This thread was originally written and published in April 2023. It has been edited for clarity and additional detail for this post.
Sometimes I go looking for interesting rabbit holes to go down and tweet a thread about. Sometimes people send me the strand that will lead me to a thread. And sometimes unique and unusual inspiration just drops itself straight into my inbox, begging to be looked into.
You see way back whenever, I set up email alerts for online auction houses with the words “Edinburgh” or “Leith”, to keep a watchful eye on whatever interesting objets may be coming up for sale with those words in the listing. Mainly it’s sets of Edinburgh Crystal or kitsch Duke of Edinburgh memorabilia, or job lots of Prue Leith cookbooks, but sometimes it will be something unusual. Very occasionally it’s something very unusual indeed: something you never knew you were looking for until it arrived in your inbox at 3:30AM one morning. And today’s Auction House Artefact is one of these latter cases, because it is the original “Writ of Summons” from the WW2 seizure of the German merchant ship SS Alster in Leith in June 1940: the prize rules dictating that the officer who served this writ had to board the vessel and nail this very paper to its mast!
The Alster was a 12,000 deadweight ton cargo ship of the German Norddeutscher Lloyd line (NDL). Built in Hamburg in 1927, she was intended to sail the routes between Bremen, Australia and the far east.
She was taken over by the Kriegsmarine (German Navy) in 1940 in advance of the German invasion of Norway. Alster surreptitiously departed for Norway on April 3rd 1940, destination Narvik, loaded up with supplies for the invasion force. On board were guns, ammunition, 80 lorries, thousands of tons of coke fuel, food, hundreds of tons of hay for horses and even toys to distribute to children in a “hearts and minds” effort. She arrived in Norwegian waters under cover of being a regular merchant ship, 4 days before the invasion proper began, in order that she would be in position and ready to supply the German forces once they had landed. The old Norwegian torpedo boat Trygg even cleared her to pass and escorted her towards land.
On the 8th April, Alster reached Vestfjorden and was warned off of a British minefield by a Norwegian patrol boat, Syrian. This latter vessel, a converted trawler inspected the Alster and – deciding there was nothing odd about this heavily laden German merchant ship – let her pass on her way to Bodø. When war officially broke out between Germany and Norway two days later the Syrian caught up with Alster once again but worried that the much larger ship was probably armed and carrying German troops, decided that discretion was the better part of valour and stood off. Instead, as the Alster plodded off at her leisurely top speed of 14 knots, Syrian passed the details of her contact to her Royal Navy allies instead. The Navy realised the value of the Alster and her thousands of tons of supplies to the invaders and quickly dispatched a strong force to capture her: the cruiser HMS Penelope and four destroyers led by HMS Icarus.
The Penelope unfortunately ran into a few navigational difficulties, which caused her in turn to run into the island of Fleinvær on April 11th. The destroyer HMS Eskimo managed to pull the damaged ship free and, with the assistance of Norwegian tugs, on to Skjelfjorden where temporary repairs could be made. She would limp back to the UK and be out of the war for 14 months, effectively requiring to be largely rebuilt below the water line.
The next day it was Eskimo, erstwhile saviour of Penelope, that needed help: the German destroyer Georg Thiele hit her with a torpedo in the 2nd Battle of Narvik, causing a significant rearrangement and truncation of her bows. Amazingly, despite the damage, Eskimo survived, was patched up at Skjelfjorden and sent back to the Tyne to get a new front end and was back in action within 5 months, going on to survive the war.
It was thus left to HMS Icarus to round up the Alster, a very one-sided encounter which was only ever going to go the Royal Navy’s way. The crew of the German ship tried and failed to set of a scuttling charge and quickly found themselves British captives. The Royal Navy was surprised to find that the German captain was none other than Oskar Sharf, the Norddeutscher Lloyd line’s most senior officer.
Scharf was – or had been – the captain of the NDL transatlantic liner Europa, the pride of the fleet. He found himself on the Alster as a demotion after it proved impossible for him to work under the political supervision of the Nazi party and Robert Ley. Ley was a Nazi fanatic, close to Hitler and in charge of the German Labour Front (Deutsche Arbeitsfront, DAF).
