Sunk by U-boat

21st June 2019

'Crew landed on Lihou island after ship had been sunk by U-boat.'  An article by Carel Toms from the Guernsey Star of 27 December, 1951, in the Priaulx Library Newspaper Collection.

People come to Guernsey by diverse means.  In these days they arrive by mail­steamer, plane, and in the summer time many sail here in yachts. Few persons, if any, have landed in Guernsey under the circumstances of Mr J W Van Katwyck, of Marasquet, Vale. 

He was shipwrecked on Lihou Island in December, 1916 – thirty-five years ago. So well was he looked after that he was determined to return to the island and live here, which he did.

Born at Massluis, Holland, on August 15, 1893, he went to sea at the age of 12. He has served on sailing ships as well as steamers, and has been wrecked more than once. The dramatic circumstances in which he came to Guernsey surpass all his other adventures.

As a member of the crew of the Norwegian steamer Rakima, on passage from South Shields to Oran in the Mediterranean with 6,000 tons of coal for the British Admiralty, the fatal day occurred after three days at sea.

It was December, 1916 – a week before Christmas – and a Friday. The ship was proceeding down Channel, when form a distance of three miles a German submarine appeared and fired a shot neatly across the bows of the ship – the signal to stop.

Coming quite close to the freighter, the Commander of the U-boat told the captain he knew all about the ship – where it was going, that it was a neutral ship, carrying contraband, and that he had orders to sink it.

Pointing out that the weather was fine and that he would give the crew half an hour to pack and get into the boats, he took the ship’s papers from the captain.

Three of the submarine’s crew were then put aboard the freighter and they placed a time bomb in each hatch.

The Germans were then taken back to the submarine and the ship’s boats ordered to pull away as quickly as possible. In a few minutes there was a series of dull explosions, which for a while made no apparent difference, but shortly afterward the vessel began to list to starboard and go down by the head.

With her lights still burning her propeller came right out of the water, and then she slid down in to the sea.

There were nine men in each of the two boats, and the U-boat commander said he would give them a tow as far as the French coast, which was gladly accepted. Mr Van Katwyck was in the skipper’s boat and the chief engineer had charge of the second.

This story might never have been written had the submarine commander been a little less alert. Unfortunately for the Rakima’s crew, another steamer was sighted about two hours after it was getting dusk, and ordering the refugees to stay where they were the submarine went after its prey – another Norwegian steamer.

Back came the U-boat with another two boats in tow after having sent the second ship to the bottom.

There were eight men in each of the new arrivals’ boats which the submarine then proceeded to take in tow. Weather conditions began to deteriorate and as conditions became worse, cries arose from the other two boats, that they were getting swamped. In fact the bow of one boat was pulled right out and the occupants were drowning.

Half an hour later the same fate befell the other boats and the occupants had to be squeezed in already over-laden lifeboats. Now badly overcrowded, the Rakima’s boats with only two or three inches freeboard, began to ship water rapidly in the still worsening weather, and constant bailing was necessary to keep them afloat.

With the added weight, the tow rope repeatedly snapped, getting shorter and shorter, till eventually there was not sufficient left to carry on. After using the only wire hawser he had on board, the U-boat commander indicated that he could no longer continue to tow the two boats. The captain of the Rakima declared that his boat could fend for itself and the submarine continued with the other boat in tow.

Fortunately the weather had again improved, but as the ship’s compass was out of order they had to depend on the stars. The boat’s lug sail was hoisted and the skipper decided to make for the French coast,  and so they continued through the night.

By four o’clock in the morning, however, it was blowing half a gale and it was decided to throw all belongings overboard.

On top of these troubles, it began to rain heavily.

As dawn broke the man were overjoyed to sight a lighthouse ahead. This was taken to be a French lighthouse but it was later identified as Les Hanois.

Flares were immediately sent up and there was intense anxiety when their signals were unanswered by the keepers. There was no response whatever and the boat was drifting with the tide towards a perilous and unknown coast, fraught with dangers. The cold men soon found they were in peril of being dashed upon the rocks.

The captain, a fine sailor though aged, decided to hoist the sail and get away from the land. In doing so the mast was carried away with the sail and once more they were at the grip of the tide and completely at its mercy.

As the boat drifted towards the shore the occupants could see the foam crested breakers on the beach. One overwrought man began to pray aloud and talk wildly of his wife and family. The skipper soon silenced the man, bidding him to keep up heart for the sake of the others, and at the same time directing some of the crew to stand by with paddles as the boat was in grave danger of being dashed on to a rock right ahead. The only chance of safety was to jump for this rock as the boat lifted.

Mr Van Katwyk was the fourth to jump and as he landed on the rock he was covered with the breaking sea. Half smothered he was being swept off the rock again when something grasped his leg and he felt himself being hauled to safety. Looking up, he saw his rescuer was the skipper.

All were hauled safely on to the rock and by this time it was nine in the morning. Looking around they found they were on inhabited land, for climbing up over the rock they saw a small boy emerge from a shed. The astonished youth must have thought the shipwrecked mariners were ghosts, for the fled from the shed.

Some men then came out of the shed and motioning the sailors to come forward they were soon in the building drinking hot tea. They then learned that they had landed on Lihou Island.

The fact that their boat had been rendered to matchwood bore out the Guernsey men’s statement that they could not have landed on a more dangerous part of the coast. As Mr Van Katwyck was the only member of the crew who could speak English fluently, he was deputed to explain to the authorities the circumstances of their arrival.

When Mr Van Katwyck was eventually given passage to the mainland he signed on to the S S Galtie, trading between Bristol, Guernsey and Dunkirk with stone and coal, and later he paid off and went to work with Messrs Bougourd Bros. as a motor mechanic.

In 1926 he married one of his own countrywomen in Holland; but Mr Van Katwyck said he had already made it clear to his future wife that he wished to settle in Guernsey – the island which had given him such a kindly welcome in his distress.