Thursday, 30 October 2014


The Boy has a thing about submarines.  When he went overland to Japan in 2005, one of his must-go stops was the submarine base in Leningrad/Petersburg.  The capture of the U-505 is a big boys war story with only one fatality, so has quite a wide circulation - we all love a happy ending.  Although  I didn't hear about it at all until Zenon B Lukosius, one of the enlisted men involved, was tribbed in De Wiki's Did you know... compendium of weird facts.

The aircraft carrier USS Guadalcanal and five destroyers USSs  Pillsbury, Pope, Flaherty, Chatelain, and Jenks were on patrol off West Africa in June 1944 when USS Chatelain identified a probable target.  After a depth-charge run zeroed in my two airplanes firing into the sea at the, to them, visible submarine, an oil-slick surfaced followed by the U-505 herself.  The defeated Captain followed Standard Operating Procedures, opening sea-cocks and setting demolition charges, before ordering "verlassen des Schiffes" and taking to the rescue dinghies. The crew bundled out so quickly that they neglected to kill the engines, so the submarine continued to run in a circle slowly filling with water. While Chatelain and Jenks picked up survivors - only one submariner was shot and killed in the hail of gun-fire immediately after the sub surfaced - a boat from Pillsbury was lowered alongside.  A salvage crew led by Lt JG Albert David boarded the sinking submarine, closed off the taps, disabled the charges and captured an intact German ship: see [R] flying an enormous 48-stars-and-stripes. With the can-do, make-do brilliance of engineers, the Americans took the submarine in tow allowing the sub's propeller to windmill and charge the batteries. The charged batteries enabled the pumps to work, the submarine took on a better trim and was slowly dragged across the Atlantic to Bermuda. She is now on display in a museum in Chicago. The captured crew were rigorously quarantined - completely against the Geneva Conventions - but the US Navy really didn't want the enemy to know how easy it was to locate their submarines.  The whole story of the first capture of an enemy ship by the US Navy since the War of 1812 can be seen in a US propaganda film.  Dozens of still photographs have been archived as well. A longish memoir about an earlier incident in the career of U-505 gives a flavour of the sort of excitement that submariners habitually endured.

Capturing all that hardware was all very well, but the flotilla led by USS was actively hunting for a submarine in the area when they found U-505. They were able to do that because of another feat of derring-do two years earlier, indeed 72 years ago today 30 October 1942. On that day, U-559 was attacked in the Eastern Mediterranean by five British destroyers HMSs Petard, Pakenham, Hero, Dulverton and Hurworth and a Sunderland flying boat.  The odds were against the submariners that day and the badly damaged ship surfaced.  The surviving crew opened the sea-cocks and abandoned ship.  But three volunteers from HMS Petard stripped off and swam to the sinking vessel. Fossicking about in the dark with the sound of deadly rushing water roaring in their ears, they managed to retrieve the submarine's code books which they threw into a whaler that had come alongside.  Two of these men were still aboard when the submarine "sank like a stone" carrying them to Davy Jones's Locker. Those code books provided an vital key to the Enigma code which was baffling the boffins, including Alan Turing, back at Bletchley Park. With the code cracked, the Allied navies were able eventually to win the war at sea by inflicting a 75% mortality rate on German submariners. The mathematics of war are killing!

1 comment:

  1. A U Boat which was laying mines off Dunmore East in WWI struck her own mine and sank like a stone. Three men were blown clear, the captain - the only one to survive and two crew men who were supervising the mine laying operation. The explosion was heard in Dunmore and three fishermen headed off to investigate, rescuing the captain and retrieving the two bodies. When they returned to Dunmore the Navy realised they had a potentially important source of info lying in shallow water. A massive, but secret, salvage ensued and eventually they managed to find and retrieve the sub, towing it into Dunmore where anything of value in helping to curb the U Boat menace was gleamed. The boat was towed out again once stripped clean and re-sunk