U-boat successes like the sinking of HMS Courageous on Sept. 17, 1939, masked basic problems with German torpedoes at the start of the war. Photo credit: theatlantic.com

War History The Trouble with Torpedoes, Part 3

German submarines sank 114 ships (more than 420,000 tons of cargo) in the first few months of World War 2, September through December, 1939. Despite these widely publicized successes – including sinking the Royal Navy aircraft carrier Courageous and battleship Royal Oak – German Rear Admiral Karl Dӧnitz was angered by a large number of torpedo misfires reported by his captains. (See blog post “The Trouble with Torpedoes, Part 2,” April 15, 2016.)

By the end of the year, complaints from the commander of the U-boat fleet led the navy to replace the head of the Torpedo Directorate, the department responsible for the design and development of torpedoes. The new chief soon reported the fleet’s torpedoes were defective in many ways, and he set about finding solutions. Yet every time the Directorate fixed one defect a new one cropped up.

Many of the problems centered on the torpedo’s detonator, or pistol, the device that exploded the warhead when the torpedo reached its target. The standard pistol for all torpedoes allowed U-boat captains to choose between a contact and magnetic detonation. A contact setting caused the torpedo to explode when it struck a ship’s hull, while a magnetic setting exploded the torpedo when it detected the magnetic field of a ship’s hull, ideally right beneath its keel.

The Directorate quickly resolved problems with the contact mode, but solutions for the magnetic mode proved more difficult because of its sensitivity. The magnetic field of a target varied with a ship’s size and was also affected by the Earth’s magnetic field. In addition, the depth setting for the torpedo was critical because if it passed too far beneath a ship it didn’t detect a magnetic field and failed to detonate.

Slowly, one by one, problems came to light involving the pistol’s magnetic detonation setting. As early as October 1939, Admiral Dӧnitz ordered his captains to use only the contact detonation setting. When the Directorate announced the design had been corrected, Dӧnitz approved using the magnetic setting again. Almost immediately misfires increased and he reinstated the magnetic detonator ban.

Even though this cycle continued with maddening regularity, German torpedoes proved effective enough in the Battle of the Atlantic to sink 1,900 ships and 10.2 million tons of cargo from 1940 through 1942. But for the flawed torpedoes, U-boats might have wreaked far more devastation during these early years, particularly because Allied anti-submarine weapons and tactics experienced their own developmental problems.

In early 1943, the Torpedo Directorate introduced a new, more dependable detonator, but the golden opportunity had been lost. While Germany was perfecting its torpedo design, the Allies had been making improvements in underwater detection technology, airborne radar, depth charge weaponry and surface tactics. U-boat captains found it increasingly difficult get into position to launch their improved torpedoes or to escape destruction once they were discovered by Allied navy hunter-killer groups.

In May, 1943, Allied navies sank 41 German U-boats, nearly three times the total of the previous month. It proved to be a turning point in the Battle of the Atlantic as the U-boats’ successes steadily declined for the remainder of the war.

A magnetic detonator was designed to explode a torpedo beneath a ship and break its keel with a single blow. Photo credit: uboat.net

War History The Trouble with Torpedoes, Part 2

In the opening months of World War 2, German submarine captains reported numerous torpedo failures. Time and again they watched their shots miss completely, fail to detonate once they reached their targets or detonate prematurely. U-boat fleet commander, Rear Admiral Karl Dӧnitz, estimated at least 30 percent of the torpedoes launched by his captains were duds. (See blog post “The Trouble with Torpedoes, Part 1,” April 1, 2016.)

One problem landed on Dӧnitz’s desk two weeks after the start of the war in early September, 1939. It involved the torpedo’s guidance systems that kept it on a pre-set course and depth once it left the submarine. These parameters were dialed into the torpedo before it was fired. After leaving its tube, the torpedo changed its course and depth as necessary in order to run true to its target.

The torpedoes delivered to the fleet at the start of the war were equipped with the course changing guidance system, but by mistake they had been fitted with stationary fins that did not allow them to be steered. When this egregious mistake was corrected, however, the success rate did not significantly improve.

Admiral Dӧnitz suspected most misfires were caused by the detonator, or pistol, the device that caused the torpedo’s warhead to explode once it reached its target. A sophisticated detonator, which could be set to explode the warhead either when it stuck a ship’s hull or detected the hull’s magnetic field, was adopted at the end of September 1939 as the standard for all torpedoes.

