USS Borie's Last Battle vs. U-405, 1 November 1943

By John Dudek 06 Jul 2015 0

The hard fought and highly costly U-boat submarine war in the Atlantic began within hours of Germany's invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 and continued right up to the final German surrender to the Allies in May 1945. This titanic, savage struggle had all the niceties and nuances of a bitter, no holds barred, bare knuckle, bar room brawl with little quarter given and few prisoners taken by either side. To give you an idea of the fervent intensity of the fighting, 40,000 Germans served in U-boats in WWII.  30,000 never returned. In spite of this, U-Boats were without a doubt the most cost effective weapon in Germany's naval arsenal in their battle against the Allies during the war.  Their continued use nearly starved Great Britain into surrender during the first few years of the war.  Even England's Prime Minister Winston Churchill later confessed "The only thing that truly scared me during the entire war were the U-boat attacks upon our supply convoys."  Perhaps one of the best examples epitomizing this no holds barred style of intensely savage warfare occurred when the destroyer USS Borie encountered U-405 on a moonless, late autumn night in the storm swept, icy North Atlantic.

On the windy black night of 1 November 1943, the WWI vintage destroyer USS Borie was "pouring on the coal," racing at full flank speed through the rising high seas of the North Atlantic.  She was halfway between Cape Race, Newfoundland and Cape Clear, Ireland.  Borie was speeding towards a surfaced U-boat contact some 8,000 yards distant.  This was the second U-boat the old destroyer had attacked that night and its gun crew’s still standing at their battle stations were waiting expectantly for a fresh target.  At 2,800 yards range, Borie lost the surface radar contact and slowed to 17 knots in order to begin pinging with its sonar, searching for the now submerged submarine. When Borie's skipper Lieutenant Commander Charles Hutchins judged the time was right, he ordered a spread of depth charges to be dropped. 

However, rather than the standard pattern of three depth charges being released, the depth charge release mechanism malfunctioned, dropping every one of them over Borie's stern.  For the captain and crew of the U-405 located nearly directly below the Borie, the nerve shattering, near endless explosions must have sounded like the booming tocsins of hell's own kettle drums in their ears.  Korvettenkapitän Rolf-Heinrich Hopman immediately ordered his damaged sub to surface and engaged their antagonist with its own deck guns. What happened next was perhaps one of the strangest, unique and most singularly savage surface battles of WWII.  It had all the bitter panoply and grandiose give and take movements of a formal Spanish bull fight, while using the close-in battle tactics more befitting the Nelsonian age of fighting sail, just over a hundred years before.

USS Borie was one of 156 Clemson class flush deck, four stack destroyers built for the US Navy between 1919 and 1922.  They were referred to colloquially as "four-pipers" or "flush-deckers."  They were 314 feet in length, with a beam width of 30 feet.  Powered by 4 saturated steam boilers and two geared steam turbine engines, Borie could do 35 knots with a clean bottom in a moderate seaway.  She had a range of 4900 miles at a cruising speed of 15 knots.   Her WWII armament consisted of 4x 4" (102mm) guns and 1x3" (76mm) anti aircraft gun, 2x20mm Oerlikon cannons and 2x.30 caliber machine guns.  12 torpedo tubes in four mounts of 3 were carried along with a large number of depth charges for anti-submarine work. 

 

 

The German Type VII-C U-boat the Borie was hunting that night was the work horse of the German Navy with 703 of them built for the Kriegsmarine during WWII.  They were 220 feet in length and 20 feet in width.  Powered by 2x supercharged 6-cylinder 4 stroke diesel engines gave them a top surface speed of 17.7 knots.  When running submerged and using her battery powered electric motors, U-405 had a maximum speed of 7.6 knots.  She carried four torpedo tubes in her bow and one in the stern.  By this later stage of the war, U-boats carried an ever increasing number of anti-aircraft guns (usually 2 twin 20mm cannon and a single 37mmgun, plus machine guns) on the aft portion of the conning tower.  In addition, an 88mm main gun was located on the main deck, forward of the conning tower. 

 

 

“Hunter-Killer groups" was a concept originally developed by the Royal Navy in early 1942 to deal with massed (Wolf Pack) U-boat attacks on their absolutely vital supply convoys.  Centered around an “escort” aircraft carrier built of a converted merchant ship and its small number of planes, it consisted of a number of escorting destroyers who were constantly in search of marauding German submarines.  The concept was eagerly accepted into the US Navy, whose ship building yards began building dozens of the small escort aircraft carriers for this purpose. Hunter-Killer groups were also a perfect way to utilize the older generation of numerous WWI era “Flush Deck" destroyers. These older destroyers were no longer able to effectively operate long term with main fleet units, but still able to fit quite well in hunting down and destroying U-boats spotted earlier by the escort carrier's patrolling aircraft.

