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Ship: 6,219 grt. 410 ft. two-deck freighter. Built in 1920 by Ames Shipbuilding & Dry Dock, Seattle, Wash. as West Jester. When sunk owned by Atlantic Transportation Co., of Montreal and on charter to Canadian International Pulp and Paper Co., also of Montreal.

Fate: Sunk by gunfire of battlecruiser Gneisenau on 22 February 1941, in mid-Atlantic, 610 miles east of Newfoundland. Two casualties.

This standard freighter had had a somewhat varied career, having carried the names West Jester, Oran (for the Oriental Navigation Co. of New York) and San Anselmo, also American, until acquired by Atlantic Transportation Co. in 1940 and chartered to the Canadian International Pulp & Paper Co. As the war's shipping losses led to requisitioning of shipping, A.D. Huff was swept up like the others. In her case she had a largely Canadian crew. She made a freighting trip or two in convoy to the UK, and in December 1940 as she was leaving England on the way back to Canada she was hit by two bombs during an air attack, one destroying one wing of her bridge, the other fortunately failing to explode. In this shape she reached Halifax again and went into the Halifax Shipyards dock for running repairs, which did not include a full replacement bridge. She had an ancient 4-inch gun installed and one crewman recalls the ammunition casings were green with age.

When ready to sail she went to Dartmouth, N.S., for a part cargo of iron ore ingots, thence to Dalhousie, N.B., for her normal cargo of newsprint for C.I.P., loaded some pit props for Welsh coal mines on top and back to Halifax to await convoy. She crossed safely, arriving eventually in the Thames to discharge. For ballast she took on some stone rubble that originated from the Coventry blitz damage. Again, leaving in mid-February 1941, she crossed safely about half way. Since the U-boats were not yet operating west of mid-Atlantic in early 1941, the convoy was broke up on the 21st, and ships proceeded toward their final destinations on their own, the A.D. Huff at a modest eight knots. Her Master, a newly joined Scot, Captain Hugh McDowall and recently promoted from 1st Officer, planned to arrive in Halifax in a few days time. She carried a total crew of 42 and her personnel included one DEMS rating for her single gun aft on her poop.

Although there were radio indications that a raider was in the general area, nothing much could be done about that. In late morning of February 22, a small biplane aircraft flew over the ship and dropped a message. She was the "pocket battleship" Gneisenau's scouting Arado aircraft, and the message told the ship to stop. Captain McDowall of course ignored this and hastened on his way at his best speed – still only about eight knots. In fair weather and with no other vessels in sight, at 12:44 local time ship's lookouts reported a ship on the horizon astern. Almost at once there was the distant thud of heavy guns and two huge shell splashes landed in the Huff's wake, close astern. Captain McDowall kept his ship moving west and away at her maximum speed, but within a quarter hour their opponent was seen to be a large battle cruiser-style warship which continued periodic shelling of the merchantman with 11-inch guns. The Master dropped smoke floats which seemed of little use, and ordered his puny 4-inch after gun fired at the oncoming vessel, but the DEMS gunner probably wisely refused. One colourful account even tells of Captain McDowall firing a pistol from the bridge at the gun's crew and calling them colonial cowards to encourage their defence of his ship, but this is probably erroneous.

Then hits began to be suffered, one directly on the Huff's large anchor windlass on the forecastle, showering her decks with dangerous chunks of flying steel debris. By now the Gneisenau was hitting the merchantman with her secondary 5.9-inch armament, her captain, Kapitan-zur-See Otto Fein considering it was unnecessarily wasteful to use his 11-inch guns at this range. Eventually it would seem that she was hit some 32 times, the most damaging being two hits in her engineroom, before the Master stopped the vessel and ordered his crew away in lifeboats. The Radio Officer, George Shaker, in fact an employee of C.I.P., had tried to transmit the raider warning signal R-R-R-R, but Gneisenau's operators jammed the signal. As the ship's boats drew clear, Gneisenau approached to within 100 yards and hastened the Huff's demise with further gunfire until she sank. Two men had been killed in the engine room when it was hit to stop the ship, the 4th Engineer and a fireman, and the 1st Officer badly burned. One boat got away, and then another of the four ship's boats, carrying in all 40 officers and crew. After sinking the Huff, Gneisenau approached the boats which had started under the Master's direction to row to Newfoundland 600 miles west and took all the crew aboard.

