HMMS Berbice and the U-boat.
Captain Sperling´s crew were in a good mood, slightly relieved to be away from the attacks on the North Atlantic convoys and intrigued as to the nature of this mission. He took his U-boat closer into the Malacian coast searching for a landmark to fix his position. His orders were to surface a mile off a distinctive house and to shell the bauxite quarry eight kilometres inland. What he and the senior German staff didn´t realise was that the house had never existed, it was one of the traps map makers routinely include to be able to identify unauthorised copying of their maps.
"This is ridiculous!" He exclaimed. "It´s just a featureless coast with trees. Erik, there are no ships visible, take us up deck awash, Udo and I will take some sextant readings."
"Very good." His First Officer replied. Erik had the Uboat taken up slowly aware that there was a just a gentle swell running which would make the conning tower stand out if it made any disturbance of the water. In a few minutes Sperling and his navigator, Udo Ludenberg, hurried up and took a first set of readings, then they swapped sextants before taking a second set. As soon as they had done so they scrambled back down and Erik took the boat below the surface once more, with hardly a ripple left on the surface to show what had happened. Udo calculated their position and announced that they were a couple of kilometres west of the location of their aiming mark. Sperling ordered five knots for the next fifteen minutes to get closer to his mark, and spread out the coastal map of Western Malacia so that he, Erik and Udo could start to work out a fire plan.
Their deliberations were disturbed by the hydrophone operator. "Hydrophone effect starboard bow."
Commander Wells stood on the bridge of his River-class patrol ship, HMMS Berbice, its wide hull hardly rolling in the long, gentle swell. It was a hot summer´s day and he was glad of the breeze generated by its patrol speed of four knots. Behind him he could hear the excited chatter of the two RSU students Graham Horley and Mark Brunel, both wearing the uniforms of volunteer sub-lieutenants, as they monitored the output of the experimental ultrasonic ASDIC while it scanned the seabed below the ship, carefully watched over by his navigator, Lieutenant Callaghan. He appreciated the usefulness of the equipment to be able to map the sea bed but preferred his ability -the result of many years of sailing the coastal waters- to read the sea´s surface and understand what lay beneath.
"The tide is on the turn" Lieutenant Callaghan called out. Wells turned to face him.
"Thank-you Jim." He took in the puzzled took on the two RSU men. "When at sea you need to know the state of the tide; it´s never good to run aground but it is a calamity if you do it as the tide starts to ebb."
Captain Sperling turned back to his hydrophone operator and waited for him to remove his headphones. "Well?"
"I´ve never heard anything quite like it, Captain. Definitely two propellers and noisy machinery but strangely muffled. I can´t get a proper bearing on it, it seems to be present from starboard 35 degrees to 65 degrees with no maximum. There is no hull noise, though."
"A stationary drainage pump, the noise propagating down a pipe?" suggested Petty Officer Wilhelm.
Sperling thought for a while before announcing his decision. "I´ll take a look. Bring the boat up to periscope depth Erik, and keep her at five knots, we´ve got the current against us."
Erik ordered the U-boat to be brought towards the surface, and after a few seconds announced "Periscope depth."
"Up periscope." Sperling commanded. He quickly turned the periscope though a circle, scanning the sky for aircraft and found it empty. He then looked for the source of the noise that his hydrophone operator had picked up; it didn´t take him long to find it. "Small craft, very low free-board with small raised forecastle. One twin gun turret forward with a single gun aft, low structure amidships with an old-style bridge and what looks like a spotting top halfway up the main-mast. One funnel with what looks like an anti-aircraft gun abaft it. It´s flying the Malacian jack. Down periscope."
"River class monitor." Wilhelm replied, bent over the U-boat´s copy of Jane´s. "Twin fifteen-point-two centimetre guns in the forward turret, one twelve centimetre gun each side aft. A seven-point-six centimetre anti-aircraft gun midships and two four-point-seven centimetre guns and eight light machine guns. No antisubmarine weapons, but may have had extra anti-aircraft guns fitted." Wilhelm paused for a few seconds before continuing. "1500 tons, 92 metres long and Mein Gott, less than a metre freeboard! Maximum speed eleven knots, noted for being affected by crosswinds, two triple expansion engines still, the propellers are in a tunnel which makes her difficult to control when going astern."
