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This H-Gram covers several epic battles between U.S. surface ships and U-boats involving ramming and hand-to-hand combat, including the use of Coca Cola bottles, coffee mugs and pots, sheath knives, spent shell casings, flare pistols, hand grenades, shotguns, and tommy guns as antisubmarine warfare (ASW) weapons. If you only have time to read one, USS Borie (DD-215) vs. U-405 is the Cox choice for most epic ASW fight of all time.
I’m taking a break from “Battles You’ve Never Heard of” series because frankly they are really time-consuming to research. I meant to write about these Battle of the Atlantic submarine actions during the 75th anniversary of WWII series and again when the Tom Hanks’ movie, Greyhound, came out (which, by the way, is really good, albeit historical fiction,) but my day job kept interfering.
U.S. Navy PBY Catalina and HMCS Oakville vs. U-94─27 August 1942
A Guantanamo-based VP-92 PBY Catalina flown by Lieutenant Gordon Fiss caught U-94 in the moonlight just as the U-boat was about to torpedo the destroyer USS Lea (DD-118,) with the convoy escort commander embarked, as the 15-tanker convoy TAW-15 transited the Windward Passage. Depth charges from the Catalina blew off U-94’s bow hydroplanes, rendering U-94 unable to submerge. The Canadian corvette HMCS Oakville was the first convoy escort to respond. U-94 avoided Oakville’s first attempt to ram. The second ram attempt was a glancing blow. With most guns unable to depress far enough, Oakville crewmen showered U-94’s conning tower with empty Coca Cola bottles. Oakville’s third attempt to ram was a solid hit, with German resistance suppressed by machine gun fire.
Oakville’s skipper called away the boarding team in an attempt to capture the U-boat, however an untimely blast from one of Oakville’s 4-inch guns incapacitated most of the team, just as Oakville lost power due to engine room flooding. Only Sub-Lieutenant Harold Lawrence and Petty Officer Art Powell managed to make the leap on to U-94 before Oakville drifted away. Pushing two Germans over the side, the pair then shot and killed two more Germans who rushed them from the conning tower hatch. With the sub rapidly sinking, the pair was able to get the rest of the German crew to come topside at gunpoint, while Lawrence went below in a vain attempt to gather codebooks or other documents (the Germans had already deep-sixed them.) Lawrence had to swim through the control room, barely making it out the conning tower before U-94 went down. Lawrence, Powell, and 26 Germans were rescued by Lea and Oakville before the rescue was cut short as U-511 attacked the convoy from a different direction; 19 Germans were lost. Oakville’s only casualty was Lawrence, cut by a Coca Cola bottle. For this action, Oakville’s skipper, Lieutenant Commander Clarence King, was the first Canadian awarded a U.S. Legion of Merit during the war. (Please see H-064-1 for more detail.)
USS Campbell (WPG-32) vs. U-606─22 February 1943
The battle for westbound North Atlantic convoy ON-166 was one of the most vicious of the war; 14 Allied ships and 263 men would be lost. Battered and scattered by days of gales, the 63-ship convoy was set upon by as many as 14 German U-boats from two wolfpacks as it transited the four-day gap in air cover in the mid-Atlantic. Based on Intelligence, the convoy escort commander knew what they were in for.
One of the convoy escorts was USS Campbell (WPG-32,) a Coast Guard cutter under U.S. Navy wartime control, commanded by Commander James A. Hirshfield, USCG. Campbell was nearly hit by a torpedo from U-753 as she rescued 40 Norwegian crewmen from a torpedoed ship. While trying to catch up to the convoy, Campbell engaged multiple U-boats that were trailing the convoy. In the meantime, U-606 penetrated through the convoy escorts and sank two freighters and crippled a third, before a sustained depth charge counter-attack by Polish destroyer Burza forced U-606 down to 780 feet (30 feet below test depth) in order to escape. Determining that the damage to U-606 was fatal, the skipper chose to emergency surface to give his crew a chance.
In the poor visibility, Campbell first sighted U-606 at a range of 40 yards. In the short─but vicious─gun battle that followed, the German skipper was killed on the bridge while Hirshfield was wounded on his. Much of the German crew had already assembled to abandon ship, but jumped into the frigid Atlantic before rafts could be launched and perished. Simultaneously with the gun battle, the two vessels collided and U-606’s bow planes ripped open Campbell’s hull, causing flooding and loss of power and propulsion.
