In the battle for the Atlantic during WWII, US and British warships protected convoys of merchant ships supplying the Allied war effort from German U-boats. Early in the war, the U-boats had considerable success in sinking Allied shipping, but as technology improved (both sonar and radar) and escort carriers joined the Atlantic fleet, the tide turned against the German Unterseeboots. Nevertheless, the toll exacted by these submerged raiders was staggering. Over 3,000 merchant ships and nearly 200 warships were sunk by these Nazi stealth weapons. The Germans didn’t fair too well either, losing nearly 800 U-boats during the war.
There are many accounts of the cat and mouse interactions between warships and U-boats during the war. Few are quite as interesting as the battle between U-66 and USS Buckley (DE 51) in May of 1944.
Buckley was screening the carrier Block Island (CVE 21) as part of Task Group 21.11 near the Cape Verde Islands when a US unarmed night patrol plane reported a radar contact some 20 miles from Buckley‘s location. Buckley moved at flank speed to investigate the contact. As the ship continued its investigation, the plane provided constant feedback regarding the position of the contact, which, as it turns out, was U-66. The moon was bright and the seas were calm. The plane, piloted by Lieutenant (jg) Jimmie J. Sellars, noted that the sub’s movements suggested that it was either a supply/refueling type or a sub waiting to be resupplied/refueled.
At 14,000yds from the contact, Lieutenant Commander Brent Abel ordered the crew to general quarters and Buckley continued to approach the sub withholding fire in hopes that the sub would mistakenly assume Buckley to be its vessel for replenishment. At 0308, the sub apparently spotted Buckley and mistook it for its resupply vessel and fired three red flares. Buckley remained silent. Now at a range of 4,000yds, U-66 figured out that it was not about to rendezvous with a resupply vessel but was being stalked by an enemy warship. As Buckley headed toward the sub, the crew reported a torpedo wake passing down her starboard side. After altering course and loading guns at 0319, Buckley began taking machine gun fire from U-66.
At 0320, Buckley’s captain ordered firing to commence and her 3″ guns promptly scored a hit on the sub’s forecastle just forward of the conning tower. The 3″, 40mm, and 20mm guns on Buckley continued pelting U-66. At 0322, Buckley’s captain ordered cease fire and rudder over left full. Meanwhile, U-66‘s deck gun and machine guns kept firing at Buckley, but most of fire went high over the ship with one hit on the stack.
Fire commenced again from the Buckley at 0323. The sub was 1,500yds away and up-moon again. According to the official report, 20 and 40mm fire “could be seen bursting and splattering on the sub’s conning tower and all firing from the sub ceased…” The sub apparently positioned itself to release torpedoes from her stern tubes and in fact, Buckley maneuvered to avoid a torpedo as it crossed the ship’s bow. All the while, Lt(jg) Sellers in the spotting plane fed valuable information to Buckley’s bridge to assist her maneuvering.
At 0325, Buckley‘s official report stated “Sub buried under withering point blank machine gun and 3″ fire, (1,000 to 500yds)…” At 0328, “Sub close aboard (20 yards) to starboard on parallel course, raked from bow to stern by machine gun fire (20mm and 40mm) and point blank 3″ fire.”
Buckley turned hard right at 0329 leading to one of the more colorful official reports of what resembled swashbuckling ship-to-ship, hand-to-hand combat of earlier centuries. Buckley‘s crew used whatever was handy to repel U-66‘s attack. Here is Buckley‘s official report:
NOTE: It was later determined that some of the German submariners wanted to surrender rather than board Buckley for a fight.
After this initial engagement, Buckley backed off. Several German submariners were captured while boarding and were taken aft away from the fight. Buckley increased speed again and drew abreast of the sub that was still making nearly 18knts but was clearly out of the control of the crew. Buckley maneuvered to keep the sub from contacting her shafts all the while peppering the sub with machine gun fire. The sub rolled to a 60 degree angle allowing the Buckley crew to see down the conning tower where a roaring fire burned. The official report states that “Man on deck of sub attempting to man gun disintegrates when hit by four 40-millimeter shells.” Buckley torpedo-men threw grenades through the open conning tower leading to more explosions.
At 0336, the sub scraped along Buckley‘s hull and fell aft of the ship but not before exacting damage to the hull and shearing her starboard shaft. Explosions were heard and U-66 disappeared below the surface. The entire action lasted only 16 minutes according to the official report.
A wide variety of armaments were expended by Buckley during the engagement. From the official report:
There was no mention of the coffee mugs that were expended during the action!
For the next three hours, Buckley searched for surviving crew of U-66 and eventually picked up 36 including four officers. The sub crew believed that they had been attacked by a light cruiser.
Photos of surviving U-66 on board USS Block Island (CVE 21)
Buckley limped back to port on one screw for repair. Captain Abel wrote the following in his report:
The commanding officer is proud of the fighting spirit, coolness in action, and thorough going teamwork shown by all hands. It was these characteristics, more than the individual brilliance or heroism of any one officer or man, which concluded the action successfully.
Abel was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions. Here is the citation:
The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Lieutenant Commander Brent Maxwell Abel, United States Navy, for extraordinary heroism and distinguished service in the line of his profession as Commanding Officer of the Destroyer Escort U.S.S. BUCKLEY (DE-51), in offensive action against a German submarine during while patrolling the Atlantic Coast on the early morning of 6 May 1944. Directed by an unarmed search plane to the position of a surfaced enemy submarine, Lieutenant Commander Abel immediately proceeded to the scene of contact, preparing his ship, while en route, for any form of anti-submarine combat. The approach of the U.S.S. BUCKLEY, conducted at high speed and in very bright moonlight, was undetected by the enemy until just before the U.S.S. BUCKLEY reached the effective gun range, at which point the enemy made a recognition signal and fired torpedoes. After avoiding the torpedoes, despite the threat of other attacks and in the face of a heavy barrage of automatic weapons fire, the U.S.S. BUCKLEY closed to a short range where an effective blanket of fire from all guns succeeded in silencing the enemy’s fire within four minutes after the beginning of the gun action. Avoiding another torpedo, the U.S.S. BUCKLEY closed the widely maneuvering submarine, raked it at close range with all available gun power, and rammed. The enemy countered with an attempted boarding while the vessels were in contact, and then attempted to ram after the combatants became disengaged. Following the defeat of these efforts the doomed submarine, with conning tower shattered and burning fiercely, with all hatches open, abandoned by its crew and completely out of control, disappeared under the surface of the water. Three minutes after the enemy had taken its final plunge under Diesel power, the U-boat blew up with accompanying heavy underwater explosions. Lieutenant Commander Abel’s skill and inspiring leadership and the courageous, aggressive spirit of his command in offensive action against the enemy were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.