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This story published 06/14/97

The following story has been published in the May 1997 issue of the Red Duster, a newsletter for members of the Canadian Merchant Navy Veterans Association Inc. Permission has been obtained from the Director for the province of New Brunswick, Mr. Aurele Ferlatte, to publish this story at Ursula's History Web.

A Fateful Encounter at Sea

SS TWEED & U-124

Third Officer Baker & Cmdr. Wilhelm Schulz

written by Russel F. Latimer

Ursula's History Web


 It was April 1943 and fewer merchant ships were being sunk than in the preceding terrible months of the Battle of the Atlantic; a favorable turning point had been achieved in this unremitting war at sea.

 Improved technical advancements in detection equipment, coupled with increased naval escorts and carrier-based aircraft, merchant ships, as they made their eastward passages towards war-ravaged England. More cargoes of vital supplies, food, petroleum and equipment were getting through; the constant peril was abating.

 Nevertheless, deadly Axis U-boats still prowled and struck and killed in their final attempt to control the ocean lifeline.

 As the British-registered merchant ship TWEED voyaged some distance west of coastal Freetown, Sierra Leone, on April 8, she was spotted by Commander Wilhelm Schulz, one of Germany's celebrated U-boat aces in U- 124.

 An accurate marksman, Schulz quickly framed TWEED within the lens of his periscope and launched his 40 knot, 700 lbs of TNT into the unsuspecting merchant ship's hull.

 Damage was lethal and within minutes TWEED had disappeared from the ocean surface, leaving scarce few survivors.

 Noticing an object in the distance, U-124 investigated and found several injured seamen perched on the bottom of an upturned lifeboat, among them Mr. Baker, TWEED'S third Officer.

 Ordering them to board as U-124 came alongside, in stunned disbelief they stared at the flower painted on the conning tower; their only thoughts were of being killed or taken prisoner.

 Hastily the crew of the U-124 made minor repairs to the damaged lifeboat, rigged a sail and provisioned the boat with drinking water and food--- even cigarettes and cognac---while the U-boat's doctor cared for the injured survivors. Giving final instructions to Mr. Baker who, on behalf of the lifeboat's occupants, expressed grateful thanks, the U-boat disappeared into the depths.

 But the painting on the conning tower, the only marking or adornment on this dull-gray, notorious undersea killer, persisted in Mr. Baker's mind. Was it a sunflower? Or perhaps an edelweiss, a small herb with white woolly leaves and flowers that grows in the higher altitudes of the Alps. Mingled with battle scars and blistering paint of this veteran fighter, it was not brightly detailed.

 They knew however, that if they did see England again, it would be because of a U-boat skipper to whom shipwrecked sailors were no longer an enemy.

 After the close of World War 2, Mr. Baker, ever mindful of the U-boat commander whose compassion had saved his life, was determined to find him, if he was still alive.

 Not knowing the commander's name, the number or any identification of the U-boat, he had nothing more on which to base his inquiry than the painting, which he had mistaken for a sunflower.

 With this minute scrap in information, he managed, after lengthy and diligent search to locate Schulz's name and address in Hamburg.

 When Schulz, some sixteen years after the fateful encounter off the Central African coast, confirmed that he, indeed was the same skipper, Mr. Baker invited him and his wife to visit with his family at Poole in the south of England.

 It was a strange and joyful reunion as they clasped hands and the German couple was cordially welcomed at dockside.

 The act of mercy that had, for a fleeting moment, pushed aside the war to save the lives of shipwrecked sailors, touched the hearts of the people of that historic seaport town; the people whose ancestors, for hundreds of years, had known well the perils of the sea.

 Schulz learned that Captain Baker had continued to follow the sea and was now a master mariner. Captain Baker meanwhile learned that Schulz was a successful Hamburg businessman.

 Contrary to some maritime historians, there is only one confirmed case on record of a U-boat commander attacking survivors during World War 2. He and his officers were executed by a British firing squad in November 1945.


POSTSCRIPT

 For years the Merchant seamen of Canada have tried unsuccessful to gain full recognition for their war time contribution from the government of Canada.

 As a girl in war time Berlin I heard almost daily announcements of how many brutto register tons had been sank in the north Atlantic. We now know that these announcements were not exaggerated by the ministry of propaganda.

 Every time a sailor stepped on his ship to transport vital war materials across the sea to England, he could count on being intercepted by prowling U-boats. It was one of the most dangerous assignments of the war. It is therefore inconceivable to me that the government of Canada has shown so little regard for these seamen and the sacrifices they made for their country.

Ursula Grosser-Dixon


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