AT 8.30pm on 7 May, 1945, a convoy of five merchant ships, escorted by three armed British trawlers, set out from the Fife port of Methil heading for the Pentland Firth then Belfast. There was an atmosphere of jubilation, the Second World War in Europe had just ended and, as the ships left port, flares and rockets were ignited, messages of goodwill exchanged and impromptu parties broke out onshore to celebrate the return of peace.
Little did the party-goers realise how short-lived their celebrations would be.
Six days beforehand Grossadmiral Karl Donitz had succeeded Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany. His new cabinet had agreed to unconditionally surrender all German forces to the Allies at midnight on 7 May. On 4 May, Donitz ordered the Unterseebootwaffe, the German U-boat fleet, to cease war operations and return to base. So when the small convoy left Methil the men on board were more relaxed than they had been for years. The threat from the deadly German U-boats was no more - or so they thought.
Among the vessels sailing out of the Firth of Forth that night was the 2,878-ton steamship Avondale Park. Built in Montreal, Canada, she had served as a British merchant ship during the war and was on the final leg of a cargo voyage from Hull to Belfast.
At 11:03pm, less than an hour before the official surrender, the Avondale Park was just off the Isle of May. Suddenly another vessel in the convoy, the Norwegian vessel Sneland 1, exploded in flames, struck by a torpedo fired by a German U-boat. A minute later the Avondale Park too was hit. She began listing heavily to starboard and sank within two minutes in 25 fathoms of water.
Of the 28-man crew and four gunners on board only two died, chief engineer George Anderson and donkeyman William Harvey. (A donkeyman is an obsolete maritime term for a rating who tended to the donkey boiler, a small boiler which supplied steam to deck machinery when the main boiler was shut down.)
The Avondale Park had gained the dubious honour of having become the last merchant ship to be sunk by a U-boat.
Seven men, including the captain, died on the Sneland 1. The scene in Methil, where more than 50 survivors were treated, quickly changed from celebration to sorrow and anger. The torpedoes had been fired by U2336, commanded by Kapitnleutnant Emil Klusmeier, who was on his first patrol. Many felt he had intentionally ignored Donitz’s orders.
Klusmeier, however, claimed he had never received the order. He was in command of a Type XXIII craft which had the ability to remain submerged for three days before having to surface. While submerged the vessels could not transmit or receive any radio messages so it is possible he knew nothing of the ceasefire until after he had torpedoed the Avondale Park.
Divers now rate the Avondale Park a challenging but spectacular wreck. She is 97 metres long and lies intact in 55 metres of water on a silty seabed.