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White Star Line: SS Ceramic

White Star Line Ceramic 1912-1942 sunk by U-515. 656 lives lost - 1 survivor

Ceramic was built by Harland and Wolff, Belfast in 1912 for the White Star Line. Her route was the Australian Service and she began shortly after her launch in 1913. The next year, 1914, Ceramic began what was to be an illustrious military career and began serving as a troop transport. (WWI)

In May of 1916. while in the Mediterranean with 2,500 troops on board, Ceramic narrowly escaped after having two torpedoes being fired at her and was able to out-distance the U-boat. In June of 1917, Ceramic was fired on again in the English Channel. The torpedo missed and Ceramic took off once again out running her attacker. One month later, in July of 1917, Ceramic was chased for 40 minutes by a surfaced U-boat firing her deck guns, and again, she out distanced the U-boat.

After WWI, she went back into service as a passenger ship, sailing from Liverpool to Sydney. In 1939, (WWII) she was requisitioned once again for  troop transport duties out of Australia, but continued carrying passengers as well. On November 23, 1942, Ceramic left Liverpool, commanded by Captain R. Elford, on what was to be her last voyage. She was carrying about 200 military personnel (mostly medical staff) and 150 civilians including children.
 

Sailing in a convoy initially, Ceramic departed the convoy and continued on her assigned route by herself. On the pitch dark evening of December 6, while sailing in bad weather West of the Azores, Ceramic was hit by a torpedo fired from U-515 commanded by Kapitšnleutnant Werner Henke. A few minutes later, two more torpedoes hit the engine room below the water line, permanently stopping the ship. About eight lifeboats managed to get launched.

U-515's Kapitšnleutnant Werner Henke (image Credit: u-boat. net)

Ceramic was slow in sinking, and a few hours later the U-boat, lingering in the area, fired 2 more torpedoes at the liner breaking her in two. She disappeared within minutes. In rough seas and pouring rain, the lifeboats began capsizing and survivors were left struggling in the water.

The next day, still in rough seas, U-515 returned to the scene and surfaced near the survivors. Trying to find out where Ceramic was headed for, the U-boast crew  threw a rope to one of Ceramic's crew the water, Engineer Eric Munday was taken aboard the submarine but not able (or willing) to provide much information to the German U-boat captain.

U-515 departed the area leaving Ceramic's survivors behind to die. Engineer Munday was kept on board the U-boat as a prisoner and transferred to Stalag 8B in Upper Silesia where he remained a POW until the camp was liberated at the end of the war. No one knew the story behind Ceramic's disappearance until Munday's release and he was able to tell the story.

On the April 9, 1944, while patrolling off of the French West African coast, the Hunter-Killer Group traveling with the baby flat top Carrier USS Guadalcanal (CV-60) discovered U-515 and sank her. Fifteen of the crew were killed and forty-four including Kapitšnleutnant Werner Henke were taken prisoner. The German prisoners were initially taken to the Naval base in Norfolk, VA for questioning, and were later transferred to Fort Meade in Maryland. Henke was accused of machine gunning Ceramic's survivors while struggling in the water, but this was never proven,

Henke, who spoke perfect English, had worked in Boston in the shipyards before the war.  He was eventually moved to the German POW camp at Camp Ruston in Ruston, Louisiana. Two months later, he tried to escape and made it all the way to the top of the inner perimeter fence before he was shot down and killed by US Marine guards in the towers.

Above left - U-515 on the surface burning. German crew survivors can be seen in the water.

Above right - U-515 sinking by the bow

Image Credit: Destroyer Escort Sailors Association - http://www.desausa.org

 


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