In June 1944, the US Navy captured a German submarine off the coast of Africa after her crew failed to scuttle her. The U-505 was the first enemy ship captured by the US since the War of 1812, and the first of six U-boats to be captured during the war. To protect military secrets (including the breaking of the German Enigma codes), the capture of the U-505 was classified, the ship was renamed and hidden, and the crew were interred in a special POW camp and their existence was concealed from everyone, including the International Red Cross and the German Government.
The U-505 was built in Bremen in 1940 and launched in 1941. She was a Type IXC U-boat, a long-range submarine designed for attacking shipping with torpedoes. Some of the Type IXC boats (but not the U-505) were also fitted with mine-laying equipment. The Type IXC sub was 252 feet long, 22 feed wide at the beam, and 31 feet tall at the conning tower, with a displacement of 1540 tons. The crew ranged from 48-55 men. The sub had a range of almost 14,000 miles, and was armed with a deck gun and 22 torpedoes, launched from four tubes in the bow and two in the stern. On the surface, her diesel engine could drive U-505 at 18 knots; underwater, her electric motors could move her at 7 knots. The sub could dive to a depth of 750 feet. A total of 54 Type IXC U-boats were produced. Nearly all of them were sunk–the U-505 is the only one remaining.
The U-boats were the centerpiece of one of the most desperate struggles in the Second World War, the Battle of the Atlantic. After the failure of the German Luftwaffe to establish air superiority in the Battle of Britain, an invasion of England was impossible, but, as an island, Britain was still vulnerable. Since nearly all of England’s food supplies, raw materials, and military equipment came from North America and had to cross the Atlantic, a systematic German attempt to cut off this flow of shipping, through “commerce raiding” using submarines would cut off the vital supplies and choke England into surrender. From 1940 to 1942, called “The Happy Times” by submarine crews, German U-boats ran rampant from their bases in France to the waters off Africa, Canada, the Caribbean, and, after the US entered the war, the American East Coast, sinking enormous amounts of shipping. In response, England and, later, the US began sending their cargo ships in large convoys, escorted by destroyers equipped with ASDIC, a primitive sonar system that could detect the submerged U-boats–which were then attacked by depth charges and underwater bombs known as “Hedgehogs”. The Allies were also greatly helped by the fact that they had broken the German “Enigma” code and could read the U-boats radio messages, revealing the locations of the U-boats and allowing the convoys to avoid them. The German “Happy Times” were coming to a close.
U-505’s first combat patrol, in January 1942, was uneventful–she did not encounter any enemy ships. On her second patrol in February, U-505 torpedoed and sunk four Allied merchant ships, then sunk three more on her third patrol in June.
After that, however, U-505’s luck changed. Captain Peter Zschech assumed command of the sub, and on her fourth patrol, in October, off the coast of South America, the U-505 sunk one British cargo ship before herself being attacked by Allied patrol planes off the coast of Trinidad. A 250-pound bomb scored a direct hit. Capt Zschech ordered the sub abandoned, but the crew managed to patch up the sub enough to allow it to limp all the way back to France–the most heavily-damaged sub of the war to survive. It took almost half a year to repair the U-505.
When the U-505 returned to duty in mid-1943, the tide was already turning in the Battle of the Atlantic. The Allies had developed a radio direction-finding system known as HF-DF (“Huff-Duff”), which allowed them to precisely pinpoint surfaced subs that used their radios. Convoys were now accompanied by escort carriers, small versions of aircraft carriers whose ten or twelve planes were able to seek out and attack U-boats. A number of escort carriers were also sent out, accompanied by destroyers, as “hunter-killer teams”, using intercepted Enigma code information to track down and attack German subs. In May 1943 alone, 43 U-boats were sunk.
U-505’s fifth patrol, in July 1943, lasted less than two weeks–she was attacked by Allied airplanes and had to return to France for repair. The next four patrols also ended in failure, as conscripted French workers at the submarine base in Lorient, many of whom were members of the Resistance, systematically sabotaged the sub’s equipment and instruments.
In October 1943, U-505 left for her tenth combat patrol. Near the Azore Islands, she was found by two British destroyers and depth-charged. During the attack, Capt Zschech cracked under the strain, and pulling his Luger from his belt, shot himself in the head in front of his shocked bridge crew. The U-505 survived the depth-charge attack and limped home under her First Officer’s command. On Christmas Day 1943, the U-505, under new Captain Harald Lange, carried out her eleventh combat patrol.
In June 1944, the U-505 left for what would be her last combat mission, near the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa. The US Navy knew from Enigma intercepts that U-boats were in the area, and dispatched the hunter-killer Task Group 22.3, consisting of the escort carrier Guadalcanal and the destroyer escorts Pillsbury, Pope, Flaherty, Jenks and Chaterlain to hunt the Germans. On June 4, the task group made sonar contact with a submerged sub–the U-505. Wildcat fighters and TBF Avenger torpedo bombers were launched from the Guadalcanal, and the destroyer escorts attacked with depth charges and Hedgehogs. An oil slick soon appeared, and then the damaged U-505 surfaced. Captain Lange ordered his crew to open the valves to flood the sub and sink her, and then abandon ship. For some reason, though, the scuttling valves were not all opened. When a boarding party from the Pillsbury reached the U-505, they found her empty, entered the sub, and captured her. The U-505 was towed all the way to Bermuda.
The capture of the U-505 presented the Allies with an awkward problem. The British and Polish had already broken the German Enigma code years earlier, and this information was vital to the entire war effort. If the Germans knew that the U-505 had been captured, however, they would assume that her code books and Enigma machines had fallen into Allied hands, and would consider those codes compromised and replace them. That would undo all the years of work done by Allied codebreakers, and would cut off a vital source of intelligence information at a critical time, when the Allies were consolidating the Normandy D-Day landings. It was decided that the Germans must be prevented, at all costs, from learning that their submarine had been captured. The U-505 was kept in Bermuda and was renamed the USS Nemo. Nearly all of her equipment was stripped out and studied by Allied engineers. The crew was taken to Louisiana and placed in a POW camp, but to prevent them from passing the word that the U-505 had not been sunk but had been captured intact, the crew members were isolated from all the other POWs, and International Red Cross officials were not informed of their capture. The crew’s family members were told by the German Navy that they had been assumed killed when the sub was sunk.
After VE Day in May 1945, the US Navy revealed the secret that the U-505 had been captured, and the sub was taken on a tour of cities along the East Coast as part of a War Bonds drive to raise money for the invasion of Japan.
The stripped-out hulk of the U-505 then remained in Bermuda until 1946, when it was decided to use her as a towed target for naval gunnery and torpedo practice. Instead, the U-505 was saved when Illinois native Rear Admiral Daniel Gallery, who had earlier commanded Task Group 22.3 when it captured the U-505, asked the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry if it would be interested in obtaining the sub for display. In 1954, the Museum assumed ownership, raised a quarter of a million dollars to repair and move the sub (by towing it up the Atlantic and through the Great Lakes)–and in September the U-505 went on display as an open-air exhibit. Most of the instruments and equipment that had been removed from the sub were replaced, for free, by the original German manufacturers.
In 2004, a new building was constructed to house the U-505 and protect her from the weather.