Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Rear Admiral Albert Gleaves, Commander, Destroyer Force, to Rear Admiral Henry T. Mayo, Commander, Atlantic Fleet

 

DESTROYER FORCE. ATLANTIC FLEET.

U. S. S. BIRMINGHAM FLAGSHIP.

Navy Yard, Boston, Mass.,

2 November, 1916.       

From :    Commander, Destroyer Force.

To   :    Commander in Chief, U. S. Atlantic Fleet.

Subject:  Report of Operations of Destroyer Force in connection rescue passengers and crews steamers Stephano, Blommersdyk, West Point, Strathdene and Christian Knudsen sunk by German Submarine U-53 in vicinity of Nantucket Lightship 8 October, 1916.

     1.   At 12:30 p.m. 8 October while the Destroyer Force, Atlantic Fleet, was lying at anchor in Narragansett Bay the following message was received on the U.S.S.BIRMINGHAM, Flagship of the Force from Nantucket Lightship:

“Steamer West Point fired upon by German submarine ten forty-five a.m. ten miles south lightship. Distress signal received stating all hands standing by boats.

Blanchard”.1

     2.   Immediately the Destroyer Force was directed to make preparations for getting underway. The Destroyer JARVIS was ordered out to the scene to rescue the crew if it became necessary. The JARVIS left the harbor at 1:00 p.m. making thirty knots, twenty-seven minutes after receiving the order.

     3.   The weather at this time at Newport was clear with a light to gentle breeze from the southwest; there were indications however, that it might be hazy or even foggy outside. In view of this it was thought probable that difficulty might be experienced in locating the crew if they had been forced to take to the boats. Accordingly, the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Divisions were ordered out in order to be available for a scouting line if required. In all seventeen destroyers left the harbor quickly following the JARVIS between one and two p.m., namely – JARVIS, ERICSSON, O’BRIEN, DRAYTON, BENHAM, CASSIN, BALCH, MC CALL, PORTER, FANNING, WINSLOW, ALWIN, CUSHING, CUMMINGS, CONYNGHAM, NICHOLSON, PAULDING, The destroyer tender MELVILLE was also dispatched to follow the destroyers in case her accommodations and medical resources should be needed. One division, the Eighth, was held in reserve at Newport in readiness for any eventuality which might arise. It being Sunday afternoon many officers and men were ashore and although the cornet was hoisted only a few succeeded in getting on board their ships. In many cases the destroyers were taken to sea by very young officers who, however, did not hesitate to accept the responsibility.

     4.   During the period that destroyers were proceeding from Newport to Nantucket Lightship reports were received that several vessels besides the West Point had been sunk. Not knowing what course of action the German submarine might pursue on the appearance on scene of United States War Ships and with a view to preparing for any contingency I sent the following signal to destroyers and MELVILLE: in radio code:

“Destroyers are ordered to assist steamer reported fired on by German Submarine. Be ready for action. Communicate Light Ship. On completion duty return.”

My knowledge of the ChesapeakeLeopard affair in 1807 suggested to me the wisdom of this course. 2

     5.   At 5:50 a message was intercepted from the collier CYCLOPS stating that the Steamer Stephano was being torpedoed off Nantucket Shoals Lightship American passengers on board. Intercepted the Jenkins’ answer to this message stating that she was on the way to render aid. At 4:55 the JARVIS arrived in vicinity of the Lightship and at short intervals the other destroyers appeared on scene. There were at this time assembled on board the Lightship the crews of the Steamers West Point and Christian Knudsen. These vessels had been sunk in the forenoon about thirty to forty miles south of the Lightship and the crews in small boats had been towed to within striking distance of the Lightship by the submarine. The Captain of the Knudsen stated that when sunk by one submarine there were two other submarines in sight. This is the only report which indicates the presence of more than one submarine and this report has not been substantiated.3

     6.   The JARVIS on arrival at the Lightship was informed that the crew of the Kingston were in open boats thirty miles to the Southward. As other destroyers were coming up the JARVIS headed to the southward to endeavor to pick up these boats. This was the beginning of a search lasting until the morning of the eleventh for the missing boats and crew of the supposed Kingston. The search was unsuccessful and later developments showed that no steamer Kingston was sunk. It seems probable that in the various reports received by the Lightship the name Kingston had been used on several occasions where Knudsen was intended. There is also a probability of error in spelling in radio transmission. It is known now that there was no steamer named Kingston involved.

