Dive Into WWII History
Did the U-853’s Captain not get the message, or did he simply choose to ignore it? On or about May 4, 1945, German Admiral Karl Donitz had ordered the cessation of all U-boat operations. Following Hitler’s suicide, the Admiral was actively involved in preparing documents for the Nazi surrender. During early February of 1943, the 251 feet long, 22.6 feet beam submarine U-853 was
launched at Bremen, Germany. Two years later, the vessel headed out on its third patrol under the leadership of Captain Helmut Fromsdorf. The sub apparently saw no action during its Atlantic crossing. But on April 23, as it approached the coast of Maine, it sighted the USS Eagle (PE-56), some nine miles southeast of the Portland Head Lighthouse. The vessel, a WW I vintage patrol boat, was regularly used for towing Navy aircraft targets. For an undetermined reason, the patrol boat’s captain had brought his vessel to a halt. A short time later, she was struck by a torpedo. Hit amidships, the explosion broke the vessel’s back, sending it quickly to the bottom. One officer and twelve enlisted men were rescued by the destroyer USS Selfridge; 49 other crewmen were lost. Following the sinking of the patrol boat, the Navy determined, despite statements by surviving crewmen, that the loss was due to a boiler explosion. It would be over a half-century later, that the information was corrected. Records research by the Naval History & Heritage Commission and German historians finally concluded that action(s) by the sub, U-853, was responsible for the loss of PE-56. During the Battle of the Atlantic, approximately 2,825 merchant ships and 175 warships were sunk due to enemy action. The sinking of the collier Black Point was the last Allied vessel to be lost in those waters. On May 5, 1945, as the U-853 stalked the waters between Block Island and the Rhode Island coast, the collier Black Point was spotted on the sub’s periscope. The collier, a 327-foot long ship, was on route from Newport News, Virginia to Weymouth, Massachusetts. Loaded with over 7,000-tons of coal, her Captain, Charles Prior, chose to follow the safer, coastal waterway, zigzagging her course, a normal anti-submarine practice. The ship was crewed by 41 merchant seaman and five Navy guards that manned the ship’s deck guns. At about 5:40 pm, as they approached the Point Judith Light (RI), a torpedo struck just aft of the engine room. With a large portion of the stern blown way, the wounded ship listed to one side and began its descent to below the surface. A few minutes later, she lay on the bottom, taking 11 crewmen and one of the Navy guards. Broken up in two sections, about a quarter mile apart, the ship lies in about 100 feet of water, at Latitude 41-19-558N and Longitude71-25-755W. (It has also been reported at 41-18-55N / 71-25-33W -check with your local dive shop). A Yugoslav freighter that had witnessed the explosion radioed an SOS and immediately began picking up survivors. In response to the distress call, US destroyer escort Atherton and Amick and the frigate Moberly made their way to the scene, joining forces in their hunt for the U-boat. Strangely, the U-boat’s captain chose to remain in the area. Though at first, the submarine lay silent on the bottom, the Atherton’s sonar operator was able to detect her. In the meantime, the original sub-hunters were joined by eight other military vessels and two blimps from the Lakehurst Naval Station. Over the next few hours, multiple depth charges were dropped over the site, but then, the Moberly’s sonar detected the sub’s movement. The American vessel then fired off a barrage of hedgehogs, anti-sub mortars that exploded on contact, unlike a depth charge. Soon after, pools of oil, a submarine officer’s black cap and other debris began floating at the surface. Shortly after noon on May 6th, a hard-hat diver was dispatched from the USS Penguin. Landing on or near the conning tower, he found the vessel’s side blown open to one side. Pieces of U-853 were strewn about the wreck and bodies of some of her crewmen and officers, were clearly visible inside the hull. The ship’s remains, lying at a depth of 127+ feet, is located at 41-13-48 N / 71-24-12 W, approximately seven miles east of Block Island, RI. Her destruction marked the last Battle of the Atlantic. Unlike some rumors, the sub was not carrying a cargo of gold or any other precious commodity. But diving her is an opportunity to relive history and experience one of the most interesting coastal Atlantic wrecks. Penetration of the 251-foot vessel is possible, but it must be done with extreme caution. And anyone descending to the wreck is frequently greeted by its guardian, a rather strange-looking fish that can grow 18 to inches in length, the sea raven.