A contact detonation resulted when a torpedo struck its target several feet below the waterline and usually breached the ship’s hull. However, the explosion wasted much of its energy in the form of a large plume of water that erupted alongside the hull. As a result, one or two more torpedoes might be needed to sink a large ship.

By contrast, a magnetic detonation was designed to explode the warhead beneath a ship, where its energy would be more efficiently concentrated on the ship’s keel. The explosion usually broke the keel, breached the hull and sank the ship within minutes. Because such damage could be inflicted by a single torpedo, U-boat captains preferred the magnetic setting.

Magnetic detonation required the torpedo to pass close enough beneath the ship to detect its magnetic field. Maintaining the torpedo’s proper depth was critical to its success. In addition, the detonator had to be set at the proper calibration for the strength of the target’s magnetic field, which varied with the size of the ship. U-boat captains also needed to account for the Earth’s magnetic field, which changed depending on the U-boat’s distance from the magnetic north pole.

When the complaints began to pile up, the Torpedo Directorate, the German navy department charged with Torpedo design and development, questioned whether U-boat captains were accurately estimating the data used to calibrate the magnetic detonator.

Admiral Dӧnitz’s frequent complaints prompted the Naval High Command to establish a Torpedo Inspectorate to study the growing misfire reports. But if Dӧnitz thought his fleet’s torpedo problems were about to be resolved, he would be sorely disappointed, as we will see in out next blog.

Photo caption: Problems in the design and production of German torpedoes led to many misfires by U-boats early in World War 2. Photo credit: www.navweaps.com.

War History The Trouble with Torpedoes, Part 1

We may never know for certain the details of the German submarine U-30’s attack on the British passenger ship Athenia. The U-boat’s log book was altered to allow the German navy to deny responsibility for the attack by showing the sub was many miles away when Athenia was torpedoed, Sept. 3, 1939. (See blog post “Nazi Denials of the U-30 Attack on the SS Athenia;” July 1, 2014.)

We know, however, that the commander of the submarine, Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp, experienced a frustration common to many of his fellow captains at the start of the war – torpedo misfires. While Lemp’s first shot hit home and eventually sank the passenger ship, two subsequent torpedoes failed.

In his initial attack, Lemp fired at least two (some say four) torpedoes, according to accounts from U-30 crew members. The U-boat’s radio man, Georg Hӧgel, reported the second torpedo became stuck in the submarine’s torpedo tube and when finally launched, it exploded prematurely. In other accounts, the second shot ran out of control, forcing U-30 to dive to avoid being struck by its own torpedo. Even in versions that describe a salvo of four torpedoes being fired, only the first shot hit its target. (The attack on Athenia is the central event in my forthcoming historical novel, Without Warning.)

Lemp later surfaced in the dark of night to assess the damage he had done. He decided the ship was sinking too slowly and might even stay afloat long enough to be towed to port and salvaged. With a stationary target and favorable attack angle, U-30 fired another torpedo to finish off the crippled ship, but it failed to strike home. Shortly after this last shot, Lemp discovered he had mistakenly attacked a passenger ship – an action forbidden by submarine warfare protocols in affect at that time – and he left the scene without taking any further action.

Three weeks later, U-30 returned to its home base in Wilhelmshaven, Germany. Lemp apparently launched only two other torpedoes during the remainder of his combat patrol – both fired at stationary targets – and both detonated as designed. Once in port, he admitted sinking Athenia and was ordered to explain his actions to the German Naval High Command in Berlin. Faced with justifying his attack on a passenger ship and possibly having to save his naval career, Lemp is unlikely to have spent much time reporting his torpedo misfires.

Nevertheless, over the next several months the misfires became a high priority for the man in charge of Germany’s U-boat fleet, Rear Admiral Karl Dӧnitz. Despite the admiral’s complaints, U-boat successes during these early months apparently led Naval High Command to discount reports of torpedo failures.

But as we will see in our next blog, the misfires pointed to larger and more systemic problems, and the failure of top naval commanders to correct them in a timely manner undermined the U-boat fleet’s contribution to the Nazi war effort.

