The Mystery of U-853 – All U-Boats Had Orders to Surrender; Why Did This One Attack?

Hitler was dead and Germany was just days away from unconditional surrender when a lone U-boat lurking off Rhode Island carried out one last desperate strike against American shipping.

“The rusted tomb begs the question: Why was Fromsdorf willing to risk his boat and crew for one last kill?”
By Bob Cembrola

ON THE EVENING of May 4, 1945, the officers and crew of the salvage and submarine rescue vessel USS Penguin ASR-12 were celebrating the apparent end of WWII in the Atlantic theatre.

Buoyed by the April 30 suicide of Adolf Hitler and the appointment of Admiral Karl Doenitz as Fuehrer, the men aboard the Groton, Connecticut-based vessel had no idea that they would soon be called into action in one of the final naval engagements of the Second World War’s storied Battle of the Atlantic.

That same morning of May 4, Doenitz knowing full well the end was near for Germany issued the following order:

“All U-boats. Attention all U-boats. Cease fire at once. Stop all hostile action against allied shipping. Doenitz.”

The message would not be received or heeded by all German submarines at sea.

The SS Black Point.

While the Penguin’s crew were enjoying themselves, S.S. Black Point, a 396-foot-long collier, was on her way from Virginia to Boston with a cargo of more than 7,500 tons of coal for the Boston Edison power plant. She was built in 1918 and originally named USS Fairmont by the U.S. Navy after being acquired for convoy duty to France to aid the American Expeditionary Forces during the First World War. After the 1918 Armistice, she was sold to a private shipping company and renamed the Nebraskan and sold again in 1927 to C.H. Sprague of Boston and named S.S Black Point. Mariners being a superstitious lot believe that changing a ship’s name invited bad luck, in this case superstition became reality.

On that same fateful night of May 4, Donitz issued his cease hostilities order to go into effect the next morning at 8 a.m. Berlin time, the German submarine U-853, was lurking off the coast of Rhode Island seeking prey. With 55 sailors aboard, the two-year-old Type IXC/40 submarine was under the command of Oberleutnant Zur See Helmut Fromsdorf. He had replaced Helmut Sommer who was badly injured on a previous patrol, when 853 was strafed while on the surface by American aircraft from the escort carrier USS Croatan. After escaping from almost certain destruction 853’s crew began to refer to her as “der Seiltanzer” or the “Tightrope Walker”; her American pursuers referred to her as Moby Dick due to the submarine’s elusive nature.

Sommers’ injuries prevented him from joining 853 on what proved to be her last patrol. He had some words of advice for Fromsdorf before the latter left Germany. According to Sommer’s wife, he warned Fromsdorf not to take needless risks with the war nearing its end. “He hoped so much that all the fine fellows of the crew could survive,” she wrote in a 1974 letter.

The officers and crew of the U-853. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)

On the afternoon of May 5, as the Black Point left the safety of Long Island Sound, she ran into a thick fog bank near New Haven. Visibility was so bad that the skipper, Captain Charles Prior, had to drop anchor and wait for the fog to lift.

Once underway, Prior tried to make good speed to Boston; U-853 permanently ended her voyage.

Prior recalled the incident later:

“We had just passed to the left of the R-2 buoy, about one mile behind. I could see Point Judith light station clear as a bell, hell we were just a couple miles offshore and a little east of the Light. It’s 5:40 in the afternoon and I just stepped out of the wheelhouse onto the bridge wing, reached in my pocket for a cigarette, put it in my mouth and that’s when it hit the fan. The clock was blown off the wall and the barometer off the bulkhead. The wheelhouse door was blown open and I don’t remember if I lit the cigarette or swallowed it. I could smell gunpowder in the air and the stern of my ship was completely blown off.”

A dozen of Black Point’s crew were killed by U-853’s torpedo: a member of U.S. Navy Armed Guard crew in the stern and 11 Merchant Marine sailors. Four Armed Guard survived the attack, as did the remaining Merchant Marine crew, including Captain Prior. An SOS was tapped out by radioman Ray Tharl before the vessel sunk.

