Daily Event for January 25, 2016

On Aug. 28, 1919 the freighter War Mirage was launched at Irvine's in West Hartlepool, England. She never sailed under that name as she was sold to John Glynn & Sons Ltd. of Liverpool before she was completed, they renamed her Riposto. The ship was delivered to her owners on Oct. 15, 1919 who ran her trials in Hartlepool Bay. She was designed for trade in the Mediterranean so there were significant changes in the design to accommodate the owners requirements. In 1922 she was sold to the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company Ltd. of London and renamed Culebra.

Her last voyage began in Jan. of 1942 when she left England bound for Jamaica via Bermuda with a general cargo and decks filled with aircraft parts. On January 25, 1942 she was sighted by Kapitänleutnant Reinhard Hardegen about 700 miles east-northeast of Bermuda. Hardegen had been awarded the Ritterkreuz only two days before and now he would begin earning the Eichenlaub (Oak Leaves) to go with it. Everything we know about what happened next comes from the war diary (KTB) of U-123 and Hardegen.

He sighted the ship at 14:31 (German time) and set a course to intercept. Hardegen made several notes about the ship in his sight including the "heavy load" of deck cargo and a gun on the stern. At 17:57 Hardegen, running on the surface, opened fire on the ship. He claimed one hit in the stern, one in the engine room and one under the bridge. The gunners on Culebra returned fire scoring five hits or near misses, but none of them penetrated the pressure hull of the boat. At this time the 20mm gun on U-123 malfunctioned and had to be repaired so fire was continued with the deck gun. Both vessels continued to fire until the gun on the British ship was hit and knocked out of action.

According to Hardegen the ship began to let off steam and the crew began to abandon her. By this time the 20mm had been repaired and was test fired, however the round exploded in the barrel injuring two men, including a war photographer named Toelle, who had been photographing the encounter. He fell to the deck with a serious head wound, but survived. The other man, Matrosenobergefreiter Johann Vonderschen received only a flesh wound, he was lost in U-362 on Sept. 5, 1944.

Hardegen. states in his KTB that the ship sent a distress signal "S-S-S", but was not able to transmit her name or position, perhaps due to a loss of power in the radio shack. Soon the survivors were alongside U-123 and were being questioned by Hardegen and his crew. He states that he was told the ship's name, tonnage and that they were carrying general cargo. Hardegen. does not give the number of survivors or how many boats got away from the ship, he does suggest that there were some men still in the water nearby, but that they would be picked up by the lifeboats. He also claims that at least one of the boats was taking water and that the men had only one shrapnel riddled bucket to bail the boat out.

Hardegen. wrote that they provided the survivors with several buckets and some provisions, including sausage, bread and lard, along with a knife to open the tins. He states that they had enough water and that he provided them the exact position of Bermuda and a course to follow. Hardegen. moved away from the survivors and began to fire at the abandoned ship.

After firing a number of shells into the hull, aft at the waterline, the ship began to sink stern first. This caused the deck cargo to shift and Hardegen noticed the crates contained wings, fuselages and tail assemblies with British markings on them. He also saw a tire, obviously from an aircraft, floating in the water. He wrote in his KTB "the gentlemen call this general cargo" indicating he was less than happy with the story he had been told by the first officer. By 20:33 Culebra was gone and her crew were adrift in the open Atlantic.

What happened to the survivors in unknown, since the name of the ship was not sent, nobody was looking for them. No other ship found them and it is thought they were all lost in a storm. Hardegen signaled BdU of the sinking and included the name of the ship, but this message was apparently not intercepted or understood by Allied intelligence. On Jan. 30 C-in-C American West Indies signaled the Admiralty that Culebra had not yet arrived at Bermuda, she was due on the 25th. Another signal on Feb. 9 from Senior Officer in Jamaica warned the Admiralty that the ship had not arrived there either. Of course Culebra would never arrive, but sadly neither would her survivors. After Hardegen left them to continue his patrol they were never seen again.

As a note of interest at the time of writing this Reinhard Hardegen is still alive and living in Germany. He is now 103 years old and reportedly in good health for a man of his age. U-123 was scuttled by the Germans at Lorient, France in Aug. of 1944, but the wreck was raised and given to France.
© 2016 Michael W. Pocock

June 21, 2018:

Reinhard Hardegen passed away on June 9, 2018 at the age of 105.

Michael W. Pocock

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

Ashford, Augustus
Fireman & Trimmer
Baker, Harold
Fireman & Trimmer
Blackwood, Arthur
Bonner, George D.
Boon, Edward J.
Gunner (Royal Artillery)
5/3 Maritime Regiment
DEMS Gunner

Brook, John H.
4th Engineer Officer
Brown, Alfred C.
Brown, Nimbley
Fireman & Trimmer
Buddell, Thomas V.
Able Seaman (Royal Navy)
DEMS Gunner
Cornell, John F.
Able Seaman (Royal Navy)
DEMS Gunner
Cornick, Harold
Chief Officer
Dixon, James C.
Gunner (Royal Artillery)
5/3 Maritime Regiment
DEMS Gunner

Ebanks, Desmond N.
Able Seaman
Ebanks, Terence T.
Able Seaman
Farley, Robert P.
Able Seaman (Royal Navy)
DEMS Gunner
Farrell, James
Able Seaman
Fenton, Adrien
Fireman & Trimmer
Finlay, Roy N.
1st Radio Officer
Ford, Clifford A.
Fireman & Trimmer
Gabriel, George
Fireman & Trimmer
Galea, Gerard
Assistant Cook
Groves, Alison W.
Able Seaman
Gutteridge, Leslie T.
Assistant Steward
Haigh, Roy
2nd Radio Officer
Hays, Anthony F.
2nd Officer
Hennings, O'Leary L.
Jenkins, Ernest H.
3rd Officer
Johnston, Graham
Corporal (Royal Marines)
DEMS Gunner
Jones, Lowell
Able Seaman
Lynch, Robert
Able Seaman
Marshall, Vernon C.
Fireman & Trimmer
Mazink, James
McEwan, William H.
McLean, Samuel
Fireman & Trimmer
McNeil, Octavius
Newman, Hedley M.
Rooney, John F.
Assistant Steward
Scott, Albert E.
Able Seaman
Spence, Leslie O.
Fireman & Trimmer
Thomson, James R. I.
Chief Steward
Tough, John
3rd Engineer Officer
Vandanam, Rajarou
Ordinary Seaman
Warner, Gilbert F.
Steward's Boy
Wilson, Edward F.
Chief Engineer Officer
Wilson, Reginald A.
2nd Engineer Officer

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