"Thank you Wilhelm. I think it will be worth a couple of torpedoes. Set up an attack run, we´ll use a ninety-degree gyro shoot; I don´t want to head into the shore, we´re close enough already." The crew withdrew two torpedoes from the bow tubes to set them for a 90 degree right-hand shoot before reloading them. Sperling continued to make sightings and after a few minutes Erik declared they had a solution.
"Fire when ready." Sperling ordered.
Erik fixed his gaze on one of his stop watches. "Launch two!" and after a few seconds "Launch four." He now watched the second stopwatch and he started to count down the seconds before the first torpedo should hit the unsuspecting monitor. He had got down to three when the crew heard an explosion. "I hope I´m not losing my touch." He said.
"Periscope up." Sperling ordered, once it was up he put his eyes to the eye pieces and scanned round. "Schiessen!" he exclaimed.
On board the Berbice the crew had been completely surprised by the explosion close to their starboard bow. It was caused by the second torpedo, the first having passed harmlessly ahead of them, as the U-boat crew had over-estimated the ship´s speed. Commander Wells looked at the colour of the water thrown up and announced "Probably a torpedo, there´s only four or five feet of water there."
"Action stations!" He shouted. "Gun crews close up, AP rounds for the six inch, delay HE for the howitzers. Engine room, battle revolutions!" The last command was the private joke between him and his Chief Engineer; when clean the monitor could just about make seven and a half knots, he suspected that she was only able to make seven at the moment. "Sparks, signal Inshore Control and advise suspect U-boat contact." He heard Callaghan call out their current position without being asked; he turned his gaze back to the open sea on his right seeking the source of the torpedo. He didn´t even turn to look when the second torpedo exploded further inshore but simply remarked "Definitely a U-boat." He saw the periscope at almost the same time as the lookouts above him. "Steer zero-two-zero." He ordered. "Arthur, Jim." He called to his gunnery officer and his navigator, "Start a plot, we might just be able to give him a surprise. Sparks, make that suspect a definite".
In the cool confines of the U-boat Sperling had already experienced one surprise which probably led him to keep the periscope raised longer than was wise, he could plainly see the Malacian patrol ship not only unharmed but now starting to turn towards him. "Ready the stern tube for firing." He called. "Steer zero-one-nine."
"Captain," Erik said quietly "That torpedo is suspect, we´ve been warned it´ll probably
"Yes." Sperling replied. "I think the water here is on the shallow side." He was interrupted by the call that the rear tube was ready.
"Steady." He called as he followed his target start its turn. "Launch!" He watched with a horrified expression on his face as the elderly ship side-slipped to port as she tried to head towards the U-boat; black smoke from her funnel showing her effort to pick up speed and not a trace of heel as she tried to turn. "Missed! We´ve missed it again!" He growled.
"How come?" Erik asked.
"That patrol ship is sliding sideways across the water. Wilhelm, what draught does your copy of Jane´s show for it?"
Wilhelm went back through the ship´s entry and reread the paragraph. "It doesn´t say, Captain."
"Well it can´t be very much, it is sliding outwards like a racing car on a wet track!"
Back on the Berbice, Arthur Doyle announced he had a solution. "Fuze setting four, range four thousand six fifty yards, green zero one zero."
A few seconds later both of the four-point-seven inch howitzers fired, and another salvo followed six seconds later.
Graham stopped the ASDIC unit from scanning and told his colleague. "You´ve got manual control, Mark." "What does ´fuze setting four´ mean?" He asked the officers around him.
"The howitzers are the closest thing we have to an antisubmarine weapon, Graham." Commander Wells replied. "The fuze setting corresponds to the depth underwater that the shell should explode in fathoms, four fathoms is twentyfour feet. What is Mark up to?"
"He is manually controlling the ASDIC to see if he can locate the submarine."
