A German Sailor’s Story – Chapter Two

Machine lance corporal Wilhelm Küllertz
Life stages or Fate cannot be planned

Created by Willi Küllertz in November 2018

Chapter Two

Wilhelm Küllertz

Wilhelm Küllertz

My father never talked to me about the attack of April 29, 1944 when HMCS Athabaskan was sunk by a torpedo fired by the T-24.

Willi T-35

Type 39 torpedo boat
Photo of T35 similar to T24

What I know is that my father Wilhelm Küllertz was in the engine room of the T-24.

So I went on the Internet to search for more information, and this is how I found Pierre’s blog Lest We Forget where he told the story of his wife’s uncle. His wife’s uncle told in a family reunion in 2009 that he was aboard HMCS Athabaskan, and that he was a stoker. He was in the engine room when the attack occurred. The last thing he remembered was that he was writing a letter to his parents. The next thing he remembered was that he was rescued by HMCS Haida, the Athabaskan’s sister ship.

Information about HMCS Athabaskan G07 can be found a lot on the Internet, but there is very little information of the attack from the German side.

Here is a link to a website which pay homage to the sailors of HMCS Athabaskan.

http://www.forposterityssake.ca/Navy/HMCS_ATHABASKAN_G07.htm

Pierre told me this is the best site he has ever found about the Royal Canadian Navy.

Lots of information about the attack is also found in the book Unlucky Lady written in 1986 by Len Burrow and Emile Beaudoin.

Pierre will be using some excerpts of the book to tell my readers what happened on April 29, 1944, almost 75 years ago because I know nothing about the sinking of HMCS Athabaskan.

Excerpt

THE 10TH DESTROYER FLOTILLA situation report at 1200 on Friday, 28 April was far from satisfactory. The action between Force 26 and the enemy three nights before, although very successful, had created some temporary problems. Ashanty and Huron had damaged themselves during the battle and were subsequently laid up for vital repairs for several days. Tartar was undergoing a short refit and was still unavailabIe. The absence of these ships left the 10th DF with less than half its offensive power; the brunt of responsibility fell on the shoulders of Haida and Athabaskan.

At 1500 the twin Tribals were ordered to two hours’ steaming notice, arousing a vociferous reaction from the ships‘ companies. They were expecting some reIief from the past few weeks of constant pressure, lack of sleep, and little recreation, and their arguments seemed to be well justified.

‘Who the hell do they think we are?’

‘Those guys at HQ don’t know if it’s punched or bored.’

‘What kind of a war do they think they’re running?’

‘My name’s Simpson, not Samson!’

‘Gad, man. I could sleep for a whole week.’

Many Athabaskans had gone ashore before the warning notice to relax in a variety of ways. Some made a bee-line for their favourite pubs for a glass of scrumpy, some headed for the dance halls, and others went to movie theatres. It was in one of the latter, toward evening, that Stoker John J. Dolan saw, flashed on the screen, ‘All members of Athabaskan return to your ship.’

God Almighty!’ he muttered. ‘They can’t leave us alone for five minutes!’

At the same time, in the seamen’s mess of Athabaskan, a crowd of sailors were watching the taiI-end of the movie Wake Island. They appeared to be contented, but the thought of another night patrol certainly didn’t sit too well with them.

An enterprising Athabaskan had painted the name “Canada House” on the Canadian Tribals’ mooring buoy, and it was from this buoy that Athabaskan and Haida slipped their lines at 2000.

They had been berthed side by side for several hours, permitting sociable visits between the two companies, who were a closer-knit body of men, welded by the bonds of comradeship, language, and the threat of danger. They understood one another completely and were united in tackling the job that had to be done. When Athabaskan and Haida sailed that night, they went forth as sisters, with a spirit between them which two ships of war had rarely experienced before.

As they slowly separated, Athabaskan‘s pet cat made one last vain effort to jump aboard Haida. ‘For some strange reason,’ said Halda’s Petty Officer Cook George H. Goodwill, ‘it had been coming over to our ship, and every time we gently tossed it back. As the distance between our ships increased, the cat poised to try again but hesitated. As I waved goodbye to MacAvoy and Manson“ of Athabaskan, they grabbed the cat to stop it from falling In the water. Someone behind me said, “That’s not a good sign.’

