of gratitude on behalf of German U-boat men and that we wanted to establish another contact to Iceland.
When we put together the boat data sheets, one article from the British magazine “Warship” of October 1988 stuck out like a sore thumb. In the headline a minor mistery of World War II is mentioned, which, according to the author, results from inconsistencies between an Icelandic and an American historical source for the sinking of U 464 and the rescue of it´s crew. The Icelandic source is said to be the report of the Skaftfellingur´s master, according to which the German U-boat crew was covered with an MG and a rifle after their rescue. According to the American source the U-boat crew had taken over the Skaftfellingur and was already on it´s way back to Norway or Germany, when it was intercepted by two British destroyers.
The renowned U-boat website u-boat.net also reports on it´s page on U 464 that there is a version of the events, in which the German U-boat crew had captured the Skaftfellingur and was only hindered from going back to Germany by two British destroyers. However, the website itself doubts the plausibility of this version.
For the German U-boat-Museum this is myth enough to try to light the detailed circumstances of U 464´s sinking and the rescue of it´s crew by the Skaftfellingur through different sources and get to the bottom of this story. The Skaftfellingur museum kindly provided a treatise on the ship and her history. This treatise contains more detailed statements by the former crew member Andrés Gestsson on the rescue operation, which he gave a long timer after the events. With this statements and an extensive British report on the interrogation of U 464´s survivors it shall be reconstructed in the following, what most likely happened south of Icelandon 19 and 20 August 1942 thus solving this minor mistery of World War II around the Skaftfellingur and U 464.
U 464 – KptLt. Otto Harms
On 14 August 1942 the German supply U-boat U 464 left Bergen for it´s first supply cruise in the North Atlantic. It´s course led it north of the Faroe Islands through the “Rosengarten” into the open North Atlantic. The “Rosengarten” is a term of the U-boat jargon and refers to a vast sea area north of the British Isles, which was heavily mined by British forces. During daytime the U-boat stayed submerged in a depth of 230 ft for protection against enemy aircraft and mines, while it surfaced during nighttime to charge it´s batteries. When it was south of Iceland on 20 August, unlike the preceding days, it remained on the surface at the break of day instead of diving to travel submerged.
The American Flying Boat – Lt. Robert B. Hopgood
On 20 August 1942 on 02:54 am a United States PBY-5A-1 Catalina flying boat of Patrol Squadron VP-73 took off from it´s base at Skerja-Fjörd directly west of Reykjavik. The pilot Lt. Robert B. Hopgood and his 7-men crew had order to escort a British task force in the area south of Iceland. The task force was en route to a minelaying operation in the Denmark Strait (Operation SN73). The weather conditions for this missions were relatively poor. The sky was overcast with heavy winds and an increased number of rain squalls.
On 05:01 am, after a flying time of just over 2 hours and shortly before the expected arrival of the task force, an Icelandic fishing vessel was sighted near the rendezvous point. Shortly thereafter a shape was sighted at a distance of 1.5 nm. At first the crew of the Catalina assumed, that this shape was a destroyer of the task force and fired flares as a recognition signal. At a distance of 1 nm and an altitude of 500 ft the shape could be identified as a U-boat travelling slowly on the surface. Thereupon the aircraft descended and started an attack run. It dropped it´s complete payload of six Mark XVII depth charges on the U-Boat. One bomb failed to release and remained on the aircraft. One bomb exploded port, another bomb starboard of the U-boat while 3 directly hit it´s deck. Being depth charges without a percussion fuse these bombs naturally did not explode, because they had not yet reached their set depth of 25 ft. But this was soon to change when the U-boat crew hastily threw the bombs into the water. The detonation of these bombs caused additional severe damage on board the U-boat on top of the heavy damage by the first two bombs. After dropping it´s bomb load the Catalina began to circle the U-boat and opened fire from it´s machine guns type Browning M2 (.50 cal) and M1919 (.30 cal). The U-boat also manned it´s AA guns and opened fire on the flying boat, which, after making a circle in the clouds, started another attack run on the U-boat. This was severely damaged by the bombing, it listed to port, was losing large amounts of oil and steered erratic courses. It´s AA fire was still quite accurate so that the Catalina had to keep a befitting distance to it´s target making tracer aiming with it´s MGs almost impossible. That is why Lt. Hopgood decided to to stay in the clouds out of range of the U-boats AA and call surface units. At 05:29 am the Catalina reported the U-boat´s position to it´s base. When the U-boat entered a rain squall around 06:00 am the Catalina lost contact and headed for the task force, which was reached around 06:30 am. The Catalina informed the task force on the position of the attack on the U-boat via light signal. After one hour it requested a cruiser from the task force´s commanding officer to hunt and maybe capture the damaged U-boat, which was guessed to be around 10 miles away. Two of the task force´s destroyers, the HMS Castleton and HMS Newark received order, to hunt the U-boat down together with the Catalina.
