Sometime before the events surrounding the sinking of the FORT BUCKINGHAM the SS FORT La MAUNE had left Bari, fully loaded, on route to the United States but then received a signal, and was rerouted to Bombay via the Suez Canal and Aden. The Captain and crew were surprised to find that there were no convoys in operation in either the Arabian Sea or the Indian Ocean, but the Naval Authorities assured them that there was no chance of attack.
Two days out from Aden, on the 22nd January 1944, and in spite of the assurances given by the Naval Authorities in Aden, a keen watch was being kept onboard the FORT La MAUNE for any sign of U.Boats.
Unknown to the watchkeepers, at about 13.30 hrs Captain Luedden of U.188, running on the surface, was on a reciprocal course when he observed his prize.
Their paths had crossed just six months before in the grey Atlantic, but at that time their existence was unknown to each other.
Captain Luedden dived immediately, keeping the FORT La MAUNE under periscope observation. Two hours later he surfaced and followed from the horizon. At 18.00 hrs he noticed an aircraft and dived again. On resurfacing he had difficulty in relocating the FORT La MAUNE. At 20.00 hrs he dived again to listen for propeller noise. Propeller noise was heard, a bearing was plotted, and with this information he again surfaced and closed on his prey at full speed.
Now, just before midnight, the game was afoot. After getting himself into a good firing position, Captain Luedden loosed off one torpedo.
Aboard the FORT La MAUNE, on the 'monkey island' on the 20.00 hrs to 00.00 hrs watch stood 3rd Mate Mr P.Rucklidge and his Cadet Ian Fergusson, a farmer's son from Banff, Scotland. The weather was fine, a dark night, a smooth sea with a big lazy swell and the night-sky cloudless.
The two watch keepers were commenting on the brilliance of the phosphorescence and how the porpoises were like beams of light, when they both saw a very bright streak. At that moment the Mate shouts - 'thats no b------porpoise' - indeed is wasn't. There was an enormous explosion and tons of water, smelling of cordite, crashed on deck. The torpedo had hit on the port side in No.2 hold. Both watchkeepers were blown into the air and the 3rd Mate landed on top of his Cadet in the wing of the bridge.
The 3rd Mate Mr P.Rucklidge now takes up the story:
I dashed into the chartroom and by this time the 'Old Man' had come up from his cabin on to the bridge. By then we had a very heavy list to port and also down by the head, and the 'Old Man' immediately ordered me to signal 'Abandon Ship'.
Since I was a boy, an interest of mine has been Horology and I had always promised myself that should I ever have the misfortune to be sunk, I would try and rescue a chronometer. I had been torpedoed and sunk in a Russian convoy in 1942 but on that occasion had no time to put the plan into action. Here was another opportunity not to be missed!
Back to the chartroom! - In my haste, I could not remove the chronometer box, so I released the chronometer from it's gimbals and shoved it inside my lifejacket. Grabbing a sextant I dashed out on to the bridge only to see that one lifeboat was away and the other still hanging in its davits.
By this time the port scuppers were awash and the deck was at such an angle that I had to walk in the scuppers to get to the boat deck. The lifeboat was hanging in its davits, the falls were slack, and the ropes were not even round the bollards. Incidentally, the boat was full of Lascar seamen sitting with their lifejackets on, as indeed were some of the European crew! What had happened was that the 'bowsing' wire had been released with the 'senhouse' clip and someone had lowered the boat, causing the wire strop to catch round the centre chock and bite into it. The boat was now cradled in the strop and there was no way we could hoist it up by the falls.
I told Ian to come with me and get a hatch cover from No 3 hold to use as a battering ram and smash the centre chock, so freeing the strop. Well he got the hatch cover - somehow! - and started to batter the chock, having first made the falls fast on the bollards.
