I’m currently working on a book about bravery and tragedy in the lifeboat service, focussing specifically on winners of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s Gold Medal for gallantry since its inception in the early 1800s.
To add a bit of colour, I’m also researching the lives of the medal winners, and to a lesser extent the ships whose crews were rescued – which leads me onto the following story.
A major feature of the Second World War was the determination of both sides to attack merchant shipping in order to disrupt supplies and hamper the enemy’s war effort. Early in the war the German U-boats were very successful. We tend to think of the many ships and their crews that were lost to stealthy enemy attacks – but it wasn’t always like that, and yesterday I came across a fascinating German U-boat captain called Herbert Schultze and his exploits.
In a sensational world exclusive, given below is a passage from the book (in first draft form at least) in which I briefly tell his story. The actual lifeboat rescue at the heart of the chapter concerns a cargo vessel called the Browning, but this is what happened to her a few months before she ran aground:
On the afternoon of 5 September 1939, near the start of the war and when perhaps a vestige of naval chivalry still existed, the lookouts on board the Browning, then about 300 miles off Cape Finisterre en route to Brazil, spotted a surfaced U-boat heading rapidly towards them. When a series of small explosions erupted in the water around them from the deck gun of the submarine, U-48, the cargo ship’s captain ordered the lowering of the boats so that his crew could escape before the Browning was torpedoed. But the U-boat continued to close the distance, instead making for the lifeboats. Their crews were sitting ducks and must have feared the worst – but instead, the U-48 captain hailed them when he was close enough. What transpired was that Captain Herbert Schultze had earlier intercepted another British cargo ship, the Royal Sceptre and had
opened fire in order to make her stop, killing and wounding several of those on board. Her crew had also taken to the lifeboats, but a radio operator had been left at his post. Even though the man was sending distress signals that would have alerted any nearby Royal Navy warships, Schultze took the time to get him off and make sure all her crew were clear before sinking the Royal Sceptre. He had then spotted the distant Browning and had made for her, but not with the intention of consigning her to the same fate. He now ordered her crew to re-embark, and told them where they would find the drifting lifeboats of the other British ship and so be able to rescue the crew – which they duly did. [Footnote: Herbert Schultze became a U-boat ‘ace’, sinking 26 ships during his wartime career. On his first patrol he sank a ship called the Firby in a similar fashion, and sent a cheeky radio message across the airwaves (knowing that it would be intercepted by the British) to ‘Mr Churchill’, telling him what he’d done and where the crew could be picked up. He was awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class, Iron Cross 1st Class, the Knights Cross, and the Knights Cross with oak leaves. His nickname among his men was ‘Daddy’ Schultz because of the paternal care he took of them. He survived the war, dying in 1987 at the age of 77.]