 

 

The destroyers were often sent great distances to where U-boats had been recently seen.  As the Hunter-Killer group concept continued to expand and mature, a number of radically new battle tactics and detection gear were successfully developed and used to vector the destroyers towards the patrolling German submarines.  HF/DF (HUFF DUFF), or high frequency direction finding, was a major weapon in the Allied bag of tricks. In addition, valuable information was gained from the recently obtained Enigma code breaking machine.  This meant the Allies could break and read coded German naval messages nearly in real time.  ASDIC or Sonar too was another highly effective weapon to aid in the sinking of German submarines in the U-boat war. 

HF/DF was basically a transmitter-receiver sending out a highly directional sound wave through the water. If the sound wave struck a submerged object it was reflected back and picked up by the receiver. The length of the time from transmission until the echo was received was used to measure the range, which was shown as a flickering light on the range scale. By mounting the transmitter head so that it could be directed almost like a searchlight, the bearing of the target could be read from the compass receiver. The transmitter (sound) head extended beneath the ship, and was encased in a large metal done to minimize the noise of the water rushing past the ship while at moderate speed. This dome was filled with water, through which the sound passed, although this water was stationary and acted almost like a bumper. Noise level remained relatively low at moderate speeds, but anything above 18 knots resulted in too much noise and good contacts were difficult to find. The same results also resulted from bad weather when the ships were rolling, pitching and heaving.

Lastly, visual contacts were also used; either obtained from the patrolling aircraft or by sharp eyed look outs aboard ship.  In Borie's current case, she had been sent out on her current mission by visual results obtained earlier in the day from patrolling aircraft from the escort carrier USS Card.

As the damaged U-405 came rocketing up from the depths, USS Borie's Lt. Cmndr. Hutchins was listening to its progress on his head phones.  He judged the submarine would break surface to starboard and ordered all of Borrie's guns trained in that direction.  However the wily U-boat skipper K.Kapt. Hopman did the unexpected by ordering his engines to full speed at the last moment, so as to surface on the port side of the expectant destroyer.  This gave his sub's gun crews a few crucial minutes of grace time to man, load and aim their 88mm main gun and secondary anti aircraft guns upon the Borie. 

The damaged U-boat broke surface a few hundred yards away, looking like a giant white whale, now illuminated by Borie's 24 inch spot light.  The U-boat gun crews scrambled out of the hatches and quickly brought their guns to bear on the Borie before the old destroyer could even get a bead on the submarine with its own main guns.  U-405's 20 mm, 37mm cannon and machine guns opened fire, peppering the destroyer's bridge while making damaging hits along the waterline as its main gun prepared to fire.  Borie's gun crews now opened fire on the U-boat with their own machine guns and 20mm cannon, cutting down the sub's main gun crew before they could get an opening shot off.  Borie's three 4-inch guns now fired, ripping the submarine's 88mm main gun completely from its deck and over the side, making any future submergence by the wildly maneuvering submarine impossible. 

 

 

Borie's skipper now rang up full flank speed and prepared to ram the elusive submarine.  At the last possible moment, a rogue wave lifted the Borie's bow to land it fully upon the submarine's deck just forward of the conning tower locking them together in an "X".  With Borie's forward section now lying atop the submarine, its main guns were unable to depress low enough to fire on the U-boat.  Not so for the U-boat's crew who continued to rush out of the submarine's hatches in a mad, desperate attempt to replace those killed or wounded and bring their own secondary guns to open fire. Hutchins ordered small arms broken out and issued to Borie's crew so that each time a German sailor appeared on deck, he was cut down by close range Thompson submachine gun, shotgun, rifle or pistol fire. 

There were not enough small arms to equip all of Borie's crew, so some of her sailors made use of expedient weapons.  One enthusiastic Borie sailor threw his belt knife at a German sailor, catching him fully in the chest, knocking him overboard.  Meanwhile a burly chief bosun's mate hurled a spent 4-inch shell casing that knocked another German into the water.  A US sailor fired a Very flare pistol at a German sailor, hitting him in the stomach and sending him overboard in a shower of sparks.  One of Borie's 20mm gun crews chopped down the gun's splinter shield, enabling it to be depressed low enough to bring automatic cannon fire down upon the U-boat. The point blank range slaughter continued except with much greater vehemence once the 20 mm gun joined in.  Hutchins later noted that while some 35 German crewmen were killed during this exchange they never seemed to lack courage while racing into the hail of gunfire in a mad attempt to get their own automatic weapons back into action.  He also said: "We were impressed by the ruggedness and toughness of these U-boats and their crew."

