…between USS Borie and Kriegsmarine U-boat U 405
The history of the U-boat force is full of tragic experiences of its crews that served in the oceans of the world in World War I and II. Rather unique, however is the roughly hour long savage duel between the US destroyer Borie (DD-704) and the Kriegsmarine Type VII C U-boat U 405 during night and heavy storm in the North At-lantic Ocean, about halfway between Europe and New Foundland.
Shortly after midnight of the 01 November 1943 the well known light blip with a thin line of “dust” in its wake appeared on the Radar screen of the US four funnel destroyer Borie, which was part of the screen forces for the US aircraft carrier Card. U-boat! USS Borie, under the command of Lieutenant Charles Harris Hutchins, immediately turned towards it and increased speed. But, the U-boat submerged, and it lasted a while until the hunter regained contact through it Sonar device. The Borie closed up, established firm contact and attacked, when the distance to the contact had reduced to about 450 meters. All depth charges placed in the delivery racks were launched. The Borie was lucky, the attack was successful.
Soon, a U-boat emerged, breaking the surface of the sea accompanied by its characteristic rushing and hissing of the emptying ballast tanks. Being severely damaged and unserviceable for further diving operation it had to surface unless it wanted to accept death in the depth. USS Borie aimed its 24 cm light gun at the target and simultaneously opened fire with all calibers. At the same time the destroyer went to full ahead to ram. However, the opponent to the Borie was U 405, driven by Commander Rolf-Heinrich Hopmann, a Commanding Officer who had executed many combat patrols, and who knew, what a fight above water with a destroyer would mean.
While the gun shells flew over the conning tower of the U-boat and the maxim guns hit the sheet-metal cover of the conning tower, the gun crew of the U-boat rushed to its cannon and soon fire was responded against the Borie. The first shells of U 405 made holes in the upper structure of the destroyer and exploded at the bridge and the forward engine compartment. In between, tracer ammunition of the U-boat´s AA-gun was fired. Steam was hissing, shouting everywhere – discharging of cannons and rattatting of machine guns. One could spot the scenery in the pale light of the muzzle flash – deaths and wounded, between orders shouted and even more screaming.
U 405 defended itself desperately. The U-boat´s gun crew was killed already, others rushed in to replace to continueing fire, until an American 10 cm shell swept the entire gun over board. The U-boat was running at full speed and was able to hold a course parallel to the destroyer, which was continuously firing and closing up slowly from starboard astern, to turn in for ramming. At the very last moment, Hopmann ordered his boat “hard port”, which led the destroyer to not hit the U-boat head on, rather with an obtuse angle of about 30 degrees about 10 meters behind the bow – and eventually riding with its bow on the U-boat´s fore-castle. Like two fighters clinging to one another the destroyer and the U-boat were locked, one over the other.
Some of the Borie´s sailors took maxim guns and riddled the coming tower of U 405 further. Other sailors fired their rifles, pistols, tommy-guns, signal pistols, or whatever they could get hold of, at the U-boat, while the two vessels hanging to one another were moving against one another up and down from wave crest to wave trough in the rough sea, causing a noise of cracking steel and adding to the din of firing and shouting.
An after action combat report published by the US Admiralty noted about this duel: “Lieutenant Brown kept down anyone in the conning tower and on deck of U 405 by means of his tommy-gun. Stoker Southwick – a champion of knife-throwing – hurls his huge “Bowie”-knife into the body of a German. Using an empty 20 mm ammunition container Petty Officer Walter C. Kruz kicks a German sailor over board”.
Although thirty U-boat men were killed in this uneven carnage, where the Americans were firing from above down at the boat, U 405 did not stop its fight. The German U-boat sailors threw hand grenades, hit back with empty cartridges, and fired signal pistols at the destroyer sailors. More and more, the destroyer – moving heavily in the rough sea against the steel pressure hull of the U-boat – cracked his hull´s old bottom and side part, thinned by decades of rust. The entire port side was dented, broken up and riddled by bullets, and water in the boiler rooms had risen to knee-deep meanwhile.
