THE SPEYBANK SAGA
The SPEYBANK of 1925 was destined to play a strange role in WW2. Captured in the Indian Ocean by the German raider ATLANTIS she was used in a highly successful role as a mine layer and blockade runner, before coming to a dramatic end with a tragic twist for the Commander. The story is best told by Bernhard Rogge, the Captain of the ATLANTIS, in an abbreviated account given later:
“ I headed for the route taken by tankers going to and from the Persian Gulf and on the 31st January in the evening the lookout sighted a masthead, and a dim shadow appeared on the horizon exactly at the time we had calculated. Range 23,400 yds called the gunnery officer, and then 14,000 yards. We were coming up at 14 kts. The moon had risen and the visibility was good. I altered towards the target and increased speed and she turned away so obviously we had been sighted. Our first Salvo screamed over to her, and after the third salvo she appeared to stop and I sounded the ‘ Cease Fire’ on the siren.” She was a merchant ship of medium size and typically British built – her gun was not manned. I signalled – Stop. Do not use your wireless. Remain on board and await my boat. What ship? Back came the reply, S-P-E-Y-B-A-N-K.
Lloyds register showed it was a Bank Line ship of 5044 tons, registered in Glasgow, and built 1926. The search party went out and returned with seventeen white prisoners. The captured ship was undamaged and more importantly she had sent no signals.”
On first sighting the raider, Captain Morrow said that on the SPEYBANK had assumed she was a passenger ship on almost the same course, and he made a slight alteration to allow her to pass safely. Even when the ‘ passenger ship’ suddenly appeared out of the darkness on his port quarter the idea of being a raider had never occurred to him, and he steered away to avoid a collision. He was on the point of signalling for her to ‘pay more attention’ and had finally stopped to avoid a collision, when gunfire started. He promptly abandoned any thought of resistance to avoid loss of life. Captain Morrow was taken aboard the ATLANTIS and spent 4 years interned as a P.O.W. in Germany.
The SPEYBANK had left Cochin in India on the 25th January for New York, and she was fully stored up. Cargo included manganese ore, monazite,Ilmenite, and teak.
Captain Rogge continues, “ I realised at once that she was a valuable catch. Also, being fully stored, the ship was well suited for a prize, and her cargo was of incalculable benefit to our war economy. She was also suited to be an auxiliary under the German flag, so I ordered an Officer with another ten men to take the ship to a rendezvous point. This capture brought our total to 104,000 tons of shipping. She sailed off after midnight heading for Bordeaux in France under command of a young officer named Schneidewind, taken from the blockade runner TANNENFELS. who knew the waters of Asia well, and who proved to be a capable officer. He navigated the SPEYBANK through the waters of the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic and finally arrived safely in Bordeaux on May 10th. Later, we resumed our search on the ATLANTIS along the India trade route.”
Upon arrival in Bordeaux, Schneidewind suggested that the German Navy convert the SPEYBANK to an auxiliary minelayer. The idea of laying mines near distant ports must have intrigued the higher naval officers because they decided to accept the idea. The fact that SPEYBANK belonged to a class of 18 Bank Line vessels came in handy because she could be disguised and changed without suspicion.
There was then a conversion of the captured ship to a new specification which included facilities to carry 280 mines, and modifications to serve as a U-boat supply ship, i.e. with torpedoes and stores. The code name during the work was “Schiff 53” and the name chosen for service was DOGGERBANK. She was put under the management of D.D.G. Hansa, the German Line. Included in the makeover were guns, a 102 mm and 2 x 20 mm cannon. 50 torpedoes were also carried as spares for the U boat fleet, and the speed was set at 11 kts – this provided by the original 6 cylinder, 2300HP. engine.