After about ten minutes of unequal battle and with the high seas violently grinding the two ships together, Borie finally broke free. However, many of her ancient hull plate seams were sprung from the incident and  Borie began taking on water in her forward engine room.  Meanwhile, U-405 dashed away into the darkness, taking evasive action while trying to bring her after torpedo tube to bear on the Borie.  An odd dance macabre of fire and maneuver now began with both ships wildly zigzagging and pirouetting, trying to gain the upper hand while racing through the high seas that continued breaking over their decks.  Borie was ten knots faster than the surfaced U-boat, but the submarine had a much tighter turning radius that prevented her from being rammed again by the destroyer.  Meanwhile, U-405 continued to try and line up for a stern shot at her tormentor with her after torpedo tube.  After a number of foiled attempts, K.Kapt. Hopman finally got off a torpedo shot that Borie easily evaded.  Hutchins returned fire with his own torpedoes, but the submarine evaded them as well. 

Borie's main guns now began getting the range and hit U-405 a number of times in its hull and engine room.  The submarine's speed began to slow and then stop.  The author John Hershey later wrote:  "Somehow the submarine managed to start up again.  It was like a dying animal--like a good Spanish bull that refuses to die, and in the very act of dying refuses to admit it is dying."  Hutchins again nimbly brought Borie up alongside the U-boat, before dropping a spread of shallow set depth charges into its path.  U-405 waded right into them and the explosions became her death blow, lifting her already damaged bow momentarily out of the water. U-405 began to settle and sink by the stern, disappearing forever at 0257.  A large, bright explosion was seen underwater, momentarily lighting up the black waters and most likely resulting from the U-boat's scuttling charges exploding. 

 Hutchins later wrote:  "When the submarine sank, there was a yell that went up from all hands - it probably could be heard in Berlin. The men were clasping each other and patting each other on the back, and all during the action, there were times when it was actually comical to observe the situation, particularly with the submarine pinned underneath ... heretofore their one dream had been to catch a submarine, depth charge him, bring him to the surface and then to sink him with gunfire, this particular action more than justified their hopes."

The German submarine's surviving crew were now in rubber life rafts. One of them fired a number of Very flare distress signals into the sky. These flares were soon answered by another surfaced U-boat from somewhere close by.  Hutchins knew full well that Borie was in no condition to take part in another sea battle.  She was now running sluggishly on but one engine and noticeably slower while trailing an oil slick. In addition, Borie continued to take on water through the many rents in her hull.  As a result she was nearly sunk by a torpedo fired from another U-boat somewhere out in the darkness.  Hutchins immediately ordered all life saving attempts for the marooned German sailors to cease. Borie lurched off into the darkness, zigzagging for several hours to hopefully patch its wounds and evade any further German submarine attacks in her diminished capacity.  Unfortunately, none of the surviving German sailors were recovered by either side and all 49 men of U-405's crew perished in the frigid high seas around them.  Borie continued to ship water below decks and the slowly rising flood could not be effectively stemmed. With her forward engine and generator rooms under water, she eventually lost power and began drifting. 

Fortunately, a thick fog descended upon the region around daybreak which prevented any further German U-boat attacks on the slowly sinking destroyer. Meanwhile, Borie's crew did everything possible to patch the many leaks and made some progress. They formed bucket brigades to fight the rising water, while throwing nearly everything overboard that could be pried loose from the deck to lighten the ship.  The remaining torpedoes were fired overboard, soon followed by the tubes themselves.  With the ship's power out, there was no way to communicate with the other ships of Borie's Hunter Killer Group. However, her enterprising communications officer jury rigged an emergency radio generator, using a fuel mixture of torpedo alcohol and "Zippo" lighter fluid to power its motor.  A distress call was sent out and a homing beacon raised to draw in any friendly ships and planes.  A patrolling TBF Avenger torpedo plane from the USS Card spotted Borie and relayed its location back to the group.  With a rising storm front almost upon them and little chance of rigging the destroyer for towing, it was decided to abandon ship.  Borie was sunk early the next day by aerial bombing and the gallant ship sent to a watery grave. 

 

 

While none of Borie's crew had been killed during the final duel with U-405, 27 of her utterly exhausted men drowned in the frigid North Atlantic waters during the rescue attempt.  Hutchins later wrote: "Many of the lost were just unable to get over the side of the two rescuing destroyers”.  So ended one of the most savage ship vs. ship sea battles of WWII.  Borie later received three battle stars for her WWII service as well as a Presidential Unit Citation.  To fully sum up USS Borie's last battle perhaps Lord Nelson's words of over a century before are the most appropriate:  "No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy."

 

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