In the early days of the Second World War the war at sea in some instances was much more humane than it would later become. While their countrymen were preparing to exterminate millions in the gas chambers, there are many stories of German U-boat commanders who rendered aid to the crews of the ships that they sank. One such ship was the British steamer Olivegrove
She was built at Lithgows in Port Glasgow in 1929 and launched on Dec. 10, 1928. The 4,060 ton ship was en route from Cuba to the U.K. on September 7, 1939 when she was approached by U-33 about 460 miles west by south of Land's End. According to the master, James Barnetson, he received a signal from the submarine to stop, but he decided to make a run for it. Shortly thereafter a shot across her bows brought the ship to a halt.
The thirty-three men abandoned the ship in two lifeboats and were unmolested during the process. The crew was given enough time to even save a pet canary that belonged to one of the men. As the survivors watched their ship was sunk with a torpedo and then the German craft approached them. Barnetson was then summoned by the German commander in English. He feared he would be taken prisoner, but came forward anyway. To his surprise the German, Kapitänleutnant Hans-Wilhelm von Dresky only enquired about the condition of the men and the instruments in the lifeboats.
Von Dresky then told Barnetson to have his boats follow him and he would put them on course toward Fastnet. The survivors did as instructed and for a few hours followed the man who had just sunk their ship. They later stated that they had conversations with the Germans and that they told them they were very sorry to have had to sink their ship, but they were under orders to sink all enemy shipping. A crewmen, Joseph Carroll, was quoted as saying "They gave us to understand that they were men of the sea themselves and they did not want war".
When another ship hove into sight von Dresky fired rockets and told the survivors that they would be picked up by the ship, he then left the area. Shortly thereafter the American passenger liner Washington came into view and picked up the men. The crew of the first ship sunk by von Dresky must have felt some gratitude toward their attacker for showing them such kindness. Von Dresky had followed the rules regarding the sinking of merchant ships, even going out of his way to insure their safety. His actions could have put his boat at risk as a distress signal had been sent by the radioman on Olivegrove, but he still did all he could to get the men to safety. This of course would not hold throughout the rest of the war.
Only 365 miles to the east a second ship was being sunk by another U-boat. SS Pukkastan with thirty-five men on board was fired on by U-34, again the master, John S. Thomson, tried to make a run for it, but two more shells brought the ship to a halt. The crew abandoned their ship in two lifeboats, but apparently not quickly enough for the U-boat commander, Kapitänleutnant Wilhelm Rollmann. Survivors claimed that another warning shot was fired while they were getting off the ship. Rollmann moved toward the survivors and, according to the survivors, told Thomson "I'm going to sink your ship captain, good-bye". A torpedo was put into her side and the ship sank less than an hour later, Rollmann had his first kill. Rollmann, according to the survivors, did not render them any aid or offer to direct them to shore, but their luck was good and the Dutch steamer Bilderdijk pulled them from the ocean. (Bilderdijk would later become a victim of a U-boat herself.)
After the sinking of the Athenia on Sept. 3 the British were convinced that the Germans were engaged in an unrestricted war against merchant ships, but this was not true. It is not clear to me if the British government was aware or not of Hitler's orders, nevertheless public statements toward the Germans were harsh. This appeared in newspapers in the U.K.:
"It is now palpably evident that Germany is prosecuting an unrestricted submarine campaign against merchant shipping as violent as that on which Germany embarked in 1917, and that the German submarine commanders have been given orders to sink merchant ships on sight without warning."
In fact no such order had been given to U-boat commanders. Hitler had ordered that all U-boat commanders conform to the rules of merchant warfare. On Sept. 4 Karl Dönitz, commander U-boats, sent a signal confirming that all U-boat commanders are to comply with the Führer's orders regarding attacking merchant shipping and at 2353 on Sept. 4 a second signal was sent to all U-boats at sea.
From Oberkommando der Kriegsmarine to all U-boats: "By the Führer's orders no hostile action is to be taken for the present against passenger ships, even if in convoy."
This order was sent in response to the Athenia sinking, which at the time had not been confirmed to have been sunk by a U-boat to Dönitz or Raeder.
While it is not true that German submarine commanders had been ordered to attack British merchant ships without warning, and in fact had been ordered to obey the prize rules, not all of them did. It is also true that not all of the British masters obeyed the rules either. To attempt to escape when ordered to heave to or to attempt to ram or fire on a belligerent without first being attacked was against the rules and many a master were guilty of these infractions. This is war, the only rule that really applies is to kill the enemy and save yourself.
The treatment of British sailors, as the war progressed, would get worse. As U-boat crews were subjected to depth charge attacks, bombings, attempted rammings and being fired on, the natural effect that would harden an enemy took place. Early in the war there was room for humanity, that was before the men became battle hardened. There was no real hatred between sailors on either side, that would come after a few battles and some of their mates had been killed.
In fact many of the men in U-33, including von Dresky would not live another year, the boat was sunk on Feb. 12, 1940 by HMS Gleaner J-83, von Dresky and twenty-four of his men perished with her. Wilhelm Rollmann, who would go on to sink over 100,000 tons and win the Ritterkreuz was lost in U-848 in Nov. of 1943.
© 2013 Michael W. Pocock