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Grandads’ wars inspire sailor Ben on HMS Trent’s next mission

Ben's maternal grandfather Erwin Menzel in Kriegsmarine uniform
27 March 2021
New patrol ship HMS Trent sails to the Mediterranean next week with a young officer inspired by the wartime exploits of his grandparents.

His grandfathers’ tales of life at sea sowed the seeds of a naval career for 23-year-old Sub Lieutenant Ben Hoffmeister from Oxford.

Both fought in the bitter Battle of the Atlantic – but on opposing sides.

Ernest Hoffmeister served in the Atlantic and Arctic determined to keep the UK’s sea lanes open, while Ben’s maternal grandfather Erwin Menzel crewed a U-boat determined to strangle Britain’s lifelines.

After completing training as a mechanical engineer, Erwin was assigned to U-963 and sailed on ten war patrols out of bases in Norway and France in the final two years of the war – including a failed attempt to attack the Normandy invasion armada in June 1944.

Although a stoker, Menzel manned one of the submarine’s anti-aircraft guns and was awarded the coveted Iron Cross for his part in an action against an RAF Liberator bomber – frequently the scourge of U-boats.

The submarine was eventually scuttled off the village of Nazare in Portugal 12 days after VE Day and Erwin was taken prisoner with his shipmates. He subsequently emigrated to Britain and settled down here.

Ben’s paternal grandfather Ernest  was assigned to the Royal Naval Patrol Service after completing his training as a coder, serving with a converted trawler HMT King Sol, in the Atlantic and Arctic before transferring to a destroyer based in Ceylon (today Sri Lanka) as the war against Japan reached its climax.

He died when Ben was just ten – with the future officer too young to have asked the questions he wished he could have about the war. “One of the few stories I remember him talking about was having to climb up the mainmast during the convoys to chip off ice that had accumulated and risked capsizing the vessel.”

It seemed the shared experience of the battle of the Atlantic was more important to them than which side of the war they had fought it on. That legacy is perhaps the most important aspect to take away from their story.

Sub Lieutenant Ben Hoffmeister

As for Grandad Erwin, he was, says Ben, “instrumental in raising my interest to join the navy. By the time he died, when I was 17, I had already decided I was going to join the Royal Navy.”

It’s unlikely given where their vessels served and when that Ben’s grandfathers faced each other in the Atlantic or Arctic, but his parents were nevertheless somewhat nervous when they met for the first time.

“They got on incredibly well when they eventually met,” he says. “It seemed the shared experience of the battle of the Atlantic was more important to them than which side of the war they had fought it on.

“That legacy is perhaps the most important aspect to take away from their story.”

And that post-war friendship will be echoed on Trent’s deployment when she works side-by-side with the German Navy on NATO duties on Operation Sea Guardian, the alliance’s counter-terrorism mission in the Mediterranean.

“It’s an interesting story from the perspective of how far Europe has come, with Ben now serving in the Royal Navy on a ship that will work alongside the modern Deutsche Marine,” said Lieutenant Commander David Webber, in charge of Trent’s marine engineering department.

“His family history acutely tracks the human impact of the history of 20th Century Europe: World War 2, the division of Europe in the Cold War, reunification and cooperation.”

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