The Sinking of the SS Veerhaven


Charlie Mountain Age 25
Charlie Mountain, age 25

Welcome to the homepage of British Merchant Navy veteran, Charlie Mountain (1924-2001). 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. (Click Here for Photo of SS Amsterdam).

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
Charlie Mountain's Identity Card
Western Approaches, and to pick up survivors from any ships that were sunk in that area. Although later in war, Rescue Ships would cover a convoy all the way across the ocean, when Hontestroom began her duties, she would escort an outward-bound convoy for about ten days before leaving it to rendezvous with an incoming convoy which was then escorted home to the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, Hontestroom was a "coaster", designed to sail the more sheltered waters between London and Amsterdam, and once she ventured out into the rougher North Atlantic, she was found to be unseaworthy. Charlie's main memories from his time aboard her involved putting to sea in pouring rain, being continually wet, and ducking and diving under the waves to such a degree that, in Charlie's own words: "She spent more time under the water than she did on top!" "And," Charlie continued, "I bet not many blokes have sailed on a coal burning submarine!" Even though she was withdrawn from service at the end of May 1941, in her short months of service Hontestroom and her gallant crew had rescued 86 people. Charlie's third and fourth ships, both of which were owned by Dutch companies, were the 3-year old little freighter, MV Prins Willem III, (Click Here for Photo), and the modern tanker, MV Woensdrecht (Click Here for Photo #1 and Photo #2. While serving aboard Prins Willem III, Charlie made two voyages in a row to British Guiana (now Guyana). On her second return to Liverpool in January 1942, the tanker was damaged during a bombing attack on the city and Charlie then signed aboard Woensdrecht where he remained for the next six months. By time Charlie joined another Dutch-flagged ship, the 5,291-ton SS Veerhaven, on the 7th of July 1942, shortly before his 18th birthday, he had already served on four ships and completed six voyages. Later on, when Charlie learned that three of his first four ships, the Amsterdam, the Prins Willem III and the Woensdrecht (Click Here for Photo), had all been sunk, he couldn't help but take their losses somewhat personally: "The enemy must have been after me all along until the Da Vinci was the one that finally caught up with me!"

The Sinking of the SS Veerhaven

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.
Map of South America
From Recife we proceeded south along the coast of Brazil to Rio de Janeiro and Santos. Our next port of call was Montevideo, Uruguay, situated on the north side of the famous Rio de la Plata. In December 1939, the German pocket battleship, Admiral Graf Spee, had been scuttled off Montevideo after being damaged in an engagement with the British warships, HMS Exeter, HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles, and we passed by her ruins on our approach to the city. From Montevideo we crossed to the cities of La Plata and Buenos Aires, Argentina, on the south bank of the Rio de la Plata. In those days the sprawling city of Buenos Aires was known as the "Paris of South America". From Buenos Aires we proceeded up the Parana River to Rosario, a centre for Argentina's grain industry. After Rosario, Veerhaven left South America for the British-governed Falkland Islands, located over 300 miles from the Straits of Magellan at the tip of South America. The Falklands, in contrast to the various teeming cities we had visited in South America, consisted of a sparsely populated group of treeless, wind-swept islands where sheep-raising was the main occupation. Our destination was the capital and main settlement of Port Stanley situated on the biggest island of East Falkland. When we arrived we found that were no dock facilities, as such, in Port Stanley's harbour. All the port had for stowing cargo was an old sailing ship which, I believe, had been towed to Port Stanley after being abandoned somewhere about Cape Horn. There were also no docker at Port Stanley, and when a ship arrived, local farmers had to leave their farms in order to discharge the cargo themselves. We were told that it used to take about a month for the farmers to unload 2,000 tons of coal blocks with each block weighing 28 pounds.

SS Veerhaven

SS Veerhaven

Thank you to Patrick Nieuwenhuis and his father Hank Nieuwenhuis of Holland, for this splendid photo. To view another photo of Veerhaven please Click Here. To view ship details please Click Here.

Port Stanley's 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!

Charlie Mountain's Landing Pass for Argentina

Charlie's Landing Pass from a later visit
to Argentina

After Port Stanley, we returned once more to Buenos Aires and Rosario, Argentina, where Veerhaven was loaded up with a cargo of linseed destined 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 received an SOS 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 suddenly by 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 port beam (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 were being shelled by the Italian submarine Leonardo da Vinci which was under the command of the Italian ace, Lieutenant Gianfranco Gazzana Priaroggia. Da Vinci 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 which Da Vinci sunk on November 2nd, the submarine had also attacked the SS Frans Hal on November 3rd, the SS Andreas 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.

Leonardo Da Vinci

This photo shows the sub Leonardo da Vinci sometime in 1942. Da Vinci sunk 17 Allied ships, more any of the other Italian subs. Da Vinci's main commander, Gianfranco Gazzana-Priaroggia, was the 2nd highest scoring Italian ace with a total of 11 ships, 10 of them while he was in command of the da Vinci.