I had already put the sextant down by the funnel, and as I thought I might damage the chronometer, I removed it from under my lifejacket and put it by the sextant. We smashed the centre chock and the boat dropped about four feet - not level - much to the consternation of those on board. Ian and I slithered down the falls and the boat was away. Suddenly I remembered the chronometer and sextant. I wanted to go back and retrieve them, but to try and get petrified men to man the oars and return to the sinking ship was impossible - so once more no chronometer and no sextant!
We drifted off and in a matter of minutes the ship went down bow first. I suppose, on looking back, I might have got my chronometer, but doubt if I would be here to tell the tale!
Meanwhile in the darkness, Luedden in U.188 had surfaced and was approaching the two lifeboats. He wanted confirmation of the ship's name and destination. He brought the submarine dead in the water, and he and three of his crew (armed with machine guns) climbed into the conning tower and onto the plating. He approached the larger of the two lifeboats and shouted across, and was answered by the 3rd Mate Mr P.Rucklidge, who now continues:
The motor lifeboat which I was in was the largest of the two lifeboats to get away and was the one the Captain should have been in charge of. However he was adrift in the other. After starting the engine of my boat I cruised round looking for anyone who might be in the water. I suddenly heard the burbling sound of large diesel engines and cut my motor. By this time the submarine had seen us and come along side.
A voice came out of the darkness and asked the name of the ship, and the first thing that came into my mind was the name of a girl I had met in Bari, so I yelled out 'Santa Maria a Spanish ship' bound from Port Said to Australia'. This was of course untrue. The commander of the submarine then said 'If you don't tell me the truth I think I will kill you -- now what ship'.
At this stage I noticed in the darkness that three men on the casing of the submarine had machine guns at the ready. I still did not feel like being intimidated but when one is looking down the wrong end of a gun one quickly makes the decision that 'discretion is the better part of valour'. This time I gave him the correct name of our vessel but still insisted it was on passage from Port Said to Australia (the ship was in fact on passage from Aden to Cochin). He then asked me to spell the name of our ship, which I did. This did not satisfy the submarine commander, who after writing it down said,
'That is not our information you are a new ship out from London', and pointing to me said 'you come aboard'.
One of the submarine's crew tried to grab the lifeboat with a boathook, but the swell drifted us apart and they then seemed to abandon the idea.
The submarine went astern, stopped about 300 yards away and then, to my dismay, came straight at our boat, full ahead. For some reason I was convinced that the submarine was Japanese. To me the captain sounded definitely Japanese, and I thought his intention was to ram the boat. I warned everybody to be ready to jump clear, but for some reason, when it was about 50 yards away it altered course to starboard and disappeared into the night.
At this point it is interesting to look at the entry in the submarine's log for the encounter. Translated from the German it reads:
'I went up to the larger lifeboat. From my question I first heard name 'Marie Espaniol'. From my threat said the correct name 'Fort La Maune' from Port Said to Colombo - but we are sure this is still not the name of the ship. Its appearance is like a ship of the type 'Port Adelaide' 8422 BrtT.'
Perhaps Captain Luedden would not have been entirely gratified if he had known that his voice sounded 'definitely Japanese' It was a particularly dark night and neither the Germans or the survivors in their lifeboat could properly see each other.
It is interesting to note that he had 'information' about a 'new ship out of London' which he was convinced he had just sunk. He thought he had sunk the fast cargo ship SS PORT ADELAIDE due to leave Aden just after the FORT La MAUNE. He was wrong. However, his intelligence was good, as was made clear when the SS PORT ADELAIDE was sunk a few days later.
Now we return to the 3rd Mate in his lifeboat:
As the submarine disappeared into the darkness, (and relieved that the encounter was over), I restarted the engine in the lifeboat and made contact with the others. A roll call revealed that all the crew (50 in number) were safe and we decided there was little we could do until daylight. The two boats were made fast with the 'painter' and we drifted until morning. There was no sleep that night!
