The Battle of Point Judith, 1945

It was a high quality spring day on Could 5, 1945, as Boatswain’s Mate Joe Burbine scanned the horizon from Coast Guard Station Level Judith in Rhode Island. From this vantage on the entrance to Narragansett Bay the enlisted lookout had a transparent view of the comings and goings of ships.
The temper on the station was upbeat. World Warfare II in Europe was basically over. Adolf Hitler was useless, and the Nazi regime was collapsing underneath the burden of a relentless Allied assault. Give up was anticipated at any second.
In that relaxed milieu Burbine watched unconcerned because the collier SS Black Level chugged north. Laden with some 7,600 tons of coal and crewed by 46 males, the ship handed about 2 miles off the purpose, headed to Boston at roughly 8 knots in honest seas.
Round 5:40 p.m., as night approached, Burbine bent all the way down to report the sighting within the station logbook. Startled by a muffled explosion, he raised his binoculars and appeared to sea, watching in horror as a plume of water shot skyward alongside Black Level. A torpedo had struck the collier, blowing off its stern.
Seventy-six years in the past the prospect of an finish to the lengthy warfare was shattered within reach of the American coast. A German U-boat had slipped into the shallow waters off New England and launched an assault that despatched a chill of worry via American sailors and service provider mariners. The German submarine captain, both unaware of a stand-down order from his superiors or ignoring the command, remained on the hunt for prey.
World Warfare II was not but over. The Battle of Level Judith—the ultimate naval engagement within the Atlantic marketing campaign—had solely simply begun.
From the outbreak of warfare in 1939 via early 1943 Germany held the higher hand within the wide-ranging Battle of the Atlantic. Its submarines sank cargo vessels, troop transports, oilers and warships at an alarming price. U-boats decimated Allied transport alongside the East Coast throughout Unternehmen Paukenschlag (Operation Drumbeat), which started in January 1942, inside weeks of the U.S. entry into the warfare. German submariners dubbed it the “Second Pleased Time” (the “First Pleased Time” having are available 1940–41 within the North Atlantic and North Sea). Within the first eight months of 1942 the U-boats sank greater than 600 ships totaling 3.1 million tons.
Helmut Frömsdorf
Then the tide turned. Improved anti-submarine ways, new weapons and technologically superior underwater detection programs gave the U.S. Navy the benefit. Quickly the hunters grew to become the hunted. Allied transport losses fell dramatically, whereas U-boat sinkings climbed month by month. By warfare’s finish Germany would lose 783 subs and a few 30,000 males within the Atlantic. Struggling 75 p.c losses, the Kriegsmarine U-boat service had the next dying price than any department within the armed forces of all the battle’s combatant nations.
The captain of U-853 was definitely conscious of the state of affairs when he took to sea on Feb. 23, 1945, for his final patrol. Although simply 24, Oberleutnant zur See Helmut Frömsdorf was already a veteran of submarine warfare. He had served on U-853 since its first fight patrol in 1944, rapidly studying of the inherent risks from his first commander, Kapitänleutnant Helmut Sommer.
U-853, a Kind IXC/40 long-range submarine carrying 22 torpedoes, had been tasked with amassing climate knowledge, which German intelligence believed would assist predict the timing of the anticipated Allied invasion of Europe. On Could 25, 1944, Sommer noticed one of many biggest potential prizes of all—RMS Queen Mary. Pressed into service as a troopship, the elegant British ocean liner was carrying U.S. troops and provides to Britain within the run-up to D-Day. Sommer submerged his U-boat and went in pursuit however was unable to catch the a lot sooner ship.
Throughout that very same patrol U-853 earned its nickname, Seiltänzer (“tightrope walker”), after narrowly evading an American anti-submarine hunter-killer group. For 3 weeks Sommer and crew performed a lethal recreation of cat-and-mouse with the escort service USS Croatan and a half dozen destroyers, which had intercepted the U-boat’s climate transmissions.
On June 17 Croatan launched a pair of Japanese Plane FM-1 Wildcat fighters, which caught U-853 on the floor and strafed it, killing two German sailors and wounding a dozen. Sommer himself sustained 28 wounds from shrapnel and bullets, but survived. The captain refused to depart the conning tower till the injured have been moved below-decks. Taking the helm, Frömsdorf managed to elude the hunter-killer group. After returning to France for repairs, U-853 logged a second patrol off Britain with one other captain. After that unsuccessful mission Frömsdorf was given command.
U-853’s new skipper was an atypical U-boat captain. Standing 6 ft 10 inches, Frömsdorf was possible the tallest man within the German submarine service. We are able to solely guess at what number of occasions he banged his head or stooped beneath a bulkhead within the cramped confines of U-853.
