The Second World War’s Battle of the Atlantic was fought between German Submarines — hell bent on sinking the ships carrying the food and war supplies crossing the sea to Britain from America — and the British (and later American) warships, equally hell bent on stopping them.
The submarines of the German Kriegsmarine, known as U-Boats, or undersea boats, almost crippled Britain in the first years of the war. They gathered in wolf packs in mid-Atlantic and decimated the ships, sailing from the US to Britain with essential war supplies and food. At one point, Britain had only enough food to last for six weeks.
At the height of U-Boat activity, during the early years of the war, U-Boats sank 750,000 tons of allied shipping in one month, which was unsustainable for Britain. This time was known by the U-Boat crews as the Happy Time. Later there would be a second Happy Time when the USA joined the war and the Kriegsmarine ocean-going submarines were able to decimate the shipping on the American east coast. Their destructive work was greatly assisted by the Americans themselves, who, being new to war, kept all their navigation lights and coastal towns lit.
Admiral King, who had overall responsibility for the US Navy’s counter measures concerning the U-Boat threat, was an Anglophile who not only disliked the British but absolutely refused to accept any advice from them, advice the British had acquired through bitter experience in mid-Atlantic. After the war, another American Admiral remarked that they could have shortened the war by two years, if only someone had shot Admiral King.
But the peak of success was also the beginning of disaster for German submarines, and they began to suffer losses due to British counter-measures. Advances in British ship-borne radar allowed the Royal Navy ships to ‘see’ the U-Boats on the surface at night and commence an attack, long before the submarine’s crew realised they’d been spotted.
ASDIC, later known by the Americans as sonar, gave direction, depth and distance of the object. Then, while one vessel remained stationary and kept contact with the U-Boat, other vessels closed in to drop depth charges to sink the submarine or blow it to the surface. The accepted practice once the U-boat had been detected was to continue depth charging the contact until the submarine was sunk or blown to the surface where it would be fired on. The reason for firing all calibre of weapons at the stricken vessel was not to kill the crew, although that was sometimes the outcome, but to hole the pressure hull, to prevent the crew from re-gaining control of the vessel and diving to attempt an escape.
However, nearer the end of the war, when the British and American Atlantic fleets were getting the upper hand, one senior American Officer began to think and plan that, if the opportunity arose, he would try to capture a surfaced submarine. His idea was that if the Allies could capture a U-Boat, get it ashore and inspect and uncover its secrets, it would be a boost to winning the war.
The man with the forward-thinking idea of capturing an enemy submarine was Captain Daniel Gallery, USN, who was the commander of a U-Boat hunter–killer group of ships out of Norfolk, Virginia. Captain Gallery’s task group comprised the escort aircraft carrier Guadalcanal and five destroyer escorts, the perfect mix of ships and aircraft to locate, attack and sink U-Boats.
After searching in vain down the west coast of Africa as far as Freetown, in Sierra Leone, the task group turned north towards Casablanca, where, at 1109 on Sunday, the 4th of June 1944, they encountered U 505. The U 505 was a Kriegsmarine undersea boat of the IX C class of ocean-going boats with a crew of 50, and it had been in operation since her commissioning in 1941.
During her first two war patrols under Captain Loewe, the U 505 was very successful and sank six Allied ships off the west coast of Africa and in the Caribbean. However, during the Caribbean patrol, Captain Loewe became so ill that they had to return to their base in Lorient, on the north-west coast of France, where the Captain was hospitalised and a new Captain appointed.
From that moment on, everything seemed to go wrong for the U 505. She received bomb and depth charge damage, and the repairs carried out never seemed to fix any of the many problems that beset the boat. On her final patrol, again down the west coast of Africa, she had spotted a number of targets, but because of speed restrictions on her damaged machinery, she was never able to get into a torpedo-firing position. Just before noon on that final day they heard propeller noises, so the Captain brought the boat up to periscope depth only to realise that they were already being attacked by a task force with air support.
On the surface, the destroyer USS Chatelain ran in on a sonar bearing and fired a pattern of Hedgehog contact depth charges. Within moments, Wildcat fighter planes from the aircraft carrier were on the scene and firing their machine guns into the water to mark the position of bubbles rising from the damaged boat, in order to give the destroyer a target for her next attack. The second Hedgehog attack by the Chatelain was right on target, and after only six minutes the U 505 was wallowing on the surface, and — realising the futility of attempting to escape — the U-Boat Captain ordered his crew to come up on deck and abandon ship.
With the U-Boat now on the surface but still going ahead at some speed on her electric motors, and turning towards the destroyer Chatelain (because of a jammed rudder) the U-Boat gave the impression she was about to ram the destroyer, so the Captain ordered a torpedo fired to sink the submarine. Fortunately, as it transpired, the torpedo missed. As the U-Boat kept turning away, the destroyer’s Captain could see the U-Boat crew jumping into the sea so ordered a ceasefire. A boarding party was soon dispatched from the destroyer Pillsbury, who found the boat completely abandoned except for one crewman who had been killed in the firing.
In order to ensure their U-Boat sank, the German crew had removed the cover of the strainer on the seawater circulating system and partially opened the valve. Fortunately, one of the boarding party managed to identify the correct valve, turn it off and replace the cover.
Once the danger of immediate sinking was reduced,the boarding party quickly collected up a treasure trove of secret papers, codes and of course the ultra-secret Enigma machine, with which the Germans sent all their secret communications. Once this vital task had been completed, the boarding party started looking for ways to save the boat from completely sinking. They found at once that if they closed the throttles on the electric motors the stern would sink so low she was in real danger of foundering, stern first.
For the moment all they could do was keep going ‘ahead’ on the motors, but they also discovered that the electric batteries were very nearly discharged and would soon stop turning the motors. Their only hope of getting the U-Boat to America was to tow it.
Eventually, after all sorts of difficulties, a tow was passed to one of the destroyers and later to a tug, especially sent from America, to get the submarine safely into Port Royal Bay, Bermuda, where her secrets were revealed. The capture had been classified top secret, so that the news never got back to the German High Command, who surmised she had been sunk with all hands, so kept on using the secret codes that they never suspected had been compromised.
Only two days after the submarine was captured, it was the 6th of June, D Day, when thousands of Allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy and the information provided by the captured German codes went towards the success of that great operation.
As things turned out, the U 505 turned out to be a Judas amongst the U-Boat fleet, giving up her secrets and betraying all her comrades.
Of the 842 U-Boats which saw battle, 781 were lost in action. From a total enlistment of 39,000 men in the German U-Boat arm, 28,000 were killed and 5,000 were taken prisoner. Although in the early years of the war the U-Boats threatened to cripple Britain by cutting off vital food and essential war supplies, in the final analysis, they proved more deadly to their own crews, and to the Fatherland, than to the British and Americans.
Footnote: In 1954, the U 505 took her last voyage, up the Saint Lawrence River, through the Great Lakes to Chicago where, to this day, she is on display as a war memorial to the 9,500 ships and 55,000 American lives taken in war by U-Boats of the German Kriegsmarine.