Morality and Secrecy in War

AWM Caption: The troopship Southland, carrryin...

A moving Veterans’ Day story by Joplin Globe editor Carol Stark stirred in me memories and thoughts about my own service during the Vietnam War and the Cold War, the reason being a connection with submarines. Carol told about local WW II Army veteran Bob Atkerson who was a survivor of the sinking of a troop ship, the S.S. Leopoldville, on Christmas eve, 1944. The damage was done by a single torpedo fired from the German submarine U-486, Captained by one Ob.Lt. Gerhard Meyer.  According to the Wikipedia page for the Leopoldville, over 500 American soldiers died, along with about half that many British soldiers.

As a submariner I was moved to ponder the circumstances surrounding the sinking as well as the historically controversial issue of morality regarding submarine warfare. The Leopoldville event was hushed up and the details were not released until 1996, some 52 years later. Why was this hidden so long? There is no clear investigative report I could find, but I have pieced together some details about the event that may explain it. It was a critical time in the war – the troops were headed for what would be the Battle of the Bulge, Germany’s final massive counterattack which almost succeeded. Basically it seems that although it took several hours for the ship to sink on that cold, stormy night, just about everything that could go wrong, did. Clearly the Allied commanders did not need a morale-crushing embarrassment at the time. I found this web site account which tracks other sources well on the events:

On Christmas Eve 1944, the Belgian troopship Leopoldville was transporting 2,235 American soldiers, all from the 262nd and 264th Regiment, 66th Infantry Division across the English Channel as reinforcements to fight in a fierce struggle that would become known as the Battle of the Bulge. The Leopoldville was protected by (four) escort ships, including the British Destroyer Brilliant, but no air cover was made available even though the threat of attack by German submarines was high. Just five and one half miles from its destination of Cherbourg, France, the vessel was torpedoed by the German submarine U-486. The ship sank 2 1/2 hours later.

According to many survivors, the Belgian crew abandoned the sinking ship and left the American soldiers to fend for themselves. The British Commander in charge of the convoy ordered the Leopoldville’s anchor dropped to prevent the troopship from drifting into a minefield outside the harbor. While this solved one problem, it created another. When a tug arrived on the scene, the dropped anchor prevented it from towing the sinking vessel into shore. Murphy’s law states that whatever can go wrong will. On Christmas Eve 1944, Murphy’s law was in full effect. Delayed radio transmissions for help, delayed response of rescue craft, heavy seas and freezing temperatures were just a few of the many things that sealed the soldiers fates. And it being Christmas Eve, serviceman at an American base in Cherbourg who could have aided the stricken Leopoldville were taking a night off from the war, either partying or attending church. No one seemed to be around to help.

Which brings me to the other issue that Carol’s story caused me to recall, the morality of the attack. In WW I, the question was a serious one, but as the following account (which link also has some excellent naval paintings) shows, in warfare, restraint is one of the first casualties.

Although surprise attacks on enemy warships were fair game in time of war, the position with regard to enemy commerce was murkier. The U-boat occupied an anomalous position in international law. Under the “Cruiser Rules” which governed commerce raiding in war, a commerce raider encountering an enemy ship would stop it — if necessary by putting a shot across its bows — and inspect its papers. If it proved an enemy flagged vessel, its crew and passengers would be allowed to gather possessions and provisions and escape in the lifeboats. The U-boat commander might also make other provision for their safety before destroying the vessel or sailing it into port as a prize of war. To follow this procedure (as most U-boat captains did at the begining of the War) was to throw away a U-boat’s main advantage. A sub’s chief weapon was surprise — invisibility; but it was slow-moving and highly vulnerable to attack while surfaced and stopped. After losing merchant vessels to submarine attack the British Admiralty began arming cargo ships and liners. In early 1915, British skippers were instructed to run down submarines and sink them by collision. Several U-boats were dispatched by ramming or fell victim to sudden attack by nearby cruisers while surfaced. In response, the German admiralty ordered stealth torpedo attacks without warning.

Carol’s story is not only a reminder of the serious price our armed forces have paid over the years, but also of how war can infringe on the basic rights that those same armed forces have fought to defend, rights like freedom of speech. I see no reason why the details of the S.S. Leopoldville incident should have been classified for so long. Can it happen again? I submit that it is happening even now under the Patriot Act. Classification is necessary in war, but it is essential that Congress be kept in the loop and be assiduous in its oversight, and even more so now that the nature of “war” has changed so much.

Epilogue:  U-boat 486 was sunk 12 April, 1945 in the North Sea north-west of Bergen, Norway, in position 60.44N, 04.39E by torpedoes from the British submarine HMS Tapir. 48 dead (all hands lost).

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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10 Responses to Morality and Secrecy in War

  1. PiedType says:

    Rules of war. I’ve always thought that was a ridiculous, oxymoronic phrase. It’s war! People are killing each either. How can there be rules when killing each other is the whole point? If it comes down to him or me, neither of us is going to be calling time out and referring to a rule book. Rules of war are like locks; they only inhibit honest, ethical people.

