Captain Birger Lunde’s War Memoir Part One: The sinking of the Taranger
Most people do not know that the largest shipping company the world has ever known, consisting of well over 1,000 ocean-going vessels, had its American headquarters at 80 Broad Street in Manhattan. This company was called Nortraship, and my mother Mildred Lunde worked in this office. In a life-changing moment she would meet my father, Captain Birger Lunde, who was in the office trying to get authorization for payment of back wages lost when the Norwegian ship Blink was sunk off Cape Hatteras in February 1942.
World War II was now well underway and the Norwegian government, then in exile, was totally dependent on the income from Nortraship. The British Isles were also hanging on by an Atlantic lifeline, dependent on Norwegian shipping to withstand the German military. Winston Churchill would later write that the only real battle he worried about during the war was the “Battle of the Atlantic.” Historians write extensively about the battle, the shipping losses, and the emergence of new technologies like radar and sonar. They even write extensively about life on the U-boats. What you are about to read now is a rare Norwegian sailor’s perspective.
In upcoming issues of this paper you will be reading excerpts from a letter my father prepared for producers at the BBC who in 1993 were finally preparing to do a documentary about the Merchant Marine in World War II. In the last 25 years of their lives, my parents were deeply involved in working for the rights of Norwegian War Sailors and their surviving families. I think after you read the excerpts you will understand why.
My personal experiences between 1939 and 1945 would forever deeply affect and change my life. I am still, 50 years later, haunted by nightmares that make me wake the whole house. I would survive three sinkings by U-boats and see many good friends perish. I also signed off of two good ships that were soon after sunk with great loss of life. In ports and in convoys, I experienced many air attacks. Once, when traveling outside of a convoy, our ship was chased for a full day by a surfaced U-boat. We were able to evade it during the night. I also participated in several rescue operations and on one occasion had to perform surgery on a wounded crew member.
Norway, as you know, is a small but important country. I come from a small town called Fana, which is located just outside Bergen. Fortunately for me I received preparation and training as a young person that was to serve me well for some really hard sailing. I spent a lot of time in small boats, which later came in handy when I was to spend a fair amount of time in lifeboats. I also had good training in the boy scouts and was lucky enough as a teenager to win a scholarship for six months’ cadet seamanship training on the Tall Ship Statsraad Lemkhul. This training in basic sailing and seamanship on an old square rigger in the North Sea seemed hard and harsh at the time. The training was designed to prepare future sailors for anything they might encounter. Little did I know then what that might be.
I worked my way up through the ranks as did all our officers, then did a two year course at the mates and wireless operators’ school in Bergen. When the war broke out, I was a Second Mate / Radio Operator on the M/S Hosanger. I was forced to leave the ship when it appeared that I was going to be drafted in the Norwegian Navy. The ship was torpedoed shortly after I signed off and most of my friends and colleagues were lost. This had been my first real assignment as an officer and the captain and crew had done their best to train a young new officer. Their loss was very hard for me to bear, and unfortunately it was just the beginning of such experiences.
When Norway was invaded, I was at sea on the M/S Taranger as a second Mate / Radio Operator. Suddenly, Norwegian sailors had no way to get home. Norway at that time had the fourth-largest merchant fleet in the world. Because Norway has minimal amounts of farmland, generations of families turned to the sea. At the time of the invasion, there were over 1,000 ships, manned by well-trained professional seamen. Despite their training, about 20 percent of these sailors would perish and never see home again. I don’t believe any branch of the other services suffered anywhere near that casualty rate.
The Norwegian Merchant Marines contribution to the Allied victory was far more than significant. During the war the Norwegian Merchant Marine was organized under a company called Nortraship and the 1,000 or so Norwegian ships were chartered by the English. This was arranged after our king went into exile. Winston Churchill would later write that “getting the Norwegian ships during the darkest days of the war was equivalent to getting in England a trained and equipped army of one million men.”