After ten minutes of fight man to man Commander Hopmann managed to pull back his U-boat from under the destroyer with full astern. Having reached about 300 meters distance, he immediately open fire with those weapons still left to him. U 405 turned hard inbound, while USS Borie followed from the distance with a greater turning circle, seeking any opportunity to ram again. During that, U 405 launched a torpedo, which, however, passed by. 10 centimeter shells of the Borie hit the aft torpedo compartment of U 405, close to the Diesel exhaust-gas lid. Also the Borie fired a torpedo, which missed as well. Since the U-boat´s rear torpedo tube was directed against the destroyer´s search light, the Commanding Officer ordered to shut it off. At once, the U-boat attempted to leave the theatre protected by the darkness. But the Borie followed with 27 knots. Simultaneously, depth charges were made ready for delivery, set to shallow water depths.
Despite the damaged received the destroyer wanted to risk another attempt to ram. When he was on course to collide with U 405, the bow of the U-boat was suddenly turning hard.
Hopmann tried to turn the table on the destroyer and now to ram the American himself. In addition, the U-boats launched a spread of torpedoes, but all missed, since the sea state was to rough for the torpedoes. However, Hopmann´s maneuver would have almost succeeded. But, the Americans executed a very skilled evasive maneuver through “rudder hard port”, “port engine full astern” and “starboard engine stop”. The Borie managed to turn away and she delivered a series of depth charges right before the U-boat´s bow. Three more depth char-ges, thrown just seconds later, were good on target and virtually lifted U 405 out of the water midships.
Dead in the water – like a ghost vessel – the U-boat remained just two meters before the destroyer´s side hull. Was this the end? No!
Once more, Commander Hopmann tried to pull back his boat. But, the Borie turned also with all her might, and spread over U 405 another series of shells. Borie launched another torpedo, which again missed. At this moment, a direct hit by one 10 cm shell swept Commander Hopmann and the men in the conning tower over board. A shower of more hits followed. Only now, the U-boat´s last survivors fired white stars giving up, when there was no getting away any longer, the Commanding Officer being killed, the U-boat being a wreckage and more than half of the crew dead.
At 2.57 a.m in the morning of the 01st of November 1943, exactly 72 minutes after the first battle encounter, U 405 sank, bow ahead, and exploding soon after being under water. A few surviving men from U 405 were still swimming in the rough sea. But, nobody was rescued, because the Commanding Officer was under the impression that another U-boat was in the area, forcing him to refrain from any rescue attempt.
On the other hand, he had enough challenges to rescue his own ship. The thin steel plates of the forward and the side hull had suffered from severe damages. Everywhere in the vessel, there were holes caused by hits from U 405´s shells, and water had flooded the lower deck. At about 09.00 a.m. in the morning the overall situation of the destroyer had worsened in a way that the Borie was drifting absolutely helpless in the sea, which became rougher and rougher. Permanently, the severely damaged destroyer was sending messages for help. However, even ships reaching the scene were not able to provide much help. In the evening eventually, the sea state had even more deteriorated and the wind increased again, the Commanding Officer ordered:
“To all: Abandon ship!” Since the life boats were not only damaged by hits from U 405´s shells but also by rough seas, the surviving crew of the Borie had to jump into the ice cold sea. A few hours later, the evacuated wreckage of USS Borie was sunk by depth charges from an aircraft of the US carrier Card, after four torpedoes from destroyer USS Barry missed. In the meantime, the auxiliary ships and the other destroyers of the carrier group executed a major rescue operation for the crew of the US destroyer Borie still swimming in the sea. In the end, they managed to rescue seven officers and 120 men. 33 men were killed during the fight with U 405 or did not survive the icy sea. There was not a single survivor from the crew of German U-boat U 405 – 49 men were killed or did not survive swimming.
Together with a similar cruel encounter on 06th of May 1944 west of the Cape Verde Islands between destroyer USS Buckley and Kriegsmarine U-boat U 66, this savage fight between a destroyer of the US Navy and a Kriegsmarine U-boat in November 1943 formed the script for the US movie “The Enemy Below” (In German: “Duell im Atlantik”). This movie is based on the 1956 novel of identical title by D.A. Ryner and was first shown in 1957. Directed by Dick Powell, US actor Robert Mitchum played Commanding Officer Murell of destroyer USS Hayes, and German actor Curd Jürgens played Commanding Officer von Stolberg of the German U-boat. In 1958, the movie was awarded an Oscar at Hollywood for it special effects.
Text: Hans-Joachim Röll and German U-boat Museum, Picture: German U-boat-Museum