Machine lance corporal Wilhelm Küllertz
Life stages or Fate cannot be planned
Created by Willi Küllertz in November 2018
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.
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.
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.
The rescue effort by HMCS Haida is well documented in Unlucky Lady. T-24 sailors also rescued some Athabaskans after HMCS Haida had to leave the dangerous waters…
As Haida approached the fateful area, Commander De Wolf became concerned about the wreck of Athabaskan.
From the book Unlucky Lady
Was she still afloat, and if so, in what condition? Could she be wallowing just below the surface of the Channel as a possible danger to her sister ship? Had anyone survived that horrifying explosion?
These and other questions crossed the worried Captain’s mind as he cautiously advanced to the scene.
As an encore to her victory (over the T-27)*, Haida commenced a mission of mercy, and a rapid stream of orders followed in quick succession: ‘Steer to the centre of the largest group.—Rig for scramble nets.—Cast off Carley floats.—Lower the whaler.—Lower the cutter.—All available men on deck for rescue.—Sick Bay prepare for survivors. —We’ll stop for fifteen minutes.
Like a mother hen gathering her brood, Haida eased slowly and gently into the mass of struggling seamen and stopped. For those on the lee side, it was comparatively easy to climb aboard, but for those on the other side, it was a different story. A light wind was causing Haida to drift faster than the men could swim to her, and rescue seemed beyond their grasp. The friendly ship’s propellers were put in motion to manoeuvre closer, but the cries from astern of ‘Stop the engines!’ warned the bridge that men were being drawn into the deadly clutches of the screws.
*T-27, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Gotzmann, ran aground at Meneham, off Kerlouan. A salvage operation by the 24th German Minesweeping flotilla failed. On 7 May 1944 T-27 was sunk by British Torpedo Boats.
At daybreak HMCS Haida had to leave the scene. German ships appeared.
As the ships closed on the Athabaskans it became apparent that they were enemy ships coming to the rescue. German flags were clearly visible waving in the breeze and German commands were distinctly heard, leaving no doubt in the survivors’ minds as to the origin of their rescuers. The smaller ship looked like a minesweeper, and the larger was recognized as an Elbing class destroyer. It proved to be T-24, which, but a few hours before, had been battling against Haida and Athabaskan. Now, the T-24 was on a mission of mercy.
Wilhelm Küllertz never told his sons what had happened. He was most probably in the engine room and had no recollections.
Athabaskan’s former antagonist carried a smaller vessel which looked like an Air/Sea Rescue launch. As the ships slowed to a halt near the largest group of Athabaskans, an officer on T-24 called out in English through a megaphone, ‘Approach, we are taking you aboard!’ Then the work of rescue commenced. The smaller vessel had a fast and efficient system for picking up survivors. A rubber dinghy with a line attached was let down to the surface with one rating. He would paddle out to a survivor and take him quickly aboard, and the dinghy was then pulled back to the Air/Sea Rescue launch. When the launch had a good load of passengers they were then taken to T-24. The German sailors also had long-handled nets with which they were fishing any pieces of paper they saw out of the water.
Meanwhile, the minesweeper moved slowly through the water, stopping now and then to take aboard a shivering Athabaskan. The other minesweeper, which had veered northward, picked up seven Athabaskans. The minesweeper then began to chase the fleeing Haida cutter, but abandoned the effort when the cutter entered a minefield. By the time the minesweeper rejoined the other two German ships all survivors had been picked up, so the little flotilla moved off at speed. T-24 and the minesweepers set course for Brest while the Air/Sea Rescue launch made haste for the small fishing village of L’Aber-Wrac’h.
As soon as the shivering Athabaskans had been hauled aboard the German rescue ships they were ordered to take off their oil-soaked life-jackets and uniforms. These were stripped from their bodies and cast ignominiously into the sea, to quickly disappear from view. The loss of the life-jackets was almost a personal blow to the men, for they had sustained the weary sailors during the long night hours and had proven themselves over and over again. All Athabaskans who had survived that perilous night unanimously felt that they owed their lives to these life-jackets,* which had been issued just prior to leaving Plymouth.
The survivors picked up by the two minesweepers were taken below decks and given hot showers to remove the oil from their bodies. Most of them were too weak to stand, and lay huddled under the comforting spray of the water. Some of the German seamen, understanding their difficulties, came in under the showers and wiped the pathetic Athabaskans clean. They were then issued blankets and given macaroni with prunes, dry bread, jam, and ersatz coffee. Precious cigarettes were later distributed to the fortunate seamen, who were informed that the German ration was four per day!
Conditions on board T-24 are best described by Lieutenant-Commander Dunn Lantier’s diary written in prison camp:
I was picked up at about 0715 and told in no uncertain terms to take off my oil-soaked clothes, including my life-jacket, which were then thrown into the water. It wasn’t a happy idea but I managed to save my monkey jacket, which, although wet, didn’t have much oil on it. We were then herded aft and taken below. There I was glad to see Nobby and Steve* who looked a bit worse for wear but very much alive. Our group consisted of about forty-five men and after a hot soapless shower, a cigarette, and a hot drink of sorts, all felt a little better. I managed to get a few blankets from the guards for those who were in bad shape and asked for a medical officer or sick bay attendant. Some sort of medical orderly came down later but it seemed to me that either he didn’t know much or was not interested, because he did very little for the sick and wounded. I tried to ask for clothes or more blankets but met with no success whatsoever, and thus had to remain virtually naked. Not a very comforting feeling after a few hours in the cold water. By this time, I was able to get around to see everyone and cautioned them not to give out any information except name, rank, and number.
