Historia y Arqueología Marítima


Anecdotas y Tradiciones Navales

Autor: Alfredo Cecchini

Indice  Anecdotas Marineras



Ten minutes to abandon ship! SS Washington in Stand-Off With U-Boat!

 During the late 1930's, the finest and fastest American passenger liners were sister ships SS Washington and SS Manhattan, operated by United States Lines. Built in 1932-3 by New York Shipbuilding (Camden, New Jersey), they were 24,000 gross tons, 705 feet overall length, 86 foot beam, and 30 foot draft. Twin turbines provided a top speed of 21.5 knots. They competed in the trans-Atlantic trade with the much larger and faster Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, Ile de France, Normandie, Rex, Bremen, and Europa.

SS Washington
SS Washington upon arrival in New York. American flags,
"Washington" "United States Lines" are clearly marked on her sides.

When war broke out, normal passenger service ended, and American-flag ships evacuated Americans from ports in neutral European countries.

On June 1, 1940, the Washington Post reported that according to the U.S. State Department, Americans who missed the SS Manhattan at Genoa on June 2, should travel to Bordeaux to board the SS Washington. According to the article, "notices had been sent to all the belligerent governments, cautioning them not to molest or delay the SS Washington... the ship was  carrying passengers, cargo and mail... and two Red Cross Representatives and a shipment of Red Cross medical supplies... and with the American flag prominently displayed and fully lighted at night."

By June 11, 1940, The Netherlands, Belgium and Norway had fallen to the German invaders. Nazi troops were outside Paris.

On the morning of June 11, 1940, a German submarine stopped the SS Washington and signaled "10 minutes to abandon ship." With 1,020 passengers and 570 crew on board, the tragedies of the SS Athenia and Lusitania were foremost on Captain Harry Manning's mind.

map Lisbon to Galway
+ off Portugal marks the location where the
U-boat stopped the SS Washington

According to Captain Harry Manning, this is what happened [excerpts]:

It was on the next to the last refugee return trip from Europe made by the SS Washington last June, bound from Lisbon [Portugal] to Galway [Ireland].

Before departing from Lisbon I had visited the British Consular Shipping Office for the latest war information and data concerning the safest route.

I took particular pains to tell the American Minister of the route I intended to follow in order that he might advise all belligerents that a neutral ship on a nonmilitary voyage was proceeding on that course under the American Flag. The information I received from the British officials indicated that there were no submarines operating outside of the wide arc 180 miles off the coast, which I laid down as a safe course.

Curiously enough, as we cast off from Lisbon my mind went back 26 years to the last European War when I had my first experience carrying American refugees from a war-worried Europe. I was then a cadet on the USS Newport, of the New York State Nautical School.

We were on a cruise to the Mediterranean when the war broke and left stranded Americans gasping for aid. The fine foreign ships on which they had sailed to Europe canceled all sailings in order to pursue their war-time missions.

Vastly different in some respects, but much alike in others, was this refugee trip. The accommodations were "palatial" compared to those available on the little Newport. The Washington had about 35 times the displacement with nearly 4 times the speed of the little barkentine gunboat.

But there was one point of similarity; most of our passengers were making their first trip in an American ship. One of the impediments to the success of the American Merchant Marine is that many traveling Americans seek passage in their own nation's ships only in such times of stress.

All went well on our trip. June 11, at five in the morning, when we were 180 miles from the Portuguese coast the black night gloom of the just-before-daylight darkness was pierced by the spitting gleam of a blinker from a submarine with an urgent order to "stop, heave to." [Surprisingly, all messages from the U-boat were in English!]

We quickly obeyed.

The dread "torpedo the ship" was flashed, followed by the demand to abandon the ship in 10 minutes.

Watertight doors were closed, the general alarm was sounded, and the operation of stowing the passengers in the boats consummated with commendable calm and lack of confusion. Not a passenger showed signs of hysteria or confusion. The crew behaved well, obeying orders without question or criticism. Women and children went first. We maintained radio silence.

While the boat loading was in progress I kept Cadet William O'Reilly, who manned our blinker, flashing out continued appeals to reason.

"American," "Washington," was flashed continuously.