Black Point was one of the last of 3,500 merchant ships lost during the Battle of the Atlantic. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)

The Yugoslavian freighter Kamen witnessed the attack. After broadcasting an additional distress call it promptly moved in to rescue survivors. More were picked up by crash boats and brought into Point Judith and Newport.

The exploding torpedo was heard by Boatswain’s mate Joe Burbine at Coast Guard station Point Judith who immediately notified Naval District HQ in Boston which relayed the message to Eastern Sea Frontier in New York City. They in turn dispatched the only anti-submarine warfare group in the vicinity, Task Group TG 60.7, which had left New York harbor earlier that day after escorting a convoy across the Atlantic.

TG 60.7 consisted of USS Ericsson DD-440, USS Amick DE-168, USS Atherton DE-169 and USS Moberly PF-63. All were on their way to Boston for overhaul. Upon receiving orders, the veteran task group proceeded to the scene of the attack.

Fromsdorf, captain of the U-853, could not have picked a worse time or place to sink an American vessel – so close to the shore and in shallow water (not much deeper than 100 feet). Captain Sommers, 853’s previous skipper, would later tell his wife Klara Marie that he’d never have attacked under such circumstances.

As TG 60.7 sped to the scene, U-853 attempted to slip away, but the safety of deep water was many miles away.

By 19:30 the first three American ships reached the scene. Atherton picked up a sonar contact at 20:14. U-853 had been located less than three hours after the attack.

Ironically, as Atherton was helping to locate and destroy a German submarine just below her, in her sickbay a German POW, Private first-class Franz Krones, was undergoing an emergency appendectomy. The procedure performed by Lt. Maurice Vitsky, a USN surgeon of Jewish descent. Krones had been transferred to Atherton in Gibraltar on April 20 for the trip back to the U.S. During the Atlantic crossing. Vitsky and Pharmacists Mate 3rd Class Thomas J. Ciaccio saved the prisoner’s life. Interestingly, Krones survived the operation and the war. He died on May 5, 2008, 63 years to the day that Fromsdorf fired that fateful torpedo.

The USS Atherton drops depth charges on U-853. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)

Meanwhile, beneath the waves, the crew of U-853 tried to pull off yet another tight rope miracle, as American depth charges and hedgehogs rained down upon them. This time there would be no escape.

As the U.S. Navy surface ships were joined on scene early on May 6 by two Navy dirigibles, K-16 and K-58, from Lakehurst, N.J.

The airships dropped sonobuoys and helped spot oil leaking from U-853, which had already been damaged. After numerous items from the German submarine appeared on the surface, including Fromsdorf’s captain’s hat, the death of 853 was certain. The attack was called off at about 10:45 on May 6.

The elusive Moby Dick met her sad fate and all her crew perished as the result of a needless attack that had no strategic value.

Captain Islelin of the Atherton said that a few hours prior to that point “there was no doubt that by this time we knew we had it, but it seemed everyone wanted to get in on the act. I don’t think there is a hull that took a bigger beating during the war.”

853 ended her life like a bull trapped in a ring with scores of ships each wanting to get at least one spear in her.

The submarine rescue ship USS Penguin. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)

As the U-boat was being torn apart that morning, at 05:00 Clary Edwards, a Navy diver from the USS Penguin crew, was rudely woken from a sound sleep by two Shore Patrol members at his New London, Connecticut home.

“I was standing in the doorway with nothing on but my shorts and these two guys are telling me to get dressed because there’s a U-boat cornered off Block Island,” Edwards remembered. “Well, I thought these guys are nuts. The war is over, but they did a little ‘convincing’ and I got dressed and they drove me to my boat, the salvage vessel Penguin.”

After the Penguin arrived over the U-853 on May 7, the American ship’s crew set out a four-point mooring to prepare dive operations.

“Our mission was two-fold,” Edwards said. “Not only were we going to look for the sub’s logbook and papers, we were going to try and rescue the crew should there be anyone alive, which was doubtful. But we readied the rescue chamber anyway.”