Members of U-853’s crew, together with Frömsdorf (sporting tie), get pleasure from downtime collectively between patrols.
Earlier than leaving Germany, Frömsdorf visited his former captain within the hospital. Sommer cautioned the junior officer in regards to the mission and advised him the warfare was at an finish. “Don’t be frivolous with the crew,” the wounded commander urged. “They’re all good boys. Be sure you deliver them house.”
Sommer’s plea apparently fell on deaf ears. Although not a Nazi Social gathering member, Frömsdorf was an idealogue. He firmly believed Nazi propaganda and strove to serve the Fatherland, regardless of how the warfare was going. He may additionally have been a Halsschmerzen (“sore throat”)—a time period the German army used to explain a glory-seeking commander who would threat his males in his obsession to earn a Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross—Nazi Germany’s highest award. The Kriegsmarine referred to such reckless U-boat commanders as Draufgängeren (“daredevils”).
Capt. Invoice Palmer, creator of The Final Battle of the Atlantic: The Sinking of the U-853, is satisfied that was the case with Frömsdorf. An avid scuba diver and proprietor of a constitution boat operation out of Mystic, Conn., Palmer has dived on the wreck many occasions.
“I spoke to various U-boat officers and sailors and was advised Frömsdorf had a ‘sore throat,’” Palmer mentioned. “He was trying to distinguish himself earlier than the warfare ended. However you don’t do this when 50 males are relying on you for survival.”
On Feb. 23, 1945, U-853 slipped into the Atlantic, certain for the East Coast. The vessel made sluggish progress, because it traveled underwater a lot of the solution to keep away from detection by Allied plane. Earlier than crusing, the submarine had been outfitted with a newly refined snorkel, a telescoping air-intake equipment that enabled a submerged U-boat to make use of its diesel engines.
As soon as underway Frömsdorf obtained orders to proceed to the Gulf of Maine. On the afternoon of April 23, as U-853 patrolled Casco Bay, off Portland, its sonar operators detected the engine noise of a close-by ship, USS Eagle 56. Assigned to Naval Air Station Brunswick, the World Warfare I–period patrol boat was towing a goal so U.S. plane may observe dropping bombs on seaborne objects.
At 12:14 p.m. Frömsdorf launched a single G7e torpedo towards the unsuspecting vessel. The weapon’s 660-pound warhead exploded amidships, breaking Eagle 56 in two. The 200-foot patrol boat sank in minutes, taking 49 males with it to the underside of Casco Bay. A half hour later a destroyer arrived to pluck 13 survivors from the chilly sea.
Inside weeks a U.S. Navy board of inquiry decided Eagle 56 had succumbed to a boiler explosion, regardless of the very fact survivors reported having seen a U-boat conning tower with distinctive red-and-yellow markings. (Painted by its crew, U-853’s emblem was a crimson horse on a yellow defend.) The board’s discovering stood till 2001, when naval historian Paul Lawton offered conclusive proof a torpedo had sunk the ship. The Navy subsequently issued Purple Hearts to the survivors and subsequent of kin of these killed.
Satirically, Eagle 56—the final American warship sunk within the Atlantic—had on Feb. 28, 1942, rescued survivors of the torpedoed destroyer USS Jacob Jones—the primary American warship sunk within the Atlantic after Germany declared warfare on the USA.
U-853’s attack on the collier Black Point set in motion the chain of events that ended with the loss of the submarine and all hands. / U.S. Navy (National Archives)
U-853’s assault on the collier Black Level set in movement the chain of occasions that ended with the lack of the submarine and all arms. / U.S. Navy (Nationwide Archives)
Following the Casco Bay assault, U-853 took evasive motion and escaped detection by U.S. sub hunters. Frömsdorf then headed the U-boat south seeking different targets.
By Could 5 U-853 had moved into place off Level Judith. That very same day Grossadmiral Karl Dönitz—who within the wake of Hitler’s April 30 suicide had succeeded the Führer as Reichspräsident—had a radio message beamed to all U-boat captains, ordering them to stop offensive operations and return to base.
Did U-853 obtain the message? It’s doable the U-boat was submerged with out its antennae deployed and by no means heard the transmission. In fact, it’s additionally doable Frömsdorf obtained message and easily ignored it so he may sink extra enemy transport. What precisely transpired that day won’t ever be recognized, because the logbook was not recovered.
“Did he get the message and ignore it?” posited Robert Cembrola, director of the Naval Warfare School Museum in Newport, R.I., which showcases a variety of U-853 artifacts. “Did he see that huge freighter going by and say, ‘I’m going to get yet another kill earlier than I head again to Germany’? That’s an enormous query.”
