The sinking of the SS Léopoldville

800 dead on Christmas Eve

The Léopoldville

The sinking of the troopship SS Léopoldville and the death of over 800 men, most of them Americans, is one of the least-known tragedies of World War II. The loss of the ship was the result of enemy action, and such losses are inevitable in war; but the poor communication that characterized the incident led to many deaths that could have been avoided. The fact that the event occurred on Christmas Eve makes the tragedy more poignant; the fact that it had been covered up until 1996 makes it infuriating. Today's article, published just a few days before the 80th anniversary of the ship's loss, is dedicated to the memories of the Léopoldville's dead.

Artist Richard Rockwell's depiction of the moment the Léopoldville was torpedoed. Richard Rockwell was the nephew Norman Rockwell, who famously painted The Four Freedoms and one of the most iconic portrayals of Rosie the Riveter (Painting: Richard Rockwell)

The Léopoldville was originally a Belgian ship launched in 1928, servicing the route between Belgium and the country's African colony, the Belgian Congo. She had a length of 501 Ft (153 m), and an original capacity of 360 passengers and 8,458 cubic feet (239 cubic meters) of refrigerated cargo. She was just returning home from the Congolese port of Matadi on May 10, 1940, when Nazi Germany invaded Belgium. (Read our earlier article) She was diverted to a port in Western France, then sailed back to Matadi when the fall of France became inevitable. She steamed for New York, and from there to Liverpool in England. Once there, the cargo ship was modified into a troopship and began a new career in November 1940, transporting Royal Air Force recruits to Canada for training. She retained a Belgian crew of over 200 men, with 93 Africans from the Belgian Congo. In 1942, Belgian captain Charles Limbor became her commanding officer. Limbor didn't speak English, and gave his commands in Flemish – this became a fatal problem on the ship's last voyage, since most of the English-speaking passengers couldn't understand him.

The Léopoldville seen from behind

The Léopoldville's first three trips as a troopship revealed that she was unsuited for the North Atlantic conditions, and she was reassigned to more southerly zones, transporting troops between various African and Mediterranean ports, usually with around 2,000 troops on board. She transported troops from Glasgow in Scotland to Algiers during the North African campaign in late 1942, participated in the invasion of Sicily in July 1943, then spent the next year in the Mediterranean before returning to Glasgow for a refit in preparation of Operation Overlord, the Allied landings in Normandy. She unloaded her first batch of troops on the beaches on June 8, then made 23 more trips between England and Normandy.

Just before Christmas 1944, she was hastily loaded with 2,223 soldiers from the American 66th "Black Panther" Infantry Division. Nazi Germany had just begun its last major counteroffensive on the Western Front, which became known as the Battle of the Bulge, and the Allies rapidly needed as many soldiers as they could get to stop and throw back the surprise attack. Due to the great haste, the men of the 66th were brought aboard in the order they arrived, rather than unit by unit, which broke up their command structure. The crew of 213 was supplemented by 24 gunners to man the ship's defensive weapons. There was an insufficient number of lifeboats onboard, and most of the men did not participate in the poorly supervised lifeboat drill – those who were present were only told to report to their emergency drill stations, but not what to do after that.

Artist's depiction of the convoy leaving England
(Painting: Richard Rockwell)

The Léopoldville departed Southampton at 9 a.m. On December 24, headed for the deep sea port of Cherbourg in Normandy (Read our earlier article), from where the reinforcements were to travel to the Ardennes over land. The convoy comprised six ships: the Léopoldville, the Royal Navy troopship HMS Cheshire, and four escorts surrounding them in a diamond formation: the destroyers HMS Brilliant and HMS Anthony, the frigate HMS Hotham, and the French frigate Croix de Lorraine.

The men aboard the Léopoldville did not expect any surprises as they were singing Christmas carols on deck and looking at the lights along the liberated French coast. And yet, danger was lurking nearby. The German submarine U-486, a Type VII C, left on her first patrol in late November. She circumnavigated Britain and sank a ship on December 18, then headed back to the continent, encountering the Léopoldville 5.5 miles (9 km) off Cherbourg in the late afternoon hours. The U-boat's commander, Oberleutnant zur See (Lieutenant, Junior Grade) Gerhard Meyer, launched two torpedoes, one of which struck the Léopoldville starboard side aft and exploding inside a hold, killing about 300 men as three compartments rapidly flooded. Of the 175 men quartered where the torpedo hit, only 19 survived. The explosion also destroyed two lifeboats, reducing the already insufficient lifesaving capacity to 676 men.

Artist's depiction of the chaos belowdecks shortly after the torpedo strike
(Painting: Richard Rockwell)

Captain Limbor gave orders to abandon ship – in Flemish, which most Americans did not understand. Some men showed up at the lifeboats, but most of them, not realizing the ship was sinking, remained at their places, assuming that a tug would be soon dispatched from Cherbourg to tow them in. They didn't know that the Léopoldville dropped her anchor to prevent drifting into the minefield protecting Cherbourg's harbor, so a tug could not have moved it even if one arrived.  Meanwhile, the crew, who understood the order, evacuated the ship, leaving the troops behind – in fairness, Captain Limbor stayed behind with one Belgian and three Congolese crewmen and went down with his ship.

