How I Used the Internet to Find My Uncles Killer
When I was a kid, my mother would occasionally tell me stories about her childhood. She was part of a family of four: her parents were Herbert and Frances Chapman, and she had an older brother named Frank. They lived in the small town of Glossop, Derbyshire, which is about thirty miles south of Manchester. It was an old cotton mill town, not rural, but there were moors and farms nearby. She and her brother would often play together, he being only one year older. I heard stories about their adventures, but the tone would be melancholy since my Uncle Frank lost his life at sea while still a young man during World War II. His death was hardly ever discussed, but I distinctly recall hearing about the grim day when the British Governments notification was delivered to the Chapman household. It was a heartbreaking experience for the entire family. Young Frank, an unexceptional fellow at that early time in his life, was still loved for his good nature and easygoing attitude. He had a bit of the practical experimenter in him, and an interest in radio as a teenager (this was in the 1930s). Hearing those stories over the years created a dim, but still distinct impression on me as I was growing up. Since my father had no siblings, my Uncle Frank, had he lived, would have broadened the dimensions of our narrow family tree, and made life a little richer for us all.
The specifics about how he met his demise at sea were never mentioned. All I learned was that he was on a ship in the Mediterranean, possibly as a short-wave operator, and that he lost his life early in the war. Were the Italians responsible for his ship going down? No one seemed sure. I attributed the reticence about discussing the subject to the acute pain of the loss. As a result, I went through my life with just a teaspoon of knowledge about the fellow, not giving it much thought, figuring that Id never find out much more about him.
Now its 1999, and Im in the process of reading several books about the Second World War. Some focus on naval engagements and provide details about the battleships, submarines, aircraft carriers, and other instruments of war. Im drawn to the technical details, such as how big the guns were, what sort of ordinance was used, and the tactics employed by both sides. Books by John Keegan are excellent at portraying the experiences of the men when under fire, and the terror and stress on board ships that ultimately fail to make it back to port. Reading the stories can give a sense of the emotions the sailors experienced. All in all, it was a very dirty business.
One night I was re-reading chapters about the Battle of the Atlantic (WWII), and it sparked a renewed interest about what happened to my Uncle Frank. Could I find out more about his brief naval career? Could the Internet be a resource in this effort? It was late that evening, past 10 PM, but I pulled myself out of bed, and decided to give it a try.
The Internet contains an enormous amount of information, but its often hard to find what you are looking for. There are search engines that help, but all too often they return a tremendous number of web pages to consider, which can be daunting. Still, it pays to take a look at, say, the first 30 entries if for no other reason than to stimulate ones own search string vocabulary. Selecting the correct words is very important when undertaking a web search, and this is especially important when dealing with military matters. Generally, one takes the plunge by examining some sites, followed by a return to the search engine for another go with different words, repeating this process until either something is found or fatigue sets in. A diligent search can easily take a couple of hours. The focus shifts back-and-forth between extremely specific search strings (which often return nothing) and more general ones. Sometimes switching search engines will help. The rule to employ is "follow your nose." Its not much different than being in a research library in that respect.
Well, I had to start somewhere and see what the prospects were. I figured that since my uncle died while in the British Navy, there was a chance of finding his service record, along with details about the ship he was assigned to. I decided to start with the "Ask Jeeves" site (at http://www.ask.com) to find more about my Uncle Frank. This site has some technical advantages over a plain search engine. Though it limits the number of returns, your request is sent to several of the big-name portals, which saves time. Also, the site has its own database of quick load pages that have been reviewed, which reduces the junk to plough through.
When entering a search string, it is useful to try different ways of expressing what you want. To start with, I would enter "Historical British Navy Ships", but the parsing of that entry might result in links to "General British History", "Royal Navy Official Site", or even "Yachting". You never know what youre going to get. The Royal Navy only wants to recruit new members, and as such does not have a database of sunken warships for you to check out (apparently that would hamper the recruitment effort). Other web sites would offer only a tiny amount of information. One fellow in Denmark had a 2x6 table listing major events in World War II for his country [!] and for England. That was it. The total number of words on the page was about 300. Yet hes in the search engines. Only by visiting each site is it possible to really know if it might contain what you are looking for. You cannot enter something like, "Sailors who died in the service of the British Navy during World War II in the Mediterranean", and expect anything sensible. Either the result is a big fat zero, or there are links to too many irrelevant sites. The best approach is to try smaller chunks, and use a sixth sense as to how to proceed.
