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).