Welcome to the homepage of British Merchant Navy veteran, Charlie Mountain. When World War Two began, the Netherlands , commonly known as Holland, possessed a substantial merchant fleet which traded around the world. During the first eight months of the war the ships of the Netherlands Merchant Navy sailed as neutrals. After Germany occupied the Netherlands in May 1940, many of the Dutch ships then sailed as members of the Allied Merchant Navy under direction of the British Admiralty. Charlie first went to sea on October 5th, 1940 at the age of 16 when he signed aboard the Dutch-flagged tanker, SS Amsterdam. Before joining the ship's crew, Charlie had to buy his own straw mattress -- known as a "donkey's breakfast" -- plus his own knife and spoon, all for the princely sum of 2 pounds, 10 shillings. Once aboard Amsterdam Charlie worked 14 hours a day, 7 days a week. Amsterdam sailed to the tiny Caribbean island of Aruba, one of the important petroleum-processing centres just off Venezuela in the Dutch West Indies. From January 18th to March 3rd, 1941, Charlie served aboard the first British Rescue Ship, the Dutch-owned SS Hontestroom Click Here for Photo. Her crew worked another gruelling shift which was then common at sea, 4 hours on and 4 hours off. Hontestroom's job was to travel with a convoy's naval escorts into the part of the Atlantic known as the
by Charlie Mountain
When I signed aboard the SS Veerhaven she was loaded with general cargo which was destined for various cities in South America. We crossed the Atlantic without incident and arrived safely at our first port of call, Recife, Brazil. There we learned that on August 22 while we were at sea, Brazil had joined the Allied cause by declaring war against Germany and Italy.
main buildings consisted of one small general store,
a church and
a small pub.
If a person needed something that was not in stock at the store,
the item had to be ordered and then brought to town by a small
ship which had a regular run to Port Stanley from the mainland.
The little church
was unusual in that outside of it there was an arch made from two
big whale bones. The other important building in town,
the pub, had been busy for two years
catering to 2,000 British soldiers who had been
stationed on the Falklands.
Some of the soldiers we met were so desperate to escape
the tedium of their lives in the lonely outpost that they
pleaded with us to to hide them
aboard the Veerhaven as stowaways. As things turned out,
it was a good thing that we didn't stow anyone away!
After Port Stanley, we returned once more to Buenos Aires and
where Veerhaven was loaded up with a cargo of
for the United Kingdom. Although, we didn't know it
at the time,
the linseed was to prove to be a fortunate choice. After
our holds were full, Veerhaven headed north for
the Caribbean island of Trinidad,
which was intended to be our
first stop on the way way home.
On November 10th, as we were proceeding northwards
about 800 miles off Recife, Brazil, our Radio Operator
from an unidentified ship. The ship, which was
apparently somewhere ahead of us, reported
that she was being attacked by submarines. Our captain
suspected that the message was a trick designed to lure us into
a trap, so he ordered a change of course away from the
other ship's position.
The next day was November 11th -- Armistice Day -- and in the
early morning hours
I was awakened
the sound of heavy gunfire and machine gunfire.
I raced up on deck, but when I arrived
all I could see in the dark
were brilliant flashes coming towards the
port bow and
(the left front and side) of our ship. The flashes
were followed by explosions and fires
which broke out on the ship's deck.
We did not know until years later that we
by the Italian submarine
Leonardo da Vinci
under the command of the Italian ace,
Lieutenant Gianfranco Gazzana Priaroggia.
had just recently arrived
in Brazilian waters with the intention of
attacking Allied merchantmen, which like us,
were travelling as independents, without naval escorts.
Beginning with the
SS Empire Zeal
Da Vinci sunk on November 2nd,
the submarine had also attacked the
SS Frans Hal
on November 3rd, the
on November 4th, and the
SS Marcus Whitman
on November 8th. Only Frans Hal
had managed to escape her attacker -- Da Vinci
had shot five torpedoes
at the freighter, but fortunately they were all misses.
