SS Uhenfels

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SS Uhenfels.jpg
Career (Germany)
Name: Uhenfels (1931-39)
Empire Ability (1939-41)
Owner: DDG Hansa, Bremen (1931-39)
Ministry of War Transport (1939-41)
Operator: DDG Hansa, Bremen (1931-39)
Elder Dempster Lines Ltd (1939-41)
Port of registry: 22x20px Bremen (1931-33)
22x20px 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)
Code letters GQJY (1939-41)
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Captured: By HMS Hereward on 5 November 1939.
Fate: Renamed and reflagged 1939
Sunk by U-69 on 27 June 1941
General characteristics
Class and type: Steam merchant ship
Tonnage: 7,603 GRT
Length: 503 feet 9 inches (153.54 m)
Beam: 62 feet 2 inches (18.95 m)
Draught: 27 feet 7 inches (8.41 m)
Speed: 14 knots (26 km/h)
Crew: 109

SS Uhenfels was a steam merchant ship operated initially by the German shipping firm DDG Hansa, and then shortly after the start of the Second World War by the British Elder Dempster Lines Ltd, as the 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]

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.[4] The Altmark had been disguised as the American Delmar, and consequently had escaped unmolested.[4] 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]

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.[5] 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 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 01.49 hours, and hitting the Empire Ability at 02.37 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][5] 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]

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.[6] Empire Ability used the Code Letters GQJY.[7]


  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"" (subscription required). Miramar Ship Index. R.B. Haworth. Retrieved 22 November 2008. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Jameson. Ark Royal. pp. 53. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 Rossiter. Ark Royal. pp. 88–9. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 "EMPIRE - A". Retrieved 22 November 2008. 
  6. "LLOYD'S REGISTER, STEAMERS & MOTORSHIPS". Plimsoll Ship Data. Retrieved 10 January 2009. 
  7. "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