The Wargamer

26 June 2017

Historical Article: Away All Boarding Parties! Boarders Away!!

The Capture of the U-505

Published on 12 FEB 2015 7:31am by John Dudek
  1. world war ii, north america, background / research material, europe, naval combat, english

TIME: 1109 Hours.

DATE: 4 June 1944

LOCATION: 150 nautical miles off the Cape Verde Islands.

The US Navy Hunter-Killer group had the U-Boat submarine's location down cold.  Using high-frequency direction (Huff-Duff) and sonar (ASDIC) triangulation from the destroyer escorts, it was only a matter of time before they'd find and sink the submarine. Unfortunately the U-boat was now dangerously well inside the task force screen of 5 destroyer escorts -  USS Pillsbury, Flaherty, Jenks, Pope and Chatelain.   In response, the task force's nearby escort aircraft carrier USS Guadalcanal sheered off and moved away at high speed while launching two Wildcat fighter planes and a TBM Avenger bomber to aid in their search for the elusive submarine.  Chatelain fired her hedgehog anti-submarine launcher at the submarine because the shallow running submarine's depth would not allow the depth charges to sink quickly enough to strike the U-boat.  Following the detonation of hedgehog charges, a large oil slick came to the surface and a patrolling plane overhead radioed: "You struck oil!  The sub is surfacing!"  The U-boat broke surface less than 700 yards from Chatelain and the destroyer immediately opened fire with her automatic weapons on the injured and wallowing submarine.  The submarine's crew abandoned ship in the hail of gunfire as the U-boat continued to slowly circle at around 7 knots.  Chatelain fired a single torpedo at the submarine but missed.  Aboard the USS Guadalcanal the carrier's executive officer spoke to task force commander Captain Daniel Gallery as he pointed at the submarine, now riding high at the bow but low at the stern.  "What do we do with her Skipper?"  Gallery quickly answered.  "I want to take this bastard alive."  He paused but a moment further before giving the electrifying cry not heard in the US Navy for well over a hundred years.  "AWAY ALL BOARDING PARTIES!  BOARDERS AWAY!"

U-505 was a Type IX-C long range submarine capable of operating off the coast of North America for weeks at a time.  She displaced 1,120 tons and was 252 feet in length with a beam width of 22 feet.  Two MAN 9 cylinder supercharged diesel engines propelled her to a surface top speed of 18 knots and her electric motors gave her a submerged top speed of 7 knots.  She had a maximum range of 13,450 nautical miles and could operate at a maximum depth of 750 feet.  Being armed with six torpedo tubes and carrying 22 torpedo re-loads made these U-Boats the "Scourge of the Atlantic."  The Type IX U-boats along with their smaller, but no less lethal Type VII sister submarines nearly brought Great Britain to its knees in WWII by sinking millions of tons of merchant shipping carrying badly need war material, food and troops, along with hundreds of warships. Although by 1944 the tide of battle had clearly turned against the Germans and U-boats became the hunted rather than the hunters they were long accustomed to being. U-505 had the reputation of being an unlucky "hard-luck" submarine.  After 11 war patrols she had sunk but 8 Allied ships while gaining the reputation of being the most badly damaged U-boat ever to return to port.  This was after taking a direct bomb hit to her main deck aft of the conning tower from a RAF Lockheed Hudson maritime bomber off the coast of Trinidad during her fourth patrol.  The explosion killed one officer and wounded another on the conning tower while ripping away one of the submarine's anti aircraft guns.  The low flying British bomber was also destroyed in the explosion and crashed nearby, killing its crew. At first it appeared the U-Boat was finished.  Her pressure hull was pierced and its pumps knocked out, with water flooding her engine room from a number of leaks. Her Captain ordered the crew to abandon ship.  However, their Chief Petty Officer argued that he could save the boat if given the time.  After two weeks of ram shackle, jury rigged repairs and while somehow managing to evade Allied air patrols, the U-boat was made sea worthy and water tight. The crippled submarine slowly made it back to Lorient France on greatly reduced power.  It took six months to make U-505 fully operational and battle worthy again.  However the French Resistance dockyard repair workers sabotaged the sub's repairs in a number of different areas, so that the next four of her war patrols were all aborted after only a short time.  Equipment failures and sabotage ranged from "damaged electrical and radar equipment, a hole deliberately drilled in a diesel fuel tank and faulty welds on parts supposedly repaired by French workers."  This happened so many times that she became the butt of cruel jokes throughout the submarine base at Lorient.  Upon returning from one botched patrol, her crew found a sign painted in docking area reading: "U-505's Hunting Ground".  At a time when many U-Boats were now being routinely sunk by Allied ships and air patrols, U-505’s commander, Kptlt. Peter Zschech, overheard another U-boat commander joke, "There is one commander who will always come back."

During her tenth war patrol, the hard luck U-505 gained another bit of first time ever, although negative, notoriety.  While cruising off the Azores, she was spotted by several British destroyers and attacked.  The submerged submarine underwent such a severe and prolonged depth charging that her captain's mind broke under the unrelenting pressure.  He retired to his berth and committed suicide by shooting himself in the head with his pistol.  Never before or since has such a thing occurred in naval combat. U-505's executive officer Paul Meyer immediately took charge of the boat and the submarine was able to ride out the remaining depth charge attacks to return to base with little additional damage.  Upon his return to Lorient, Meyer was not in any way rewarded for his actions.  Instead he was "absolved from all blame” in the incident by the Kriegsmarine hierarchy who desperately wanted the entire ugly affair swept under the rug and forgotten.  Many have since speculated that the submarine's bad crew morale and poor command influence demonstrated (and encouraged) by this series of humiliating failures might help explain the crew's later failure to scuttle the U-505 properly before abandoning her, although this is disputed by some of her crew members. Oblt.z.S. Harald Lange was now given command of the hard luck U-505 and remained her skipper during her final 11th and 12th war patrols.