     7.   When the JARVIS arrived at the Lightship at 4:55 a submarine flying no colors came to the surface. The Dutch Steamer Blommersdyk4 had just arrived in the vicinity and hove to in obedience to signal from the submarine. The submarine also hoisted signal to Blommersdyk “bring your papers aboard”. The Blommersdyk lowered a boat and sent her First Officer, G.Klasse, aboard the submarine. After examination of papers the First Officer was informed that the Blommersdyk would be sunk at 6:30 and the ship must be abandoned by that time. The submarine hoisted signal AB (abandon your ship). The crew of the Blommersdyk began to abandon ship in their boats in obedience to this signal and Klasse and his boat’s crew pulled to the MC DOUGAL, which had come up in the meantime, and were taken on board that vessel. The first destroyers to arrive, the JARVIS and ERICSSON, had headed off to the southward in search for Kingston boats; the DRAYTON was engaged in taking survivors of West Point and Knudsen from the Lightship.

     8.   While the examination of the Blommersdyk papers was in progress the Red Cross5 steamer Stephano hove in sight from the eastward. The German submarine kicked ahead slowly and stood over towards the approaching Stephano. In a few moments a gun was fired from the submarine. As no splash of shot was seen it is probable that this was either a blank or fired well over the steamer. The Stephano continued to stand on and three minutes later the submarine fired again and this time the shot fell ahead well short of the Stephano. The Stephano immediately stopped. The submarine sealed all her own hatches, lowered her radio masts as if in preparation for submerging and continued to stand over toward steamer. There were at this time, about 5:30 p.m., and just after sunset, seven destroyers in the vicinity of the Lightship. The Stephano sent out a broadcast signal to all “American destroyers, We are being torpedoed, Have forty-seven American passengers on board, will you take them”. The BALCH asked “Are you abandoning the Stephano?” and the answer “Yes, will you take us on board”, was received. The BALCH answered “All right” and stood by. The Stephano boats were loaded and pulled over to the BALCH and ERICSSON, being towed a short distance by the BALCH’S power boats. Captain Smith6 of the Stephano, on arriving at the BALCH informed the Commanding Officer7 that there was no one remaining on the ship, and that he had been the last to leave the Stephano. The account of the Commanding Officer of the BALCH from this point is clear and detailed, part of which is quoted as follows:

     “The German submarine at this time was about three miles to the Southward. As other destroyers arrived I signalled to them to assist in taking off passengers and crew of the Stephano. Boats on stardboard side of Stephano went to the ERICSSON and the passengers and crew were taken on board ERICSSON. The people were taken on board the BALCH out of the Stephano’s boats in smooth sea without any mishap or apparent inconvenience. Sixty-nine people were taken on board. Forty were crew, including officers, twenty-nine were passengers (first cabin), nine of which were women, one child and one three-month old baby. Officers’ quarters were turned over to the women and children and they were made very comfortable throughout their stay.

     “I broadcasted signal to Force: “All passengers and crew clear of Stephano all destroyers keep clear of her”. The German submarine (Supposedly the “U-53”,” but although I tried several times to verify this as she ranged alongside of us I was unable to do so) passed in between the destroyers and headed for the Stephano going alongside her starboard side where she remained for about 15 minutes then left her and headed for the cargo steamer Blommersdyk of the “Holland American Line”, which was lying abandoned about 3 miles to the South East of the Stephano. We then turned and headed for Nantucket Shoal Light Vessel and inquired if all passengers had been taken off the Light Vessel by the destroyers. I was told they had been. The keeper then informed me, through megaphone, that the British Steamer Kingston reported that she was sinking at 6:00 a.m. that morning (October 8th) 30 miles due South of Nantucket Shoal Light Vessel and that “All hands” were in small boats without sails and were heading for the Light Vessel. I immediately ordered all destroyers not having passengers on board to search to the Southward of Nantucket Shoal Light Vessel for the Kingston’s boats. I then headed back towards the Stephano which was still floating around, brilliantly lighted and apparently untouched.

     “Previous to taking on board the passengers of Stephano, and while heading for her, I noticed what appeared to be a collier to the eastward of Nantucket Shoal Light Vessel and in its near vicinity. IT was of the Vulcan type of our service and was about 5000 to 7000 tons displacement. I remarked at the time that the submarine must have gotten a collier also. No flag was flying at the time. When Captain Smith and his officers came on board from the Stephano I asked him if he knew what collier it was in the vicinity of the Submarine and he replied, “It is a tender for the submarine.’ He stated that as was steaming to the westward he sighted destroyers in the distance and was under the impression that the American forces were having maneuvers and he saw the “Tender” with a submarine alongside of it, which he took to be an American submarine and the “Tender” as one of our colliers, of the Vulcan type – he apparently being familiar with them. He said the “Tender” was of this type (Vulcan) with the bridges just forward of the smoke stack. I then asked him, “Are you sure it was not the Blommersdyk that you saw”, and he replied, “No, the Blommersdyk’s bridge is amidships (which is true) and besides when the submarine fired the first shell at the Stephano and “tender” hoisted the German flag and it undoubtedly was a German man-of-war flag, or a Naval Reserve Flag”. He was most positive in this and was borne out in every little detail by the first officer who was on the bridge with him at the time.

     “After leaving the Stephano and heading for Nantucket Shoal Light Vessel, to make inquiries as stated above in paragraph 4, I again saw this collier or “tender” (so called by Captain Smith) about two miles to the S.E. of destroyer Jenkins about two miles E.S.E. of Nantucket Shoal Light Vessel and heading to the S.W. at slow speed. The Blommersdyk was then on my port beam in plain view with the German submarine within 200 yards of her. I called the Jenkins to ask if they had any information or knowledge as to who and what this steamer was on her port beam but was unable to get the message through. This collier or “tender” passed to the south westward of Nantucket Shoal Light Vessel at slow speed showing very few lights. That is the last we saw of her.8

     “On our return to the Stephano we found her apparently untouched. I then turned back to search for the submarine and discovered her still in the vicinity of the Blommersdyk (this was about 7:45 p.m.). The McDOUGAL and BENHAM were standing by the Blommersdyk. All other destroyers were either on search to the southward or returning to port with passengers. As we neared the Blommersdyk we heard and saw a terrific explosion near the stern. The ship settled by the stern going down in a very few minutes. She sunk at about 8:05 p.m., 20 ft. of bow remained above the water up to 9:00 p.m. that night, which was the last time I saw her. She sunk about 3 miles due east of Nantucket Shoal Light Vessel. The German submarine then headed back for the Stephano 3 miles to the northward, the BENHAM and McDougal following.

     “I investigated a steamer to the eastward of our position which looked somewhat like a submarine. When first seen she showed a few lights,- not steaming lights. She then turned out all lights and appeared to turn away from us. We soon closed on her and found she was not a submarine but to all appearances a type of a light cruiser. We hoisted our colors and turned the searchlight on it (colors) so this vessel could not make any mistakes as to who we were. When I discovered that she was not a submarine I hurried back to the Stephano, wishing to be present at its destruction. British cruisers evidently were in the vicinity. This we found from intercepted radio calls and messages. These messages were “coming in” very strong about 8:30 p.m. On our arrival near Stephano McDougal left for Newport with part of crew of Blommerdyk – the remainder of this crew being on BENHAM. The German submarine was then close up under the stern of the Stephano – the BENHAM lying about 600 yards off the port quarter and the BALCH about 600 yards off the port bow. The Submarine remained in this position for about one-half hour and we changed our position only to avoid being too close. About 9:45 the submarine moved clear of the Stephano and circled around her starboard side taking a position about 300 yards from her. We were then about 800 to 1000 yards – about 2 points on starboard bow of the Stephano and with a good view of submarine. The BENHAM was about the same distance away on her port quarter. Both of us had engines stopped. Two minutes later the submarine opened fire with her forward gun and fired in all 30 shots into the Stephano, at her waterline, ranging from the bridge, aft to the stern post. The bombardment seemed to have little effect on the Stephano – she having a 2” steel plate along her waterline. The submarine then moved ahead of the Stephano and circled around to a position about 600 yards on her starboard beam. I moved to keep clear of her and stopped about 1000 yards on the starboard quarter of the Stephano, the BENHAM then being about 1000 yards astern of the Stephano. From her position the submarine fired a torpedo which struck the Stephano about amidships, apparently breaking her in two and in less than five minutes she disappeared below the surface of the water at 10:05 p.m. The submarine then turned on its running lights and I steamed over close to her, passing her at slow speed at about 200 yards distance. She was then making a call on a small signal searchlight out of which we could get nothing more than “MOMCM” repeated several times. The submarine headed to the Eastward and I returned to Newport harbor with the survivors of the Stephano.