Spirydon Kucharczuk’s wife and three youngest children were aboard the lifeboat accidentally sunk during rescue operations. Photo credit: Family passport photo.

Meet the Character Spirydon Kucharczuk, Part 5

Like many other families, the Kucharczuks suffered an agonizing wait to discover the fate of loved ones aboard the British passenger liner Athenia after it was torpedoed by a German submarine, Sept. 3, 1939. Five different ships were involved in the rescue operations and survivors were taken to three different ports. (See blog post “Spirydon Kucharczuk, Part 4;” March 1, 2016.)

Because more than 90 percent of the passenger and crew survived the attack, reports of tearful reunions filled newspapers in Britain, Canada and America for nearly two weeks as loved ones were reunited. Spirydon Kucharczuk (koo-HAR-chuck), who had saved his oldest daughter and was reunited with his oldest son in Glasgow, Scotland, waited several more days for word of the rest on his family. The news, when it came, was devastating. His wife Ewdokia, 40, sons Stefan, 15, and Jakeb, 2, and daughter Aleksandra, 8, did not survive a lifeboat accident. They were listed among the 112 people who died as a result of the U-boat attack.

After absorbing this unspeakable shock, Spirydon decided to continue with his original plan and immigrate to Canada. He obtained new travel documents and arrived in Canada in October, 1939, with his son Jan, 20, and daughter Neonela, 18. They spent the winter with Ewdokia’s sister and brother-in-law. In their newly adopted country they changed the spelling of their last name to Kucharchuk, dropping the “z,” and anglicized their first names: Spirydon to Steve, Jan to John, and Neonela to Nina.

The next year, Steve traveled west to Alberta Province to stay with his step-brother and look for suitable land for a farm. With loans from relatives and generous terms from the seller, he bought a parcel of land that had been homesteaded in 1912. Slowly over several years, they began to make the farm pay, but life wasn’t easy. Money was always tight and the Kucharchuks had to adjust to a new climate, new crops, new culture and a new language.

Nina married in 1941 and had two children over the next few years. But tragedy struck their family again in 1946 when Nina’s husband was killed in a truck accident. In January, 1948, Nina married Walter Chwedoruk and their marriage lasted until his death in 1998.

John Kucharchuk worked the family’s farm until 1946, when he purchased a sawmill that became the foundation of his successful business. When logging played out in one area, John moved the mill to another center of logging activity. In 1953, John married and moved to Edmonton, where the couple had two children.

Steve also married in 1953, sold his farm and moved to Edmonton. He loved visiting his grandchildren and often helped out on Nina and Walter’s farm. After his wife died in 1975, Steve lived alone until he became ill with cancer. Nina took him to her house, where he passed away in 1977. John died in 2008 and Nina died two years later.

American freighter City of Flint arrives in Bergan, Norway, Nov. 9, 1939, after being freed from German control. Photo credit: Sharkhunters.com

War History City of Flint Odyssey, Part 8

After nearly a month under German control, the American freighter City of Flint was set free following a pre-dawn raid Nov. 4, 1939, while the ship lay at anchor in the port of Haugesund, Norway. Norwegian navy sailors boarded and arrested the German prize crew for violating Norway’s neutrality laws. (See blog post City of Flint Odyssey, Part 7, Dec. 15, 2015.)

Flint’s captain, Joseph Gainard, and her crew were once again in charge of their own ship, and their first stop was Bergen, Norway, where Gainard was met by the U.S. consul and learned for the first time of the U.S. State Department’s non-stop effort over the previous three weeks to free the ship. Also waiting for City of Flint in Bergen was a small army of newspaper reporters and newsreel photographers, all wanting to interview Gainard.

I have no story to tell,” Gainard told the media, as he related in his memoirs. “I’m not a salesman. I’m a sailor.” He explained his first priority was to prepare reports for the U.S. State Department concerning the ship’s seizure and their experiences in Murmansk, Russia. The captain and crew also met with the American Minister to Norway, Mrs. Florence Jaffray Harriman. Only after the official reports were filed did Gainard finally meet with reporters.

In the month that City of Flint had been sailing to Norway, Russia, and back to Norway, U.S. neutrality laws were revised to prohibit American flag ships from entering war zones. With the original ports in Great Britain no longer a possible destination, Gainard needed to arrange to offload the ship’s cargo elsewhere.