Scharf was adamant to the end of his days that he was no Nazi . Although he admitted he had joined the party for a year from 1934-35, this he said was purely in order to keep his job. His later actions would lend some credence to that position and as an old fashioned captain, he was not used to taking orders on his own ship, particularly political orders, and he was not about to change. But Scharf was also a German officer and therefore wasn’t about to hand over his ship to the Royal Navy without a struggle: six of his men would die resisting the boarding parties.
The captive Alster and her crew were moved to the British advanced naval base at Skjelfjord and all the supplies and materiel aboard were turned over to the Norwegians, who would happily turn them against their former owners. The Royal Navy used the ship as a temporary base for repairing ships and ironically one of the first ships she would assist would be the shortened destroyer Eskimo. Scharf and his crew, still aboard, managed to make one more attempt to scuttle their ship by opening seawater valves to try and flood the ship. They failed, and the officers found themselves taken off for their trouble and locked up on other Royal Navy ships for onward transport to Scotland.
The Navy now needed a crew to man the Alster and as many of the men of the cruiser Penelope were now cooling their heels, they were put onboard as a prize crew. The Germans now made multiple attempts to sink her by aerial bombing, but somehow the she survived them all.
On April 27th, Alster arrived in Tromsø to unload her remaining supplies for the Norwegian forces defending that port. To satisfy Navy regulations, the British consul observed the unloading and gave the Norwegians an official receipt. After almost a month, she was then sent on to the port of Kirkenes in the far north of the country to load 10,000 tons of iron ore to be sent to the UK. On her way south again, catastrophe was narrowly averted when she was sighted and attacked by the British submarine HMS Truant, despite having been made aware of the submarine’s patrol area and being under orders to avoid it and despite messages being sent to Truant to make her aware the vessel was friendly. Fortuitously, the two torpedoes fired at Alster missed and exploded harmlessly on the shore.
Four days after this narrow escape, she departed Norway for the last time and sailed for the UK. As well as her cargo, she evacuated 209 British and 46 Norwegian military personnel, 72 German prisoners of war (her crew, minus the officers who made their way separately) and the surviving forward gun turret from HMS Eskimo, which currently had little use for it in her new configuration. British newspapers reported the capture of the Alster with great gusto as there wasn’t much else good news to tell at the time: Captain Scharf was a high-status prisoner of war, a name not unfamiliar in British merchant navy circles, and his old ship the Europa was a household name.
Alster unloaded her passengers at Scapa Flow on 31st May and arrived at the naval base of Rosyth in the Firth of Forth on June 4th. Shortly thereafter, she was sent across the Forth to Leith, to unload and conclude the legal formalities of making her a prize. And so it was that Robert Robertson, a man from Morningside and a Customs & Excise Officer at the Leith Custom House, went aboard the ship on the 13th of the month and nailed the official writ to the mast. At a stroke, she officially became the property of the Admiralty.
The ship was now passed to the Ministry of War Transport, who made her an “Empire Ship”, a ship owned by the Government and allocated to a British merchant shipping company to make good wartime losses: her new managers were Alfred Booth & Co. of Liverpool. After being refitted to bring her to a British standard and being renamed SS Empire Endurance, she left Southend in Convoy FN255 and started her new career in the Battle of the Atlantic, plying the dangerous waters of the North Atlantic between British ports and Canada. This she did for 6 months, after which she was ordered to Egypt via Cape Town with a mixed cargo and passengers. She departed on this new journey from the Welsh port of Milford Haven on the 19th April 1941.
Early the next morning, at 332AM German time on 20th April 1941, she was hit by a torpedo from the German submarine U73. She was far out into the Atlantic and some 425 miles southwest of Rockall, and 460 miles west of the nearest dry land on the west coast of Ireland. A second torpedo 25 minutes later broke her in two and sent her to the bottom, with the ultimate loss of 66 souls from the 95 passengers and crew on board. The Canadian warship HMCS Trillium found and picked up 24 survivors the following day, landing them at Greenock 4 days later.
For the remaining survivors, the name Endurance would be cruelly ironic, as they would spend 19 days adrift in an open lifeboat in the North Atlantic Ocean, not being picked up by the Royal Mail Line liner Highland Brigade until the 9th of May. The last 5 survivors were picked up by the cargo ship “Highland Brigade” on 9th May, after 19 days adrift.
