By Jill Forwood
At the age of 17, David Cledlyn Jones thought his young life was over before it had really begun. He was a cadet officer on board the freighter Quebec City when it was torpedoed by a U-boat off the West African coast in September 1942.
But during the three hours before the Germans finished off the ship with gunfire, he became aware that he was a witness to an extraordinary encounter.
The German submarine, U156, was huge, longer than the Quebec City. It was 250ft in length, the biggest U-boat in the German navy. On its conning tower was a crest and the name Plauen.
Far from showing hostility towards the Quebec City crew, the captain was a model of courtesy. He apologised they had to meet in such circumstances, got them into lifeboats and provided them with charts and drinking water to reach safety.
The young Welsh cadet did not know it at the time but he had come face to face with a German national hero. Werner Hartenstein, a Knight Grand Cross, the German equivalent of the VC, was Germany’s ace naval commander.
Next Thursday, Gomer Press publishes David’s book, The Enemy We Killed, My Friend — a quote from First World War poet Wilfred Owen — the biographies of Hartenstein and Captain David Cledlyn, two professional sailors.
In the following weeks, David and his wife Edwina are to be guests of honour at a big celebration in Hartenstein’s home city.
‘‘I didn’t realise it but I am the only known British survivor to have met Hartenstein,’’ said David.
David’s later, adventurous life took him all over the world, ending with a post in the royal household at Bahrain. But he never forgot the captain who had been the best of enemies.
Home in Swansea in retirement, he discovered the name of the U-boat was a city in Eastern Germany. Without much hope he wrote to the Oberburgermeister (Mayor).
‘‘There was no reply for six weeks,’’ said David.
‘‘Then suddenly the floodgates opened. Letters came from several sources asking if I knew this or that. It turned out Plauen was Hartenstein’s home city.
‘‘Hartenstein was a man of honour and humanity. I discovered it was he who had torpedoed the British troopship Laconia and then mounted a dramatic rescue mission to save the men aboard.
‘‘He came to the surface, covered the conning-tower with a Red Cross flag and sent out the international distress call on an open radio frequency.
‘‘He identified himself as a German submarine and said he would not fire on any aircraft or ships which came to help. He himself had 200 survivors on his boat and was towing another 200 in five lifeboats.
‘‘But a US Liberator flying over was told by his HQ on the Ascension Islands that there were no allied submarines in the area. Apparently, the order was: ‘Take it out’.
‘‘Two other U-boats, U506 and 507 came to help but there were fatalities among the survivors.
‘‘Hartenstein’s vessel was damaged and he was out of action for a while. In March 1943 his boat was patrolling the eastern Caribbean when it was spotted by the US Air Force and sunk. Hartenstein was 34.’’
David’s memories of Hartenstein are clear.
‘‘I saw the gold Knight Grand Cross at his throat and it was obvious he was a disciplinarian who had perfect control of his crew.
‘‘But when he spoke, in perfect English, it was in a very gentle manner. He was sorry he had to blow up our ship, sorry we had to meet in such circumstances. I liked the man. I liked his approach.’’
The authorities at Plauen were especially pleased when David began his inquiries. The Plauen-Vogtland Navy and Marine Association, which is especially proud of Hartenstein, was planning its centenary.
Officials quickly saw that in David, the last ‘‘enemy’’ to have met Hartenstein, they had a perfect representative of reconciliation.
David will also take a wreath of poppies from the Swansea branch of the Royal British Legion and lay it at the Plauen cenotaph. German media coverage is promised.
‘‘There was a great deal of humanitarian behaviour at sea during the war, which shouldn’t be forgotten,’’ said David.
‘‘As a captain myself, I would say Werner Hartenstein was my friend.’’
The Enemy We Killed, My Friend by Captain David Cledlyn Jones was published by Gomer Press on April 1, 1999.
article originally appeared at: http://www.swep.co.uk/articles/sw-downtheyears/article300.html
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