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Early War Incident
SS R. G. STEWART.
ONLY eight days after Great Britain and France declared war on Germany, following the invasion
of Poland, the master and crew of the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey tanker R. G.
Stewart witnessed one of the earliest attacks on merchant ships by Nazi U-boats and thereafter
took on board the entire crew of the torpedoed vessel.
In broad daylight, on September 11, 1939, the R. G. Stewart, en route from Le Havre, France, to
Caripito, was about 253 miles west of Ushant when a German submarine, which had signaled
the Esso tanker to lower a lifeboat, forced her to stop by firing a shot across her bow. While the
sub was approaching the American vessel in a shifting fog, the MS Inverliffey, a British-owned
tanker of Dublin registry, hove in sight.
The story of what happened, from the moment when the U-boat first appeared, was related by
the master of the R. G. Stewart, Captain Harold G. Mc-Avenia:
"At 12 noon, September II, 1939, the foc'stle lookout reported an object 3 points on our port bow.
A look with a telescope revealed it to be a submarine with its deck awash, about three miles off,
heading on a course which was converging toward ours. Changes of bearing indicated that the
sub was much faster than we were. Thinking that the U-boat commander merely wanted to
satisfy himself as to our identity and nationality, we held our course and speed.
"However, when about two miles off, the submarine slackened speed and when abeam at 12:20
p.m., hoisted two 3-flag signals and the German ensign. We slowed down; I rang the general
alarm and turned the steam on the cargo tank smothering lines. The submarine's flags were
small and difficult to decipher. They were first read as 'Man has pain in stomach. You should
send a boat.'
"At 12:25 p.m. the sub fired a shot across our bow. We stopped. No. 2 lifeboat was cleared,
ready to lower away, with the men in it. The submarine then took down the signal for a boat; the
remaining signal was made out to be 'Captain should bring ship's papers.'
"As I could not see why I should go to him, I ordered the men out of the lifeboat and signaled the
submarine to come alongside. A fog bank came up at this time, whereupon the U-boat dropped
back, made a circle around our stern, and for a time was lost in the fog. We lay to, awaiting
"At 12:44 p.m., when the fog started to blow away, we sighted a tanker, partly shrouded in fog;
she was forward of our port beam, at a distance of about 5 miles. We learned afterward that it
was the Inverliffey, bound from Trinidad to London with a cargo of aviation gasoline."
In a later report, written on September 15, Captain McAvenia amplified and continued his earlier
"At 12:44 p.m., in Latitude 48017’ North, Longitude 11?16' West, while the R. G. Stewart was
hove to in a light fog and signaling to the German submarine, which had halted us with a shot
across our bow, the gasoline-laden Inverliffey loomed up in a fog bank about 5 miles off and 7
points on our port bow. The U-boat was on our starboard beam, screened from the approaching
vessel by fog and the R. G. Stewart. We brought the submarine ahead, but because of the fog,
the Inverliffey did not see it until about 1:10 p.m., when she immediately sent out an SOS call
and endeavored to get away. The U-boat fired a shot across her bow and gave chase. At 1:20
p.m., when the fog had cleared away, the submarine rapidly overhauled the Inverliffey and fired
seven shells over her, the last of which just skimmed by her bridge. The tanker then stopped and
at 1:30 p.m. sent all her crew off in three lifeboats; her fourth boat got tangled in the falls and
was rendered useless.
"Sorry, But . . ."
"The master of the Inverliffey brought the ship's papers to the submarine, protesting that she
was flying a neutral flag and was bound for Land's End to receive orders. The commander of the
U-boat replied that although the Inverliffey was registered in Dublin, he knew she was owned in
London and believed her cargo destined for an English port and therefore contraband. He
confiscated the vessel's papers and said he was very sorry but he would have to sink her,
whereupon the Inverliffey's master. Captain Trowsdale, returned to his lifeboat.
"The submarine then approached to within an eighth of a mile of the Inverliffey and let go a torpedo.
The tanker was instantly enveloped from stem to stern in a huge sheet of flame about 200
feet high. This was followed by dense black smoke. At 4:20 p.m., the vessel cracked and caved
in amidships, but hung together with bow and stern well out of water. She was still afloat and
burning when we last saw her, about 8:30 p.m.
"After torpedoing the Inverliffey, the German U-boat captain noticed that her master's lifeboat,
which was leaking a bit, had come dangerously close to gasoline burning on the water. He took
Captain Trowsdale and his men aboard the submarine and headed for us, signaling, 'You should
send a boat.' He told the master of the Inverliffey that he would take him and his men to us if
possible, but that if a plane or war vessel appeared, all hands would have to jump overboard.