Later, two officers, who were both wearing white cap covers, came down to look us over. My first reaction was, what were two Captains doing aboard ship? One disappeared and the other, who had a wounded hand, stayed behind and asked me if we had been sunk by gunfire or torpedoes. I told him I did not know and that reply apparently ended the conversation. One of the guards, a junior officer, spoke English and I asked him how come the ship had two Captains; realizing of course that only CO’s wore white cap covers. He answered that the wounded one was the Captain of another Torpedo-Boat. What joy it was to know that we had been hitting the enemy ships and perhaps Haida had sunk one of them. This speculation did a great deal to bolster our low spirits. After the officer had left I did a bit of thinking and realized that they were in an even greater quandary as to who had sunk us. This captain seemed to wish that we had been sunk by gunfire…. A short time later a guard brought us a bottle of brandy with the Captain’s compliments, for the wounded.
All of a sudden there was a heavy explosion off our port quarter and I was told that it was only a mine exploded by their minesweeping gear.
Shortly after, alarm gongs went off and we were assured that it was only Spitfires and that there was nothing to worry about. However, the Germans blew up their life-belts and if anything, this made us feel even more naked. Soon there was much firing from the upper deck and it sounded to me like 3-inch guns as well as 20-mm. (I later noticed that this ship carried three mountings of quadruple 20-mm.)
However, we did not seem to be attacked and this flurry passed off with little excitement.
At about noon, they brought us a sort of leek soup, warm at least, and some greyish bread. .. . It must have been about three o’clock when they opened the scuttles and we saw that the ship was coming into port. The guards had no objection to our looking out, but I must admit that there was very little to see. I did notice that there was a boom and that we were warped in by a tug. This turned out to be Brest.
*Lieutenants William Clark and Richard H. Stevenson.
Leading Seaman Stanley Dick was one of the Athabaskans who had been rescued by T-24, He now found himself huddled with several companions on the tiller flat mess deck, mostly naked, and vainly trying to keep warm. A young Athabaskan was beside him, shivering badly and in apparent shock. No one seemed to be concerned with the young man except Dick, who tried to comfort him. Sometime during the voyage to Brest his trembling companion died, and the body was slipped quietly over the side to the tune of a boatswain’s call. It was war, the enemy was under fire, and there was no time for a formal ceremony.
The first rescued Athabaskans to land on French soil were the stragglers taken aboard the Air/Sea Rescue launch. There were twenty-eight of them in the party, all in various stages of physical and mental distress. The motor launch had made haste for the quiet Breton fishing port of L’Aber-Wrac’h, crossing the Baie des Anges to dock at the local jetty at about 0900. The forlorn Canadians were herded ashore and left under guard on the dock, waiting for further developments. Some of the French fisherfolk, who were aware of the night’s action, stood by uttering words of sympathy as the Canadians were disembarked. Stoker John J. McNeil, who was badly burned and who had fought valiantly to stay alive, succumbed quietly on the quay beside his shipmates. His body lay there under a ship’s blanket for a time, and was later taken to the village to be prepared for burial. The remaining Athabaskans were escorted to one of the hotels in the village and ordered to stay in the courtyard.
From the book Unlucky Lady
From the book Unlucky Lady
Under the vigilant eyes of armed guards, the prisoners waited in that little enclosure, hidden from the townsfolk and wondering about their eventual fate. The penetrating rays of the sun began to burn the oil-covered men, but when they took shelter in the shade they trembled with the cold.
An eager young French fisherman was allowed to bring fresh water and cigarettes to the men, and also to help change their clothing. Two young mademoiselles arrived later to minister to the prisoners. At one stage in their merciful mission they ran short of towels, but they continued to wipe the oil-covered faces with their white petticoats.
When the main group of Athabaskans landed in Brest they were ordered to give up the ships’ blansoft to the quay. Kapitanleutnant Wilhelm Meentzen saluted the survivors as they left the ship. In a short speech he said that it was a time of war, and he hoped that there was no ill-feeling between them.
END OF CHAPTER III
*Kapitänleutnant Wilhelm Meentzen, Commanding Officer of T-24, was awarded the Knight’s Cross, First Class for the sinking of Athabaskan.
From the book Unlucky Lady
Knight’s Cross as commander of T-24.
Wilhelm Meentzen joined in 1934 as a naval officer candidate. ship’s division of the Baltic Sea, he completed practical on-board training on the “GorchFock” and on the light cruiser “Karlsruhe”. After in 1936 he became WO on the light cruiser “Nürnberg” in various courses. 1940 he became then Kommandant of “S 53” in the 2nd Schnellbotts Flotilla, from 1942 he was 1st ASTO in the Naval Command North Africa. From May 1943 he was commander of “T 10” and “T 24”, 1944 chief of the harbour protection flotilla. Gironde in France. On April 20, 1945, he was taken prisoner of war in France, from which he left on April 23, 1945. He was released in 1947. In 1953 he joined the Federal Border Guard (Seegrenzschutz) and changed in 1956 into the new federal navy. Most recently, he was vice admiral of one of NATO’s highest ranking soldiers and retired on September 30, 1974, was awarded the Grand Cross of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.