In the Atlantic by mid-1943, German submarines were clearly losing the fight. Under the attack of 950 Allied antisubmarine ships and 2,200 planes, U-boat losses mounted and their successes declined. Radar had, as U-boat overlord Admiral Doenitz growled,
"robbed the U-boats of their power to fight on the surface."
Adding to the U-boats' problems was the United States Tenth Fleet, created to consolidate the antisubmarine efforts of the United States Navy under the direction of a single commander. With the Tenth Fleet in existence, American success against U-boats increased. Two months after it was established the number of U-boats destroyed in a single month by American naval forces for the first time exceeded the number destroyed by the British — twenty-five kills to twelve.
Of American origin and employment was the concept of a team of antisubmarine destroyers and destroyer escorts working in conjunction with a small aircraft carrier. The combination was called a hunter-killer group.
In mid-1944 a hunter-killer force under the command of Capt. Daniel V. Gallery, USN, was at sea searching for U-boats. Gallery had seen U-boats wallowing on the surface under attack, sometimes for considerable periods of time even after their crews had abandoned them. Seeing this had given him the germ of a daring idea. Would it be possible to put a boarding party onto such a submarine and capture it before it sank?
The dangers were real and obvious. The labels on the sinking U-boat's controls and equipment would be in German, which few American sailors could read. Moreover it was known that U-boats carried explosives set to be detonated by time fuses if it became necessary for the crew to abandon ship.
On the other hand, the rewards of capturing a German submarine would be incalculable. Codes might be taken, along with publications detailing the latest submarine tactics. Torpedoes captured in the submarine's tubes could be dismantled by experts who might find ways to defend ships against others like them. The submarine itself could be tested, and its strengths and weaknesses learned.
Weighing all the considerations, Gallery decided that if he ever had a chance to do so, he would try to capture any U-boat forced to the surface by his hunter-killer group.
His chance came on June 4, 1944. One of Gallery's destroyer escorts, the USS Chatelain, reported to Gallery aboard the escort carrier Guadalcanal that it had established sonar contact with an underwater object that might be a submarine.
Gallery immediately dispatched two Avenger antisubmarine bombers from the Guadalcanal's flight deck to assist the Chatelain. By radio he directed the destroyer escorts Pillsbury and Jenks to make their best possible speed to the scene.
With the aircraft and the two additional DE's on hand, the Chatelain made an attack with a salvo of twenty hedgehogs. All hands waited tensely for the muffled sound of an explosion which would come if one of its missiles struck home. No sound came.
As the other DE's were preparing to make attacks of their own, the Avengers overhead sighted the form of the submarine beneath the surface and fired machine-gun bullets at it to direct the ships' attacks.
At the place indicated by the bullets, the Chatelain quickly dropped a pattern of twelve depth charges. The sea thundered and erupted in twelve towering plumes of white water. When they had subsided, one of the circling planes radioed that there was a spreading patch of oil on the surface. Moments later up came the wounded submarine. It was the U-505.
The attacking ships and planes now blazed away with everything that would shoot, and a destructive hail of gunfire swept the U-boat. German submariners jumped for their lives from the U-boat's conning tower into the sea. When about fifty had jumped, the guns ceased firing.
On board the approaching Guadalcanal the order "Away boarders!" was given for the first time in U.S. naval combat since the War of 1812. The armed boarding party was lowered into the sea in a motor whaleboat and began pursuit of the damaged submarine, which was churning in aimless circles at five or six knots.
Catching up with the U-boat, the boarding party scrambled onto its deck. Three of the men, headed by the leader of the party, Lt. (jg) Albert David, climbed down through its open conning tower with guns ready to shoot anyone who opposed them. They found the submarine empty of men; all of the crew, except for one man lying dead on the deck outside the conning tower, were in the water.
The boarders did find a solid 6-inch jet of water blasting into the interior of the submarine through an open seacock. As one man searched for a way to shut it off, the two others made their way quickly to the U-boat's communication lockers and picked up the code books.
