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“The Worst Christmas Story Ever”: The Sinking of SS Leopoldville on 24 December 1944

“The Worst Christmas Story Ever”: The Sinking of SS Leopoldville on 24 December 1944

World War 2
A pre-World War II poster for the Compagnie Maritime Belge

The surprise German counteroffensive that commenced 16 December 1944 (which became known as the Battle of the Bulge, costing over 19,000 U.S. lives, making it the bloodiest battle of the entire war for the United States) provoked a mad scramble to send reinforcements forward to counter the German advance. Elements of the U.S. 66th Infantry Division (2,235 men) were hastily loaded aboard the Belgian troopship SS Leopoldville in Southampton, England, on 24 December 1944.

Destined for Cherbourg, France, to replace the 94th Infantry Division, which had been sent forward to the battle.
Advertising poster for cruises aboard the SS Léopoldville 5

The voyage was a debacle from the beginning as loading had been haphazard and resulted in a complete breakdown of unit integrity and chain of command. The soldiers were given virtually no instruction for abandoning ship or in the proper use of survival gear. (SS Leopoldville had successfully transported over 120,000 Allied soldiers on previous trips. Since the D-Day landings in June, hundreds of thousands of Allied troops had crossed the English Channel without being attacked.)

When SS Leopoldville was within 5.5 miles of her destination, she was hit by one torpedo from the German snorkel-equipped submarine U-486, conducting her first war patrol. SS Leopoldville actually took over two hours to sink.

However, rescue was delayed by bungled communication, language misunderstandings, badly executed abandon-ship procedures, and the early abandonment by the ship’s crew (although the captain went down with the ship).

Moreover, it should be noted that the U.S. troops remained calm and disciplined throughout, possibly not realizing the extreme danger they were in until it was too late.

Another unfortunate key factor was that many potential responding headquarters and rescue forces were undermanned and not ready due to Christmas Eve celebrations ashore.

HMS Brilliant (H84)
One of the British escort ships, HMS Brilliant, came alongside and rescued about 500 soldiers, while the other escorts pursued the submarine.

The U.S. tug ATR-3 reached SS Leopoldville from Cherbourg in time to rescue 69 soldiers, and PC-564 and PT-461 also contributed to the rescue of a further 1,400 U.S. soldiers. In the end 763 U.S. soldiers perished, some killed by the improper use of lifejackets (which broke their necks when the men jumped in the water), and about 300 as a result of the torpedo hit, but most of the rest died of hypothermia in the water as they awaited rescue.

These deaths are not counted in the Battle of the Bulge totals, and the SS Leopold disaster was long overshadowed by other Battle of the Bulge events, such as the massacre of U.S. prisoners of war at Malmedy, Belgium. At any rate, this holiday season, it would be appropriate to remember the brave U.S. Army soldiers who didn’t have a chance in the frigid winter waters of the English Channel.

For further reading: Battle of the Bulge

“The Worst Christmas Story Ever”: The Sinking of SS Leopoldville on 24 December 1944

Written by US Navy Admiral Sam Cox

World War 2