Vessel and Crew
Presently laying 55°14’00.0″N 1°23’00.0″W at a depth of some 50 metres 13 miles NNE off the River Tyne on the British east coast, she was torpedoed without warning and sunk by the German submarine UB-34 under the command of Hellmuth von Ruckteschell. A British cargo steam ship of 1,872 tons, built in 1906 by Sir Raylton Dixon & Co Ltd and owned at the time of her loss by Rea R & J H Ltd, she was on Admiralty service as an auxiliary collier on voyage from Methel to Dunkerque with a cargo of coal.
Two lives were lost during the attack, Frank Alfred Cook and Taliesin Jenkins. Cook was First Engineer and aged 41 and born at Appledore. He was son of Alfred and Elizabeth Tully Cook and husband to Martha Ann Cook of 17 Earl Road, Penarth CF64 3UN. Jenkins was Second Engineer aged 42, born at Blaina, Monmouthshire. He was son of Samuel and Margaret Jenkins and husband to Margaret Sarah Jenkins of 81 Windsor Road, Penarth CF64 1JJ. Both men were of the Mercantile Marine regiment and remembered at the Tower Hill Mermorial, London.
SM UB-34 was German Type UB II class submarine which saw service with the I, II and V Flotilla before being transferred to the Flanders front at the last month of the war on 9th September 1918. She surrendered to the Allies on 26th November 1918 and in 1922 she made her final voyage to Canning Town, where she was scrapped. She had a displacement of 274 tonnes when at the surface and 303 tonnes while submerged, length of 36.90m, a beam of 4.37m and a draught of 3.69m. The submarine had a maximum surface speed of 9.06 knots and a maximum submerged speed of 5.71 knots. When submerged, she could operate for 45 nautical miles at 4 knots and when surfaced she could travel 7,030 nautical miles at 5 knots. She was fitted with two 50cm torpedo tubes, four torpedoes and a 8.8cm SK L navel gun. Her complement was twenty-one crew members and two officers.
Hellmuth Max von Ruckteschell
Son of Nicolai Karl von Ruckteschell and Katharine Helene von Ruckteschell, Hellmuth von Ruckteschell was born 22nd March 1890 in Eilbek, Hamburg, Germany. Von Ruckteschell joined the German navy in 1908 and was given command on 1st September 1917 of UB-34 then in March 1918 of U-54. SS Bangarth was his 4th sinking behind SS Aladdin, SS Greltoria and SS Lady Helen.
He earned a reputation as an overly aggressive commander, which caused him to be placed on a black list of officers the Allied powers considered to have breached the laws of war. After the end of World War I, he left Germany returning in the early 1930s.
Von Ruckteschell was recalled to duty in the Kriegsmarine in 1939 and given command of an auxiliary minelayer in World War II. He took command of the German auxiliary cruiser Widder and sailed her into the Atlantic Ocean on 6th May 1940, commencing a five-month cruise that would sink or capture ten enemy merchant ships. Hellmuth von Ruckteschell had the distinction of being branded as a “war criminal” by the British both during World War I and II. During WWI, he had commanded a U-boat and accused of firing on survivors from their ships. He was never tried after the Word War I. During WWII he commanded two German surface raiders. The Widder and the Michel. Again he was accused of firing on survivors from their ships. This time the British military court had convicted Von Ruckteschall of that unproven crime and was sentenced to life imprisonment. He died in the Hamburg Fuhlbüttel prison 24th June 1948 aged 58, shortly after hearing that he was to be released due to his deteriorating heart condition.
His WWII War Crimes charges were regarding attacks on SS Davisian of 10th July 1940, the SS Anglo Saxon of 21st August 1940, the MV Beaulieu of 4th August 1940, all attacked by Widder and also the MV Empire Dawn, attacked on 11th September 1942 by Michel, in that he continue to fire upon vessels and personnel after they had surrendered. The British military court convicted Von Ruckteschell on three of the four charges and sentenced him to 10 years imprisonment.
