A little before 2230 hours on 11 February 1940, Merchant Navy Captain Walter Smail of the MV Imperial Transport pressed his boot to the lowermost rung of the ship’s starboard ladder, leading to the bridge. He was about to go through his nightly routine—climbing the ladder to the bridge to settle the ship for the night. But this night his routine was about to be explosively interrupted.
Just as Smail reached the bridge, a blast rocked the ship. A torpedo from a German submarine had found its target—the port side of the Imperial Transport. The ship shuddered as smoke churned up from her innards and water and fragments of wood and steel discharged into the air. The debris rained down on Smail, some striking him in the face. Staggered, he still managed to scurry down the ladder.
Just as he reached the wheelhouse, the ship groaned and cracked. He knew the ship was splitting apart, as a fissure below his feet widened. But by a stroke of good fortune, most of his crew was in the aft section. It was only Smail and a small number of crew members who were forward at the time of the explosion. Smail hollered over the din for the men to evacuate the bow of the ship. One by one, each man jumped over the widening gap to the stern of the ship. And none too soon—within seconds, the ship split apart, and the bow section vanished into the darkness.
On Sunday afternoon, 10 February 1940, the tanker had departed her home base of Scapa Flow and headed into the Pentland Firth under ballast. Leaving the cold of February in the North Atlantic for the warm currents of Trinidad drew no protests from the crew—indeed, the thought of warm Caribbean breezes must have filled the minds of Smail’s 43 hands. But first they had to cross the Atlantic, avoiding German U-boats and the plague of Adolf Hitler’s cursed magnetic mines.
As Captain Smail slipped into the Atlantic from the Pentland Firth on this moonless night, he must have felt some relief. The dark night sky meant his ship could not easily be seen by German marauders. But he knew that cut both ways; he could not see a U-boat if one were concealed in the darkness. Smail thought to himself, it would be a tense 36 hours.
By his reckoning, the U-boats operating from bases in North Germany, because of their fuel limits, could reach only 300 miles into the Atlantic. That would put them, at the most, 15 degrees west. Beyond that point, surface vessels would be the only worry—but not a weighty issue, given that British cruisers had sunk the German pocket battleship Graf Spee. Smail was sailing at 12 knots, adhering to ever-crucial zig-zag maneuvers.
The Imperial Transport maintained a westerly direction until passing Rockall Island, with the intention that, once past that point, she would head southwestward on the 3,700-mile passage to Trinidad. The night of the 11th brought a sleet-driven wind. Despite the biting elements, Captain Smail was beginning to shed his uneasiness—he was approaching the end of the zone of the U-boat menace. Feeling ever more confident, he quit zig-zag maneuvers. Soon, he would adopt a southwesterly course. But the following night, Smail’s optimism would be literally blown apart.
As the Imperial Transport cut through the sea in the darkness, Smail was oblivious to the danger posed by the German submarine U-53, which was racing along the surface on her return trip home. Her path would soon intersect that of the British tanker. Korvettenkapitan Harald Grosse, commander of U-53, had already bagged four vessels—two Swedish ships, as well as a Norwegian vessel and a Danish vessel. Grosse scanned the surface from conning tower. Suddenly, a familiar profile came into view. As his eyes homed in on the silhouette, he kneaded his cold hands together. “Oh! A fat tanker,” he thought to himself.
The torpedo had done devastating damage—cleaving the tanker in two. Smail was quick to act and gave the order to stop all engines. He quickly surveyed the damage. With half of the tanker ripped away, Smail gave the order to abandon ship. An attempt was made to lower the two lifeboats flanking the ship’s smokestack. The mechanism on the port side malfunctioned and caused the boat to tip. Two of the crew in the boat fell into the sea, but the lifeboat managed to get away safely with its remaining occupants.
He quickly released the remaining boat, housed on the starboard side; the search was on for the two missing men. A quick check revealed that the two who were dumped in the frigid water were Richard Edwards and Jack Williams—the former a pumpman and the latter a second cook. Seeing a light in the distance and hearing calls for help, the men rowed vigorously in that direction. The light was from the bow section of the ship, surprisingly still afloat, but moving dangerously close to the lifeboat. The men pulled hard on the oars to get out of its path. The voices that had come from the dark were now silent.
