Diary of the Second World War: September 1939

Alex van Opstal

As Britain prepared for the much-anticipated onslaught of war during the ‘Phoney War’ period, in which little appeared to be happening militarily, events at sea were already moving fast. Enemy minefields were sown in various locations around the coasts of England virtually from the declaration of war (claiming the Goodwood and the Magdapur in different locations off the east coast just a week into the war).

The worldwide toll of ships attacked by U-boats in September 1939 reached 52, the majority sunk, although a number were captured. At this stage of the war, the majority of the ships attacked were British, and most were forced to stop by an initial warning shot before the crews were forced to leave. A significant proportion of that month’s activity took place in the Baltic region as ships from neutral Denmark, Estonia, Finland and Sweden were stopped and, if discovered to be bound for the UK, captured and diverted to German ports, or sunk.

The first neutral ship to be lost in the war within English waters was the Belgian motor vessel Alex van Opstal, belonging to the Compagnie Maritime Belge, 5,965 tons, built in 1937 and named after the company’s recently-deceased president. The Alex van Opstal left New York for Antwerp on 6 September, three days into the war, with a general cargo, predominantly grain (3,400 tons), 59 crew, and eight passengers. (1) All must have been anxious as to what awaited them in European waters, but none could have predicted what happened next.

On 15 September, while proceeding up Channel, she was ordered to call at Weymouth for examination by the British authorities. It was after ‘making a stopover in England’, as a French newspaper put it, (2), that there was a sudden explosion under No.2 hold.

The news likewise exploded around the world. Plans for press censorship and a Ministry of Information were well established in advance of the outbreak of war, and in fact it was a retired naval commander, Rear-Admiral George Pirie Thomson, who became the Chief Censor for the War: he was new in post in those early days. (3)

It was therefore an official Ministry of Information press release the following day which revealed the recent loss of four ships, three British and the Alex van Opstal. No dates or locations were released for the British ships, but the MoI was happy to offer more information regarding the date and place of loss of the loss of the Belgian vessel ‘late last night [15th September] off the Shambles lightship, near Weymouth.’ (4) The Ministry statement added further information from the master, Vital Delgoffe, who believed that the vessel had struck a mine, although at that stage a torpedo had not been ruled out. In either case the British authorities made it extremely clear that it was seen as an ‘infraction’.

‘If his opinion is well-founded, the Ministry adds the mine must without doubt have been dropped by an enemy minelayer, as at no time have the British laid live mines anywhere near the spot where the Alex van Opstal sank.’ (5) The propaganda war had begun along with the physical war, and here the British took the offensive. In Belgium an artist’s impression of the scene made the cover of the weekend magazine Ons Volk, with the highly inaccurate but emotive detail of a nursing mother escaping in a boat (there were no children or infants on board).

The press in Britain, France, and the Netherlands reported the reaction in the German press to the sinking, which suggested that ‘the sinking could undoubtedly be ascribed to Mr. Churchill’ and that the vessel, ‘if, indeed, torpedoed at all’ was not torpedoed by a German submarine. (6) Yet a portrait of the Alex van Opstal appeared in the Kriegsmarine magazine of the German Navy in October 1939, and we now know that the mine had been laid five days previously by U-26, Kapitänleutnant Klaus Ewerth. (7) 

According to Alfred Thorne, assistant engineer aboard the ship, following the explosion ‘we were plunged into darkness and fuel oil poured down like a torrent . . . We rushed up on deck and found that the ship had been cut clean in two.’ All the passengers and crew left in the ship’s boats and pulled over to the Greek steamer Atlanticos. (8) 

A seaplane then reported the Atlanticos‘ location to boats to which the crew and passengers were transferred. Several of the passengers and crew were taken to hospital suffering from ‘fractures and shock’, including an ‘elderly’ female passenger with a broken arm, who was allowed to go on to a hotel afterwards, although six men were detained in hospital. (9) With the exception of the master and four other men, who remained in hospital in Weymouth, one man evidently having been discharged, two days later the crew were back home in Ostend. (10) 

By the time a Devon newspaper reported that an empty lifeboat from the Alex van Opstal was found adrift 14 miles south of the Bill of Portland and towed into Brixham by her compatriot, the trawler Bolnes, another shipping loss was making headline news – the warship HMS Courageous(11)

As we can see, the wreck of the Alex van Opstal was extremely well documented at the time, notwithstanding the press censorship of the event, and on 25 September the wreck was located and marked by a buoy, establishing a secure identification of the site that goes back to 1939. By 1940 that buoy had gone missing but was not, understandably in the light of other marine priorities during the war, replaced, and the site was not investigated again until the post-war period. By 1949 it had been dispersed. (12) 

The wreck is a popular dive today, and even post-dispersal, clearly lies in two parts. A wreck tour published on Divernet contains a dive plan and photo gallery. (13) 

This wreck encapsulates many of the characteristics that would define shipping losses over the course of the Second World War. War causes were common to all, of course, and there would be decisions taken which placed ships in a danger zone, often unwittingly. There would also be official secrecy and propaganda, both of which intensified over the course of time. In its loss there was also a harbinger of the future: 3,400 tons of grain failed to reach its destination on a continent appearing increasingly embattled and vulnerable – hence the need, recognised from the very beginning of the war, to keep the Atlantic open.

In this loss, too, we can also see another trend that would emerge during the Second World War, as during the First: a complex interrelationship of ships in a common underwater cultural heritage woven into the history of the war.

This is best illustrated by what happened next to some of the other players in the story: U-26 would meet her end south-west of Ireland on 1 July 1940, depth-charged and bombed by an Allied air-sea force; the Atlanticos would be herself mined and sunk off the Thames Estuary, carrying a cargo of North American grain, in February 1942; and some of the crew would go on to serve aboard other ships that would in turn be lost: for example, Second Officer Fernand van Geert would serve throughout the war in the Belgian mercantile marine, surviving the torpedoing of the Mercier in June 1941 and the Belgian Airman in April 1945.

(1) Evening Star (Washington), 16 September 1939, No.34,836, p7; Le Journal, 17 September 1939, No.17,133, p3

(2) Le Journal, 17 September 1939, No.17,133, p3

(3) Thomson, G. 1947 Blue Pencil Admiral: The Inside Story of the Press Censorship (London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co. Ltd.)

(4) e.g. Sunderland Daily Echo & Shipping Gazette, 16 September 1939, No.20,571, p1, and widely reported in similar articles in the British press  

(5) ibid.

(6) Newcastle Journal, 19 September 1939, No.29,150, p5

(7) Die Kriegsmarine, October 1939, repr. in Ships Nostalgia (nd), with photograph of ship in 1937 from the Kriegsmarine article; uboat.net (nd) 

(8) The Atlanticos was herself mined off the Thames Estuary laden with North American grain in 1942. 

(9) Belfast Telegraph, 16 September 1939, [no issue number on masthead] p7; Lancashire Evening Post, 16 September 1939, No.16,418, p5 

(10) De Banier, 22 September 1939, No.3,507, p10

(11) Torbay Express and South Devon Echo, 18 September 1939, No.5,134, p1, p6

(12) UKHO 18617

(13) Divernet, Wreck Tour No.152, repr. from the print edition of Diver, August 2011. 

(*) Leeuwarder Courant, 19 September 1939, Vol. 188, No.221, p10