By Ton Biesemaat, son of submariner Jan Biesemaat.
The Dutch O 21 versus the German U 95
Finally it happened. Opmaat journalist Ton Biesemaat interviewed his own father (Jan 76 years of age) about a famous incident that took place during World War II, a night time battle between a Dutch O and a German U boat. Jan Biesemaat was undergoing training in the navy in Vlissingen when the war broke out. Armed with a rifle dated from 1890, he managed to reach England from Dunkirk after much wandering on the continent. He then reported to the submarine service and was placed on the O 21 under the command of commanding officer Van Dulm. This submarine had an impressive record of service by the end of the war. Read the account of its most famous encounter, as seen through the eyes of a young sailor (Junior Rating).
"A Dutch submarine operating with the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean has torpedoed and sunk a German submarine, the Netherlands's Admiralty announced last night."
BBC broadcast on November 29, 1941
In the chaotic days of May of 1940, the Dutch Royal Navy managed to elude the German invaders to a large extent. The sophisticated Dutch submarines also reached the coasts of the United Kingdom. Once having landed on the other side, Jan Biesemaat assumed that there was plenty of adventure to be had in the submarine service. His expectations were fulfilled.
The O 21's logbook of 1941 tells of numerous patrols and attacks on Vichy French and Italian ships in the Mediterranean from Gibraltar, the O 21's base. Fascinated, the eyes of your journalist skim across descriptive words that sum up those days full of suspense, fear, death and adventure.
A random logbook entry: "departure date July 16, 1941 - Gulf of Naples and Tyrrhenian Sea - see two convoys out of range. Fire 4 torpedoes at convoy. Two hits on July 29. Two of the three protective escorts drop 26 depth charges. August 3, after torpedo goes underneath a ship, fire on 3-mast anti-submarine boat barkentine in Bay of Cagliari, 25 shots, at least 7 hits. Ship burning."
Later in the logbook, the following dry announcement: "November 28, U 95 destroyed with 2 aft torpedoes, 1 hit, 12 survivors picked up."
It is now high time to liven up this dramatic event with the words of one of the surviving eyewitnesses. It's also a story I've known my entire life, but only the summarized version. Jan Biesemaat, my father, is finally ready to disclose the entire story for the Opmaat.
Jan Biesemaat begins, "We returned from a patrol in the Mediterranean Sea, which wasn't a great success. We did manage to penetrate to just off the coast at the Lido di Roma, the Italian Scheveningen (a famous Dutch beach resort). We were so close to the shore that we could see the Italians sunbathing through the periscope."
After a number of futile attacks on Italian convoys, the O 21 set course once again for its home port of Gibraltar. The O 21 needed to stay in a specific territory each day so that the allied ships and planes knew that they there were not dealing with a German U-boat.
Biesemaat continues, "On the afternoon of November 27th, we were ahead of our sailing schedule and, in order to stay within the territory, we needed to dive at around 3 o'clock. We surfaced again after dark and continued our course, zigzagging at a speed of 15 knots.
The watch was changed at midnight. We kept war watch, six hours on, six hours off. My division was sleeping when we surfaced. Sometimes, when you're sleeping, and you look at that thin layer of steel around you, you think to yourself, if they hit you, in such a small boat, you'll be blown to smithereens."
Fortunately for Jan Biesemaat he belonged to the B division that was to take over the watch, which means he would then have to search for all suspicious objects from the tower of the submarine.
Biesemaat continues, "I was on the forward watch. This means that you search a sector of 180 degrees together with the officer from the watch who is also responsible for the two look-outs who keep an eye on the aft side. By the way, there are always four of you in the tower so that we can dive as quickly as possible in the event of danger. It was a clear moonlit night and the sea was as smooth as glass. There were a few wisps of clouds here and there; it looked as if the water were blending with the night air. Mr. Kroeze, the Second Officer, had eagle eyes. He always saw everything; it was incredible."
