Survivors of U-Boat strikes on Stifinder (1918) and Vineland (1942).

By Capt. Eric Wiberg ~ Images Courtesy Eric Wiberg

Recently, the topic of German and Italian submarine depredations in the Turks & Caicos Islands, Bahamas, Caribbean and US has risen to the surface more often. This includes knowledge of the discovery of the arrival of German naval ship SMS Karlsruhe’s jolly boat in Hope Town, Abaco in 1914. However, few may know the extent of German submarine attacks in and near the Turks & Caicos in both world wars.

In World War I (WWI) from 1914 to 1918, 116 US-flagged ships and sailing vessels were sunk near the Americas out of 174 US vessels. In World War II (WWII), the US lost 470 ships in the Americas out of 1,554 total ( Furthermore, in WWII, 5,000 Allied died in US waters—twice the death rate of Pearl Harbour and a third more than the 9/11 attacks.

In WWI, not only was there a fear that German surface raiders might return to the Bahamas, but concerns that German submarines might attack were very real as well. This was underscored by the arrival of Norwegian merchant sailors after three weeks on the inhospitable sea at TCI. The Stifinder was a steel sailing ship on a voyage from New York to Freemantle, Australia with drums of petroleum when it was intercepted and sunk roughly 800 miles southeast of Bermuda on October 13, 1918 by U-152 under Adolf Franz.

Whilst ten crew made it to New Jersey, the other boat with Captain Gustave Bjorckman and seven sailors spent 23 days covering 1,000 miles in harsh conditions, landing at Grand Turk, on November 5. The skipper recounted how they were overturned and for the last eight days had no equipment; that they were guided over the reefs at the base of a lighthouse during an almost biblical calm, and that on making shore clad in half a pair of trousers and a vest, he fell over four times. This brought the war literally to TCI Islanders’ doorstep.

The Norwegian barque Stifinder is under sail with casual German submariners in the foreground.

WWII German commander Walther Kölle’s submarine, the U-154, was to return to the area around the Bahamas and Turks & Caicos four times. The Canadian dry-bulk ship Vineland was the only Canadian vessel sunk in the region during the conflict. Launched in 1919 by the American International Shipbuilding Company of Hog Island, Pennsylvania, she performed at least one “immigrant” voyage. In 1928, Izaak Walton Killam (an understudy of Lord Beaverbrook, or Max Aitken, who went on to own Gun Point, an estate facing Spanish Wells in North Eleuthera) founded the Mersey Paper Company. That firm purchased the Sapinero in March of 1940 and renamed her the Vineland.

Captain Ralph A. Williams of Nova Scotia was placed in charge of a total complement of 37 men, including three Royal Canadian Naval Reserve gunners to man a two-inch gun on an aft platform. His brother Charlie commanded another of the company’s ships. The Canadian Shipping Board’s Department of Transport called the ship to service carrying bauxite from the Virgin Islands to Portland, Maine. The Vineland was a steam-propelled cargo ship which could carry 7,800 tons of cargo. Her gross registered tonnage was 5,587, its length overall was 401 feet, her beam was 54 feet, and draft 24.5 feet. Her registered speed was 12 knots via a quadruple-expansion engine.

On April 10, 1942 the Vineland left Portland in ballast, bound for St. Thomas to load bauxite. The ship hugged the American coast on the voyage down, not setting off for the open ocean until after it had passed Hatteras. On the way through the “torpedo junction” the crew observed, “around Diamond Shoals off the Carolinas, you could see where the submarines had chased ships right up onto the shoals, and they were sinking. They were afire, there were a lot of bodies around. We seen bodies pretty near every day.”

At 2:03 PM local time on April 20, 1942, while in a position roughly 90 miles north of Mayaguana and North Caicos islands, Kölle fired two G7a-type torpedoes at the ship. None of the lookouts spotted the submarine, its periscope, or torpedoes at first, since the U-boat attacked from the direction of the strong mid-day sun. The weather was fine, with only a gentle swell. The first torpedo struck aft and a second missile porpoised to the surface and missed astern. Ralph Kelly, who was serving as a mess boy and leaning over the rail at the time, saw the torpedo hit. “It hit between the gun crew and myself, right back by number four hatch. I was about fifty feet from where it hit . . . While we were gettin’ ready to put the lifeboats over the side, we seen the second torpedo go by us.”

The Stifinder sinking. Her men rowed and sailed over 1,000 nautical miles to the Turks & Caicos Islands.

The damage from the first torpedo was significant enough that the aerials were brought down and there was no time for the radio operator to rig an emergency aerial and call for help. Nor could the gun be brought to bear. Kelly was in a lifeboat with the Chief Cook. Because the oil from the galley stove spilled into the lifeboat, soaking everyone in it, a number of the crew leapt into the water. One of them was Oiler J. Lawrence Hanson. “This other young fella jumped out. What happened to him, they think either the gang plank or the funnel from the ship hit him.” Kelly and the cook then went around collecting men in the lifeboat. Two boats got away from the ship with everyone except the young Hanson, who was drowned. After the surviving crew had scrambled off the ship, Kölle fired a coup-de-grace which hit amidships and broke the stern section completely at 2:20 PM. After U-154’s crew sent five rounds of deck artillery into her waterline at the bow, the Vineland sank quickly.