Mark had the transducer almost horizontal and was slowly sweeping the port bow; suddenly he called out. "I think I´ve got it. Green zero-one-seven, four thousand five ninety yards. It is broadside on to us."
Arthur used this to update his plot before calling out corrections to the howitzer crews.
On board the U-boat they were surprised by the underwater explosions, although small they were rather too close for comfort.
"What is that?" Asked Sperling. "They aren´t big enough for depth charges and they´re coming in pairs."
"A gun of some sort? The shells would explode near the surface." Suggested Erik. "They shouldn´t present much danger while we´re submerged."
"Except that everywhere here is near the surface." Sperling replied ruefully. "Ten knots and change course to zerozerofive."
To their consternation the explosions followed them, guided by Wells and a Petty Officer in the spotting top who could also read the sea, backed up by Mark´s use of the Ultrasonic ASDIC. Each time Sperling changed the U-boat´s course they left the shell fire behind them but inevitably it would return. He could not take the boat any deeper, and his manoeuvring was limited by the mudbanks, as he twisted and turned between them he followed a channel taking him southwards. Soon they were deep in the maze of channels but Berbice followed them.
Inevitably there came a time when several howitzer shells exploded very close and slightly below the Uboat; they shook it and there were a series of ominous creaks from below the Uboat´s deck. Sperling then took the risk of steering almost due south and managed to leave the shellfire behind. His relief was short lived, however, as shortly after that the engine room reported the smell of chlorine.
Sperling´s response was quick. "Gun crews ready, AP shell and aim for the main turret. I want the machine guns to cover the decks to stop any of their light guns from being manned. Erik, steer two-five-zero and take her up. Engine room, start the diesels, it´ll help suck out the chlorine."
On board Berbice the forward turret slewed round to face the surfacing U-boat. Even as the U-boat´s crew ran to their stations the monitor´s six inch guns fired, the shells striking the sea short of their target, one of them ricocheting over the dark grey submarine to explode harmlessly behind it. The U-boat´s crew loaded their eighty-eight and fired it at Berbice but the shell passed harmlessly over the ship. Both crews raced to reload as the U-boat´s machine guns opened up, followed by the monitor´s port three-pounder gun. The eighty-eight fired again, this time its shell falling short, followed seconds later by the six inch guns but again they missed with both shells passing overhead. The eighty-eight fired a third shell which struck the base of Berbice´s turret. Although there was no explosion the turret stopped tracking the U-boat and didn´t fire.
"Turret jammed." Was the terse report.
In the U-boat´s engine room the crew had donned gas masks to protect themselves from the chlorine. "There is seawater in the main battery compartment." They reported. "The water is already acidic."
Unable to see the gunners right aft struggling to get the four barrelled pom-pom into action he roared at them to get it firing. Despite the machinegun fire the three pounder´s crew were keeping up their fire but the high explosive rounds couldn´t damage the pressure hull on the occasions that they hit, and the two howitzers maintained their fire but could not find the range. The eighty-eight swung across to the mid-ships three-pounder under the belief it was a bigger anti-aircraft gun. Their first shot at it missed but the second struck it fair and square, the exploding shell destroying the mount completely. The jubilant gunners then swung their gun back towards the monitor´s bridge expecting to hit it with their next shot. Just as the pom-pom started to fire at the U-boat the three-pounder caught the muzzle of the eighty-eight with a high-explosive shell, slightly deforming the inner liner of the gun barrel. The eighty-eight´s crew carried on with their drill and fired their gun; the armour piercing shell was momentarily slowed at the muzzle, just enough to cause the base fuze to function, and the bursting charge exploded as the shell left the barrel. The fragments, along with the fire of the pom-pom quickly cleared the U-boat´s deck.
"Maximum revolutions!" Sperling called out as he descended in a controlled fall to the deck. "Steer three-five-zero."
The Uboat responded quickly to her engines and pulled away but seconds later her bow reared out of the water and she came to a complete stop, firmly aground on a mudbank.