As dawn broke it was decided that the crew should be evenly distributed between the two boats (25 in each). The captain transferred to my boat and we took stock of our plight. Our last position was 300 miles east of the Island of Socotra, and the radio officer reckoned that he had got off an S.O.S giving our position, before leaving the ship.
With this in mind it was decided to sail west and both boats hoisted sail. We were however, unaware that there was a strong northerly current, making our true course north-west or even north-north-west. We operated our emergency transmitter - hand cranking with much enthusiasm - giving our position as 300 miles east of Socotra Island - then a British protectorate.
We estimated that the journey would take at least ten to fifteen days, and decided that our water supply should be rationed to one and a half 'dippers' per man per day. It later transpired that food was not to be so critical, as throughout the voyage no one had felt very hungry.
The wind was light and our estimated speed was two to three knots. At about 11.00am smoke was sighted and a ship came into view, hull up. There was great excitement and two orange smoke flares were set off. However, they were to no avail and slowly the vessel went out of sight. At this stage I was quite pleased, as I thought at the time it would be a poor tale to tell when I got home. But after a week or so I began to wish they had picked us up!
As the wind remained light and we only sailed from dawn to dusk, we made very slow progress. At night we tied the two lifeboats together. Later on we did sail for the 24 hours keeping in touch by having a lamp burning in one of the boats. Days were scorching hot and nights bitterly cold. How I wished I hadn't taken off my jacket just prior to being hit!
The morale for the first five or six days was good, but then it looked as though we would not be found. Thirst was the big problem, and in spite of a daily swim (I had read somewhere that one could absorb water through the skin) it did nothing to relieve my thirst!
For the moment we will leave the drama in the lifeboats and return to the activities of U.188. After slipping away in the night from the scene of her second kill (the FORT La MAUNE) she settled down to a most profitable three weeks. On the night of the 25th/26th January she sank two ships, the SAMOURI of 7,210 Tons, and the SURADA of 5,427 Tons. Three nights later she sent a Greek merchantman of 4,677 Tons to the bottom. On the 30th January in position 12 04' North, 51 05' East, near the Island of Socotra, she was seen by a Catalina sea plane and had to crash dive. This caused a pause in her operations, as the following entries in her log show.
While U.188 was enjoying these successes, and avoiding the Catalinas, the survivors of the FORT La MAUNE continued their desperate struggle in the lifeboats. The 3rd Mate's narrative continues.
I had noticed that, during the day, when the lifeboats were moving, there were several large fish swimming at the bows, and at the back of my mind I'd heard that fish cut up into cubes and squeezed would give some fresh water, so I set about trying to catch them.
My first attempt was by lashing a knife, I had in my pocket, onto a boat hook. This worked and I could spear fish but without 'barbs' they slipped off and were gone.
My second attempt worked well, and was achieved by straightening one of the metal sprayhood stays and flattening one end by hammering it with an axe and cutting crude 'barbs' on the flattened section. We caught loads of fish but the squeezing process produced nothing!
Fresh water was still a problem so my thoughts then turned to fashioning a still. This was made out of two 'Pemmican' tins and a length of hose from the rotary bilge pump. The water was boiled in one tin, using the Colza lamp as the heat source, and the steam condensed in the rubber hose from the bilge pump, by pouring cold water over it. The resulting distilled water was collected in another can. This was at least pure and in spite of protests to the contrary, I put it into the water kegs. I reckoned that in this way everyone would get their fair share. There was no way of course, that this primitive set-up could supply enough water for the entire crew, but the effort was worthwhile, in so much that it kept me active, rather than just sitting hoping that we would be picked up.
We will pause here for a moment and leave the ever resourceful 3rd Mate Rucklidge in his endeavours and return to U.188.
After the sinking of the SAMOURI, SURADA, and the Greek Merchantman on the 30th January Captain Luedden stood well out to sea before making his next attack on the 4th February, when he torpedoed the Liberty ship CHUNGKING. He then went for some more, smaller craft and on the 7th February sank three native sailing Dows. He began with gunfire, but as always seems to be the case with U.Boats, this was both expensive and ineffective and he had to finished off his victims by ramming.