Observing that the tanker's master had no life belt, he provided him with one.
"At 2:38 p.m., the submarine lay to, a quarter of a mile off the R. G. Stewart. We manned No. 2
lifeboat and took off the captain of the Inverliffey and 14 men. The submarine commander then
asked us to pick up two more lifeboats with the remainder of the tanker's crew. He thanked us
and departed at 2:50 p.m.
Fifth Vessel Sunk.
"The submarine appeared to be upwards of 200 feet long and bore no marks, except the ensign.
It was manned by a youthful looking crew. The commander told the master of the Inverliffey that
the submarine had a speed of 18 knots on the surface and 10 knots submerged, and that the
Inverliffey was the fifth vessel he had sunk within forty-eight hours. Two of these victims, he said,
were the British tanker Winimac and the British freighter Winkleigh. About twenty-seven hours
later we passed an empty lifeboat and some wreckage of the Winkleigh.
"At 4 p.m., we had all of the Inverliffey's crew of 12 officers, 2 apprentices, and 31 Chinese, or
45 in all, aboard the R. G. Stewart. The steward's department gave them all coffee and
sandwiches and later served them supper.
"We made contact by radio with the American SS City of Joliet (owned by Lykes Bros.
Steamship Co., Inc.) when she was 18 miles northwest of us. Her captain said he was bound for
Belgium and graciously offered to take the Inverliffey's crew to a European port. We met the City
of Joliet at 5:50 p.m. Our No. 2 boat, in charge of Chief Officer Milton Breece, transferred the
crew of the Inverliffey from the R. G. Stewart to the other vessel in three trips, completing
the operation by 7:25 p.m. At 7:40 p.m. we had our boat aboard and proceeded on our voyage."
At the end of his story. Captain McAvenia made this observation:
"I realize that meeting one submarine does not qualify me as an expert. However, I would
venture a guess that the chance of escape for the average merchant vessel of less than 13
knots speed is nil."
Thanks and Appreciation.
The following letter of appreciation from James Weir, Director of the Bank Line, Limited, was received
by the Marine Department, Standard Oil Company of New Jersey:
"We were very glad indeed to have the good news that your vessel SS R. G. Stewart was
instrumental in rescuing the crew of 45 members of the tanker Inverliffey when she was
torpedoed and sunk by an enemy submarine on the 11th instant, and was able to transfer them
to another American vessel, viz. the SS City of Joliet, bound for Le Havre and owned by Messrs.
Lykes Brothers of New Orleans. Their office in Antwerp kindly apprised us of the rescue and we
have written to thank them for the kind services they have rendered. We have also made
arrangements for the reception and comfort of the crew at Le Havre and are glad to say that they
are all well.
"It is a source of satisfaction to us that you as our mutual friends have rendered us this service
and we beg to express our appreciation and gratitude for saving so many valuable lives and feel
sure that you yourselves are pleased that such was the case. We regret the loss of this valuable
vessel but the enemy is no respecter of life or property.
"Would you be good enough to convey our heartfelt thanks and appreciation to the master,
officers, and crew of the SS R. G. Stewart for the good work they have done in upholding the
high traditions of the sea."
The SS R. G. Stewart, ex Edward L. Doheny, Jr., was built in 1917 by the New York Shipbuilding
Corporation at Camden, N. J. Her sisterships were the E. G. Seubert and the F. W. Abrams.
A single-screw vessel of 14,560 deadweight tons capacity on international summer draft of 29
feet, 53 inches, she has an overall length of 485 feet, a length between perpendiculars of 468
feet, a breadth moulded of 62 feet, 6 inches, and a depth moulded of 39 feet, 6 inches. With a
cargo carrying capacity of 102,055 barrels, she has an assigned pumping rate of 3,500 barrels
Her quadruple expansion engine, supplied with steam by three Scotch boilers, develops 3,200
indicated horsepower and gives her a classification certified speed of 10.1 knots.
On September 3, 1939, the R. G. Stewart, under the command of Captain Harold G. McAvenia,
with Chief Engineer Frank J. Balling in charge of the engineroom, was on her way to Le Havre
with 94,-374 barrels of Colombian crude oil. She delivered this cargo at Cie. Industrielle Maritime
Terminal and left Le Havre on September 9, 1939, to return to Caripito, where she arrived on
September 24. As we have seen, it was on the return leg of this voyage that she rescued the
crew of the torpedoed Inverliffey.
