Archive: WWII story of heroism

This story first appeared in the 27 April 1966 edition of the Caymanian Weekly.

An interesting story contained in an aging newspaper cutting from the Daily Gleaner of 4 Oct. 1945 has been given to us.

Clipping from the 27 April 1966 edition of the Caymanian Weekly. Click to enlarge.

It concerns the story of the sinking of the SS Culebra by a U-boat during World War Il and as there were three Caymanians in the crew – Desmond Ebanks, son of Mr. and Mrs. Bennie Ebanks of Bosun Bay, Allison Groves and Terrence Ebanks – who lost their lives in this incident, we record the heroic story as a tribute to them.

On a voyage from England to Jamaica, the SS Culebra, a well-known vessel of the Royal Mail Lines, which was a frequent caller at this island in pre-war days, was sunk, and all its crew, including a number of Jamaican ratings, lost.

This happened in January 1942, but it was not until May or June of this year that the full story of the sinking of the ship and the gallant battle it put up before going down, with a total loss of life, became known.

The source of this information – the first received since the ship disappeared – was a prisoner of war, who, liberated from a German camp at the end of the war in Europe, took back to England a German newspaper containing graphic details of the sinking.

Here is the story, as told in a report sent to Jamaica by the Royal Mail Lines, and made available to The Gleaner courtesy of Mr. A. E. West, local manager of the company – the story of the mystery of the gallant Culebra and her fighting end.

In January 1942, the vessel sailed outward from England, with a full cargo, but after months had passed with no word of her safe arrival, or any news of survivors, it could only be presumed that she was yet another victim of the enemy, and a total loss with all hands.

By chance, however, there came into the possession of the chief officer of another Royal Mail vessel, the Natia, (which was also lost by enemy action) a copy of a German newspaper in which appeared a full report by a U-boat captain on the sinking of the Culebra.

This officer, Mr. D. R. Miller, was a prisoner of war in Germany, when he got hold of the newspaper Munchner Illustrierte Presse (Munich Illustrated Press), dated September 23, 1943, in which the U-boat commander, Lieut. Reinhard Hardegen told the story.

A photograph of the ill-fated ship accompanied the story, the translation of which gives the following vivid details of the gallant fight put up by the vessel and her unfortunate crew.

“From a considerable distance I was able to perceive that it was an armed merchant man … Before the vessel even knew that a submarine was in the vicinity, the first shot hit the engine-room. The freighter now attempted to withdraw at full speed, but hit after hit struck his hull.

“In the meantime, he had recovered from his fright and manned his gun and machine guns … It now turned out that he was a tough opponent. Through our hits his speed was greatly reduced and he was blowing off steam. He had perceived that his only salvation was to get the better of us by his artillery.

“With astonishing cold-bloodness, he fired on indefatigably, although we were continually hitting his afterdeck. It was certainly no roseate feeling for his gun crew as our shots struck under his gun.

“Here I must pay the enemy every respect that for all time, they held out and did not leave their stations.

“Eventually, however, the U-boat gunner succeeded, with a direct hit, in putting the ship’s gun out of action, along with the whole gun-crew. Another shot in the bridge, which went on fire, silenced the machine guns. This ended the battle, in favour of the submarine.

“As for the crew, the report records that they took to the lifeboats in great haste, and, after everyone had embarked and the ship sunk, the U-boat left them adrift in the water, without sending a wireless message for help for them.”