     “There was no interference, whatsoever, on the part of any destroyer with the operations of the German submarine and I took particular pains several times to have destroyers keep clear of the prizes.”

     9.   The destroyers which had survivors on board returned to Newport and landed them. The other destroyers continued the search for the missing Kingston boats under the direction of the MELVILLE.

     10.  In all, five merchant steamers were sunk, namely – West Point, Strathdene, Christian Knudsen, Stephano and Blommersdyk.9

     11.  The West Point was sunk about 12:20 p.m. about forty-five miles off Nantucket Shoal Light Vessel. There was but one submarine visible at this time. The weather was calm, sea smooth. The crew were given time to take to the boats but were not able to save any of their effects. Thirty-three shots were fired into the West Point by the submarine and two time bombs were exploded alongside. According to the statement of the Captain of the West Point these bombs were attached to the boat falls after everyone had left the ship and exploded about a half minute after the small collapsible boat from the submarine had shoved off. As the Captain explained it, “They blew a hole in her side large enough to drive a cart through.”10

     12.  The Christian Knudsen was sunk at 10:30 a.m. about thirty miles south southeast of Nantucket Lightship. Her Captain and First Officer state that three submarines were visible at the time for the sinking, all apparently of the same type but with no numbers or names on them, One hundred fifty shells and one torpedo were fired at the Knudsen before she finally sank. The Knudsen was built with many small tanks for gasoline and was loaded with gasoline. These sub-divisions will account for the difficulty experienced in sinking her.

     13.  The submarine commander gave a signed penciled statement to the Captain of both the West Point and Knudsen stating the time and position of the sinking of his ship and also the nature of the cargo. Both Captains stated that the submarine, with considerable difficulty, towed their boats with all hands in them to within easy visibility of the Nantucket Shoals Light Vessel. Both stated that the German Submarine Commander was very courteous in his treatment of them.11

     14.  The Blommersdyk was sunk at 8:12 p.m. about two and one half miles east of Nantucket Lightship. The BALCH, MC DOUGAL and BENHAM witnessed the sinking. One torpedo was fired by the submarine at 7:30 p.m. with small effect, the Blommersdyk listing only slightly to port. At 8:00 p.m. the second torpedo was fired and exploded with tremendous force sending a column of water high above the vessels masthead. Then the Blommersdyk began to settle by the stern and at 8:12 sank, stern first with bow remaining out of water. The Blommersdyk was a vessel of about nine thousand tons loaded with wheat and automobiles and bound from New York for Liverpool. The Blommersdyk was abandoned by her crew before 6:00 p.m.

     15.  The Stephano was sunk at 10:05 P/M about six to eight miles northeast of Nantucket Lightship. Thirty shells were fired into the Stephano with apparently little effect and then the submarine fired a torpedo which struck about amidship. The ship broke in two and sank rapidly. All passengers and crew had left the Stephano before 7:00 p.m. and before any shots were fired into her. The Stephano was a passenger steamer plying between Halifax and New York. The BALCH and BENHAM witnessed the sinking and were within one thousand yards when the torpedo was fired.

     16. Subsequent to the abandonment of the Stephano and before she was torpedoed the BENHAM while steaming slowly a few hundred yards distant from the Stephano came between that vessel and the submarine. The Submarine Commander by signal requested the BENHAM to please move clear as he intended to fire a torpedo. This the BENHAM did.

