The Doggerbank story
Some time ago, I was reading in K.W.L. Bezemer's book "Geschiedenis van de Nederlandse Koopvaardij in de Tweede Wereldoorlog", and I came across a chapter dealing with the mining of the freighter Mangkalihat, near South Africa. This chapter especially drew my attention because the mine doing all the damage was laid by a ship I had never heard of before. Most of us interested in naval warfare know the story of the German raiders, disguised merchants with heavy guns marauding the waters of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. They laid mines off large ports, adding more ships and tonnage to their score. However, this was not one of them, although her history was closely related. The British freighter Speybank, owned by the Bank Line in Liverpool, was captured by the German raider Atlantis, and was subsequently brought to France by a prize crew. There, she was converted to auxiliary minelayer. Renamed Doggerbank, she made a daring sortie to the waters of South-Africa, where she laid her dangerous cargo. Surprisingly, I found nothing worth mentioning about this ship or her history on the Internet.
In the evening of January 31 1941, a lookout aboard Atlantis reported a mast on the distant horizon, soon followed by the vague silhouette of a merchant ship. An hour later, the British steamer Speybank lay stopped in the vast area of the Indian Ocean, awaiting the German boarding party to take over the ship. Atlantis under captain Bernhard Rogge lay further away, with her guns ready to counter any opposition on the British side. However, the captain of the Speybank had soon come to the conclusion that trying to escape would be suicide, as his ship could not begin to match the speed and firepower the German raider boasted. A whaleboat brought 17 of the British crew to the Atlantis, while the Germans quickly took command of the ship. The ship had been enroute from Cochin to New York with a cargo of tea, valuable manganese ore and teakwood. Kapitän zur See Rogge immediately realized the value of the cargo, and ordered the ship to a safe location for the time being. The Speybank had a full store of supplies and sufficient fuel to make it to France.
On March 21 1941, Atlantis rendezvoused with the Speybank for the last time, as captain Rogge had decided to send the ship with its valuable cargo to France. The raw materials in the holds would be put to good use in the German industry. He decided to put the ship under command of an young officer named Schneidewind, from the blockade runner Tannenfels. Schneidewind , who knew the waters of Asia well, proved to be a capable officer. He navigated the Speybank through the dangerous waters of the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic, and finally arrived safely in Bordeaux on May 10. Immediately after arrival, Schneidewind suggested that the German Navy convert the Speybank to auxiliary minelayer. The idea of laying mines near distant ports must have intrigued the higher naval officers, they decided to accept Schneidewind's decision. The fact that Speybank belonged to a class of 18 ships came in handy, not only because it would be easy to disguise her as one of the sisterships, but also because the disguise could be changed time after time without rousing suspicion. The ship was converted to carry a total of 280 mines of various types, and in addition, she could act as U-boat-supplyship. Her specifications were then as listed below:
After her conversion, Speybank was commissioned as Doggerbank, and she received the codename "Schiff 53". The Kriegsmarine staff apparently appreciated Schneidewind's enthusiasm, because he was given command of the Doggerbank. Under her captain, the ship was quickly prepared for her new task, and on December 17 1941, she took on 280 mines in La Pallice. By mid January 1942, she was ready to set sail. Escorted by the submarine U-432, Doggerbank left France for the Southern Atlantic. British ships were usually painted black or grey with a yellow superstructure. The crew started to make the ship resemble an innocent freighter, with fake corrosion as the finishing touch. The name Levernbank painted on her hull was meant to fool the nosy British patrols. Fortunately for the crew, no ships or aircraft were sighted, and by late February, Doggerbank had arrived in the warm South Atlantic to carry out Operation Kopenhagen.