With both vessels drifting, Hirshfield called away the boarding team in an attempt to capture the sinking submarine, but a line tending mishap dumped the boat and the entire boarding team into the water. As the sub sank, Burza arrived on scene and rescued the boarding team and twelve of U-606’s 48-man crew. Refusing recommendations to scuttle his ship, Hirshfield had most of Campbell’s crew and the 40 Norwegians transferred to Burza. Campbell’s famous mascot dog, K9C Sinbad, remained aboard due to the captain and crews’ belief that nothing bad would happen to Campbell as long as Sinbad was aboard. Campbell drifted for three days before a tug towed her to Newfoundland. The all-Black crew of one of the 20mm guns performed with great effectiveness, and Chief Steward Louis C. Etheridge, Jr., became the first Black Sailor in the Coast Guard awarded a Bronze Star. For this action, Commander Hirshfield was one of six Coastguardsmen awarded a Navy Cross during the war. (Please see H-064-1 for more detail.)
USS Borie (DD-215) vs. U-405─1 Nov 1943
In the early morning darkness of 1 November 1943, one of the oldest destroyers in the U.S. Navy, commanded by the youngest destroyer skipper in the Navy, was locked in seventy minutes of close-quarters mortal combat in heavy seas with a tenacious U-boat and her savvy commander. Detached from USS Card (CVE-11) Hunter-Killer group to pursue a submarine that escaped an earlier attack by Card aircraft, USS Borie instead engaged and damaged a different U-boat, the U-flak 2 (ex-U-262). While returning to the group, Borie encountered U-405. As Borie was in her first depth charge run, a malfunction caused every depth charge on the stern to roll in the water at once resulting in a massive explosion that lifted Borie’s stern out of the water and brought a damaged U-405 to the surface.
Unable to submerge, U-405 crewmen manned their guns and hit Borie with several 20mm rounds before a fusillade of fire from Borie killed most of the Germans on deck. Lieutenant Charles Hutchins of Borie had a speed and firepower advantage, but Lieutenant Commander Rolf-Heinrich Hopman of U-405 had a maneuverability advantage and dangerous torpedoes. Both commanding officers used their relative advantages to maximum effect during the battle.
After ten minutes of trying to match U-405’s evasive maneuvers, which kept going despite repeated gunfire hits, Hutchins gave the order to ram. Instead of a killing perpendicular blow, a last moment avoidance turn-away by Hopman and a big wave resulted in Borie sitting atop the U-boat’s foredeck at a 20-30 degree angle. Locked together for the next 10 minutes in mounting 20-foot seas, hull plating and seams in Borie began to part. With Borie’s guns unable to depress far enough, the Germans saw their chance to man their machine guns and fill Borie’s underhull full of holes. But Borie’s crew was drilled and ready for this scenario. Lining the lifelines, Borie’s crew was armed with tommy guns, rifles, shotguns, pistols, flare guns, and anything that could be thrown. Displaying extraordinary courage, Germans continued to pour from the conning tower in an attempt to reach their guns, only to be cut down one after the other, including one by a thrown knife to the stomach and another hit in the head by a thrown spent 4-inch shell casing. Borie’s XO fired a submachine gun from the bridge. Around 35 of U-405’s crew of 49 were killed in the initial exchange of fire and in the close-quarters battle.
Still, U-405 wouldn’t quit, and finally the U-boat managed to back out from under Borie, still trying to escape. Borie’s forward engine room flooded due to damage from the ram, but the engineer and “black gang” stayed at their posts in frigid neck-deep water to keep both engines operating during the battle. The next minutes were a battle of turn radius that Borie was losing. Just as U-405 was lined up for a stern tube shot, Hutchins doused the searchlight, and in the darkness U-405 opened the range to escape. Borie maneuvered for a second ram attempt, only this time U-405 turned to ram Borie. With extraordinary shiphandling, Hutchins was able to twist his ship away and fire depth charges from his K-guns that straddled U-405’s conning tower, bringing the sub to a halt six-feet short of Borie.
Again U-405 backed away and made another attempt to escape until finally gunfire from Borie blew Hopman off the bridge and brought the U-boat to a halt. As about 15 German survivors abandoned the sinking U-405, they fired flares. As Borie moved to rescue the Germans, the flares were answered by another U-boat. In avoiding an incoming torpedo, Borie plowed through the German rafts and none of U-405’s crew survived.
