Olav Johannesen

Sometime shortly before he died, my father, Olav Johannesen (b.1899), wrote a few words about his life in the fly-leaf of his Bible. Among other things he notes the following: “Went to sea April 1915. During I World War in 1917 I was in a sailing ship ‘John Locket.’ On our way from France to Haiti our ship was sunk by a German submarine.”

I remember his telling this story when I was a boy, with the added detail that the crew of the merchant ship were escorted to shore, and safety, by the German sailors. I knew nothing more of this episode until much later, courtesy of the internet and the many anonymous collectors of marine facts.

Built by R. & J. Evans & Co., Liverpool in 1884 and owned at the time of her loss by K. F. Langfeldt of Kristiansand, John Lockett (Olav slightly misspells the name) was a Norwegian barque of 842 tons. Three-masted, iron-hulled, one of many such relics, formerly work-horses of the Atlantic trade, sold off when British shipping interests converted wholesale to steam, and on which Norway began to build an extensive merchant fleet, they were pretty ships, the last of the romance of sail. Olav’s ship figures in a poem of John Masefield (“Dainty John Lockett well remembered yet”) and was painted, as at sea in a storm, by T.G.Purvis.

On April 26, 1917, in good weather, John Lockett, out from Le Havre via Savannah to Jamaica (Olav misremembered this as Haiti) in ballast, was scuttled by the German submarine UC-47, commanded by Paul Hundius. Twenty-five miles south of Lizard Point, the southernmost tip of Cornwall, at the western gate to the English Channel, a graveyard for ships from time immemorial, a favourite cruising ground for submarines in two world wars, the location of the wreck is marked on nautical charts.

What actually happened that day?

UC-47 belonged to an improved class of mine-laying submarines but carrying only seven torpedoes. Whenever possible these boats surfaced next to a merchantman, boarded her and placed charges in the hull.

As required of neutral vessels, John Lockett displayed amidships on either side of the hull a large Norwegian flag and the name of the ship in bold lettering, easily seen by a submarine at periscope depth. We know this to be true because photographs survive of John Lockett under tow through the Avon Gorge near Bristol, on some slightly earlier voyage, in which these markings are clearly visible.

But so-called unrestricted submarine warfare had commenced in January. Germany declared the waters around the British Isles a war zone, and in April, at just about the time John Lockett was sunk, the United States entered the war in part because of this change and the toll it took on allied and neutral shipping. The old “prize rules” governing interceptions at sea had stipulated that any merchant crew, and especially neutral ones, if they did not resist or attempt to escape were to be taken to a place of safety before the vessel was destroyed. It was not sufficient to leave seamen adrift in lifeboats on the open sea. With unrestricted warfare and more effective anti-submarine tactics, however, such niceties went increasingly by the board.

Paul Hundius

We can now place Olav’s recollection in a proper context. The Norwegian crew of John Lockett were escorted by the Germans through a dangerous sea to an enemy coast during a period of unrestricted submarine activity. Captain Paul Hundius and the crew of UC-47, in other words, behaved impeccably according to rules they were no longer bound by, at the risk of their own safety.

UC-47 was to last another six months. It was rammed by a British patrol boat off Flamborough Head on November 18, 1917, and went down with all hands. Although accessible to divers, the site is listed as a war grave and the wreck may not be entered or disturbed.

Paul Hundius had left UC-47 in October—escaping the fate of his successor and his old crew—and in December took command of UB-103, a much more advanced submarine. The next year, in August 1918, he was awarded the Pour le Mérite, the Blue Max, Prussia’s highest decoration for valour, usually associated with air aces. Then, just weeks before the armistice that ended hostilities, on September 16, returning to Zeebrugge, UB-103 disappeared, probably bombed by a British dirigible in the Pas de Calais. There were no survivors. Paul Hundius was 29 years old.

On November 11, on Remembrance Day, as I have before, I will think of a Norwegian sailor who survived the war and a German U-boat commander who didn’t, of their chance encounter off The Lizard on April 26, 1917—and of all those in peril on the sea.