Captain Harry Manning

Cadet William O'Reilly

Capt. Harry Manning

Cadet William O'Reilly
at the blinker

I wanted to convince the submarine commander by blinker that he was in error in assuming that we were a belligerent craft or to keep talking until the break of dawn revealed it to his own eyes.

It was ticklish. I know how "trigger itch" will work in such a case and how an overenthusiastic young officer might be anxious to sink such a fat prize, as we indubitably appeared magnified by the gloom.

Apparently the submarine commander had trouble understanding what we said -- translating it from a book letter by letter -- as we sent the signals.

Fearful of a false move that would loose a nervous torpedo, I had O'Reilly stick to the simple formula, "American Ship," over and over again.

"Ten Minutes" came back out of the lightening gloom.

All this time the finishing touches were being perfected in making the ship as watertight and stable as possible so that, even if she were torpedoed, there might be some hope of keeping her afloat.

passengers in SS Washignton lifeboats
"... we sped away at full speed for half an hour.
The passengers remained in the boats as a precaution..."

If only the light would reveal the dramatic appeal of the helpless women and little children crowded in the boats, it would melt the heart of the hardest, as it was a pitiful sight.

Then a dark and ominous silence from the submarine for a short, in time, but eternity of anxiety ensued. The minutes ticked off to the fateful ten and past.

We held our breath on the bridge and waited the blast that would announce the doom of the finest ship under the American Flag. I was about to have the engine and firerooms secured when out flashed the blessed:

"Thought you were another ship; please go on, go on!"

Daylight had arrived and it was 6:00 AM.; one hour, that seemed a lifetime, was consumed in the incident.

I cannot understand how an experienced submarine commander could have made the mistake as the ship was fully illuminated and the second funnel fully flood lighted. A little later the German High Command admitted that a German submarine had made the mistake. [The U-Boat captain thought she was a Greek ship.]

After the release was given, the Washington was immediately headed into the rising sun, so as to obscure vision if our underseas friend should change his temporarily kind mind, and we sped away at full speed for half an hour.

The passengers remained in the boats as a precaution in case a less careful and considerate submarine was in the vicinity. We then stopped, passed the passengers aboard, and secured boats and ship in normal war cruising condition.

At 6:53 A.M. another undersea boat popped up several miles off on the port beam and rather than risk another encounter I swung the ship into the sun again which brought the unwelcome neighbor dead astern and steamed away. The submarine made no move, possibly the sun blinded him, and it soon disappeared astern.

We arrived safely at Galway [Ireland] the next day.

The SS Washington's normal passenger capacity was 1,083, but when she finally arrived in New York on June 21, 1940, she had 1,787 refugees aboard, including 700 children. Passengers slept with lifebelts under their pillows. They slept on cots in the Grand Salon, Palm Court, library, post office, swimming pool, and other public places. Infants slept in baskets. Bath water was rationed.

On June 12, the German government admitted one of their U-Boats had stopped the Washington, but stated official notification of her itinerary reached Berlin many hours after the incident. Germany was previously informed the SS Washington would stop at Lisbon and Bordeaux, but did not know she was bound for Galway. However, unofficial news of her new itinerary was printed in German newspapers the day before the incident.

According to Berlin:

"Following the usual exchange of greetings, the German commander allowed the Washington to pass without further hindrance."

Following is account of blinker messages exchanged by ship and submarine:

June 11, 1940. Time 0500
Latitude 42°-12" North-Longitude 12°-50" West

SS Washington stopped by unknown submarine.

Sub: "Stop ship."
Sub: "Heave to ship."
Sub: "Torpedo the ship."
Ship: "American ship."
Sub: "Captain has ten minutes to leave ship."
Ship: "American ship."
Sub: "Ten minutes."
Ship: "Washington American, Washington, Washington American," continuously.
Sub: Silent.
Sub: "Thought you were another ship, please go on, go on."
Ship: "Thanks."

Resumed speed for half hour in direction of sun to get away from submarine.

0630 Secured stations. [Exited from lifeboats]

0653 Sighted another unknown submarine several miles off port side; course altered into sun with submarine dead astern. No exchange of messages between submarine and ship.

0715 Resumed course; submarine out of sight.

Commander expresses his appreciation of conduct of passengers and crew.


Este sitio es publicado por la Fundacion Histarmar - Argentina

Direccion de e-mail: info@histarmar.com.ar