As luck would have it, I finally landed on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission web site (http://www.cwgc.org/cwgchome.htm) and tried out searching their database. It looked promising. I selected British (as opposed to Canadian, Australian ), entered: Chapman, F (they want first initial only), and got back a table listing four "F. Chapman"s. I clicked on the first link, and the following page was displayed:
H.M.S. Grove, Royal Navy
who died on Friday, 12th June 1942. Age 20.
Son of Herbert Rockley Chapman and Frances Chapman, of Glossop, Derbyshire
Memorial: CHATHAM NAVAL MEMORIAL, Kent, United Kingdom
Panel Number: 59, 3.
Location: The Memorial overlooks the town of Chatham and is approached by a steep path from the Town Hall Gardens.
Yep, that's him. I had an odd feeling upon first viewing this page. Seeing the entry in black and white suddenly made him real again. I also had thoughts about how those who fought in great wars, though they may have lost their life, often were part of a struggle to make the world better. And, since nations maintain memorials to those individuals, they are not quickly forgotten. You can actually point to something that declares, "We care, and remember." So, my uncle has a legacy (now also on the Internet). I wonder if information for an unexceptional person such as myself will be on the web someday?
Now I have the date, and the name of the ship he was on, the H.M.S. Grove. Frank was an 'ordinary' telegraphist, whatever that means. Hmm. Maybe working with electronics runs in the family (Im a computer programmer). Anyway, back to search engines. I tried using the June 12, but that wasnt promising. Among other things, It returned an O. J. Simpson link! (That was the date of the infamous double murder.) I tried naval sites, but didn't know what class of ship the H.M.S. Grove was, although I suspected it was one of the smaller ones. The only thing left to do was to brute-force the effort, visit different locations and scroll through pages of mostly irrelevant data. Also, many of the military sites are part of web-rings that take you as far afield as the Napoleonic or Vietnam War, so that particular feature doesnt help much. Some other places only display pictures of ships. Its not the World Wide Web, sometimes it appears to be the World Wide Scrapbook! Finally, I stumbled upon a superb, privately managed site (http://freespace.virgin.net/aim.direct/WW2_British_Ships_Destroyers.htm) that contained an extensive amount of tabular data about British destroyers. There was no search capability, so one had to read the contents (or 'find on page') to see if it contains what you want. An encouraging sign is that the Grove is listed near the top as being sunk in 1942 in the Mediterranean. Scrolling down the very long page, I encountered:
TYPE 2, 33 ships, 6 lost and 1 not repaired - 1,050 tons, 27 knots, 6-4in, 170 crew, 1941-42
12th June 1942, Eastern Mediterranean, off Sidi Barrani,
Egypt (c 32-00'N, 25-30'E) - by 1 torpedo from German U.77.
Returning to Alexandria after escorting supply ships to Tobruk (North African Campaign)
June 1942 was close to the end of the successful phase of the Germans North African Campaign. This was before Montgomery was assigned to the area and well before the British/American landings near Morocco in November 1942. Up to this time Rommel was making great progress and threatening to take Egypt and with it, the Suez Canal. In fact, key members of the German command thought that success in that area would be of great strategic significance, especially if the centrally located, British-held island of Malta could be taken. But Hitler only allocated three divisions and provided limited naval support to the theater. Also, Rommels efforts were considerably hampered because his troops supplies were often intercepted and destroyed by the Royal Navy. As part of his move eastwards towards Egypt, he decided to conquer the British held fortress of Tobruk, which eventually fell, on June 21. Some German officers were uncertain about the value of taking Tobruck, because it did not seem to threaten their lines too much, and an attack would mean a further expenditure of precious of troops and materiel. But take it they did. Undoubtedly, H.M.S. Grove contributed to the British resistance there, and perhaps, as a by-product, to ultimate victory, months later in the theater, by the British Eighth Army.