They sailed the last week of November, returning to Haugesund, where it took three weeks to find buyers and discharge the cargo. City of Flint sailed back to Bergen for fuel, and headed out to sea again on Dec. 22, bound for the port of Narvik on Norway’s northern coast. There they loaded a cargo of iron ore, but foul weather kept them in port for more than two weeks.

Christmas morning I was shaving,” Gainard later wrote. “Looking at myself in the mirror I saw my face and said, ‘Well, here’s a Merry Christmas to you—from me, anyway.’”

Finally on Jan. 7, 1940, City of Flint left Narvik bound for the U.S. It took the freighter three weeks with its heavy cargo to cross the stormy North Atlantic and arrive in Baltimore, finally ending her strange odyssey.

Sadly, neither City of Flint nor her captain survived the war.

Gainard, who was an inactive U.S. Navy reserve officer, received the Navy Cross for his steady hand throughout the seizure of his ship. He returned to active duty in 1941 and commanded an armed merchant ship and later the attack transport USS Bolivar. He died of natural causes on Dec. 23, 1943, at age 54.

But Gainard had survived his old ship, City of Flint, by almost a year. The doughty little freighter sank in the Atlantic on Jan. 27, 1943, when her convoy was attacked by German U-boats.

Members of City of Flint’s crew pose with the Nazi banner that flew over the ship while she was under German control. Photo credit: “Yankee Skipper: The Life Story of Joseph Gainard, Captain of the City of Flint.”

War History City of Flint Odyssey, Part 7

Within hours of leaving Russia in late October 1939, the American freighter City of Flint again entered Norwegian waters heading south toward Germany and a blockade of British warships. The ship continued to be operated by her American captain, Joseph Gainard, and his crew, but it remained under the control of the German prize crew and its commander, Leutnant Hans Pushbach. (See blog post City of Flint Odyssey, Part 6, Dec. 1, 2015.)

With an escort of two Norwegian warships, City of Flint stayed within Norway’s territorial waters to avoid capture by Royal Navy ships waiting just beyond the three-mile limit.

The closer City of Flint sailed toward the southern limit of Norwegian waters, the more Capt. Gainard’s hopes of getting free of the Germans diminished. When a crewman accidentally injured his shins, Gainard sensed an opportunity. Though the sailor’s injury wasn’t serious, Gainard asked Pushbach to signal for a doctor from one of the Norwegian warships, and the German obliged.

When the doctor came aboard, he was accompanied by a line officer from the Norwegian escort. While the doctor bandaged the sailor’s shins, Gainard took the officer around the Flint, making sure he noted how many Germans were aboard and the location of their quarters. He explained to Pushbach that he wanted the officer to be able to describe the ship’s condition should such a report become necessary if the ship was damaged or lost.

Flint’s radio remained out of order, so the German officer could not directly contact his superiors and receive orders on how to proceed and avoid the British ships waiting in the open sea south Norway. As City of Flint approached the southern Norwegian port of Haugesund, a German cargo ship sailing north came close enough for someone on the bridge to shout across in German that Pushbach should anchor in the port and see the German consul there.

Pushbach was in a difficult position. To anchor he needed some sort of emergency on board Flint or risk violating neutrality laws. He asked Gainard if the ship could have engine trouble, but Gainard refused to go along with such a ruse. In his memoir, he described what happened next:

I suggested that Russia, a large neutral country, favored the German nation. ‘Surely Norway, a small neutral nation, would not care to antagonize your country… You have been ordered to anchor, by all means anchor.’

He said, ‘I will anchor.’

I replied, ‘Do you order me to come to anchor?’

“’Yes, we must anchor.’”

City of Flint thus sailed into Haugesund harbor and anchored on the orders of Leutnant Pushbach.

Early the following morning, Nov. 4, while most of the German prize crew slept, the Norwegian Navy sent across an armed boarding party, which took over City of Flint without firing a shot. The Germans were informed they had lost their rights by anchoring without legal cause and they were taken into custody. City of Flint was returned to her crew.

“The crew was hilarious,” Gainard wrote. “At the moment they could be hostile to the Germans, they very graciously helped them over the side and said goodbye to them as if they were old friends…”

City of Flint’s nearly month-long ordeal was over, but not her odyssey. Her journey concludes in our next blog.

