War Casualty British Splendour
By James Donahue
German submarines actively patrolled the Atlantic coast of the United States during World War II,
sinking more allied ships in coastal waters than most American’s realized. The tanker British Splendour was among the
list of lost ships lying off the coast of North Carolina.
It was the night of April 7, 1942. The tanker, a 441-foot ship under the command of Captain John Hall,
was laden with 10,000 tons of gasoline and making its way north from Houston, Texas, to meet up with a British bound convoy
gathering off Nova Scotia.
The Splendour was being escorted by two armed trawlers, the HMS St. Zeno and HMS Hertfordshire, and
was cautiously following the coast, the skipper well aware of the danger of German U-boats in the area.
Unknown to the British sailors was U-552, commandeded by Oberleutnant Erich topp, that was lurking
in the shallows just off Cape Hattarus. As the British Splendour made its way along the island coast, the tanker made itself
a perfect target for the waiting submarine crew. All it took was a single torpedo that struck the tanker port side, aft, and
exploded in the engine room, instantly killing the crew of 12.
The blast blew the skylight off the roof of the engine room and quickly set fire to the gasoline bunkers.
The tanker was doomed. Captain Hall ordered the ship abandoned and the remaining 41 sailors escaped in the ship's lifeboats
even as the blazing ship was sinking under their feet.
The St. Zeno began an unsuccessful search for the U-boat but U-552 escaped to go on a raid that sank
another four ships, the Lancing, Atlas, Byron Benson and Tamaulipas before returning to Germany. Earlier Topp was credited
with sinking the U. S. Destroyer Reuben.
Topp went on to become the third most successful German U-boat commander of the war, sinking a total
of 35 ships. He was advanced to the rank of rear admiral and awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross and the higher grade
Oak Leaves and Swords by the German high command. He survived the war and died in 2005 at the age of 91.
The British Splendour sank in shallow water making it a popular dive site off Cape Hattaras. The wreck
rests intact and upright in 110 feet of water southwest of Ocracoke inlet. It has a large hole and tear on the amidships starboard
side and a hole on the port side engine room where the torpedo struck.