HMS Brilliant, the escort that rescued 500 survivors

Three of the escort ships started hunting the German submarine (which got away and sank a British frigate two days later), while the Brilliant pulled up alongside the mortally wounded troopship to take on as many soldiers as they could. The Léopoldville's railings were 10 ft (3 m) above the Brilliant's deck. Scramble nets were lowered for soldiers to climb down. As it dawned on the troopship's passengers that the ship was sinking, men started to take the leap to get down quicker, breaking limbs as they landed on torpedo tubes or other pieces of equipment. The destroyer's crew started bringing up mattresses to cushion the fall.

Artist's depiction of men making the dangerous leap to the safety of HMS Brilliant
(Painting: Richard Rockwell)

Those who landed with only a broken bone were the lucky ones. With the waves rhythmically pulling the ships apart and pushing them back together, many men missed the jump and landed in the gelid winter water between the vessels. With no way for them to climb up the side of either ship, all they could do was wait in terror until the ships collided again, crushing the trapped men to death. As one survivor recounted, "As the ships came together the soldiers were flattened like pancakes. There was blood all over the side of the ships." Some wounded men were tied to stretchers as they were being lowered onto the Brilliant, but were accidentally let go. They too dropped into the water, tied down and unable to even try to stay aloft. The Brilliant took on 500 men, as much as she possibly could, then headed for Cherbourg to unload them. Many men were still in the water.

Artist's depiction of men trapped between the ships
(Painting: Richard Rockwell)

Meanwhile, the port of Cherbourg started sending light communications, but the escort ships were too busy hunting the submarine to notice the lights. The Brilliant attempted to raise radio communications with American units in Cherbourg, but the U.S. radios used a different frequency and could not read British codes. Eventually, the destroyer radioed the British naval base at Portsmouth back in England, who in turned telephoned the American garrison in Cherbourg. Most men, however, were away from their posts and busily partaking in festivities, which further slowed down response time. Junior officers were told by their superiors not to disturb their Christmas celebrations unless an accident was confirmed with absolute certainty. It took nearly an hour for Cherbourg to realize that the Léopoldville was sinking. In theory, they had hundreds of ships in port that could have been used as rescue craft, but most crewmen were celebrating, and the ships had cold engines and took a long time to start up. The doomed troopship sank at 8:40 p.m., before any rescue efforts were launched from Cherbourg. She went down stern first; there were still men at the bow, jumping and sliding down into the deathly cold waters.

Artist's depiction of the sinking of the Léopoldville
(Painting: Richard Rockwell)

Several ships eventually reached the site of the Léopoldville's sinking, but it was largely too late. Most of the men fished out of the sea had already frozen to death. Of the 2,235 American servicemen aboard, some 515 went down with the ship, and another 248 died from drowning, hypothermia or injuries. An unknown number of British soldiers also died, along with the captain and four of his crew. The rescue ships, many of them understaffed due to the Christmas festivities, included the submarine chaser Waverly, the 78' Higgins Motor Torpedo Boat PT-461 (Read our earlier article), a tug, a civilian fishing boat and a rubber raft. Many of the smaller craft struggled in the rough seas, unable to transfer the rescued men to larger vessels and go seek out more. Many ships lacked scramble nets, and couldn't lift survivors out of the water because their freeboard was too high. Rescuers had to get in the freezing water themselves to lift people out.

The crew of PT-461, one of the vessels that participated in the rescue effort

Some of the dead were found with broken necks or choked to death: they put on their life vests before jumping, but were not trained in its use. They didn't know they had to cross their arms to keep the jacket down, and it flipped up, breaking their necks.

Once the bodies were brought back to shore, the dead were placed under sheets. Some of them, still preserving a spark of life, got up and started walking. Under bodies made some final motions or let out sigh-like sounds as they started thawing. The victims included at least three pairs of brothers, two pairs being twins.

Artist's depiction of the rescue attempt
(Painting: Richard Rockwell)

The cover-up began almost immediately. It was decided that news of the catastrophe would be bad for morale both in the ranks and back home. Initial reports only reported 248 dead and 517 missing, while stressing that "over 1,400" were saved. The incident was only referred to as "recent," without any mention of the time or details. Survivors were ordered not to discuss the event with anyone, and their letters home were censored. When they were eventually discharged from the Army, they were warned again not to talk to the media, with the added threat that they would lose their G.I. benefits.

John Waller (right), one of the survivors of the Léopoldville's sinking
(Photo: from the documentary "The Silent Soldier and the Portrait")

On October 8, 1945, survivor Lieutenant Robert Wurdeman wrote a personal narrative about the event which was to be broadcast on a radio program on his arrival in New York in early November. The broadcast was canceled on the day of the program with no reasons given. In 1946, even U.S. government officials were denied access to the facts of the sinking which claimed 763 American lives. Official reports were classified and locked away. U.S. documents relating to the sinking were only declassified in 1959, and British ones in 1996.

Artist's depiction of the destroyer HMS Brilliant pulling up alongside the listing Léopoldville
(Painting: Richard Rockwell)

In 1984, American explorer Clive Cussler of the National Underwater and Maritime Agency non-profit organization reported finding the wreck of the Léopoldville. French officials claimed that the wreck had always been marked on nautical charts as its size and location made it a navigational hazard. Cussler retorted that the wreck's location was off by a mile on the charts. Several memorials preserve the memory of the Léopoldville's dead, both in the United States and Britain. In the Normandy American Cemetery, 1,557 names are inscribed on the Walls of the Missing; one can find 489 soldiers among them who belonged to the 66th Infantry Division and perished during the catastrophe of the Léopoldville.

Memorial to the dead of Léopoldville and to survivors who died later in the war in Fort Benning, Georgia

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Soldiers decorate a Christmas tree in Germany, December 1944
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