Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Sinking of the S/S Katha

John Riddell Findlay was my third cousin once removed and was a merchant seaman during World War II. He joined the S/S Katha as 3rd mate on 13 June 1941 in Hull, England. Four months later the ship was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-Boat. John Riddell Findlay may have been aboard at the time as I believe he didn't join his next ship until 13 September 1944.

S/S Katha; photograph courtesy of

I found this firsthand account by Roy Prince about the sinking of the S/S Katha on, the official newsletter of the USS Guadalcanal Task Group 22.3 Association.

In April 1943 I was an 18 year old 3rd Radio Officer on the British merchantman S/S Katha, a freighter of 4,357 tons built in 1938. I had boarded the ship in London and we were now on a voyage from Oban to India via the Cape of Good Hope sailing in Convoy OS45 with a crew of 64; 12 officers from Scotland and England, 9 gunners, and a crew from the Portuguese colony of Goa on the east coast of India. We carried three Radio Officers and each of us had a 4 hours on and 8 hours off shift. I worked the "noon-to-4pm" and "midnight-to-4am" shift. 

The cargo was a typical wartime mixture of sixteen Hawker Hurricane fighters in wooden crates, ammunition, mail, some wooden crates containing “Stephens Black Ink," strange how little details remain in one's mind, and a brand new shiny red Fire Engine with “The City of Karachi” painted on its sides. Most of the crates had “Britain delivers the Goods” stenciled on them but they didn’t get there this time! 

Convoy OS45 consisted of 43 Merchant Ships sailing in 11 columns, the theory being that most attacks would come from the side, so by providing a broad front the convoy would pass a given point in a shorter time. S/S Katha was the second ship in column 11, the outer starboard column. We were escorted by six Royal Navy ships -- one sloop and five corvettes. Most of the merchant ships were armed, carrying a 4 pounder on the stern and an assortment of machine guns and anti-aircraft weapons manned by Army/Navy gunners. 

Typical North Atlantic Convoy; photograph courtesy of Marconi
Veterans Organization

Although the ship was only five years old at the time, the radio room was spartan. The radio equipment was manufactured by Siemens and the radio officers worked for whichever company supplied the radio equipment and not for the shipping company. The receiver was a two tube (…we called them "valves") job with plug in coils covering 12 khz – kc/s in those days – all the way up to 18 khz and it was as selective as a barn door. The transmitter, RT and CW, was rated 150 W input and merely covered the medium frequency Marine Band of 390 – 510 khz. 

An auto alarm was used to monitor the 500 kc/s distress frequency when the radio officer was off duty (… in peacetime the ship only carried one Radio Officer). Reception of a series of 4-second dashes at 1-second intervals, sent out by the calling ship preceding a distress message, would set off alarm bells placed throughout the receiving ship alerting the radio officer to an incoming distress signal. There were frequent false alarms set off by bursts of static. 

Eight days out of Oban we had reached position 41.02 N 15.39 W, west of Cape Finisterre. On 2 April shortly after 2215 local time I was asleep in my cabin upper deck mid-ships (…in the Merchant Marine each officer had a cabin -- unlike the tougher conditions in the armed forces). Suddenly I was startled awake by a God awful uproar I can only describe as sounding like an anchor chain being dropped from a great height on to a metal deck. I lay there, now wide awake, staring into the darkness and listening, but nothing much seemed to be happening so I figured it was not important and stayed under the covers trying to calm down and get back to sleep. A few moments later the 2nd Radio Officer, who had been on watch, ran into the cabin and shook me up. We had been torpedoed. He said there was no point in going to the radio room as the radio equipment was badly damaged and inoperative. Oh, the innocence of an 18 year old; things like that only happen to others. I was wearing pajamas but it didn’t take me long to put on a pair of pants and a life jacket! 

