After having listened to the many stories that are being told about the Antilla and her crew, I decided to do some research on this vessel, initially through internet sources and later on through sources like the Dutch National Archive, the National Library and the Dutch Institute for Military History. I have tried to separate facts from fiction and found out about the real story.
Build and launch:
E.s. (electroship) Antilla (international code signal DKBA) was built in 1939 by Deutsche Werft in the Finkenwarder area of Hamburg. She was launched on 21 March 1939 and her date of completion was 11 July 1939. The ship (121,4 mtrs/ 400ft, 4363 tons) was built for the German firm Hamburg Amerikanische Packetfahrt Actien Gesellschaft (HAPAG) and had two sisterships; es. Arauca (DKBG) and es. Orizaba (DKAK), also built in 1939. The Antilla left Germany for her maidenvoyage on 15 July 1939.
(Lloyd’s register 1939-1940)
(note: according to LLoyd’s register 1939-1940 the Antilla was fitted with two steam turbines connected to an electricmotor built by the Allgemeine Elektricitats Gesellschaft Berlin (AEG), therefore she has the designation “es.”).
Shipping ads by HAPAG in the local newspaper Amigoe di Curacao show that the Antilla left Curacao on 9 August, 1939, heading for Colombia (Puerto Colombia as well as Cartagena) followed by ports in Panama, Costa Rica en Guatemala to offload cargo from Germany. On 25 August 1939, as the Antilla was in the port of Galveston (Texas) and had loaded sulpur destined for Europe, captain Schmidt received a radio message from the German authorities to all German merchant ships which added the code word “Essberger”. This code word was a signal for all merchantfleet captains to open a sealed envelope with instructions. All German ships were ordered to leave the main shipping lanes. Shortly after this message the ships received a second message, also with the code word “Essberger”, which was a signal for the captains to alter their ships name and appearance, only communicate in code and set course for Germany asap. Captain Schmidt decided to set course for Cartagena (Colombia) to take in fuel. But before the Antilla reached Cartagena a new (coded) message was received on 28 August 1939 instructing all merchant ships that could not reach a German harbour within four days to seek refuge in neutral harbours. On 1 September 1939 the Antilla refueled in Cartagena and left immediately for the neutral waters of Curacao. On his way to Curacao captain Schmidt was informed that the harbour of Curacao was packed with German ships forcing him to seek refuge in Aruban waters along with three other German cargoships (Consul Horn, Heidelberg and Troja). That same morning (1 September 1939) Germany had invaded Poland.
In neutral waters:
Between 1 September 1939 and 29 February 1940 captain Schmidt made no attempt to break the blockade of French and British warships arguing that because of engine trouble that occured during her maidentrip, the Antilla could never outrun the fast British warships (note: the Antilla and her sisterships had a highly sophisticated and complex propulsionsystem, and both the Antilla and her sistership Arauca experienced technical failures ). On 9 January 1940, 10 crewmembers of the Antilla signed up on the German cargovessel Consul Horn. That same evening the Consul Horn made a successful escape from Aruba to Germany. On 29 February 1940 Heidelberg and Troja made a fruitless attempt to break through the blockade (both ships were intercepted by British warships and scuttled by their own crew). According to a NY Times article of March 3 , 1940 the Antilla tried to escape together with Heidelberg and Troja but returned to her anchorage grounds at Malmok Bay as soon as she was confronted with an allied warship outside the three miles zone. (note: in the report of Dutch submarine O14 that was dispatched to monitor the ships movements, the Antilla is not mentioned. Allegedly the Antilla (again) attempted to escape on March 4 ).
Germany invades Holland:
Since 12 April 1940 her crew had been confined to the ship by order of the local authorities because of the ever increasing threat of war and on 10 May 1940 German forces invaded Holland. At that time the Antilla was anchored in front of Malmok Beach (Aruba). As the German invasion was considered an act of war the Dutch government ordered all German merchant ships in the Dutch Antilles (being part of the Dutch Kingdom) to be confiscated and the German crews to be arrested.
That morning, at 01.40 hrs a section of 22 marines and their commanding officer (a captain) left the barracks at Savaneta to embark on a sloop and a flat-boat in Oranjestad with the objective to confiscate the Antilla. They arrived at the Antilla in Malmok Bay at 03.10 hrs but after the marines had hailed the German captain Ferdinand Schmidt he refused to lower the gangway. According to his own account the captain of the marines expected fierce resistance from the German crew and he assessed that cover from a machinegun that was positioned on shore was needed to succesfully board the Antilla. Unfortunately, due to the dark conditions that night, use of the machinegun was not possible and he decided to postpone the operation until first light, a decision he was heavily criticized for afterwards.
At 05.00 hrs the marines boarded the Antilla and took the 35 crewmembers prisoner. By postponing the boarding operation the German crew had been given more than a sufficient amount of time to prepare the ship for scuttling. One crewmember had locked himself in the engineroom where he opened the outside valves to flood it and afterwards escaped the engineroom through the funnel. Other crewmembers had started several fires on the ship. At 05.30 hrs the crew was assembled on the poop deck and later placed in a lifeboat. By that time thick smoke was pouring out of the ship. Escorted by the marines the crew was put ashore and handed over to the military police.
