Kapitän Hermann von Bardeleben (registry page)
Ship captain in the Deutsche Handelsmarine (German Merchant Navy)
Born: 17.05.1882 Bremerhaven, Germany
Died: 03.06.1943 Toronto, Canada
Buried: Woodland Cemetery, Kitchener, Canada [R1-4]
Like so many other German merchant ships at the outbreak of World War II, the steamer S.S. Borkum was a victim of bad timing. Commanded by Kapitän Hermann Bardeleben, the Borkum was docked at Rosario, Argentina when war broke out in Europe. The ship had sailed there from Montevideo, Uruguay, and was completing its cargo manifest in preparation for the return voyage to Germany.
Merchant marine steam ship
Owner: Norddeutscher Lloyd, Bremen
Captain: Hermann von Bardeleben
Tonnage: 3,670 tons
Builder: Nordseewerke AG, Emden
On October 9, 1939, the Borkum left port and undertook a precarious journey to reach the safety of home waters.
As had been the strategy during the First World War, England had set up a naval blockade of routes that led to Germany, which relied on imports arriving by ship.
The Borkum’s cautious and circuitous route toward Germany took it past Greenland, but as it neared the British Isles its hope of running the blockade ran out.
On November 18 the Borkum was spotted by the R.M.S. California (F-55), a British auxiliary cruiser that was itself little more than an armed merchant ship. Its captain, C.J. Pope (RAN), challenged the Borkum.
In such situations protocol dictated that Kapitän von Bardeleben scuttle the Borkum rather than let it fall into enemy hands. However, the Borkum surrendered instead without a fight, and its captain and crew taken prisoner.
Now manned by an English prize crew with the aid of twelve Borkum sailors, the ship was put on a course for Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands. The English planned to deliver the captured cargo ship with its holds full of grain to a friendly port.
Their plan was short lived.
At 14:30 on November 23, the Borkum was once again spotted (at 59.33N 03.57W – Kriegsmarine grid AN1364), however, this time by a German U-boat.
U-33 was commanded by Kapitänleutnant Hans-Wilhelm von Dresky, who initially didn’t realize what he had on his hands.
Upon its capture, the English had attempted to disguise the Borkum as a Dutch cargo ship. The Borkum name was painted over and replaced with Bussum, but as the U-boat closed on the ship with the intent of stopping it for a contraband search, von Dresky became increasingly suspicious of what he saw.
Not only wasn’t the Borkum flying a flag, the new name on its hull had been painted in a cursory manner; most telling, the ship’s course of 130 degrees suggested it was heading toward Pentland Firth and the Orkney Islands.
At 15:30 the now surfaced U-33 approached the Borkum and signaled it to stop.
Lieutenant-Commander B. Moloney, who was in command of the prize crew, ignored the U-boat’s demand and as a result von Dresky ordered a warning shot be fired from his deck gun across the Borkum’s bow.
When a second warning shot was also ignored, a third was aimed at the Borkum’s bridge and scored a hit.
The steamer immediately reduced speed, but when the U-boat signaled that it should lower a boat and deliver its papers for inspection, the Borkum suddenly made a hard turn toward U-33 in an apparent attempt to ram it.
Von Dresky now had no alternative but to consider the Borkum to be a Q-ship.
Q-ships were a U-boat countermeasure used by the British during the First World War. They were well-armed ships disguised as harmless freighters that posed as easy targets for German U-boats. An iron fist in a velvet glove, a Q-ship’s hidden guns allowed it to engage, and sink, a surfaced U-boat.
Fearing the Borkum to be a Q-ship, U-33 began to fire for effect while repeating its command that the Borkum should come to a stop.
The Borkum, which was now on fire, responded by raising a British war flag and returning fire with small caliber rounds.
To protect U-33, von Dresky gave the order to dive and decided to torpedo the Borkum instead. However, the steamer was now seemingly out of control, which made it a difficult target.
There are differing accounts concerning the number of torpedoes that were used; some claim the U-boat fired one torpedo, which missed its target, but others state three torpedoes were used, and that one actually hit the Borkum.
While U-33 struggled to find a firing solution, the fire aboard the cargo ship had spread to the grain in its hold and the heat from the resulting inferno reportedly caused its hull to turn bright red. Not long after the ship’s bridge collapsed.
There was more to come.
In the evening’s descending darkness the U-boat resurfaced and began to fire rounds from its deck gun into the Borkum’s waterline, which glowed against the nighttime sky.
The Borkum would have finally sunk had it not been for the arrival of two British blockade ships, the armed boarding vessels Kingston Beryl and Kingston Onyx.
Exercising caution once again, U-33 broke off the engagement, but noted as it slipped away that even though the Borkum was listing heavily, it was still making steam.
The English prize crew didn’t suffer any losses during its encounter with U-33, but in a cruel twist of fate three (some claim four) of the Borkum’s original crew were killed.
With the aid of the blockade ships, the Borkum was abandoned. It was then allowed to drift until it finally ran aground at Papa Sound.
Declared a total wreck, the Borkum was refloated on August 18, 1940, and then towed to Rosyth, Scotland to be broken up two months later.
For his role in the capture of the Borkum and his action against U-33, Lieutenant-Commander Moloney was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO).
The Borkum’s crew remained imprisoned for the duration of the war. Kapitän von Bardeleben ended up in a Canadian internment camp and would never be able to complete that journey home: he died in captivity on June 6, 1943 of a heart attack.
Hermann von Bardeleben wasn’t the only person with that surname held in a Canadian internment camp during the war. While searching for records concerning von Bardeleben, a Canadian document published in November 1946 entitled Interneed Refugees (Friendly Aliens) From the United Kingdom was found, which listed the following refugee:
Name: BARDELEBEN, Guenther
Camp No.: 42
Remarks: Released in Canada 11-4-42
Camp 42 was located in Sherbrooke, Quebec. Previously known as Camp N, it held refugees and enemy merchant seamen from October 1940 to July 1946.