David Selwyn Davies, the Chief Officer on Empire Endurance had taken over charge of the survivors after the explosion of the 2nd torpedo to hit the ship blew the Captain, William Willis R. D. Torkington, clean overboard. Selwyn Davies was able to pull his injured captain aboard, and it was his boat that endured 19 days adrift. As a measure of the horrors of this period, Selwyn Davies got 27 men got into the lifeboat alive; only 8 would be rescued alive. Of that slim remainder, 3 would die not long afterwards. Only 5 men would live to tell the awful tale of that lifeboat. Captain Torkington would never recover from his injuries and exposure in the lifeboat, and was one of those who died a few days after being picked up by the Highland Brigade.
It was Selwyn Davies who chivvied and encouraged the men to try and keep them alive, it was he who made sure they never gave up hope and it was he who would daily perform the grim task of taking a roll call and arranging as best he could the burial of those who had not survived the night. For these efforts he would receive the MBE and the Lloyd’s Medal. “No one would have lived to be rescued but for the skill, seamanship and courage of the chief officer” reported the London Gazette.
Oskar Scharf found himself sent to Canada for internment. Because of his seniority and because he was neither a military or political man, he was put in charge of the internees in “Camp R” in the pleasant lakeside township of Red Rock, Ontario. This institution had around 1,100 inmates, mainly merchant and naval seamen. Some were ardent Nazis, others were Communists, many were politically apathetic and amongst their number there were 78 Jews, interned in Britain as “enemy aliens”, including 11 of school age. Scharf is credited in a number of sources as going out of his way to protect the Jews in his charge from the Nazis within his ranks. This he did for about 6 months before the authorities came to their senses and released the Jewish inmates back to Britain in January 1941.
Scharf had an awkward balancing act to maintain between those he was in charge of and his Canadian captors – with whom he was no collaborator. He found that the Nazis in the camp went out of their way to make life difficult for him, they heckled and humiliated him for refusing to give a “Sieg Heil” after official announcements. The Canadian authorities eventually decided that Scharf posed no threat and somewhat surprisingly released him in April 1944, allowing him the option to return to Germany as a civilian. This he did, departing for home on a Swedish ship in New York and taking a dangerous and convoluted journey via Algiers, Barcelona and Marseilles. He was reunited with his family after a 4 year absence but would be interrogated by the Gestapo on-and-off until the end of the war. Nevertheless, he was given back his job and rank with NDL and put back in charge of the liner Europa which was laid up in Bremerhaven as a barracks ship.
He was still in charge of her in May 1945 when first the British and then the Americans entered Bremerhaven, capturing the port and the ship. The Americans claimed her as a war prize, Scharf symbolically handing over his pistol to an American sailor. He found himself in the unusual position of having not one but two ships he was in charge of boarded and taken off his hands by the Allies in the war. However the Americans had need of the Europa, commissioning her into their navy as USS Europa, for use as a transport ship, repatriating servicemen from Europe back to the US. As they didn’t know how to operate her, Scharf and some of his officers were allowed to remain on board to ensure the operation of the ship. They departed for Southampton, picking up the first 4,500 men for repatriation, arriving in New York on September 24th 1945 under Scharf’s command.
Europa made 3 further transatlantic repatriation trips, before being laid up in her home port of Bremerhaven in May 1946 and decommissioned by the US Navy. Later that year she was allocated to France as a war reparation, and given to the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique (CGT) line, who renamed her Liberté and refitted her for post-war service as their flagship, to replace the SS Normandie which had been lost in a wartime accident.
Scharf resigned from the NDL after the war and took up the job of port captain of Bremerhaven, helping oversee the restoration of the docks. The post-war de-Nazification process classified him as Level II (Follower), which was the 2nd lowest level and which incurred a fine – nearly worthless as it was denominated in Reichsmarks – of 18,000 Marks. He died in 1953, aged 67.
I would really like to know what came of Chief Officer Selwyn Davies MBE. But besides finding he was from Moreton in Cheshire, I have turned up nothing more yet. Please do let me know if you know anything about him.
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