Beginning with the knowledge of the ultimate outcome, it would be easy for a casual student of history to believe that the Allies were destined to win World War II and that Nazi Germany and the Axis powers would be defeated. What few Americans comprehend – even now – is the fact that right up into 1944, an Allied win was not a sure thing. One reason was the toll Nazi submarines were taking on Allied merchant shipping and the real possibility that with 40% of the war supplies she desperately needed going to the bottom month after month, England might not be able to hold out.
In all, Nazi Germany launched 1174 submarines in the course of the war under the leadership of Admiral Karl Dӧnitz, a genius in undersea warfare and an officer revered by his crews. With the fall of France, U-boats were conveniently deployed from protected “pens” at Ste.Nazaire and Lorient, where they could be outfitted for long-distance war patrols, both singly, and later in “wolf packs”. By war’s end, they would sink nearly 4,000 Allied ships taking at least 36,000 sailors to the bottom with them in what is known as “The Battle of the Atlantic”.
One of those U-boats (untersee boots) was the U-505, a type VII-C boat which carried a crew of about 60, and a war load of 24 torpedoes. In the German Navy as in those of other WWII nations, there were submarines which would be known as “lucky boats” to those who served aboard, and there would be those that earned the opposite reputation. Right from its launching in May 1941, U-505 would be an “unlucky boat”. Plagued by a series of mechanical failures and aborted missions, they just barely survived such a terrific mauling by Allied depth charges and aircraft attacks on their 4th patrol that they set a record as the most heavily-damaged U-boat to make its way back to port for repairs. As if things weren’t bad enough, their second Commanding Officer – dazed by constant undersea bombardment on the 10th patrol - went mad and shot himself in the head in the presence of his traumatized crew!
Hoping to restore crew morale and stability, U-505 was deployed on its 12th patrol in late April, 1944 with a new and very experienced Commander, 41-year old Oberleutenant zur See Harold Lange., who, unfortunately, and through no fault of his own, was about to meet up with U.S. Navy Captain Daniel Gallery and his Task Group 22.3 off the coast of North Africa. With his Aircraft Carrier “USS Guadalcanal” and a squadron of specially trained destroyer escorts, Dan Gallery had set out to find, damage and capture an enemy U-boat intact, seaworthy and – most importantly – the secret German Naval codes which would be locked in the commander’s safe.
The amazing story of how this wartime “coup” came about has been well and often written about, with several excellent television documentaries still current, and so I need spend little space on that part of the account. There are however several side-bar stories worth revisiting. For one thing, there is much to admire in the decisions made by Captain Lange: with his boat forced to the surface and under heavy machine-gun fire from Gallery’s destroyers, he had only minutes to decide how to protect his craft’s secrets, honor his obligations as a German officer, and yet save the lives of his crew. He managed to do all of that, with the loss of only one life. On the other hand, Dan Gallery’s superbly-trained assault team managed to thwart the scuttling actions, secure the heavily-damaged U-boat and recover the secret German codes which – together with a captured “Enigma machine” - changed the course of WWII in the Atlantic.
To me, as a passionate researcher and history buff, there remains a largely-untold and tantalizing side story. For the purloined code book and other documents to be worth all the effort of planning, training and acts of courage involved, it was absolutely imperative that the whole thing be kept secret from the Germans, who must believe that the U-505 was simply “lost at sea with all hands”. For that creative fiction to be maintained, the 58 German officers and men had to be held in secret custody, their families unaware of their survival, while the three thousand U.S. sailors involved in Task Group 22.3 must remain silent until war’s end. That all of that took place is itself one of the remarkable stories of World War II.
Ironically, as June 4th, 2012 dawns and I contemplate this article posted 67 years later to the day, I hold in my hands a document from the archives listing the names and postings of those 58 German submariners of U-505’s final patrol, along with pages from the carefully-kept personal diary of Oberfunkmaat (Signalman 1st class) Gottfried Fischer, the only man to lose his life that day.
A FINAL NOTE: U.S. Navy Admiral Daniel Gallery of Chicago, (1901 – 1977) and former German Navy Captain Harald Lange, of Hamburg, (1903 – 1967) remained friends throughout their lives. U-505 also lives on at the Museum of Science & Industry in Chicago, Illinois where it has been visited by millions. (Another story.) The death rate for German submariners in WWII was 75%. 28,000 U-boat crewmen failed to return home from their final patrol.
Photo Caption: Boarded and saved from sinking with minutes to spare by brave sailors of the Destroyer Escort U.S.S. Spillsbury, the foundering U-505, with American colors flying from the conning tower, is taken into tow for its long and secret voyage to Bermuda, on June 4th, 1944. U.S. Navy Archives