The Sinking of the SS Leopoldville -Christmas Eve 1944
Updated: Jul 3
On Christmas Eve 1944, the Belgium troopship Leopoldville crossed the English Channel with over 2000 American soldiers onboard and was torpedoed by the German submarine
U-486 and sunk. In his book, We Have Been, my brother Tom writes about what happened that night from his research and from conversations he had with Dad over the years.
One of the most popular comedians on radio in the 1940s was Jack Benny. Although my father never really went in for any kind of celebrity worship whatsoever, I do remember him speaking highly of Jack Benny and this stems mainly because he was a comedian that kept America laughing during the dark years of the war.
On Christmas Eve of 1944, Jack Benny and his cast, Rochester, Don, Mary and Phil (Dennis Day was in the US Navy at that time) went on the air with a particularly funny Christmas show. Near the end of the program the cast opened a bottle of champaign and began to give holiday toasts. When they were all finished, they asked Jack if he had a toast he would like to give. Jack Benny got very solemn and raised his glass to the men he had met in Africa, Europe and the South Pacific and the ones, as he said "He wasn't lucky enough to have met." Dad never heard that show that night; he was too busy helping drowning soldiers out of the icy waters of the English Channel from a disaster that he would not get answers about until a half century later. I remember Dad talking about that Christmas; he said "one moment I was listening to Christmas Carols and the next moment I was pulling bodies out of the water." That Christmas Eve , December 24, 1944, the YMS-346 was docked in Cherbourg harbor and Dad was on board. Many of the soldiers and sailors of the allied expeditionary forces were out celebrating the holiday, but there was still activity crossing the channel that night. Troop ships were still bringing over plenty of reinforcements. One of these ships was the Belgian troopship, SS Leopoldville, whose fate that night would change the whole mood of that Christmas Eve.
The Leopoldville was an 11,500 ton Belgian passenger liner, launched in 1929. At the beginning of the Second World War she was chartered to the British Admiralty and converted into a troopship. During the war she safely transported over 120,000 men to their destinations and had crossed the English Channel 24 times without incident. This would change that Christmas Eve.
On the evening of December 24, 1944, 2235 American soldiers of the 262nd and 264th regiments of the 66th Infantry Division boarded the Leopoldville at Southampton. Her destination would be Cherbourg, where Dad was that night. These troops would be reinforcements for a battle that history would remember as the Battle of the Bulge.
When the Leopoldville left Southampton, she would be protected by four escort ships, the HMS Brilliant, HMS Anthony, HMS Hotham and the Free French frigate Croix de Lorraine. They crossed in diamond formation with the Leopoldville in the center. The Brilliant then ordered the Leopoldville and her sister escorts to commence in zigzag fashion as a precaution, due to increased German sub activity in the channel area. Unfortunately that night an enemy sub was in the channel.
The German submarine, U-486, lay submerged, waiting for her target. When the Leopoldville and her escorts got within five and a half miles of Cherbourg, the German sub took aim and fired her torpedo., It struck the Leopoldville on the starboard side and exploded the number four hold, flooding its compartments. A few of the 300 men in those compartments managed to escape to the higher decks. What followed then was a rescue attempt that could easily be considered a botch job. Everything went wrong that night.
The escort ships immediately went after the German sub, leaving the Leopoldville's captain in a state of shock and not contacting anyone for immediate assistance. Finally, after 15 minutes, the order was given to abandon ship, only the order was given in Belgian and the American troops on deck did not understand it. To make matters worse, the Belgian crew got into the lifeboats and abandoned the ship leaving the Americans on board to fend for themselves.
Finally, the Brilliant returned to assist the Leopoldville and tried to signal Portsmouth for help. Cherbourg could not be reached as the U.S. forces in France had tuned to a different radio frequency than the British used. Another major cause for delay was the Christmas holiday. So many of the ships that were in the Cherbourg harbor were lightly manned as many of their crews were out celebrating at parties or attending religious services.
The Leopoldville was ordered to drop anchor as she began drifting into a minefield. This would only solve one problem as it prevented a tug, which had arrived on the scene, from towing the sinking vessel into shore.
The HMS Brilliant began to maneuver herself alongside of the Leopoldville in the hopes that the men could jump from one ship to the other. It was a very difficult task as the rough seas made the sides of the two ships bash together. Hundreds of men took their turns jumping from the Leopoldville to the Brilliant. Most of them succeeded, but many misjudged their jump and were crushed to death when the two hulls came together.
Dad was on board the YMS-346 listening to Christmas music on the radio when he heard the call "All hands on deck!" The YMS-346 then became one of the many small ships to help out in the rescue of hundreds of men who were still in the freezing water. Dad could see so many heads bobbing in the water. Some were still alive, but many had died from hypothermia.
These American soldiers were never given any instruction on safety or how to enter the water by removing all heavy clothing and heavy gear. Already in the water, they could easily get rid of the gear, guns and helmets, but their heavy winter coats were under their life jackets and could not be removed. Some were killed instantly. Again, not being properly trained on how to enter the water, many would not have their life jackets tied together properly. The two pillows that form the front and back of the jackets would snap up with such force when entering the water that it would break the wearer's neck.
Two and a half hours after the German submarine U-486 hit her target, the SS Leopoldville sank, taking with her the lives of 763 men. That death toll has often been reported as up to 802. 493 of those bodies have never been recovered. The ones that had been recovered were stacked up on a pier in Cherbourg and buried in nearby areas over the next two days.
The rescue operation went so badly and the tragedy was considered such an embarrassment to the allies, that the British government asked the Americans to keep it confidential. Eisenhower agreed to it. The idea was to keep silent to avoid boosting German U-boat moral. The families of the victims that died were sent notices stating that their loved ones were missing in action, when in reality, the U.S. War Department knew they were dead. They later declared them "killed in action". The men who survived were warned never to reveal what had happened and were threatened with imprisonment if they did so. It became one of the great American cover-ups.
Dad had always wondered what that night was all about. Over fifty years later he was watching the History channel on television and saw the episode entitled "History Undercover-Cover-up: The Sinking of the SS Leopoldville". That day his question was answered and he found it very disturbing. Later that summer when Dad came to visit me, he told me about his experience with the Leopoldville and the program he had just watched on the History Channel. I could see that he was visibly upset.
The wreck of the Leopoldville was found in 1984 and is designated today as a war grave. It is said to be the most impressive dive in the channel and divers are warned that the sight is held with great respect.
12/29/44 - Dear Bess: I'm sorry you had your hopes up and was disappointed but Christmas Day found us sweeping, as usual. An incident happened here that took all the spirit out of us. I'll never forget this Christmas as long as I live and I hope God spares me another one like it.
We grew up in a Catholic household. We went to Catholic school and attended Mass every week. My brother Tom played the organ at St. William the Abbot Church in Seaford. I remember as a child, one particular Christmas Eve when there was a snow storm and we couldn't drive to Mass. So we walked. We walked as a family, one mile there and one mile back in the dark and in the snow. I have a distinct memory of my Dad and all of us crowded in our entrance room removing our snow pants and winter coats. I remember him making a grand statement out loud about how grateful he was that we made it home safe and sound. It made an impression on me. Dad wasn't one for making grand statements. And I have to wonder now, what else he was thinking about that he didn't say out loud.
Next: Signalman Third Class - Underway