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The reconstruction of events around four men who flouted the conventions of war and committed murder at sea
The U-Boat and submarine war fought by Germany and Japan was fought with barely any rules. Defenceless or barely defended merchant ships were sunk by torpedoes or gunfire at will, with any survivors having to take their chances on the open ocean. Yet there were a few commanders who were prepared to break even the few rules of war that did apply.
Sea Wolves: Savage Submarine Commanders of WW2 argues that some men were guilty of murder. Tony Matthews looks at four submarine commanders who flouted the conventions - two Japanese, one German and one Russian. He takes a detailed look at the circumstances surrounding their crimes, considering the available evidence from witnesses and survivors to build up a complete picture of events. He then examines the subsequent fate of these four, only one of whom would stand trial after the war.
The following excerpt comes from his meticulous reconstruction of the events befalling the survivors of the Centaur, sunk in the early hours of 14th May 1943:
After bringing all the rafts together and tying them loosely to the Carley float, Gordon Rippon's next task was to ascertain how much food and water the group possessed — if any.
The sinking of the Centaur had occurred so rapidly there had been little or no time to prepare adequately for survival in an open boat. Every lifeboat on the ship had been fully provisioned with food, water and medications according to maritime regulations. However, not one of those lifeboats and been launched successfully during the three minutes it had taken for the ship to sink, despite the fact that in accordance with wartime regulations the boats had already been pushed out on their davits in readiness for rapid lowering in case the ship was attacked.
The only lifeboat to leave the vessel that night had done so accidentally with no one on it. The boat was now upturned and was being used as a kind of raft by a small group of men. However, when it was righted it still contained a modest treasure which might mean the difference between life and death for all the survivors.
Upon investigation it was discovered that the boat held two gallons of fresh water, a tin of malted milk tablets, several tins of beef extract (heavily salted) and some dried prunes and raisins. For those with a strong constitution and even stronger stomach the boat also contained a few bars of pemmican - concentrated seal blubber. There were also two thousand Ovaltine tablets, probably the most welcome and useful of the entire hoard of foodstuffs discovered in the boat. Additionally the boat yielded up some flares, a sheet of canvas and two oars.
Another survivor who later joined the group, Able Seaman Owen Christiansen, added a tin of salvaged biscuits to the commissary store.
The survivors were now either grouped together or scattered on various rafts or pieces of flotsam with sharks all around. They had been fortunate that the diesel oil in the water had not been ignited by the flames on the ship as the vessel had gone down as many of those who had miraculously managed to get off the ship would also not have survived. The oil on the surface of the water was also a problem because it got into the survivors’ eyes and lungs and was responsible for burning the skin much like fire.
The survivors were also suffering from the cold. Almost all were only scantily dressed, many quite naked, and although not winter, this was late autumn and the sea was cold. Their discomfort was worsened by many heavy rain squalls which left everyone chilled to the bone and dejected. The survivors attempted to huddle together for warmth but those standing on the wheelhouse roof were in the worst situation, constantly being tossed into the sea and having to scramble back on the roof before the sharks could get to them. As the sharks became more confident and aggressive the survivors on the main raft were able to fend them off with an oar.
The survivors were all, of course, considering what their chances of survival might be. It was unlikely that the ships radio officers had managed to get a distress signal away as the ship had gone down so rapidly that it would have been next to impossible, especially with the vessel in flames.
It was also subsequently reported (by G. Herman Gill, naval archivist and historian in a secret report dated 21 May, 1943) that the radio had been destroyed in the blast. Not one of the three radio officers had survived so it was impossible to know if the radio had been destroyed or if a message had been sent. The only hope, it seemed, was to be spotted by a passing ship or aircraft and as the survivors were in a shipping lane this was a very real possibility.
The day was spent in discomfort and anxiety. Sister Ellen Savage attempted to keep up the men’s spirits by getting them to sing some of Australia’s iconic songs but although this helped somewhat everyone was feeling uncertain about their chances of survival and the presence of so many sharks around them was reason enough for concern.
