Stories and wrecks unknown to the general public because they are forgotten by most people are the best. This is such a story about a forgotten wreck near Aruba, the hunt for German freighters, how one of them deceived the hunters and the ultimate act of a captain.
It’s August 1939 and as the German merchant fleet is dispersed all over the world Germany prepares for war. On 25 August 1939, all German merchant ships worldwide receive a radio message from the German ministry of transport which has the code word “Essberger” in it. This code word is a signal for all merchant fleet captains to open a sealed envelope with instructions. All German ships are ordered to leave the main shipping lanes. Shortly after this message the ships receive a second message, also with the code word “Essberger”, which is a signal for the captains to alter their ships name and appearance, only communicate in code and set course for Germany asap.
– “August 25, 1939: Extract from “Kriegstagebuch der Seekriegsleitung” (War Diary of the German Naval Staff, Operations Division):
“Warning to German Merchant shipping: Measures 5 and 6 (5: return passage home, with the exception of ships in the Baltic Sea, otherwise seek friendly harbors. 6 : Leave customary routes, avoid the English Channel. Use radio code “H”).” –
On 28 August 1939 a coded message is sent instructing all merchant ships that can not reach a German harbor within four days to seek refuge in neutral harbors.
The captains of the Hapag (Hamburg Amerikanische Packetfahrt Actien Gesellschaft) ships ss. TROJA, ms. HEIDELBERG and es. ANTILLA and Horn Linie vessel ms. CONSUL HORN decide to seek refuge in the harbour of Curacao. As Holland, and therefore also Curacao and Aruba as part of the Kingdom, take a neutral position at the beginning of WWII, the German ships are relatively safe in neutral waters. When the ships reach Curacao they are informed that the harbour is packed with other German ships which forces them to divert to Aruba.
Arrival in Aruba:
On 31 August 1939 ss. TROJA (built in 1922 by Howaldtswerke at Kiel, lenght 309 ft. 2390 brt. Int. code signal DHYB) and the ms. CONSUL HORN, (a German cargo and passenger ship built in 1904 by Harland & Wolff at Belfast, lenght 453 ft. 8384 brt, Int. code signal DHIY), arrive in front of the harbour of San Nicolas, Aruba. One day later ms. HEIDELBERG (built in 1925 by Vulcanwerke at Hamburg, length 450 ft. 6530 brt Int. code signal DCIB) and es. ANTILLA (built 1939, 4363 brt) also anchor in front of San Nicolas harbour. That same day Germany has invaded Poland, the start of World War II. On 15 September 1939 all four ships are allowed by the government to anchor on the more quiet North West side of the Island opposite Malmok beach.
Consul Horn evades the blockade:
Since the allies (French and British forces) patrol the waters around Aruba, all four ships remain in neutral waters. Early January 1940 however the captain of the CONSUL HORN Johannes Roer decides it’s time to try a daring escape. On 9 January 1940 several crewmembers of the ANTILLA, HEIDELBERG and TROJA transfer to the CONSUL HORN. Under the cover of night the CONSUL HORN with a valuable cargo of tobacco and sugar heaves anchor and leaves the three miles zone of Aruba. After the captain is convinced his escape has not been detected he orders his crew to repaint the ship with markings making it look like a Russian freighter with the name “Molodets” and home-port Odessa, and sets course for Europe.
The plan works out perfectly and the captain manages to deceive the French submarine AUGOSTA and US air reconnaissance. The choice is made to avoid the British channel and the CONSUL HORN takes the westerly route around Great Britain. on 27 January things almost go wrong when the CONSUL HORN is passing the Orkneys and is hailed by the British Emerald class cruiser HMS ENTERPRISE. The reply by “the Molodets” is apparently not very convincing and Captain Egerton of HMS ENTERPRISE decides to escort “the Molodets” to Kirkwall. Fortune however is still with the crew of CONSUL HORN. According to the “Kriegstagebuch der Seekriegsleitung” (War Diary of the German Naval Staff, Operations Division) the vessel can’t be taken in prize due bad weather. (note: a different version of events claims HMS ENTERPRISE is called away for another more urgent assignment). On 8 February 1940 the CONSUL HORN reaches the neutral waters of Norway. She is the fourth of five ships which succeeded in escaping from Central America. (note: eventually the Consul Horn struck a sea mine near the German island of Borkum on the 20th of July 1942 and sank).