Smail decided to row for the stern section of the ship. It took an hour to reach it. Seeing it was still afloat, he decided to reboard the vessel. Once on board, Smail and the chief engineer, Charles Jack Swanbrow, judged that the two-thirds of the vessel that remained was still seaworthy. It was an odd sight—a ship, bridgeless and bowless, afloat the water. The key to the ship’s survival was that the bulkheads of the heavily structured tanker were still intact, leaving the stern section watertight. It must have been a fitful night’s sleep, but, in the morning, Smail knew luck was with them when he sighted the port lifeboat several miles in the distance. By midday, the crew was reunited. Although two of his crew had perished, Smail took heart that 41 were safe on board.
The captain weighed his options. Believing they were 200 miles west of the Hebrides and knowing the North Atlantic might have gale-force winds in store, he knew the odds of using the lifeboats to reach land were lousy. The other alternative, staying with the ship, carried its own dangers. A German torpedo could send their hulk to the bottom, and who was to say the ship would stay afloat long enough for them to reach safety? They chose the latter alternative. Since there had been no time to send out an SOS, Smail knew there was no chance of a quick rescue—they were on their own.
Smail feared that the pressure of the water beating against the exposed bulkhead, with the bowless section going forward, would cause it to fail. He opted to proceed stern first. But that brought challenges—with the engine run astern, the ship merely traveled in circles. It would have to be bow first. Now Smail faced the task of navigating without charts and navigation instruments—they had been lost with the bow section. He would have to put his hopes in a faulty compass, a ruler, and a school atlas.
Steering the ship was also a challenge; it had to be done using the poop emergency gear—no easy feat. And it required two sets of hands, gripping the wheel in unison, to keep the ship on course. But despite the numerous challenges, by 1000 on the 13th, the British Red Ensign was hoisted, and a course was set for due east. By 1200, two-thirds of the Imperial Transport was heading home at the breakneck speed of 3.5 knots. Surely, her crew must have been utterly surprised as she passed the bow section, floating along on the waves.
The crew’s luck was holding; by noon the next day, the ship had advanced 130 miles eastward. Their hopes soared as four British destroyers appeared. It was decided that one of the destroyers, HMS Kingston, would shepherd the tanker to safety. But the good fortune that had seemed to follow the tanker was now taking a detour.
Early morning dawned on the 15th with gale-force winds churning up the seas. Fearful that the bulkhead would rupture, Smail ordered the ship direction altered to stern first—but, as before, she simply moved in circles. With the wind now howling and the Imperial Transport steering erratically, the Kingston attempted to tow the tanker, but that proved ineffective. With seas growing more turbulent, the commanders decided to abandon the tanker for the night. Transferring the survivors was a dangerous operation, but everyone made it safely aboard the Kingston.
As the black opened to gray daylight, Smail could see the Imperial Transport still afloat, pitching heavily in the rough sea. Morning moved on to afternoon on the 16th, and two British tugs, the Forester and Buccaneer, appeared. The seas had become even more turbulent, making boarding the Imperial Transport impossible. Smail thought this was finally the end of his ship. But he was wrong. She eventually was delivered to Kilchattan Bay on the Isle of Bute, off the coast of Scotland. The tanker then was successfully towed to the Fifth of Clyde, where, within six months, a new bow was constructed. To fit it to the stern section, it was “slid along the runways yards long covered with grease and soft soap at a top speed on nine feet in three hours, until it dovetailed with the waiting stern.” This was no easy task. The tanker was put back to work ferrying oil across the Atlantic. That should have been the end of this saga—but it was not.
Two years later, on 17 March 1942, the Imperial Transport joined with Convoy ON 77. Once again under ballast, she was now bound for Curaçao, and with Captain Smail back at the helm. Much had changed since February 1940. This time, the Imperial Transport was sailing as part of a large convoy, not off by herself. This was a convoy of 29 ships with heavyweight escorts: two British destroyers, four Canadian corvettes, a Free French corvette, and two U.S. Coast Guard cutters.
