Saturday, September 17, 2016

September 18, 1940: City of Benares Incident

Wednesday 18 September 1940

18 September 1940 City of Benares
Survivors of the City of Benares. Left to right, Kenneth Sparkes, Derek Capel, Freddie Steele, Billy Short, and Howard Clayton.
Battle of Britain: Adolf Hitler insists on continuing the bombing of London, against the inclinations of Reichsmarschall Goering and others in the Luftwaffe. Hitler typically imbues a political perspective to his military decisions, a tendency that becomes more pronounced as the war lengthens. In this case, he perhaps feels that the damage to British morale and industry is more important than resuming an all-out offensive against the RAF and actually defeating it.

At this stage, 18 September 1940, the Luftwaffe is engaging in a hybrid strategy, where it challenges Fighter Command by day and bombs London, Liverpool and other favored targets such as Brighton and South Wales by night. It is overstating matters to claim that the Luftwaffe has lost the initiative, but it cannot be said to be defeating the RAF, and, with the invasion called off, there is no pressing need to do so. The damage to English cities is, of course, horrible, but it does not impair growing British military strength.

The weather is fairly clear over England, but with storms to the north. The first raid comes across between 09:00 and 10:00, with a few bombers heading for the London Docks. The main force is fighters searching for trouble over the Thames estuary, but Fighter Command focuses on the bombers and leaves the fighters alone. There are isolated dogfights, but nothing on the scale of previous days. It is a wasted morning for the German fighters.

The bombers head over around noontime. Once again, the number of bombers is small compared to the numerous escorts. This time, Fighter Command gives battle. JG 26 has a good day, with Commander Major Adolf Galland shooting down three Hurricanes. This leaves him with 35 victories.

Another raid approaches around 15:30, and this time composed mostly of bombers. Fighter Command springs into action, with No. 11 Group fully engaged and helped by No. 12 Group's "Duxford Wing." Douglas Bader leads his Big Wing against bombers heading up the Thames, and there is very predictable carnage. They shoot down 19 bombers in one of those imponderable decisions by the Luftwaffe, sending largely unescorted Dornier Do 17 and Junkers Ju 88 bombers into the teeth of the fighter defense. The silver lining for the Luftwaffe is that dozens of bombers do get through and hit the central areas of the city, but at quite a cost to themselves.

Darkness falls around 1930, and that is when the night bombers arrive. The bombers continue coming across through the night, with London the objective for the vast majority of them. Smaller raids are made in Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol, and the Newcastle area.

Overall, the RAF wins the day but takes a dozen losses itself to about 20 for the Luftwaffe.

Hauptmann Walter Oesau of Stab III./JG 51 gets his 28th victory over Ashford.

Hans-Joachim Marseille, who got off to a fairly slow start in the Battle of Britain, gets his fifth kill just one day after receiving the Iron Cross First Class for his fourth kill.

Hauptmann Günther "Fränzl" Lützow of JG 3 is awarded the Ritterkreuz (Knight's Cross).

18 September 1940 Richmond Times-Dispatch headline
The Richmond Times-Dispatch repeats the mantra that the British want to convey, that they are barely holding off the German invaders and really could use more American help. In fact, the British leadership already know they basically have won the Battle of Britain.
European Air Operations: RAF Bomber Command takes no chances with a possible invasion despite having learned on the 17th - via the Ultra decrypts - that the invasion is off. It targets the invasion ports all along the coast, and also main supply points such as Brussels, Osnabruck, Ehrang, Hamm, and Mannheim. Coastal Command chips in with raids on Cherbourg, a convoy near Borkum, and De Kooy Airfield 5 km south of Den Helder in Holland (just south of Texel).

18 September 1940 U-boat Capatin Heinrich Bleichrodt
U-boat Captain Heinrich Bleichrodt.
Battle of the Atlantic:  U-48 (Kapitänleutnant Heinrich "Ajax" Bleichrodt), operating out of L'Orient, has been shadowing Convoy OB 213 west of Scotland (about 255 miles southwest of Rockall) for much of the 17th. Bleichrodt has an extremely successful day during one of the best patrols of any U-boat during the war. It begins just after midnight when Bleichrodt sinks the liner City of Benares (discussed below under War Crimes).

After quickly reviewing the situation with the City of Benares with his searchlight and seeing that its situation is hopeless, Captain Bleichrodt heads east and torpedoes British freighter Marina at 00:07. There are two deaths, with 37 survivors.

Bleichrodt continues stalking the convoy throughout the day. As the sun sets at 18:49, he strikes again and sinks the 3118-ton British iron ore freighter Magdalena. It is a straggler from Convoy OB 213. All 31 onboard perish.

Elsewhere, the RAF bombs and sinks 1626 ton German transport Johann Blumenthal (apparently named after the shipping company) near Cherbourg in the English Channel. There are some survivors, how many is unclear, picked up by German destroyer Lody. German torpedo boat TB T.11 also is heavily damaged in this attack, as is minelayer Schiff 23.

