Do you know what happened seventy-six years ago today (March 6, 1942)?
I didn’t think so.
After all, it was not one of those iconic dates associated with World War II: December 7, 1941 (Pearl Harbor); June 6, 1944 (D-Day); February 23, 1945 (Flag raising on Iwo Jima); August 6 and 9, 1945 (Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki); May 8, 1945 (V-E Day); August 15, 1945 (V-J Day).
No, March 6, 1942 was just another typical day in the war. Which is to say it was intense, bloody, and widespread. Germany and Russia were locked in mortal combat on the Eastern Front. The Battle of Java Sea had just concluded (on March 1, 1942), a major U.S. naval defeat. The first deportation train from Paris to Auschwitz was being readied for departure (March 11, 1942). The Japanese were days away from capturing Rangoon, Burma (March 8). On March 6 alone, twenty-three ships of all nations were sunk, scuttled, mined, bombed, or collided. Several ships were torpedoed by enemy submarines, off the coasts of Bermuda, Iceland, and Delaware.
One such ship was the M/T (Motor Tanker) Sydhav. It had departed Curaçao on February 17, and was heading to Freetown, Sierra Leone, a major port city on Africa’s west coast, with 11,400 tons of oil, where it expected to meet up with a convoy for the journey north.
The Sydhav had been part of Norway’s merchant marine fleet. Comprising 1,300 vessels totaling more than 4.4 million gross tons and manned by 30,000 seamen, Norway’s merchant fleet was the world’s fourth largest, and most modern, at the start of the war. Like most of that fleet, the Sydhav was at sea when Germany invaded Norway on April 9, 1940. Also, like most of the fleet, it ignored German calls to head for Norway, or other German-occupied ports, and instead placed itself at the service of the Allies. At one point the Norwegian fleet was transporting nearly 60% of Britain’s oil and half of its foodstuffs. One British official observed, with perhaps only slight exaggeration, that the fleet was worth more to England “than an army of a million men.”
The Sydhav never reached Freetown. On the morning of March 6, it was spotted by U-505, a recently commissioned German submarine operating as a lone wolf on its first combat patrol off Africa’s west coast.
Struck by two torpedoes, Sydhav exploded and sank within three minutes. A crewmember aboard U-505, Hans Goebeler, who emigrated to the U.S. after the war, later published a memoir of his wartime experiences in Steel Boat, Iron Hearts: A U-Boat Crewman’s Life Aboard U-505. Here is how he described the attack:
“A sharp explosion was followed immediately by a deafening roar. A moment later, a gigantic shock wave hit us, knocking us off our feet and rocking the boat like a baby’s cradle. Huge waves blocked the periscope’s vision for almost two minutes.
“When the periscope view finally cleared, all that could be seen was an enormous plume of white smoke. The tanker, which had evidently been loaded with gasoline, had exploded like a bomb when the torpedoes hit. Inside the sub we could still hear low, rumbling explosions several minutes after the first detonation.”
The Sydhav’s crew had no chance to lower any lifeboats, and jumped into the water to save themselves, where they were pulled under by the ship’s suction. Twenty crewmembers surfaced; eleven did not, including Captain Nils Helgesen, First Mate Hans Hansen, and Third Mate Magnus Iversen.
News of the sinking of a small oil tanker traveled slowly in wartime Europe. A maritime hearing was held a month later in London, but such events were not highly publicized, both for reasons of morale and wartime security. Nonetheless, the sinking was eventually reported in Norwegian newspapers. Not surprisingly, those held in Nazi custody were even slower to receive any such information. But eventually even they did, too.
Here is part of Odd Nansen’s diary entry for Saturday, September 19, 1942, over six months after the event:
“Newspapers arrived [in camp] as well. Old indeed, but with one or two things of interest in them. When the food was consumed and the hut cleaned up for the evening, the chaps sat on, full, lazy, and contented, reading the newspapers round the tables. As we’re sitting like that, [Andreas] Onstad shoves his paper across to [Ole] Iver[sen], our waiter, and asks him: Isn’t that somebody you know?
“And he points to an item about seamen from Haugesund who have lost their lives while sailing for the Allies. That was how Iver learned that his son was dead. Among the lost was his name, Magnus Iversen, mate, aged twenty-five. Poor Iver. And he took it fearfully hard. He just went and lay down on his bed, lay and shook with sobs.”
Before the war ended, 706 Norwegian ships would be lost, representing almost half the nation’s total tonnage at the beginning of 1940.
“Forty thousand sailing Norsemen,
One and all they chose the battle,
Homelessness and lonely ocean,
Chose to die from horrid gangrene
Or in flames on burning tankers,
Chose to drift on slender raft boards
Thousands of miles from help and care—
Deathless honor shall be theirs.”