German Leutnant Hans Pushback (right) with members of his prize crew that took charge of the City of Flint on Oct. 9, 1939. Photo credit: Illustration from “Yankee Skipper: The Life Story of Joseph Gainard, Captain of The City of Flint”

War History City of Flint Odyssey, Part 6

City of Flint sailed into the Russian port of Murmansk a day after leaving Tromso, Norway. The American freighter remained under the direction of the German prize crew that had captured the ship and its crew Oct. 9, 1939; this in spite of the efforts of Flint’s captain, Joseph Gainard, to outwit the Germans during their brief stay in Norway. (See blog post City of Flint Odyssey, Part 5, Nov. 15, 2015.)

Although the Soviets had signed a non-aggression pact with Germany in August, Russia remained a neutral country. So when the Russian port authorities and customs officers boarded the ship and immediately took the German prize crew ashore to be interned, Gainard’s hopes rose once again.

The Russian Naval Port Officer declared City of Flint was free and told Gainard he could sail as soon as the ship’s papers were returned from the port’s customs office. Gainard gave the customs people a message for the American ambassador in Moscow, the first of several he delivered in hopes of reaching the ambassador.

The next morning, without any word from the ambassador, he asked to go ashore to telephone the U.S. Embassy and was told he would have to wait until tomorrow. After three “tomorrows,” and with Flint’s radio still inoperable, Gainard sent a signal by flags to the harbor boat that monitored the activities of the port’s neutral ships, asking for a launch to take him ashore. The Soviets responded with a display of flags saying, in essence, they could not supply a boat and he was not to use his own boat to go ashore.

With no way to legally go ashore and without the ship’s papers necessary for City of Flint to sail, Gainard and his crew effectively became prisoners on their own ship.

Meanwhile, it [was] an ironic fact that the world at large knew much more about us than we ourselves knew,” he later recalled in his memoir. “On our short-wave set we received broadcasts from home and, though it seem[ed] hard to believe, it was a U.S. news program that informed us—in Murmansk harbor—that our German friendly enemies were coming on board again, and that again we were under two flags bound for Germany.”

Fifteen minutes after the news broadcast ended, the Soviet port authorities came aboard with the German prize crew, returned the ship to German authority and gave City of Flint 24 hours to leave. The Russians suddenly became most helpful, and after a flurry of activity the ship’s papers were returned, but so far as Gainard could determine, none of his messages to the American ambassador was delivered.

Five days after arriving in Murmansk, City of Flint left the Russian port and headed south for Germany and a likely confrontation with British and/or German naval forces.

The odyssey continues in our next blog.

Tromso, Norway, today is a city of 75,000 people, six times larger than when City of Flint arrived in 1939. Photo credit: fjordtravel.no

War History City of Flint Odyssey, Part 5

A little more than a month after bringing 236 Athenia survivors into Halifax, Nova Scotia, the American freighter, City of Flint, once again became front-page news when she was captured by the German Navy, Oct. 9, 1939 (see blog post City of Flint Odyssey, Part 4, Nov. 1, 2015).

City of Flint had been bound for Great Britain when she was intercepted by a German battleship. After inspecting the American ship’s cargo and declaring it contraband, the Germans put an armed prize crew aboard and directed City of Flint’s captain, Joseph Gainard, to head for Germany. To avoid potential hostilities with Royal Navy warships, Gainard and the officer in charge of the prize crew, Leutnant Hans Pushbach, charted a northeasterly course that would take them close to Norway.

With the ship’s radio out of order, Gainard could not report what had happened and Pushbach couldn’t contact his superiors for instructions. Using a shortwave radio, however, they were able to listen to news bulletins, which reported that the ship had been captured but its whereabouts was unknown.

As City of Flint headed toward Norway, Gainard set up a ruse with his chief engineer to make the Germans think the ship was running short of water. If the Germans asked to anchor in a neutral port (Norway was a neutral country at the time) to take on water and it was discovered the water wasn’t needed, they would be in violation of neutrality laws and the prize crew would be removed.

The ruse worked and on the evening of Oct. 21, Pushbach ordered Gainard to anchor at Tromso, Norway, to take on water. To Gainard’s dismay, the Norwegians simply filled the ship’s water tanks without ever checking her existing supplies. When he asked to get in touch with the American consul, the Norwegian authorities explained there was no consul in Tromso.