SS Anglo Saxon
One case was that the Widder was reported to have machine gunned the crew of the SS Anglo Saxon in their lifeboats. One jolly boat with seven crewmen got away, managing to get into the port side jolly boat, unseen by the Widder. These men were Barry Collingwood Denny (Chief Officer, 31), Lionel Henry Hawks (Third Engineer Officer, 23), Leslie Joseph Morgan, (Assistant Cook, 20, with injured foot), Francis G. Penny (Royal Marine gunner, 44, shot through right arm and right leg), Roy Hamilton Pilcher, (Second Radio Operator, 21, injured from gun fire), Robert George Tapscott (Able Seaman, 19) and Charles Henry Widdicombe (Greaser, 24).
After 70 days and almost 2,800 miles since the sinking of the Anglo Saxon, on Wednesday 30 October 1940 the two survivors landed on the island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas. Widdicombe and Tapscott were transferred to a hospital in Nassau, Bahamas, where they slowly recovered. Widdicombe commented on his survival:
I wondered if I was dreaming when I saw a strange face leaning over me. And then the whole horrid situation came back to me with all its vividness, and I suffered a severe misgiving, until the man started to talk to me and then I realised that we had had the good fortune to wash up on one of Britain’s far flung colonies. My relief at the realisation that I was alive and safe on land among friends was indescribable
Despite all their hardships, Denny kept a log of their voyage until his death on 5th September 1940. After this date the two survivors, Widdicombe and Tapscott added a few entries but were too weak to continue the log after 24 September 1940.
From the Jolly Boat diaries
August 21st, 1940. At 8:20 p.m. in Lat. 26. 10 N. Long. 34. 09 W. attacked by German raider assumed by crew to be S.S. Weser or Weber, Hamburg America line. Vessel not sighted until she had steamed to within a mile of us. Pitch black night. First sent four shells 4 inch crashing into poop and gun platform aft. Many of crew in fo’castle were killed. She then steamed to within 3 cables and raked the decks with incendiary machine gun bullets coloured red, yellow, white and blue. Then a shell hit engine room starboard side and main boiler burst. The bridge and wireless room were raked with Pom-pom shells and machine gun bullets. Some of the crew went to boats on boat deck but were mowed down by machine gun fire. The two big boats were badly damaged. Senior wireless operator reported wireless installations smashed, unable to send S.O.S. On reporting to Master, found him presumed shot down by machine gun bullets in his cabin, saloon amidships was wrecked, poop by this time blazing and the crew few in number were told to take to the boats. The port gig, under my orders, was lowered and contained seven of the crew comprising: Chief Officer B. C. Denny; 3rd Engineer H. L. Hawkes; 2nd W/T Officer R. H. Pilcher; A.B. Widdicombe, W. R.; A.B. Tapscott, R. G.; Gunlayer F. Penny; Assistant Cook L. Morgan – of whom the 2nd operator was badly injured in the left foot by gun fire, and the 2nd cook in right foot, while gunlayer was shot through right forearm and right leg.
When gig pulled away from the vessel, the raider was lying off a half mile to port and a few minutes later fired tracer bullets into two life rafts launched from vessel. The vessel sunk stern first and shortly disappeared altogether. Raider headed off to the eastward. Assumed that Germans wanted no members of the crew left alive, and were fortunate in this boat’s crew escaping observation. We lay hoved to all night with sea anchors out and at dawn could see no trace of any description. Having no instruments for navigation except boat compass, we set sail dipping lug and course started west to make W.S.W. time, trusting to God’s good grace to either finding a vessel en route or striking somewhere in the Caribbean Sea.
The Jolly Boat Today
The jolly boat finally returned to the UK on 15 November 1997. After conservation the boat was put on display in May 1998 as the central exhibit of ‘Survival at Sea: Stories of the Merchant Navy in the Second World War’ at the Imperial War Museum, London.
Duke and Duchess of Windsor with Widdicombe and Tapscott at a hospital in Nassau.© IWM (HU 91128)