The Story Of The Sinking of the ‘Gandia’

On the 22nd January 1942 the Belgian owned ship ‘SS Gandia’ was torpedoed and sunk in the North Atlantic by the German submarine U135. Out of a crew of 79 only 14 sailors survived after several weeks adrift in two of the Gandia’s four lifeboats. My Grandfather Charles Francois Ceuppens was a gunner aboard the Gandia. He managed to reach lifeboat four, but died after 21 days adrift, five days before the remaining survivors were rescued. The following is the result of some research in to my family history, and may be of interest to anyone interested in the second world war and /or of some of the ships and men involved.

I plan to add further information and photographs as they become available.

The following is a record of the history of the Gandia and the events leading up to her sinking.

The Gandia started life in 1906, built by Swan Hunter and Wigham Richardson of Wallsend-on-Tyne in England. She was originally named ‘Arawa’ and was constructed especially for the frozen meat trade, with passenger accommodation for 220 in Three classes. She weighed 9372 gross tons, was 460ft (140.2 m) long and 60ft (18.28M) wide. She had a twin screw and was capable of a top speed of 14 knots. Her maiden voyage was from London to Capetown and Wellington and took place on the 22nd of August 1907. She led an relatively uneventful life interrupted only in 1909 when she lost her starboard propeller after leaving Capetown, and had to proceed to Wellington on the remaining screw at much reduced speed.After the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914 and under the liner requisition scheme, she was fitted out as a troop ship and did not resume commercial service until 1921, sailing this time from London to Wellington via Panama. In 1926 she was converted to cabin class. Her last voyage as ‘Arawa’ was from Southampton on 25th May 1928.

‘Arawa’ was sold to the shipping magnate Arnold Bernstein of Germany and renamed ‘Konigstein’. Her primary use at this time was as a cargo and car carrier. In 1931 she worked on the Antwerp to New York route after being fitted out to carry 190 single class passengers. The ‘Konigstein’ came under the control of the German Red Star Line in 1938 and started her last voyage from New York to Antwerp on 18th March 1939. Later in the same year and now 32 years old she was sold for scrap to the Belgian ship breakers Heyghen Freres.

However before work could begin she was purchased by Compagnie Maritime Belge of Antwerp and, renamed as ‘Gandia’ pressed into further service.

Last Voyage

On the 12 January 1942 Gandia left the port of Liverpool in a perfectly navigable state under the command of Belgian Captain Maurice Potie. She had on board a crew of 79 and 500 tons of cargo, and was bound for St John, New Brunswick on the coast of Newfoundland.

The weather for the first few days of the voyage was extremely rough with very heavy seas and poor visibility. The wind direction was force 6 to 7 west Southwest. It was due to the very bad weather that the convoy was unable to keep together and became dispersed. The Gandia had been given instructions in Liverpool before departure, and later received instructions by radio regarding keeping course if the situation arose that the convoy could not stay together.

On the 22nd January 1942 in severe weather and violent rolling of the ship at about 5.20pm true ships time, there was a violent shaking of the ship followed by a huge explosion from the port side as the ship was hit by a torpedo. This was fired by the German submarine U-135 commanded by Captain Herman Praetorius. The Gandia immediately began to list and sink from the stern. Captain Potie gave the order to abandon ship and the crew began lowering the lifeboats. The severe weather greatly hampered this action and the lifeboats were bumped violently against the side of the ship, resulting in lifeboats numbers 1 and 3 on the weather side of the ship being wrecked throwing the occupants and supplies in to the sea. The portable radio in boat 1 was also lost. This, plus the fact that the main mast fell on to the wireless room as the ship sank, meant that no distress calls could be sent. The Gandia sank within about 10 minutes going vertically down by the stern. Survivors said later that at no time before, during, or after the attack was the submarine spotted by any of the crew. The two remaining lifeboats stayed at the scene to pick up the survivors. 46 sailors survived to reach the lifeboats, 33 were lost when the ship sank.

The capacity of each lifeboat was eighteen men. No.2 contained eighteen, and No.4 twenty eight. This meant there were far too many men in boat 4. The men were very tightly packed and movement was difficult. The lifeboats remained at the scene for twenty four hours. Captain Potie and Second Officer Lardenoy were in boat number 2. Chief officer Albert Hubert took charge of boat number 4. The two boats joined each other on Saturday 24 January, and it was decided to steer the same course which would have brought them into the track of the Halifax convoys, and close to the nearest shore. According to Officer Lardenoy all hands had been provided with life jackets with lights, which proved most useful for reading the compass later on. The lifeboats were equipped with provisions to last for about twelve days which consisted of biscuits, milk powder and barrels of water. In his statement later, Mr. Lardenoy stated that the provisions were adequate except for the Pemmican biscuits which encouraged thirst. The water in boat 2 was in four barrels and in boat 4 only two barrels. Two of the barrels in boat 2 were of no use due to damage sustained while launching the lifeboat and the plug on the third barrel was damaged by accident by one of the occupants. On the sixth day one of the men, driven slightly out of his mind by thirst and the conditions, was caught drinking from the 4th barrel causing a situation which resulted in a significant quantity of water being spilled in the bottom of the boat. Because of this and despite severe rationing, the water supply ran out after seven days.

The two lifeboats became separated on Sunday 25 January due to the weather worsening and would not meet up again. In boat 4 Mr. Hubert steered back to the scene of the disaster to see what could be recovered. Here they discovered a very large quantity of wreckage from boat number 3. They managed to recover two extra water barrels and a few provisions that they found floating around.