I was a member of Veerhaven's gun crew,
so once I had arrived on deck I attempted to clamber
up to the gun platform. But, it was impossible to
get up up there because the area was being raked by machine
gun bullets. Soon it became evident that
there was nothing we could do to save the Veerhaven,
and our captain gave the order to "abandon ship".
There were two lifeboats on either side of the ship and I
was assigned to the
captain's lifeboat on the starboard
As we lowered the boats and were getting in them, I heard a
very big bang which I thought might might
have been an explosion in the engine room. The force
of the explosion caused Veerhaven's funnel to
lift off the deck.
Our lifeboat had a small engine as well as a sail, and as soon
as we were all
settled, our captain ordered the engine started so that we could
pull away as quickly as possible. During all this
time Veerhaven was still being fired upon, and we were
that neither our boat nor anyone in it was hit.
When daylight came, we were all saddened when we realized
that the other
lifeboat which had been launched from the
port (left) side of the ship, was nowhere in sight.
The captain then ordered
our sail to be raised and we set off for the coast of Brazil,
hundreds of miles away.
That same day we saw an aeroplane, but there was no indication that the plane saw our tiny little speck on the ocean. Another day passed and then on November 13th shortly before sunset, we spotted
Our rescuers took us to one of our earlier ports of call,
Natal's location on the easternmost
bulge of Brazil's coastline
had turned out to be
a great benefit to the Allies because it
provided the shortest air route
across the Atlantic to the coast of West Africa.
Before its entry into the war the USA had
acquired various stragetic bases throughout the
Atlantic Ocean including a string of southern
By time we arrived at Natal
in November 1942, the
Air Transport Command (ATC)
was keeping very busy ferrying
American-built bombers and transport planes
across the Atlantic
and onward to the
fighting in North Africa.
air route eventually stretched as far
over 14,000 miles from its start in
After just a few days in Natal, space was found for us aboard
a military DC-3 plane which was
heading back to the United States.
It was a lucky thing for us that the DC-3 had been
cleverly designed so that
it could fly on only one engine because as we flew over
the Brazilian jungle, one of our engines caught on fire.
However, the loss of the engine was not a problem and we
continued on to the American base on
the Caribbean island of
Puerto Rico where we landed
safely, appropriately enough on the American holiday of
Our damaged engine was exchanged for a new one and three days after
landing at Puerto Rico we arrived at our destination of
Florida. We caught a train which
took us up the American coast and deposited us 36 hours later
into the freezing cold weather of
New York city.
But, although the weather itself was bitterly cold,
I found that the people
were very warm and they made me feel very welcome.
a month in New York waiting for a ship and then signed on another
Dutch vessel, the SS Palembang.
On our way across the North Atlantic to the UK, we struck the
worst storm in fifty years. I was thrown about quite badly,
injuring both my knees and after we finally arrived in
I had to spend some time in hospital recovering from my knee
In May 1943 I signed aboard the
SS Aelbert Cuyp
but I had to be taken off her at Hull, England and
hospitalized again with a bad bout of influenza.
When I was recovered
I sailed again in June 1943 aboard another Dutch ship, the
SS Jan Van Goyen. While
Jan Van Goyen was in
Massachusetts, I had the
misfortune to fall down the hold. That landed me in
hospital for another 10 days, but I was lucky that
I only had a few bumps and bruises and nothing broken.
It was around this time I found out what had happened to
the men who had been in
Veerhaven's port lifeboat.
During Da Vinci's attack the lifeboat was badly damaged and
such bad condition that it would not have gotten very far.
However, it was then that the signifigance of Veerhaven's
Veerhaven had capsized, but she did
not sink right away because the
linseed swelled up in the water and
actually helped to seal some of the holes in her hull.
When the crew in the damaged lifeboat
realized that Veerhaven
was going to stay afloat, they
clambered up onto the upturned keel. There they
remained for three
days while they patched up the lifeboat as best they could.
Then they set
forth in the fixed-up boat and after five difficult days had the
good fortune to be picked
up by a tanker from the neutral
country of Uruguay.
|The Sinking of the SS Veerhaven is continued in the Epilogue|