For the next 14 hours, with her hull severely battered, Borie’s crew fought to keep her afloat in mounting seas reaching 40-feet, jettisoning torpedoes, ammunition, 20mm guns, and as much topside weight as possible. Attempts by other Card escorts to assist were thwarted by the seas and pouring rain. Hutchins finally had to make the difficult decision to abandon ship before darkness set in. Borie lost no crewmen in the battle with U-405, but 27 were lost to the raging sea. Lieutenant Hutchins and Petty Officer Saum were awarded the Navy Cross. Engineer Lieutenant Morrison Brown was awarded a posthumous Navy Cross. (Please see H-064-2 for more detail.)
USS Buckley (DE-51) vs. U-66─6 May 1944
Harried for four days by ships and aircraft of the USS Block Island (CVE-21) Hunter-Killer group, U-66 was low on fuel and batteries. Taking a chance in the predawn hours, U-66 remained on the surface even as a Block Island Avenger torpedo bomber tracked U-66 at a respectful distance. For 45 minutes, guided by the Avenger, destroyer escort USS Buckley (DE-51) steamed at flank speed to catch U-66, in the end holding fire hoping the U-boat would mistake Buckley in the darkness for the “Milchkuh” refueling submarine U-66 desperately needed. It worked for a while until U-66 fired a recognition flare signal. Not getting the desired response, U-66 fired a torpedo at Buckley that narrowly missed. What followed was 16 minutes of life-or-death action between Lieutenant Commander Brent Abel’s crew on Buckley and Oberleutnant zur See (Lieutenant (junior grade)) Gerhard Seehausen’s U-66.
U-66 opened fire first, putting a 4.1-inch round through Buckley’s funnel as most of the U-boat’s fire went high and long. Buckley returned fire, blasting the sub’s 4.1-deck gun over the side with the first directed salvo from Buckley’s 3-inch guns. U-66 fired another torpedo that missed by ten feet. In moments the two vessels were side-by-side at 20-feet apart. Although the sub’s conning tower was riddled by 40mm and 20mm gunfire, U-66 kept going. Abel gave the order to ram, and Buckley crunched up on U-66’s foredeck and stuck. Germans poured out of hatches, some seemingly intent on surrendering, most intent on fighting. With Buckley’s main guns unable to depress enough, Germans attempted to reach their machine guns. About ten armed Germans clambered up on Buckley’s forecastle to create a diversion so U-66 could back out from under Buckley; one made it as far as the wardroom where he was beaten down by a Black steward’s mate with a coffee pot. Other Germans tried to board elsewhere and were fought off with fists, coffee mugs, empty shell casings, pistols, rifles, and a tommy gun from the bridge wing.
The hand-to-hand and close quarters combat lasted only about two minutes before U-66 was able to extricate herself from under Buckley and tried to get away. Just as enough distance had opened for Buckley to fire her K-gun depth charges, U-66 turned into Buckley and rammed. As the U-boat scraped down Buckley’s hull, a Buckley crewman dropped a grenade down the conning tower hatch into the control room where fires could be seen raging. As U-66 passed aft of Buckley, the U-boat was still underway but out of control. Germans abandoned the sub as she drove herself under and then exploded from scuttling charges. Ten Germans were captured aboard Buckley and 26 more were pulled out of the water by Buckley the next day; 24 Germans perished. Astonishingly given the volume of fire, Buckley’s only casualty was a bruised fist from knocking a German over the side. Lieutenant Commander Abel was awarded the Navy Cross.
The Germans got a measure of revenge on 29 May when U-549 torpedoed and sank escort carrier Block Island and blew the stern off destroyer escort Barr (DE-567) only to be sunk herself by Block Island’s escorts. Block Island was the only U.S. carrier lost in the Atlantic. (Please see H-064-2 for more detail.)
USS Guadalcanal (CVE-60,) Hunter-Killer Group vs. U-505─4 June 1944
The Submarine Tracking Room (F-21) of U.S. TENTH Fleet was aware of the general movements of U-505 throughout her patrol due to Ultra Intelligence derived from intercepted and decrypted German communications and high-frequency direction finding (HF/DF.) U-505’s fruitless patrol off West Africa was plagued by equipment breakdowns and poor morale. Based on Intelligence from F-21, TENTH Fleet knew when U-505 started home and vectored the USS Guadalcanal (CVE-60) Hunter-Killer group to intercept. After several days of fruitless searching, Guadalcanal broke off the search to head to Casablanca for refueling. Ten minutes later, destroyer escort Chatelain (DE-149,) commanded by Lieutenant Commander Dudley S. Knox, gained sonar contact on U-505, between Guadalcanal and the escorts.