     17.  As far as can be learned, there were no lives lost and no injuries sustained by any of the passengers or crew of any vessel sunk.12

Albert Gleaves

Source Note: LS, DLC-MSS, Albert Gleaves Papers, Box 8. Document is on “DESTROYER FORCE. ATLANTIC FLEET./U. S. S. BIRMINGHAM FLAGSHIP.” stationary.

Footnote 1: Electrician 1st Class F. G. Blanchard, United States Lighthouse Service.

Footnote 2: Gleaves is referring to the infamous exchange between the American frigate Chesapeake and H.M.S. Leopard on 22 June 1807. Captain Salusbury Pryce Humphreys of Leopard signaled a demand for Chesapeake to permit a British boarding party to search for deserters. Being a U.S. naval vessel, Captain James Barron refused. Leopard then fired three broadsides into Chesapeake killing four American sailors, whereupon Chesapeake lowered its flag and allowed the British to board. The boarding party took off four American sailors, three of whom proved to be U.S. citizens. The affair provoked widespread American outrage and animosity toward Britain despite an official apology from the British government and an offer to pay reparations. Donald R. Hickey, The War of 1812 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2012), 16.

Footnote 3: Captain Math C. Grdutech. U-53 was the only German vessel in action that day.

Footnote 4: That is, Blomersdijk, captained by John H. Gunther-Mohr.

Footnote 5: Red Cross Steamship Line.

Footnote 6: Captain Clifton Smith.

Footnote 7: Lt. Cmdr. David C. Hanrahan.

Footnote 8: The only German ship present was U-53. At one point ERICSSON was incredibly close to the submarine and may have been mistaken for a tender from a distance. Hadley & Sarty, Tin Pots: 169.

Footnote 9: In addition, U-53 fired a warning shot at the steamer Kansan, but after determining the ship was American and was not carrying contraband allowed it to continue on its way unmolested. Hadley & Sarty, Tin Pots: 163-64.

Footnote 10: Captain Harden.

Footnote 11: Captain Grdtech of Knudesen recounted his exchange with Kapitänleutnant Hans Rose of U-53. Grdutech reported that Rose said:

“I’m sorry, but I guess I’ll have to sink her.” Captain Grdutech with vision of a 10-minute grace period, said he hoped he would be given time to get his crew off. “Oh, yes,” Captain Rose replied, stifling a yawn, “there’s plenty of time. You go back, get your boats ready and steam after me slowly. I’m going over there to sink that other vessel.” The other vessels was either the British liner Stephano or the Dutch freighter Bloomersdijk. . .  “German Commander Made Tanker Wait its Turn to be Sunk,” Fuel Oil Journal, Vol. 7 (1916): 113.

Footnote 12: Not mentioned is that the previous day U-53 made an unplanned visit to Newport, RI, carrying a message for the German Ambassador to the United States. U-53 set out from Germany on 11 September, 1916, with orders to proceed to Newport, give a demonstration the advanced nature of German submarine technology to American naval officers, and then to attack Allied shipping off the United States coast. U-53 was received at Newport and visited by Adm. Austin C. Knight, RAdm. Albert Gleaves (along with Gleaves’ wife and daughter), several other American naval officers, and members of the press. See: Austin M. Knight to  William S. Benson, 7 October 1916. The submarine departed Newport before it could be quarantined or blockaded and then continued with the second half of its mission. The closeness of the attacks to the shores of the United States and the fact that U.S. naval vessels witnessed the attacks angered the British government and public, while also creating widespread concern in the United States over the reach of German submarines. For a detailed secondary history of the cruise and attack of U-53, see, Hadley & Sarty, Tin Pots: 152-76. For more on the efforts to recover the passengers and crews of the torpedoed vessels see, the Area File of the U.S. Navy, 1911-1927, DNA, RG 45, Entry 517B, Box 20. The Navy rejected any criticism for allowing U-53 and was proud to say that because of their actions not a single life was lost. For a summary of the Navy’s response to the controversy, see, Franklin D. Roosevelt to Frank L. Polk, 18 November 1916, DLC-MSS, Albert Gleaves Papers, Box 8.

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