The two Tribals left their moorings and took up position in line ahead with Haida leading. Overhead, keeping their constant vigil, were the barrage balloons, straining at their cables. In a few minutes they had passed through the gate into the Channel. This was their stomping-ground, and it was here that they were to hunt the enemy destroyers, pursue them, engage them, and finally destroy them in a bold effort to clear the treacherous waters for D-Day.

Tonight’s commitment was another Hostile operation, to be carried out by the 10th Minelaying Flotilla with the two Canadian Tribals in support. A minefield was to be laid approximately ten miles north-east of lle de Batz, and the Tribals were to go on an east-west patrol about twenty-three miles north/north-east of Ile de Batz, in order to prevent any interference by the enemy while the operation was being carried out.

By 0200 on the 29th the two Canadian Tribals had reached their allotted position and commenced patrolling at sixteen knots on a mean course of 260°. Radar plotting conditions were unstable, despite the excellent weather, and all watches were alert for any sight or sound of the enemy. A signal from HQ Plymouth indicated that two enemy ships had been detected, proceeding westward at twenty knots, between St. Malo and Roche Douvres. This information was attributed to Admiral René Georgelin and his men of the French Maquis forces, who were keeping the surviving ships of the German 4th Torpedo Boat Flotilla, T-24 and T-27, under close surveillance at St. Malo, and who notified London of the ships’ departure.

At 0258 these vessels were picked up by radar, now in a position north-east of Morlaix and sun moving westward. As they continued to move toward Athabaskan and Haida, the two Canadian Captains planned their battle strategy. A second signal from HQ Plymouth at 0307 ordered the two destroyers to proceed south-west at full speed. Without further prompting they altered course to 225°. steaming at maximum speed to intercept the enemy. By this time there was no doubt in the minds of all the Tribals that they were going to have the opportunity for a repeat performance of the battle fought on the night of 25/26 April. All hands were now at action stations and ready for the confrontation with the enemy.

***

At 0332 the Tribals’ course was changed to 2050, and was adjusted at 0343 to 180°.

The two opposing forces were now on converging courses and contact appeared imminent. Athabaskan’s radar detected an echo bearing 1330 at fourteen miles which was confirmed by Haida at 0400. Course was adjusted to keep the enemy ships 45° on the port bows and at 0412 Haida opened fire with starshell at a range of 7300 yards. Two minutes later T-24 and T-27 were sighted moving westward bearing 115°.

…In seconds we had the whole sky lit up like real daylight.

The two German destroyers were brightly illuminated. The range was 7000 yards. Athabaskan and Haida opened up with all guns as the enemy swung away desperately to the east, firing main armament and torpedoes as he ran, and seeking temporary shelter by laying a smoke screen. A spread of six torpedoes was launched by T-27, but they all ran in the wrong direction, greatly endangering her sister ship. T-24 managed to get a spread away too, but three of these ran in the wrong direction!

At 0417 the Canadian Tribals, steaming in line ahead about four cables apart, altered course 300 to port to avoid the torpedoes, maintaining their volume of fire as they manoeuvred to the new position. Athabaskan seemed to be on the receiving end of the enemy’s fire; starshell was bursting over her and salvoes whined through her rigging, splashing in the water about her. Lieutenant-Commander Dunn Lantier, as radar officer, was informed by his radar operator that there were two objects starboard quarter, travelling at high speed. The close station-keeping and the speed of the radar blips indicated the presence of E-boats. (T-24 and T-27were taking evasive action on the port side.) Thirty seconds after-ward, when Athabaskan had almost completed her turn to the new course, she was struck astern on the starboard side.

The explosion was most probably caused by a torpedo fired by one of the E-boats on Athabaskan’s starboard side. The powerful blow wrecked “X” and “Y” guns, decimated their crews, and started a fierce fire. Athabaskan’s propulsion gear was also damaged, so that she lost way as she steered to port, and eventually lay dead in the water.

Meanwhile, Haida continued the chase, pouring rapid fire on the fleeing enemy. From her bridge Commander De Wolf was following the quickly changing scene. The first word he got from Lieutenant-Commander Stubbs after Athabaskan was hit read: ‘We seem to be badly damaged aft.’ There was a burst of gunfire from the enemy ships as they sighted the burning Athabaskan and attempted to finish her off.

