The war for the British was only two days old on September 5, 1939 when SS Royal Sceptre was sunk by
U-48 and Kapitänleutnant Herbert Schultze about 385 miles northwest of Cape Finisterre, Spain. For Schultze
this was his first combat victory, for the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill it would be a
The Royal Sceptre had been taken under fire by U-48 and the radio operator sent a distress signal with the
code SSS (meaning the ship was being attacked by a submarine). Schultze ordered his gunners to fire on the bridge to silence the radio, but the shells missed the target. When the submarine began firing the master,
James W.Gair, ordered full speed ahead, but his ship could not out run the U-Boat and he finally stopped his
ship and began to abandon her.
The crew, except for the master who had been killed and the radio operator who would not leave his post,
abandoned the ship, seeing this Schultze checked his fire even though the SSS signal was still being sent.
After the lifeboats had pulled away from the Royal Sceptre Schultze approached the ship and ordered the
radio operator on to the submarine, he then fired one torpedo which sank the ship.
Schultze then approached the lifeboats and inquired about the condition of the crew, he was told that there
were no wounded. He released the radio operator and ordered the thirty-two survivors to stay where they
were. This may have been an ominous request, but in fact Schultze was about to arrange for their rescue.
Schultze had sighted another ship in the distance and headed in her direction. When he approached the ship
the crew immediately abandoned. Not a shot had been fired, but just the sight of a submarine was apparently
enough to cause a panic on the SS Browning. Schultze came close to the lifeboats and ordered the men to
reboard their ship and instructed them to pick up the survivors he had left in the lifeboats. Apparently the
crew of the Browning did not believe him and at first did not respond to his orders. After a second order given
by Schultze (who spoke very good English) the men returned to their ship and set off to pick up the men of
the Royal Sceptre. (Note, Browning was sunk on Nov. 12, 1942 by U-593.)
Browning maintained radio silence and therefore did not inform anyone that they had picked up the men from
Royal Sceptre and the Admiralty wrongly assumed that the whole crew had been lost. The Admiralty had
received signals from two neutral ships that an S.O.S. had been received and that they had searched the area
and found no survivors or even lifeboats. The Royal Navy, who had also heard the distress signals, had also
not been able to find a trace of the ship or the men.
The story announced in the press on Sept. 25 was that the ship was known to have been attacked, but no
survivors had been found. They also noted that "Owing to the restrictions on the use of ships' radios it may
be possible that no message has been received from the ship that may have saved them".
The following day (Sept. 26) the press printed the following statement from the Ministry of Information
under the headline "Piracy on the High Seas"; "It is feared that all hope has now to be given up for the
officers and crew of the steamship Royal Sceptre, sunk by a U-boat on September 6 in a position about
300 miles to the west of Ushant. The crew of the ship were cast adrift in their boats without possible hope
of reaching land, a foul act of piracy on the high seas on the part of the German Navy."
On that same day Churchill addressed the House of Commons and the loss of Royal Sceptre was mentioned.
He first commended some of the German commanders by saying "Now I will speak a little about the
character of this war. From time to time the German U-Boat commanders have tried their best to behave
with humanity. We have seen them give good warning and also endeavour to help the crews to find their
way to port. One German captain signalled to me personally the position of a British ship which he had just
sunk, and urged that rescue should be sent. He signed his message German Submarine."
He continued; "But many cruel and ruthless acts have been done. There was the Athenia, then later the
Royal Sceptre, whose crew of 32 were left in open boats hundreds of miles from land and are assumed to
It was Churchill's intention to use the loss of the Royal Sceptre as a propaganda tool to inflame public opinion
against the Germans, which is totally understandable. But on that same day (Sept. 26), unknown to Churchill,
on the other side of the world the survivors were being landed in Brazil.
The report on Sept. 26 was that the thirty-two survivors had arrived in Bahia, Brazil aboard SS Browning, and
that she had not used the radio for fear of giving away her position. The Ministry of Information also made a
statement and credited the U-Boat commander of stopping the Browning and ordering her to search for the
survivors of the Royal Sceptre. Nine of the crew had in fact been wounded in the attack and they were taken
to hospital in Bahia while the rest of the crew proceeded to Rio de Janeiro and then home.
Churchill had cursed the commander who sank the Royal Sceptre in his speech, but unwittingly had also
praised him. It was Schultze who had sent the message to Churchill about the sunken British ship (SS Firby)
and requested that he send a rescue ship.
© 2013 Michael W. Pocock
In memory of
Master James W. Gair
who lost his life in
SS Royal Sceptre
"As long as we embrace him in our memory, his spirit will always be with us"
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