Belgian Trooper SS Leopoldville, sunk by U-486. Christmas eve 1944, and 783 US troops die

With the Battle of the Bulge underway in Europe, reinforcements were needed. At Southampton, at 0200 (2 AM ) on Christmas eve 1944, 2235 men from the US 66th. Infantry Division started to trudge wearily up the gangway of the tired old Belgian Trooper SS Leopoldville, build back in 1929, she was a veteran in carrying troops to battle. Already her log recorded 24 successful Channel crossings, and 120,000 troops had made that journey safely.

But her time was nigh! This was to be her last tragic voyage.

Picture of Belgian Trooper SS Leopoldville. Sunk off Cherbourg Christmas eve 1944, by U-486
 Belgian Trooper SS Leopoldville.
Sunk off Cherbourg Christmas Eve 1944, by U-486

262nd. and 264th. Regiments part of the 66th. US Infantry Division.
After weeks of hanging around in camp in the southern part of England, at long last, on the 23rd. of December 1944, the 262nd. and 264th. Regiments, as part of the 66th. US Infantry Division were on the move, ordered to embark for France. The young troops drawn from almost every state of the United States hurriedly packed, were rushed off to the docks of Southampton, now left in typical Army fashion to wait and wait around over the next six hours.

Now came the order to embark at 0200,( 2 AM ) another troop ship Cheshire was also involved in loading troops. But there seemed to be no plan or structure to this embarkation, the two Regiments were mixed up, one might expect that troops from one company would stay together, not so. As troops arrived, they loaded randomly, chaos reigned supreme. Much later, after Leopoldville was torpedoed, this haphazard loading pattern compounded the problem, who were missing? who might be in Cheshire? no records, no one knew the answers.

Leopoldville to date.
Leoploldville had to date led a charmed life, never subjected to enemy fire in her 24 Channel Crossings, safely delivering 120,000 troops. Her Captain Charles Limbor had been in command since 1942, this was just expected to be another routine crossing from England to France.

As usual, troops were crowded onto benches fitted in the converted cargo hold, another 18 hours would see this voyage all over. The young soldiers mostly around the age of 21, crowded the rails to get their last glimpse of England, as the ship pulled away from Southampton docks at 0900 ( 9 AM.)

It was the 24th. of December 1944, with Christmas eve but a few hours hence. They little dreamed of the disaster soon to unfold.

Boat Drill ordered.
The ship's broadcast system called the troops on deck for Boat Drill, but a number of them either did not hear or heed this call. Those in charge did not seek out those not present, and a very cursory drill was performed, eg launching both lifeboats and rafts was not explained or demonstrated, and but a few on deck were told how to properly enter the water whilst wearing an issued life jacket. All in all , a very unsatisfactory boat drill, one would think essential when the troops carried were soldiers, quite unused to life on board a ship.

Ships assume steaming formation.
The escort comprised HM ships Brilliant, Anthony and Hotham, backed up by the Free French Frigate Croix de Lorraine. After the convoy cleared the submarine nets of Southampton harbour, they took up formation, Brilliant, Leopoldville, Chester and the FF Frigate all in line ahead with Anthony and Hotham on the wings.

The Escort Commander sailing in Brilliant ordered the formation to zigzag, never before had Leopoldville been ordered to zigzag on any of her previous crossings, but with enemy submarines operating in the vicinity, it seemed a prudent order.

Now at 1430 ( 2.40 PM ) Brilliant reported an ASDIC contact, the two troopers sounded off Action Stations, the destroyers rushed off to drop depth charges, but after 15 minutes the alarm was called off, only to be reinstated again at 1500 ( 3 PM. ) But in another 10 minutes the previous formation was resumed and the group pressed on at 13 knots.

Position of the sinking of SS Leopoldville, off Cherbourg on Christmas Eve 1944
Position of the sinking of SS Leopoldville,
off Cherbourg on Christmas Eve 1944

U-486 lurking off Cherbourg.
Oberleutnant Gerhard Meyer and his crew in U-486 had launched the boat on the 12th. of February earlier that year, and had sailed from Kiel for Norway on the 6th. of November 1944 to go on patrol via Bergen, then sailing west about around Ireland. Now they lay in wait for Allied shipping off Cherbourg, they recently tasted success by  accounting for their first victim, the British Silver Laurel, now they waited patiently for the next victim to enter their web.

Leopoldville obliged by coming into range about 1754 ( 5.54 PM ) when a torpedo was fired, and the CO took his boat deep to await the inevitable depth charge attack. His torpedo ran truly, smacking into Number 4 hold on the starboard side of the troopship. Compartments E4, F4, and G4 all flooded, the access ladders to the upper decks were in general destroyed, of the 300 troops in these areas, but a few managed to make it to the safety of higher decks.

Contradictory Communications.
Announcements over the loud speaker system were contradictory, a tug was on its way to help, and troops would be taken off to other ships, now it was stated, the ship was NOT SINKING.

Those in authority did not take charge of the situation, the ship was drifting towards a minefield, and at 1816 ( 6. 16 PM ) Brilliant ordered the torpedoed ship to let go an anchor. Now at 1825 ( 6.25 PM ) the Captain ordered all but essential crew members to abandon ship, but it was certainly not apparent that the ship was sinking.

But the sight of the crew taking to the lifeboats, lowering them, and pulling away from the stricken vessel did nothing to instil confidence in all the US troops crowded on deck.

