I Was There! - 'My Gunner Set Fire to a U-Boat'

The War Illustrated, Volume 4, No. 73, Page 79, January 24, 1941.

The 2,473-ton Welsh collier "Sarastone" arrived in port from Lisbon at the beginning of January, 1941, following a battle with a U-boat, which left the latter disabled and on fire. The following account of this exploit by the "Sarastone's" gunner, Jim O'Neill, was told by her master, Captain John Herbert.

Captain John Herbert, of Swansea, the master of the "Sarastone", told his story on reaching port. He said:

The chief engineer came to me and explained that our boilers had blown. "We shall have to leave the convoy and take a chance on our own", he added.

Our engines would not carry us faster than two knots. So while the rest of the ships steamed on we altered course and headed for Lisbon.

I was having a nap in my cabin two days later, when the second officer on the bridge shouted down the voice-pipe beside my bed: "There is something on the horizon that I don't like, sir."

When I got to the bridge I saw what appeared to be a mast about three miles distant. Then I saw it rise higher, until the streaming conning-tower of a U-boat emerged.

I put "action stations" on and swung the ship round to bring the submarine astern. But while she was still lying on our quarter she fired, the shot falling off our starboard quarter. It was a warning to stop. We kept on. The U-boat's speed was about fifteen knots, and she overhauled us rapidly for ten minutes without firing. Then, about 4,000 yards from us, she loosed a further five shots, but we held our fire. We've only a twelve-pounder, but I'd talked over with my naval gunner what we'd do in such a predicament and our plans were made.

She was getting closer and closer. I held my breath waiting for the moment when we could open fire with any hope of damaging her. Her shells were uncomfortable close.

My gunner, Jim O'Neill, is a naval pensioner who rejoined the Service as a reservist in September 1939. He was marvellous. The U-boat was about two thousand yards off when O'Neill opened fire. His first fell short but in perfect line. He fired again. A direct hit.

We all cheered. I shouted, "Go on, O'Neill, give it to him!" His second shot fell at the base of the after gun, putting it out of action and causing yellow smoke to rise in a cloud. Our third and fourth shots were near misses, but the fifth burst 20 feet abaft the first hit, and the yellow smoke now turned black. The U-boat was still firing back, with only one gun.

Then we steamed on. I had orders not to risk my cargo. "Daily Express."

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