Despite incredible financial offers from the Germans, not one Norwegian ship returned home. The Norwegian ships kept England afloat. We carried over 40 percent of the oil, tremendous amounts of food and munitions, and other vital supplies. This we did throughout the war, but our contribution and place in history came during the dark of the war when England stood alone. I myself would be sunk twice by 1942. Without the Norwegian ships, England would most certainly have sued for peace. Just imagine if the RAF was missing four out of 10 gallons of gas during the battle of Britain! I once heard that because of the contributions of the Norwegian seamen and ships, Russia was told to keep out of Norway. I can imagine that our ship owners would have insisted on that one. But it was the sailors who wanted to see our homeland free who would make the sacrifice and who really insisted that we fight with England.
The M/S Taranger was overhauled in Liverpool during the early spring of 1941. During this time Liverpool was subject to 14 consecutive nights of heavy bombing. The bombing was focused on the dock areas. We often went ashore during the evenings, and I can remember coming back through the subway system at night. We had to step carefully to avoid stepping on families sleeping on the subway platform. During these days we began to form a great respect and liking for the English people. We were all very homesick by this time.
The M/S Taranger led a charmed life until May 2, 1941. She not only escaped damage during the severe Liverpool blitz but had also seen us through the fall of France when we were subject to a couple of dive bombing and strafing attacks in Leharve and several rough Atlantic crossings.
We were traveling to America to get a 5-inch gun installed when a U-Boat surfaced at night and shelled us until the ship literally fell apart. My job was to get the distress call out. Despite continued shelling and strafing, we were able to get the boats launched. I was in charge of the port side lifeboat, which was the side the submarine was firing from. The starboard lifeboat had been able to launch quickly and get away. We were so busy ducking and picking up wounded that our boat cleared last. The captain was still on the bridge with the chief engineer when we lowered the lifeboat. We hung close to the ship waiting for the captain and chief engineer to come down.
During this time the submarine came closer and the firing became more intense. The wait ended when the chief engineer, a very close friend of mine, dove into the sea near our boat. We picked him up; he was badly wounded. He said that just as he and the captain were clearing the bridge a shell struck. The captain was killed instantly. The chief engineer was so badly wounded that he could not hold onto the ladder leading down from the bridge, so he dove off the bridge.
The chief engineer would spend a year in an Icelandic hospital only to perish on another ship bound for America. He died after being repeatedly frozen in a lifeboat. Interestingly, I would learn this from a doctor who treated me for wounds I received later in the war when the Oregon Express was sunk. The doctor had been in the lifeboat with my friend.
We pushed away from the ship and the submarine came closer. It was suddenly obvious that the submarine was going to ram us. We quickly put every able man to rowing. With strong pulling and the incentive of survival, we pulled clear from the bow of the submarine. It passed so close we could hear the crew talking. The submarine then positioned itself and fired two torpedoes into the Taranger. The ship sank quickly.
Many of the crew and passengers were wounded. One of the crew, an Englishman, had a large piece of shrapnel about the size of a man’s fist lodged in his foot. Officers were expected to be medically knowledgeable and that night, in the crowded, rolling lifeboat, with three men holding him down, I operated on the seaman’s foot. Using a large Norwegian sheath knife, which we sterilized over a flame, I successfully cut the shrapnel out. The British seaman was incredibly stoic and thanked me when the job was done! Later I am proud to say the crewman was interviewed on the BBC and told his experiences. He said that the Norwegian mate had done “a proper professional job of it.”
When we were sunk, the ship was about 250 miles off of Iceland. After sailing for two days, we were picked up by a British Corvette. Because we had so many wounded people, it was decided that we should be transferred to the British Destroyer Wolverine. That ship had become a famous U-boat hunter. It was on patrol and after several days took us to Reykjavík. During the patrol we went after several U-boats with depth charges; this in itself was an incredible experience. While on the ship, we would gather every evening in the officers’ club for a drink and to hear the BBC world service. Throughout the war in fact, the BBC would prove to be a good friend and somehow always transmit the news and a positive feeling to the ships.
This article originally appeared in the June 3, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.