During the following days the weather remained rough all the time and covered the boats and the men continually with spray, even though they had been provided with canvas sheets. One of the sailors had the idea of ripping open the canvas cushions and putting the kapok filling under their clothes in order to try and get warmer. The temperature was about -15C. The extreme cold, hunger and thirst soon claimed casualties. The stokers were only wearing thin cotton overalls and many froze to death. The first to die on boat 4 was stoker Wilson who amazed the men by singing all night long, but by morning he was dead. Some of the men suffered from stomach cramps and were swept overboard in exact circumstances that will remain unknown, although The New York Times of February 26 1942 quotes Mr. Hubert: “…two men went insane, stood up screaming, and jumped overboard during that twenty-five day eternity…”

Mr. Hubert was a good leader and nobody complained about his strict control of the rations, and he tried to encourage the men by giving them duties such as bailing out the water or standing watch. As the men died the bodies were put overboard. When snow came the men were able to slightly quench their thirst by eating the snow as it gathered on their clothes, but many men continued to die. After seventeen days there were only twelve men left in boat 4. For three days nobody else died, then on the twentieth day two more died. On the 12 February 21 days after the Gandia sank, Gunner Charles Ceuppens died and his body put overboard. On the 25th day there were only 4 men left and they did not have the strength to remove the remaining bodies.


Boat 2

After fourteen days at sea boat number 2 spotted an American destroyer, the USS Bernadou, commanded by R.E. Braddy, JR., and fired six flares, three of which were seen by the destroyer. However eleven of the men in the lifeboat had already died, including Captain Potie, who had been in the water for some 2 hours after the Gandia sank. In the words of second officer Lardenoy, the remaining men on boat 2 were given ‘admirable care’ by the crew of the Bernadou, and after a week they were landed in Iceland where they stayed for three days in hospital. Here follows extracts from the Bernadou Commanding Officer:

USS Bernadou. The Commanding Officers Report.

From The Commanding Officer

To: The Commander Task Unit 4.1.4

…at 1955 GCT on February 5th 1942, while patrolling on station on port flank of convoy, convoy base course T,convoy speed 8.5 knots, a red flare followed by two more of the same color at about one minute intervals, was sighted bearing 320T, distance about four miles. This vessel went to general quarters and proceeded towards the source of the flares to investigate, and found a small lifeboat in the sea containing ten members of the crew of the Belgian steamer S.S GANDIA. This vessel had been torpedoed by a submarine at 2015 GCT on January 22, 1942, in approximately Latitude, 45`N Longitude, 41W.
Survivors were brought on board and given medical treatment.

The report of the USS Bernadou Medical Officer then follows, describing the condition and treatment of the survivors.

‘…The condition of the men on rescue, whose ages varied, was fair to generally poor. A mild degree of shock was present in each case; and examination revealed the survivors in general to be suffering from exposure, a moderate degree of starvation, extreme thirst (having had no drinking water for seven days except small amounts obtained from rain on the two days prior to rescue), dehydration, extreme constipation, and varying degrees of frostbite present in the hands and feet (immersion in salt water during this time also played a major role). It is worthy of note that these men allegedly drank varying amounts of salt water and urine.

Immediate and subsequent treatment in all cases was essentially the same, and was directed toward alleviating:

Thirst and Starvation
Frostbite; hands and Feet, and

In general, response was satisfactory, two men…being made semi-ambulant on February 7 1942; mild fever with a corresponding fast pulse rate was present in all cases…
Local skin legions and small areas of superficial gangrene over the extremities and trunk were treated responding in the majority of cases to therapeutic measures.’

The report then details the mens’ individual cases and concludes;

‘…it is recommended that these men be given benefit of thorough hospital study to insure complete recovery in all cases. It is felt that the survivors are generally in a more satisfactory mental and physical status. Treatment in some cases may be regarded inadequate but limited facilities prevented more thorough therapy and study. ‘

Boat 4

Boat number 4 was adrift for twenty-six days during which twenty-four of the twenty-eight occupants died. They were eventually picked up by a Portuguese fishing trawler, the Joao Corte Real, and taken to Oporto and then to Lisbon. Later Mr Hubert ended his report with the words:

“…..we were a mass of injuries and infected by sea water, especially Mr Swartvaeger, but thanks to the care and attention received on board the trawler, we hope to shortly have recovered our strength for we were nearly done for when the trawler picked us up”.

The captain of the trawler, Manuel Pereira made sure that the men were well looked after and was careful not to give the four survivors too much solid food too soon. The crew gave them coffee and chicken soup made from the only chicken they had on board. On the fifth day after rescue the men had their clothes cut off them as they could not remove them normally due to the condition of their skin. Mr Swartvaeger was in the worst condition as his hand was infected with gangrene. Captain Pereira had to take drastic action in order to try and save Mr Swartzvaegers’ life. The infected hand was dipped in boiling water. The pain was intense but the gangrene was stopped. Upon arrival in Portugal only one of Mr Swartzvaegers’ fingers had to be amputated.

With the assistance of the Belgian Embassy in Lisbon the four survivors were cared for in a convalescent home for about six weeks, and then returned to England.

Mr. Hubert, again quoted in The New York Times, told reporters:”…It was a gallant but doomed band of men. The twenty eight men in our boat… knew there wasn’t enough food and water. But we prayed and sang hymns and refused to give up hope. There were eighteen Belgians, one Frenchman and nine Englishmen at the beginning. But those of us who lived saw wounds, hunger, thirst and cold take twenty four men, one by one….But men willingly gave up their rations to those weaker than themselves. They say there is an animal streak in all men. That’s a damn lie.