At 08:26 am the two destroyers reached the place of the events. The sea was covered with oil and some debris was floating around so that it was assumed that the U-boat had sunk in the meanwhile, which was reported by radio. Shortly after an overcrowded Icelandic fishing vessel was sighted. The Castleton went alongside to take over the U-boat crew with it´s whaler while Newark was covering the procedure. At 09:36 all U-boat men were on board the Castleton. After that both destroyers returned to their task force with full speed and were able to resume their positions in the screen by 01:20 pm.
Lt. Hopgood and his crew were adjudged with sinking U 464. First, they received a bounty of 20 $ for sinking U 464 by the commanding officer of their Airbase Cdr. Daniel V. Gallery. He has placed this bounty privately. Already at this time he set himself the goal of capturing a German U-boat. He finally reached this goal by capturing U 505 on 04 June 1944. Lt. Hopgood was awarded the Navy Cross, the second highest American award after the Medal of Honor, for the bravery of continuing the attack on U 464 only with MGs after all bombs had been dropped.
The Skaftfellingur – Captain Páll Þorbjörnsson
On early morning of 20 August 1942 the 60 ton Icelandic fishing vessel Skaftfellingur made it´s way through stormy seas from the Vestmannaeyjar south of Iceland to Fleetwood, an English harbor roughly 40 miles north of Liverpool with it´s cargo of iced fish. The wooden ship, which was just about 30 ft long, was purchased from a shipyard in Denmark in 1918 by a company from the south-Icelandic Skaftafell counties. The Skaftfellingur was supposed to transport good and passengers between this region of Iceland, which was difficult to access overland, and the capital Reykjavik. Based in Reykjavik and with changing crews the Skaftfellingur performed this tasks for nearly 20 years until the construction of a road from Reykjavik to Skaftafell drastically reduced it´s freight volume. Therefore it was sold to one of biggest businessmen and ship owner of the Vestmannaeyjar, who used it for fishing and for the transport of fish and other goods between Iceland and Fleetwood, a fishing center on England´s west coast. With the outbreak of World War II this route became especially lucrative as a considerable part of the Icelandic fishing fleet was used for transportation purposes by the British. On the other hand it was associated with an increased risk, as proven by different attacks on Icelandic fishing vessel by German U-boats.
The Skaftfellingur put to sea from the Vestmannaeyjar under it´s captain Páll Þorbjörnsson shortly after midnight on 19 August 1942 to transport fish. After the first 24 hours had passed uneventful, an allied airplane flew over the ship. It flashed Morse-signals, but the men on board the Skaftfellingur were unable to read them. The Skaftfellingur had no radio on board. Shortly after 06:00 am on 20 August an object was sighted, which at first was identified as a lifeboat. Closer inspection then showed that it was submarine. The Crew of the Skaftfellingur could not see what country the submarine was from, as it had no markings. The crew was ordered to get on deck. The Skaftfellingur went alongside on the submarine´s windward side. It´s list and the damage were obvious, so preparations were made to take over the submarine´s crew.
First, it was tried to have a smaller raft drift across to the submarine tied to a rope. The knot on the rope went loose and so the raft was adrift. After that the Skaftfellingur went leeward of the submarine. The Icelandic crew started to throw ropes across to the submarine, but the submarine crew at first did not take them. Later, the Germans started jumping into the water and had to be picked up man by man by the Icelandic crew. Since the men drifted apart the rescue operation took nearly 2 hours despite the help of German crew members who had already been taken on board. Before U 464 sank by opening the vents around 08:15 am, KptLt. Harms was the last man to jump overboard after hoisting the German ensign.
The crew of U 464 was accommodated friendly by the Icelandic crew. They tried to space out evenly on the overcrowded small ship. After an extended period of time in the cold water some of the men were in a very bad condition and close to die of exposure. They were supplied with spirits and hot coffee by captain Þorbjörnsson. One crew member of U 454 spoke Icelandic fluently while some others knew a smattering so that at least rudimentary communication was possible. It seems unlikely, however, that they were able to forge closer ties to the Icelandic crew or even start drawing up the plan of capturing the Skaftfellingur and return to Norway because 15 minutes after the U 464´s sinking and the end of the rescue operation two British destroyers showed up and took the Germans into war captivity. After the delivery of the U-boat crew, captain Þorbjörnsson was said to have expressed his relief on getting rid of his passengers. Maybe a queasy feeling on the weapons of the Skaftfellingur, a rifle with 5 rounds and a machine gun with 90 rounds, crept over him. When U 464 was sighted he ordered them to be loaded and laid out ready in his cabin. Later, during the muddle on board, the weapons fell in German hands. Seemingly they were only inspected with interest and were not turned against the Icelandic crew.
