The Defense Ministry is investigating a report that a British submarine commander in World War II scuttled a cargo ship with 50 women and children aboard, sending them to their deaths, authorities said Saturday.
The Times, in a front page story, said it had obtained secret government documents detailing how the HMS Sturdy pursued, attacked and finally blew up the Indonesian cargo ship, knowing the civilians had no chance of survival.The Times said the documents are classified until the year 2019. Copies exist in the U.S. Navy Operational Archive in Washington, the Times said, but they also will remain secret until Britain orders declassification.
Authorities at Britain's Ministry of Defense declined comment other than to say they are investigating the report.
According to The Times, the documents recount in chilling detail how the submarine commanded by Lt. William Anderson of the Royal Naval Reserve attacked and scuttled the cargo ship with all aboard.
The HMS Sturdy, based in Australia and under the control of the U.S. Fleet at the time, left Darwin on Nov. 20, 1944, and five days later in waters off northern Australia encountered a 350-ton Indonesian cargo ship that Anderson suspected of being a supply ship for the Japanese.
In his official report of the sinking, Anderson said the HMS Sturdy pursued the unnamed ship and stopped it, firing 65 shells and hitting it with about 40. The ship did not sink.
Anderson brought the submarine alongside the damaged ship and boarded it. He discovered about 50 crewmen had already abandoned ship in lifeboats, leaving behind the same number of women and children - apparently families of the Indonesian crew.
"Owing to the nature of the cargo (oil) and the use of this type of vessel to the enemy, I disregarded the humanitarian side of the question," Anderson wrote. "Having no means at my disposal of saving the lives of the remaining passengers, I placed demolition charges which exploded four minutes later."
In ordering the sinking, Anderson - who died three years ago - went against accepted code of behavior where crews and passengers were taken aboard Royal Navy vessels or transferred to the nearest land before suspected Japanese supply ships were destroyed.
Ronald Hardman, the submarine officer in charge of blowing up the ship, told The Times in an interview he had argued in vain with his commander to spare the women and children.
"There was no chance of anyone surviving," Hardman said. "He knew what he was doing. I shouted to (Anderson) what the situation was, but he said, `Get on with it.' I just had to obey orders or be up on a charge.
"I have tried to comfort myself over the years by saying one had to obey orders. If one does not, you don't win the war."
When the Americans learned of the sinking, they launched an inquiry, Hardman said.
"They didn't like it at all," he said. "They virtually dismissed him from the ship, relieved him and he was back in the U.K. as spare crew."
Capt. Lancelot Shadwell, who was commander of the British submarine flotilla in Australia, wrote in his official account: "The episode reflects no credit on Lieutenant Anderson and will be viewed with distaste and repugnance by the whole submarine service."
He described it as "an inhuman action, utterly contrary to the traditional chivalry of the sea."