This year sees the centenary of the outbreak of WWI and its terrible loss of life. A much smaller tragedy— but one poignant because it was avoidable— happened as the last warlike act of WW2 not ten miles off East Lothian.
In both world wars, Germany terrorised British merchant shipping with a variety of Unterseeboote. Early models in WW2 were still primitive—short-ranged, slow and forced to surface regularly. But German science developed “Walther” submarines, able to move fast and stay submerged. Luckily for our sailors, they came too late.
One of the few to see service was U-2336, commanded by Kapitänleutnant (Commodore) Emil Klusmeier, an officer intimately involved in their development. After a shakedown in April, U-2336 sailed from Kiel on war patrol on May 1st.
Hitler had committed suicide the day before, naming his successor as Großadmiral Dönitz, former U-boat supremo. He capitulated to the Allies three days later, issuing orders for a complete ceasefire of all Wehrmacht forces from midnight on May 7th. Being submerged, U-2336 was unaware.
Aboard five ships and three escort trawlers of convoy EN91, assembling off Methil bound for Belfast, this was great news. As the ships left port on the evening of May 7th, flares, rockets and impromptu parties ashore celebrated the return of peace.
Towards 11pm, dusk had fallen on the little convoy now two miles SE of the May where U-2336 was able to see them outlined against the faint light still in the north-western sky. Klusmeier had only two torpedoes but he was able to use the U-boats superior speed to reach an ideal firing position.
The first torpedo struck the 1,790-ton Sneland 1, an old Norwegian freighter originally built in Germany. She sank quickly, taking seven of her 28-man crew to the bottom, including her captain. Before the escorts could intervene, Klusmeier had lined up the year-old, 2,787-ton Avondale Park (Canadian but with a British crew) and hit her with his remaining torpedo. Though sinking within two minutes, most of her 32-man crew survived. Only two died: chief engineer George Anderson and donkeyman William Harvey, last casualties within an hour of peace.
Klusmeier easily eluded pursuit to return to Kiel and some intense questioning. The fifty survivors were picked up and returned to Methil, dampening celebrations there. The remains of both ships lie near each other on a silted bottom. Despite their 55m depth, they are popular sites for wreck divers.
First published in the East Lothian Courier, February 2014