    Jim, I hope you’ve had a great Veterans Day. Thank you for your service.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Indeed, Pied, war is the final recourse when all the talking has failed. When battle comes, it is a struggle to the death and ultimately every soldier fights not for country or values but for his own life and that of the comrade next to him. And yet, there are still questions to be answered by the leaders, are there not?

      1. How has the definition of “war” changed? (link in next-to-last paragraph of the post)
      2. Should some values supersede lives? Values like those at stake in the Geneva Convention, including torture or the murder of non-combatants?

      Thanks for your comments, Pied, and for your kind wishes.


  2. John Erickson says:

    I’ve heard some of the story of the Leopoldsville, in connection with the Battle of the Bulge. The war was far from a done deal in Europe, and the blood baths of Iwo Jima and Okinawa had yet to happen, the Marianas being the most recent (if I recall correctly). I can therefore see a BRIEF withholding of details, at least until the German advance was turned shortly after Christmas.But five decades? i would hope that it was “overlooked” as a bit of “trivial” war history, as opposed to being withheld due to some misguided sense of secrecy. (I’m not trivialising the deaths of the US or British soldiers, just trying to convey a sense of this being considered “small” news at the time.)
    Thanks for reminding us of this story, Jim, especially in remembering that Veteran’s Day is also a day of Remembrance throughout Britain and The Commonwealth, and is Poland’s Independence Day, celebrating the creation of the country and the freeing of its’ people from division at the end of World War 1. While it is a US holiday, it belongs to so many more people than just us.
    And thank you, Jim and Anson, and anyone else here who has served. I am eternally grateful for the service you rendered to our country. Rest assured you will be remembered on this day, and every day, as I fly my flag until every US soldier has returned home safe. We owe you a debt beyond repayment.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      I agree. I can see where the classification might have been overlooked for want of any concerted effort to overturn it. However, one would hope there would be a wise leader somewhere near the top who would make it his priority to see that the lessons of war be exposed as soon as possible as to be of benefit to future generations. I believe Eisenhower did just that in his farewell speech when he warned us about the Military Industrial Complex. All historians should take note, should they not?

      Your sentiments are greatly appreciated, John. Thank you.


  3. ansonburlingame says:

    To all,

    Long ago I read a book entitled “Operational Necessity”. It was a story, fictional but probably based to a degree on facts, of a German U Boat skipper and the operational decisions he made during wartime submarine patrols.

    In one case he sank a warship and then machine gunned the surviviors in the water and nearby life rafts. He did not do so out of hate, etc. He did it to prevent surviors from radioing the position of the sunken ship and the fact that it was from a U Boat attack. The skipper was protecting his own ship and men to avoid an air attack on his own ship. Now go evaluate the morality involved in such.

    German submarines and “unrestricted submarine warfare” was Germany’s only hope to staunch the flow of men and materials to Europe from all over the world. The American and Royal Navies ruled the surface of the Atlantic after early German battleships were destroyed. If a ship was afloat anywhere in the Atlantic it was considered “fair game” by individual U Boat commanders who were actting under orders from the Germany Navy high command, Admiral Donitz in particular. He was later tried as I recall as a war criminal.

    As the skipper of an American nuclear submarine during the Cold War I often pondered how to execute submarine warfare if the Cold war went hot. Lot’s of ships out there in the Atlantic. How I ask even today could any submarine skipper make sure what he heard on sonar or saw through a periscope was in fact an “enemy combatant”? The only way to allow a modern submarine to use its full capability is to put it into a defined ocean area and tell the skipper to sink anything that is in that area, period. Any ship going into a area assigned to a “lurking” submarine is subject to attack, instantly and without warnings of any sort. Try any attempt to hedge on that “unrestricted submarine warfare” approach will only cost the lives of America’s own submariners and the ships in which they sail. Might as well keep them in port in such a case.

    The only way to avoid a Leopodlville type attack,(it in fact was a troopship carrying ENEMIES of Germany) is to outlaw submarine warfare. Even a modern nuclear submarine cannot stop a ship, investigate its “papers”, allow everyone to abandon ship into life rafts, call for rescue, etc. It is ludicrous to even consider such action in wartime where every air, surface and undersea asset available to the “enemy” is focused on the destruction of your own ship and crew. Hell the real advantage of a nuclear submarine is its ability to “go in harms way” where friendly forces do NOT control the air, sea and land where the submarine operates.

    Finally the Leopoldville evidently was a single ship just off the European coast. What if it had been a part of a convoy of such ships. Would the skipper of U 412 have stopped them all, etc before launching any attacks? Again ludicrous, in my view.

    When death reigns down in time of war from enhanced technology, (submarines, machine guns, nuclear weapons, etc) expectations that battlefield commanders can somehow be restricted in the use of such technology on case by case basises is……..? If the world is concerned about such loss of life during wartime, then outlaw the technology beforehand. We did so with “gas warfare” but then look at all the suits worn when we invaded Iraq in 2003.