H.M. Practico and H.M. Aruba:
At 06.00 hrs that morning the coastguardvessels “H.M. Aruba” and “H.M. Practico” arrived at Malmok bay. According to her shipsjournal the crew of H.M. Aruba estimated that the Antilla had already been burning for at least an hour.
Two crewmembers of H.M. Aruba boarded the Antilla and established that the engineroom and cargohole 4 and 5 were on fire and that the valves that were opened by the German crew could not be reached and closed. After the crewmembers of H.M. Aruba had abandoned the Antilla they fired two rounds with their 3,7 cm deckgun at the Antilla to make sure no German crewmember had stayed behind. At 06.50 hrs the Antilla was reported to be on fire from bow to stern and listing to port by 20 degrees. When H.M. Aruba left Malmok bay at 11.30 hrs that morning the Antilla was listing to port by 30 degrees and sinking.
Cause of sinking:
It’s often suggested that the crew overheated the boilers and deliberately caused a huge explosion by letting seawater flow in. In the official documents there is no mention at all of the crew heating up the boilers and no explosion was reported by the crew members or the Dutch marines. According to a report written after inspection of the wreck by divers between May en August 1940 the superstructure of the ship was damaged by fire but the hull of the ship was undamaged and in one piece. The report concluded the sinking was caused by opening the valves of the vessel. The breaking up of the wreck is a result of heavy swells and was first noticed during an inspection in 1953.
Fate of the Antilla crew:
Throughout the Dutch Antilles a total of 220 German merchant sailors were arrested from 15 ships. (note: As well as the crew of the Antilla the crew of the German ship Goslar that was berthed in Dutch Suriname managed to scuttle their vessel before she was confiscated). These merchant sailors were all transported to Bonaire (from Curacao on the Lake tankers ss. Casandra and ss. Maximina, from Aruba on the Lake tanker ss. Bachaquero). On arrival the sailors were detained in a school building. Next to these sailors 200 German and Austrian civilians (amongst them also civilians that fled the threat of Nazi Germany), as well as approximately 20 Dutch nationals that were considered a threat to national security because of being alleged Nazi supporters) were being detained in several school buildings (the latter in a later stage).
Transport to Jamaica:
Already on 11 May 1940 an agreement was reached between the Dutch Authorities on Curacao and the British Consul that Great Britain would accept the 220 German merchant sailors and detain them in an internmentcamp in British Jamaica.
In the period between their arrival in Bonaire and their shipment to Jamaica the sailors had to build an internmentcamp in Bonaire to house the other civilian internees. They finished building the camp early July 1940 and on 5 July 1940 the crew of the Antilla, together with their 185 colleagues, was escorted to the vessel Jamaica Producer and transported to British Jamaica. There the crew went to Male Internment Camp Kingston. This camp housed a total of 1070 civilian detainees of which 608 were “Enemy merchant seamen”. The crew spent the rest of the war in Camp Kingston. According to the death registrations of St. Andrews (Jamaica) at least one crewmember of the Antilla died in detention; on 16 february 1943 engineer Willy Schwennosen perished as result of an illnes at the age of 59.
(internmentcamp Bonaire. source: Dutch National Archive)
(note: the internmentcamp in Bonaire was not bought by Captain Schmidt of the Antilla after the war, as has been widely suggested, but by a local entrepreneur, Mr. Lodewijk Gerharts. On the spot of the camp at first Hotel Zeebad was built and later on Divi Flamingo Hotel, which is still there).
Supply ship myth:
it is often said that the Antilla was a disguised auxiliary ship for U-boats. I have not been able to find any confirmation for this, nor for the presence of ammunition, torpedoes, fuel etc. in the wreck when salvage was considered. Furthermore, prior to May 10, 1940 the ship was repeatedly searched by the military authorities for weapons and nothing was found. It’s also clear that the captain of the Antilla followed the orders that were given by the German authorities to the merchantfleet. The Antilla carried 3000 tons sulphur from Galveston (Texas) destined for Europe which was eventually unloaded in San Nicolas harbour in October 1939. Therefore the “U boat supply story” can be ruled out.
The “supply ship rumour” could well have originated from the visits of German tankers to Aruba in December 1938 and January 1939. According to a Dutch intelligence report the tanker Rudolf Albrecht arrived in Aruba in December 1938 and loaded fuel that, the Dutch authorities suspected, was destined for the cruiser Schlesien. The Rudolf Albrecht crew however stated that the fuel was for their own use and that her next port of call would be Cartagena (Colombia). Later on it was confirmed that the Rudolf Albrecht had replenished the cruiser Schlesien in the Caribbean Sea. In Januari 1939 the tanker Julius Schindler visited Aruba. Prior to her visit she was observed while replenishing the cruiser Schleswig-Holstein on the high seas. In Aruba the Julius Schindler loaded several types of fuel. According to the intelligence report one of these fuel types could only be used by U-boats.