Legality of measures to prevent scuttling

General naval discussions that don't fit within any specific time period or cover several issues.
andrewuk184
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Legality of measures to prevent scuttling

Post by andrewuk184 » Tue Jul 09, 2019 1:16 pm

Hi everyone,

I am researching an incident during World War Two and would appreciate some opinions on the legalty of the actions taken by the British crew.

Here is the scenario:
  • In May 1941, a Royal Navy Ocean Boarding Vessel spots and identifies an Italian tanker. A boarding party is dispatched to seize her as a prize. The crew of the tanker open the Kingston valve to flood the ship, set fire to the bridge, and begin to abandon ship. The OBV opens fire in an attempt to prevent the boats from being launched. The radio room is hit, one person is killed.

    One boat was successfully launched, the OBV then opened fire on the boat with the Hotchkiss gun, killing two men.

    The tanker did not sink in the end because the door in the engine room was left closed by mistake, thus containing the flooding. The ship was therefore never in danger of sinking.
Opening fire on a boat (described in the log as a "cutter") that has left a sinking ship would seem highly questionable behaviour to me. Are their any laws government such a situation?

Any opinions would be much appreciated.

Best,
Andrew

paul.mercer
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Re: Legality of measures to prevent scuttling

Post by paul.mercer » Wed Jul 10, 2019 9:11 am

If the case in question is definitely proven and not just a story made up by the survivors of the tanker, then it is totally unacceptable to open fire on a boat that has survivors aboard,this was proven by the conviction for murder of one or two U boat captains after WW2, I believe that this sort of behaviour was also occasionally practiced by the Japanese.
However, in this particular incident perhaps we should know if there was any reason given for opening fire -other than possibly losing a prize and was the captain prosecuted for doing so?
I wonder if there are any details or ships logs in the RN archives about this -or were they quietly destroyed?

andrewuk184
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Re: Legality of measures to prevent scuttling

Post by andrewuk184 » Wed Jul 10, 2019 11:31 am

Hi Paul,

Thanks for you input. The sequence of events that I describe is taken directly from the ship's own log book, which I find quite extraordinory. It states that the sailors set a fire on deck (as part of their efforts to scuttle the ship) and then took to a boat. The next line says that the boat was fired on by a Hotchkiss crew. A few lines later it says the survivors were brought on board the RN ship and that one of them was already dead, another seriously injured. About one and a half hours later, this other sailor died of his wounds. Both were buried at sea that same day.

No justification is given for opening fire on a boat of ununiformed merchant sailors who had just abandoned a ship that was on fire and sinking (the RN crew wouldn't have known that it was sinking at the time, however).

I came upon these details the other day. I am researching for my book about the later sinking of the tanker and the RN vessel which relieved this first one in order to escort the prize ship home. The captain of this second ship was told by the captain of the first that he had used machine gun fire to force the life boat back. It's now clear that he did more than that!

andrewuk184
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Re: Legality of measures to prevent scuttling

Post by andrewuk184 » Wed Jul 10, 2019 11:56 am

I should say that this incident happening during the seizure of the Italian tanker Sangro by HMS Cavina.

Cavina was relieved by HMS Camito, which my grandfather was on, and the two ships began their journey home. Both the Camito and Sangro were torpedoed and sank on the way, however. An inquiry was held into the sinking but the circumstances of the capture itself were never investigated.

paul.mercer
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Re: Legality of measures to prevent scuttling

Post by paul.mercer » Wed Jul 17, 2019 10:14 pm

andrewuk184 wrote:
Wed Jul 10, 2019 11:56 am
I should say that this incident happening during the seizure of the Italian tanker Sangro by HMS Cavina.

Cavina was relieved by HMS Camito, which my grandfather was on, and the two ships began their journey home. Both the Camito and Sangro were torpedoed and sank on the way, however. An inquiry was held into the sinking but the circumstances of the capture itself were never investigated.
H1andrewuk,
It would seem from this incident that it wasn't only the Germans and Japanese that committed murder, you may recall and instance when US troops were attacking Japanese islands a commander was reported to have said something on the lines of 'If you have trouble taking prisoners, well, don't take them' I believe this was said because of the habit of some surrendering soldiers suddenly producing a grenade, but my point is that the allies we not all squeaky clean in some matters, which we are often led to believe in films and books.

andrewuk184
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Re: Legality of measures to prevent scuttling

Post by andrewuk184 » Mon Jul 22, 2019 2:45 pm

I have re-read the ships logs, they leave a bit to interpreation, and it nows seems to me that the Cavina fired on the boats as they were still on board and being prepared for launching. This it did in an attempt to stop the crew from scuttling the Sangro. Still seems a bit questionable but I think it was a legal grey zone since scuttling could be viewed as an act of sabotage.

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wadinga
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Re: Legality of measures to prevent scuttling

Post by wadinga » Mon Jul 22, 2019 9:44 pm

Hello andrewuk184,

I think the whole business of "surrendering" in the heat of action is tricky.

Just because you put your hands up an instant after unloading your last clip into a man's buddy, it might be a little optimistic to expect the survivor to treat you with overwhelming courtesy, whilst his chum is rolling around trying to hold his entrails in.

A merchant ship faced with the overwhelming superiority of a warship has several options: run, ram or surrender. Surrendering precludes the other options and denying the enemy your vessel by destroying it, is just the same as running and force will be used to stop you.

If you are throwing yourself on the mercy of your deadly enemies, the act of deliberately destroying your vessel to stop them seizing it can be perceived as an aggressive act. There would have been considerable value in any cargo and the ship itself was valuable and there might be codebooks etc. A prize fund still existed in WWII for the RN supplanting the Prize money of the Napoleonic Era.

We have recently commemorated the 100th anniversary of the final destruction of the High Seas Fleet in Scapa Flow, and several German sailors were shot during and in tense circumstances immediately after the process. The perception was that they and their comrades had broken the terms of the Armistice by destroying their property which would soon become the property of the Allies with the final extinguishing of the Kaiser's fantasy of naval domination. 1700 men became prisoners of war instead of combatants obeying armistice, and Admiral Reuter was "put out" that he wasn't received with the courtesy he believed he deserved even after he gave the order.

It is a standard feature of modern war films that Allied troops will be shown murdering prisoners Private Ryan, Flags of our Fathers, Fury, Band of Brothers etc etc in order to hammer home the humanistic message that all war is hell, no war is ever justifiable and all men are dehumanized by it. Also it doesn't do sales in former "enemy" countries any harm.

Such incidents were generally few and far between. Particular circumstances were always a factor. I remember reading an account from a destroyer involved in the sinking of Haguro, where during an attempt to pick up survivors, a British sailor noted the Japanese on the end of his rope was hammering frantically on the destroyer's hull, with an anti-aircraft shell. Menaced with a revolver the surrendering "survivor" turned away and swam off to his death.

All the best

wadinga
"There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today!"

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