The RAF also bombs and sinks 3145-ton French freighter Dunkerquois at Le Havre.

British lumber schooner Minas Prince is caught in a storm and founders 60 miles from the southeastern tip of Nova Scotia. The storm caused the ship, carrying rock plaster, to settle lower and lower in the rough seas, putting out her engine and finally causing the crew to abandon ship a few hours before it sinks. Six men, including Captain Murray Will Igar, are picked up by a passing freighter and reach the shore at St. John, New Brunswick.

There are violent storms off Aberdeen, Scotland, too. British ships (HMS Versatile and freighter Lady of Mann) take weather damage.

The Luftwaffe damages British freighter Rudmore at Gravesend Reach, London, and also damages freighter Ling in at the Liverpool docks.

A tanker and escorting ship for Vichy French Force Y, on a quick "Show the Flag" mission in the Cameroons, are spotted by the British, who shadow them. The Royal Navy is busy positioning its capital ships for Operation Menace against Dakar and sends battleship Barham from Freetown to join the gathering force outside that harbor. Vichy French Force itself also begins its journey back to Dakar. The Royal Navy's orders are not to sink Vichy French ships, but to order them to make port in Casablanca - another about-face in British handling of the situation, where sometimes they sink Vichy French ships, sometimes they don't.

The Admiralty and War Cabinet are undecided about Operation Menace. It is an on-again, off-again operation. At the moment it is on again and scheduled to begin within a few days.

The Germans seize 1059 ton Swedish freighter Frisia at Bordeaux

The US re-commissions USS S-31, a Great War submarine, at Philadelphia and assigns it to SubDiv 52 at New London, Connecticut. Destroyer USS Mayo (DD 422, Lt. Campbell D. Emory) also is commissioned.

Destroyer HMS Cleveland (L 46,  Lt. Commander William S. Clouston) is commissioned.

U-143 (Oberleutnant zur See Ernst Mengersen) is commissioned.

18 September 1940 Minas Prince schooner
The Minas Prince.
Battle of the Mediterranean: The loss of Sidi Barrani to the Italians is having subtle but growing adverse effects on the British hold on the Mediterranean. The RAF airbase there had been extremely useful for launching raids against Italian-held Libya and for shuttling planes to Malta. The next-nearest airfield is at Benghazi, and fighters cannot make it from there to Malta even with extra fuel tanks. Even Blenheim bombers can barely make it, with little room for error. Thus, losing Sidi Barrani makes reinforcement of Malta much more difficult, and curtails transits between there and the main base at Alexandria. Loss of Sidi Barrani also deprives Royal Navy ships from Alexandria of fighter cover over the Italian positions further west such as Bardia. And, of course, the reverse situation applies, with the Regia Aeronautica now in a position to bomb RAF airfields further east and give more cover to its ships at Tobruk and other eastern Libyan ports. All in all, the tepid Italian advance has had far more effect on the British military posture than its small gains might suggest.

One of the odder bomb disposal efforts takes place when a well is pumped dry in order to retrieve a 400 lb bomb that fell down it. The operation requires special lifting gear and of course special handling. In addition, for the first time a German bomb is found and has to be defused - previously, only Italian bombs have been used.

War Crimes: The incident described here was found not to be a war crime. However, it illustrates the types of situations in which one might have been found.

U-48 has been trailing the zigzagging City of Benares, a liner with guns at either end, for ten hours as the 17th of September ends. Just before midnight on the 17th, he fires two torpedoes and misses (most accounts thus place this incident on the 17th, but in fact, the sinking occurs on the 18th). Still in firing position, just seconds after midnight, Bleichrodt fires a third torpedo. It hits the 11,081-ton British liner in the stern. The ship sinks within 30 minutes. Bleichrodt steps back from the periscope and quietly mutters his verdict:
A success.
Bleichrodt surfaces and plays a searchlight over the scene, giving hope to survivors. It is chaotic, with people in the sea and lifeboats everywhere. The ship is obviously kaputt. Satisfied, he leaves the scene and heads east, where he spots another ship from the convoy and sinks it, too.

The crew of the stricken ship acts incredibly quickly and gets as many lifeboats in the water as possible before the ship sinks. There are 260 deaths, while 147 people survive (sources vary on all the numbers). Among the passengers are 90 British children being sent to Canada as refugees; 77-83 of them perish before seeing land again. HMS Hurricane, 300 miles away, receives a message about the sinking and immediately heels over to race to the scene. When it arrives a day later, there is massive confusion because another ship in the convoy, the Marina, also has been torpedoed around the same time. This causes one of the lifeboats from the City of Benares to be overlooked, and the passengers spend eight days drifting before finally being spotted and picked up by HMS Anthony.

This incident spells the end for the Children's Overseas Reception Board (CORB), which has been relocating children to Canada. However, private evacuations of the sort continued for another year.