"Bies, three rings...!":
At around 12:30 a.m., the O 21 passed a neutral Spaniard and reached the Spanish coast near Albacore.
Biesemaat continues, "Mr. Kroeze suddenly says to me, 'Bies, three rings...!' So I ring the bell in the tower hatch three times, which means alarm and that the commander must report to the bridge and the head of the engine room to the engine room. The captain comes rushing in and asks Kroeze what's going on. 'I see a silhouette directly ahead,' he says. We look but no one can see what it was. You could only see a bow wave. I couldn't look because I was on the forward watch. We were close to the Spanish coast and lights were twinkling everywhere. It was possible that there were more enemy ships in the area. You never knew."
Watch officer Kroeze and Commander van Dulm consult between themselves. The young sailor is unable to clearly make out what they are discussing.
Aiming by Thumb:
Biesemaat continues, "And then the commander says, 'two engines slower'. We were moving quickly at the time. And naturally the bow wave was approaching quickly. I think it's a submarine, says Kroeze. Suddenly a blue light flickers behind us. Someone was signalling with a covered light. The light flickers again as our English signalman/telegraphist Rees climbs the stairs. Rees doesn't recognize the code. We then know for sure that we're dealing with a German submarine. The commander ordered full speed ahead, because you shouldn't let such a boat get too close or it will fire. We had used up almost all our torpedoes during the patrol. We didn't have a single torpedo left at forward and not one shell left for the deck gun. Only two torpedoes left in the aft tubes, no more. The commander gives the order to 'reverse' and then 'stop the engines'. The submarine approaches us at high speed. Now it is simply a matter of which one of us is going to be the first to fire; after all, we're lined up opposite one another. The commander is on the bridge casing because he doesn't have any more direction indicators, not a damn thing." (My father stands up, looks intensively at his arm stretched out with his thumb sticking up.) "The commander aims with his thumb over the bridge casing. 'Fire!' he cries. The torpedo is launched in the direction of the submarine. By the way, I only know this by word of mouth because naturally I had to keep an eye on the situation ahead.
Because the weather was good and there was a full moon, the U-boat must have seen the torpedo coming because it turned to port. This probably deflected the torpedo, which didn't explode. As the U-boat turns away, we turn with it. The commander is still on the casing of the bridge and the chief officer, while looking over his thumb across the stern, cries, 'Fire!' Our second torpedo hits the U-boat precisely behind the tower. In its throes of death the U-boat sticks straight up into the air. And then disappears into the depthsÖ You could instantly smell cordite (torpedo explosive)." The O 21 made good speed and about-faced to return to the place where a short but fierce battle had just been fought. The Dutchmen did not know whether there were any more U-boats in the area.
Cries of Distress in the Night:
When a submarine is destroyed, attempts are always made to collect a piece of evidence. A large oil slick floats on the water and they try to collect a sample of it. For this reason, the O 21 also searched the area where the German submarine was torpedoed.
Biesemaat continues, "We were nearby when we heard cries for help in three or four different languages. The commander had already fished 22 Italians out of the water, so he says, 'We should get them out'. We see the Germans swimming and holding onto each other. One of them is unconscious and is being held above water by the others. He's the helmsman who was blown off the bridge. Because I'm small, I'm able to sit on the braces of the protective cover of the hydroplanes. You're then sitting a little bit above the water. In that way I was able to grab a guy by the wrist and pull him up, after which he was handed over to someone sitting on the hydroplanes. Our engines were stopped at this time. Fuel oil was floating on the water everywhere and there was this awful cordite smell. A truly disgusting stench! So we pull up the Germans. They aren't even on deck and the German commander Gerd Schreiber starts mouthing off! He was a highly experienced submarine commander. He starts yelling at his men who had just been rescued, 'Maul halten, nichts sagen!'. Gerd Schreiber also wanted to congratulate our commander for the good shot! Van Dulm then screams at Schreiber, 'That's none of your business, keep your big mouth shut, you have no authority here, go down immediately'.