With only moments to spare before the U-boat would have sunk under the weight of inrushing water (Gallery estimates that it had only one more minute left) the open seacock was closed.
Meanwhile another party of boarders was on its way from the Guadalcanal. On reaching the U-505, its whaleboat was lifted by a wave and smashed down onto the low-riding submarine's deck. The whaleboat's back was broken and its passengers spilled out unceremoniously on the deck, but no one was hurt. Running to the conning tower, they found its' hatch locked by air pressure.
Since no one in either boarding party had ever been on any submarine before, let alone a runaway German one, they were at a loss as to how to get inside to help the first group-but not for long. A quick-witted sailor fished one of the U-505's crew out of the water as the circling submarine coursed by him, and at gunpoint the German was directed to open the hatch. Once he had opened it, the U-boat sailor was pushed back into the water for safekeeping. He was later rescued.
Inside the submarine the two groups of boarders found by trial and error which valves should be closed, and they disarmed thirteen of the fourteen explosive charges they had been alerted to expect. Try as they might, they could find no fourteenth charge — but there was one. (It wasn't found until the U-boat was safely in port as a prize of war.) A towing line was secured to the submarine and it was soon under way for Bermuda behind the aircraft carrier Guadalcanal.
At the clear risk of death, Gallery's men had captured a complete U-boat with nothing aboard it either destroyed or jettisoned. All of the boarders were decorated, and Lieutenant (jg) David was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
A remarkable chapter in the U-505's story did not begin until the war was over, when it was to be sunk at sea along with U-boats surrendered at the end of the war. Gallery and others argued strenuously against sinking it, making the point that it was of inestimable interest to the public and of considerable historic value. Time has proved the imaginative naval officer and his supporters more than right. Today the U-505 is the best-known display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Hundreds of thousands of visitors to the museum have boarded it and have stood at the very spot where American Navy men took their lives in their hands in a valorous gamble that added new and enduring luster to the fighting traditions of the Navy.
The U-505 was the only submarine ever captured on the high seas, but earlier in the war, in August, 1941, the British received the surrender of a U-boat. It was the U-570. One morning while the submarine was on patrol 300 miles south of Iceland it had the bad luck to surface only a half mile ahead of an RAF Hudson patrol bomber. The Hudson had a full load of bombs in its racks, which it promptly dropped, and the resulting damage prevented the U-570 from submerging. To the astonishment of the men in the circling British patrol plane, a white sheet was waved from the conning tower as a signal of surrender.
With commendable judgment, the plane's pilot signaled a message with a flashing light, telling the submarine to head for Iceland. To underscore the fact that he was in command, he directed his gunner to spray the water near the submarine with a burst of machine-gun fire.
Meanwhile the plane's radioman sent a message to headquarters, and soon his plane was joined by others to share the vigil over the damaged U-boat as it made its way northward through stormy seas.
A British tug came out from the Icelandic port of Reykjavik to meet and take the U-570 in tow. To discourage any plans the U-boat's captain might have of scuttling his vessel, the tug's captain shouted to him that if the U-boat were sent to the bottom it would be impossible to rescue any of its crew in the heavy seas. It was a blunt hint, which the Germans took. The submarine accepted a towing line and continued its journey toward Iceland behind the tug.
Off Iceland's coast the towline broke and the U-boat washed ashore. It was eventually salvaged, but its code books and secret equipment had been destroyed by its crew. With the U-boat safely in Reykjavik, its young captain escaped from his British guards and made a valiant attempt to sink it at its pier. He was killed in the try.
Refitted, the submarine went to sea again —this time flying the white ensign of the Royal Navy and bearing the name HMS Graph.
By odd chance, the war against U-boats not only produced the cry "Away boarders!" for the first time in 130 years, but it also brought forth the equally old and disused order "Repel boarders!"