During their brief stay in port, however, they learned from the shortwave news reports that their arrival had been flashed to the world. Less than 24 hours after taking on the water, City of Flint departed Tromso, escorted out of Norwegian waters by a destroyer.

“Pushbach was on the spot,” Gainard later recalled in his memoir. “He had no direct orders from his government, our radio failure prevented that. I was just as worried as he was. We both wanted to keep the Flint safe, to keep her out of further trouble. He wanted to get her to Germany as he had been ordered…[and] I wanted to get her free.
“There were plenty of British ships on patrol to the south and probably at least a few German submarines, and I was unwilling to risk being in the middle of a major naval engagement …. If we got between the two in their smash, it was possible the City of Flint might cease to exist…”

With Pushbach in agreement, Gainard pointed City of Flint north to continue her odyssey.
More in our next blog.

The German pocket battleship Deutschland captured City of Flint a month after the freighter rescued Athenia survivors. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

War History City of Flint Odyssey, Part 4

Captain Joseph A. Gainard, master of the American freighter, City of Flint, expected the notoriety he and his ship gained after rescuing survivors of the Athenia tragedy would quickly fade when he sailed Oct. 3, 1939, with a cargo bound for Liverpool, England. (See blog post City of Flint Odyssey, Part 3, Oct. 15, 2015.)

Gainard’s welcome return to obscurity lasted only until Oct. 9 when the German pocket battleship Deutschland appeared from over the horizon and ordered City of Flint to stop and be boarded. Gainard wasn’t worried. The United States and Germany weren’t at war and he considered his ship’s cargo to be quite innocent. In his memoir, Gainard described his initial meeting with the officer in charge of the German boarding party:

“I saluted, then held out my hand. ‘Glad to have you aboard,’ I said.

“He was pleased with our formality and politeness and did his best to match it himself. He said, ‘Captain, I am sorry to cause you inconvenience, but this is war. I must ask to see your papers.’

“…We had apples, asphalt, wax, machinery, lumber, tractors, canned goods, cereals, tobacco, lard, flour, oil, grease and general cargo. ‘This is bad,’ the German said. ‘You have 20,000 drums of oil on board. What kind of oil is it?’

“‘Lubricating oil,’ I told him

“‘That is bad,’ he said. ‘And this flour, what is it?’

“‘White-bread flour.’

“‘Is it easily accessible?’ he asked. I told him that it would take at least five hours to unload the flour and showed him the cargo plan to prove it.

“‘Under the laws of my country, you are guilty of carrying contraband to the enemy,’ he told me.”

To Gainard’s dismay, the Deutschland sent across an armed prize crew and ordered City of Flint to sail to Germany. Though he and his crew would operate the ship, they would do so under the close supervision of the prize crew commanded by Leutnant Hans Pushbach, a veteran of the Imperial German Navy who spoke excellent English.

The Yankee skipper was in an awkward position. The German crew proved to be reasonable and polite, but they were armed with pistols, machine guns, and grenades, and made it clear they would not hesitate to use their weapons to maintain control of the ship. Like the rest of his men, Gainard resented being under German control. But he had to keep his crew from taking any action that might cause an incident serious enough to jeopardize America’s neutrality. International prize rules at the time gave the Germans authority to commandeer the American ship’s cargo.

Nevertheless, the crew constantly schemed to find a way to rid their ship of the Germans. Flaws inevitably appeared as these plans were being worked out and they would be abandoned. Once or twice, however, the plans seemed almost plausible. But as Gainard observed in his memoir, the Germans inevitably sniffed them out:

“They fraternized with my crew and a couple of [the Germans] knew English but never let on about it. They would stand around watching card games in the crew’s quarters and listen to everything that was said. Then they’d go and report to their Captain.

“Every few days [Pushbach] would come up to me and say: ‘Well, tonight I think we have monkey business.’

“So I would then go the rounds and talk to the crew, and tell them there wasn’t a chance of their scheme getting across, that the Germans were already wise to them.”