Gunner Edwin J.R. Bockelman, the smallest diver on the Penguin, volunteered to attempt entry into the sub through the main hatch.

When he opened the hatch cover, his way was blocked by the bodies of crew who had perished attempting to escape the relentless pounding.

Bockelman managed to recover the body of 22-year-old Herbert Hoffman; his remains were later given a military burial at sea. For his heroic volunteer dive, Bockelman was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal.

Point Judith, Rhode Island. (Image source: GoogleMaps)

Edwards was slated to be the next diver and while suited up on the dive platform about to be lowered to wreck the operation was stopped. He was told that all diving would stop due to the presence of unexploded depth charges. To this day nautical charts of the area carry this warning: “Danger unexploded depth charges, May 1945.” For most, this will be the only sentence they ever read of the entire affair.

Officially U.S. Navy divers never visited the U-853 again, but as with most wrecks, especially in such shallow water close to shore, rumours began to swirl before the last air bubbles even escaped her hull.

These tall tale told of supposed treasure stored in shell casings and mercury carried as ballast. With the growing availability of compact scuba gear in the late 1940s, the U-853 was suddenly within reach for fortune hunters lured by dreams of hidden riches.

The first known attempt in 1953 resulted in only the recovery of the U-853 propellers, now on exhibit adjacent to the Naval War College Museum.

The next expedition, which took place in 1960, resulted in the recovery of a crew member’s remains, which were buried with full military honours in Newport.

Interior shot of the U-853. Image courtesy of Bill Campbell. (Image source: Naval War College Museum)

Today both U-853 and S.S. Black Point are popular dive spots and offer those willing to make the effort an incredibly humbling and educational experience bringing the Second World War to life.

The rusted tomb begs the question: Why was Fromsdorf willing to risk his boat and crew for one last kill?

Since her log was never recovered, that question will forever go answered, but too many young lives were snuffed out in what many feel was an act of wanton hubris in search of glory.

Fromsdorf must have known that the Third Reich was in its death throes and that sinking the Black Point could in no way resuscitate it.

Had Fromsdorf hesitated long enough for common sense to prevail, or if he had known that fellow German Franz Krones’ life had just been saved by a Jewish-American surgeon just one hundred feet above him things might have turned out differently.

U-853 propellors on display near the Naval War College Museum. (Image source: Naval War College Museum)

Then again, I once asked some German naval officers if they felt he would have ignored the cease hostilities order had he received it and their response was unanimous: “Absolutely not.”

Given this consistency perhaps the message never was received. But that does not excuse the suicidal nature of the attack on Black Point. Fromsdorf knew his location was close to shore and the shallow depth of water would have made escape highly unlikely, even for der Seiltanzer.

Slowly but surely, the Atlantic Ocean will reclaim the ships and sailors from this battle and countless others lost in conflicts and storms. I have been fortunate to dive on both wrecks; future generations will not have that privilege; they will have to rely on museums and documents to tell this story.

Those making this dive are reminded that this is a war grave and as such, nothing should be removed or disturbed out of respect for the 55 souls who perished.

U-boats are often referred to as iron coffins. In this case the moniker sadly applies as she sits under 120 feet of cold water on eternal patrol.

Bob Cembrola started diving in 1972 in Rhode Island and worked on his first shipwreck in 1973, the British frigate Orpheus scuttled in Narragansett Bay in 1778. He went on to do his undergraduate studies in anthropology and history at URI and his graduate work at Boston University and Brown. He spent the summer of 1982 at the sunken city of Port Royal, Jamaica and upon return began working as the first archaeologist on the pirate shipwreck Whydah, lost on Cape Cod in 1717. He was executive director of the Marine Museum at Fall River Mass. from 1984 to 1989 and has been at the Naval War College Museum since 1989. He taught a four-time award winning elective there: Shipwrecks and Naval History. He still consults on shipwreck projects in Mass. and Florida.

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