If Frömsdorf did disregard Dönitz’s order to stop hostilities, it wouldn’t be the one time. Whereas attempting to find extra targets, he violated one other of the admiral’s directives: U-boats have been required to be in no less than 200 ft of water when attacking, so they might submerge deep sufficient afterward to keep away from detection by the enemy. Frömsdorf would have recognized from his charts that the underside the place he lay in wait off Level Judith was solely 100 ft, thus leaving no place to run and conceal if and when sub hunters got here searching for him.
Three days earlier than U-853 arrived off Level Judith the closely loaded collier SS Black Level had steamed out of Newport Information, Va., certain north for Boston. Capt. Charles E. Prior wasn’t too involved about enemy motion. The warfare in Europe was almost over, and the probabilities of an assault appeared distant. Twenty minutes until 6 on the night of Could 5, because the collier approached Level Judith Gentle, Prior stepped from the wheelhouse to smoke a cigarette. All of the sudden, the entire ship rocked violently.
“That’s when it hit the fan,” Prior advised creator Palmer when interviewed for The Final Battle of the Atlantic. “The clock was blown off the wall, and the barometer off the bulkhead. The wheelhouse door was blown open, and I don’t bear in mind if I lit the cigarette or swallowed it. I may odor gunpowder within the air, and the strict of my ship was utterly blown off.”
Black Level had been struck by a number of G7e torpedoes fired by U-853. The collier shook with the brutal drive of the blast. The severed stern sank inside minutes, taking all however one of many males in that part of the ship to the underside. The one survivor from the fantail was Stephen Svetz, a member of the civilian vessel’s U.S. Navy Armed Guard gun crew. Thrown into the air by the explosion, he landed on the ahead part of the ship.
What was left of Black Level drifted for 1 / 4 mile or so earlier than lastly coming to a cease and sinking. As he moved via the wreckage searching for injured males, Prior gave the order to desert ship. Thirty-four survivors made it to the life rafts and have been rescued by close by vessels or crash boats from shore. Twelve crew members both died within the blast or drowned when the collier sank. Black Level was the final vessel sunk in U.S. waters by a German U-boat.
Members of Moberly’s crew look on as mortar-like, forward-throwing hedgehog charges detonate just off the frigate’s starboard bow. / U.S. Coast Guard
Members of Moberly’s crew look on as mortar-like, forward-throwing hedgehog fees detonate simply off the frigate’s starboard bow. / U.S. Coast Guard
From his submit on the Coast Guard station Boatswain’s Mate Burbine notified superiors, who contacted the First Naval District headquarters in Boston, which relayed the message to the Navy’s Japanese Sea Frontier command in New York Metropolis. Its radio operators in flip put out a name to Process Group 60.7, then returning to the Massachusetts port from escort responsibility for repairs and resupply. Three of its 4 ships—the destroyer escorts USS Amick and Atherton and frigate USS Moberly—have been lower than 30 miles from the scene of the assault.
The trio of warships arrived round 7:30 p.m. and started a sonar sweep. Throughout the hour they detected an object on the seafloor at a depth of 108 ft. Atherton instantly dropped magnetic depth fees, considered one of which exploded, indicating it had struck metallic. The crew then fired two rounds of hedgehogs, a mortar-like, forward-throwing anti-submarine weapon whose warheads additionally solely detonated on contact.
Quickly becoming a member of the hunt was the destroyer USS Ericsson, the fourth member of TG 60.7. The American warships initiated one other sonar sweep however have been unable to pinpoint the U-boat. Unsure whether or not the preliminary goal had been an current shipwreck or the enemy sub, the Navy commanders widened their search grid.
Round 11:20 p.m. Atherton and Moberly, working collectively, detected what they believed was the U-boat, in 100 ft of water some 4,000 yards east of the unique assault zone. Closing in, the American warships fired a number of rounds of hedgehogs. When crew members introduced searchlights to bear half-hour after midnight on Could 6, their beams picked up bubbles, oil and particles on the floor.
Atherton circled the world for some 20 minutes, sustaining sonar contact with the goal on the seafloor. No motion or sounds have been detected. Simply in case, the ship dropped two extra collection of depth fees on shallow settings. One exploded too quickly and broken Atherton’s personal sonar gear, so Moberly moved in to assault. Extremely, sonar confirmed U-853 was nonetheless “alive” and creeping alongside the underside at about 5 knots.
Throughout its depth-charge run Moberly skilled the identical issues as Atherton had, the ensuing shallow explosions additionally damaging its sonar. The crew made repairs. However the U-boat managed to slide away after being detected shifting at 2 to three knots in 75 ft of water.
