SS Léopoldville

Belgian troopship being used by the British, sunk by a German U-Boat off the coast of Cherbourg, France on Christmas Eve 1944. Over 700 to 800 American soldiers were lost.
by Matthew Anderson


Year Built

1929

Year Sank

1944

Depth

210 ft (64 m)

Difficulty Level

Technical


SS Léopoldville

Wreck Location

Léopoldville lies on the bottom of the English channel only five miles north of Cherbourg, France. She is resting on her port side. Though the wreck sank in one piece, time has taken its toll and the Léopoldville has begun collapsing in upon herself. The bow and stern have collapsed and the superstructure is following suit. All around the wreck lie debris and human remains of the 700 to 800 American soldiers of the U.S. Army's 66th Infantry Division as well as the Belgian and Congolese crew killed when the ship sank. These include the helmets, guns, gas masks and personal effects of the American soldiers. The site is a protected war grave and national memorial owned by the French Government. Anyone who wishes to dive the site must have special permission from the French authorities before doing so. Diving the wreck isn't easy either due to low visibility, strong currents and cold temperatures. Technical equipment is apparently required. The site is easily reachable by boat from Cherbourg, being only five miles off shore. Many of the recovered bodies from the wreck however, are buried with full respect and military honors at the U.S. War Memorial in Normandy.

~ GPS Shipwreck Location ~
Latitude:   49° 45' 56.9988" N      Longitude:   -1° 36' 20.0016" W

Description

The story of the Leopoldville is one mired in tragedy, coverup and cowardice. A drama and one of the worst maritime disasters in American history often forgotten or overshadowed. When one hears the story, it becomes the new focus of Christmas Eve. A day where those who know remember and pray for those lost aboard the Leopoldville in 1944.

(Courtesy of the Alan Collection of the Martello Tower Museum in the United Kingdom.)

Leopoldville was built in 1929 by John Cockerill SA in Hoboken, Belgium for the Compagnie Belge Maritime due Congo aka the Lloyd Royal Line. She was 478 feet long and powered by two quadruple expansion steam enignes each driving a single propeller and fed by oil fired boilers. She could carry 360 passengers in liner configuration. She had a top speed of 16 knots, sported twin funnels, twin masts a cruiser style spoon shaped stern and a straight bow. She was registered in Antwerp, Belgium. Leopoldville was named after the capitol of the colony of Belgian Congo and was the fifth ship in the company to bear the name. Leopoldville often travelled between Belgium and Belgian Congo. Her crew was entirely comprised of Belgian and Congolese individuals. In 1937, she was refit with a raked bow and a single funnel, modernizing her appearance.

In 1939, the British Admiralty chartered the Leopoldville from her owners for use as a troopship in the recently delcared World War II. This kept her in allied hands and out of Axis control when Belgium was invaded and taken over by Germany in 1940 along with France. Despite being based out of England and managed by the British, Leopoldville always maintained a completely Belgian and Congolese crew. In 1942, command was given to Captain Charles Limbor who didn't speak a word of English. The entire crew also followed every order given in Flemish instead of English. Leopoldville was also armed with defensive guns in case of enemy attack, but often remained in convoys as the ship was vulnerable to destruction by submarine.

In late 1944, despite the Allies having advanced and retaken most of France, Belgium and Luxembourg, German forces suddenly fought back in a fury using every last fresh logistics and war materials remaining in a depserate attempt to push the Allies back to Britain. The surprise resurgance which retook Luxembourg and much of France and Belgium became known as the Battle of the Bulge. Thousands of troops were immediately mobilized and poured in to fight the German onslaught. On December 24, 1944, Christmas Eve, over 2,000 American soldiers boarded the Leopoldville to help provide reinforcements to the Battle of the Bulge. Leopoldville was bound for Cherbourg from England in the company of fellow troopship Cheshire as well as four warships including the British destroyer HMS Brilliant under command of Captain John Pringle. Leopoldville would never make it to Cherbourg.