Operation Kopenhagen comprised the laying of a minefield near Capetown, where many shipping lanes converged. Ships from Australia and New Zealand arrived here to make the final leg to Britain, while important troop convoys passed through the area enroute to the Middle East. Doggerbank, unlike a normal minelayer, wasn't equipped with mine rails on a lower deck, which meant that all mines had to be hoisted to the main deck. For operation "Kopenhagen", 75 of them were prepared, disguised as deckcargo. Schneidewind decided start the operation during the nighttime hours of March 12. Carefully, the Doggerbank approached the target area on the 12th. Things almost went wrong when in the late afternoon, an aircraft was sighted. It hailed the ship, asking for name and destination. Schneidewind ordered to signal "Levernbank from New York via Recife to Capetown", waved a few times with his hat and then left the bridge. His resolute performance worked and the aircraft was apparently satisfied with the answer. Later that evening, a small ship was sighted, which was easily evaded. Sixty mines were laid in the early morning of the 13th.
Schneidewind decided to retreat though the normal shipping lanes around Cape Good Hope to avoid suspicion. The idea was to lay more mines near Cape Agulhas for operation "Kairo". Around 1945 that evening, a warship appeared on the horizon, flashing signals with a red light. Schneidewind himself thought it was a Birmingham-class cruiser, but it was in fact the older HMS Durban, enroute to Simonstown for repairs. The signal the cruiser flashed was the standard "NNJ" signal, ordering to hoist the secret letters for identification. Naturally, the Germans didn't know this signal and simply didn't send a reply. After coming closer, the Durban asked "What ship", to which Schneidewind replied "Levernbank from New York to Durban, good night". Again, his bold answer worked, as the Durban steamed on and disappeared in the dark.
The action led to Schneidewind's decision not to hoist more mines to the main deck, but to lay the 15 available and then to disappear as soon as possible. After laying the mines, the Doggerbank steamed south with maximum speed. Even though the British were still unaware of Doggerbank's presence, the region was apparently intensively patrolled. In the morning of March 14, lookouts aboard the minelayer reported a large passenger ship in the distance. It was in fact the armed merchant cruiser HMS Cheshire. Schneidewind initially made the mistake of trying to outrun the Cheshire, which raised suspicion aboard the British AMC. Schneidewind then ordered his ship to steam directly towards her foe on an opposite course. As the liner approached, it signalled "What ship". Schneidewind replied with "Invernbank from Montevideo to Melbourne". Immediately afterwards, the red ensign and Invernbank's callsign were hoisted. Cheshire again asked "Where from" and "Bound for", to which Schneidewind replied with "Montevideo" and "Melbourne". Satisfied with the answer, Cheshire signalled "I wish you a happy voyage". Doggerbank replied with "Many thanks, same to you". Cheshire then quickly disappeared. After his third narrow escape, the captain decided not to take a chance and disappeared southward. Shortly after, an increase in radiotraffic led to Schneidewind's conclusion that his minefields apparently had made their first victims. Unfortunately, he was right.
The first ship to fall victim to Doggerbank's mines was the Dutch SS. Alcyone (4534 tons, built in 1921), enroute from Hull to Bombay and Karachi. Her cargo of military stores consisted, among other things, of 1600 tons of aircraftbombs and 9 aircraft stored on deck. Around 0130 in the early morning of March 16 1942, a violent explosion shook the ship and caused a list to starboard. Captain J. Lucas ordered the crew and passengers to make their way to the lifeboats. No distress signals could be sent due to the malfunction of the equipment, but luckily, all passengers and crewmen made it to the lifeboats safely. The last man to leave the ship was, of course, the captain, who found a large crack in the upper deck near No. 3 hold. As the three lifeboats moved away from the ship, the survivors could clearly see the Alcyone sinking bow first. The time was 0155, 25 miles west of Capetown.
The sudden loss of the Alcyone caused confusion in Capetown, as no U-boat movements in this area had been reported by the Admiralty. Captain Lucas thought his ship had been torpedoed, but his statement did not convince the local Senior Naval Officer. The real cause was soon revealed, when the British Trentback reported that it had observed an unexplained explosion. A second report came in about a drifting mine, and then a British tanker even managed to pick up one with her paravanes. Needless to say, the Royal Navy immediately began concentrating minesweepers in the area, but the results of the sweeping were not very encouraging, and more ships would be lost.
