I had been convinced that my second guide trip this season to the Isle of May would be cancelled today. The Met Office inshore forecast for Forth was Southeasterly force 5 or 6 wind, moderate to rough sea state, poor visibility and rain, with SEPA and EL Council backing that up with a flood warning because of so much rain. We were to land at Kirkhaven with broken sea running out of the Northeast at the bottom of a Spring tide.
But the day dawned and few of the predictions turned out as dire as forecast. The worst was heading into a broken sea on the passage across which meant plenty spray, slow progress and a lot of work for skipper Callum. But, once there, the rain held off and the biggest flocks of puffins I have ever seen stood about in amicable battalions like mini-penguins or clattered overhead in dense clouds. They seem to like it best when overcast and dull and were not the least deterred from fishing by the broken water nearby.
But my vivid memory of this trip will be of learning two more of the wrecks that pepper the outer Forth, their story being particularly tragic. It was May 7th 1945. The BBC had announced peace with Germany had finally been signed, to take effect at midnight, with two days of celebrations to follow. Among those cheering (and perhaps starting the celebrations early) were the crews manning the Fixed Defence Stations on the May and at Canty Bay who monitored the submarine detector loops laid across the mouth of the Forth. Singularly displeased with this news were the sailors on the five ships of convoy EH51 that had just left Methil for Belfast, escorted by three trawlers.
They would have even been more displeased to know that U-2336 under Kapitanleutnant Klusemeier had slipped undetected inside the Forth. This was one of the revolutionary Type XXIII ‘Walther’ boats, capable of unheard-of submerged durations and speeds. Had they been introduced earlier, they could have starved Britain out of the war. Because they operated submerged, Klusemeier had not heard the OKM order of May 4th to desist from further attacks, nor that day’s one calling a midnight ceasefire.
At 11pm, the light was almost gone as the convoy steered 70deg in calm seas to clear the South Horn of the May. The Canadian (but British-crewed) Avondale Park (2,878 tons) was leading the starboard column when a torpedo hit her engine room, destroying the starboard lifeboat. As she settled by the stern, some of her crew got away on a raft on the poop deck. The next ship in the column, the Norwegian collier Sneland I (1,791 tons) had to swerve to port to avoid the sinking ship. As she drew level, she too was struck by a torpedo abaft her No.2 hold and sank within two minutes.
The escorting trawlers, though small, did have asdic and depth charges and attacked a submerged contact without effect. They picked up a number of survivors, finding them in the dark by the small light carried on new lifebelts. A total of 55 survivors were landed back at Methil when the convoy turned back. But neither Chief Engineer George Anderson, nor Donkeyman William Harvey, who had gone into the flooding engine room of Avondale Park, survived, nor did seven crew from the Sneland I, who had too little time to escape, including her Captain, Johannes Legland.
U-2336 returned to Kiel unharmed on May 14th and surrendered to the British. Being a coastal submarine, it had carried only two torpedoes—and could hardly have caused more carnage on its one and only voyage. But, cruellest of all, the nine deaths it caused were pointless, with peace less than an hour away. Both wrecks, the last casualties of the six-year-long sea war, stand as their monument 8 metres high in 45 metres of water little more than a mile off the South Horn of the May.