Updated: Oct 21, 2020
On 26 October 1942, shortly before 7pm, the steam-powered American cargo vessel, the SS Anne Hutchinson, was torpedoed by a German submarine near East London.
A Liberty ship built by the Oregon Shipbuilding Company of Portland, Oregon, the SS Anne Hutchinson had passed through the Suez Channel and was travelling from Aden in Yemen to Cape Town.
Sailing unescorted, she was about 90km east of East London when she was hit on the starboard side by two of four torpedoes from the infamous U-504 - one of the German navy's deadly raiding "wolfpacks". Operational from April 1941 to July 1943, the U-504 was responsible for sinking 16 commercial ships.
The U-boat had missed the ship five minutes earlier with a spread of two stern torpedoes because she just did a turn to starboard on her zigzag course after the torpedoes were fired.
Lookouts then spotted one torpedo of the second spread to pass 18 metres ahead of the vessel, but it was too late to take avoiding action and two torpedoes struck abaft the engine room in the #4 hold almost simultaneously.
The explosions buckled the side of the ship, created a five-metre hole, broke the propeller shaft, stopped the engines, knocked out the electrical systems, smashed the wireless set and blew the #4 hatch covers off, killing three men sitting on them.
An oil tank had also been holed, covering the after gun and its crew with oil. However, the bulkheads on either side of the hold remained intact but as the ship was completely disabled the surviving eight officers and 29 crewmen abandoned ship in three lifeboats, followed shortly thereafter by the 17 armed guards in the fourth.
At 19.28 hours, the fire room was struck, causing the boilers to explode. The U-boat then surfaced and left the area without questioning the survivors.
This reportedly was because search lights were seen nearby, the ship was judged beyond salvage and the Germans had to reload the torpedoes from the upper deck containers.
About 90 minutes after abandoning ship, the lifeboats set sail towards the coast but one got separated and its 10 occupants were picked up six hours after the attack by the American steam merchant Steel Mariner and landed in Durban on 28 October.
On the night of 27 October, the remaining survivors were picked up a fishing vessel off Port Alfred and landed there at dawn the next morning. Two of the survivors had to be treated for minor injuries and the 44 men were later taken to Port Elizabeth.
The Anne Hutchinson stayed afloat and on 29 October, the South African armed trawler HMSAS David Haigh (T 13) and a harbour tug attempted to tow the ship to port, but were not powerful enough.
Dynamite charges were placed aft under the ship, cutting her in two. The after section sank and the fore section was towed to Port Elizabeth by the armed trawler, arriving there on 1 November, but was declared a total loss. A boarding party also recovered the confidential papers that had been left behind by the master, who was criticised for this breach of the Admiralty regulations.