Recently I wrote (here) about the role of Norway’s merchant marine during World War II, and the ill-fated M/T Sydhav, sunk on March 6, 1942, killing 12 of its crew, including Third Mate Magnus Iversen. Iversen was the son of Ole Berner Iversen, a fellow prisoner with Odd Nansen in Grini and Veidal camps. I wrote of the particularly painful way Iversen learned of his son’s death—six months earlier—via an old newspaper circulating in Veidal.
The German submarine which torpedoed the Sydhav, U-505, was also ill-starred in many ways. She experienced casualties as well—both self-inflicted and from enemy fire, and suffered an ignominious end.
After an initial shakedown cruise, U-505 engaged in 11 combat patrols. During her career she sank eight ships totaling 44,962 tons. Her most productive patrol was her first, where she sank four ships (including the Sydhav). On her second patrol she sank three, which included a three-masted schooner, and on her third, only one ship, for 7,173 tons.
That same third patrol was cut short when U-505 was surprised on the surface by a patrol aircraft of the Royal Air Force near Trinidad, and severely damaged in a low-level attack—so low that the resulting explosion also destroyed the plane, killing all of its crew. U-505 barely survived the attack and somehow made it back to its home base in Lorient, France.
After six months of repairs, U-505 was again ready for action, but she would never sink another ship in her fighting career. This failure had several causes: sabotage by increasingly restive French workers in Lorient, and improved anti-submarine methods—both tactical (better convoying) and material (more and better ships, planes and technology).
The net result was that U-505 was hunted almost as soon as she left port, and often had to return to Lorient to fix enemy bomb damage or sabotage. This latter included faulty welds, pencil-sized holes drilled in her diesel tanks (which would leave a telltale oil slick in her wake), and other equipment failures.
On her ninth combat patrol, a British destroyer spotted U-505 east of the Azores and initiated a depth-charge attack. During the height of the attack, the sub’s skipper, Captain Peter Zschech, killed himself by a shot to the head in front of his crew. This is the only known instance of a commanding officer committing suicide while in battle.
Her next, and final, patrol began March 6, 1944, exactly two years to the day since the Sydhav had been sunk; perhaps the ghosts of the Sydhav were dogging her path as she set forth. By 1944 the tables had been almost completely turned in the battle for control of the seas. By now, Allied “hunter-killer” task groups prowled the oceans using high-frequency direction finding, and aerial and surface reconnaissance, to locate and destroy U-boats.
One such group, Task Group 22.3, sailed from Norfolk, VA on May 15, 1944. It consisted of an escort carrier (USS Guadalcanal) and five destroyer escorts (Chatelain, Flaherty, Jenks, Pillsbury and Pope), under the overall command of Captain Daniel V. Gallery. It is a measure of the Allies’ complete naval dominance by this time that on June 4, 1944, when TG 22.3 and U-505 collided, the U.S. Navy could devote all of these vessels to search and destroy missions in the Atlantic when the greatest amphibious assault ever attempted—the Normandy landings—was scheduled to occur the same week. [D-Day involved 6,939 ships: 1,213 warships, 4,126 landing craft, 1,736 ancillary craft, and 864 merchant vessels.]
Capt. Gallery’s task group had already sunk two U-boats on a previous deployment, one of which, U-515, was forced to the surface and destroyed with gunfire. The significant effort needed to eventually sink the sub gave Capt. Gallery the idea that it might be possible to board, and capture, a German submarine before she was scuttled or destroyed, and he drew up plans and began training accordingly.
When TG 22.3 picked up U-505 on sonar, the task group immediately went into action with depth charges and hedgehogs. Within minutes the sub was forced to the surface, heavily damaged, and her skipper ordered all to abandon ship. However, her crew failed to take all the measures necessary to quickly scuttle her, and a boarding party from the Pillsbury, led by Lieutenant (j.g.) Albert David, entered the slowly sinking deserted ship, and secured her.
The sub was towed to Bermuda, to be intensively studied by U.S. Navy intelligence and engineering officers. It was the first capture by the Navy of an enemy vessel on the high seas since the War of 1812. The entire capture was filmed, and can be found on YouTube (here).
This feat, however, was not considered an unalloyed success at the time.
One of the most closely guarded secrets of the war was the Allies’ ability to crack the Enigma code, and thereby read Germany’s most important communications. The capture of U-505 included of course its code books, with the latest Enigma settings. If the Germans learned of U-505’s capture, they would be able to deduce that the Allies now had the means of deciphering Enigma, which the Germans had hitherto felt was impregnable. This in turn might lead to the use of an entirely new code. The Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest King, even contemplated court-martialing Capt. Gallery for not sinking U-505 instead.
To protect the secret regarding Enigma, the capture of the sub was never publicized, U-505’s crew was interned in a separate camp, their existence was never acknowledged, and they were denied access to the Red Cross. To further confuse the enemy, U-505 was painted to look like a U.S. submarine, and christened USS Nemo. The German Navy ultimately concluded that U-505 had been lost at sea, and the crew’s families were notified that they were dead.
With the secret of Enigma still safe, Capt. Gallery, rather than facing a court-martial, was instead awarded the Navy Distinguished Service Medal. Lt. David, who had led the boarding party, received the Medal of Honor—the only Atlantic sailor to receive such a distinction during World War II. Unfortunately, Lt. David did not live long enough for the medal to be presented to him. He suffered a heart attack fifteen months after his heroic action, and died on September 17, 1945, age 43. TG 22.3 received a Presidential Unit Citation.
But the saga of U-505 was not yet over.
After the war, with no further use for the sub, the Navy decided to use U-505 for target practice. Daniel Gallery, now a rear admiral, suggested instead that Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) might be interested in it. Established by Chicago businessman Julius Rosenwald (an early co-owner of Sears, Roebuck and Company), MSI was indeed interested. Private subscriptions paid for towing and installation of the boat. On September 25, 1954, she was officially donated to the City of Chicago and dedicated as a permanent exhibit.
In 1989 U-505 was designated a National Historic Landmark.
Even enemy submarines sometimes have second acts.