After decades of prosperity and relative peace, for the last month, the Western world has suddenly had to adjust to being shocked by the brutality and horror of full-scale war between two modern armies amidst the cities and citizens of a modern nation. Virtually nobody alive today still has memories of this.
It was 77 years ago in the last throes of the Second World War that the he tragedy and futility of war was common knowledge. And in one of the last acts of that war in Europe, one of the most poignant examples can be found. It happened within sight of the small town along the East Neuk of Fife, Had fate been more kind, it need never have happened.
By 1945, coastal convoys suffered few threats. The EN series linking Hull with Belfast and ports between, carrying industrial goods like coal and pig iron were routine. In May 1945, EN491 left Hull and called in at Leven on the Firth of Forth. On the evening of May 7th, five ships sailed from Leven around 8pm to continue on to Belfast, via the Pentland Firth. These were two modern British freighters Avondale Park (2,878 tons) and Weybank (7,368) tons) and three older Norwegian ships Rolfjarl, Selvik and Saeland I, averaging 1,800 tons.
Escorted by armed trawlers, the convoy passed the Isle of May in the dark, around 10:30 pm. Hostilities in Europe had effectively ceased and an armistice, soon known as “VE Day” was to take affect the next day, May 8th. Almost everyone on the ships and those manning shore defences were caught up in the excitement and relief the news caused after almost six years of war.
Those defences included magnetic detection loops strung across the mouth of the Firth of Forth and monitored from Canty Bay on the South shore. The magnetic field of ships passing over these loops caused currents that could be detected. Before the convoy reached them, an unidentified ship was detected. But, as the convoy was expected and peace was imminent, no action was taken.
The ship was in fact a German submarine. U-2336 had been completed the previous September at Deutsche Werft in Hamburg. Despite her high number, she was not one of the innovative Walther boats but a smaller XXIII-class conventionally powered costal submarine with a crew of 18 and only two torpedoes. Her working up had been interrupted by a collision in which she sank sister boat U-2344, with the loss of 12 lives.
On April 26th under Kapitänleutnant Emil Klusmeier, U-2336 left the 4th Submarine Flotilla in Kiel to begin her first patrol from Larvik in Norway on May 1st. Equipped with a schnorkel, she stayed submerged much of the time. For that reason, Klusmeier did not receive the order issued by Doenitz on May 4th to cease warfare at midnight on May 7th and return to base.
Sneland 1 (Master Johannes B. Lægland) had a crew of 29 and was the commodore ship of the convoy, leading the other four past Isle of May. She had been built as Ingeborg in the German shipyard of Nuschke & Co. AG of Stettin (now Poland) in 1922 but sold three years later to Norway and renamed. The convoy had two small escorts, HMS Valse and HMS Leicester City, both requisitioned Grmsby trawlers of 245 tons, each armed with a 3-inch gun and depth charges. While both were armed with depth charges, neither was equipped with Asdic or Radar.
She was being followed by Avondale Park. Launched from the Canadian yard of Foundation Maritime in Pictou, Nova Scotia the previous year for the Canadian government but was acquired by the Admiralty and assigned to the Hill Steamship Company of Newcastle. She had a crew of 27 men and 4 gunners under the command of Captain James Cushnie aboard.
Although it was dark and the blackout was still in effect on both shore and ships, Klusmeier, cruising slowly at periscope depth just East of the Isle of May was able to detect the silhouettes of the convoy against a lighter sky to his North. He launched both torpedoes. The first struck Avondale Park at 11:03pm and the Sneland 1 less than three minutes later, both on the starboard side.
Avondale Park listed and started to go down. All but two of the crew were able to launch boats and pull clear before she sank. However, Sneland 1 was rocked by an explosion and went down within two minutes, taking seven of her crew with her, including Captain Lægland.
HMS Valse and HMS Leicester City picked up survivors in the water and depth-charged the area blindly, but Klusmeier and U-2336 made good their escape, returning to Larvik to be finally told that the war was over.
Although, technically, the war was still on, nine sailors died needlessly in those chill waters with less than an hour to go before peace would reign, all U-boats would become scrap, and the armed trawlers go back to fishing the seas around Iceland for cod.
All deaths in war are tragic. But few can have been as pointless and avoidable as those nine at the very threshold of peace. Their remains still lie with the wrecks of the Sneland 1 and Avondale Park festooned with spider webs of fishing nets in 50 metres of water not far East of Kirkhaven on the Isle of May. They are kept company by the other 250 wrecks that litter the seabed in the busy approaches to the Firth of Forth.