LE CARGO ELSA ESSBERGER (1938-1944)
Gironde, Blockschiff, le 5 août 1944
MV ELSA ESSBERGER
A son origine, la compagnie de navigation de Hambourg J. T. Essberger, était spécialisée dans le transport maritime pétrolier. Mais en se développant, ses activités ont été bientôt étendues au transport de vrac par cargos.
C’est pourquoi en 1938, l’armement commande aux chantiers Howaldtswerke A.G., de Hambourg (yard 765), la réalisation d’un cargo vraquier de 6102 tonnes brut. Il sera lancé le 14 juillet 1938 et baptisé du prénom de l’épouse de l’armateur Elsa Essberger, c´est le deuxième du nom (un pétrolier construit en 1930 et deux autres navires, des pétroliers porteront ce même nom plus tard).
Achevé en septembre 1938, l’Elsa Essberger a une longueur hors tout de 134,5 m, un maître-baud de 18,7 m et une hauteur de 6,98 mètres.
Son moteur est moderne, il s’agit d’un diésel MAN de 3.350 HP. actionnant une hélice. Il permet au navire d’atteindre une vitesse de croisière de 13 nœuds et une autonomie de presque 19.000 milles nautiques.
C´est une version améliorée des navires de classe Belgrano, tels que ceux employés sur la ligne d´Hambourg-Süd. Une attention particulière a été portée aux logements destinés à un équipage de 38 membres. C’est madame Elsa Essberger, en personne qui a choisi les installations et les décorations pour les cabines doubles et les salons. Le navire est ainsi devenu l’emblème de réussite pour le parti nazi et d´une référence dans le développement des navires marchands.
A la déclaration de guerre l’Elsa Essberger était au port japonais de Kobe. Il réquisitionné et affecté au Ministère du Transport du Reich.
Au début de la guerre, le navire sert de vaisseau ravitailleur pour les raiders allemand “Orion” et “Benno”. Le 14 octobre 1941, l’Elsa Essberger quitte le port de Sasebo, au Japon, casse le blocus Allié et rentre à Hambourg via le Cap Horn. Il a à bord un chargement de 4,000 tonnes de caoutchouc, 990 tonnes de cacahuètes, pétrole de coco, pneus automobiles, chanvre, suif, thé, cuir, poudre d´œufs, pétrole de noix, étain, tungstène, zinc, café…
Un VIP est à bord : l’as de la chasse aérienne de 1914-1918, détenteur de la Knight’s Cross, Fritz Losigkeit. Ce dernier enseignait la tactique aérienne allemande aux pilotes japonais.
Après un voyage dangereux, de 23.300 miles, l’Elsa Essberger passe à El Ferrol, le 11 janvier 1942. Il va atteindre la Gironde, accompagné de l’U-373 (Herbert Schultze) quand surgit une escadrille de six mosquitos du 105 Squadron qui l’attaque à la position 43° 55´N et 10° 15´W. Le Mosquito DK328 est abattu (Lt A.N. BRISTOW, pilote, et le Lt B.W. MARSHALL, navigateur, ont été fait prisonniers), mais l’Elsa
Essberger est sévèrement touché.
Le ELSA ESSBERGER regagne néanmoins son port d´attache et retourne en France, à Bordeaux, le 7 novembre 1942. Le 5 août 1944, il est coulé en Gironde comme Blockschiff.
Une partie de l´épave a été relevée en 1972 et conduite à Bilbao pour y être détruite.
Latitude 44° 57,2975 – Longitude 000° 32,6663
(1) J. T. Essberger : Armement allemand, cette compagnie a derrière elle une longue tradition de transport de produits liquides et chimiques. Formé en 1924 la compagnie John T. Essberger a, à l’origine opéré au travers des filiales telles que Bremer Öltranport GmbH et Öl Transport GmbH (tous les deux opérationnelles jusqu’en 1938) et Atlantic Tank Rhederei GmbH (jusqu’en 1960). Elle utilise d’abord le drapeau fonc blanc avec les lettres combinées “ATR” L’utilisation du drapeau de “E” est adopté en 1942 avec une lettre noire et en 1944 il la lettre devient bleue. aujourd’hui la compagnie fait partie du groupe Rantzau et a une alliance avec Vopak Chemical Tankers.
