- Wright, Ken
- Naval Intelligence, Ship histories and stories, History - WW2, WWI operations
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 2007 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
No one could wash or shave. Body odour and beards became a normal part of the crew’s daily life with hygiene conditions a nightmare. Two men would take it in turns at sleeping in each bunk and the damp bed retained the accumulated sweat and was never aired. There were no pyjamas and when it was cold the men simply went to bed fully clothed. Only when they reached the Equator were they able to air the bedding and their clothes and bathe in the warmer water. As the heat increased, clothes were discarded and the crew were reduced to their underwear. With privacy onboard non-existent, one risked indecent exposure when dreaming of the good times they had ashore. Even using the toilet was a very tricky procedure. The sewage had to be pumped out through a complicated valve system. With the pressure from outside, these valves sometimes malfunctioned and the sea threw the sewage back at the polluter with an explosive noise. Kapitan-Leutnant Jebsen banned the use of the toilet when the enemy was around because of this toilet noise.
Jebsen was a careful and methodical man. He restricted his radio use to ‘listening only’ and did not report the boat’s position daily. He also had strict orders that his first priority was to reach his destination in Penang and to only engage enemy shipping if the mission was not put in jeopardy. Why Jebsen, on 26 April, found the 6,255 ton Panamanian freighter Colin a temptation too hard to resist is open to question. The crew held their breath after the order ‘fire one and fire two’ was given. Everyone heard the explosion in the distance as one, possibly two, torpedoes struck. After the survivors from the Colin were observed rowing away from the area, the U-859 surfaced to recharge the batteries, finally broke radio silence and informed BdU of the boat’s position, and the details of the sinking. Station X now knew where the U-859 was. In early June, U-859 crossed the equator and was now cruising on the surface in the middle of a busy Allied shipping lane 260 miles off the South African coast near Durban. Jebsen informed BdU of his position. Station X position plotters were again delighted.
An enemy Catalina PBY aircraft was spotted on 5 July, and instead of diving, Jebsen decided to give his gunners some practice, confident his 3.7 centimetre gun could easily take care of this slow-moving aircraft. ‘Flieralarm’ was shouted down the hatch and the crew took up their battle stations. Electrician Baudzus was part of the human chain supplying ammunition to the guns from the storage lockers below.
‘I stood on the bridge holding a 3.7 centimetre shell cradled in my arms. I had been locked up below for three months without ever once coming up into the fresh air. I couldn’t believe how sickly yellow my skin was’.
Flight Lieutenant Fletcher and his Catalina crew from RAF 262 Squadron had left Durban and had been searching for the U-859 for over an hour with the U-boat’s approximate location supplied by Station X. Fletcher knew the submarine was armed with a 3.7 centimetre gun and two double barrelled 2 centimetre flak guns. His Catalina carried 5 x 250 pound bombs and five machine guns. With his fuel running low, it was now or never. As he began his attack run, the U-boat commander waited until the aircraft was within range of his weapons and gave the order to fire. Both 2 centimetre guns opened up but the 3.7 jammed. The Catalina flew over the U-boat with machine guns blazing but didn’t drop any bombs. With the diesel motors racing at full power, Jebsen zigzagged his boat while his 3.7 gunner tried desperately to get the weapon to work. The aircraft turned and came in again, strafing the U-boat, killing the gunner and wounding one other crew member. Jebsen decided he was not going to win this contest and ordered a crash dive. As the U-boat slipped below the waves in a steep dive, five bombs fell nearby shaking the boat, shattering glass and pitching the U-boat’s interior into darkness. As the emergency lights came on those nearest the depth gauge watched with growing concern as the indicator on the depth gauge went past the gauge’s maximum limit. The hull creaked and groaned but held together at an approximate depth of 300 feet. There was a collective sigh of relief when the boat began to level out and start to rise again and come up to 100 feet. The only major damage was to the snorkel. It could not be repaired, which meant the boat would have to approach Penang on the surface.
At 10 pm on the night of August 28, the 7,200 ton American merchant ship USS John Barry was struck in the forward part of number 3 hold on the starboard side by three torpedoes from the U-859. The forward holds began to flood and within ten minutes Captain Joseph Ellerwald ordered the crew to abandon ship. Jebsen waited until he was satisfied there was no-one left onboard to man both the prow and stern guns and surfaced. At 10.30 he fired another torpedo scoring a hit on his victim’s port side engine room. The Liberty ship broke in two and sank. In her holds were 3 million Saudi riyals worth $80 million and over $300 million in silver bullion and assorted war materiel destined for Russia via the Gulf. In the early hours of September 1, the U-boat struck again. Three torpedoes slammed into the 7,669 ton Blue Funnel liner Troilus carrying a cargo of tea, copra and coconut oil.