Soon Haida was belching forth white clouds of chemical smoke, providing a temporary screen for Athabaskan from the enemy’s concentrated fire. Haida steered between the stricken ship and the enemy as she laid her protecting blanket, meanwhile pressing the attack home with vigor. She obtained her first hit at 0418, and at 0422 the two enemy vessels parted company; T-24, badly hit, dashed to the east, while T-27 broke away to the south with Haida in hot pursuit.

While Athabaskan drifted helplessly on the Channel swells, her men struggled valiantly to save her. The fierce fire at the stern, fed by exploding ammunition, began to spread. Smoke and flames climbed high into the sky, revealing her position to the enemy. Haida’s smoke screen was a partial palliative for the situation, but it failed to hide her sister ship completely. So Athabaskan became a target for shore batteries, E-boats, and the fleeing T-24 and T-27.

T-27

T-27

There was no panic aboard the battered Canadian Tribal. Damage Control parties were at their stations assessing the damage, and a steady stream of reports and orders flowed to and from the bridge.

On the bridge Lieutenant-Commander Stubbs was handling the situation calmly, but he must have been worried. Athabaskan was settling deeper into the water and her time seemed to be running out. Finally, reluctantly, he gave the order to abandon ship.

Approximately ten minutes after the first hit, Athabaskan was ripped by a torpedo. A split second later, Athabaskan’s after magazine, fuel tanks, and high-pressure steam supply combined to create a giant blowtorch, shooting flames skyward with a terrible roar.

Observers on Haida, still pursuing the enemy, saw the bright light and heard the explosion from five miles away. With one voice they gasped, ‘My God—it’s Athabaskan!’

From No. 1 boiler aft, Athabaskan was a blazing inferno. Burning oil showered down upon the decks while the confused sailors tried dazedly to shield themselves.

It was then that Lieutenant-Commander Stubbs gave his final command as he stared at the devastation around him: ‘Abandon ship. All hands abandon ship.’

Meanwhile, the fire on Athabaskan continued to rage, and she began to assume a dangerous cant as her stern sank deeper into the water.

The weight of the water pouring into Athabaskan’s compartments had now dragged her down to the point where she was almost perpendicular. The last men to leave were sliding down her bow into the chill water.

While Athabaskan was enduring her agony, Haida lost no time in pursuing the enemy ships, which had fled in separate directions. Harassed by the Canadian Tribal’s fire, T-24 sped eastward while T-27 made off to the south. Haida had registered her first hit on the enemy at 0418, and she continued to concentrate her rapid fire on T-27, scoring frequent hits.

Faced with a rapidly changing situation, Commander De Wolf decided to concentrate on T-27 and ordered all fire to be directed onto the fleeing ship. Salvo after salvo was rewarded with a succession of hits and it soon became evident from her erratic return fire that she was in deep trouble.

Suddenly, in the heat of battle, Haida was illuminated by a strange bright light, which was followed by a rumbling noise astern. Her busy men above deck paused momentarily to look aft at the apparition. It was far brighter than standard starshell and cast an ominous reflection on a rising column of white smoke.

‘My God!’ the Haidas cried in sudden, terrible understanding. ‘There goes Athabaskan!’

It was a frightening moment for everyone in the frantic chase to bring the enemy to bay. The distance between the two ships was closing quickly, and T-27 was beginning to show the effects of Haida’s devastating fire. Flames were beginning to appear in her hull and superstructure as the fleeing enemy came dangerously close to the French coast. Suddenly, without warning, she turned toward Haida in a bold attempt to escape the trap. But then T-27 slowed and stopped completely, leaning to port at an ever-sharper angle. The grim, rocky shoals of Finistere had snared the quarry, Haida ‘s accurate gunfire helping to bring swift retribution for the loss of Athabaskan. Realizing that further action was pointless, and that T-24 was too far away to overtake, Commander De Wolf ordered all fire to cease, and Haida proceeded at once to the position where Athabaskan had stopped. His next signal to HQ Plymouth was painfully terse: Athabaskan has blown up.’ The time was 0428.

2 thoughts on “A German Sailor’s Story – Chapter Two

  1. You’ve done such great work here for the ship and her crew. I followed the link and looked at those faces, lost forever to the depths. Farther down I saw the newspaper articles you contributed and helped to make that an outstanding site.

    Like

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