(2) Fritz Losigkeit : Fritz Losigkeit (1913-1994) était un pilote allemand pendant la Seconde Guerre mondiale, as de l’aviation pendant la première guerre et récipiendaire de la Croix de chevalier, de la Croix de Fer.
“Verluster deutscher handelsschiffe 1939-1945”, Urs Heßling ; Bauliste Howaldtswerke Hamburg (ab 1929)
Deutsche Tankschiffe, Verlagsgruppe Koehler, Ed. Mittler (ISBN: 378220932x)
Miramar Ship Index, R.B.Haworth, Wellington, New Zealand, 2006
“Shooting the War” Otto Giese & James E. Wise, Jr.
Archives défense de Sydney (SUBM .003.0031 : “Aufstellung der Blockadebrecher 1941 – 1943 zwischen Japan und Europa”)
False Flags: Disguised German raiders of World War II
Hitler’s U-Boat War: The Hunters, 1939-1942
A Forgotten Offensive: Royal Air Force Coastal Command’s Anti-Shipping Campaign, 1940-1945
They were caught with their trousers down
I put this together a couple of years ago with the view of it being published in a Coastal Command newsletter, but never got round to it, thought I’d air it here.
The arrival in January 1942 of the German blockade-runner Elsa Essberger in European waters was not unexpected, as information from intelligence sources had prepared the way. Consequently an aircraft was dispatched to patrol an area off the north west coast of Spain where it was anticipated she would make a landfall.
Liberator AM924. D/120, F/O. Cundy and crew were airborne at 04:10 hrs on 11 January to carry out an anti-shipping patrol in the Bay of Biscay. At 15:20 hrs a Heinkel He.115 floatplane was sighted flying at 100ft. The liberator attacked, firing 200 rounds from the side guns and 300 from the rear guns. Numerous hits were scored and fragments were seen falling from the body of the enemy aircraft. Without returning fire it began to glide down towards the sea, while thick white smoke poured from its starboard engine. At 15:34 hrs it disappeared into a squall of rain.
Some fifteen minutes later in position 43.55N, 10.15W the Liberator sighted a large merchant vessel with a fully surfaced U-boat in company which was believed to be the quarry. The aircraft immediately circled the ship, losing height until hard on the ships port beam, and at 1,000ft attacked the U-boat, which was in the process of crash-diving. Fire was opened at 800 yds with the four 20mm cannons; 180 shells were fired during the run-up, and hits on the hull and conning tower were estimated. From 300-400ft a stick of four 250 lb depth charges with a 50ft setting were released, a large path of oil was seen one minute after the attack.
Next the Liberator attacked the ship; Cundy climbed the aircraft to 1,000ft and dived on the ship pouring in cannon fire and releasing a further three depth charges on the merchant vessel, which at this time was taking violent evasive action. During the course of the attack on the ship another He.115 appeared dead ahead and interrupted the run-up, so that the attack was not as good as first promised. The Liberator climbed to 1,000ft and gave chase, opening fire with cannon and machine-guns. D/120 returned and resumed the attack on the ship, but was again interrupted by the reappearance of the enemy aircraft. This it attacked several times, at ranges between 100 and 650 yards, while the German aircraft returned fire with his front and rear guns without scoring hits. Finally he ceased fire, appeared to lose control and dived with smoke steaming from the starboard engine. However, when last seen the Heinkel had pulled out of the dive and was flying at sea level towards cloud.
