Close Shave: Some of Bermuda’s war heroes, pictured aboard the SS Mataroa in June 1940. The ship almost never made it to England, coming under fire from the war’s deadliest U-Boat commander — according to new research from former police commissioner Jonathan Smith.  His grandfather Major Toby Smith is in the back row, fourth from right in a buttoned jacket. Also seen here, back row, from left: John Smith (Toby Smith’s brother), Brownlow Tucker, unknown New Zealander, Roy Taylor (behind), Anthony ‘Toby’ Smith, Jack Exell (behind), Graeme Skinner, Stanley Wright. Front row, from left: Fred Mansbridge, George Fisher, Arthur (Sonny) Flood and Tommy Aitchison. *Photo supplied
Close Shave: Some of Bermuda’s war heroes, pictured aboard the SS Mataroa in June 1940. The ship almost never made it to England, coming under fire from the war’s deadliest U-Boat commander — according to new research from former police commissioner Jonathan Smith.  His grandfather Major Toby Smith is in the back row, fourth from right in a buttoned jacket. Also seen here, back row, from left: John Smith (Toby Smith’s brother), Brownlow Tucker, unknown New Zealander, Roy Taylor (behind), Anthony ‘Toby’ Smith, Jack Exell (behind), Graeme Skinner, Stanley Wright. Front row, from left: Fred Mansbridge, George Fisher, Arthur (Sonny) Flood and Tommy Aitchison. *Photo supplied
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A large contingent of Bermuda’s World War II soldiers were almost wiped out by Germany’s deadliest U-Boat commander — before they even reached England.

Many of the heroes who will be honoured tomorrow, as we pay tribute to our war veterans, might never have made it to Europe at all.

New research by former Police Commissioner Jonathan Smith — who is publishing a book based on the letters of his grandfather Major Toby Smith — shows how close our troops came to disaster on the journey from Bermuda to England.

The SS Mataroa — the ship that carried a 21-strong Bermuda contingent from St George’s harbour to England in 1940 — was part of a 40-vessel convoy.

Just days from their destination, they were attacked by a German

U-Boat. The ship next to theirs — a cargo vessel called the SS Humber Arm — was torpedoed and sunk.

Bermuda veterans on board, including Major Smith, well-known Cup Match historian Tommy Aitchison and George Fisher (pictured right) have given first-hand accounts of the attack.

Mr. Smith’s research now reveals that the U-boat captain who fired on the fleet was a deadly German commander called Otto Kretschmer.

“Toby and the remainder of the Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corps contingent were just one ship or one torpedo away from falling victim to the best German U-Boat commander of World War Two,” said Mr. Smith.

He traced the story of the demise of the Humber Arm and discovered its place in history as one of the victims of a commander who earned a reputation as the deadliest U-boat captain in Germany.

The U-Boats — German submarines known as ‘iron coffins’ because of the high death rate of the crews and their reputation as the deadliest weapon in the German fleet — hold a macabre fascination for historians.

A list of ‘Aces of the Deep’ records by ‘tonnage sunk’ the most ‘successful’ U-Boat commanders. Kretschmer  sank a record 47 ships (273,043 tons) in a remarkably short career.

He commanded three U-Boats during the war; U-35, U-23 and U-99 — the submarine that sunk the Humber Arm.

He was pulled out of the water by the British after scuttling his submarine under heavy counter-fire after a failed attack in March 1941 and lived out the rest of the war as a POW.

But his reign of terror could have ended on that July day when his boat encountered the Bermuda ship, as it approached the English coast.

Depth charges

“Following the U boat attack, U 99 was pursued for 14 hours by Royal Naval vessels and 107 depth charges were dropped but U 99 survived them all with no damage,” writes Mr. Smith in his book.

Mr. Smith’s grandfather was ultimately killed in action in Overloon, Holland in 1944. He left behind a treasure trove of letters to his wife and family which form the basis of the book.

A prodigous and eloquent letter-writer Major Toby Smith sent weekly dispatches to his wife, recording life at war in great detail.

This is how, in one of his first letters home, he described the U-Boat attack:

“When we were about five days out from England, I came off the late gun crew watch and got into bed about 12:30 am and so was sound asleep, when I felt myself almost lifted out of my bunk. I had been asleep so soundly I couldn’t for the life of me think for a minute or two. Then I realised that a submarine was at work. He sank the ship right next to us. Then the fun started—we all (that is all the ships, 41 of them) went like hell in every direction while destroyers charged back and forth dropping depth charges like mad…. it was pretty exciting and I loved the fun…

As far as I know, the crew of the ship sunk was saved, but it was very tragic to see a fine ship going down.”

In an interview with Mr. Smith earlier this year, Tommy Aitchison added this account:

“It was just after dawn one morning. An enormous explosion jarred us awake. The concussion felt as if it had blown every plate off our ship. Disentangling ourselves from our bedding (we had to sleep fully dressed, including boots) we ran up on deck. Our faces were so white, they looked bleached. If anyone wasn’t entirely sure before, we now realized we were at war.”

He remembers the spectacular counter-offensive from Royal Naval destroyers.

“They unleashed a barrage of depth charges of such violence that if a submarine was down there it could not possibly have survived. There were no more torpedoes.”

Despite Mr. Aitchison’s belief that the U-Boats had not survived the counter-attack, Mr. Smith’s research shows that they did. It is likely, says the writer, that many of the soldiers on board the SS Mataroa, never had any idea of the formidable enemy they escaped that day.

“None of them knew, until my research into Toby’s war time experiences was completed, just how close the margin of survival was that morning,” he added.

Remembrance Day: