Nederlandse Koopvaardij tijdens de Tweede Wereldoorlog

Dramatic loss of Dutch ss Beemsterdijk (Holland America Line) January 1941

Text: J.P. van Kuijk

ss Beemsterdijk before the war © Maritiem Museum Rotterdam


All but three …..

From left to right: Willem Marinus van 't Hoff 02-12-1914 †1966 Rotterdam, Petrus Jacobus Schrage 17-02-1914 †1980 Amsterdam, Stanley William Gillard 02-11-1924 †1954 Bromley Kent.

January 26th, the freighter Beemsterdijk (1922), underway  from Glasgow to Cardiff struck a mine and was damaged near the Bristol Channel. Next day she sank in position 51°17´N 6°23´W with 39 of her 42 crew drowning. She was 12 nautical miles West of the Smalls, a lighthouse far out to sea near St. Davids, Pembrokeshire. Various tugs, naval craft and the lifeboat ‘Swn-y-Mor’ (ON 784). came to the rescue. They did not find her and next day she sank in St. Georges Channel. Four men managed to reach a raft. On January 30th only W.M. van ’t Hoff, P.J. Schrage and S.W. Gillard were narrowly picked up by the lifeboat ‘Annie Blanche Smith’, which landed them at Dunmore East, Ireland.

Consulting Dutch Merchant Navy WW2 literature, documents and correspondence in Dutch and British archives, the author managed to reconstruct the course of events in this drama. He con-tacted the families of those, who survived. This is the story in the struggle for democracy and a free world.
After May 1940 the ss ‘Beemsterdijk’ (8.869 brt; call sign PCZP) had made several crossings in convoy. Since June 6th 1940 all Dutch sailors, by law, were obliged to continue service on board on penalty of 4 years imprisonment.

Tuesday January 21th, having left Glasgow, captain D.C. Wijers in the afternoon calls at Greenock to get the compass adjusted. Originally Beemsterdijk was meant to join convoy OB 277, which left Liverpool on 22nd to be dispersed 27th. ( see Convoyweb )

Friday 24th he sails again. During the night of Sunday 26th the specific light to allow her to enter Bristol Channel was not seen. Rumour has it this light did not function properly. In the calm morning suddenly there is an explosion. SOS is being transmitted and received by Lands End Radio (0927/26). She floats about 12 miles W of the Smalls Light-house, bearing 290°. Slowly sinking (Beemsterdijk 0930/26). 1∗

At the moment of explosion Willem van ’t Hoff, 4 th engineer, is on watch in the engine room. The inlet-circulation is damaged and water is gushing out. In the bulkhead between engine room and hold IV rivets are seen leaking. No submarines had been observed. 2∗

The log at naval base Milford Haven reads: Rescue tug Goliath sailed to assist (FOIC Milfordha-ven 1220/26). Have to abandon ship (Beemsterdijk 1239/26). Within ten minutes all were safe in their lifeboats !! Just after midday, although holds IV and V and the engine room were flooded, it was considered safe to return to the ship., lifeboats being kept outerboard. Meanwhile wind and sea deteriorated. Watch is kept over the bulkhead of hold VI. This bulkhead giving way was the criterium to abandon as yet. Help is on its way!

Lieutenant J.R. Fester RNVR, liaison officer: Tugs Goliath (captain B.C. Weltevrede; 1st officer C. Heykoop) and Seine (captain M. Becker) are sent  from Milford Haven; the first leaving at 11.50 h, 90 minutes after the SOS. The second left shortly afterwards. The latter arrived at given position around 15.15 h, but found no trace. Visibility was extremely poor. Keeping contact with The Smalls, message was received from one of HMS trawlers, that Beemsterdijk would be 12 miles away, bearing 200°. However nothing was to be found. After a cross bearing via Lands End Radio the search was continued. At 21.30 h Beemsterdijk signalled she would fire rockets. These were not seen and the tugs requested a second trial. However in vain. Still the search was continued all night North of Nymphe Bank Cornwall Minefield. 3∗

That very Sunday, January 26th, Dr. Joseph Soar, Mus.Doc., organist at  St. Davids cathedral and honorary secretary of the lifeboat station, during the service, was warned by the police. Message was received from Milford Haven to launch RNLB Swn-y-Mor (ON 784) : “Wish to call out the lifeboat; Veemsterdijk (wrong spelling !!) reported sinking after an explosion. Position 290°12 miles from Smalls”. Crew was assembled and message from informed naval base verified. The boat was launching 11.30 h. The LB arrived at position given. The coxwain communicated with ML 168, same mission, 15.55 RT message was received. St. Davids lifeboat has been requested by naval authorities to return home. 16.50 h St. Davids LB has been recalled by RT and is on its way home. Casualty has been located by naval vessels 12 miles SE of Smalls”. 4∗

Monday January 27th (Log Seine) :
0125 Passed St. Ann’s Head, steering on route given. South Easterly wind, increasing to gale force; overcast sky, with rain squalls; high confused swell; heavy rolling ship.
0500  Passed Smalls at a distance of approx. 4 miles.
0900 Had to return owing to increasing gale; position 51.57 N, 0609 W.
1200 Position 51.56 N, 0600 W; DR
1501 Received orders from base to search for ML 168 in position 36 miles 180° from Tuskar Light. Set course to position indicated.
15.39 Received orders to return to base.

Meanwhile Caroline Moller (W09); Saint class ex-HMS Saint Mabyn) was underway from Fal-mouth. All searched the area.

Ultimately in vain since the ship was not found. 5∗
So it appeared from the examination on oath at Waterford, Ireland, made by Willem Marinus van ’t Hoff before H. Matthews, Officer British Customs and Excise on february 27th :
“ …..We heard a loud explosion and the ship listed heavily to starboard. The engine was shut down and the waterthight door between engine room and propeller shaft was closed. The entire crew abandonned ship. After an hour captain Wijers, chief engineer S. Hartman, radio officer Q. Kroeze and 4th engineer W. van ’t Hoff returned to the ship, while the others stayed in the life-boats. Only after they had ascertained the ship would not sink any further all returned. This was Sunday about noon. Before SOS  had been transmitted. Back on the ship answer had been received and help was on its way. At dark rockets were fired on request of the searchers. They did not find us.
Monday morning 27th wind increased to gale force. The ship began pitching and the watertight bulkhead gave way. The captain ordered abandon ship, but before the boats could be reached the ship sank over starboard, stern first. So did the lifeboats; the crew with them. All this hap-pened around 09.30 h. Only Willem Marinus van ’t Hoff (4th engineer), Petrus Jacobus Schrage (steward), Stanley William Gillard (boasun’s boy, English) and Cornelis A. Lenaerts (mess-room’s boy) managed to reach a raft (without water and provisions!). Schrage, in the water, saw purser Willem v.d. Hoeven nearby bleeding from his head. The latter was not able to swim towards the raft. 6∗

After days adrift in St. George’s Channel on January 30th the men were seen by a fishing trawler, which could not come to their aid, the raft being too near the rocky Irish coast. Then the raft, drifting towards the Metal Man, was firstly spotted by David Tobin, member of the Tramore Coast Life Saving Service near Brownstown Head. He ran to the outpost and notified the lifeboat station of Dunmore East. The RNLB ‘Annie Blanche Smith’ sailed at 10.20 h. If it was not for Tobin the men would not have survived.
January 30th the log at Dunmore East mentions: 10.00 Received warning; 10.20 Launch; 13.30 Returned. Circumstances: “…by the time the lifeboat arrived the raft was within 300 yards of the rocks where the men would certainly have drowned. Bowman Davy “Muck” Murphy jumped on the raft in heavy seas and got the men off at great risk to himself. Survivors were picked up off the far side of Tramore Bay”.

Photograph 1935: Bowman Davy ‘Muck’Murphy (3rd from left, foreground)

 “Only by the most skillful manoeuvring the coxwain was able to get to the windward of the frail craft and take the almost unconscious sailors on board and proceeded with all haste back to Dunmore” 7∗
Once landed the men were in a pitiful state. It is presumed Lenaerts drowned being washed off the raft on Wednesday morning. Mr. Pitt, head of the local Red Cross, lead the transfer to Mr. McCarthy’s Hotel, where nurse Barry and volunteers Mrs. Westcott-Pitt and Mrs. Harrison looked after the men. Every day docter M. Shipsey from Waterford went to see them in their serious situation. Van ’t Hoff had pleurisy, while all three were completely exhausted”. 8∗

Memorial plaque at lifeboat station Dunmore East, Ireland (Courtesy Peter Curran)
From February 19th they stayed at the ‘Sailor’s Rest’in Waterford, while Schrage was taken to ‘Waterford Infirmary’ suffering from reumathism in his foot. Identity papers and documents were applied for. At the end of the month Mr. Arthur Westcott-Pitt writes to the Holland America Line in London: “….I am glad to tell you that the men are being looked after well and are very comfortable at the Mission for Seamen in Waterford”. 9 ∗
In a letter to Dunmore East Life Boat Association, February 25th, the president of the Dutch Shipping & Trading Committee LTD, London expresses: “ Through the intermediary we learned that those concerned succeeded only in the very last moment rescuing the three surviving sailors of the ss Beemsterdijk. We un-derstand this was under very difficult circumstances. We request your association and the val-iant crew of your lifeboat to accept the our heartfelt gratitude for their successful endeavours …..”
Soon Stanley Gillard was able to return to England and to identify three drowned crew at St. Davids: P. Tanis (ass. Engineer), W. v.d. Hoeven (purser) and W.A. Reyers (3rd officer). Lateron the body of Jan Johannes Cornelis Witte (oiler) washed ashore on Ramsey Island. Except for v.d. Hoeven they were re-interred at Mill Hill cemetary, London.

March 1941. Correspondence between Holland America Line and the Netherlands Shipping & Trading Committee shows that informing the relatives concerned was not allowed to be done directly by the HAL office in New York (the U.S. not yet being at war), but instead the Dutch authorities in London insisted on informing the long way via the International Red Cross at Ge-neva. This message however did not reach all concerned. The others (see below) were men-tioned as “missing after war-accident at sea and must now be assumed lost”. 10∗

Lost crew ss Beemsterdijk:  (source: Oorlogsgravenstichting, Netherlands) 

D.C. Wijers

Captain

J. Boonstra

Sailor

W.L.A. v. Voorthuysen

1st officer

M. Pronk

Sailor apprentice

E.H.W. Fortuin

2nd officer

M. de Beun

Sailor apprentice

W.A. Reijers

3rd officer

D.J. Verburg

Foreman

J. Soetens

4th officer

W. Hagenbeek

Oiler

P. Willekens

ass. officer

L.D.J. Rikkengaa

Oiler

Q.J. Kroeze

telegraphist

M. van Noort

Fireman

S. Hartman

main engineer

F.F. de Rooij

Fireman

H.J.M. van Seumeren

2nd engineer

A.Michels

Trimmer

P. Mioch

3rd engineer

A. Schot

Ass. Engineer

F.A.L. Denissen

ass. engineer

M.F. la Grand

Boilerman

J. Hollenberg

Bosun

D. Flier

Steward

P.H. Finke

Carpenter

J.M. Walter

Steward

M. Keus

Stores

M. Nobel

Steward

P. Kardienaal

Sailor

C.van de Bent

Cook

A.H. van Kooy

Sailor

A.Braad

Galley boy

J.C. Rolfes

Sailor

C.A. Lenaerst

Messroom boy

H. Blakmoor

Sailor

A.Goedendorp

Sailor / Gunner

 

 The only bodies washed ashore were of W.A. Reyers (3rd officer), P. Tanis(ass. engineer), W.v.d. Hoeven (purser) en J.J.C. Witte (oiler).

