The Empire Gem

 Torpedoed January 23, 1942


 

 

8,139 Gross Tons

463 feet 2inches Length, 61 feet 2inches Beam, 33feet 1inch Deep

Owner: British Tanker Company of London

Builder: Harland & Wolff, Ltd., Glasgow, Scotland  

 

Depth 150 feet

History of the Ship

Empire Gem was laid down as hull number 1045G at the Harland & Wolff yard in Glasgow, Scotland and launched on May 29, 1941.  The Harland & Wolff yard began constructing vessels in 1861 in Ireland.  By 1912 they had acquired a yard in Glasgow, Scotland and moved the majority of their effort there, mainly due to growing political instability in Ireland.  In latter years the yard returned to operations in Belfast, where they still conduct shipyard work today.  The yard has constructed a wide range of vessels, but are most famously know as the builder for all the White Star Line vessels, to include the ill fated RMS Titanic. 

Though built in the yard that produced the most elegant luxury liners of the era, the Empire Gem was not a luxurious vessel, but a workhorse designed to carry over ten thousand tons of oil products.  She was a Ocean Design tanker that was Diesel powered and could efficiently make reasonable speed.   The Ocean type tankers were sometimes known as the 'Three Twelves Type', being about 12,000 tons deadweight with a speed of around 12 knots and a fuel consumption of 12 tons per day.  The Gem was under the control of British Ministry of War Transport (British Tanker Co. London as the managers) so the Gem was given the prefix name of "Empire", in keeping with the British method of naming all the ships built or pressed into government service for the war effort being prefixed as "Empire".   When she sailed to America to transport gasoline and oil products for the British war efforts, she was basically a government ship being run by a private management company.

 

Sinking of the Ship

Francis Reginald Broad, the British master of the British tanker Empire Gem, was a confident, self-assured man as his 8,139 ton vessel left Port Arthur, Texas on January 18, 1942. He was proud of the cargo she was carrying - 10,600 tons of gasoline for the Petroleum Pool Board. He was equally proud of his all British crew, which he felt was thoroughly loyal and able to deal with any of the hardships of war.

The Gem's full load was being transported from Port Arthur to the United Kingdom by way of Halifax, NS, where she was to join a convoy and then cross the Atlantic for England. Although she hoped not to use them, the ship was equipped with guns for dealing with any marauder. On her stern was a four- inch gun, and elsewhere were six machine guns and a 12 pound anti-aircraft weapon. It was as well to have them since the German submarines had commenced operations off the eastern US coast.

The skipper followed the British Naval Control instructions closely as he zigzagged his course up the east coast. Broad took great care to zigzag and to travel at night with dimmed masthead and side lights.  Less than a week earlier, submarines had struck three times in the vicinity between Hatteras and Wimble Shoals so as the Gem neared Cape Hatteras on the morning of January 23rd, the Captain became more scrupulous in his cautious approach.  Late that afternoon, the Gem sighted another merchant ship, the Venore, who was also headed North. As night fell, the Gem closed her distance to the Venore until she was within three miles. Standing on the bridge, the Captain was pleased to note the clear weather, with excellent visibility. The moon shone so brightly that the Gem could have proceeded without her lights but she turned on the running lights and the Venore could be seen in the distance with her lights also shining brightly.

Unfortunately for the Empire Gem, Korvettenkapitan Zapp and his crew in the U-66, a type IX German Submarine, had arrived off Cape Hatteras on the same day the Gem had sailed from Texas, January 18.  Since then, the U-66 had been working the area sinking vessels and once again the U-66 was about to show their skill and luck with another expert attack, this time on a large tanker.

The Gem had reached a position 15 miles southeast of the Diamond Shoals buoy when she was rocked by a terrific explosion in what the Captain judged to be one of the after tanks on the starboard side. The damaged section was enveloped in roaring flames which were spreading rapidly. 