Further attacks were made on the merchant ship, and numerous hits were scored on the hull and superstructure, the ship fired no flake, in fact no one was seen on deck, when the Liberator reached PLE at 16:15 hrs and set course for base, the ship was still taking evasive action in good style.
On returning to base Peter Cundy made the following observation: –
“At the time our Libs were fitted with very primitive Mk.2 ASV and as a result we unfortunately broke cloud much too near the target and hence too high. We had to let the depth charges go, though U-boats have a habit of disappearing beneath the surface in about 30 seconds. Worse was to follow though, the aircraft was not fitted with a bead foresight and I am sure it will be appreciated the difficulties of aiming a 4-engine aircraft fitted with 4 fixed 20mm cannon at a target with a ring sight”.
From German records (B. d.U. war Log) it is clear that the Elsa Essberger was being escorted into port by a U-boat when sighted and attacked by D/120. This attack was confirmed by the U-boat in a message to base. Thereupon, orders were received for the surface ship to make for El Ferrol, and for the U-boat to wait outside territorial waters.
At first light the next morning another Liberator W/120 was out searching an area covering the enemy’s possible route to Spanish territorial waters but without result.
Following the attack by D/120 it was learned from intelligence sources that the Elsa Essberger had arrived at EL Ferrol in a damaged condition at mid-day on 12 January and was making every effort to discharge her cargo into small ships for transit to France (via Bayonne). She remained there for a little less than two months eventually breaking out during the night of 8/9 March. An intelligence report gave the time of sailing as 23:00 hrs on 8 March. From then onwards she disappeared and was not seen again until 5 April, when from a PRU photograph of Bordeaux, she was identified lying alongside the Customs House Quay. By October 1942 she was being loaded with a cargo of machine tools destined for Japan, and as Elsa Essberger was setting sail on 7 November, a heavy attack was made on Bordeaux by aircraft of Bomber and Coastal Commands. The ship was hit by bombs and cannon fire, being damaged to such an extent that she could not continue her journey. She was finally scuttled in the Gironde estuary in August 1944 as Allied troops approached Bordeaux.
The U-boat involved on the attack of 11 January was U 373 (Loeser) which was damaged to such an extent that it had to return to La Pallice on 13 January. The boat entered port on 15 January and remained under repair until 24 February.
Writing in 1995 of the action Wg/Cdr. Cundy remarked:
“We were flying at about 1,000ft just below cloud base and though frequent heavy rain squalls when the radar operator reported a contact about five to seven miles to starboard. I immediately altered course and seconds later one of the crew reported that he could see a ship more or less dead ahead. Closing in, I saw a U-boat almost alongside the freighter and promptly dived on the U-boat firing the 4 x 20mm cannons installed in the forward bomb bay of D/120 and released a stick of depth charges. I noticed a couple of Heinkel 115 floatplanes in the area as we pulled up and gave chase to one of them, again firing cannons.
“Following this short chase, we returned to the freighter, the Elsa Essberger, and attacked again with cannon fire, crossing and re-crossing many times. Throughout this action, we machine-gunned the enemy aircraft whenever opportunity presented itself, and raked the ship each time we flew over her.
“I cannot remember much more about this action which lasted for the best part of twenty minutes, but I must correct the statement that the Elsa Essberger was also attacked with depth charges. The conversion of the forward bomb bay to accommodate the four 20mm cannon was carried out at the expense of a second stick of 6 depth charges. Insofar as damage to U 373 is concerned, I attended their annual reunion in May this year and according to some of the crewmembers that were actually there in U 373 at the time, the damage was quite considerable. In fact they considered that the attack could have proved fatal if they had not been fully surfaced, depth charges being far more effective against submerged targets.
“Incidentally, the reason they were caught with their trousers down and fully surfaced was because all eyes were focused on a small boat returning to the Elsa Essberger, following a meeting between the two captains to discuss a plan of action in the event of them being attacked by aircraft”.
WW2Talk, Discussion in ‘The War In The Air’, Oct 24, 2008