Dick Medcalf subsequently recorded:
I can tell you that no one liked them because one big shark, about sixteen feet, kept going around one raft and under the rope between the two and scratching its back on it and one chap said, ‘Oh I’d like to have a great big harpoon, I’d make that fellow there move.’ But yes, it was a worry because if the sea became rough it may have been hard to hang onto the rafts and there was always the worry that we had lost so many that we knew the sharks would be there all the time. It was a worry all right. The sharks were there as far down as you could see and they never left us.
Ron Moate the ship’s pantryman who had been pinned to his bunk after the explosion was now sharing his tiny, half submerged raft with another man and one badly burned corpse who was actually lying between Ron’s legs. The raft had become the focus of attention of one shark which was swimming repeatedly in circles around it, then swimming beneath it. The shark would come so close that it would rub roughly against the raft, making it unstable.
After a while Ron and the other survivor realised that the shark was being attracted to the scent of the dead man because the water was constantly washing over the corpse. The two survivors decided to dispose of the body which was not an easy decision because obviously it was what the shark was after and it would have been much better to have given the dead man a decent sea burial. However, circumstances simply would not allow for that.
They gently pushed the body into the calm sea and it floated away. Ron later recorded:
‘... this was early in the morning, daylight; the body, you could see it off in the sea with the sharks swimming around it. It was unbelievable. This corpse, its arms rose up and this bloody shark, he practically bit the torso in half. That was the only shark attack I saw on the raft.’
Although the survivors saw a couple of aircraft that day, and also a ship, not one of those possible rescuers spotted the flares that were immediately set off. It was a long, tiring and frustrating day. As dusk arrived it was clear that the survivors would now be forced to endure a full night at the mercy of the wind, waves and sharks. It was a significantly daunting prospect.
It seems likely from statements later made by several survivors that Hajime Nakagawa and his submarine, 1-177, might well have been prowling the area that night, although this was impossible to prove as the 1-177 would subsequently be sunk and its logs lost.
However, several among the survivors testified that they had heard the sounds of what appeared to have been diesel engines that night and one man, the ship’s cook, Frank Martin, who was then floating on a hatch-board, claimed that he had actually seen a submarine. He had turned almost immediately and paddled silently away. If this is true then it proves that Nakagawa was awaiting the arrival of a rescue ship.
The survivors were drifting with the tide, they were now well away from the actual site of the sinking and Nakagawa would have had to take measures to stay close. This appears to indicate that Nakagawa was tracking the movements of the survivors in order to spring his trap.
Dick Medcalf later clearly remembered those minutes when it appeared that they might be attacked by the crew of the submarine. He was then on the Carley float with Dr Outridge, Gordon Rippon, Ellen Savage and others. He subsequently recalled:
Nell Savage was looking after the cabin boy [Bob Westwood] and he was badly shocked. Anyway we just settled down for the night and it was very dark because of the overcast clouds. Sometime during the night someone could hear a motor and someone said ‘That sounds like a diesel’ and it came closer and closer. Then we could hear the slapping of the waves against the hull and it was a submarine. So someone said for everyone to put out the lights on their life-jackets.
We thought they’d come to clean up. It got closer and we all kept very very quiet, but thank goodness it was terribly dark and gradually it disappeared and we all breathed a sigh of relief. ... I was ready to go overboard, underneath the raft, well and truly I can tell you, and I think a lot of the others were too, because we didn’t think they’d leave anything of a hospital ship to show any signs of being torpedoed. No, we were quite prepared for that. Whether it was just charging batteries we don’t know.
The next day a badly injured Jack Walder died. He had been a driver with the 2/12th Field Ambulance. Walder was given a Christian service led by Ellen Savage and then buried at sea.
The horrors of everything the survivors had experienced and the terrible uncertainty of what might lie ahead was dispiriting for all - they had no idea if any of them would survive this ordeal or if they, like Jack Walder, would be pushed gently off into the sea after a few simple words of prayer.
This excerpt from Sea Wolves: Savage Submarine Commanders of WW2 appears by kind permission of Pen & Sword Books Ltd. Copyright remains with the author.