During World War II a number of allied ships were wrecked off the Cornish coast as a result of German U-boat operations, whether directly through torpedo fire or indirectly as a result of mine–laying. Despite such losses on behalf of the Allies it was believed until relatively recently that no U-boats had been sunk off Cornwall. In 2007 however, divers discovered the wrecks of three German U-boats, shedding light on a British operation that had remained secret for over 60 years.
Historians were surprised by the discovery of the catastrophically damaged U-boats which lay in close proximity to each other seven miles off Newquay. Extensive research eventually revealed they had been the victims of a secret minefield laid especially to trap U-boats after the British intercepted a radio message from a U-Boat commander.
The fate of HMS Warwick is illustrative of the devastating losses suffered at the hands of U-boats.
The warship, under command of Commander Denys Rayner, went down in minutes on February 20, 1944, off the North Cornwall coast, after it was struck by a torpedo launched by U-413, with the loss of 67 men. Fishing vessels which came to the aid of the stricken ship were able to rescue 97 of the crew.
In 2014 Lieutenant Commander David Harries (pictured), who was 92, and one of only three survivors still alive at the time, spoke to the local newspaper, the Cornish Guardian. Mr Harries was the navigating officer of the destroyer and was on the Bridge when it was hit by the torpedo. As he recalled, fate played a significant part in his survival off Trevose Head:
“I was due to take the watch from 8am-noon and was making my way to the bridge when I bumped into a crew member on the upper deck named Truscott who dealt with supplies. I mentioned that I had not worn my lifejacket for a while because the valve wasn’t working, and asked if he had a spare. He came back shortly with the last lifejacket on the ship, and made me sign for it, of course.
“Well, 30 minutes later we were hit by the torpedo and I spent over an hour in the water before being picked by a Belgian fishing boat. If it wasn’t for Truscott finding me the last lifejacket, I certainly wouldn’t be here today.’’
Truscott, too, was one of the lucky survivors.
There is a further, perhaps surprising, addition to the story. Many years later in 1984, Mr Harries decided to attempt to trace both the U-boat commander who sunk the Warwick and the skipper of the Belgian fishing boat who had saved his life. Mr Harries takes up the tale: “I knew someone in Germany and asked if he could possibly help by going through German military records of the period. He later came back not only with the name of the commander of U-413, but with his phone number. His name was Gustav Poel, and we spoke on the telephone. I’d also traced the Belgian skipper, and it was agreed that with our wives, we would travel to Germany to meet Gustav Poel.
“He told me he had also sunk the Warwick Castle (a convoy ship lost off Portugal in 1942 with the loss of 95 men) and we all shook hands and agreed what a ghastly business war was, but our acquaintance didn’t stop there. The following Christmas, a case of wine arrived from Germany. And a case arrived a week before Christmas every year until 2008. That Christmas, there was no wine. Gustav was saying goodbye and he died in 2009.
“Then in 2010, a week before Christmas, another case of wine arrived from Germany, and I have received a case every Christmas since. The wine has been sent to me by his widow.’’