This is based on a little research and my recollections of my Dad’s recollections – so there may be one or two inaccuracies.
AUGUST 1940 and Frank and Kirk have been evacuated to Dalminnach near Stranraer in Scotland. It is decided they will follow their sister Grace to Canada. I think Grace went first, and stayed with some religious family out in Canada. I don’t know where.
I think Frank and Kirk went back to Sunderland before embarking Volendam. They joined a train – again I don’t know where. The train was all blacked out even though it was daytime and the children were moved in great secrecy. I imagine this was so the Germans didn’t get wind of a new convoy being put together. The children were told not to open the window blinds and not to talk to anyone outside the train on places like railway station platforms.
They arrived in Liverpool and I think they were briefly put up in some sort of holding centre – a church hall or school.
The children boarded Volendam in Liverpool and she set sail travelling North up the Irish Sea – through the North Channel that divides Scotland from Ireland – where the boys had been living in Scotland until a few days before.
During World War II in Britain, civilians were subject to rationing. Food was in short supply, and there were no luxuries. My Dad’s first impression on boarding Volendam was the wonderful luxury of the ship. They ate in a dining room, food was plentiful and good. There was even a band that played as they ate. This must have been a million miles away from ration-bound, bombed-out Sunderland.
It was summer and quite warm, something the boys would be glad of later. My dad who was 13, met a girl on board and as Volendam sailed through the North Channel, he pointed out landmarks on the coast of Scotland that he knew.
Volendam formed up with the other ships in the convoy in the sea area just North of Loch Ryan round a rocky island called Ailsa Craig. Ailsa Craig dominates the coastline and was a feature in the background of the boys’ time in Scotland. My Dad proudly showed off his local knowledge to the girl he was trying to impress. Remember the girl as she will feature later in the story.
So Volendam and scores of other merchant ships form into a convoy. I think the ships sailed in long columns, several vessels abreast. They were escorted by warships, mainly smaller vessels like destroyers, corvettes and frigates. Top cover was provided by RAF Coastal Command Sunderland maritime patrol aircraft. The threat – U Boat packs that stalked the North Atlantic shipping routes looking for targets.
At night on 31 August (I think a day or two into the journey) the kids are all asleep. Dad and Kirk occupy a four berth cabin with two Scottish boys.
The ship is about 300 miles west of Ireland in the Atlantic. (56.04N, 09.52W) Frank is woken by a thump. Then another thump. He thinks in his sleepy daze that one of the masts on the ship has fallen over. The alarm bells sound and he gets up. On opening the cabin door he sees people rushing around. Frank tries to wake the boys. The two Scottish kids tell him it’s just a drill and they go back to sleep. Dad forces Kirk to get up and to put clothes on. By now Volendam is listing. She has taken two torpedoes. Neither explodes, with the second weapon going into the ship through the hole made by the first. If the weapons had gone off, the ship would have been blown to pieces and certainly me, Kirk and Frank Junior would not be round right now.
The boys get to their lifeboat station, but the lifeboat has gone without them. The crew is having difficulty launching the other boats on the high side of the now heavily listing ship.
The boys face a dilemma. They have to leave the ship. Frank looks over the side and sees the lifeboat in the water so he picks up Kirk – who I guess is about 11 – and throws him over the rail into the blackness below. Frank then follows him.
Frank ends up in the lifeboat. There is no panic, only one very small girl is crying. The lifeboat is big with many children on board, it is pitch black and there is a reasonable swell to the sea. All the time, they can hear the wailing of Volendam’s siren as she heels over in the dark like some wounded sea creature. Frank recalled how sad it was to watch a ship die like that.
Frank isn’t scared – saying there was no time to be frightened. He is worried. He doesn’t know if Kirk made it into the lifeboat or not.
Out of the blackness a British Tribal Class destroyer thunders past, her search light illuminating the lifeboat. The kids think they are going to be rescued, but the warship – using a loud hailer – tells them to keep away. They are trying to catch the U boat that could strike at any moment. The kids are directed by the warship to an oil tanker called Valdemosa.
At great personal risk, the crew of Valdemosa put every light they can on, to make the ship a beacon for the lifeboats. During convoys, vessels operated in darkness with no lights to minimize the risk of detection.
They approach Valdemosa. Scramble nets are put over the sides, and the kids climb up. As Frank boards the ship he says to one of the crew. “You are lit up like a bloody hotel.”