There was dense fog the morning of the 17th in the North Channel. This required the convoy to steam at slow speed until clearing land the next morning. The form for the convoy was “six columns abreast.” The Imperial Transport’s position was fourth ship in the starboard column. The fog had lifted, exposing nothing but blue skies and benevolent winds. But the convoy’s commander, Commodore K. E. L. Creighton, Royal Navy Reserve, saw these buoyant weather conditions as a double-edged sword. Although these conditions made for pleasant sailing, they also made the convoy more visible to U-boats. Five days later, the commodore would be proved correct on the latter supposition.
On 25 March, soon after 2400, with the night bathed in moonlight, Captain Smail, free from worry, turned in for the evening. But as he slept, the Imperial Transport’s silhouette made an a tempting target for U-94. Kapitanleutnant Otto Ites launched four torpedoes. Two of the projectiles missed their marks, but the remaining two hit home: One sliced through the forward hold, the second cut into the port side, between the number two and three cargo tanks. Ironically, this second torpedo hit close to the place of the 1940 impact. But this time, the ship did not cleave in two—instead, the vessel listed badly to port. The order was given to abandon ship. The French corvette Aconit quickly came to rescue the tanker’s crew.
Early the following morning, Captain Smail and his chief engineer, Jack Swanbrow, were returned to the tanker to assess the damage: “A 15-degree list to port, with the foredeck awash.” But, more important, the engines were still operable.
Smail, never a pessimist, saw the condition of the Imperial Transport as a bit of good fortune. The following morning, he was back on board the tanker with a light crew—two of his engineers, two engine room ratings, two of his ship’s officers, and a “commissioned mechanician” from the British corvette HMS Mayflower. At 1530 on 26 March, the pumps were started, and, with the steam raised, the Imperial Transport made headway for St. John’s, Newfoundland. She made it safely to St. John’s under escort of the Mayflower. Repairs were made to her damaged hull, and, within short measure, she was back to carrying oil for the remainder of the war—a war she survived.
In an epilogue to the Imperial Transport’s smashing good fortune, the story of the German U-boats does not end on a high note. U-53 was the first to get her comeuppance; in less than a fortnight, after cleaving the Imperial Transport in half on 26 February, she was destroyed by HMS Gurkha south of Faeroes. U-94 met the same fate—a trip to the bottom of the sea. Five months after sending two torpedoes into the hull of the Imperial Transport, she was sent to her ocean grave on 28 August 1942 by HMCS Oakville and aircraft of the U.S. 92nd Squadron. Both U-boat commanders went to their watery graves.
- Clay Blair, Hitler’s U-Boat Wars: The Hunters: 1939–1943 (New York: Random House, 1996).
- “Crew Sails Half Ship Three Days to Safety,” The Miami News, 20 February 1940.
- Bernard Edwards, Quiet Heroes: British Merchant Seamen at War, 1939–1945 (South Yorkshire, UK: Pen and Sword Maritime, 2013).
- “Half-Ship Saga,” Rocky Mountain Telegram (Rocky Mount, NC), 21 January 1942.
- “Half Ship Taken to Port,” The Sydney Morning Herald, 5 March 1940.
- “Imperial Transport.”
- Ronald McCuaig, “British Ships, British Builders,” The Sydney Morning Herald, 8 June 1946.
- “Merchantmen with Nine Lives,” The Age (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia), 8 February 1961.
- “Pant-less He Captured a U-Boat,” The Ottawa Citizen, 10 November 1979.
- “The Merchant Navy; 5 Years of Peril, Still Undaunted,” Calgary Herald, 27 January 1945.
- “To Be Additional Officers of the Civil Division of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire,” third supplement to The London Gazette, 9 October 1942.
- Tom Walton @edgeblend, “We Sailed Our Ship for Three Days,” WWIIForums.