Submarine News: The Past: Discovery of the U-486 and her tale.

Posted by Rebekah
Mar 27 2013

Several months absence can put you far behind on submarine news–even of the historic kind.

Breaking news: a new U-Boat wreck has been identified in Norway.  The U-486’s remains, split by a British torpedo, has been found in 820 feet of water off of Norway.

She was only on her second patrol.  Her first had been amazingly successful, especially given that it was late 1944, and Germany was operating from a defensive position, with many experienced submarine hands already having been lost.

U-486 at sea, likely 1944 or early 1945. Original Image from The Local.

U-486 departed for her maiden patrol on November 26, 1944, out of German-occupied Norway, to circle the British Islands.  Armed with acoustic torpedoes, she also sported a new skin: rubberized tiles coated her hull, designed to counter the Allied sonar.  She circled the north of Scotland and down the western coast of Ireland, approaching her assigned patrol area, the English Channel.  She quickly found and sank the cargo ship SILVERLAUREL, who was en route to Hull from Falmouth, carrying tons of supplies, but only a small crew, most of which was saved.

But on Christmas Eve, she’d strike a greater blow: the LEOPOLDVILLE.

The Leopoldville in her passenger days of the 1930’s

By 1944, the old Belgian passenger ship has an old hand on the Southampton to Cherbourg run.  She’d transported over 120,000 men in 23 runs, and now took 2,235 more Americans plus some British troops aboard.  Unknown to them, they were destined for the Battle of the Bulge.

As per usual, she and another troop transport, the CHESHIRE, departed with three escort destroyers, BRILLIANT, ANTHONY, and HOTHAM, and the free French ship, CROIX de LORRAINE.  The trip would be quick, less than 12 hours, and the men aboard, who had abandoned their Christmas celebrations in England, would celebrate in France instead.

But there were some differences for the LEOPOLDVILLE.  For the first time, the entire convoy was ordered to zig-zag, a standard anti-submarine move designed to make it more difficult to aim a torpedo accurately.  The reason? U-Boat activity seemed to have picked up recently, though no one had seen any.

Of course, what no one would know until the war’s end, is the German’s had invented the Snorkel, a specialized pipe that allowed a submarine to draw in the necessary air to run their diesel engines without having to surface.  Now, U-Boats could operate relatively safely even in the heavily patrolled and defended British waters, and they were taking full advantage of that.  Snorkels were soon standard equipment, the U-486, watching the convoy, had one aboard.

Aboard the LEOPOLDVILLE, things were a bit in disarray.  For the fifth time, an incomplete and, as it would turn out, highly error-filled passenger list had been delivered before she left the dock.  Inside, the men were ordered to sit in benches in the former cargo holds and cabins, anywhere they could find room.  This lead to some groups being split up.  A lifeboat drill was called, but due to a faulty loudspeaker system, not everyone heard.  Those that reported were not trained in how to lower lifeboats, or the proper way to wear and enter the water while wearing LEOPOLDVILLE’s life jackets.  A minor oversight that would have severe repercussions.  But one wrinkle that may have initially saved lives: the December sea was rough, forcing many of the men in the hold to make a dash for the heads and rails on the upper levels as soon as LEOPOLDVILLE hit open water.

By 1745 (5:45 pm local time), the LEOPOLDVILLE had already been stopped twice, as the BRILLIANT’s sonar made a submarine contact (which may actually have been the U468).  The alert and depth charges didn’t bother the traveling troops, most of whom had suffered similar alerts on the trans-Atlantic trip the month earlier.

Now five miles from the French coast, the U-486 took aim and fired one torpedo, hitting the LEOPOLDVILLE in the starboard stern.

The U-486 headed for the bottom again to dodge the depth charges that quickly came raining down, while on the surface, the men in the depths of the LEOPOLDVILLE struggled through the debris and newly dead to clamber to the higher decks.  Stairs had been blown away, some debris sank, injuring the flailing men, others floated and became their own obstructions.  The men already on the higher decks reached down and hauled as many men to safety as they could, even those severely injured.

Still, as many as 300 died in the initial attack.

The LEOPOLDVILLE’s deck was now flooded with the passengers. Those in the forward sections knew exactly what had happened, and the commanding officers quickly ordered the men to spread out as evenly as possible, to prevent a capsize.

Everyone was quiet and calm. Three of the escorts were actively hunting the U-boat, while the BRILLIANT was trying to raise help from Portsmouth via radio, or Cherbourg, by signal light.  The CHESHIRE stood off at a distance, unable to risk her passengers to save the LEOPOLDVILLE’s.

As the initial minutes passed, LEOPOLDVILLE looked like she might, despite her wound, be able to be towed to shore.  But complications were starting to show, and the disarray of earlier that day was about to be costly.