As a reward, Captain Bleichrodt in mentioned in the daily Wehrmachtsbericht, an incredible honor, a few days later on 21 September 1940 for his successful patrol (8 ships sunk as of that date). A top U-boat ace, he suffers some kind of mental breakdown a couple of years later and is given shore duty - but even so, he is considered the war's tenth-most-successful U-boat ace.

Bleichrodt is tried after the war for the sinking. One of U-48's crew, a Corporal Solm, had described the sinking after his capture, "“We knew there were kiddies on board before the tin fish were fired. We bagged a kiddie ship! Six thousand tons. We heard on the radio what was on board. No one survived.” However, Bleichrodt himself denies any knowledge of the presence of children in the City of Benares when he fired the torpedo and refuses to show remorse. The court agrees with the captain after some helpful testimony from the British Admiralty, Bleichrodt is cleared, and he retires to Munich. Bleichrodt passes away in 1977. Very clearly, if he had been found to have known there were children aboard, Bleichrodt would have been found guilty. Very, very close call.

18 September 1940 City of Benares
Survivors of the City of Benares.
Anglo/US Relations: More US destroyers arrive at Halifax for the British to take over pursuant to the destroyers-for-bases deal. The ships are:
  • USS Kalk, 
  • USS Maddox, 
  • USS Cowell, 
  • USS Foote, 
  • USS Hopewell, 
  • USS Abbot, 
  • USS Thomas, and 
  • USS Doran
The Greenslade Board, inspecting the new US bases under the deal, heads from St. John, Nova Scotia for Argentina aboard the USS St. Louis.

Soviet Military: Soviet Minister of Defence Marshal S.K. Timoshenko and Chief of General Staff K.A. Meretskov submit to the Politburo their plan for the invasion of Germany. It proposes an advance north of the Pripet Marshes - very similar to the opening stages of World War I. Those who prefer to see Operation Barbarossa as the most epic military mistake of all time tend to overlook the fact that the Soviets are considering something similar. In fact, this plan has a great resemblance to some of the initial planning for Barbarossa - in reverse.

Japanese Military: Japanese carrier Akagi arrives at Hiroshima Bay, Japan en route to Kure.

Vichy France: The United States continues to recognize Vichy France, and today the American Library in the occupied zone of France reopens in Paris.

British Somaliland: British troops stage a small-scale raid on the Italian border station at El Uach.

China: Emperor Kangde of the puppet state presides over the dedication ceremony of the National Martyr Shrine of Manchukuo in Xinjing.

The Nationalists open the Chungking University of Technology.

US Government: There is a new Secretary of Commerce, Jesse H. Jones, replacing Roosevelt crony Harry Hopkins. Roosevelt has other plans for Hopkins, who he sees as more of a "special projects" guy.

American Homefront: The Cincinnati Reds win the National League Pennant again, beating the Philadelphia Phillies in 13 innings.

Future History: Philadelphia has a better day than it realizes at the time with that Phillies loss. Francis Thomas Avallone is born there today. He becomes a child actor and changes his name to Frankie Avalon, appearing on television shows such as "The Jackie Gleason Show." His main passion, though, is singing, and he gets No. 1 hits "Venus" and "Why" in 1959. He goes on to team up with Annette Funicello in the "Beach Blanket" movies. Frankie Avalon remains active as of this writing and continues to tour. (Some sources say that Avalon was born on this date in 1939.)

18 September 1940 National Chess Club
Amongst other national tragedies, the National Chess Center is hit by incendiary bombs on 18 September 1940 and destroyed. It had opened less than a year earlier.
September 1940

September 1, 1940: RAF's Horrible Weekend
September 2, 1940: German Troopship Sunk
September 3, 1940: Destroyers for Bases
September 4, 1940: Enter Antonescu
September 5, 1940: Stukas Over Malta
September 6, 1940: The Luftwaffe Peaks
September 7, 1940: The Blitz Begins
September 8, 1940: Codeword Cromwell
September 9, 1940: Italians Attack Egypt
September 10, 1940: Hitler Postpones Sealion
September 11, 1940: British Confusion at Gibraltar
September 12, 1940: Warsaw Ghetto Approved
September 13, 1940: Zeros Attack!
September 14, 1940: The Draft Is Back
September 15, 1940: Battle of Britain Day
September 16, 1940: italians Take Sidi Barrani
September 17, 1940: Sealion Kaputt
September 18, 1940: City of Benares Incident
September 19, 1940: Disperse the Barges
September 20, 1940: A Wolfpack Gathers
September 21, 1940: Wolfpack Strikes Convoy HX-72
September 22, 1940: Vietnam War Begins
September 23, 1940: Operation Menace Begins
September 24, 1940: Dakar Fights Back
September 25, 1940: Filton Raid
September 26, 1940: Axis Time
September 27, 1940: Graveney Marsh Battle
September 28, 1940: Radio Belgique Begins
September 29, 1940: Brocklesby Collision
September 30, 1940: Operation Lena


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