S.S. Woodbury was returning to the UK with general cargo from Buenos Aires. I was on lookout duty on the "monkey island" above the wheelhouse, on what was a bright moonlit night. The wind was from the north-west, about Force 6, with white caps on many of the waves, which were 6-10' high.
I noticed a white cap which seemed to be continuous. With binoculars I was able to identify it as a U-boat conning tower awash, running on the reverse course to ours, roughly 1000 yards away.
I called to the Third Mate who was on watch, and he confirmed my sighting and called Capt. Rice on the voice pipe. The Captain was coming up the bridge ladder when a torpedo struck the ship level with the after mast. The radio aerial had been secured to the deck by rope up as far as the insulator, but the rope snapped, so our SOS was not received by anyone except U99.The Chief Engineer went below to shut off the steam to the engine and release the steam from the boilers. The business of abandoning ship was already well under way. The port lifeboat was launched quickly, with only three men (officers) in it. The ship was listing to starboard, so the lifeboat had to be lowered into the water fast. Remaining crew members, about 30, headed for the starboard boat, which could not carry them all. A life raft was released from the foremast so that all the crew members got away in about twenty minutes without any injuries. The fact that both the after holds were full of cases of large tins of corned beef meant that the entry of seawater was checked, and eased pressure of water on the engine-room bulkhead. The ship went down by the stern; we watched her bow drop down below the waves.
Meanwhile U99, commanded by Otto Kretschmer, had turned and gone alongside the first launched lifeboat. He gave our position and course to steer to Ireland, and wished the crew good luck. Kretschmer was no Nazi: he was more a fellow seaman once he had finished his job. (He went on to Lorient, as France had been defeated by the German army since he had left his home base of Wilhelmshaven. It meant a shorter and safer voyage to reach Allied convoys in the Atlantic!)
Our two life boats evened up crews during the night, then at daybreak we set sail for Ireland. Our chief officer's boat landed at Valentia, SW Ireland, and Capt. Rice's boat in Bantry Bay, at Castletown Berehaven, where the kind Irish people took us into their homes. It was luxury after 2½ days in a ship's lifeboat. After three days, we went to Dublin for one night, then crossed to Holyhead, and then went to our homes by train.
S.S. Woodbury further information
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