Portsmouth and Cherbourg were, for security reasons, on different radio frequencies and codes, forcing BRILLIANT to spend a lot of time switching back and forth.  In addition, being Christmas Eve, everywhere was lightly stationed, giving as many as possible the night off.  The many small vessels that crowded Cherbourg’s harbor and normally would have raced to help at the initial strike, were dark and cold, their owners and crews celebrating in town.

LEOPOLDVILLE began to drift in the current, towards a minefield.   Her captain, Charles Limbor, ordered the anchor dropped, a sensible action which would not pay off later.

Ten minutes after that, about 40 minutes after LEOPOLDVILLE was hit, Limbor ordered all non-essential crew to abandon ship, an order not fully understood even today.  With those men gone, few remained who knew how to raise the anchor, lower lifeboats, or safely evacuate the ship in an emergency.

At the same time the crew was rowing away, HMS BRILLIANT finally managed to get a message to Fort L’Ouest, near Cherbourg, which had noticed the drifting LEOPOLDVILLE.  L’Ouest tried to signal the LEOPOLDVILLE, but BRILLIANT answered: “LEOPOLDVILLE hit, need assistance.”  L’Ouest asked what kind of assistance, but BRILLIANT didn’t reply.

The HMS Brilliant at sea. Undated photo.

At that moment, probably one of the bravest and insane rescues started.  With no one coming and the LEOPOLDVILLE in rough seas, BRILLIANT’s captain decided to take a risk and save some of the trapped men if he could.  Sidling his own, smaller but more heavily armed ship next to the LEOPOLDVILLE, he made his ship available for anyone who wanted to…jump.

This was no mean feat.  Even with LEOPOLDVILLE’s scrambling next hung down her side, the seas were tossing the two ships back and forth and up and down.  The BRILLIANT’s deck, one moment was 12 feet below LEOPOLDVILLE’s deck, another moment, twenty feet, yet another, forty.  Then the ships would yaw apart for one moment, before crashing together the next.  Jumping took nerves of steel, and those that didn’t make it…

Blood soon smeared the sides of both ships.

On the BRILLIANT, the survivors broke bones as they landed.  BRILLIANT’s crew grabbed their hammocks, laying them in the “landing zone” to cushion the falls, and evacuated the injured as quickly as possible.

Five hundred men later, the little BRILLIANT could not physically hold many more, and drew away, leaving hundreds still trapped with no way out.  It was 90 minutes after the LEOPOLDVILLE had been hit, but help was finally coming from For L’Ouest and Cherbourg.  The tug ATR-3 was on her way, as were a number of smaller boats, ready to stand by and help as needed.  BRILLIANT’s commanding officer, noting that even now, there was not much on  LEOPOLDVILE, believed that most of the passengers could still be saved. [1]

The Tug ATR-3 threw tow lines to the LEOPOLDVILLE, but too few on board knew how to tie them, or raise the anchor so LEOPOLDVILLE could set underway.  A Coast Guard cutter tried to sidle up beside LEOPOLDVILLE as BRILLIANT had done, but the sea battered her too badly, and she pulled away before many could get on board.

Lifeboats were lowered, or cut away, with many of the injured on board, as the men started to improvise evacuations.  Captain Limbor marched through the masses, officially ordering “Abandon Ship” in French and Flemish, as the ship’s loudspeakers had died, but few understood him.  Some lept overboard with improperly secured life jackets.  If not secured snugly enough, the front and back halves of these jackets “clapped” together as the men hit the water, breaking necks.

Suddenly, between 2020 and 2040 hours (10:20 pm – 10:40 pm), approximately five hours after she had been hit, two explosions were heard deep within the ship, blowing hatch covers and men into the water.  LEOPOLDVILLE keeled over and sank in moments.  Those left aboard scrambled over the side and into the water, or simply stepped into the sea as the ship fell beneath them.

Drawing of the Leopoldville sinking, done by Richard Rockwell, nephew of Norman Rockwell, for the book , “SS LEOPOLDVILLE DISASTER” by Allan Andrade.

The water was 48 degrees, and the waxing gibbous moon low in the sky, giving little light.  Some of those thrashing tin the water were still in their full gear and were dragged down by it.  Others managed to drop what they had quickly enough to re-surface.  The small vessels that had stood by now rushed in to grab the living and the dead.  In the dark, it was sometimes difficult to tell which was which.

Captain Limbor went down with his ship, as well as four crewmen from Belgium and the Congo.  Due to the error-filled, incomplete passenger list, it would take days for the British and the US to figure out who and how many had been lost.  No number has yet been released by the British government (even nearly 70 years later) but it’s probably less than 10.  The American number officially stands at 763, though unofficial numbers frequently reach as high as 802.  It was the second worst loss of infantrymen in the Atlantic Theater.