Chatelain conducted an immediate Hedgehog attack with no result. U-505’s skipper, Oberleutnant zur See (Lieutenant (junior grade)) Harald Lange, put up his periscope and was dismayed to see the array of ships and aircraft around him. U-505 got off an acoustic homing torpedo that missed, just as Chatelain rolled in for a devastating depth charge attack.
When the crippled U-505 came to the surface, Chatelain, Pillsbury (DE-133,) Jenks (DE-665) and two Wildcat fighters hit the U-boat with a deluge of gunfire. Lange was badly wounded on the conning tower, two others were wounded and one killed. Realizing the situation was hopeless, Lange ordered the sub abandoned and scuttled. However, in the haste to abandon, the crew neglected to set the charges. Two Avengers airborne were under orders not to drop depth charges if the submarine surfaced, as the Task Group Commander Captain Daniel V. Gallery, had a plan to try to capture a U-boat.
In accordance with Gallery’s plan, the screen commander ordered boarding teams away. The team from Pillsbury was underway first and those from Chatelain and Jenks were diverted to rescue the 58 German survivors. Although abandoned and settling by the stern, U-505 was still churning in circles at 6-7 knots. The leader of the boarding team, “Mustang” Lieutenant (junior grade) Albert David made the first leap from the whaleboat, followed by two pretty officers. Knowing that the scuttling charges could go off at any moment and that the sub could sink at any minute, and not knowing if any armed Germans were still below and willing to fight, David plunged down the conning tower ladder without hesitation into the dark U-boat, followed by Petty Officers Knispel and Wdowiak. The petty officers set about rounding up codebooks and valuable papers, while David worked valves to keep the U-boat from sinking. As more of the team came down the hatch, another petty officer found and closed a bilge strainer that was flooding the boat.
Another boat arrived with Guadalcanal’s engineer, Commander Earl Trosino, and a salvage party. Another petty officer found and disarmed 13 of the 14 scuttling charges known to be in the U-boat (based on Intelligence). An attempt to tow U-505 by Pillsbury resulted in two flooded compartments when U-505’s bow planes sliced into Pillsbury’s hull. Finally, Guadalcanal was able to take U-505 in tow. The transit to Bermuda would feature the unique event of a carrier conducting alongside underway refueling and flight operations and towing a submarine, all at the same time.
After the capture of U-505, great lengths had to be taken to ensure the Germans didn’t find out, otherwise they would have to assumed the Enigma coding machine was compromised, which would result in the loss of probably the most valuable source of Intelligence in the war. Among other measures, U-505’s crew was sequestered from other POWs and denied any contact with the outside world; it wasn’t until 1946 that their families learned they were alive, and the crew was not returned to Germany until December 1947. Lieutenant (junior grade) David was awarded the Medal of Honor (the only one awarded in the Atlantic Fleet during the war,) but died of a heart attack before receiving it. Knispel and Wdowiak were each awarded the Navy Cross. Numerous awards went to others in the Guadalcanal Hunter-Killer group. U-505 is now an exhibit at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. (Please see H-064-3 for more detail.)
As a final note, Intelligence played a critical factor in each of these incidents. The Convoy Escort Commander of TAW-15 was warned that U-boats were waiting in the Windward Passage, and the convoy escort commander of ON-166 was warned of the large number of U-boats in his path, both due to intercepted German communications. Each took action as result and did the best they could with the resources available. Card and Block Island Hunter-Killer groups were where they were because Allied Intelligence knew the location and timing of the Milchkuh refueling rendezvous points. The boarding teams were armed with information on the workings of U-boats, derived from the capture of U-570 by the British in 1941 and from interrogations of captured U-boat crews by Naval Intelligence Special Activities Branch, which treated the Germans humanely and were rewarded with a bonanza of useful Intelligence.
For more detail on these Close-Quarters ASW events please see H-064-1 (for Oakville /U-94 and Campbell/U-606,) H-064-2 (for Borie/U-405 and Buckley/U-66), and H-064-3 (for Guadalcanal/U-505.)
As always, you are welcome to share these stories of U.S. Navy valor widely. Back issues of H-Grams can be found in Director's Corner along with a wealth of other great U.S. Navy history on the Naval History and Heritage Command’s website.