Military Wiki
SS Uhenfels
File:SS Uhenfels.jpg
Career (Germany)
Name: Uhenfels (1931-40)
Empire Ability (1940–41)
Owner: DDG „Hansa“ house flag.svg DDG Hansa DDG Hansa, Bremen (1931–39)
Ministry of War Transport (1939–41)
Operator: DDG „Hansa“ house flag.svg DDG Hansa, Bremen (1931-39)
Elder Dempster Lines Ltd (1939-41)
Port of registry: Weimar Republic Bremen (1931-33)
Germany Bremen (1933-39)
United Kingdom Liverpool (1939-41)
Builder: Deschimag Werk Weser, Bremen
Yard number: 886
Completed: March 1931
Identification: UK official Number 167423 (1939-41)
Code Letters DOKS (1931-39)
ICS Delta.svgICS Oscar.svgICS Kilo.svgICS Sierra.svg
Code letters GQJY (1939-41)
ICS Golf.svgICS Quebec.svgICS Juliet.svgICS Yankee.svg
Captured: by HMS Hereward, 5 November 1939.
Fate: Captured and reflagged 1939
Sunk by German submarine U-69, 27 June 1941
General characteristics
Class & type: Steam merchant ship
Tonnage: 7,603 GRT
Length: 503 ft 9 in (153.54 m)
Beam: 62 ft 2 in (18.95 m)
Draught: 27 ft 7 in (8.41 m)
Speed: 14 knots (26 km/h)
Crew: 61

Lua error in Module:Location_map at line 510: Unable to find the specified location map definition: "Module:Location map/data/Africa" does not exist. SS Uhenfels was a steam merchant ship operated initially by the German shipping firm Deutsche Dampfschiffahrts-Gesellschaft Hansa, and then shortly after the start of the Second World War by the British Elder Dempster Lines Ltd, as SS Empire Ability. She was sunk under this name in 1941 by a German U-boat.

Construction, early career and capture

The Uhenfels was built in 1931 at the Bremen yards of Deschimag Werk Weser, being completed for service with DDG Hansa in March that year.[1][2] She operated for several years under this name, until the outbreak of the Second World War saw her outside Germany. She made a number of attempts to sail back, before making her third attempt, departing Lourenço Marques on 13 October 1939, bound for Germany and disguised as the Dutch merchant Aagtekerk.[1] She was carrying opium, worth £250,000, as well as cotton and hides.[3] Three of her crew deserted before the ship sailed from Lourenço Marques. They made their way to Zululand, where they were arrested by the police and brought to Maritzburg. After being fined, they were interned in South Africa for the duration of the war.[4]

During her crossing of the Atlantic she ran into Force K, a number of British ships that had been deployed in search of the German commerce raider the Admiral Graf Spee. Attached to the force was the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, whose aircraft had spotted another disguised German merchant the previous month, when on 9 October they had sighted the German tanker Altmark.[5] The Altmark had been disguised as the American Delmar, and consequently had escaped unmolested.[5] The Uhenfels was not so fortunate. Detected on 5 November the aircraft reported the German ship, and the destroyer HMS Hereward was directed to secure the German merchant.[3] The crew attempted to scuttle the ship but a boarding party from the Hereward was able to prevent this.[3] The captured ship was brought into Freetown the following day.[1] The 61 crew were marched off to a prison camp ashore, defiantly singing Nazi songs. By the time she had been captured the Uhenfels was running short of food.[3] Uhenfels was then taken to Gibraltar for drydocking and inspection, arriving on 18 March. She arrived at London on 5 April 1940, the first captured German vessel to arrive in port there. Her cargo consisted maize, palm kernels and other foodstuffs from the West Indies.[6] She was also carrying 122 tanned sheepskins, which were offered for sale by public tender "in prize".[7]

SS Empire Ability

The Uhenfels was taken into service with the British, being renamed Empire Ability in April 1940 by the Ministry of War Transport.[1] She was assigned to be operated by Elder Dempster Lines and sailed in a number of convoys.[8] On 23 October 1940 she was among those bombed and damaged by German aircraft while waiting in Gare Loch for a convoy to assemble.[1] On 27 February 1941 the Italian submarine Bianchi attacked convoy OB 290, and claimed to have scored a probable hit on the Empire Ability. The Empire Ability was not a part of this convoy however.[1]

Empire Ability was a part of convoy SL 78 though, when it was attacked by German submarine U-69 on 27 June 1941.[1] Empire Ability was carrying a cargo of 7,725 tons of sugar, 238 tons of rum, 400 tons of kernels and 35 tons of fibre, and was under the command of her master Herbert Flowerdew. The convoy was then 200 miles southeast of the Azores. U-69's commander, Jost Metzler, made several attacks, sinking the SS River Lugar at 0149 hours, and hitting the Empire Ability at 0237 hours with a single torpedo.[1] The Empire Ability caught fire and was abandoned, sinking at 23°50′N 21°10′W / 23.833°N 21.167°W / 23.833; -21.167 21 minutes after having been hit.[1][8] Only two people were killed, with a total of 107 crew, gunners, military personnel and assorted passengers successfully abandoning ship.[1] The survivors were picked up by the SS Amerika and transferred to the corvette HMS Burdock. They were subsequently landed at Milford Haven.[1] Those lost on Empire Ability are commemorated at the Tower Hill Memorial, London.[9]

Official number and code letters

Official Numbers were a forerunner to IMO Numbers.

Empire Ability had the UK Official Number 167423. Uhenfels used the Code Letters DOKS.[10] Empire Ability used the Code Letters GQJY.[11]


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 "Empire Ability". Retrieved 22 November 2008. 
  2. "1167423". Miramar Ship Index. Retrieved 22 November 2008.  (subscription required)
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Jameson. Ark Royal. pp. 53. 
  4. "Error: no |title= specified when using {{Cite web}}". 23 October 1939. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 Rossiter. Ark Royal. pp. 88–9. 
  6. "Error: no |title= specified when using {{Cite web}}". 6 April 1940. 
  7. "Error: no |title= specified when using {{Cite web}}". 9 July 1940. 
  8. 8.0 8.1 "EMPIRE - A". Retrieved 22 November 2008. 
  9. "Ship Index A-F". Brian Watson. Retrieved 20 May 2011. 
  10. "LLOYD'S REGISTER, STEAMERS & MOTORSHIPS". Plimsoll Ship Data. Retrieved 10 January 2009. 
  11. "LLOYD'S REGISTER, STEAMERS & MOTORSHIPS". Plimsoll Ship Data. Retrieved 10 January 2009. 


Coordinates: 23°50′N 21°10′W / 23.833°N 21.167°W / 23.833; -21.167

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