World War II has returned to Saint Lucia seven decades later through an incident that unearthed a real war artifact in the centre of the island’s main harbor: the propeller of a sunken ship.
A German submarine had torpedoed two ships in the Castries Harbour in March 1942.
Back then, Germany was allied to the Vichy regime in France, as a result of which German submarines used Martinique, a French colony, as a base from which to attack British and other allied ships in the Carbbean.
Saint Lucians old enough can still actually remember hearing the giant explosions that fateful day.
It was dead in the in the middle of World War II (1939-45), but the two “steam merchant” vessels torpedoed in Castries were not war ships. Instead, the Lady Nelson and Umtata were carrying passengers and cargo.
After the two ships were torpedoed that day, Castries residents were officially advised by the British authorities to quickly head to the surrounding hills for safety, because the town was under attack by German U-boats.
As a result of the torpedoes, many lives were lost on both ships — and on the Castries docks: Three crew members out of 116, 15 passengers out of 110 and two gunners died on the Lady Nelson, along with seven dock workers; and in the case of the Umtata, four of the 140 crew members, four gunners and 33 passengers died.
Following the Castries attack, the British and Americans intensified their anti-submarine actions, including a large hand-made net that was placed across the harbour’s entrance.
However, a third German sub from Martinique would also later mine the net.
Most alive in Saint Lucia today who recalled that day were quick to conclude the propeller that had been unearthed accidentally after 75 years was that of the Lady Nelson. However, none was sure and not even the port authorities could have certified.
To find out more about what happened back then, I searched the internet and came up with some interesting findings.
According to uboat.net: “At 4.49am on 10 March 1942, U-161 fired two torpedoes into the harbour of Port Castries, St. Lucia. The first torpedo hit the Lady Nelson which caught fire and sank by the stern in shallow waters.
“The second torpedo struck the Umtata, which also sank by the stern.
“The vessel (Umtata) was en route ‘from Durban to New York with a cargo of chrome ore, asbestos and meat,’ altogether 2,000 tons of mineral ore.
“However, both vessels were later salvaged and repaired.”
On April 16, Lady Nelson was “salvaged, temporarily repaired and left for Mobile (Alabama) on May 11.” It was later converted to a hospital ship for 518 patients and commissioned on April 22, 1943.
“On 2 May 1942, Umtata was salvaged, temporarily repaired and then sunk by another U-boat while under tow to Port Everglades, for permanent repairs.”
“At 9:02 a.m. on 7 July 1942, the Umtata (Captained by Master R. Owen Jones) was torpedoed and sunk by U-571 (captained by Helmut Möhlmann) northeast of Key West in the Florida Strait, while under tow by the American tug Edmund J. Moran…
“The Master and 91 crew members were picked up by the tug, transferred to USCGC Thetis (WPC 115) and landed at Miami.”
But these interesting facts led to more questions about the giant propeller — and which of the two ships it belongs to, if any.
First, it was one German submarine, not two, that fired the two torpedoes. Another torpedoed the Umtata ten weeks later, for a second time.
Secondly, both ships were eventually floated and left the harbor to be repaired overseas.
Thirdly, the names of the submarines and commanders involved in attacks in Saint Lucia are all available: U-161 was captained by Achilles and U-571 by Möhlmann; and the U-66 that mined the Castries harbor was captained by Freidrick Markworth.
There’s an interesting account in the book “A History of Saint Lucia” by Harmsen, Ellis and Devaux about the third German U-Boat captain — which also highlights the levels of advanced preparations the Germans undertook ahead of the start of the war.
The book reveals that Markworth brought his U-66 sub right up to the steel net across the Castries harbor and laid mines that exploded two small craft, leading to immediate mine-sweeping of all Caribbean harbours under British and American control.
It also reveals that Achilles and Markworth were among a couple hundred German naval students in training who visited Saint Lucia in May 1939, aboard a German training ship named Gorch Fock.
But while they praised the island to the hilt, it would emerge that they were actually taking photographs of US naval and air stations on the island, gathering information that later became important to Germany — and themselves — during the war.
It will be difficult to say the giant propeller found here did not belong to either of the two torpedoed boats. But no proof has yet been presented as to which, or if any.
Meanwhile, there’s another historical fact I would like to see unearthed.
I have all my life remembered reading a “Letter to the Editor” in The Voice of Saint Lucia while growing up, written by someone who claimed to have had authority (even as captain) of the submarine that torpedoed the two ships in Castries.
It was in the late 1960s or early 1970s and the German letter writer had visited Castries as a tourist — and before leaving, he posted the letter to The Voice, in which he offered sincere apologies.
I cannot quite remember if his name was published, but the letter (which exists in the Voice archives) is proof that whoever it was did come back t-o the island to express his remorse.
It could have been better if he had visited the families of the seven Castries dock workers who died in the Lady Nelson and Umtata attacks. But one would also appreciate his apprehension in the circumstances.
Earl Bousquet is editor-at-large of The Diplomatic Courier and author of the regional newspaper column entitled Chronicles of a Chronic Caribbean Chronicler.