It was Christmas Eve. The most horrible war the world had ever known was slowly drawing to a close. Nazi Germany would collapse in 6 months, the Japanese Empire in 9.
But Hitler's last large offensive, the Battle of the Bulge, was raging, and the Allies desperately needed reinforcements to stop it. Troopships were frantically bringing soldiers across the English Channel.
And on Christmas Eve, 1944, the passenger liner Leopoldville was chugging 2,235 soldiers over to reinforce the army's 66th Infantry. She was escorted by 4 destroyers.
It was a stormy night, and winds reached sea force 6. Many of the troops became seasick, and spent the night in the bathrooms or bed.
German U-Boats were still fighting, and on that night U-486, under the command of Oberleutnant Gerhard Meyer, was prowling the area. He found an opening in the destroyer screen and put a torpedo into the Leopoldville, with devastating results.
Troop compartments G-4 and F-4 contained 355 soldiers. When the torpedo exploded, F deck collapsed into G, and destroyed all stairways out. Less then 20 men from these 2 compartments were ever seen again.
Curiously, in spite of the damage sustained, no order to abandon ship came for some time, leading many to assume it was safe to go back to bed. And when the order did come on the P.A. system, it was in Flemish, and wasn't translated for the soldiers.
The crew of the sinking ship knew the extent of the damage. They quietly gathered their belongings (including a parrot), loaded them into lifeboats, and departed. They didn't warn the troops they were carrying, and left no one behind who knew how to work the lifeboats.
The Leopoldville had a good chance of surviving if she could be beached, and calls went out for tugs to pull her the last 5 miles to land. But it was Christmas Eve. Many on shore were on leave, and didn't take the first warnings seriously. Officers at parties had left orders that they were not to be interrupted.
A few miles from port a disaster was happening. And when the first cries for help came (30 minutes after the explosion), it was from one of the destroyers attending the sinking liner- Captain Limbor of the Leopoldville (who went down with the ship) refused to send a distress signal.
One of the catalysts to saving lives was Lt. Colonel McConnell on shore. On his own authority he cursed, kicked, and pulled men out of bed and parties, and brought life to the dockyard to send help. 50 minutes after the explosion the first rescue ships left Cherbourg, but critical time had already passed.
In Cherbourg Lt. Commander Davis mustered whatever he could - 3 PT boats - and sent them racing to help. He sent staff into town to pull men out of bars and restaurants and get them back to their ships. He notified hospitals, hotels, and camps that emergency facilities and quarters would be needed.
Commander Pringle of the destroyer H.M.S. Brilliant took the gutsy step of bringing his little ship alongside the dying giant. As their hulls kept crashing together in the waves, Brilliant began leaking herself. But Pringle ordered his engineers to stay at the pumps and keep working. British sailors yelled up at the Leopoldville for their American allies to jump across in the rocky seas, and did their best to assist them in getting abroad. Comically, the other 3 destroyers hadn't been informed of the Leopoldville's damage, and after giving up the hunt for the U-Boat they went ahead into port.
After collecting 700 soldiers, Brilliant had to cut free to repair her own hull damage. Pringle had heard of the approaching PT boats and tugs, and planned to get into port, unload the survivors, and return to help. But the Leopoldville didn't have that much time.
Many died bravely that night. With the stairs gone, Colonel Ira Rumberg had himself lowered repeatedly into the ship's hold, bringing up a man under each arm every time. He went down with the ship, trying to save more. He was just one of many others who died when they willingly went below decks to lead others to safety.
The Leopoldville finally sank at 8:30 p.m., 2 1/2 hours after the torpedo struck. She left an estimated 1000 men floating in the stormy, 48°F (9°C), sea, many of whom died of exposure over the next few hours. The crews of an assortment of military and private craft worked through the night trying to save as many as possible.
The tragedy of the Leopoldville is that, outside of those who died in the initial explosion, all could have been saved if the ship's crew had been properly organized, distress signals sent out as soon as the damage became apparent, and the majority of the shore authorities weren't in a state of negligence. 802 men died that night- the only American ship with more casualties during WWII was the U.S.S. Arizona.
The U-486 with Oberleutnant Meyer and his crew themselves were all lost 4 months later when they were sunk by the submarine H.M.S. Tapir.
Sadly, the allied governments decided to cover up the sinking. Families were told their loved ones were dead or missing, without disclosure of circumstances. The files weren't declassified until 1996, more than 50 years after the disaster. So memories and memorials of the disaster are few.
Today the Leopoldville is a war grave, lying on her side at the bottom of the English Channel.