Key point: Taking over a submarine is a pretty difficult accomplishment. However, little did the Americans doing so know that they were jeopardising a far more important (and secret) mission.
“Frenchy to Blue Jay—I have a possible sound contact,” squawked from USS Guadalcanal’s bridge intercom at 1110 hours. It meant that “Frenchy,” codename for the Destroyer Escort USS Chatelain, had located something during a sonar sweep.
This appeared earlier and is being reposted due to reader interest.
But Captain Daniel V. Gallery, commander of the escort carrier Guadalcanal (BlueJay) was not going to get excited, at least not yet. The sound contact could be a whale, a layer of cold water, or any number of other things. On the other hand, a “possible” was always treated like the real thing until found out to be otherwise.
“Left full rudder,” Captain Gallery ordered. “Engines ahead full speed.” He also sent two other destroyer escorts (DE) in to assist Chatelain, put two of Guadalcanal’s Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters over the sound contact, and “got the hell out of there at top speed.” Gallery knew that an aircraft carrier, even a small escort carrier, would only be in the way if the contact turned out to be a U-boat. “A carrier smack on the scene of a sound contact is like an old lady in the middle of a bar room brawl!” he once remarked. “She’d better move fast and leave room for the boys who have work to do.”
Captain Gallery knew about these things from experience. On his last cruise, Gallery and his hunter-killer group had sunk two U-boats, U-68 and U-515, within the space of 12 hours. He was well versed on how German submarine commanders behaved. This trip had begun on May 15, 1944, when Gallery departed Norfolk, Virginia, aboard Guadalcanal with five destroyer escorts: Chatelain, Pillsbury, Pope, Flaherty, and Jenks. His orders were to take his U-boat hunting group, officially known as Task Group 22.3, out into the Atlantic to look for more enemy submarines.
This time, though, Captain Gallery had something different in mind. During the last cruise, U-515 surfaced right in the middle of the task group. The escorting destroyer escorts hit the U-boat with every caliber gun they had, from five-inch to .50-caliber machine guns, before the boat sank. This gave Gallery an idea. “Suppose we hadn’t been so bloody minded about sinking her,” he thought. Before leaving Norfolk, Gallery assembled the captains of all the escort ships in his group and told them that they would try to capture a submarine, if possible, on this cruise.
If a U-boat came to the surface, as U-515 had done, everyone was to assume that the captain had come up to save the lives of the crew. Instead of sinking it, the destroyer escorts would open up with .50-caliber machine guns. This would keep the crew away from the U-boat’s deck guns and would also “encourage them to get the hell off that U-boat.” After the crew had abandoned the submarine, a boarding party would be sent over to disarm any booby traps, close all scuttling valves, do everything possible to keep the boat afloat, and rig it for towing back to the United States.
From the expression on their faces, Captain Gallery could see that some of the destroyer escort captains thought he must be crazy. Everyone present kept their mouths shut. They all organized boarding parties as ordered and waited to see what might happen.
Throughout the month of May, the possibility of capturing a U-boat remained a moot point. Captain Gallery’s hunter-killer group looked for submarines in the vicinity of the Cape Verde Islands, but could not find a thing. The results were “unproductive,” Gallery wrote with disgust in his report. Naval Intelligence sent word that a submarine was within 300 miles of the group, and Guadalcanal picked up radio transmissions on the U-boat frequency, but there had been no contacts. By May 30, the ships were all nearing the safe limit of their fuel. Gallery had no choice but to leave the area and head for Casablanca to refuel.
The task group started for Casablanca but kept a lookout for submarines along with way. On the night of June 2, radar contacts were reported about 50 miles east of the group’s position. Encouraged by these reports, Captain Gallery decided to spend another day on the search, even though it meant stretching his fuel.