The German survivors of the U-boat were locked up in the aft torpedo room of the O 21 after being given dry overalls. Twelve Germans were fished out of the water by the O 21, among them the submarine ace Gerd Schreiber as well as a war correspondent who was present on the bridge in order to record the glorious moment of the annihilation of an Allied ship on film. It's all in the game!
Biesemaat continues, "The Germans have all kinds of good equipment on them. Good quality binoculars in watertight cases with chamois cloths for cleaning them. Much better equipment than we had. The German sailors are relatively quiet, but the officers continue to mouth off. Because I was one of the youngest sailors I have to fetch coffee for the Germans. I only brought it to the sailors, not the officers. I had no interest in bringing them coffee. When the commander instructs me to do so, I tell him I need to go on watch again. The cook then told do it but, because he's from Rotterdam, (that had been bombed by the Germans a year earlier), he initially refuses. But the commander insists. Our telegraphist Joop van der Pijl, a big guy, keeps them covered with a gun. But you had to be careful. If one of the German officers goes to the head you need to go with him because they leave the outboard valve open in an attempt to flood the boat. That's what those guys are like, not the sailors, but the officers. They tried that at least once."
The Jolly Roger of the O 21:
It was only a few hours sailing from where the unique battle between the submarines had taken place and the home base. The O 21 passed through the opened harbour barrage of Gibraltar with its proud crew.
Biesemaat continues, "We formed into line proudly in our white sweaters with the jolly roger fluttering from the raised periscope. A brand-new red, white and blue flag had also been raised. The entire fleet is in a state of commotion as we enter the harbour of Gibraltar. Admiral Sir James Somerville is standing on the shore, an impressive sight. The crews of battleships are all lined up and forming a front. Sinking such a German submarine sure produces quite an effect. The commander is immediately given the DSO, which is pretty much the highest honour a foreigner can get from the English."
The English Admiralty was extremely pleased with the destruction of the U-boat. As it happens, fourteen days prior to the destruction of the U 95, a U-boat sank the famous aircraft carrier H.M.S. Ark Royal. Every sunken U-boat was one less threat from the German submarine weapon. The O 21 made a unique record with the destruction of the German U-boat, the only above water battle between two submarines during World War II.
The German version
The interrogation of the German prisoners of war revealed the following: The U 95 set sail from LoriŽnt (France) on November 16, 1941 and passed through the heavily guarded Strait of Gibraltar on November 27th (a feat in itself). The O 21 therefore torpedoed it on November 28th, by which 34 sailors lost their lives and 12 survived. The U 95 first sighted the O 21 thanks to a favourably bright moonlit night and immediately set off in pursuit. The crew was not certain whom they were dealing with. Being a Dutch submarine, the silhouette of the O 21 was similar to a German U-boat. Just before Commander Gerd Schreiber was to launch his torpedoes after receiving no answer to his reconnaissance signal, a torpedo was launched by the O 21 that just grazed the U 95. The second torpedo was a direct hit with the now-familiar outcome. The large number of survivors was due to the fact that the commander and the officers were on the bridge at the time for a torpedo attack and the gunners were standing ready in the event of a miss.
By Ton Biesemaat, son of submariner Jan Biesemaat.
Note from webmaster: Some people reported to me that this attack was the first ever reported successful submarine vs submarine attack. But this is incorrect. During the First World War there were many occasions where one sub sank another. During the Second World War, there were also several sub vs. sub sinkings before November 1941
O 21 related pages O 21 boat history O 21 class specifications O 21 class photos Submarine vs Submarine Battle by Moonlight O 21 related books Hr.Ms. O 21 & de kat met negen levens Onder de bloedvlag van de O 21 Jonge honden - Oude helden
Do you have any comments, corrections, additions or do you have material like stories, photos or other data available for this or any other page on this website? Then please do not hesitate to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Home Classes Boats Tenders News Export R&D Men Books Pictures Links Models M-media Specials Forum Search Help US ! Copyright © 1997-2006 - Design and content DutchSubmarines.com