Hunter-killer Groups, also referred to as Convoy Support Groups, was a concept originally developed in the Royal Navy to actively deal with U-boat attacks rather than reactively or passively.  With the recent building of dozens of light, merchant hulled escort aircraft carriers accompanied by a number of escorting destroyers, frigates and corvettes, this proved to be an ideal way of actively pursuing and destroying patrolling U-boats while protecting the Allied convoys to and from their way to the UK.  The US Navy quickly adopted this successful practice and by early 1944 the Allies had broken the back of the U-boat menace while sinking dozens of German submarines and causing German Grand Admiral Doenitz to withdraw his U-boats from the Atlantic to much safer waters. Five Anglo Canadian groups prowled the North Atlantic while five US groups operated in the mid Atlantic, keeping the all important supply and troop convoys’ safe from German submarine attacks.  With the improved advances of cryptological intelligence known as Ultra as well as the equally improved detection technologies of sonar and radar, the Allies sank dozens of submarines, causing the numbers of remaining German U-boats to drop at an ever increasing and alarming rate. Rarely was a new U-boat and its crew able to complete more than a single successful war patrol if even that.  In addition, new and lethal weapons like the hedgehog mortar and improved depth charges hastened and increased the U-boat's losses even more so.

In response to Captain Gallery's loud broadcast of "Boarders Away!” a number of whaleboats filled with heavily armed sailors were soon underway and converging upon the still wallowing U-505.  The whaleboat from the destroyer Pillsbury overhauled the submarine first - Lieutenant Albert David and 11 armed sailors climbed aboard, not knowing what awaited them inside the submarine.  Were there armed Germans sailors still aboard?  Had the submarine's scuttling charges been activated?  All of this must have played heavily on the minds of the sailors as they climbed atop the sub's conning tower to find a dead German sailor gazing sightlessly up at them. They ignored the dead man and dropped into the open hatchway below.  Fully expecting a deadly burst of gunfire, instead their only greeting was the throbbing of her diesel engines still driving the U-boat in her slow 8 knot circle to the right.  Lt. David dashed to the radio room and hit the jackpot.  Both the submarine's code books and ULTRA cipher machine were intact.  In addition, there were a number of charts detailing English Channel mine fields plus communication recognition signals and a lot of other pertinent material.  All of these were passed up the hatch to the waiting whale boat. This intelligence find was a veritable treasure trove of invaluable information that would spell nothing good for future U-boat operations.  Captain Gallery was soon faced with another vexing problem.  Unlike most Hollywood submarine movies, every nation's submarines propulsion systems, engine rooms and controlling gear were very much different in how they were laid out and hard wired, meaning one could not simply climb aboard an enemy’s submarine and make it perform normally.  In Gallery's case, he had a natural born genius in the form of his Chief Machinist Mate Earl Trosino.  "Earl was one of those engineers who knew machinery the way Toscanini knew musical instruments.  He could walk into a strange engine room,  take a quick look around, and start bringing order out of chaos while the rest of the men were still trying to find out which way was aft."  He was responsible for rigging the submarine for towing and eventually correcting its severe list at the stern by entering the half flooded engine room and closing the sea cock which was letting in so much water.  Although banned from using the submarine's engines any further in case he made a mistake, pulled the wrong lever and inadvertently sank the sub, Trosino still found a way to recharge the U-boat's nearly dead batteries. He disconnected the sub's diesel engine clutches to allow the propeller's to spin while being towed at ten knots.  This gave him the needed battery power to blow the U-boat's after ballast tanks and bring the submarine back up to a full surface trim. In the meantime, another experienced sailor was engaged in trying to find and disarm the 14 booby trap scuttling charges known to be carried aboard every U-boat.  He could only find and disarm 13 of them and the last one wasn't found until two weeks later when the made landfall in Bermuda.  The final scuttling charge had never been activated.

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For the next 48 hours Gallery nervously sweated bullets as his task force sailed slowly away from the shipping lanes towards Bermuda with the U-505 in tow.  His radar and sonar operators reported dozens of phantom submarine contacts that Gallery later humorously referred to as “porposcopes" after the many schools of porpoises they encountered.  The Germans never found out about the capture of the U-505 and continued using the same cipher codes they always used. As a result, the Allies were able to read the German messages in "real-time" as soon as they were transmitted.  This was one of the primary reasons for the high rate of U-boat sinkings by Allied warships.  Upon arrival in Bermuda, Gallery had a hunch that his boarding parties had appropriated a large amount of souvenirs from the German sub.  He told them this was a major security risk and that they should turn in everything they'd taken so that it could be sent to Washington DC for examination and documentation with the understanding and promise that it would all be returned to them after the war.

"Next day we were swamped with the damnedest collection of junk I'd ever seen - pistols, cameras, officers caps, name plates, everything but torpedoes.  How they had the time and patience to collect all that stuff from a sub that might sink any minute I'll never know.  Anyway, I shipped all the souvenirs off to Washington and that was the last anybody saw of them.  The chairborne commandoes in the Pentagon glommed onto them for keeps.  Now, whenever I meet one of the lads who was on that boarding party,  I know exactly what his first words will be--"Captain, where the hell are those binoculars you made me turn in?"

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Ten years after the war, the U-505 was towed to North America and up the Great Lakes to Chicago Illinois where it remains today as one of the most popular exhibits of their Museum of Science and Industry.

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