Grandson writes of fateful attack on wartime convoy
E-boat Attack 6 January 1944 – The Sinking Of The Wallasea, Solstad, Polperro And MV Underwood
By David F Betts
AMONG the several war graves, from both the first and second world wars, in Penzance cemetery are those of the 64 men and one woman (Alide Reicher, stewardess in the Swedish Merchant Navy, crew of the Solstad) members of the crews of the said Solstad, Wallasea, Polperro and MV Underwood, who died as the result of enemy action in Mount's Bay on the night of January 6, 1944.
One of the 22 men aboard the last-named vessel and one of the 14 of its crew who were to die that night was RN DEMS Gunner Frederick WW Betts. By a strange coincidence there was also a seaman of the same name, but no relation, Frederick William Betts aboard the Wallasea, who was one of the 35 members of its crew who were killed; but it is the grandson of the former, archivist and records manager David F Betts, who has now written the story of all that happened on that sad night.
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It was when listening to his grandmother's stories about her husband's career in the Royal Navy and his loss aboard MV Underwood that he made notes of what she was saying. Later, in the 1980s, as he says: "When on holiday in Cornwall I visited Penzance cemetery and recorded the names of those servicemen buried there in war graves." It was to be the start of a quest that involved Plymouth library and its section on naval history in which he found confirmation of the fact that MV Underwood, along with Solstad, Wallasea and Polperro, had been sunk by torpedoes from German e-boats. Further research from Richard and Bridget Larn's books on Cornish shipwrecks and Clive Carter's Port Of Penzance to Karl Scheuch's website which provided information regarding e-boats and their operations in the Channel during the war years, gave him all the details he needed. "I wanted to publish my research, to share what I knew of the events of January 6, 1944, which had such a significant impact upon our family, hence this book."
The e-boats, capable of speeds up to 40 knots could hit and run and then vanish. They were the fastest and deadliest torpedo boats built – unfortunately our motor torpedo boats were no match for them. Not long after the sinking of the Underwood and the other ships, in April 1944 these same e-boats, the 5th Flotilla led by Leutenant-Kommander Karl Muller, were among those responsible for the deaths of more than 700 US servicemen when they hit upon the American D-Day exercise Operation Tiger off Slapton Sands.
Deployed to attack convoys in the English Channel, Muller planned to wait in ambush for convoy WP457 in one of Cornwall's coves and then go into action against it from the landward side.
The spot in which he chose to lie in wait was between Porthcurno and the Runnelstone. While the seven e-boats in his flotilla were actually seen by sentries guarding the telegraph facility at Porthcurno they assumed they were British and took no action against them. "Their role was to guard the telegraph and not to act as coastal lookouts."
En route from Milford Haven to Portsmouth by three in the morning of January 6, 1944, the convoy was about to cross Mount's Bay. "The weather was fine with good visibility. It was moonlight with a south-west wind force three and moderate sea ... The e-boats revved up their engines.
"Leaving the cove they prepared to attack the convoy. Muller had the advantage of complete surprise by attacking from the landward side."
With its first attack the flotilla succeeded in sinking the Solstad but it was the second, when the convoy was five miles south east of Penzance, that it did most damage, when it sank the MV Underwood, the Polperro and Wallasea.
While the remainder of convoy WP457 "proceeded onwards", an RAF rescue launch and Penlee lifeboat – warned "to turn on every light you've got, searchlight, navigation light, the lot ... This convoy has been attacked by e-boats and the naval craft won't take any chances" – began the search for survivors. "Out in the bay, clinging to the rafts and their upturned boat, men tried to stay alive in the January darkness ... As the winter morning passed Gunner Joseph Harvey could see the headlights of cars in the darkness travelling along the coastal roads."
Ultimately, it is the few survivors and the silent war graves in Penzance cemetery that say it all. David F. Betts' moving story, price £6.99, can be obtained through the author's website www.bettsbooks.co.uk