Ships hit by U-boats

Empire Star

British Motor merchant

NameEmpire Star
Type:Motor merchant
Tonnage12,656 tons
Completed1935 - Harland & Wolff Ltd, Belfast 
OwnerBlue Star Line Ltd, London 
Date of attack23 Oct 1942Nationality:      British
FateSunk by U-615 (Ralph Kapitzky)
Position48° 14'N, 26° 22'W - Grid BD 3984
Complement103 (42 dead and 61 survivors).
RouteBirkenhead (20 Oct) - Capetown - East London 
Cargo10,555 tons of government stores and general cargo, including 2000 bags of mail, ammunition and aircraft as deck cargo 
History Completed in December 1935 
Notes on event

At 18.52 hours on 23 Oct 1942 the unescorted Empire Star (Master Selwyn Norman Capon, CBE) was hit on starboard side aft of amidships by one torpedo from U-615 while steaming on a non-evasive course at 14 knots about 570 miles north of the Azores. The ship had stopped zigzagging to prevent damage to the deck cargo in bad weather with strong wind and rough sea. Kapitzky had sighted the fast vessel less than 40 minutes earlier and quickly fired a spread of four torpedoes with a fixed angle after the torpedo data computer failed, hearing one torpedo hit the target as a dud before another hit and detonated. The torpedo struck in the engine room, killing the four men on watch below and injuring two more men on the upper platform. All lights went out because the engines stopped when the room was flooded immediately, causing a heavy list to starboard. One lifeboat had been destroyed so the surviving 71 crew members, nine gunners (the ship was armed with one 6in, one 3in, two 20mm and five machine guns) and 19 passengers (17 British, two Polish) abandoned ship in the remaining three boats in an orderly manner after distress signals were sent. It was only possible to launch the boats despite the list because they were fitted with skates. The survivors then watched the ship settling slowly and righting herself and considered to return aboard when a coup de grâce hit on the starboard side between #4 and #5 holds at 20.24 hours. It was the second torpedo fired at the stopped vessel because one fired from the stern torpedo tube had missed at 19.15 hours and the U-boat then had to reload two bow torpedo tubes first. After the Germans waited in vain for the Empire Star to sink a third was fired at 21.16 hours. The torpedo struck on the port side at almost the same spot as the first coup de grâce and caused the ship to sink by the stern within five minutes. At 21.23 hours, an underwater explosion was heard and felt as heavy shock in the lifeboats and aboard the U-boat, which then left without questioning the survivors – their victim was later identified by the xB-Dienst.

Nine survivors on five rafts were picked up by the boat in charge of the chief officer before darkness and eventually held 34 men, after the third officer was transferred to his own boat. All except those killed in the engine room were accounted for. There were 27 people in the third officer’s boat which tried to get alongside the boat in charge of the master with 38 occupants to take off some people but was unable to do so because they were unable to pull against the high sea and heavy swell. The master instructed all boats to remain together during the night and to set sail for the Azores the following day. However, the boats were soon separated in the bad weather. The chief officer’s boat lay to a sea anchor and used its oars to avoid being swamped, then set sail the next morning but the sea and swell became so heavy that they had to hove to again until the morning of 25 October. Their rudder broke during the night and it needed two men to hold a steering oar to drift before the wind. The 34 occupants were picked up by HMS Black Swan (L 57) (Cdr T.A.C. Pakenham, RN) after 50 hours in the lifeboat. The sloop carried out a search over 120 miles for the remaining boats and was about to abandon it when they eventually found the boat in charge of the third officer in the morning of 26 October. All survivors were landed at Liverpool on 30 October. The third lifeboat that was fitted with an emergency wireless set went missing: 26 crew members, six passengers and six gunners were lost, including the master, the chief engineer, all three radio officers, three women and two children. HMS Black Swan had passed an upturned lifeboat surrounded by wreckage about four hours before encountering the first survivors from Empire Star and it is possible that this had been the missing boat.

On boardWe have details of 51 people who were on board

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