The British ship Dalfram (4558 tons, built 1930 and owned by United Steam Navigation Co. Ltd) hit a mine on May 2 in position 34.10 S - 17.49 E. She had departed Capetown independently the same day, with general cargo from New York to Alexandria. Despite the damage, she made it back to Capetown under her own power. There, her cargo was discharged and dockworkers immediately started with the repairs. Both Dalfram and Alcyone were hit by mines in Doggerbank's first field. This minefield would soon make its third victim.
The Dutch steamer Mangkalihat (8457 tons, built 1928) under captain P.G. van Striemen was originally the German Lindenfels, captured in the Netherlands East Indies. Recommissioned under the Dutch ensign, she was now enroute from New York to Capetown with a full cargo of stores, among other things, 2400 tons of explosives. Approaching Capetown, the distress signal of the Dalfram was heard. Van Striemen ordered to increase speed, which would allow the ship to enter the swept channel during the day. Suddenly, at 0715 in the morning of May 4, an explosion jolted the ship, followed by a large column of water. Yellow smoke appeared from No. 1 hold. The engine was stopped and the crew were ordered to prepare to abandon ship. Speed was of the essence, as No. 1 hold quickly began to take on water and the ship was rapidly settling by the bow. However, No. 2 hold appeared to be undamaged and the captain had hope he could save his ship. Around 0722, the Mangkalihat started to pick up speed.
Some time later, the armed trawler Tordonn (314 tons) came to assist the battered ship, and captain Van Striemen immediately asked the trawler to take on a portion of the crew as a precaution. 63 men were then transferred to the small Tordonn, while a skeleton crew tried to keep the Mangkalihat going. The main concern was that the bulkhead between no. 1 and 2 holds would collapse under the force of numerous tons of water. Around 1240, the ship able to moor at Capetown. This story would most certainly have had a different ending if the 2400 tons of explosives had ignited.
Inspection by divers later revealed there was a hole of 9 by 5 metres in the bow. The repairs to Mangkalihat were difficult, as no large drydock was available, and it was questionable if she could make the trip to Simonstown safely. Fortunately, the Dutch engineer Van Overbeek had the novel idea of constructing a pontoon, sliding it under the damaged portion of the hull, and thus lifting the bow of Mangkalihat out of the water. This piece of engineering proved to work out extremely well, and the "Cape Steel Construction Company" was able to begin repairs shortly before Christmas. She made her first trip in April of the following year. ( It is quite ironical that a former German ship in Allied service was damaged by a former British ship in German service !)
To return to the Doggerbank, Schneidewind had been sent to the southern Atlantic to await further orders. Finally, they came and Doggerbank was sent to carry out the second part of Operation "Kairo", the laying of another minefield in addition to the 15 already there. In the night of April 16 and 17, Schneidewind laid 80 type EMC mines south-south-east of Cape Agulhas without being discovered. Again, the British were shocked to learn of a new minefield, which quickly resulted in casualties, when troop convoy WS-18 ran into it.
The destroyer-depotship HMS Hecla (10850 tons) was hit by a mine amidships, which put her steering gear out of action and opened the lower compartments to the sea. The light cruiser HMS Gambia managed to take her in tow and safely brought her to Simonstown, where it took some 18 weeks to repair Hecla. 24 (perhaps 25) of the crew were killed during this disaster.
Later that day, the transport Soudan (6670, built 1931, owned by Barclay, Curle & Co. Ltd in Glasgow) carrying 8000 tons of stores (including 400 tons of TNT) from Glasgow to Freetown and Durban, was hit by one of the mines. She succumbed to her wounds, fortunately without casualties to the crew of 77 crew or 10 gunners. Inspection revealed that the explosion blew the bottom out of No.2 hold, where the TNT was stored. Without exploding, the explosives simply disappeared in the ocean ! 
Although Doggerbank apparently still had mines on board , her role as minelayer now ended, and she was sent to Japan. Before proceeding, Doggerbank met the German raider Michel and the supplytanker Charlotte Schliemann in the South Atlantic. In position 29.19 S- 19 W, she resupplied Michel with stores and relieved her of 128 prisoners on June 21 . The ships stayed together for a week, after which Doggerbank steamed to Jakarta, later to Japan. She finally dropped anchor in Yokohama on August 19 1942. After a period at the dockyard, the ship was loaded with fats, fishoil and 7000 tons of rubber. For the second time in her career, Doggerbank became a blockade runner.