The order was given in 1944 during a surface battle between the destroyer escort USS Buckley and the U-66 one morning shortly after 3 o'clock. The U-66 had been lying-to on the surface, awaiting the arrival of a refueling submarine. In the darkness a darker shape approached, and the U-boat fired recognition flares.
The approaching vessel, though, was not the refueling submarine but the Buckley, and it announced its identity by opening fire. For fifteen minutes the U-66 and the DE traded shots before the warship headed in to ram. Its bow struck the submarine's foredeck.
Almost as soon as it did, Germans charged out of the U-boat's conning tower with the intention of carrying the fight to the decks of the American ship. Seeing what was happening, Lt. Comdr. Brent M. Abel, captain of the Buckley, switched on the microphone which carried his voice from the bridge to all corners of the ship. "Prepare to repel boarders!" he ordered.
The action that followed was as fast as it was unusual. In the face of the onslaught the men of the Buckley made do with what was available, which, in the words of the ship's action report, included "several general-mess coffee cups which were on hand at a ready gun station." Two of the enemy were hit in the head with these heavy and durable items of Navy crockery. Empty shell cases were used by the crew of a 3-inch gun in the hand-to-hand skirmish. One sailor bruised his fist knocking a German over the Buckley's side.
Before long several Germans could be seen draped on the submarine's conning tower, victims of fire from rifles hastily broken out of the DE's small-arms locker. One German who attempted to board the Buckley was killed by a boatswain's mate with a .45. Another got as far as the ship's wardroom before he was intercepted and bashed on the head by a steward wielding a coffee urn.
The battle ended when the U-66 slid out from under the Buckley's bow and roared off into the night at high speed with its conning tower blazing. It sank minutes later. Thirty-six of its crew were taken prisoner.
As U-boat losses mounted, ominous notices were posted again and again in U-boat pens listing submarines overdue and presumed lost. Lost with them, of course, were their crews. For replacements, Doenitz was soon scraping the bottom of the manpower barrel. The new sailor to the submarine force was now usually no older than eighteen, and often he was as young as sixteen. Filled with propaganda-nourished illusions about the glamor of service in submarines, he was shaken to his youthful core by the grim reality of arduous patrols, cramped living conditions, incessant fear and tension, and frequent attacks.
At U-boat headquarters Admiral Doenitz thought about the pool of trained captains and crews under lock and key at the U-boat prisoner-of-war camp in Bowmanville, Ontario. If somehow he could get those prisoners of war back. . . .
Doenitz concocted a desperate idea for a mass breakout from Bowmanville. By means of a code hidden in otherwise innocent letters from Germany, he communicated his plans for the escape to the prisoners.
The plan was for the prisoners to tunnel out of the Bowmanville compound and make their way across 600 miles of Canada to Chaleur Bay on the east coast. There they would be picked up by a submarine and taken back to Germany.
Unknown to the Germans, though, the code in their letters had been broken by an alert U.S. Naval Intelligence Officer, and the plan for the breakout was known to the Americans and the Canadians from the beginning. It was decided that it should be allowed to proceed on the chance that it might eventually be possible to sink the German submarine coming to rescue the escapees.
At Bowmanville the German prisoners dug an escape tunnel 230 feet long. The only place they could hide the dirt taken from the tunnel was in the space between the ceiling of downstairs rooms and the floors of rooms above. As often happened, though, the weight of the dirt thus hidden broke the ceilings down, necessitating hurried repairs before daylight.
On the night before the breakout was to occur, a ceiling collapsed and so also did a pyramid of furniture on which the prisoners had been standing. Hearing the resulting clatter, the camp guards raced in and the escape attempt was scotched. (One lone German, former U-boat captain Werner Heidel, managed to escape by great daring and ingenuity over the fence that night. Incredibly he succeeded in making his way across the 600 miles to the east coast and was recaptured almost at Chaleur Bay.)