The sea is rough and the kids beg the captain to continue on to Canada. He however has his orders, and they are to be returned to the UK. Because of the weather conditions, some of the older boys are asked to go to the quarters in the stern of the ship, the place where the engines are. Not a particularly comfortable place to be. Accommodation is Spartan and as the ship is in ballast (empty of cargo) she rides high in the water. That means her prop occasionally comes out of the water making a terrific noise and massive vibrations.
Frank still has not found Kirk. The next day he explores the ship. Heading into the bridge area where the captain and officers live. He comes across a cabin. In there, quite happy, is Kirk. Bunked-up with the girl Frank had been trying to impress in the days before on Volendam.
Reunited, the boys enjoy the trip back to the UK. A very dangerous mission for this little tanker. I think she may have been a petrol tanker used for carrying gasoline. When empty, gasses build up in the tanks and there is a high risk of explosion.
Now this is where my memory goes astray. Frank described to me seeing a Sunderland maritime patrol aircraft appearing out of the clouds to protect the little ship on her return. I think this happened at this point in the story.
This is a very emotional time for Frank and Kirk. They realize the little tanker Valdemosa is making her way as fast as she can with no protection what so ever. The appearance of the Sunderland aircraft (Don’t be confused by its name, it is nothing to do with the town where the boys lived.) brings home to them, how vulnerable they are. The Sunderland is probably one of the squadron based on Lady Bay in Loch Ryan opposite Dalminnach farm. A little bit of “home” coming to protect the boys.
(This is the bit that always brought tears to my Dad’s eyes. And to mine writing this.)
Eventually Valdemosa arrives in the Firth of Clyde. It’s the entrance to the river that runs through Glasgow. The ship has passed the familiar Ailsa Craig island, the islands of Arran and Islay and the mountains are dotted all around. (I have sailed this part of the world many times it is very dramatic and beautiful.)
As we know it is wartime, moored and anchored in the Firth of Clyde are ships of every type you can imagine. Cargo vessels aircraft carriers, tugboats, cruisers, submarines, battleships – you name it.
As the unassuming, battered little tanker arrives amongst all these vessels, their sirens start to sound Hundreds of ships, deep sirens, whooping sirens of destroyers, little steam tug whistles, all making a noise in salute to Valdemosa and her precious cargo of kids from the Volendam.
Valdemosa berths at either Greenock or Gourock – I can’t remember.
Frank, Kirk and the rest of the kids, are met by crowds and by the press. They don’t know what all the fuss is about. Then someone shows them the front page of one of the daily newspapers. Its banner headline reads, “The Bravest Kids On Earth.”
Frank and Kirk return to Sunderland and then go back to Scotland. A few weeks after the attack on Volendam, a ship called City of Banares is attacked in similar circumstances. She too is carrying schoolchildren. This time the German torpedoes hit the ship and explode. Many children die.
After that, evacuation of children by sea is stopped.
So, what about the attack?
Volendam came up against one of the German Navy’s top U-boat captains. Adalbert Schnee. Here is his war tally: • 21 ships sunk for a total of 90,189 tonnes. • 2 auxiliary warships sunk for a total of 5,700 tonnes. • 3 ships damaged for a total of 28,820 tonnes. Known by his crews at the “Snowman” he won an Iron Cross amongst other medals. He was only in his 20s when he targeted Volendam.
The weapon of choice, the U Boat or U60 as this particular submarine was called. U60 was a “Type II C” U boat. Just over a year old at the time of the attack, she was about a modern a submarine as you could get. She fired 2 of her 5 torpedoes on the attack on Volendam.
U60 was never caught by the destroyer sent to hunt her in the Atlantic. She was scuttled by her crew in the final days of World War II off Wilmershaven.
Her captain - the Snowman – was by all accounts a very honorable man. At the end of the war, his submarine got the signal to surrender just as he had the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Norfolk in his sights. Many people realizing the war was over might have had one last shot for the hell of it. Not this captain. He stood his boat down from action stations, surfaced and surrendered. HMS Belfast survives today as a museum ship in the Pool of London.
Herr Schnee survived until the early 1980s. Frank always wanted to meet him, but we only started research into this in about 1999. No doubt they’ve met up in heaven and shared Schnapps or 3!
What happened to Volendam?
Poor old Volendam rolled over onto her side. Her siren still sounding and her captain still on the bridge. He heard crying, and found a lone boy wandering the decks of the dying ship. He had been left behind.
During the abandoning of Volendam, over 800 kids were taken to safety. There was only one death. An engineer who fell between a lifeboat and Volendam’s hull.