The strategic situation had changed since her first run through the Allied blockade in 1941, as the United States were now actively involved in the war. U.S. cruisers and destroyers started to search for raiders and blokkaderunners, together with the overworked ships of the Royal Navy. Their searches became more and more succesful, intercepting many German ships before they even came near friendly territory. The losses of these ships meant that the cargoes that did get through, were more valuable than ever. Doggerbank's captain had managed to fool the British a few times, and it was hoped he could do it again.
In the spring of 1943, the tonnage war in the Atlantic reached a climax, when German U-boats managed to butcher convoy after convoy. In addition, boats were sent to more remote areas to sink independent ships. U-43  under Oberleutnant Schwandtke was part of the Tümmler-wolfpack, deployed near the Canaries. In the evening of March 3, 1943, Schwandtke torpedoed a ship which he identified as a Dunedin Star-type ship. He could not suspect he had sunk the Doggerbank, close to completing her journey through the Indian Ocean and Atlantic. Doggerbank had left Yokohama on December 17 1942, and she was steaming about 1000 miles west of the Canaries, when she was hit by three torpedoes. Only fifteen of the crew made it to a small boat, without water or food. On March 29, the Spanish tanker Campoamor found the boat after 26 days with only one remaining survivor, Fritz Kürt. He was taken aboard and brought to Aruba, where he told about the tragic fate of Doggerbank and her crew. According to Kürt, the fifteen men on the raft were quickly reduced to only six after the boat had capsized, including Schneidewind. The captain committed suicide after shooting four of his crew at their explicit request. The number of casualties totalled 364.
This concludes the Doggerbank story, but I feel I have to add a side-note to this story. The German high command was apparently very upset about this case of mistaken identity. The pages concerning this sinking were removed from U-43's log.
: I have found virtually nothing about this man, except that he was the first mate and his first name was Paul. More info is appreciated.
: In this special, I will go deeper into the Dutch ships, primarily because my source focus on the Dutch Navy and merchant navy. I have only been able to find pieces of information regarding the British victims, and their experiences will therefore be described only briefly.
: Alcyone, Mangkalihat and Soudan all carried explosives, but apparently, this did not have any effect on their fates. This is quite remarkable.
: The Doggerbank jettisoned the 55 EMF mines on May 28 after a message from SKL indicated this type proved to be defective.
: The 124 prisoners were from the following merchants, all sunk by Michel:
Connecticut (US) 16 men
Kattegat (Norwegian) 32 men
Lylepark (British) 22 men
: U-43 was a type IX submarine, completed in August 1939. She was destroyed by a carrier-based aircraft from the USS Santee on July 30 1943 with the loss of all 55-crew. Oberleutnant Hans-Joachim Schwandtke was still in command at the time and went down with his ship. (source: Uboat.net)
: It appears the Doggerbank carried about 200 injured survivors of the supplytanker Uckermark and the raider Thor. The first accidentally blew up in Yokohama, Japan on November 30 1942, taking the Thor and a prizeship down with her. More information about Fritz Kürt and the tragic fate of the survivors can be found in the booklet by Hans Herlin titled "Der letzte Mann von der Doggerbank". The English translation is titled "Survivor".
German ranks and names of ships are in italics
Bernhard Rogge "Schiff 16" (Dutch translation "Onder vreemde vlag")
K.W.L. Bezemer "Geschiedenis van de Nederlandse Koopvaardij in de Tweede Wereldoorlog"
L.L. von Münching "De Nederlandse koopvaardijvloot in de Tweede Wereldoorlog"
Hans Herlin "Der letzte Mann von der Doggerbank", Heyne Verlag, 1979
Thanks to Don Kindell, Dan Muir, Peter Kreuzer and Captain George Duffy for providing additional details
Thanks to Jon Balson for proofreading this article.