In a letter to the Company, Captain McAvenia reported the problems he encountered as the
master of an American merchant vessel approaching a French port on September 7 and
departing on September 9, under war conditions:
"The outbreak of hostilities in Europe while the R. G. Stewart was en route to Le Havre caused
some difficulty in getting our arrival message off, as French stations would not accept
commercial traffic. I radioed my message to the Esso Baltimore and then to the T. C. McCobb
for relay via London to Paris.
"As we were just a jump ahead 'of submarines at times, some concern was felt as to the
interpretation a sub commander might put on our cargo, even though the vessel flew a neutral
flag. A case in point was the sinking of the MS Inverliffey. We therefore took the following
precautions, the details of which were carried out under the direct supervision of Chief Mate
"A gaff was rigged on the mainmast to give the ensign greater visibility. Lifeboats were swung
out and brailed in against home-made spars of 3-inch pipe, to make them ready for immediate
"To keep lights from showing outboard, all openings to decks were screened and port glasses
were covered with paper and painted black. Running lights were fitted with 25-watt lamps.
"The following flags were painted: two 12'10" by 20'7" on top of the wooden awning over the
after boat deck; two 5'2" by 6'8" on top of the wing houses of the flying bridge. As it was
impossible to paint overside while at sea, two 5' by 9'3" flags, painted on canvas, were lashed on
the port and starboard sides amidships.
"A lookout watch, maintained during daylight hours, was doubled at night or when approaching
and navigating the English Channel. The ship's hourly dead reckoning position was kept worked
up 8 hours ahead and a copy given to the radio operator.
"On arrival at Le Havre, discharge of cargo was delayed an hour and twenty-five minutes
because of an air raid warning. At night it was necessary to keep the R. G. Stewart completely
blacked out while in port. At the dock, 12'10" by 20'7" flags were painted on the port and
starboard sides amidships and another on the forward cargo hatch."
The R. G. Stewart then made a voyage to Montreal with 91,983 barrels of Quiriquire crude oil.
Leaving Montreal on October 15, 1939, she arrived at Baton Rouge on October 26. For the rest
of the year and until June 9 of 1940 she ran coastwise.
On June 9, 1940, the Esso tanker left Baltimore, lifted a fuel oil cargo at Caripito for Buenos
Aires, and returned to Caripito on July 26. Following loadings at Guiria, Aruba, and Las Piedras,
the R. G. Stewart was tied up at Solomons Island, Maryland, from August 8 to October 29, 1940,
when she left for Corpus Christi, Texas. She made four voyages between then and the end of
After eight coastwise trips in the first half of 1941, the tanker discharged twice at Aruba and once
each at Rio de Janeiro, Boston, Baltimore, and Buenos Aires.
Carried Varied Cargo.
On April 23, 1942, the R. G. Stewart was time chartered to the War Shipping Administration. She
made three round trips from Caripito to Buenos Aires with fuel oil between January and April.
Later loading ports were Cartagena, Houston, Texas City, Guiria, and Aruba, with discharges
made at United States east coast ports.
In 1943 and until April 12, 1944, the R. G. Stewart ran mainly from Gulf and Caribbean ports to
the Canal Zone. During 1943, she carried six general cargoes from New York to the Canal Zone,
via Aruba or Curacao, for the U. S. Navy. One of these cargoes consisted of lumber. In addition,
as stated by Captain Arnulf Hartman, the R. G. Stewart transported as many as 176 Navy
passengers and usually about five PT boats on deck; also trucks and jeeps. Her last cargo as a
member of the Esso fleet was 92,608 barrels of fuel oil, carried from Aruba on March 31, 1944,
to New York, where arrival was recorded on April 12. On the same date, she was turned over to
War Emergency Tankers, Inc.
The transportation record of the R. G. Stewart from September 3, 1939 to April 12, 1944, was in
summary as follows:
The wartime masters of the R. G. Stewart while she was in the Esso fleet were Captains Harold
G. McAvenia (lost on the W. L. Steed, February 2, 1942), Eric R. Blomquist, Lawrence J. Hasse,
Henry S. Westmoreland, George E. Christiansen, Patrick J. Reidy, Swen A. Malm, and Arnulf
In charge of her engineroom during the same period were Chief Engineers Frank J. Balling,
Laurence B. Jones, William H. Ahrens, Charles A. Hicks, Sigurd Steffensen, Everett Brown,
William 0. Wilkinson, Ole E. Unhjem, Rudolph Fenslau, Peter Olsen, and Alexander J. G.
While the vessel was operated by the Company for War Emergency Tankers, Inc., her masters
were Captains Michael Danko, Charles F. Bossom, and Edwin C. Geick; her engineroom was in
charge of Chief Engineers Alexander J. G. Maitland, William F. Gordon, Daniel Marshall, and
Percy B. Powers.