The Leopoldville Disaster – As the troopship SS Leopoldville steams towards France from England on Christmas Eve, 1944 with Allied soldiers on board, a torpedo rips into her side. After a fatal delay, the ship sinks within sight of the port of Cherbourg, leaving men to jump into the bitter winter seas. Nearly 800 soldiers do not live to see Christmas Day. Now, an international team of divers brave some of the English Channel’s most treacherous and dangerous waters in an attempt to reach the wreck. They aim to uncover clues to help answer the question: why did so many young men have to die?
The Leopoldville is a Belgian liner taking 2,235 American reinforcements to repel a massive German attack – the Battle of the Bulge. But just off the coast of France, a German torpedo strikes the crowded troop carrier amidships, killing nearly 400 young soldiers instantly. The others make their way to the upper decks of the Leopoldville. They stand patiently waiting to be rescued.
In a daring rescue attempt, her escort, HMS Brilliant, manoeuvres alongside the larger liner. In rough seas, soldiers on the Leopoldville line up to jump down onto the smaller vessel. But the destroyer can only take a few hundred and has to head for the shore. There is a no further rescue attempt. Some 1,200 soldiers are still left on board. Two and a half hours after the torpedo hit, the Leopoldville slips beneath the waves.
Today divers braving some of the English Channel’s most treacherous and dangerous waters, 56 metres down, see evidence of the chaotic last moments of the ship, but can they find any evidence as to why the men were apparently abandoned and what, if anything, could have been done to save them? In particular they involve Belgian divers, keen to also tell another side of the story.
Fairly or unfairly, American survivors are very critical of the Leopoldville’s crew, who they say left them to their fate. Although the official reports apportion blame to a breakdown in communications none of this information is made available to the stricken relatives, and the incident is covered up. When the facts are eventually made public, survivors and members of the families of those who died have to live with a haunting conclusion. The bitter fact is that the botched rescue killed as many men as the initial torpedo.
The Leopoldville was a Belgian ship launched in 1929 (11,500 tonnes and 501 feet long) and was used primarily as a passenger liner between Antwerp and the Belgian Congo in Africa. When the war broke out, the ship made its way to England and was taken under the control of the British War Commission. For four years the Leopoldville took soldiers to the front lines in Africa, and Europe. After D-Day the ship made 24 trips across the English Channel taking over 50,000 troops to the front lines in Normandy. It was considered a ‘Lucky Ship’ until Christmas Eve, 1944.
The Captain of the Leopoldville was Charles Limbor who was the master of the ship from 1942. The trip from Southampton to Cherbourg with the 66th Infantry Division on Christmas Eve 1944 was to be his last voyage on the Leopoldville; he was to be relieved when the vessel returned to Southampton. When the Leopoldville was hit and began to sink, he made the decision not to get into one of the lifeboats, and in accordance with the highest traditions of Sea Service, Captain Limbor remained at his post of duty until the Leopoldville sank at 8:30 pm, two and half hours after she had been hit. His body was never recovered.
The 66th Infantry Division was made up of the 262nd and 264th Regiments that landed in England at the end of November 1944 They trained in southern England at Camp Piddlehinton for three weeks waiting to be called into service. The call to duty came suddenly the night of December 23. They were rushed off to the port of Southampton to be taken to the front lines in Belgium in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge. At Southampton there was much confusion boarding the Leopoldville and parts of the 262nd and 264th loaded onto the Leopoldville in a disorderly fashion as well as a second troop ship called the Cheshire. No complete boarding list was done so it became a difficult process to confirm the number of dead after the sinking.
The convoy was made up of six ships, two large troop ships, the SS Leopoldville and the SS Cheshire, and four naval escorts. The lead naval escort was the destroyer HMS Brilliant captained by John Pringle. Brilliant and the three other naval vessels formed a diamond shape around the two troop ships on their way to France. They also moved in a zigzag pattern to avoid torpedo attacks by German U-boats, with Brilliant, Leopoldville, Cheshire, and Croix de Lorraine in a line, and Anthony and Hotham taking wing positions, zigzagging at 13½ knots.
German U-boat 486, a type VIIC, commanded by Oblt. Gerhard Meyer left Kiel, Germany, on November 6 and was then fitted with a snorkel, a late war addition too many U-boats. The snorkel gave the submarine the ability to remain submerged at all times. The top of the snorkel was raised above the water, and used as an air intake and exhaust vent, as diesel engines charged batteries so the U-boat could eventually dive at greater depths when needed. This way the U-boat remained undetected at all times to Allied ships and planes.
The Leopoldville was not the only ship that U486 sank during Christmas. The German sub also sank HMS Affleck and HMS Capel on December 26. U486 ran out of luck on April 12, 1945, being sunk by the British submarine HMS Tapir due to a snorkel malfunction forcing her to surface. All officers and crew were lost.
When the torpedo hit the Leopoldville at 1754 on Christmas Eve 1944 on her starboard quarter at number four hold, it is estimated that about 300 to 350 men were killed on impact. Gunner William Boggs witnessed the explosion while standing by the rail facing backwards. “I was looking right at the spot well not the spot was behind the curve of the deck or the curve of the hole a little bit so I didn't see the hit, but I saw the explosion,” Boggs recalled. “The first thing was what looked like a bubble like soap bubble coming out. It was actually I determined later was a shock wave. And out of this then came the boiling black clouds and pieces of material probably the size of an arm or a leg.”
