Daily Event for April 29, 2012

The tanker Athelempress was built in 1930 in Scotland, she was 475' long and registered at 8,941 tons and owned by the United Molasses Company of London (later renamed Athel Line Ltd.). In April of 1942 she was en route to Port of Spain, Trinidad in ballast. She departed from Milford Haven, Wales and tagged along in convoy OS-25, which departed from Liverpool, they detached for the Caribbean Apr. 19 as OS-25 was heading for Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Five days before the convoy sailed U-162 left Lorient, France on her second war patrol. Her commanding officer, the only one the boat ever had, was Kapitänleutnant Jürgen Wattenberg, a former officer in Admiral Graf Spee, who escaped from internment in Argentina and returned to Germany. On Sept. 9, 1941, less than two years after the loss of the Admiral Graf Spee, Wattenberg was placed in command of of U-162.

His first patrol was less than stellar, sinking only one ship, SS White Crest, before returning to France. On his second patrol the first ship sunk was Athelempress. She was about 230 miles east of Barbados setting a zig-zag course and blacked out. Radio silence was maintained, but the calm clear night and bright moon left the ship at a disadvantage. She could be clearly seen as she passed near U-162 and at six minutes before midnight on April 29, 1942 a torpedo exploded amidships on her port side. A second torpedo a few seconds later struck aft.

Badly damaged and listing at 45°-50°, the Athelempress remained afloat. Her master, Walter Jackson, prepared to abandon the ship, a distress signal (SSS) was sent, but this signal was not picked up by any receiving stations or other vessels, it is thought the radio was made inoperable during the attack. The code books and papers were thrown overboard and three lifeboats were launched, forty-seven men entered the boats, however three men could not be accounted for, presumably lost in the explosions.

After the ship had been abandoned and the lifeboats were clear, Wattenberg surfaced and shelled the ship, hitting her about 20 times from 200-300 yards. He then approached the lifeboats to question the survivors. According to the survivors the submarine officer was "very polite" and addressed Jackson as sir.

About 0300 hrs. the submarine moved off and left the survivors adrift, their former ship sank ten minutes later. The survivors would be more fortunate than some, all forty-seven lived through the ordeal. The master and 27 others in two boats landed at St. Lucia on May 4, the third boat was picked up by a Norwegian tanker (Atlantic) on May 6 and landed at Port of Spain.

Wattenberg and U-162 would sink 12 more Allied ships before being sunk on Sept. 3, 1942 by British destroyers. Wattenberg survived the sinking and ended up as a PoW in the USA. From a camp in Arizona he organized an escape of 25 men, all were recaptured but not before making headlines all over the USA. Wattenberg died in 1995 at age 94.
© 2012 Michael W. Pocock

Roll of Honour
In memory of those who lost their lives in SS Athelempress
"As long as we embrace them in our memory, their spirit will always be with us"

Dominey, Charles F.
Middleton, Sydney H. C.
2nd Radio Officer
Sullivan, James R.
Able Seaman
Royal Navy

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