Five miles outside Cherbourg late at night, Leopoldville was torpedoed twice by German submarine U-486 on the starboard stern. 300 people were immediately killed by the torpedo impacts. Captain Pringle, having recieved word from his crew the Leopoldville had been hit by enemy explosives, immediately ordered the Leopoldville to anchor in her position believing it had been hit by a mine. Captain Limbor did just that and kep the ship tightly anchored where it was and had the only remaining working engine shut down. What would happen next was a disgusting display of cowardice.

Most of the ship's crew began abandoning the ship without assisting the soldiers left aboard, not even bothering to cut away the Carley floats. Some of the crew even pushed the soldiers aside or told them to go away as they launched the lifeboats. The American soldiers were left in disbelief and confusion as to what had just happened. Karma was on their side that night as Captain Pringle had ordered the HMS Brilliant to come alongside the Leopoldville to take the troops off. As Brilliant came up alongside the Leopoldville, the escaping crew and their lifeboats were crushed against both hulls and destroyed killing crushed by the Brilliant. The crew of the Brilliant threw a cargo net between the Leopoldville and Brilliant to help the American soldiers evacuate. The soldiers began jumping off the deck of the Leopoldville onto the Brilliant. Some of the soldiers missed the deck and fell to their deaths in the water below. In all, over 500 soldiers managed to escape onto the Brilliant. Unable to take any more survivors on, Brilliant headed for Cherbourg.

Captain Pringle had ordered Cherbourg be contacted about the Leopoldville being hit and sinking, but due to using the wrong radio frequency and poor ship to shore morse code communication, the message didn't reach Cherbourg until it was too late. Only minutes away from Cherbourg and five miles from shore, Leopoldville finally sank stern first into the English Channel two hours after the torpedo attack by U-486. Rescue craft arrived too late. Over 700 American soldiers had died, either from hypothermia or being dragged down with the Leopoldville itself. Subsequent inquiries found Captain Limbor, who had gone down with the Leopoldville, responsible for the crew's cowardice. Captain Pringle was heavily repramanded for poor ship to shore communication and for stopping his destroyer alongside the Leopoldville, making his own vessel vulnerable to U-Boat attack.

As the incident was seen as an embarassing failure on the part of the allied forces and both the United States and United Kingdom governments decided to keep the entire incident top secret. The survivors were forbidden from telling their stories. The United States kept the sinking secret from public access until 1959. The United Kingdom doing so until 1994. In both cases, neither nation alerted the public that the records of the Leopoldville sinking were now free information and didn't bother to tell the families who lost their loved ones on Leopoldville the whereabouts of their sons or brothers. They were only ever told their son or brother was "missing in action" in the "European area". Most parents died before they could get closure on their son's demise. Where the governments failed, historians and maritime archaeologists have been working tirelessly around the clock to provide every affected family the closure they deserve regarding their loved ones.

Footnotes

The Leopoldville has been featured in a few TV shows. She is prominently featured in The Sea Hunters episode "Leopoldville/Clayoquot: Death on Christmas Eve" and the Deep Wreck Mysteries episode "The Leopoldville Disaster". She is also featured Clive Cussler's book The Sea Hunters describing his discovery of the ship in 1984 and being immediately run off the scene by French authorities.




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2 Comments & Ratings

Map was rated 5 stars by reviewer.
As someone who finds shipwrecks both tragic and fascinating, I am so glad I found this site! The maps are wonderful, providing information that is both easily accessible and interesting. Thank you for this site!
anonymous by Jerry Coffee on 11/13/2018

My brother, Sgt. Carol Coffee, 66th Panther Infantry Division, jumped from the deck of the SS Leopoldville to the deck of British destroyer HMS Brilliant on Christmas Eve, 1944. That date was Carol Coffee’s birthday. Lt. Carol Coffee is alive and well and lives near Houston, Texas.

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