Only five and a half miles from the French coast the young men who survived the torpedo explosion expected a quick rescue but it didn’t happen. Since the Brilliant used a frequency not compatible with the U.S. Forces in France, Captain Pringle’s initial message was sent to Portsmouth, but, for reasons still unknown, the message was not received for over 40 minutes American personnel on the shores of Cherbourg, the nearest authority port with rescue craft, did try to signal the convoy after noticing it had stopped. They received a signal reply ‘We need assistance’ about 30 minutes after the torpedo had struck. When Cherbourg asked what kind of assistance, no reply came from the Brilliant or any of the other of the escorts. No rescue vehicles were sent out right away.
Though no rescue ships were immediately sent from Cherbourg, Captain Pringle on board HMS Brilliant decided to attempt a daring rescue of as many American soldiers as possible. HMS Brilliant approached and maneuvered alongside the Leopoldville. The rough seas repeatedly bashed the two vessels together, and then drew them apart. One by one, hundreds of men took their turn to leap from the Leopoldville to the destroyer; the majority succeeded, but others mistimed their jumps and were crushed to death as the two hulls came together. With approximately 500 troops removed from the Leopoldville, the Captain of the Brilliant ordered the ship to Cherbourg.
The damaged area on the starboard side of the ship was large enough that nothing could be done to save the ship. Water started entering the ship immediately and it slowly settled by the stern over the next two hours. The vast majority of the soldiers from the 66th Infantry Division didn’t know the ship was in danger of sinking and no warning or abandon ship order was given to the troops. After the Brilliant left, nearly 1200 men were still on board. Most of these men had to jump into the cold waters and hope that the small vessels that eventually came out from Cherbourg would pick them up. It is estimated that nearly 400 men were killed in the water, more than the men killed by the German torpedo.
Heroic efforts of Medical Officer Major D.B. Mumby, R.A.M.C., Dr. N. Herrent and staff saved the lives of thirty injured troops. Under difficult conditions, the injured were evacuated in the boat stowed on the port side of the after well deck and were subsequently transferred to a U.S. Coastguard cutter. Major Mumby and two of his orderlies succeeded in boarding the U.S. cutter and against the perilous weather conditions transferred the injured and those on stretchers to the cutter.
Captain of the Leopoldville was blamed for the loss of life amongst the troops who remained to be rescued after the explosion. He failed to take energetic action to facilitate the evacuation of the troops once he was aware the ship was taking on water and in danger of sinking. The Captain of the Brilliant, Captain Pringle, did not escape unscathed. “Why did he not notify CinC Portsmouth of the torpedoing of the Leopoldville, in his confidential dispatch, without notifying Cherbourg, the nearest authority who might be expected to have readily available the necessary number of rescue craft?” the American investigators asked.
Captain Limbor did not distribute the Easco life jackets, with small flashing lights attached, only the regulation life jackets to the American troops. His neglect had fatal consequences, stated British Naval Authorities. In their report, it noted Captain Limbor must accept blame for failing to ensure that the Easco lifejackets lights were issued because rescued efforts would have been expedited and the number of survivors increased. The U.S. Navy questioned why troops had not been assigned to abandon ship stations, nor given instructions of how to wear and secure their life jackets? By doing so could have minimized the loss of life. Some soldiers were found in the water with broken necks, others apparently choked to death, seemingly by the life preserver not being secured in the proper fashion when they jumped from the sinking ship.
After the war, the incident remained undisclosed. An official British memo of 19 March, 1946 stated: "The story of the Leopoldville does not reflect any great credit upon us, and I should be averse to disclosing it unless the need is very strong. To issue anything publicly in America might only serve to revive the controversy that would be better allowed to die." The story was then covered up by authorities until 1959 when the classified documents were finally declassified but unfortunately, many families of the dead never found out the truth of how their loved ones died until years later.
The wreck of the Leopoldville sits just over five miles off the coast of Cherbourg, France, in over 180 feet of water where fast running currents make it a difficult dive, even for experienced divers. The ship lies on her starboard side and both her stern and bow are beginning to show the effects of the harsh currents as the ship is beginning to break up. The wreck has a large scattering of army helmets, guns, and boots, remnants of the men who lost their lives on the Leopoldville.
The final total : 763 dead and 493 missing (bodies never recovered). At the American War Cemetery in Normandy the Wall of the Missing has over 1500 names on it representing the number of men who lost their lives during the Normandy campaign. Nearly one out of every three names on the Wall is from the 66th Infantry Division.
Determined to see that the sacrifice of his former comrades be recognized, Leopoldville survivor Vincent Codianni, with the help of the Veterans Memorial Committee of Waterbury, Connecticut, in the spring of 1996 formed the Leopoldville Memorial Association. After consulting with appropriate officials at West Point Military Academy, it was decided that the most suitable site for the monument was Ft. Benning, Columbus, Georgia, which is known as the "Home of the Infantry." The National Infantry Museum located there is visited by thousands of Americans every year. The Leopoldville Disaster Monument was dedicated on November 7, 1997. All 763 names are engraved on the monument, as well as on the Mount of the Missing in Normandy, France.
Produced and Directed by
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Additional Underwater Photography
Original Music Composed by
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Post Production Facilities
Sound Design and Mix
THE STUDIO UPSTAIRS
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Executive Producer for MSP
Executive Producers for Deep Sea Productions
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STEPHEN PRINCE, RNHB
IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM
NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION
With Special Thanks To
JACK C. RANDLES
MORTON (PETE) WOOD
PHOENIX DAMAGE REPAIR INSTRUCTIONAL UNIT
RNLI SEA SURVIVAL CENTRE
ROYAL NAVAL HISTORICAL BRANCH
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IAN TAYLOR – SKIN DEEP
NEWQUAY ROWING CLUB
Mallinson Sadler Productions
Northern Sky Entertainment
Deep Sea Productions
FOR NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CHANNEL
Mallinson Sadler Productions
Northern Sky Entertainment
Deep Sea Productions
For more see www.deepwreckmysteries.co.uk