We had been hit by two torpedoes on the starboard side and the Captain had issued the abandon ship order. The ship was now a tangle of bent and twisted plates and ruptured pipes. We threaded our way through all the wreckage and headed for the starboard side lifeboat station to which I was assigned. When we got there we found the lifeboat a hopeless mess, wrecked by one of the torpedoes. That wasn't going to work so the third mate, an apprentice, and myself decided we had better get to a life raft fast.

Arriving there as quickly as we could in the midst of all the wreckage and the darkness we found the raft in good condition and still in place on the launching rails. Those wonderful rafts, secured on two girders, could be released by hitting a shackle allowing them to slide off the ship. Grabbing the wooden mallet kept in position alongside for that purpose, the third mate began raining a series of frantic blows on the release shackle. But the mallet wasn’t up to the task and it splintered in his hands. I don’t recall exactly where he found the piece of metal -- no trouble finding it as there was a lot of it laying around -- and he used it to pound the shackle releasing the raft to our great relief.

Those rafts must have saved many lives as launching lifeboats, even if not damaged, was a hazardous job and many lives were lost doing it. I went over the side down a Jacobs ladder and in fairly calm seas managed to get aboard the raft without even getting my feet wet. Eleven of the Goanese crew, the third mate, an apprentice, and myself ended up on the raft and managed to paddle away from the ship which by now was folding in the middle and beginning to resemble a pair of scissors just before it disappeared beneath the surface. It’s hard to believe I was able at the time to see so well in the dark; it’s a bit different now! 

U-124 in 1940; photograph courtesy of Wikipedia

It wasn’t until many years after the war I learned it was U-124 which had sunk us. (the famous "Edelweiss" boat commanded by young Jochen Mohr, then in his twenties. U-124 sank 48 ships under two commanders before herself being sunk in this attack on OS45. Werner Henke had served as 2nd Watch Officer on U-124 before taking command of U-515 which we encountered about a year later very close to these same waters.) Although the escorting Navy ships were rushing about searching for the submarine it seemed at the time as if we were the only people left in the ocean, the rest of the convoy having passed on and out of sight. It's funny now -- but as I look back on it one thought kept coming to mind -- here we were floating around on a raft alone in the dark on the open ocean, our ship having just been blown up and sunk beneath our feet, and all I was thinking was: “I wonder how the others on this raft will behave if we are on it for very long?” 

Just before dawn the S/S Danby, another British freighter, found us and took us aboard. Danby was the designated rescue ship sailing last in the column. She had seen two ships torpedoed and sink and had left the convoy to search for survivors. The Master of the Danby was a very brave man to cruise around in the dark knowing two ships had been torpedoed and that a U-boat was out there somewhere ready to attack again. 

The sub continued to track the convoy and about an hour later it was detected on radar by two of the escort ships, HMS Black Swan and HMS Stonecrop, and sunk by depth charges with the loss of all 54 crewmen. 

The following day the Danby caught up with the convoy and we were transferred to a Canadian ship which had room for us and took us to Freetown, West Africa. We were only there one night before a large ship entered the harbor and a few hours later we were on our way to Scotland aboard the Queen Marytraveling at 33 knots. It only took six days from Freetown to Scotland! 

Our total casualties on the S/S Katha amounted to six -- ive in the engine room and one who was crushed abandoning ship. The ship directly ahead of us, the S/S Gogra, must have been unfortunate enough to have been hit in the hold where a cargo of ammunition was stowed. She had exploded in a towering flash of flame and fire and out of a crew of ninety only eight survived. 

Of course, being eighteen and feeling immortal, the whole experience was just a thrilling time for me. Something I noticed many times was the respect the experienced seafarers had for the dangers of the sea; the U-boats were a secondary consideration. 


  1. What an incredible story! And, how wonderful that you found this firsthand account! That must have been terrifying, but I love how he ends it saying he was 18 and felt 'immortal.'

    1. First-hand accounts are my favorite things but they can be so hard to find.

  2. What a great find (the 1st hand account). Nice job!

    ~Jeanne Ruczhak-Eckman
    Genealogical Gems

    1. That was my favorite line as well! I'll be visiting your blog as it is a new one to me.