Treated reasonably well by their German captors, the crew were housed three decks below the upper deck in large spaces cleared for prisoners. They joined the crew of the freighter Lustrous, sunk earlier in the day, and before it was over they were joined by two other crews, some of them quite badly wounded. In one case after sinking a tanker, picking up some seamen from a lifeboat and steaming off, the Gneisenau's captain was told there were other survivors swimming around the sinking ship. Captain Fein turned back and illuminated the area by searchlight to rescue the swimmers. Three days later these prisoners were transferred to the supply and prisoner ship Ermland, already with men from the Canadian Cruiser on board. After a further sweep southward in this transport for several days, Ermland set off for France, which they reached at La Rochelle on 31 March. After a few days in a dreadful ex-Foreign Legion barracks all these prisoners were moved northeast by train in regular passenger cars, but without seats, for Holland and Germany. A.D. Huff's Bos'n and AB Percy Coe were two of 20 men that were able to jump from this train near Aachen. Although most were recaptured shortly, these two eventually made their way south via unoccupied France to Spain and Gibraltar, reaching Greenoch, Scotland on 14 August, almost six months after their ship had been sunk. Only then were the Allies able to determine what had actually happened to the A.D. Huff. The rest spent 14 months in Stalag XB and then were moved to the naval and merchant marine camp Marlag und Milag Nord near Bremerhaven for the rest of the war. They were finally released on 27 April 1945, by the British 2nd Army's Highlanders.

Gneisenau was a 31,800 ton displacement battlecruiser, 771 ft with nine 11-inch and 12 5.9-inch guns, capable of 32 knots, under Captain Fein with a crew of about 1,800. She was a sister ship to Scharnhorst, with whom she had sailed from Kiel on 28 December 1940, the two under command of RADML Gunther Lutjens. Due to storm damage, the two turned back and departed again on 23 January via Norway, and aimed to get into the Atlantic through the Iceland-Faeroes passage. But they encountered a patrolling British cruiser squadron at long distance, so the pair doubled back around Iceland and down the Denmark Strait into the Atlantic. The aim of the operation was to disrupt the vital convoys throughout the Atlantic area. The two encountered east-bound convoy HX-106 but found it protected by the formidable, although elderly, "R" class battleship HMS Ramillies with 15-inch guns, so they prudently withdrew. Two weeks later, on 22 February they encountered the dispersed ships of A.D. Huff's convoy and the two pocket battleships sank five ships in all. Realizing that the hunt would now be on in earnest, the two heavy warships went southeast to the African coast with their two supporting supply ships. There they sank other freighters, doubled back to the convoy lanes for more successes and eventually arrived in Brest on 22 March after two months at sea.

After a refit at Brest, Gneisenau and Scharnhorst were being prepared for another raid on the Atlantic convoys, when the RAF managed to score a torpedo hit on Gneisenau as she lay at anchor in the outer roads, followed by four bomb hits when she was placed in the local dry dock. She was never to contribute to the war at sea again. After escaping up-Channel in February, 1942 with Scharnhorst and the cruiser Prinz Eugen in the daring and, to the British, highly embarrassing and costly "Channel Dash" she was again hit by a large bomb in a drydock at Keil and immobilized. As the war ended she was scuttled in the harbour entrance in Gdynia in April 1945.

THOSE LOST: William A. Smith Roy Tustain

SOURCES: Hughes & Costello The Battle of the Atlantic; Official British Vessels Lost At Sea; Lloyd's Registers, 1922 &.1938-39; SCS interview with Bos'n Ernest Shackleton; Parker Running The Gauntlet; von der Porten Pictorial History of the German Navy in World War II; Lenton German Surface Vessels 1; Ruge Der Seekrieg; Kemp Escape of the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau; discussion with George Shaker, Nov. 2000; D HIST file (note).

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