Apr 21

A Destroyer Escort, a U-boat, and the ‘Argentia Eight’

Tuesday, April 21, 2020 12:26 PM

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The USS Frederick C. Davis operated in the Mediterranean theater before being reassigned to the western Atlantic in early 1945. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

In April 1945, Nazi Germany was in its death throes, with Soviet troops battling for Berlin and U.S. and British forces driving deep into the country’s heartland. The Battle of the Atlantic was virtually over; the Kriegmarine’s bases on the French coast either had been captured or were besieged, their surviving U-boats long gone to bases farther north.

Nevertheless, the U.S. Navy was concerned that U-boats posed a serious new threat—to New York City and other major East Coast cities. Allied intelligence had revealed sketchy information about a German plan to dispatch U-boats armed with V-1 flying bombs to waters off the United States, from whence the vengeance weapons could terrorize America’s continental civilian population for the first time in World War II.

U.S. planning to counter such an operation began in late 1944 and was completed in early January 1945. The plan, codenamed Teardrop, became operational in March, after nine long-range Type IX U-boats equipped with snorkels departed bases in occupied Norway. Seven of the boats, which would be organized into Gruppe Seewolf, had orders to operate off the northeastern United States; the other two set out for Canadian waters. To counter the threat posed by the supposedly V-1 armed boats of Seewolf, the U.S. Atlantic Fleet dispatched two large surface barrier forces into the Atlantic to find and sink the vessels. Two CVEs and 20 DEs formed the First Barrier Force, while farther west, two escort carriers and 22 destroyer escorts made up the Second Barrier Force.

Between 16 April and the night of 21–22 April, First Barrier DEs found and sank three of Seewolf’s boats with no survivors. Large explosions as two of the submarines sank seemed to confirm suspicions they were carrying V-1s.

The surviving U-boats continued on despite Gruppe Seewolf being dissolved the night of 22–23 April. Then, at 0829 on 24 April, a sonar striker on board the USS Frederick C. Davis (DE-136), a Second Barrier Force ship, reported a “sharp, clear sound contact,” range: 2,000 yards. U-546, formerly of Seewolf, was attempting to slip through the barrier to attack the USS Core (CVE-13).

The DE quickly lost the U-boat, but sound contact was reestablished at 0835. Four minutes later, the escort reported that the U-boat was only 650 yards distant. An instant later, a single acoustic torpedo from U-546 slammed into the Frederick C. Davis’ port side, destroying her forward engine spaces. Within about 15 minutes, the ship had buckled, broken in two, and sank. Rescue operations began, but only 77 of her 192 crewman would survive the sinking and ordeal in the cold ocean. The Battle of the Atlantic had claimed its final U.S. warship victim.

After being torpedoed by U-546 early on 24 April, the Frederick C. Davis slips below the surface. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

Meanwhile, eight escorts commenced a frantic ten-hour search for the attacker. The USS Flaherty (DE-135) had been rescuing Frederick C. Davis survivors when her sonar detected the submarine. She eventually damaged U-546with a hedgehog attack. The boat rose to the surface, where shellfire from the Flaherty and other DEs sent her down for good. She was the last known U-boat sunk by U.S. escorts in the Battle of the Atlantic.

A Frederick C. Davis survivor is transferred from the USS Flaherty to an escort carrier, likely the Bogue. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

Nearby DEs rescued 33 German survivors, about half the boat’s crew, including her skipper, Kapitänleutnant Paul Just. Within a day, they were all on board the Bogue, where the prisoners were kept separate from the Frederick C. Davis survivors. But what about the U-boat’s mission and the vengeance weapon she was believed to be carrying. When questioned, Just would only state that he was a German officer. U.S. officials, however, were intent on learning all they could about his boat, its armament, and his mission.

On 25 April, the Germans were transferred to the USS Varian (DE-798) for quick transport to the U.S. base at Argentia, Newfoundland. Once there, 25 of the sailors were dispatched to POW work camps in the United States. As detailed in an article by Philip K. Lundeberg in the International Journal of Naval History, Just, his first officer, and six U-546 enlisted specialists remained at Argentia, where they received harsh treatment, including beatings with rubber truncheons. Two interrogators, one in civilian clothes and the other in the uniform of a senior U.S. Navy officer, arrived. The Kriegsmarine officer refused to answer their questions about his U-boat, her mission, and her previous operations, which evoked threats of more severe punishment for him and his men. Beatings and other harsh treatment continued until news of Germany’s 7 May surrender arrived.

Kapitänleutnant Paul Just, U-546’s commander, on board the Bogue. (U.S. Navy/uboat.net)

But U.S. officials were still determined to learn all they could about U-546’s mission. The eight Germans were transported to the United States, arriving at the U.S. military’s top-secret POW interrogation center at Fort Hunt, Virginia, on 11 May. That evening, they once more were beaten. The next day, Just wrote an account of his submarine’s history. The beatings ended and the “Argentia eight” were transferred to prisoner of war work camps. As for V-1–armed U-boats, Germany had investigated the idea but abandoned it after all tests had failed.

Lunderberg, a Smithsonian Institution curator emeritus of naval history, points out in his article that there was a postscript to this end-of-war tale. On Memorial Day weekend in 1990, when the Frederick C. Davis survivors’ organization held its annual reunion, also in attendance were veterans of the Flaherty, Varian, and U-546, including Kapitänleutnant Just.

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