Kapitän Hermann von Bardeleben (registry page)

German Handelsmarine (Merchant Marine)

Born 17.05.1882 in Bremerhaven, Germany

Died 03.06.1943 in Toronto, Canada 

Buried in Woodland Cemetery in Kitchener, Canada

History of German POWs in Canada

German War Graves in Canada

Hermann Adolf von Bardeleben

Like so many other German merchant ships at the outbreak of World War II, the steamer S.S. Borkum was a victim of bad timing. Commanded by Kapitän Hermann Bardeleben, the Borkum was in South America to fill its hold with grain when war broke out in Europe. Having sailed further inland from Montevideo, Uruguay, to complete its cargo manifest, the Borkum was docked at Rosario, Argentina preparing for its return voyage to Germany.

On November 18 it was spotted by the H.M.S. California (F-55), a British auxiliary cruiser that was itself little more than an armed merchant ship. Its captain, C.J. Pope (RAN), challenged the Borkum; in such situations it was expected that Kapitän von Bardeleben scuttle the Borkum rather than let it fall into enemy hands. Instead, the Borkum surrendered without a fight, and its captain and crew remained imprisoned for the duration of the war. Kapitän von Bardeleben would end up in a Canadian internment camp where he would die on June 6, 1943 of a heart attack.


On October 9, 1939, the Borkum left port on its precarious path to the safety of home. As had been the strategy during the First World War, England had set up a blockade of the waters that Germany relied on for imports arriving by ship. The Borkum's cautious and circuitous route toward Germany took it past Greenland, but as it neared the British Isles the blockade runner's luck ran out.

German Handelsmarine ship Borkum


British auxiliary cruiser H.M.S. California

Now under the control of an English prize crew aided by twelve of the Borkum’s original crew, the ship was put on a course for Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands with the hope of delivering the cargo ship and its much needed load of grain to a friendly port. Those hopes were short lived. At 14:30 on November 23, the Borkum was once again spotted (at 59.33N 03.57W - Kriegsmarine grid AN1364), this time by U-33, a U-boat commanded by Kapitänleutnant Hans- Wilhelm von Dresky.


Initially, the U-boat didn't know what it had on its hands. Since its capture, the prize crew had attempted to disguise the Borkum as a Dutch cargo ship, its name having been painted over   with a new name, the Bussum. However, as the U-boat closed on the ship with the intent of stopping it for a contraband search, von Dresky became increasingly suspicious of what he saw. The Borkum wasn't flying a flag, its name had been painted on the hull in a cursory manner, and most telling, its course of 130 degrees was the direction of Pentland Firth and the Orkney Islands.

At 15:30 the surfaced U-33 approached the Borkum and signaled it to stop. Lieutenant-Commander B. Moloney, who was in command of the prize crew, ignored the U-boat's demand and as a result von Dresky ordered a warning shot be fired from his deck gun across the Borkum's bow. When a second warning shot was also ignored, a third was aimed at the Borkum's bridge and scored a hit.

Kapitänleutnant von Dresky

German U-boat U-33 in a pre-war  photo

The steamer immediately reduced speed, but when the U-boat signaled that it should lower a boat and deliver its papers for inspection, the Borkum suddenly made a hard turn toward U-33 in an apparent attempt to ram it.

Von Dresky now had no alternative but to consider the Borkum to be a trap. A countermeasure developed during the First World War, the British used disguised ships known as Q-ships to pose as easy targets for German U-boats. An iron fist in a velvet glove, Q-ships had hidden armaments that allowed it to engage and sink a surfaced U-boat. Fearing the Borkum to be a Q-ship, U-33 began to fire for effect while it repeated its command that it should come to a stop.

In response the Borkum, which was now on fire, raised a British war flag and began to return fire with small caliber rounds. To protect U-33, von Dresky gave the order to dive and decided to torpedo the Borkum. However, the steamer was now circling as if it was out of control, which made it a difficult target. There are differing accounts concerning the number of torpedoes that were used; some claim the U-boat fired one torpedo, which missed its target, but others state three tornados were used, and that one actually hit the Borkum.

While U-33 struggled to find a firing solution, the fire aboard the cargo ship had spread to the grain in its hold and the heat from the resulting inferno reportedly caused its hull to glow bright red. Not long after the ship’s bridge collapsed. There was more to come; in the evening’s descending darkness the U-boat resurfaced and began to fire rounds from its deck gun into the Borkum's waterline which was visible in the light of the nighttime sky.

The Borkum would have been finally sunk had it not been for the arrival of two British blockade ships, the armed boarding vessels Kingston Beryl and Kingston Onyx. Exercising caution once again, U-33 broke off the engagement, but noted as it slipped away that even though the Borkum was listing heavily it was still making steam.

The British prize crew didn't suffer any losses during its encounter with U-33, but in a cruel twist of irony three (some claim four) of the Borkum's original crew were killed. With the aid of the blockade ships, the Borkum was abandoned and allowed to drift until it finally ran aground at Papa Sound.

Declared a total wreck, the Borkum was refloated on August 18, 1940, then towed to Rosyth, Scotland, were it was broken up two months later. For his role in the capture of the Borkum and his action against U-33, Lieutenant-Commander Moloney was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO).


Kingston Onyx

Kingston Beryl

On another note:

Hermann von Bardeleben wasn't the only person with that surname who was detained in a Canadian internment camp during the war. While searching for records concerning von Bardeleben, a Canadian document published in November 1946 entitled Interneed Refugees (Friendly Aliens) From the United Kingdom was found that listed the following refugee:  

File: 1939-842-AF 

Name: BARDELEBEN, Guenther

Camp No.: 42

Refugee No.: 

Remarks: Released in Canada 11-4-42

Camp 42 was located in Sherbrooke, Quebec. Previously known as Camp N, it held refugees and enemy merchant seamen from October 1940 to July 1946.

S.S. Borkum

Nationality: German

Description: Merchant marine steam ship

Captain: Hermann von Bardeleben

Tonnage: 3,670 tons

Builder: Nordseewerke AG, Emden

Launched: 1922

Scrapped: 1940

Owner: Norddeutscher Lloyd, Bremen 

Homeport: Bremen