The Kriegsmarine staff apparantely appreciated Schneidewind’s enthusiasm, because he was given command of the newly created DOGGERBANK. Under her Captain, the ship was quickly prepared for her new task, and on Dec 17th 1941, she loaded the mines at La Pallice and by mid January she was ready to sail. Escorted by the U-432 she left France for the South Atlantic. The crew were set to making her look like an ordinary freighter including fake rust patches! They chose the name of one of the sister vessels still at sea, the LEVERNBANK, to convince any enquiring vessel or patrol. The passage to the South Atlantc was uneventful, and she arrived to carry out the mine laying which was given the code name ‘Operation COPENHAGEN’. She was ordered to lay a minefield near Capetown as shipping lanes converged here, particularly ships from Australia and New Zealand. Troop convoys also stopped off on the way to the Middle East. On March 12th, 75 mines were prepared that had been disguised as deck cargo, and the night of March 12th was to be the start of the minelaying operation. Things started to go wrong when in the late afternoon an aircraft approached and hailed the ship asking for name and destination. Schneidewind ordered to signal, “ LEVERNBANK, en route New York via Recife to Capetown”. He also waved a few times from the bridge with his hat, and the aircraft apparently satisfied, flew off. Then a small ship was sighted and easily evaded, before some 60 mines were laid on the early morning of the 13th. Schneidewind then decided to withdraw using the normal shipping lanes to avoid suspicion. He headed for Cape Agulhus and an operation named “ Kairo”. Around 1945 that evening, a warship appeared flashing signals and showing a red light. Schneidewind thought it was a cruiser but in fact it was the HMS DURBAN heading for Simonstown and repairs. The signals were a standard call for identification but the Germans were unable to reply not knowing the code. She came closer and asked “ What ship?” To which the reply came, “ LEVERNBANK” from New York to Durban, good night. His bold answer worked, and the warship sailed on. However, the scare made Schneidewind decide to cut his losses, sow the 15 mines that were on deck, and disappear. They steamed south, and on the morning of the 14th March, a large passenger ship came into view. However, it was in fact the merchant cruiser, HMS CHESHIRE. Now, Schneidewind made a mistake and tried to race away from the ship before turning and heading straight back. As they approached a signal was seen asking, “ What ship?” He answered with the previously successful ruse, “ INVERBANK” from Monte Video to Melbourne, and hoisted flags with that call sign. The CHESHIRE repeated “ Where from and where to”, and the answer was repeated, which produced the signal, “ I wish you a happy voyage”. They had done it again! He replied, “ Many thanks, same to you” and steamed off, heading south away from the busy areas.
Shortly afterwards a big increase in radio traffic indicated that the mines were doing their deadly work in a spectacular fashion.
Several ships reported hits, and lives were lost, and valuable cargoes sent to the bottom. In the meantime, Schneidewind received orders to proceed out into the South Atlantic and await orders. However, the ship was soon sent to lay yet another minefield, this time a further 80 mines south of Cape Argulhus. This was done on the night of April 16th and 17th. This produced rich dividends when troop convoy WS-18 ran into it and the destroyer HMS HECLA suffered an explosion amidships putting her steering gear out of action. Many of the crew died. She was towed to Simonstown by HMS GAMBIA and was repaired within 18 weeks. More ships were hit, including the vessel Dutch vesel SOUDAN with stores and TNT.
From the German side, this exercise had been highly successful with more ships running into the mines, but although there were still mines on board it was decided to send the “ DOGGERBANK” to Japan on a new mission. En route she met the German raider MICHEL and a supply tanker in the S Atlantic. The MICHEL offloaded 128 prisoners on June 21st and she was supplied with stores, the two ships staying together for a week, before course was set for Jakarta and then onwards to Japan, arriving in Yokohama on August 19th. Here she was turned into a blockade runner and loaded with 7000 tons of rubber plus oils and other scarce products, and set off on a home run to Germany. By this time the Atlantic war had started to turn in favour of the allies, but wolf packs were still a great danger and had intensified their activities. When the DOGGERBANK was 1000 miles west west of the Canary Islands, disaster struck and she was hit by 3 torpedoes from U-43 on her own side in the war. The U-boat commander called Schwandtke mistook her for a ‘ Dunedin Star ‘ type of vessel. Only 15 men out of the huge total on-board made it onto a life-raft but there was no food or water. The conditions worsened, and it capsized. Six men reboarded and the situation slowly deteriorated to the desperate point where the suffering was intense. 4 of the men then begged to be shot to put them out of their misery. Schneidewind carried this out, finally turning the gun on himself. The sole survivor, named Fritz Kürt, told the full story after his rescue by a Spanish tanker called CAMPOAMOR which landed him at Aruba. A huge total of 364 persons had been lost with the sinking of DOGGERBANK, mostly Allied prisoners. In Germany there was considerable angst about this event and it was ordered that the relevant pages from U-43’s log should be removed.