Only three vessels were torpedoed by Nazi submarines last week. Yet the toll of merchant tonnage and civilian lives taken at sea by Germany was the greatest for any week of the war to date. Twenty-one ships totalling 93,300 tons of Allied and neutral shipping went to the bottom. More than 200 persons were killed, some 100 of them in one sinking which rivaled the Athenia as the war's foremost "atrocity."
Early in this tragic eleventh week of World War II, the furtive nature of the new German offensive was suspected: mines laid by submarines in British coastal waters. By week's end, despite German denials, this was confirmed. Suspicion grew when a British destroyer, four British freighters (Matra, Ponzano, Wood-town, Pensilva) and a Danish steamer (Canada) all blew up in nearshore British waters. Certainly the British would not mine roadsteads used by their own ships. Nor could mines drifting loose from British defense fields be blamed since British mines are designed to become harmless after breaking away from their anchorages, as required by international convention. Certainty came when, driven by gales, mines of German make washed ashore in quantities along the British North Sea coast and in Belgium, bashing into piers and bulkheads with savage detonations, frightful flotsam set afloat by the nation whose leader promised that Britain would now be spoken to "in language she can understand."
Foulest blow of this new Nazi in-fighting landed under the belly of the 8,3O9-ton Dutch liner Simon Bolivar, carrying 170 crew and 230 passengers for Paramaribo, Surinam. Coasting at midday about 16 miles off Harwich, England, through a calm, sunny sea, she ran into two mines which tore out her bottom, killed her captain and about 100 others, injured 200. Most of the passengers were German-Jewish refugees, scores of them children.
Survivors told of seeing fellow passengers blown along the decks like tenpins. The first blast's force lifted the whole ship out of water forward. Officers on the bridge were slain at their posts. The second explosion burst Bolivar's fuel tanks and the sea around her became filled with swimmers gasping and spluttering in black oil. One rescued baby was officially listed as a pickaninny, then scrubbed, and listed as white. One man saved his small daughter by pushing her ahead of him through the sludge on a packing case. While being rescued by tugs and trawlers, Bolivar's survivors could see the Yugoslav ship Carica Milica (6,371 tons) sinking not far away, also mined. Some hours later, in the same vicinity, down went the British Black hill, Torchbearer, Wigmore; the Swedish B. O. Borjesson, the Italian Grazia (the war's first casualty under Mussolini's flag). This free floating peril in the North Sea for neutrals as well as combatants, had an immediate effect on Dutch shipping. At Lisbon 1,000 passengers, aboard the liners Oranje, Jan Pieterszoon Coen and Johan De Witt, disembarked to continue their journeys by other means.