Early on 18th December 1944, a heated argument took place on board U-1209 between the Commanding Officer, Ewald Huelsenbeck and a Navigational Chief Petty Officer. The CPO reported that the U-boat was on collision course with Wolf Rock but Huelsenbeck insisted that they were well to the West of it. At the height of their disagreement, U-1209 struck the rock causing fatal damage to the submarine.
On the Wolf Rock Lighthouse, keeper Charles (Charlie) Cherrett was ‘acting keeper in charge’. He and the two other keepers heard a terrifying, metallic scraping noise. His worst fears were confirmed when Charlie heaved himself up onto the small window space and looking down onto the rock he could clearly see a German U-boat sitting high and dry below them. His first signal to Trinity House in Penzance reported that the U-boat had grounded and then the heavy swell had washed it back into the sea, only to throw it back on the rocks once again. The lighthouse then reported that the U-boat had slipped off again and was now proceeding westwards. They then reported that a man was seen standing on the conning tower.
The U-boat had been badly holed aft and was stern heavy with water rising in the diesel and motor rooms. Although the submarine had tried to dive, she was forced to surface but the lack of air pressure on board made it impossible to open the conning tower hatch at this stage. Submerging again, she pumped fuel oil out to enable her to float to the surface again where the Commanding Officer opened the hatch and was already on the bridge himself when he gave the order to ‘Abandon Ship’.
Hans George Claussen (Engineering Officer) stayed below deck to scuttle the boat and was blown out of the conning tower just before U-1209 sank. He had been the most popular officer on board according to the interrogation notes. Although he was picked up by Allied rescue boats, he later died from his injuries in Penzance hospital and was buried in the town.
In fact, on the fate of Hans George Claussen, Charlie Cherrett's memory seems to have let him down. In March 2018 PLHG was contacted by Phil Hadley with the information that Clausen was actually taken to Bodmin Energency Hospital, where he died on 19th December 1944. He was given a military funeral in Bodmin Cemetary on 23rd December 1944 where he lay until his body was exumbed after the war and reburied in Cannock Chase German Military Cemetary. The photograph below, taken by Cornish Guardian photographer George Ellis, shows Claussen's swastika draped coffin being carried through Bodmin Cemetery. Our thanks to Phil Hadley for the new information and the photograph of the funeral.
It was later reported by the crew that whilst they were abandoning ship at 10.45, that Huelsenbeck threw a Rating off the life raft so he could save himself.
At 11.01 Charlie Cherrett sent a further signal to Trinity House stating that the U-boat had sunk about one and a half miles off Wolf Rock and the crew had taken to life rafts. HMCS Montreal and HMCS Ribble were in the vicinity and were sent to pick up survivors and at 12.38 the Montreal reported that the submarine had sunk in 155 degrees, one to one and a half miles off Wolf Rock.
There have been claims that the Allied ships torpedoed and sunk the U-boat but in fact she sank before they had arrived on the scene as was confirmed by the Lighthouse Keepers who witnessed the drama unfolding whilst providing a running commentary from Wolf Rock.
Commandant Huelsenbeck, at three days away from his 25th Birthday, was reported to have collapsed and died on board HMCS Montreal. Forty three of the crew of 51 were picked up and 42 sent as prisoners of war after interrogation.
The Wolf Rock keepers broadcast the news of the sinking of U-1209 over an open channel and presumably with this in mind the Admiralty decided to make the news public knowledge by reporting the incident to the BBC. German radio stated on 19th December that according to an enemy radio broadcast early on 18th December 1944, U-1209 had run on to the Wolf Rock and must be presumed lost.
While the actual sinking of U-1209 is a clear case of navigational error the events of the days preceding the catastrophe suggest that something of the sort was almost inevitable. U-1209 was a new boat and she was Huelsenbeck's first command. He was 24 years old, very inexperienced and seems to have been at odds with his officers and men. To make matters worse he had forgotten to pick up his cypher books before leaving port so he was unable to decode any cyphers intended specifically for the commanding officer. Interrogated prisoners also said that U-1209 was badly built and leaked if she dived below 120 metres.
U-1209 had sailed for the North Atlantic from the Baltic in mid-November. Passing to the north of Scotland she had encountered several opportunities to engage Allied shipping but had declined, apparently much to the dismay of her crew. She then made for the west coast of Ireland and Admiralty interrogation notes record that she tracked an aircraft carrier from Donegal to Milford Haven. According to the Admiralty there was no aircraft carrier anywhere in this area at the time.
U-570, the same class boat as U-1209 and almost identical. U-570 was captured by the British (Wikipedia)
Three quarters of all German U-boats were sunk by Allied forces during World War Two but this is the only known instance of a Lighthouse sinking a submarine during the war.
This article is an edited version of a longer piece provided by Lynda White after reading our first On This Day piece about Wolf Rock lighthouse. Lynda was born Lynda Cherrett and is the granddaughter of Charlie Cherrett, the keeper who witnessed the sinking of U-1209.
The source material for this article consists of two key items:
The verbal account of Charlie Cherrett as given to his son and recorded in the Cherrett family and the information from prisoner interrogations and recorded at: U-boat Archive
Efforts are being made to track down the programme which Charlie made with the BBC in 1953.