I learn later that the Italian Navy was active in the eastern Mediterranean Sea in the month of June 1942. The British had dispatched a convoy ("Vigorous") of 11 ships and their escorts from Haifa and Port Said, which reached Tobruk on the 13th. On or before the 14th, an Italian battlefleet with two battleships, two heavy and two light cruisers plus destroyers sailed south from Taranto to attack it. At that point the convoy tried to head to Malta, but ultimately returned to Alexandria minus one cruiser, three destroyers and two merchant ships. Hard fighting took place over a three-day period; losses on both sides were mostly due to Allied and German aircraft. The Italian battlefleet never got closer than 200 miles from Tobruk, but in the Western Mediterranean another convoy ("Harpoon") was attacked by Italian ships and aircraft, resulting in the loss of four (of six) merchant ships and two destroyers plus heavy damage to four other escorts. All of this activity probably led to my familys understanding that "The Italians" were responsible for Uncle Franks demise. After all, whos going to have access to the U-boats logs during a war?
For me, the interesting part is that the listing for H.M.S. Grove identifies (U-boat) U-77 as the agent that sunk the ship. And to think that I enjoyed the movie "Das Boot"! Im a little ashamed of myself at the moment.
It turns out that I was already familiar with a site that contains just about all the information one would ever want to know about U-boats. It has to be seen to be believed. I had found it very informative and even had a link to it on my home page! So I hopped over (http://uboats.net). Selecting for U-77, brought up the following information:
down 28 March 1940 Vegesacker Werft, Bremen-Vegesack
Commissioned 18 Jan 1941 Oblt. Heinrich Schonder (Knights Cross)
- 09.42 Kptlt. Heinrich Schonder E when my uncle's
ship was sunk
09.42 - 03.43 Oblt. Otto Hartmann
|Career 14 patrols||01.41
- 04.41 7th Flotilla (Kiel) training
05.41 - 12.41 7th Flotilla (St. Nazaire) front boat
01.42 - 04.42 23rd Flotilla (Salamis)
05.42 - 03.43 29th Flotilla (La Specia)
|Successes||13 ships sunk for a total of 37,431 tons including the British destroyer HMS Grove (1,050 tons) 3 ships damaged for a total of 8,109 tons|
|Fate:||Sunk at 0115hrs on 28 March, 1943 east of Cartagena, Spain, in position 37.42N, 00.10E by 4 depth charges and 1 bomb from 2 British Hudson aircraft (48 & 233 Sqn.). 38 dead, 9 survivors. 36 men, including the commander, are buried in the cemetery at Cuacos de Yuste (Caceres - Spain).|
A type 7 submarine. Just finished reading about it. It carries 14 torpedoes, has a crew of about 50, a range of 15,000 miles, 17 knots surface, and 7 knots submerged. Actually, a rather primitive submarine, not much better than World War I types in most respects. So, the U-boat was sunk. What about Kptlt. Schonder? He wasn't on board when U-77 went down. Who is he, and what happened to him? It turns out that his listing in this table for U77 contains a link for Kptlt. Heinrich Schonder, where there will be a small biography, and an image or two. This is getting a little eerie. Im about to view the face of the man who was responsible for my uncles death. After all this time. Over fifty years since the event, and Im now about to see what he looks like. Theres no way that anyone else in my family knows what Im about to discover. The hair on the back of my neck is tingling a bit. A frisson envelops me, sitting alone in my study, in the dead of the night. Its past 2 AM in the morning, and very quiet. The only sound is the squeak of the chair, and an occasional mouse click.
No sense in hesitating at this point. Let's look up ol Heinrich, and see what we get.
Korvettenkapitän (Crew 1934)
Born 23 July, 1910 Erfurt
Died 24 June, 1943 North Atlantic
|Kapitänleutnant Heinrich Schonder|
|Decorations||01/10/1939 : Iron Cross 2nd class (EK II)
01/12/1939 : Ubootskriegsabzeichen 1939
23/07/1940 : Iron Cross 1st class (EK I)
19/08/1942 : Knights Cross (-60-)
|U-boat Career||U-51 VIIB I WO 08.38 - 08.39
U-53 VIIB 2 patrols, 72 days 08.39 - 11.39
U-53 VIIB Commander in deputize 12.39 - 01.40
U-9 IIB I WO; 4 patrols, 44 days 01.40 - 04.40
U-58 IIC 4 patrols, 72 days 07.40 -11.40
U-77 VIIC 10 patrols, 222 days 01.41 09
U-200 IXD2 1 patrol, 12 days 12.42 - 06.43
Schonder started his naval career in April 1935. After
some months on the torpedo boat Falke he changed in
January 1938 to the U-boat force.