    Few Americans realize for example that the biggest threat from the seas during the Cold War was Russian submarines. They had literally hundreds of them but not carriers, etc to counter the American Navy. Had the Cold war gone hot in Europe the carnage from Russian submarine attacks may well have paled the significance of only small diesel submarines German U Boats during WWII.

    As for keeping the attack on the Leopoldville secret for so long, who knows why. Dumb bureaucracy is my guess and frankly 500 dead soldiers at the time was a pretty small number to “worry about” while all hell was breaking lose world wide. The real tragedy in this case was not the attack itself by a German U Boat. It was the absolute lack of response to save lives, five miles off the coast of Europe. That is typical bureaucratic BS, even in wartime. But hell it was Chirstmas, right!! Tell that to the men on both side in the “Bulge”.


    Technology, rules of engagement, war, civilian deaths, enemies that try to hide amongst the civilian population on land or sea all complicate war for politicians and men under arms. And when those politicians forget what war is all about when they start one, well are you really going to prosecute the indiviudal commander out there trying his best to NOT die for his own country and keep his OWN men alive to fight another day?

    I am of course not talking about the despicable Sgt. Gibbs of recent infamny. Hang that bastard is my view in that case.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      From your comment, Anson, I’m not sure you understood that the “Cruiser Rules”, the rules which for a few days required a submarine commander to ensure the safety of personnel on his targets, were naively required only at the outset of World War I. I posted them just to show the context for the stark reality that quickly followed, a grim reality that was firmly established when WW II broke out.


  4. ansonburlingame says:


    Of course I understand Cruiser rules. I also am well aware of their futility, like outlawing all nuclear weapons or providing advanced warning to the civilian population before lauching a nuclear weapon at a city.

    What I was writing about was the reality even today of such concerns in the event of another war at sea where submarines may well be the capital ships of any surviving Navy. U 412 was operating in enemy waters for sure and that skipper did his job, rather well it seems. Submarines are expected to sink troop carrying ships and no one expects a submarine to rescue any survivors as well, or they are crazy if they think that should be part of the rules of war.

    See how much advanced warning any “civilian oil tanker” might receive if Iran ever puts it Kilo’s (submarine class held by Iran for years now and a lot of them) to sea to block the Straits of Hormuz for real. And if we put an American nuc in there to clear them out, best keep all other ships of any sort out of the way. For a submarine the “rules” should be if it is a ship in MY area, it is a target, period.

    Do otherwise and you may well have the SEAL problem when an innocent goat herder wanders across his hiddy hole. Such events must be accounted for and “rules” that make sense on the ground to the men whose lives are at stake. War is hell, for sure, goat herders, et al.

    Rule one for war is IF a country decides to actually fight, then take the gloves off and fight as hard and fast as possible to limit the time and scope of the war. Powell doctrine of sorts in my view.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      I wish you wouldn’t persist in giving the impression, Anson, that I am an advocate for Cruiser rules – I was merely trying to frame the moral issues faced in the S.S. Leopoldville incident, for heavens sake.


  5. sekanblogger says:

    An old friend enlisted in the Navy during Viet Nam.
    He was really patriotic until they ordered his small vessel to pull close to shore and “draw fire”.

    Hope you had a great Veteran’s Day Jim.
    Not everyone is bitter like the old friend is.


  6. ansonburlingame says:

    To others,

    The only nuclear submarine to ever sink a warship was the British submarine, Valiant. After the successful attack on the Argentinian Cruiser, Belgrano, during the Falkans War, I met the skipper of Valiant several times. His story of that attack is remarkable.

    He and his submarine were assigned patrols between the Falkans and Argentinia. Belgrano was ordered to sea to support that country’s war in the Falkans. Valiant reported the location of the ship and pursued it. The skipper gained an “attack position” about 2000 yards abeam of the Cruiser, a ship armed with anti-submarine weapons. Valiant was at periscope depth trying to get orders as to what action was needed.. Maggie eventually told the skipper to sink the Belgrano via satilite radio directly from her war room. The skipper did so with a couple of short range, WWII era torpedos.

    Now what is wrong with that picture. As a submariner it is horrendous. A submarine at periscope depth is far more vulnerable than when “running deep”. It can be seen by aircraft and when the periscope is above the surface of the water it can be seen by other ships. A good skipper takes “quick looks” through a scope amounting to about 4 secs, max of exposure to avoid visual detection. The submarine speed is restricted and the ship can be rammed as well when at perscope depth.

    So the CO of Valiant, rather than conducting a traditional approach and attack against a well armed surface ship, instead remains very close and shallow while carrying on a “conversation” with the national command authority of his nation before being told what to do. Crazy way to use a submarine for sure and had it been a surface combatant ship far better trained and operated than an old third world cruiser, one nuclear submarine could easily have been lost with all hands on board.



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