Commander Wells slowed the Berbice down and started to take her around the stern of the U-boat while the port howitzer continued firing, eventually hitting its stern. The shell punched through the decking and came to rest against the pressure hull before exploding.
On board the U-boat the sound of the exploding shell was followed by the creak of a stressed weld. Captain Sperling summed up his situation, aground on a mudbank with a falling tide and chlorine gas wafting through his boat. With no deck gun and unable to fire torpedoes he was a sitting duck, even with its small guns the Malacian ship would eventually destroy him and if it got just one of its six-inch guns operating the end would be quick.
"Erik, we have to abandon ship; there is no point in us all dying when we cannot fight back." He looked around his crew seeing their crestfallen expressions. "Set scuttling charges in the forward torpedo room and the engine room. They´ll not have our boat. Wilhelm, fetch the wardroom tablecloth -it will make a temporary white flag."
Even as Wilhelm turned to fetch the cloth another explosion close to the stern of the Uboat was followed by more creaks. Wilhelm returned with the tablecloth and Sperling took it from his hands.
"I´ll take it up, but I´ll be the last off the boat." He turned to his hydrophone operator. "Hand me your headphones." He ordered, and the mystified sailor took them off and gave them to his captain. Sperling climbed up into the conning tower and held the white cloth in clear view, just as Berbice´s crew freed the forward turret and traversed it towards the stranded Uboat.
"Cease fire!" Wells called out. "Only engage on orders."
In later years Sperling swore he heard every word of the Malacian ship´s captain. "Everyone on deck." He called down, and the crew hurried out onto the small deck, some coughing from the effects of the chlorine which was welling up from the battery compartments.
Commander Wells lifted his battered brass megaphone to his lips and called out to the Uboat´s captain. "If you throw your light guns overboard I will come alongside and take you and your crew aboard."
"That is kind of you." Sperling called back. "We have set scuttling charges with a sufficient delay for your ship to get clear but if you put a boarding party across I will set the charges off." He lifted the cable fromthe set of headphones into the air as if it were a detonator.
"I agree." Wells replied. As he brought the Berbice alongside the Uboat he spoke to his crew. "I know we were fighting each other a few minutes ago but I want no revenge on the crew; they are prisoners-of-war now and are to be treated as such; they are to be checked for weapons, however. Take any wounded amidships, the rest can be kept on the quarterdeck."
The Berbice gently nudged the U-boat as she came alongside and her crew put a temporary brow across to make it easier for the German crew to get across. The uninjured were taken aft but any injured sailors were taken to the Berbice´s doctor who had set up a temporary sick bay behind the ship´s bridge where he was already treating some of his fellow crew members. Two walking wounded were helped by uninjured crew one of whom identified the other as the U-boat´s doctor and offered to act as a translator as their doctor did not speak English.
"Alas I speak no German." Partington replied, "Just English and Dutch."
"I speak a little Dutch." The German doctor replied, and with the aid of the translator they dealt with the injured crew.
"Do you have any dead?" Wells asked.
Yes, we have three."
Wells turned to one of his petty officers. "Bring three stretchers."
"Captain, bring them aboard, you cannot leave them on your boat."
The crews of both ships worked to bring the dead crewmen aboard before Wells asked Sperling if everyone was off the Uboat.
"Not quite, three more and myself. Can you get clear in ten minutes?"
"Yes." Wells replied. "Please don´t tell me you intend to go down with your boat!"
"Not at all." Sperling said; he then called down the hatch. "Erik, tell them to set the timers to twelve minutes and then all three of you get up here quickly."
Udo and Wilhelm soon scrambled up followed by Erik, and all three crossed over to Berbice´s deck. After a few seconds Sperling gave the conning tower´s coaming an affectionate pat and then followed across. As soon as he was aboard the Berbice the brow was pulled back and the lines cast off.
"Full Astern." Wells called out, and once they were clear of the stranded U-boat he followed this with "Flap down, ten degrees starboard rudder". Wells then turned to Sperling. "Would you accompany me to the Bridge? I´m sorry we´re holding your men under guard with our machine guns but there are rather a lot of them. Perhaps you might tell them they will come to no harm, they might want to sit down as we´ll take a few hours to reach Malacia City."