Brilliant found that the US troops ashore in Cherbourg only some 5 miles away, were operating their radio on a different frequency from the British, and the destroyer had to get in touch with Portsmouth authorities to ask them to relay the call for help from ashore in Cherbourg.

What a communications mess, not the first time in WW2 that Allied forces could not speak to each other in a time of crisis, because of some different frequency, operating procedure, or lack of the necessary equipment. In 1942, at the Battle of Savo Island, in my cruiser HMAS Canberra, we did not receive a warning of " Enemy Ships Entering Harbour" sent by USS Patterson on her Talk Between Ships phone, simply because we did not carry that equipment. If it were not so serious it would be laughable!

Here we are two years on, and communication stuffups still around.

It took over a precious hour for the message from Brilliant via Portsmouth to get to Cherbourg by telephone. One can but assume and hope the German Armed forces suffered from similar misshaps in their communications set up.

No convoy ships tried to raise Cherbourg by means of a signalling lamp and morse code, but Cherbourg tried to reach the convoy vessels by such means, but no one was keeping a watch for such a message, all to no avail.

At long last at 1825, ( 6. 25 PM ) Brilliant signalled: " Leopoldville hit, need assistance. " When asked what kind of assistance was required, no response was forthcoming, its all just unbelieveable, no lookout kept, no reply to serious questions, no proper description initially of what help was needed. Some heads should roll in due course.

Christmas Eve.
The very fact that it was Christmas Eve on that day and at that time, compounded the problem, ashore it was HOLIDAY MOOD, hundreds of small craft tied up in the harbour could have quickly gone to Leopoldville's aid, but crews were minimal, the craft's engines all cold, shore base staff also at minimum levels, all off to HOLIDAY PARTIES, in a let us forget the WAR mode, totally switched off.

At 1825 ( 6. 25 PM ) Brilliant was taken alongside Leopoldville, some lifeboats still turned out on their davits were a problem, and the two ships coming together in the lively sea running crushed them like matchwood.

Now the ships drifted apart, and hundreds of young soldiers tried to leap the gap between both ships to safety, alas some did not make it, and were crushed as the two ships pounded together once more.

Back in 1942, when US destroyer Blue came alongside the crippled, listing, burning Canberra, I too was faced with that dilemma, its a matter of some judgement, just when you decide to bridge the gap and JUMP, when the two ships are apart, but will soon be grinding against each other when the gap is closed again. A sense of relief flooded over me after I had leapt off the deck of Canberra and landed safely upon Blue's iron deck some distance below.

At 1920 ( 7. 20 PM ) crowded with an extra 500 souls, Brilliant pulled away from Leopoldville, and finally the first rescue craft from Cherbourg were on their way.

The rest of the escort were still chasing after U-486, intent on keeping her submerged.

John Pringle, CO of Brilliant and Convoy Commander, considered that the rescue craft would collect the 1,200 or so troops still on board the troopship, this judgement was later to be questioned.

Explosions in Leopoldville.
About 2030 ( 8. 30 PM ) two explosions from deep within Leopoldville were heard, and the ship heeled sideways, and sank by the stern. Many of the troops were swept into the cold, rough waters off Cherbourg, the soldiers wearing heavy overcoats and equipment were soon in trouble, and many drowned. 1,400 infantrymen were saved, but 783 had lost their lives, the greatest loss suffered by US servicemen at sea, all at the hands of an enemy submarine.

Position of the sinking of SS Leopoldville, off Cherbourg on Christmas Eve 1944
Plaque for Leopoldville victims for the monument at Veteran's Park Titusville Florida

e men from Florida who died in the sinking of SS Leopoldville. Titusville, Florida
The men from Florida who died in the sinking of SS Leopoldville. Titusville, Florida

More victims of U-486.
On Boxing Day 1944, two British Frigates Affleck and Capel, were also sunk by U-486.

Final Fate of U-486.
On the 12th. of April 1945, U-486 received her comeuppance, forced to surface by the malfunctioning of her Schnorchel equipment, the British Submarine Tapir torpedoed her, and all 48 of her crew were lost.

An Allied Wall of Silence.
In general, both the British and the United States authotities did not see fit to release the true details about the sinking of Leopoldville. It took until 1958-59 for US Military documents about this disaster to become declassified. In 1984 Clive Cussler with his ship wreck organisation NUMA found the ship at 49 degrees 44. 01 minutes N and 01 degrees 36.40 minutes E, different to where the wreck had been previously marked on maps.

The wreck of Leopoldville found in 1984 by Clive Cussler
The wreck of Leopoldville found in 1984 by Clive Cussler

In 1996 the British released some of their documents on this incident, but not all.

Two books, The Night Before Christmas by Jacquin Sanders. Buccaneer Books Inc. New York 1993. SS Leopoldville Disaster By Allan Anrade. Tern Book Company. New York. 1997, have helped lift the vale on this tragic story of the sea in WW2.

If countries wish to hide their tragedies of WW2 where events have been bungled it is easy to delude the relatives involved and the public in general, we need to be forever vigilent in obtaining the truth in such cases.

Relatives of service personnel who die in such incidents deserve to know the true facts, and not be fobbed off by lies and half truths.

As Clive Cussler aptly described the Leopoldville sinking " Forgotten by many, remembered by few."



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