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.

Thomas Sanger View more

Thomas C. Sanger is a journalist and author residing in San Diego, CA with his wife, author Kay Sanger. His forthcoming novel, Without Warning, is a historical novel about the British passenger ship Athenia, which was attacked by a German submarine only a few hours after England declared war on Germany at the start of World War II in 1939.

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