After being released by the British destroyers the Skaftfellingur resumed it´s course to Fleetwood. Captain Þorbjörnsson reported the incidents of 20 August to the British authorities upon arrival there. He was immediately questioned and his ship was thoroughly searched by the military police. Everything that was left behind by the Germans was confiscated. After some back and forth and giving a written report Captain Þorbjörnsson was finally released by the British authorities.
The Skaftfellingur spent the rest of war transporting fish and other goods on it´s usual route between the Vestmannaeyjar and Fleetwood. After the war it plied between Icelandic ports. The Skaftfellingur was also used for fishing if there was no freight to transport. In 1959, just like in the 1930s, a new, modern transport connection in terms of scheduled services of a modern ferry deprived the Skaftfellingur of it´s freight volume. She was taken ashore in 1960 and decommissioned in October 1974 after being used to transport fish to England and Denmark in 1962 and 63. On shore the Skaftfellingur was exposed to the harsh Icelandic climate and volcanic ashes and decayed more and more. Nevertheless it continued to attract visitors of the Vestmannaeyjar.
In 1997 the then owner of the Skaftfellingur, the Icelandic artist Sigrun Jönsdottir searched for crew members of U 464 who were still alive. She wanted them to meet two men of the Skaftfellingur´s crew and provide them with an opportunity to give thanks to their rescuers. Such a meeting never came about, but the Skaftfellingur´s second engineer Jón Hjálmarsson was honored and decorated on behalf of the whole crew during a visit of German Navy´s submarines in Reykjavik on 01 July 1999.
In 2000 the Skaftfellingur was cleaned up and put under canvas. In 2001 it was transported to Vík í Mýrdal, the southernmost village in Iceland where the heavily decayed ship was conserved and accommodated in a building. Embedded in an exhibition it is open to the public as a museum ship today.
The minor mystery was, as described, based on inconsistencies between a report by Captain Þorbjörnsson and an allied report. Although the author of the “Warship”-article foregoes a detailed citation it appears to also be the British report on the interrogation of U 464´s survivors. However, it is by no word mentioned there, that the U-boat crew took over the Skaftfellingur. The British destroyers merely had certain suspicious facts about the Skaftfellingur, which are not enlarged upon. Moreover some German crew members stated, that Captain Þorbjörnsson allegedly was willing to bring the Germans back to Norway.
The report by Captain Þorbjörnsson is most probably that one, he had to write for the British authorities in Fleetwood. Towards the allies he certainly wanted to dispel the suspicions about him. He also did not want to disclose his negligence to let the weapons of the Skaftfellingur lie around openly during the rescue of the Germans and so he made up the story of the German crew kept at bay on the foredeck with that weapons. Already at that time the British authorities did not believe this story, but as there were no concrete charges against Captain Þorbjörnsson they had to discharge him.
The inconsistencies between the two sources that underlie this minor mystery come from the fact that one of this sources, Captain Þorbjörnsson´s report, is out of whole cloth. The other source, the British report on the interrogation of survivors from U 464, apparently was partly misinterpreted by the author of the “Warship”-article. This is how the myth about the German capture of the Skaftfellingur, that exists until now on uboat.net, came into being.
Andrés Gestsson´s statements on the other hand can be reconciled with the allied interrogation report very well. There are, however, some chronological discrepancies between the meticulous allied report and the rather vague time specifications of Gestsson´s statements. They can most likely be explained by the fact that Gestsson did not look on his watch during the rescue operation and that his memory possibly deceived him a little bit while giving his statements a long time after the war. The details of the British interrogation report are precise by the minute. They come from the logbooks of the involved units, so that concerning this matter the details of the British report should be given credit.
If the crew of U 464 should actually have had subdued the men of the Skaftfellingur and had taken over the ship, this would certainly be represented in the sources. Since that is not the case, the capture of the Skaftfellingur can be considered a myth.
- https://www.uboatarchive.net/U-464INT.htm The British report on interrogation of survivors from U 464
- https://uboat.net/boats/u464.htm The page on U 464 on uboat.net
- Arnþór Helgason und Sigtryggur Helgason: Saga Skaftfellings VE.33, Reykjavik 2002
- H. C. Hutson: The Loss of U 464 – A minor mistery of World War II, in Warship Issue 48, London 1988
Text: Kai Steenbuck – Photos: German U-boat Museum, US-Navy, Beata Rutkowska