Saturday, December 24, 2011

December 24, 1944

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.


bobbie said...

WOW. Just wow.

Ms. Donna said...

While it's years and years ago, there are families who still have missing places.

Thanks for the reminder.

Margaret said...

I have, for a long time, been fascinated with people's behavior during emergencies such as ship sinkings. The Titanic, the Andrea Doria, the Morrow Castle, the Achille Lauro etc. bring out the best and the worst of people.

The lack of communication, the bravery of some and the lack of in other raises many questions for me.

Thank you for telling us about this.

Chris said...

I tried to think of a comment that would convey my feelings, but I just couldn't come up with one. Thank you, Dr. Grumpy, for bringing stories like this to us. I had no idea.

Anonymous said...

:-( not cool...not cool........


King J's Queen said...

Thank you for sharing this piece of our history.

Linda Myers said...

I had never heard this story. Thank you for telling it.

Perfusion Is Good said...

The whole tragedy is just appalling!

Really shows the range of human decency; from enragingly evil to breathtakingly heroic.

Eileen said...

Thank you Dr G! Brilliant post like all your historical ones. When you compare this with the Christmas "football peace" ...

Liana said...

Yesterday I ended up watching a documentary about the U boat war. I'm not usually a war/naval history buff, but it was fascinating. Did you know that by the end of WWII, the men in the U boats had a 75% casualty rate?

Tracy said...

I absolutely love, love, love your ship stories. I know you've mentioned the books that these stories are in, but I can't remember the names or authors=( would you mind sharing those names out again?

Grumpy, M.D. said...

Tracy- the Wikipedia entry on the Leopoldville has some good reference links at the bottom.

Also, in "The Sea Hunters", by Clive Cussler, there's an excellent section on the Leopoldville.

Chris said...

Check the USS Indianapolis disaster - they had 1,196 on board, with only 316 surviving. Sadly, that's right up there with this one for number of soliders lost at approx. 880. They suffered from exposure, dehydration, and shark attacks.

Grumpy, M.D. said...

The Leopoldville and Indianapolis trade places, depending on the sources used.

Either way, both were preventable tragedies.

The Indianapolis disaster, however, is well-known and taught. I like writing about the ones that are often forgotten.

Anonymous said...

I love your posts on military history!

Tiancce said...

My Dad was in the Navy during that awful time and read extensively about the war throughout his life. The one opinion he voiced was that our services were often led by inept and selfish political appointees and that many lives were lost because of "bone headed" decisions. I'm going to check tomorrow to see if he had a book on this event. Thanks for the story.

History Doc said...

A fascinating history lesson, as usual.

Dafeenah said...

I've missed these. It's good to see them back.

Anonymous said...

My grandpa was one of the survivors of the Leopoldville(262D Infantry Regiment 66th Division). Thank you for keeping his memory alive.

ERP said...

I heard of this disaster but did not know about the gross incompetence of so many involved.

Steve Sample said...

Hey Dr. G! I am a long time reader of yours. I am an ER doc currently in Afghanistan. I wanted to thank you for writing about the Leopoldville. My grandpa was on that ship and that night haunted him until the day he died. I wanted to share a poem with you that he wrote on Christmas Eve and read to the family a year or 2 before he passed.

Dedicated to Men of the 66th Infantry by Frank A. Sample

It was the night before Christmas in Nineteen and Fourty-Four

When twelve hundred soldiers or maybe more were loaded on a ship to go to the fore.

Most of the them 18 19 20 21 all of them their mother’s loving sons

The Army had taught them to fight and carry a gun.

They were going to war to preserve our freedom………

Little they knew they had seen their last sun.

The soldiers were laughing and full of good cheer

For you see it was the holiday time of the year!

Some sang carols and some played games

There were so many I can’t remember all of their names

The night was cold with many stars in the sky

Little did they know that soon they would die

Some were writing letters to their families at home

Telling them of their friends and that they were not alone

Some told their mothers that they were closer than brothers

Then out of the night, there came such a ROAR!

A German submarine had just made a score

One torpedo had found its mark, a gaping large hole in the ship could be seen in the dark

Our officers and “Non-coms” still held us in order

But the ship was sinking or right on the border

Then an order was given “EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF”

It was sorta like book ends falling off of a shelf

All of our thoughts were of staying alive

So we rushed to the rail to try and survive

The water was full of soldiers, some yelling, some crying, and some praying

Some so delusional they didn’t know what they were saying

I jumped from the ship and went deeper and deeper

I thought it was time to meet my keeper

Lungs bursting and exhausted, I said to myself, “Why not die?”

Then it came in a vision of light from the sky

A vision of my mother screaming when told of my death

This vision of my mother seemed to give me a breath

With this new breath if air I started to fight

And thrashed at the water with all of my might

I reached the top of the water and felt REBORN

But the soldiers were still screaming and full of forlorn

French tugs and boats of all kinds were all about

They were pulling us in and pumping us out

To end this true story is should be know

812 were lost 18, 19, 20, 21

None of which were to experience again family and home


All lost off the coast of a foreign shore

The year now is 1992 and I have three children and six grandchildren and a loving wife

That’s why I say, Thank You God for giving me my second life

I’m filled with sadness at this time of year

And give thanks to my GOD for everyday I am still here.



Stephen C. Sample MD, Major, USAF MC
Emergency Physician
RAF Lakenheath

cliffintokyo said...

Your asides remind me how we *won* the war, despite ourselves, while all the 'gentlemen' were on leave...

M.Brayfield said...

Thank you for the pom Dr Staple. That was chillng, in a good way.

And thank you Dr G. for posting this. I consider myself a bit of a history buff, but even I'd never heard of this one.

I just finished "In the heart of the sea", about the Essex. I'd imagine you've read that one.

Whiskoffee said...

Thanks for sharing.

ronstew said...

With the recent catastrophe in Italy - the grounding of the Costa Concordia with 11 dead and 21 missing - I keep thinking back to the Leopoldville. The alleged incompetence, negligence and indifference of the Italian captain is chillingly similar. The heroic efforts of the Italian coast guard are also paralleled in this story.

I understand the difference in scale of these two tragedies, but there are strong similarities.

Mike LaFleur said...

The troops of the 66th boarded 2 ships, the Leopoldville and the HMS Brilliant. The was no assignment and troops went to whichever ship they wanted so there is no telling who was on either ship. My father was on the Brilliant, or at least I assume so since he told me half his division was sunk and did not say it was him. Sadly my father passed away many years ago and can not elaborate any further. It was a tragic loss. Very preventable and even more sadly, we did not learn from it.

Thank you for the posting.

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