To finish the LEOPOLDVILLE’s story quickly, the men who survived, nearly 1,400 of them, were re-routed away from the Battle of the Bulge, and most survived the war.  They were, however, forbidden to talk about the LEOPOLDVILLE’s loss, and their letters were censored to make sure.  A highly erroneous story about the loss of LEOPOLDVILLE was released to the official press to confuse any German spies (some said LEOPOLDVILLE was a hospital ship, others said it sank too quickly to help the passengers.)  Some in the Navy believed that the LEOPOLDVILLE’s loss reflected so poorly on them (Christmas Eve, for example, should not have been an excuse to half-staff ports when a convoy was expected, communication should have been more coordinated in case of emergency, especially since U-boat attacks were rising, a lifeboat drill should have been done, records kept accurately) that the story was buried, and the families given few details.  The loss of the LEOPOLDVILLE was little known for decades.[2]

Painting of the Leopoldville wreck, as she’s seen today.

In the chaos, the U-486, simply waited until Christmas Day dawned.  No one found her, and she spent a quiet Christmas in the same general area she had been on the eve.  On December 26, as the French people were recovering the bodies of those lost on LEOPOLDVILLE from the beaches formerly known as Omaha, U-486 struck again in the same area.

Two frigates, the HMS AFFLECK and the HMS CAPEL, were hit by acoustic torpedoes, the CAPEL sinking with the loss of eighty-five men.  The AFFLECK, having lost 9 in the initial strike, was stable enough to be quickly towed to the over-crowded Cherbourg harbor, and left as a total loss until the war’s end.

Map showing the location of the three known attacks of the U-468. Both LEOPOLDVILLE and CAPEL went down near the now-famous Normandy beaches that had been taken only six months earlier.

With four kills under her belt, U-486 returned to Norway.  After three months, she was sent out again on April 9.  Three days later, the submarine HMS Tapir, patrolling near Bergin, heard the U-486.  Nineteen minutes later, U-486 surfaced for Tapir’s periscope.  Four minutes after that, Tapir fired 6 torpedoes, one of which hit the U-486.

From the Taipir’s log book:;

0755 hours—One hit was observed on the enemy submarine, which blew up and was seen to disintegrate.  A huge column of brown smoke arose some 500 feet in the air. Breaking up noises were heard on the Asdic  [British equivalent of Sonar] and after the smoke had cleared nothing more could be seen.”

No more was ever heard of the U-486 until now.  Found by accident by Statoil company while seeking a oil pipeline route underwater, U-486 will be left alone with her crew of 48.  Her wreck confirms what Tapir saw, she disintegrated into two pieces.

Sonar image of the U-486’s wreck. Her bow has been severed, and she lays on her starboard side. From The Local.

Hopefully, though her wreck location is known, she will be left in peace there.

Some other submarine wrecks haven’t been so lucky this year.

U 486’s conning tower, with the periscopes still attached at the top. From the Local


For more information:

First, my favorite:  a unique telling of the sinking of the SS LEOPOLDVILLE:

The first ship U-486 sank, the Silverlaurel:

An account of the LEOPOLD’s sinking:

LEOPOLD’s Sinking from a survivor and what happened to the men after:

An account of the LEOPOLDVILLE sinking seen from the BRILLIANT:

Another personal account from that convoy:

An announcement of U-486’s wreck discovery:


UPDATE  6 Nov 2014:  Thanks to Mr. D. Becker for alerting me to the fact I used U-468 and U-486 almost interchangeably in this entry.  That’s been fixed now (I think I got them all at least).  The U-boat discovered near Norway is the 486.  The U-468 was sunk by a British Bomber off the western coast of Senegal, Africa on 11 August, 1943.  One of the British aircrew which sacrificed themselves to destroy the 468 was Mr. Becker’s uncle.  The wrecks of The U-468 and the wreck of the British B-24 Liberator Bomber that destroyed her  have apparently not been found, but the story is still an important one.   Intriguingly, the pilot of the Liberator was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross…based solely on the testimony of the surviving U-Boat submariners who were later captured.  It’s the only such incidence of enemy testimony being the basis of a Victoria Cross award.



[1] The BRILLIANT made directly for Cherbourg’s port, which was already filled with the half-sunken, scuttled ships the Germans had attacked earlier.  There was one quay left open, and a Jeep had to pull the BRILLIANT in and tie her up.  By the time BRILLIANT’s LEOPOLDVILLE passengers were unloaded, she turned and headed back for more, but it would be too late.

[2] The wreck of the Leopoldville, in 820 feet of water, was discovered by author Clive Cussler in 1984.  She rests on her side, her stern severed and laying beside her.

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