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The Sinking of the Anglo-Saxon, August 21, 1940

by J. Revell Carr

Pub Date: Jan. 13th, 2004
ISBN: 0-7432-3837-0
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

An elaboration of a footnote in WWII naval history: the sinking of a tramp steamer and its long denouement.

While serving as director of Mystic Seaport, Carr took an interest in a particular item in the museum’s holdings: the jolly boat of the ill-fated Anglo-Saxon, an artifact that is now “the central object in the Battle of the Atlantic exhibition in London’s Imperial War Museum.” The boat had carried the survivors of the ship’s sinking at the hands of a suitably nefarious Nazi U-boat skipper named Hellmuth von Ruckteschell, only two of whom lasted the weeks at sea until finally making shore in the Bahamas, halfway across the Atlantic from where their ship went down. Their ordeal was terrible enough, as their wounded and less able comrades died one by one, some simply by deciding to slip away into the sea to avoid a lingering death by gangrene or starvation. The aftermath was little better; one of the survivors died in another U-boat attack during the return to England, while the other lived a haunted existence for the next 20 years before finally committing suicide. Von Ruckteschell, for his part, stood trial as a war criminal—and deservedly so, by Carr’s account, for the good Nazi had fired on survivors of other sinkings and had made no effort to rescue those from the Anglo-Saxon. His defense, naturally enough, was that “he was acting as a soldier with good conscience and admitted that ‘Undoubtedly I made mistakes but not from malice.’ ” Von Ruckteschell died soon after being sentenced to prison, and with his death the ship was all but forgotten, just one of the more than 3,000 Allied vessels to rest on the ocean floor.

A sad tale, one that has not figured outside a few official reports until now—and quite well illuminated by Carr.