He rode for two years on several U-boats as watch officer, before he took over in June 1940 the type IIC U-boat U-58. He sank on 4 patrols, mostly in the North Atlantic, 4 ships. He left U-58 and commissioned in January 1941 the type VIIC U-boat U-77. After three patrols in the North Atlantic he managed in December 1941 the break through into the Mediterranean. He rode in the Med 6 patrols and sank among other ships the British destroyer HMS Kimberley and the frigate HMS Grove. 'Hein' Schonder left U-77 in September 1942 and commissioned 3 months later the type IX-D2 U-boat U-200 which was sunk on her first patrol with all hands on 24 June, 1943 southwest of Iceland by a RAF Liberator aircraft.
So, U-77 slipped into the Mediterranean past Gibralter. There was a scene in "Das Boot" showing a similar (but unsuccessful) attempt. Its a very risky maneuver. So that's what he looks like. Yikes! Hes the sort of fellow Central Casting would send over to play the heavy. A Knights Cross recipient. The U-boat crews, and especially officers, were the most ideological and fanatical in the German armed services. Herr Schonder started his career in 1935, which was when the flotilla first came into being, and he almost certainly was a gung-ho militarist. I make a mental note not to name any son I have, Heinrich.
Well, he died somewhere in the North Atlantic, but on another boat: U-200. Is there any further information about how he met his end? Let's look up U-200:
down 3 Nov 1941 AG Weser, Bremen
Commissioned 22 Dec 1942 Kptlt. Heinrich Schonder (Knights Cross)
|Commanders||12.42 - 06.43 Kptlt. Heinrich Schonder|
|Career 1 patrol||12.42
- 05.43 4th Flotilla (Stettin)
06.43 12th Flotilla (Bordeaux)
|Fate||Sunk 24 June, 1943 southwest of Iceland, in position 58.15N, 25.25W, by 2 depth charges from a British Liberator aircraft (Sqdn. 120/H). 67* dead (all crew lost). * Included in the figure for loss of life are 7 members from the German special force "Brandenburg" unit.|
58.15N, 25.25W is about 500 miles due south of the western tip of Iceland. That patch of ocean is completely empty. The submarine went down in the icy waters far from any land. Follow up research revealed that U-200 was sunk by a Liberator of British Squadron 120, dispatched from Iceland, and piloted by an Australian, A.W. Fraser. Also, the Brandenburg special force unit traveling on that U-boat was composed of "coastal troops" who were destined for South Africa, of all places! It was part of a harebrained scheme to land there and incite rebellion amongst the Boers. U-200 departed on June 12 from Kiel (coincidentally the date the H.M.S. Grove was sunk one year earlier). It was not, at that time, an direct participant in the Battle of the Atlantic, though it could not escape the improved anti-submarine tactics and forces operating in the area.
More recollections from my readings: The Consolidated B-24 Liberator, introduced in 1941, was a long-range (2100mi), 4 engine bomber (300mph, 28,000 ceiling, 10 .5" machine guns) that carried a bomb load of 8,000 pounds. 18,000 were built. The British flew 1700, and later in the war the Liberators were equipped with 10-centimeter radar and powerful searchlights which made them deadly. In May of 1943, when U-200 was sunk, the Germans lost 41 U-boats and that month marked the turning point in the Battle of the Atlantic. Donitz, commander of the U-boat forces, and the inventor of the wolf pack strategy withdrew the boats and conceded defeat in the face of the increasing and effective anti-submarine warfare. There would be more battles fought in the seas, but the days of easy hunting by the Germans were over.
All in all, a strange adventure. Here are two men, my Uncle Frank and his adversary, Heinrich Schonder, linked decades later (albeit tenuously) within the databases that exist on the World Wide Web. And, I was able to reconstruct the details about the events, not in Germany, and not in England, but thousands of miles away in Los Angeles. Close enough in time to be emotionally meaningful, but far enough away to be almost magical. Neither Frank nor Heinrich could possibly imagine this happening from their vantage point of the 1940s. It makes one wonder what things will be like another fifty years from now. Will a distant relative be able to look up your history, and relive, for a brief moment, some of the important times of your life? Probably so. And a whole lot more.