The captain and the little boy were rescued – as was Volendam.
You can’t keep a good ship down, especially one with the heritage of Volendam. She was built on the same Ulster slipway that Titanic had been built on. Her holed hulk was beached on the shores of the Isle of Bute in Scotland and then taken to Cammel Laird shipyard in Birkenhead near Liverpool where she was repaired, refitted and sent on her way.
After the war, she was returned to the Dutch government and to her owners Holland-America line.
Volendam spent much of the 1950s doing what she had been doing on the night she was attacked. She took emigrants from Europe to new lives in the new world.
When the end came for her, it was in a Dutch breaker’s yard. 30-odd years old. The snowman and his modern submarine didn’t do for her. In the end it was the gas cutters of a scrapping crew that ended Volendam’s story.
What happened to Valdemosa?
I am still trying to get information on her. No picture as yet. However this is what I do know. She was built in 1935, probably on Clydeside for the Vademosa Steam Ship Company – a division of Gow Harrison a Glasgow-based shipping firm.
She was sold after the war and renamed Denbydale H. In 1951 she was sold again and became Saladin. In 1952, she was trading under the name Don Nicholas and was broken-up in Savona on 11 April 1955.
Report into the sinking of Volendam.
The Volendam (Master Wepster) had been assigned to the child evacuation programme and was carrying 879 people, 273 crew members, 320 children with their leaders and 286 other passengers. She was also the ship of the commodore in convoy OB-205 with Admiral G.H. Knowles on board.
At 00.00 hours on 31 Aug, 1940, the Volendam was hit by one torpedo from U-60 about 200 miles west of the Bloody Foreland. The torpedo struck in #1 hold and opened a hole of 16 by 10 metres that caused the flooding of #1 and #2 hold. Soon it was necessary to abandon ship, but this was no problem because this had been practiced in port and the children sang Roll out the Barrel until they were rescued by three other ships of the convoy (British steam merchant Bassethound, British steam tanker Valldemosa and Olaf Fostenes) and brought back to Britain. The only casualty was a crewman, who drowned when he fell overboard.
The Volendam was taken in tow by HMS Salvonia (W 43) and beached on the Isle of Bute. Later she was refloated and repaired at Cammell, Laird. As she was docked a second unexploded torpedo was found embedded in the bow. The U-boat had fired a spread of two torpedoes with a short interval, the detonation of the first must have blown off the warhead from the second torpedo. The ship was converted to a troop transport and returned to service in July 1941. Until July 1945 she carried over 100.000 troops.
Volendam was not the only ship hit that night. 4 ships were sunk (15,934 tons) and 2 ships damaged (23,443 tons).
Biog of Aldalbert Schnee.
Adalbert Schnee joined the Navy in April 1934. After some months on the light cruiser Leipzig, he began his U-boat career in May 1937. He spent two pre-war years on board U-23 under the command of Oberleutnant zur See Otto Kretschmer. There he completed his first five patrols before going on to win great success with his own boat, U-201. On his seventh patrol he sank ships for a total of 41,036 tons, and for this achievement was awarded the Oak Leaves to his Knights Cross. In October 1942 he joined the BdU staff. In his position as the "Geleitzugs-Asto" (A I op), he planned and organized operations against the enemy convoys.
In September 1944 he took over the command of the new "Elektro-boot" U-2511, the first and only Type XXI boat to go on patrol*. On this patrol in the last days of the war, in the hours immediately after the cease-fire orders on 4 May, 1945, Korvettenkapitän Schnee had an excellent opportunity to sink the British cruiser HMS Norfolk. Simulating an actual attack, he approached the vessel, evaded the destroyer screen, closed to point-blank range, and then simply left the area.
After the surrender he served for six months in a minesweeper unit. In October 1945 he was called into court to testify in defense of Heinz-Wilhelm Eck and some of his officers, who were being tried for their actions in the Peleus Affair. On the stand, Schnee was placed in a difficult position by the prosecutor, and faced with a choice of either incriminating himself or condemning Eck's decision. Backed into a corner, Schnee, who was to have been the star witness for the defense, was forced to admit he would not have done as Eck had.
Later Schnee completed a commercial training course and worked for some years as a commercial representative. Then he retired from this profession to become the director of a sailing school on the island of Elba in the Mediterranean.
Adalbert Schnee was for a long time the chairman of the "Verband der U-Boots-Fahrer" in Germany.