Sperling nodded and called out to Erik who spoke to the crew whose relaxation was visible, and most of them chose to sit on the monitor´s deck.
Seeing that they were now far enough away from the U-boat, Wells called out a new set of orders. "Stop engines, flap up, full ahead both, ten degrees port rudder. Jim, once we´re clear set a course to Malacia City." He then led the way up to the ship´s bridge followed by Sperling; soon after they climbed up to it the double boom of the scuttling charges reached them.
"A sad end to an old friend." Sperling said, watching the remains of his boat sink below the muddy water."
"But a more honourable end than being captured, and definitely preferable to sinking with all hands." Wells replied. "I haven´t introduced myself, Commander Herbert Wells but most people call me ´H´."
"I am Captain Heinz Sperling."
Their conversation was interrupted by a polite cough behind Wells; he turned and took the proffered flimsy. Quickly reading it he handed it back to the rating. "Have an acknowledgement sent, Lieutenant Callaghan will give you an ETA." He turned back to Sperling. "I´ve been instructed to take you to Malacia City, it´ll take over four hours; as you can see this lady is not designed for speed!"
"Yes, your slow speed upset one or two of my calculations." Sperling replied.
"Do you wish your dead to be buried at sea or on land?"
"I would prefer they were buried on land, it means a grave that can be visited and the possibility of reburial in Germany."
"I will see that is done."
The two officers were reminiscing about their times at sea when the sound of an approaching aircraft disturbed them. The twin-engined biplane was headed directly towards them on a reciprocal course.
"Make the recognition signal of the day, also special signal ´D´." Wells called out, and one of the signallers had a set of flags run up the main halyards whilst his colleague fired off several Very flares. The flying boat circled the ship a few times before it flew off to the north. The rest of the journey was uneventful until they were in sight of Malacia City, at which point two Harbour Defence launches met them and escorted them in through the boom defences. Wells took the Berbice to her appointed berth and he noticed the armed guard awaiting the U-Boats crew and the train behind them. "I understand that our planning included a small prisoner of war camp somewhere in the south of the country. I suspect you may well be its first occupants."
"Thank you for taking us off our boat Commander, and the way you have treated us, especially our wounded."
Once they were alongside and the brows were in position Wells led Sperling back down to the main deck, and allowed him to lead his crew ashore. As Sperling stepped onto the quayside the main body of the guard came to attention and the young army officer saluted him and he returned the salute. The crew of his boat followed him onto the waiting train and they were taken to a transit camp on the out skirts of Malacia city. The following day they were taken to the military cemetery for the burial of their dead comrades, along with the dead crew of the Berbice. After this they were taken to the prisoner-of-war camp deep in the interior.
That afternoon Commander Wells was summoned to the Inshore Command offices.
"We have read your report and have come to the conclusion that you acted correctly and in accordance with your orders. We also agree that the three-pounder guns are of limited use and have instructed that they are to be replaced by the new automatic six-pounders that are currently fitted to the small patrol craft. All three monitors will be supplied with a mix of highexplosive and armour-piercing ammunition."
Although it was intended to scrap the three River Class monitors after World War Two in order to recycle the valuable steel, HMMS Berbice was kept as a memorial until her hull started to deteriorate. In 1962 the Duke of Demerara lent his weight to a campaign to have the ship preserved and eventually an area was provided on the riverside in Malacia City when the flood defences were being re-built. She was moored alongside the site after the old wall was demolished and a cofferdam was built around her, and everything movable was removed and stored ashore. Then when the river was at its highest water was pumped inside the cofferdam until the plaza was sufficiently flooded to allow Berbice to be warped in until she was above the pre-positioned support blocks -an exercise that made one engineer comment that it was the only time he'd pumped riverwater into the city. Then the water was drained back into the river and Berbice gently settled into her final resting place, after which the flood wall was rebuilt.
This page copyright SR Jenkins September 2016; reproduction without prior approval is prohibited.
Page last updated: 20th December 2018.
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