When the Chatelain reported a possible sound contact at 1110 hours on June 4, Gallery gave the order to investigate the contact. As Guadalcanal left the area, Pillsbury and Jenks rushed over to help Chatelain. Chatelain’s captain fired a salvo of 20 hedgehogs, small, forward-firing depth bombs, and missed the target—if there was a target. At 1116 hours, all doubts ended abruptly. The pilots of the two Wildcat fighters positively identified a submarine running below the surface and advised Chatelain to reverse course toward it. The fighter pilots also fired bursts of machine-gun fire to indicate the submarine’s position.
The captain of the Chatelain followed the pilot’s advice and, aided by the machine-gun fire of the two planes, fired a full pattern of shallow-set depth charges. From the bridge of his flagship, Captain Gallery felt the deck underneath him rock as the depth charges exploded and a dozen geysers sprouted into the air. A minute later, after the explosions subsided, one of the fighter pilots shouted, “You’ve struck oil, Frenchy, sub is surfacing!” As personnel from every ship in the group looked on, the U-boat broke the surface 700 yards from Chatelain. Captain Gallery could see white water pouring from the submarine’s deck and conning tower. He had his quarry.
The reaction of the destroyer escorts was to start shooting as soon as soon as the boat came up. No one knew for certain whether the U-boat captain had come up to surrender or to fire a spread of torpedoes. Gunners aboard Chatelain, Pillsbury, and Jenks opened fire with a murderous barrage of .50-caliber machine-gun fire along with 20mm and 40mm shells. Larger caliber guns also began shooting but missed their target. The circling Wildcats came down to strafe.
"I Want to Capture That Bastard if Possible."
Shortly after coming to the surface, the U-boat began to circle to the right, making it look as though she was maneuvering to bring her torpedo tubes to bear. After about two minutes of machine-gun and cannon fire, men began popping out of hatches and jumping into the sea. It was obvious that the submarine had no intention of fighting it out with the group and was getting ready to surrender. Captain Gallery did not want the gunners to sink his prize. He broadcast to the escort ships, “I want to capture that bastard if possible.”
The submarine that Captain Gallery’s task group brought to the surface was U-505, commanded by 40-year-old Oberleutnant Harald Lange. U-505 was a Type IX-C submarine, commissioned at Hamburg on August 26, 1941. It was also the unluckiest boat in the Atlantic force. In fact, U-505 was the Typhoid Mary of Admiral Karl Dönitz’s entire U-boat fleet. Since its commissioning day, the submarine seemed to have developed the knack for having things go wrong.
Actually, U-505’s career had begun on a bright note. In November 1942, just after setting out on her first war patrol, she sank a 7,200-ton British freighter, and she eventually sank a total of eight Allied ships during her operational lifetime. Just two days after sinking her first freighter, however, she attacked another ship with four torpedoes—all four missed and her target got away. This was only the beginning of her bad luck. On the afternoon of November 10, she was depth-bombed by twin-engined aircraft and badly damaged. The captain managed to bring her back to France, but U-505spent the next seven months in the repair dock.
Her luck did not improve during her second cruise. Under the command of 24-year-old Peter Zschech, U-505 left Lorient on June 30, 1943, but had come out of the repair dock too soon and was not yet ready for the open sea, forcing a return to Lorient.
Captain Zschech set sail once again on July 3, but three days later the submarine was attacked by three British destroyers off Cape Finisterre. U-505 survived the attack but once again returned to Lorient for major repairs. Her next attempt at a war patrol came in September 1943, when U-505departed Lorient for the Atlantic shipping lanes. Two days out, one of her diesels locked up. The crew managed to repair the engine, but the main trim pump broke down three days later. Because no spare parts were on board for the pump, Captain Zschech had no choice but to return to Lorient on September 30.
The next cruise was probably the worst of all. With Captain Zschech on board, U-505 sailed for the Caribbean in October 1943. On October 9, the submarine was detected by unidentified Allied warships and attacked with depth charges. During the depth charge barrage, Zschech committed suicide with a handgun. The strain of the attack and the frustration of his failure as captain of U-505 had finally taken their toll. The executive officer assumed command and, as his first duty, buried Zschech at sea. U-505 returned to Lorient on November 7, damaged and without a commanding officer.