A Christmas Eve Disaster: The Sinking of the SS LéopoldvilleBy: Terrance Lloyd
December 24th, 1944- SS ' Léopoldville' is torpedoed off France, and 763 American soldiers from the 66th Infantry Division perish.
December 1944 was a tumultuous month in world history. The month began with guarded optimism in Europe, where it appeared that the forces of Nazi Germany were headed to a certain defeat. The Soviet Army was making steady progress in the east, pressing into Hungary. At the same time, the German V-2 terror rocket campaign continued, indiscriminately killing British and Dutch civilians, with no defense against the ballistic rockets possible.
In the war in the Pacific, American soldiers have successfully landed in the Philippines. The tough campaign to liberate the islands of the archipelago is underway with U.S. soldiers and highly organized Filipino guerillas, now forming into conventional military forces, retaking key islands in the archipelago. The desperate Japanese defenders have begun using kamikaze attacks against U.S. Navy ships in Leyte Gulf, foreshadowing what is to come on the final road to Tokyo.
As Christmas approached, an unforeseen armored Nazi juggernaut counterattack began to steamroll weak American army units stationed in the heavily forested Ardennes region of Belgium. Snowstorms and low visibility prevented Allied tactical air forces, which had destroyed Nazi panzers and other vehicles at will since the D-Day landings, were unable to fly in the winter weather. Allied lines along a 100-mile section collapsed. The object of the attack was the vital Dutch deep-water port of Antwerp, the only such port available to the Allies.
By December 22nd, soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division in the key Belgian crossroad town of Bastogne were surrounded, running low on ammunition, food, and other vital supplies. When asked to surrender, Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe tersely replied: "Nuts!". The next day, the skies over Belgium cleared, unleashing Allied aircraft to slaughter German panzers and troops in the open with little Luftwaffe opposition. By Christmas Eve, the Allied counterattack of what has begun to be called the “Battle of the Bulge” begins.
Against this backdrop, also on Christmas Eve 1944, the converted Belgium ocean liner Léopoldville left the pier at Southampton, England with over 2,000 American soldiers assigned to the 66th Infantry Division aboard. The troopship’s destination was the French harbor town of Cherbourg, a relatively short distance across the English Channel. The division was desperately needed to reinforce the shattered units that had initially withstood the worst of the German attacks in the Ardennes.
The soldiers were given virtually no instructions for abandoning ship or in the proper use of survival gear, and the ship's mixed crew communicated mainly in the Flemish language, however, the SS Léopoldville had successfully transported over 120,000 Allied soldiers on previous trips. The Léopoldville was one of two troopships in a formation with four warships: two British destroyers, and one British and one French frigate.
As far as any threat from the German Navy, the Kriegsmarine, since the D-Day landings in June, hundreds of thousands of Allied troops had crossed the English Channel without being attacked. Operationally, many considered that the English Channel had been “sealed” by the allied navies.
Less than six miles from Cherbourg, the Léopoldville was torpedoed and began to sink. About 300 soldiers were believed killed when the German torpedo exploded on the starboard, or right, side of the ship. Some soldiers were able to board lifeboats, with the ship’s crew. An escorting British destroyer, the H.M.S. Brilliant, came alongside to begin evacuating the remaining troops, however, several factors created a dangerous dilemma for those seeking to escape the sinking ship. First, the deck of the Léopoldville was some forty feet higher than the steel deck of the British warship, which was covered with obstacles and protrusions such as torpedo tubes and gun mounts. Many jumping onto the Brilliant’s deck suffered from broken bones and other severe injuries. In addition, an eight-to-twelve-foot swell meant that some men were crushed between the two ships' hulls if they missed the Brilliant’s deck. As these dangers became apparent, the British crew took all measures possible to mitigate the dangers.
Soon, over 500 American soldiers had come aboard the Brilliant, dangerously overloading the ship. The Brilliant’s captain had no choice but to depart for Cherbourg, leaving over an estimated 1200 troops still aboard the sinking Leopold. Differing radio frequencies and wartime codes precluded direct communications between the British warships and Cherbourg’s American military port authorities, compounding the tragedy.
As the Léopoldville slipped beneath the water, some soldiers who managed to stay afloat were rescued by escort ships and a few boats that had hastily sailed from Cherbourg.
The S.S. Léopoldville had been sunk by the German submarine, or “U-Boat, U-486, which was on its first war patrol. Post-war records would show that of the other Allied ships damaged by explosions in the English Channel post D-Day , thought at the time to have struck mines, some were actually torpedoed by U-boats.
In all, 763 American soldiers died from either the torpedo explosion, attempting to board H.M.S. Brilliant or exposure to the near-freezing waters of the Channel. 493 were declared missing and their bodies were never recovered from the sea. The losses represented approximately one-third of the 66th Division’s soldiers and represented one of the deadliest single events experienced by U.S. forces in World War Two. The Léopoldville’s captain and four crew members also died.
The surviving soldiers of the 66th Infantry Division were ordered not to tell anyone about the sinking of their ship, and their letters were censored by the Army for the rest of the war. Due to wartime secrecy, the families of the lost were never told the circumstances of what happened. Many of the survivors were sent right into the fight of the Battle of the Bulge with other units and continued throughout the remainder of the war in Europe. In all, 19,000 U.S. soldiers were killed in action during the Battle of the Bulge, making it the costliest battle of the entire war for American forces.
Although what occurred is definitely a case of the circumstances being worse than the cover-up, it appears there was a cover-up, nonetheless. While it is understandable that during wartime, the loss of eight hundred soldiers in a successful U-Boat attack is sensitive information that needed to be withheld from the enemy, at discharge, the surviving soldiers were ordered not to talk about the sinking. Many maintain their GI Bill and other postwar benefits were threatened, especially if anyone spoke to the press. Records of the tragedy remained classified until 1996.
In 1997, a monument to the 66th Infantry Division was dedicated at Fort Benning, Georgia in memory of both the soldiers who died during the Léopoldville sinking and also to those who were later killed in action. There are other Léopoldville memorials in the United States and one in Britain. The identified remains of several soldiers who died in the Léopoldville sinking are interred in the Normandy American Cemetery, close to Cherbourg.
In 2004, on the 60th anniversary of the Léopoldville’s sinking, a wreath-laying ceremony for Léopoldville’s missing was conducted at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.