Kelly wryly notes that the sinking occurred on Hitler’s birthday, but he described the aggressors as “reasonably good, didn’t bother us. He [Kölle] just went in and out of the lifeboats like that, takin’ pictures of us.” Captain Williams was so wary of being taken captive by the Germans that he threw his braided Captain’s cap away, lest he be recognized as the Master. Kelly continued: “The Germans gave us cigarettes, asked the captain where he was goin’ to and what he was going to carry, if we needed medical aid, and told us the nearest course to land. One course was ninety miles and the other was a thousand, so you could take your pick . . .” U-154 left the men heading east on the surface.

This chart depicts the path of sunken Vineland and its survivors.

Left on the open ocean with no ship and no sub, the men started to row and sail southwards, toward the TCI, though Mayaguana and Acklins Island were roughly equidistant and further downwind. On the evening of about the third day the survivors sighted what they assumed was an Allied passenger ship on its way to rescue them. However, whether the ship sighted the survivors or not, it turned away and steamed over the horizon. As a result, the Vineland survivors were convinced that it was a German supply ship and that they had been spared captivity. For the remaining three or so days of their five-day voyage the winds were light and the men made little progress, though the islands were tantalizingly close. Kelly described those days as “just driftin’ around” and said it might have been a week.

For at least one of the crew, the lifeboat voyage was traumatic. According to the family which tended to him on Grand Turk, “the man was badly injured having gone overboard to repair an awning. Something came up from the depths and bit his foot so badly that he stayed at the hospital on Grand Turk while the others returned to duty.” Several locals reported that there was a teenager about the Vineland, which they confused for being a British ship (of course they never saw the ship). “One young crew member, who seemed to be just a boy, really, was a nervous wreck, having been torpedoed three times.”

On April 23, the three lifeboats which had managed to stay together were discovered by the British sloop Emily Conway, which was built in 1940 and owned by James M. Clarke of Blue Hills, Caicos Island. According to the Turks & Caicos Islands Annual Colonial Report, “The S.S. Vineland was torpedoed, but her crew of 35 was picked up by a Caicos sloop.” The fishermen towed the lifeboats to Chalk Sound, Providenciales. The men had suffered from sunburn, as well as dehydration, but were otherwise fit. None of them required hospitalization. Apparently two of the boats landed on one side of the town of Providenciales, and the third on another. According to one survivor, “On the first little island, the lifeboats were on different sides, so I don’t know what happened with the other two. Where we were there was one old man and one boy and no supplies. But the old man did give us some banti roosters to kill and eat.”

Kelly writes, “Fishermen picked us up . . . in the Turks Island. That night we got ashore, they scrubbed us and scrubbed us, trying to get the oil out . . . For some reason or other they wouldn’t let us stay there.” This is likely because the community would have been hard-pressed to adequately provide for 36 hungry men. Captain Williams states that the Emily Conway (he named her the Emily F. Convey), took them to Grand Turk on April 24. Kelly continues, “ . . . this fishin’ boat took us from there to Grand Turk and that’s where we stayed for a couple of weeks. They gave us clothes that they didn’t think they’d need at that time. They sold us all their cigarettes they could possibly spare because they were on rations too, you might as well say, ‘cause a ship only come around about every six or eight weeks’.”

To be continued . . .

Nautical author and historian Eric Wiberg is the author of a dozen books on maritime history, particularly in the Bahamas where he grew up, has published over 100 articles and spoken in multiple mediums at least 50 times. His research is kept in the national collections of three nations and a maritime college, and Vanity Fair has featured him.
Wiberg has operated over 100 yachts, many of them as captain. A licensed Master since 1995, he is qualified as a maritime lawyer, with a Master’s in Marine Affairs, a year at Oxford, and a certificate in screenwriting. He commercially operated nine tankers from Singapore for three years, and worked briefly for two salvage firms. Other jobs have included executive head-hunting, shipping newspaper salesman, and marketer of a tug-boat fleet. A citizen of US and Sweden, he lives in Boston near his son Felix. He can be contacted at:


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William Grant
Sep 22, 2020 12:23

This was an exciting story. I wish I could learn more about how close the Turks and Caicos islands were to some of the actions of WW1 and WW2.
I a cousin of the owner of the ss boat Emily Conway. I know that boat very well. If you perchance are interested in information on the boat or the owner Mr. J. M. Clark , please contact me at any time. My WhatsApp number is Bill Grant at 16492421617. I live next door to Captain J.M. Clark. I would be a most exciting occasion if I can hear from you.
Bill Grant

Eric Wiberg
Dec 17, 2020 18:45

Dear Mr. Grant If I have not done so I suggest you contact the best expert on wooden boats in Bahamas and TCI that I know of Mr. Kendall Butler. Email in Nassau I hope this helps and thank you for your interest. My book BAHAMAS IN WORLD WAR II shows that there were bases in TCI as well,
Yours, Eric

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