USS Buckley Rammed by U-66, Fights Off Boarding Party, then Sinks Sub

 
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USS Buckley Rammed by U-66, Fights Off Boarding Party, then Sinks Sub

USS Buckley (DE-51), under sail, date and photographer unknown
[Image courtesy of www.navsource.org]
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: May 6, 1944

For today's post, I present the story of a Second World War action that involved a) vessels being rammed by an opponent, and b) the last known boarding action since the Age of Sail.

Background

Commissioned on April 30, 1943, the Buckley was the lead ship of Buckley-class destroyer escorts. Its two main duties were to escort convoys and to hunt enemy submarines. The ship had a top speed of 24 knots (that 28 mph to us landsmen), with a crew complement of 186 officers and men. Its armament consisted of:

  • 3 × 3-inch/50 caliber guns
  • 1 × quad 1.1 inch/75 caliber gun
  • 8 × single 20 mm guns
  • 1 × triple 21 inch torpedo tube
  • 1 × Hedgehog anti-submarine mortar
  • 8 × K-gun depth charge projectors
  • 2 × depth charge tracks

Hedgehog, a 24-barreled anti-submarine mortar on forecastle of British warship [Image from the collections of the Imperial War Museums, UK]
Hedgehog, a 24-barreled anti-submarine mortar on forecastle of British warship
[Image from the collections of the Imperial War Museums, UK]

Prelude to the Battle

On April 22, 1944, she joined hunter-killer Task Group 21.11 for a sweep of the North Atlantic and Mediterranean convoy routes. The task force began its mission by sailing in the area north and west of the Cape Verde Islands off the western African coast.

On the morning of May 6, a patrol craft from the escort carrier Block Island (CVE-21) reported an enemy submarine near Buckley. The destroyer was ordered to intercept and sink the enemy vessel. Proceeding at top speed, lookouts on the American ship sighted the U-66 at about 3:00 am – apparently unaware of the presence of the Buckley. The German sub was brilliantly illuminated in the light of the full moon.

The U-66 was on its ninth cruise of the war, having sunk or damaged over 212,000 tons of shipping since June, 1941. The sub carried 22 21-inch torpedoes in six tubes, and also carried a 4.1 inch deck gun. The German vessel was probably waiting for a refueling sub prior to resuming its cruise.

Insignia and emblem of U-66 [Images courtesy of http://www.uboataces.com]
Insignia and emblem of U-66
[Images courtesy of http://www.uboataces.com]

USS Buckley vs. U-66

The Buckley's approach was so expertly executed the U-66 was caught completely by surprise when the American ship opened fire with all guns at almost point blank range. The fire was so accurate and concentrated, the crew of the enemy craft was presented little opportunity to man their deck guns and defend themselves. Their only recourse was to flee, for the initial gun-fire had so damaged them as to make submerging impossible. By maneuvering and turning stern toward the pursuing Buckley, the better to fire torpedoes, the sub's forward deck gun was manned. Soon the German vessel was returning the fire as hotly as she was receiving. Fortunately only insignificant damage was done to the American ship.

Consequently, a ramming contest then ensued with each vessel trying to ram the other. At 3:28 am, the Buckley struck the U-66, riding up onto the submarine just forward of its conning tower. In an effort to distract the American crew to allow the sub to come about and try to ram it, a German boarding party made its way onto the Buckley's forecastle. In the hand-to-hand melee that resulted, coffee cups and expended shell casings were used as weapons by members of the gun crews. During the short melee, some ten German prisoners were subdued before the two craft separated.

The action was shortly continued with both vessels maintaining a rapid and damaging fire, until the two fighters drew abreast for a second time. The submarine, either intentionally or out of control, rammed the Buckley amidships, piercing her skin on the starboard hand, and in the crash that followed, damaging the destroyer's starboard shaft and screw. The close contact finished off the enemy, however, for they provided the after batteries with an extremely vulnerable target at point blank range.

The crew of the Buckley began firing tommy guns and throwing hand grenades at the U-66. At least one grenade went down the open hatch of the sub's conning tower, causing a gout of flame visible to all to shoot out of the opening. The sub was now swiftly speeding away, likely out of control. At about 3:38 am, the German sub commander ordered demolition charges set and the crew to abandon ship. At 3:41 am, the enemy craft nosed down and slipped beneath the surface of the sea. Shortly afterwards, several underwater explosions indicated her complete destruction. The entire action had taken less than 45 minutes.

Aftermath

The Buckley spent the next several hours after the sub's destruction in the rescue of survivors, and an additional twenty-six prisoners were retrieved from the water and taken into custody. Twenty-four other crewmembers – including the sub's captain – perished. The only American casualty occurred during the boarding action, when one crewman sustained bruised knuckles.

Some of German POWS from U-66 picked up after it fight with USS Buckley [Image courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command http://www.history.navy.mil/]
Some of German POWS from U-66 picked up after it fight with USS Buckley
[Image courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command http://www.history.navy.mil/]

For this most interesting action – regarded by several high naval officers as being the most "exciting" anti-submarine kill in the Battle of the Atlantic – the crew of the Buckley was authorized to wear a combat star in the European-African Theatre ribbon. The destroyer's commanding officer, Lt. Comdr. Brent M. Abel, USNR, of Cambridge, MA was awarded the Navy Cross for his part in its execution.

Footnote #1: After the events of May 6, the Buckley sailed to New York where she underwent repairs until June 14.

USS Buckley in drydock, May-June, 1944; (Notice the bent bow, a result of ramming U-66); [Image courtesy of www.navsource.org]
USS Buckley in drydock, May-June, 1944
(Notice the bent bow, a result of ramming U-66)
[Image courtesy of www.navsource.org]

Footnote #2: After its repairs were completed, the Buckley returned to duty and escorted three more convoys to North Africa. In 1945, it was being converted to serve as a picket ship when Japan surrendered. The destroyer was placed in reserve in July of 1946. It was stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on June 1, 1968 then sold for scrap in July, 1969.

Footnote #3: For her Second World War service, the USS Buckley received the Navy Unit Commendation for sinking U-66 and three battle stars.

Footnote #4: The battle between the Buckley and U-66 was the basis for the 1957 film The Enemy Below, starring Robert Mitchum and Curt Jürgens. In addition, this movie served as inspiration for the Star Trek Season 1 episode, "Balance of Terror," in which the Romulans, a previously unseen alien race, are introduced.

Movie poster for The Enemy Below

Movie poster for The Enemy Below
Movie poster for The Enemy Below

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Comments

My father was a radarmate aboard the Buckley when the dunk the U-66 his mate was John J. Brown

my father was a radarman during the sinking of the sub but do not have any pictures or much info about it because he would not talk much about it

My grandfather was on the USS Buckley when this incident occured. Although, I’ve never been able to find his name on a roster. I wish I could find some records on it.

my dad was on the buckley when this incident occured but can not find out much about it or any pictures of the crew or a roster where did you find the roster thanks howard

The Navigation map from the U-66 was presented to Lt. Cmdr Brent Maxwell Abel by the rescued submariners in gratitude for their rescue. Since his passing it has been handed down through his shipmate to a friend of mine from Retired Navy. I was lucky to be asked to scan the map and have the digital version. Quite a fascinating story and piece of history.

The Navigation map from the U-66 was presented to Lt. Cmdr Brent Maxwell Abel by the rescued submariners in gratitude for their rescue. Since his passing it has been handed down through his shipmate to a friend of mine from Retired Navy. I was lucky to be asked to scan the map and have the digital version. Quite a fascinating story and piece of history.

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