shipwreck of the Ss Leopoldville sank over Cherbourg
Two days before Christmas '44 some two thousand paratroopers boarded the Belgian troopship Leopoldville at Pier 38, Southampton. Shortly thereafter, they were told to disembark. Someone had made a mistake and they were told they were on the wrong ship. Little did they know at the time how 'lucky' they had been.
In the early hours of the next day, December 24th, 2,235 men of the United States Army's 66th Infantry Division (the Black Panthers) began boarding the Leopoldville. The rest of the Division were loaded aboard the Cheshire, a British transport. In keeping with the foul-up of the previous day, none were assigned specific quarters and they were berthed wherever there was room as they boarded and not, by unit, squad or company. Confusion seemed to be the order of the day. No lifeboat drill was performed and the life belts were secured in their stowage compartments. None were issued to the men onboard.
It was to be a short voyage across the Channel. To date, the Leopoldville had already carried nearly 125,000 soldiers to various destinations without trouble and, because of there being so many Allied warships in the Channel, no one seemed too worried about the possibility of submarine attacks.
Yet, the troopships were escorted by four destroyers.
Around 2 PM, the Captain of the Leopoldville received the order to begin a zigzag course. A first submarine alert sounded thirty minutes later then a second one. By then, the sea was running eight to nine feet. By 4 PM, the sea had reached a state of Force 6 and the Leopoldville was but 25 miles from their point of destination, the port of Cherbourg.
By 6 PM, the Leopoldville was five miles from Cherbourg. Some fifteen minutes earlier, Oberleutnant Gerhard Meyer, Captain of the Type VII C-class submarine U-486 had begun tracking the Leopoldville in its sight. Two torpedoes were launched at 5:56 PM and one reached its mark at precisely 6 PM.
From that moment on, it was bedlam. What took place is amply described in detail at the locations listed below (see 'links') but suffice to say that men onboard the Leopoldville received little, if any, help nor directions from the crew. The Captain of the Leopoldville, Captain Limbor, did nothing! No distress message, no call for assistance, nothing.
Officers onboard the other troopship in the convoy, the Cheshire thought they had heard a muffled explosion and actually saw the debacle onboard the Leopoldville but, there having been no radio traffic calling for assistance, they were left in the dark as to what was actually taking place. Most of those taking to the lifeboats from the Leopoldville were members of the crew.
All this time, those ashore who could have been of some help in the rescue were celebrating Christmas Eve or were away on leave. No one in Cherbourg knew there was any problem only five miles offshore. So it came as a complete surprise when the port authorities received a radio message from the Convoy Commander, Captain John Pringle of H.M.S. Brilliant informing them they were taking on survivors and requesting assistance! It was the first news of trouble afoot received by Cherbourg's personnel.
By the time the rescue effort began to be coordinated at Cherbourg, the men onboard the Leopoldville still had not been told the ship was fast sinking under them.
The Brilliant effected a daring rescue and by 7:30 PM had succeeded in getting nearly 700 survivors. Oddly enough, the other three destroyer escorts headed for harbour after their futiile attempt to sink the U-boat. They had heard no call for assistance from the Leopoldville Fearing for the safety of his ship which by then had been much bandied about while rescuing the men from the Leopoldville, the Brilliant disengaged and made for Cherbourg.
The Leopoldville sank beneath the waves at 8:30 PM. More men were saved by the rescue boats which by then had made
it to the scene from Cherbourg. Only one officer, the Captain, from the Leopoldville lost his life. The official death toll was established at 802.
The U-486 was sunk on April 12th, 1945 in the North Sea northwest of Bergen, Norway, by torpedoes from the British submarine HMS Tapir. All 48 crew onboard were lost.
Bertrand SCIBOZ www.ceresm.com