By the time the escape plot was foiled, a German submarine was already on its way to Canada from Germany. Four Canadian corvettes intercepted and sank it as it attempted to enter Chaleur Bay.
The approaching defeat of Germany brought to an end work on a revolutionary German submarine powered by hydrogen peroxide. It was known as the Walter boat after its inventor, Professor Hellmuth Walter.
Development of the hydrogen peroxide turbine for use in submarines had begun as far back as 1933, but because of a variety of problems (one of which was convincing German authorities of the merit of the idea) it was 1940 before the turbine was tested.
The test vehicle, designated the V-80, displaced 80 tons and carried three men. The results of its trials were little short of phenomenal. It proved capable of a submerged speed of 28 knots, fully 20 knots faster than conventional U-boats of the day.
Despite the spectacular success of the V-80, the development of an operational Walter boat progressed at a conservative pace because in 1940 there seemed to be no need to develop it as a crash program —U-boats powered by standard diesel-electric engines were enjoying spectacular success. As a result, by the time the Battle of the Atlantic had turned decisively against the Germans, the Walter boat was not ready.
In 1944 a model capable of making 25 knots under water was put into production. A hundred were ordered for delivery in March, 1945, but because of the bombing of shipyards, the war was over before any could be completed.
With the defeat of Germany hours away, one U-boat managed to slip past the defending line of American antisubmarine forces in April, 1945. It was the U-853, a 740-tonner commanded by Oberleutnant Helmut Froemsdorf. Its presence off the coast of southern New England went unsuspected until late in the afternoon of May 5 when Froemsdorf took a bearing through his periscope and fired a torpedo into the SS Black Point. The collier sank in less than half an hour, and a passing freighter sent out an SOS.
The first ship to respond to the distress call was the Coast Guard frigate Moberly under Lt. Comdr. L. B. Tollaksen. It was soon joined by a Navy destroyer and two destroyer escorts. Their attacks on the U-853 began less than two hours after it had fired the torpedo that sank the Black Point.
At 11:37 that night a salvo of hedgehogs struck the U-boat and seemed to sink it in water less than 150 feet deep. Despite their apparent success, though, the antisubmarine ships continued the attack, knowing that many a "sunk" submarine had limped away to fight again.
The ships' sonar contact with the U-853 was excellent. At one point listening sonar operators could hear rhythmic tapping from the depths, and as one of the DE's started in for an attack, the sonarmen heard in their earphones a long, howling shriek. When the salvo of hedgehogs exploded, all was silent below. The next day Froemsdorf's cap was recovered, bobbing in the debris floating above the sunken submarine. The U-853 was dead, the last U-boat destroyed in the war. Today its hulk is frequently visited by souvenir-hunting skin divers.
In the course of less than six years of war Germany constructed 820 U-boats. A staggering total of 783 of them were lost in action. (By contrast, the United States Navy's submarine force lost fifty-two.)
American forces could be credited with 181 of the kills, but by far the largest portion —almost 600 —were sunk by the British.
Though U-boats had for a time threatened the Allied war effort, the conclusion of the Battle of the Atlantic was an overwhelming defeat for them. Where in 1942 they had sunk 1,027 ships, in 1945 they sank only 54.
Of the 39,000 Germans who served in submarines during the war, 32,000 ended their lives in them. It should be noted that, in spite of such an appalling loss, U-boats continued to fight the losing battle right up to the day of Germany's surrender. As the British Admiralty noted in its assessment of the enemy in the Battle of the Atlantic, "Their morale was unimpaired to the bitter end."
On May 8, 1945, the day the war in Europe ended, Doenitz sent a message to U-boat captains at sea ordering them to surrender to Allied forces. All complied with the order except one. Oberleutnant Otto Wermuth in his U-530 set a course south from the east coast of the United States to the South Atlantic. There, two months after the end of the war, the renegade submarine's career ended at a pier on the River Plate in Argentina.
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