A problem with City of Flint’s radio could not be fixed by the German technicians, who refused any help from Gainard’s crew. As a result, the ship could not communicate with the rest of the world. The best they could do was listen to news broadcasts over the short-wave radio to find out what the world knew about their situation. Unable to talk to his superiors, or to determine the extent of British fleet operations, Leutnant Pushbach decided City of Flint should make for Norway, a neutral country, where he might be able to gain information through German diplomatic channels.

It was a risky move for the German, and it would prove to be Pushbach’s undoing, but not before City of Flint’s odyssey would take it all the way to the Soviet Union, as we will see in our next blog.

Passengers aboard the cargo ship City of Flint prepared for arrival in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Photo credit: Athenia Torpedoed: The U-Boat Attack That Ignited the Battle of the Atlantic.

War History City of Flint Odyssey, Part 3

When Captain Joseph Gainard pointed City of Flint’s bow toward Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Sept. 4, 1939, his 20-year-old freighter had never carried so many passengers – 265 people, all but 29 being survivors of the torpedoed British passenger ship Athenia. (See blog post City of Flint Odyssey, Part 2, Oct. 1, 2015.)
Gainard and his crew faced a voyage of nine days and the captain immediately set about organizing his ship for the long haul. To oversee passenger matters, he set up a small “cabinet” that included two of Flint’s original paying passengers, her chief officer, and her steward.

“We had to figure things to do to keep all that crowd occupied,” Gainard later wrote. “We didn’t have any space for them to play games so we doubled up on some of the jobs, two sweepers to a broom; anything to keep them busy to take their minds off their troubles.” To the captain’s great satisfaction, nearly everyone aboard volunteered to take up some duty.

With help from several passengers, City of Flint’s carpenter completed building 250 bunk beds on the Shelter deck by the next evening, Sept. 5. To help find their way through the maze of beds, passengers put up names to identify various locations. Polish and Czech survivors occupied the “Polish Corridor” and “Sudetenland;” Canadians gathered in “Montreal” and “Quebec;” while names like “Madison Avenue,” “Times Square” and “Seventh Avenue” identified American sections.

Dining was a particular challenge. Before sailing, City of Flint’s steward had arranged enough food to feed 60 people for 90 days, never imagining how fortuitous his planning would prove. But the sheer number of passengers to be fed three times a day threatened to overwhelm the ship’s two small dining facilities. The cabinet set up a system of seatings, similar to the dining arrangements on a passenger ship. Diners picked up their plates and utensils, had a time limit to finish their meals once they were served, and carried their dirty dishes to the washroom. Other passengers, working in shifts, cleaned the plates and utensils for the next set of diners.

Passing ships helped to augment short supplies on City of Flint, sending across blankets, milk, fresh vegetables, medical supplies, and toys and candy for the children.

The cabinet established an entertainment committee, which organized passenger talent shows featuring singers, magicians, and story tellers. A dance instructor from a women’s junior college did the hula to the rhythm of a drum made by stretching canvas over an empty trash can. Passengers also held a limerick contest and conducted a fashion show featuring various “models” wearing their most outlandish makeshift outfits.

One of the passengers, a baker from Albany, NY, fashioned a cake for a party for the children on board, complete with presents of toys and candy supplied by a generous passenger on one of the passing ships. The children also put on a talent show to rival the adults.

Sadly, early on the morning of Sept. 9, the 10-year-old girl, Margaret Hayworth, who had received a head wound in the torpedo attack on Athenia, succumbed to her injury. Not wishing to add to the grief of the survivors who already had been through so much, Gainard decided not to announce the child’s death to the general population of passengers.

On the morning of Sept. 10, two U.S. Coast Guard cutters met City of Flint and took up positions on either side of the cargo ship to escort her the rest of the way to Halifax. The cutters took on board 10 injured survivors so they might enjoy less crowded conditions and have more medical personnel to look after them.

Three days later, City of Flint entered Halifax Harbor to little fanfare. “There were no welcome boats dashing about the harbor, no launches or hollering or shrieking tugs—no whistles,” Gainard said. “This was in line with my request the night before, and was, in fact, appreciated by the Canadians who did not feel that the sinking of the Athenia was any occasion for a celebration.”

As his passengers disembarked, Gainard might well have thought that he could slip back into the welcome anonymity of a merchant mariner. Fate, however, had different plans for the colorful captain and his ship. More about that in our next blog.