Friday, 16 September 2011

Achilles

It was just after 11.30. The cool February night had laid the lightest of mists along South Quay. In 1942, Port of Spain was still a quiety, sleepy Caribbean town. Very far removed from the noise and the fury of the world war that was plunging Europe into a maelstrom of mayhem, unsurpassed in all its war-torn history.
Suddenly several very loud explosions shattered the quiet of the night. Flocks of pigeons took flight into the darkness from the railway station roofs as the echoes reverberated up the valleys. Screams of fright as the city’s residents leaped from their beds, dogs barking as the great sound rolled away into the mountains like thunder, vanishing.
We were now at war; it had finally come to us. In the harbour, the cargo ship ‘Mokihana’ had been blown almost out of the water. 7,400 tons of iron ship had spun about and rolled over on its side, a 45 ft by 30 ft hole ripped out of its plating. Not too far away, the tanker ‘British Council’ was sending huge flames ranging into the night sky, throwing the lighthouse and the tower of the harbour master’s office into grotesque silhouettes, while illuminating the surrounding water with a hellish light.
The circumstances that led to this had its origins in another time, just before another war. 29 years, prior, in 1913, Winston Churchill while serving the British government under ... First Lord of the Admiralty, had decided to change the British fleet from burning coal to using oil to fire its furnesses. Trinidad became for all intent and puposes a gas station in the south Atlantic. Together with its secure approaches, the Serpent’s Mouth in the south and the Dragon’s Mouths in the north, and its commodious Gulf of Pari, it was a vast and ideal harbour. In the second world war it was a vital rallying point for merchant shipping, which arrived daily to form convoys to ship precious cargos across the Atlantic to an extremely hard-pressed England. Cargo ships came to Trinidad from Australia, New Zealand, the South African Cape, the Argentines and Brazil. Their holds were packed with copper, rubber, meat, wheat, flour and iron ore. Some were to take on oil and pitch, sugar and cocoa, others were to ferry men and women across the cold Atlantic to join a massive war effort.
The garrisoning of the island had already begun. Detachments of young Americans were encamped in the forsted heartlands of the island and at a significant naval base at Chaguaramas. Experienced British naval commanders had established H.M.S. ‘Benbow’ as the Trinidad sector headquarters. A designated royal ship, housed on dry land, just opposite to where the power plant is on Wrightson Road.
The overall preparedness to defend the convoys was well underway. The vital importance of these convoys to the survival of England cannot be overstated.
The German high command was well aware of the strategic importance of the Gulf of Paria and the Point a Pierre refinery. The creation of a submarine fleet to deal with the convoys coming out of Trinidad waters was a first priority status for the German ‘Kriegsmarine’. The U-boats unleashed in formations, known as ‘wolfpacks’, were to become the nemesis of seafarers in Caribbean waters.
The midnight action that had sent flames towering into the night, grotesquely illuminating the sleeping city, had had its genesis in U 161 under the command of Kapitaenleutnant Albrecht Achilles. Free from its origins at Bremerhaven, U 161 had silently crossed the Atlantic to surface off Trinidad’s north coast, just a little west of Maracas. The treacherous waters and swirling currents of the Dragon’s Mouth were not alien to Albrecht Achilles. At another time, he had sailed these waters as crew of the famous Hamburg - Amerika line.
At 9.30 a.m. on February 18th, U 161 slipped through the Grand Bocas, just under the surface at persicope depth in the bright morning light. Achilles did this confident that the lookouts at Stauble’s Bay would be far less vigilant in the morning as they might be at night. He was not entirely right. He was spotted and a report from the Stauble’s watch ultimately alerted No. 1 bombardement squadron at Wallerfield to carry out an anti-submarine search.
Some miles off the Grand Bocas, U 161 dropped beneath the surface into the 100 fathom deep water and vanished. Topside, the aircraft circled in vain.
Now inside the Gulf, Achilles took U 161 to the shallow water southeast of Chaguaramas. A soft muddy cloud rose about the submarine craft as she settled on the seabed to wait out the day.
As the night fell, Achilles brought up U 161 to periscope depth and silently swept the horizon. With no patrols in sight, he brought his boat to the surface. Dark, sinister, streaming water from her hull, this totally alien shape headed in the direction of a brilliantly lit up Port of Spain. Slowly, the boat moved through the fishing boats, heading out their dim lanterns held above their sterns. Few marked her passage, none noticed the white horse of the 2nd U-boat flotilla painted on the side of her ... tower. For a moment made invisible by the rugged outline of the five islands, U 161 was now in the channel. With care her commander picked his targets, brought the boat about and fired two torpedoes which not only shattered thenight bua also something of our innocence.
As all pandemonium broke lose, U 161 slowly left the scene. Alarm bells ringing, sirens wailing, the search for the submarine was on. Calmly, Kapitaenleutnant Achilles brought his boat almost to the surface, put on his port and starboard lights, adjusted the boat’s speed to those of the search boats. He switched on his running lights and began crossing the entrance to the great bay. He knew that hardly any of the men looking for him had ever seen a U-boat. His men, stationed on deck in white jackets, scanned the sea ahead as he joined the search, and quietly, quietly U 161 left the scene...

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