Directives from the German Ministry of Transportation:
A day after the escape of CONSUL HORN the French Navy in the Caribbean deploys three submarines to search for the vessel. In order to exploit the for the Germans “Favorable enemy position which has arisen from the hunt for the CONSUL HORN”, the German Ministry of Transportation, acting on advice of the Naval Staff, dispatches the following telegram on 14 January:
“To the embassy at Caracas for transmission to the agent in Curacao: “As a consequence of the CONSUL HORN’s departure, use the temporarily favorable opportunity for departure of a total of 5 ships from Curacao and Aruba for Germany or Spain. Ministry of Transportation”. “
On 16 January the Ministry of Transportation sends a separate instruction to the Embassies in Panama, Bogota, Caracas, and Mexico to prepare ships in Colombia, Venezuela, Curacao, Aruba, Mexico and Costa Rico to put to sea, either homeward through the Atlantic Ocean or to Japan through the Panama Canal. This has to be carried out about February and affects approximately 19 ships.
(Ss. Troja, source: www.maritimes-archiv.com )
The scuttling of Heidelberg and Troja:
Despite the fact that the allies increase their naval presence in the area the captains of the freighters HEIDELBERG (H. Spreckels) and TROJA (Adolf Boendel) decide, in accordance with the directive of the German Ministry of Transportation, to attempt an escape on the evening of 29 February 1940. Both ships leave Aruban neutral waters under the cover of darkness and try to avoid any contact with allied naval vessels. Given the fact that the allies were previously deceived by the CONSUL HORN they have no intention of making that same mistake. As a result of that their escape does not go unnoticed.
The TROJA is quickly detected by the British Danae class Light Cruiser HMS DESPATCH under the command of Captain Poland. 11 nautical miles West of Aruba the ship is intercepted. As soon as the captain of the TROJA realizes there is no escape he orders the crew to set fire to the ship to avoid capture of his ship and abandon her.
The glow of the burning ship can be seen from Aruba. The TROJA, still carrying her cargo of bags with cement, sinks in the early morning hours of 1 March 1940. The Dutch submarine O14 that was dispatched from Aruba after the departure of TROJA and Heidelberg, and remained in the vicinity of TROJA, reports her sinking at 01.45 AM. The crew is picked up by HMS DESPATCH .
The HEIDELBERG manages to evade the allies one more day. However on 2 March 1940 she is intercepted by another D-class Light Cruiser HMS DUNEDIN, commanded by Captain Lambe sixty miles west, southwest of the Windward Passage. As ordered by Berlin the captain of the HEIDELBERG is forced to scuttle his ship. The HEIDELBERG disappears beneath the waves around 5 P.M., the crew members are picked up by HMS DUNEDIN. The crew members of the HEIDELBERG as well as the TROJA are being detained in an internment camp (Camp Kingston) in British Jamaica.
(note: according to an eyewitness on HMS Dunedin the Heidelberg was carrying the name HEEMSKERK – Holland which suggests the Heidelberg also tried to escape using a false identity).
The fuel trap:
What the German crews didn’t know was that the time of their departure in fact was directed behind the scenes by the British Admiralty. Because of the limited amount of allied ships in the region the allied patrols could not constantly be present in the area. Therefore it was necessary to know when there would be a heightened chance of German vessels trying to outrun the blockade. A cunning plan was made in order to tempt the German merchant ships to try to escape: the head office of the Arend Petroleum Company in London was instructed to lift the oil embargo imposed on German ships in Curacao and Aruba. Shortly after the HEIDELBERG was allowed to take in fuel at Aruba she made an attempt to escape together with the TROJA, only to be intercepted by British warships that “coincidentally happened to be in the neighbourhood”.
(March 2, 1940: crew member of Heidelberg picked up by HMS Dunedin) (courtesy of www.hmsdunedin.co.uk)
Antilla stays behind:
The ANTILLA also attempts to escape. The War Diary of the German Naval Staff Operations Division of 1 March 1940 states that “Fort de France informs the French West Indies forces of the sailing of the German steamer HEIDELBERG from Aruba on 29 February and of the ANTILLA on 1 March”. According to a NY Times article of 3 March and 23 September 1940 the ANTILLA tried to escape but returned to her anchorage grounds at Malmok Bay as soon as she was confronted with an allied warship outside the three miles zone.
From that moment on the ANTILLA remains anchored in front of Malmok beach until the 10th of May 1940. That day German forces invade Holland and the ANTILLA is no longer in safe neutral waters. To prevent the ANTILLA from falling into enemy hands the captain scuttles her as ordered.
(see also: True story of es. Antilla (1939) and her crew ).
(More background information on other (WW II) wrecks in Aruba can be found at https://willemsubmerged.wordpress.com/)