On the 9th February he sank not only another Arab Dow, but also the 7,500 Ton Merchantman VEVA. This took the last of his torpedoes which he had loaded at Penang. However, he still had one of the Lorient electric torpedoes left. It was seven months since he had taken it on board, and when he fired it at a tanker next day, the familiar 'out of run' detonation was heard.
Now to return to the 3rd Mate of the SS FORT La MAUNE in his lifeboat:
When dawn came each morning the low cloud on the horizon looked exactly like land, but as the sun rose in the sky it disappeared and we got used to the disappointment. Progress was slow and in fact, unknown to us, we were getting further and further away from the search area. I am not certain how many days had passed, but one morning the familiar low cloud was there as before, but it did look slightly different. I waited quite some time before I whispered to Ian that I thought it was land. About an hour later we were convinced that this was not cloud, as this time it did not go away.
Convinced it was land, the engine was started and the other boat taken tow. Several hours later we were close inshore and could see one small hut and two people. We made carefully for the shore. After a cautious look we decided to land on the beach. This we did by beaching the boats as there was no where else to land.
It was now late afternoon and we decided to stay put for the night. The two natives were friendly and showed us were we could get water. This was one of the best moments of my life - lying under a starry sky, covered with a sail and an old tin full of water ---- what bliss!
Next morning we did our best to find out where we were - still thinking it was the Island of Socotra - but after a long session with the two natives ascertained that it was Saihut in Arabia, and that Mukalla, a larger settlement was further down the coast to the east.
The Captain was keen to stay where we were, but I pointed out, that although we were safe, we hadn't been found and any search aircraft would be unlikely to be looking in Arabia. I felt the best plan would be to set off to the east, keeping close to the shore. This was agreed, and having filled the water tanks we left at about 10.00 hrs.
We sailed all that day and night and at daylight we could see a village which turned out to be Mukalla. Heading towards the beach there was suddenly the drone of aircraft engines. We immediately lit orange smoke flares and the plane - a Catalina - turned and circled several times --- We were found and our fourteen day journey in the boats was at an end!
As we neared the beach about 20 natives, all armed to the teeth with daggers and Lee Enfield .303 rifles, approached. Not knowing what to expect we beached the boats and disembarked. The natives now appeared hostile and we decided that it would be better to anchor the boats offshore in case we needed to get away.
The plane was still circling so Ian and I took the boats some hundred yards offshore and anchored them. The aircraft dropped a large survival canister on the beach and also flew low over the boats and dropped something into the water. This turned out to be a thermos flask with a scrap of a chart, and written in pencil on the chart were the words 'HELP IS COMING'.
From the initial sighting of the aircraft, there was an aircraft in attendance the whole time. We later learnt that it was known that the natives were hostile and the aircraft were there to deter them from harming us. This seemed to work as all the survivors were safely taken into a courtyard and given unleavened bread to eat. (welcome but not the best food after starving for so long)
Two days later help did come in the shape of the Corvette NIGELLA. As she approached I signalled her with a heliograph mirror and we were taken on board and back to Aden for a few days, before leaving for Liverpool on the Dutch troopship JOHANN de WHIT.
By now, Captain Luedden in the U.188 had expended all his torpedoes and had begun his long slow voyage home. On the 12th February he used up his remaining gun ammunition to sink three more Arab sailing vessels and perhaps regretted his expenditure, as three days later he recorded in his log:
For the next three weeks Luedden proceeded slowly southward to another rendezvous with the tanker BRAKE. His slow progress was partly due to continuing problems with over heating diesel engines, which were using excessive amounts of lubricating oil. He met BRAKE in atrocious weather conditions on the 11th March and, with great difficulty began to transfer supplies. Unknown to BRAKE or Captain Luedden events were taking place in Mauritius that would almost spell disaster for U.188 and her valuable cargo.
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