As daybreak broke, it grew to become clear the depth cost and hedgehog barrages had hit the mark. Lookouts noticed three oil slicks about 30 ft aside, together with appreciable particles. After re-establishing sonar contact, the warships resumed their assault at 5:30 a.m., making a number of runs with depth fees and hedgehogs. A pair of Navy blimps from Lakehurst, N.J., quickly joined in, marking the goal and firing rockets on the oil slicks.
In a coup de grâce, Atherton and Moberly made a final run on the U-boat with depth fees. The previous went first, adopted by the latter. After Moberly handed over the goal, an eruption of air and oil broke the floor, adopted by all method of kit, papers and clothes, together with Frömsdorf’s black-peaked cap. The sub hunters broke off their assault at 10:45 a.m.
That very same morning the submarine rescue ship USS Penguin departed New London, Conn., certain for the battleground. A lot of the vessel’s crew members have been bleary-eyed and deeply hungover after a late evening of partying. They’d been celebrating what they thought was the tip of the warfare in Europe. On Could 7—the day Nazi German emissaries initially surrendered to the Allies—divers from Penguin descended on U-853. Their mission was to establish the sub and rescue survivors. Nobody believed there could be any.
The divers discovered what they anticipated—a severely broken U-boat and the our bodies of 55 officers and males in and across the wreck. Breaching the hull have been two holes—one ahead of the conning tower, the opposite close to the engine room. The divers tried getting into the U-boat via the slim foremost hatch however discovered it blocked by a number of corpses. They extracted one physique and introduced it to the floor. It was later recognized as that of 22-year-old seaman Herbert Hoffmann, whom a pathologist decided had succumbed to accidents somewhat than drowning. Hoffmann was later buried at sea with full army honors. In 1960 divers recovered a whole set of bones. The unidentified stays have been interred at Island Cemetery Annex in Newport in a ceremony attended by West German and U.S. Navy officers and representatives.
Jubilant over the sinking of U-853, Moberly’s Coast Guard Reserve crew gathers to watch a crewmate paint a victory symbol on the frigate’s funnel. / U.S. Coast Guard
Jubilant over the sinking of U-853, Moberly’s Coast Guard Reserve crew gathers to look at a crewmate paint a victory image on the frigate’s funnel. / U.S. Coast Guard
“Now we have German officers on the Naval Warfare School yearly,” museum director Cembrola mentioned. “On the anniversary of the sinking they’ve a ceremony right here on the cemetery to recollect the German sailor who was buried there.”
At one level there was speak of elevating the wreck of the U-boat and turning it right into a vacationer attraction. However when officers in each Rhode Island and West Germany raised objections, the plans have been dropped.
In 1953 salvors raised U-853’s twin screws, which for years sat uncared for in a area close to Newport’s Fortress Hill Gentle. At this time the preserved propellers are on everlasting show on the U.S. Naval Warfare School Museum.
U-853 rests in 130 ft of water some 7 nautical miles east of Block Island. Because it holds the stays of 53 sailors, it’s thought-about a warfare grave underneath worldwide maritime legislation. That doesn’t cease leisure divers from visiting the wreck, one of the vital fashionable dive websites in New England, although as a result of U-boat’s deteriorating situation, confined areas and unexploded ordnance, getting into might be harmful. Two divers have died on the wreck.
The Battle of the Atlantic was expensive for each side. American losses alone totaled 1,600 ships carrying some 14 million tons of materiel, with 9,521 service provider mariners misplaced to U-boat assaults.
Whereas the sinking of U-853 was a comparatively minor occasion in that lengthy battle for management of the ocean separating the Outdated World from the New, the lack of the sub stays “a tragic story,” Palmer says. “Capt. Sommer advised Frömsdorf the warfare is sort of over. ‘These are all good boys. Be sure you deliver them house.’ And there they sit off Block Island, ready to go house. It was a tragedy that didn’t need to occur.”
Palmer additionally interviewed former U-boat commander Herbert A. Werner, not lengthy earlier than the latter’s dying in 2013. Werner spoke of the various courageous males who served within the Unterseeboote and of the pointless last mission of U-853.
“We weren’t Nazis, as foreigners depict us, though there have been a number of,” he mentioned. “We have been German sailors, and damned good ones. We did our job till the final day, and for that I’m proud.” MH
Massachusetts freelancer Dave Kindy is a frequent contributor to Navy Historical past and different Historynet magazines, in addition to different shops. For additional studying he recommends The Final Battle of the Atlantic: The Sinking of the U-853, by Capt. Invoice Palmer; World Warfare II Rhode Island, by Christian McBurney, Brian L. Wallin, Patrick T. Conley, John W. Kennedy and Maureen A. Taylor; and “Kill and Be Killed? The U-853 Thriller,” by Adam Lynch, within the June 2008 challenge of Naval Historical past.

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