One of the Da Vinci's victims was the CPR passenger liner Empress of Canada. She was torpedoed and sunk off the Gold Coast of Africa on March 14th, 1943 with the loss of nearly 400 lives, many of them Italian POW's. Gazzana-Priaroggia and all his men died on May 23rd, 1943 when Da Vinci was sunk north-east of the Azores by the destroyer HMS Active and the frigate HMS Ness.

This photo belonging to David Woodward is from the 1989 edition of Jane's Fighting Ships of WWII, published by Bracken Books, London.

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 (right) side. 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 lucky 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 the welcome sight of a Brazilian destroyer heading towards us. The vessel approached us with all guns manned because in the half-dark, the crew thought that our mast might well be the periscope of an enemy submarine. When the destroyer got closer, her crew realized that we were survivors of an Allied ship, and they soon had us all brought safely aboard. We managed to communicate quite well with our rescuers and they told us that they were out on a ten-day trial of their new American-built ship. In fact, it was the very last day before their return to port when they spotted us. We realized that we were very, very fortunate!

A Brazilian Destroyer

This photo, which is taken from the 1989 edition of Jane's Fighting Ships of WWII, (Bracken Books, London), shows a Brazilian destroyer similar to the one which rescued Charlie and his shipmates.

During World War II, Brazilian families paid a heavy price for their support of the Allies. Brazil lost a total of 35 ships, 469 crewmen and 502 passengers, torpedoed by German and Italian submarines in the South Atlantic and Caribbean Seas.

Thank you to Roberto Domanico of Sao Paulo, Brazil for the above information on Brazilian losses. (Please see also Roberto's Guestbook Entry #742, dated 8 August 2005.

Our rescuers took us to one of our earlier ports of call, Natal, Brazil. 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 airfields at Puerto Rico, Trinidad, British Guiana, Belém, and Natal. By time we arrived at Natal in November 1942, the United States Air Transport Command (ATC) was keeping very busy ferrying American-built bombers and transport planes across the Atlantic and onward to the Allied forces fighting in North Africa. The amazing ATC air route eventually stretched as far as Kumming, China, over 14,000 miles from its start in Florida. 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.

A Post-war DC-3

The DC-3 was a remarkable two- engined civilian aircraft which was built in 1936 by the Douglas Company of California. The DC-3 was so superior to other aircraft of the time that it soon became the number one choice of commercial airlines around the world.

This photo of a post-war DC-3 is from The Encyclopedia of Aviation edited by Paul Beaver and published by Gallery Books, NY, c1986, 1989 Octopus Books, London.

Military C-47

The military version of the DC-3 was the C-47 transport and it was just as successful as its civilian counterpart. The C-47 was known by a great variety of names including Gooney Bird, Dakota, Dizzy-Three and Skytrain.

This photo of an American C-47 with D-Day invasion stripes is from The World's Classic Aircraft by Mike Jerram, published by Galahad Books, NY, c1981 Charles Herridge Ltd, London.

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 Thanksgiving Day. Our damaged engine was exchanged for a new one and three days after landing at Puerto Rico we arrived at our destination of Miami, 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 there were very warm and they made me feel very welcome. I spent 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 Liverpool, I had to spend some time in hospital recovering from my knee injuries.

Map of North Atlantic

In May 1943 I signed aboard the Dutch-flagged 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 Boston, 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 was in such bad condition that it would not have gotten very far. However, it was then that the signifigance of Veerhaven's linseed cargo became apparent. 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.

By the time of the Normandy Invasion which began on June 6th, 1944, I was serving on my 9th and last ship, the Dutch-flagged Philips Wouwerman. As the Allies pushed north-eastwards across Europe, it became essential that they acquire the port of Antwerp, Belgium in order to resupply their troops. The city of Antwerp was liberated on the 4th of September, 1944, but the port could not be used by the Allies because the Germans still held the seaward approaches to the city along the Scheldt Estuary. It wasn't until early November, after a gruelling and costly campaign, that the Allies secured the Scheldt. Once Antwerp was open to Allied shipping, Philips Wouwerman was one of the merchantmen which became involved in keeping the vital port supplied. Even though by this time in the war the Allied victory seemed certain, the German forces never let up and their efforts to prevent our merchant convoys from reaching Antwerp intensified. Allied merchantmen continued to be lost to enemy mines, E-boats, air-raids, midget submarines and the new harder-to-detect Schnorkel-equipped U-boats, right up to the end of the war. In the German-occupied part of Holland the final winter of 1944-45 was so hard on the Dutch people that many of them starved to death before the Netherlands could be liberated. On April 28th, 1945, a truce was arranged between the advancing Canadian forces and the Germans to allow food to be brought in to the Dutch civilians. My last wartime convoy was involved in this humanitarian effort and we took vital food supplies to the Dutch port of Rotterdam. It was a fitting way for a Dutch merchant ship to end the war.

The Sinking of the SS Veerhaven is continued in the Epilogue


Charlie's pages are maintained by Maureen Venzi and they are part of The Allied Merchant Navy of WWII website.