On May 17th in London W.M. van ’t Hoff puts a sworn statement before Mr. Diederik Alfred van Hamel, vice-consul of the Netherlands. June 17th an official report is made of Van ’t Hoff’s hearing during the preliminary investigation by Mr. L. den Hoedt, Inspector Extraordi-nary Maritime Board of Investigation. Before the Board at Stratton House on Juli 24th no wit-nesses were present, the men being at sea again.
W.M. van ’t Hoff did sail for Holland America Line up till his retirement. At that time he was the main engineer on board the ss Rotterdam, now maritime heritage. P.J. Schrage during the war served on various ships and survived torpedoing of the ss Bodegraven (KNSM). After the war he served for Amsterdam Port Authorities. During the war S.W. Gillard served on other ships. Afterwards he was employed ashore.

No navigation officers surviving, the Board concluded the loss of the ship to be imputed to circumstances of war, leaving the cause an open question. Later on it was concluded the ship must have stricken a mine.
….”In retrospect the bulkhead concerned most probably had already been twisted by the explosion and having no more resistance to withstand the upcoming storm. Moreover the captain acted in every possible way to ascertain the safety of the crew. However, circumstances had been most unfavourable! It is very regrettable that the tugs, searching on January 26th, were not able to find the ship. It strikes the Board, that one of the rafts, placed on board only days before, had not been provided with water and victuals. The course of events, resulting in the loss of so many lives, was most regrettable. The decision to abandon ship and the subsequent boarding however were completely sound. The actions of captain and crew, who continually met most difficult circumstances trying to save the ship, deserves our greatest admiration and appreciation”.

Foot-notes:
1) War Diary Royal Navy, inventory K.W.L. Bezemer, Londense Collectie Koopvaardij (LOCK) Netherlands Institute for Military History (NIMH) The Hague.
2) K.W.L. Bezemer, Geschiedenis van de Nederlandse Koopvaardijvloot in de Tweede Wereld-oorlog, Elsevier, deel 1, pg. 450-453.
3) K.W.L. Bezemer, Geschiedenis van de Nederlandse Koopvaardijvloot in de Tweede Wereld-oorlog, Elsevier, deel 3 supplement, pg. 102-103.
5) Returns and Services 1941 RNLI St. Davids, Pembrokeshire.
6) NA, 1975, inventory 37, archief Buitengewone Raad voor de Scheepvaart te Londen, 1940-1946, Jac. Vos Dzn. Entry 2.16.31.
                               Examination on Oath of W.M. van ’t Hoff by H. Matthews for Minister for Industry and Commerce UK at 27th February 1941, Waterford, Ireland.
6) Ibidem: Complementary statement W.M. van ’t Hoff, June 1941, London before  Inspector General Maritime Board.
7) Returns and Services 1941 RNLI Dunmore East, Ireland.
8) Waterford News 31-01-1941; Plight of Seamen after Four Days on Raft.
9) Correspondence A. Westcott-Pitt (Red Cross) and W. Morris RNLI Dunmore East, Ireland to Netherlands Shipping and Trading committe (NSTC) London, HAL contact van Ommeren.
10)NA, The Hague 1975, inventory 37, archief Buitengewone Raad voor de Scheepvaart te Londen, 1940-1946, Jac. Vos Dzn.  Entry 2.16.31. Verdict Buitengewone Raad voor de Scheepvaart te Londen 14-08-1941; loss Beemsterdijk January 26-27.

About the author J.P. van Kuijk
After a career in healthcare he attended the course Skipper / Engineer small craft at Maritime Academy “de Ruyter” in Flushing, Netherlands. From childhood maritime interested, he then started the research project resulting in this article. January 2014 he visited both Dunmore East, Ireland and St. Davids, Wales. The author lives in Oudenbosch, Netherlands.
Visiting a pub “het Zwijnshoofd”(Swine’s Head) in Bergen op Zoom he was confronted by this portrait painting. The trigger of it all! 


 Franciscus Adrianus Denissen (21), ass. Engineer on board ss Beemsterdijk.