Empire Gem goes down in flames, Naval Historical Center Photo The chief radio operator reached the bridge and tried to send a message after the torpedo hit. At the same time he heard the Venore sending an SOS. Throughout the calamity, the ship's engines were running, taking the Gem on a westerly course. Three hours after the attack, the engines finally stopped. Three officers (the only survivors of 57 men) anchored the still burning vessel in 28 fathoms of water. As the dawn of the next day crept over the horizon, the torn and gutted after half broke away and sank.

Approximately three hours later, a Coast Guard lifeboat attempted to rescue the three officers. Rescue was hampered by the flaming gasoline and the high seas. The trio jumped into the sea to swim to the rescue boat. However, Radio Operator Ernest McGraw was swept into the burning fuel by the seas and perished.
 

It was not until later that the two survivors knew the fate of the Venore. They had assumed that from the SOS received that the Venore had been attacked first, when as a matter of fact the glow of the flaming Gem had illuminated the Venore for Zapp's torpedo attack. The Venore had spotted the submarine heading for her, and she sped away from the blazing tanker, but even with evasive maneuvers she had been unable to outrun the sub and the Venore joined the Gem adding two more vessels to Zapp's record (now totaling five for this patrol).

 

Diving the Gem

 

Today, experienced divers will find the Gem (also known locally as the "smell wreck") in two distinct sections that are in line with each other with about 75 to 100 feet separating the two. Strangely, the stern section is rotated 180 degrees with the fantail facing the torn off bow section and the engine and torn section facing away.  The bow section is the largest portion comprising about 2/3 of the wreck and lays completely upside-down.

 

Although large and impressive to see, the bow offers nothing other than a large looming hull bottom to inspect with some sparse scattered debris to either side.  The entire bow section is intact from the stem to where the hull was torn in half just prior to the engine room.  However, it is completely upside down with both gunnels buried deep in the sand simply a huge encrusted hull bottom with nothing in the way of artifacts or anything else of interest.

 

The stern of the wreck is where to find the most exciting diving, as it is fairly upright with many of the internal portions exposed through the collapsing decks.  The entire stern has a pronounced list to the starboard with a larger amount of debris lying in the sand to the starboard side.  The prop and rudder are clearly visible as is the steering quadrant and many large deck fittings on the fantail.  Forward of the taffrail to the engine area is fairly intact with some holes allowing access to the lower decks and machinery.  On the port side just aft of the engine are some areas that can be entered and explored, but I have yet to find much of interest in these small compartments.

 

The twin in-line engines of the Gem. Dive Hatteras PhotoAt the engine room, the structure has fallen away exposing the large engines and other equipment.  The twin diesel engines are arranged not side by side, but fore and aft on the centerline of the engine room.  They are at least 8 to ten feet wide and the tops of the engines have massive rocker arms that are a yard long.  About 25 feet forward of the engines the wreck ends abruptly where the two sections where torn apart.  This exposes the remains of the torn away and collapsing decks descending to the sand where a debris pile of torn metal and various fittings is found.

The wheelhouse is found upside-down, just off the side of the wreck several yards away.  In the standard visibility you will not be able to see from the main wreck to the wheelhouse.  At the sand there is a scattered debris field and divers have reported seeing portholes and other artifacts there.  It will take many dives to see the whole stern section clearly as visibility varies greatly with the current, which can be very strong in this area and usually is.  However, we have dived the Gem in conditions with no current and over 100 feet of visibility and it is even more impressive in these circumstances.  One must watch their gauges as we have seen over 150' in the wash areas and there are some deep holes out in the debris field to the starboard side of the wreck as well.  Time seems to go quickly when diving the Gem maybe it's all the great artifacts and big fish. Empire Gem Stern Section. Dive Hatteras Photo

Come see for yourself why the Gem truly is a "gem".

Take a look at Paul Hudy's Empire Gem Web Page for a few more underwater photos and additional information.


 


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