The Forgotten Tale of How Allied Bombers Chased a German Sub to Its Doom
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By Sebastien Roblin, War Is Boring
This piece originally appeared in 2018.
In June 2018, Spanish media reported that divers Anxi González Roca and Eduardo Losada and naval historian Yago Abilleira had re-discovered the wreck Nazi submarine U-966 off Estaca de Bares in the Galician region on the northwestern tip of Spain. The divers found debris scattered across a wide area at depths ranging from 18 to 26 meters.
Roca told the periodical El Pais that they had searched for years in the famously rough waters of Estaca de Bares, before being tipped off about a local fisherman who had “a large aluminum sheet covering the chicken coop at his house … part of the airframe of a World War II fighter plane, we think one belonging to the Allied forces.”
However, the dramatic story of how five Allied bombers from three countries chased U-966 for nine hours until it crashed into craggy Galician rocks is often only retold with errors — particularly relating to the tragic loss of a British seaplane after U-966 met its fate.
Using a combination of U.S. Navy, Royal Air Force and Czech after-action reports, accounts from the crew of U-966 collected by Lt. Col. Buck Cummings, and the work of Spanish historians José Antonio Tojo Ramallo and Juan Carlos Salgado, it’s possible reconstruct the turbulent events that occurred off the Galician coast in Oct. 10, 1943 — and their peculiar aftermath.
According to Spanish historian Juan Carlos Salgado, the photo at top depicts U-968 under air attack with depth charge, not U-966 as is often claimed. RAF/Imperial War Museum photo
Rookie crew, doomed mission
U-966 was a Type VIIC U-boat, the most prolific type to serve in Nazi Germany’s undersea campaign to cripple maritime supply lines between the United Kingdom and the United States. The 67-meter long vessel was built in Hamburg by Blohm & Voss and entered service on March 4, 1943 under command of Lt. Eckehard Wolf.
Dubbed “Old Man,” Wolf was in fact only 25 years old, but his 50 crew were mostly inexperienced 19-to-21-year-olds. His subordinates remembered Wolf as a fatherly but hard-driving commander during their six months of training. “At this rate you will never be the sailors you can be,” Wolf chided the crew in a speech, “maybe [good] lumber for bowling pins, but not good sailors!”
Thereafter, the crew named their submarine Gut Holz—”Good Wood,” and created a coat of arms featuring bowling pins.
Wolf knew the odds of survival were long, having already served 16 months on two U-boats. Over the course of the war, more than 28,000 U-boat crewmen perished and 5,000 were captured—an 80-percent loss rate.
By 1943 the Allies were deploying adequate escort ships with effective sonars, and long-range anti-submarine patrol planes equipped with surface-search radars. Worse, British intelligence had broken Enigma code used by the German navy used to unwisely micro-manage its submarine operations.
After months of training in the Baltic, the 960-ton submarine transited to Trondheim, Norway on Sept. 17, pausing along the way to surface among Norweigina fishing boats. Though the startled fishermen offered them fresh catch, Wolf decided to submerge, worried that they might betray their presence to the Allies.
On Oct. 5, U-966 departed Trondheim headed for the East Coast of the Untied States on its first — and only — combat patrol.
Under the cover of a sea storm, U-966 managed to slip through the heavily-patrolled gap between Iceland the Faroe Island. However, on Oct. 25 it ran afoul of two British destroyers.
Wolf crash dived U-966 150 meters below the surface while the destroyers circled overhead, dropping 87 depth charges by the terrified crew’s count. The crew survived the bombardment, but U-966’s radio did not. The boat was unable to transmit messages.
After going three days without communication from U-966, the navy assumed it had been destroyed and stopped sending directions. Deprived of intel, Wolf nonetheless pressed on to the U.S. east coast, dodged a torpedo possibly launched by a fellow U-boat and made an unsuccessful attack on an Allied convoy.
However, the Type VIIC was relatively short-range submarine — 9,800 miles — and without the radio it twice failed to rendezvous for refueling with Type Xb tanker submarines, one of which had in fact been sunk.
Realizingly he was flailing around blindly, Wolf decided to return to base in southern France via the Bay of Biscay, waters heavily patrolled by Allied planes.
Delivery of U-966 in Hamburg in January 1943
Wellington in the moonlight
The Type VIIC used two diesel engines to generate electricity. While surfaced, the air-consuming generators could run continuously, propelling the submarine to a top speed of 20 miles per hour.
Submerged, it couldn’t exceed eight miles per hour, and even that pace would drain the batteries and air supply in a matter of hours. These limitations common to all early World War II submarines meant they had to surface frequently for extended periods of time. Naturally, submarine commanders preferred to recharge batteries at night.
On Oct. 10, 1943 U-966 was doing precisely that when it was detected by a Wellington GR Mark XI bomber of the RAF Coastal Command’s 612 Squadron. The twin-engine medium had a useful maximum range approaching 2,000 miles and mounted a Mark 2 ASV 2 radar that could distinguish a submarine from background clutter produced by waves at ranges of around six to 10 miles in fair weather.
The pilot, Warrant Officer Ian Gunn, soon spotted the submarine in the moonlight. He could have turned on the 22-million candle power Leigh Light slung under one wing to better illuminate his target, but chose take the sub by surprise.
The eyes of the watchman were still adjusting to the dark and he could not hear the airplane over sub’s rumbling diesel engines. The Wellington swept down to 100 feet and released six Mark IX 250-pound depth charges full of Torpex explosives, all of which fell short. But depth charges are designed to rupture a submarine’s hull without a direct hit.
“It was as if an invisible hand grabbed and shook the boat,” crewman Herebert Komer recalled. “Complete darkness came over us and in a moment the emergency lights came on. There was total chaos! Everything not tied down went flying and broken glass was everywhere.”
U-966 had a twin-barrel 20-millimeter automatic cannon and a heavier 37-millimeter gun for self-defense. These chattered into life, arcing tracers into the night sky. The tail and front gunners on the Wellington raked U-966’s deck in reply with 500 rounds, wounding two crew.
Three minutes later, the bomber banked around for another strafing run—but the submarine had disappeared. “We flew over the area for nearly two-and-a-half hours afterwards and searched a radius of five or six miles but we saw nothing more,” Gunn later wrote.
In fact, Wolf had ordered a crash dive to 150 meters. But U-966 was badly damaged, and the submarine continued plummeting beyond its safe test depth, the pressure causing the tortured metal of its damaged hull to creak and moan eerily.
A Type VIIC submarine’s crushing depth at which its hull begins collapsing from the pressure of the surrounding water lay between 250 to 295 meters. U-966 finally stabilized at 240 meters.
Gunn’s attack had inflicted grievous damage, however. One of the main bearings was damaged and water was leaking, likely from cracks in the ballast tanks. Worse, the port side diesel engine had been knocked out, leaving U-966 with just one functioning generator.
Rear-view photo from from Parish’s B-24 after dropping a depth charge. U.S military photo
Attack of the Liberators
Gunn’s sighting caused hulking four-engine Liberator bombers of the U.S. Navy to begin circling the area. The chunky B-24 was the most-produced military aircraft ever by the United States with around 18,500 built. It boasted long range of nearly 3,000 miles and decent speed, though it was little loved for its difficult handling characteristics.
The U.S. Navy and RAF Coastal Command operated a B-24D variant called the PBY4-1 and Liberator GR III, respectively equipped with a retractable radar dome and modified .50-caliber machine-gun turrets.
These far-flying Liberators were able to hunt in the “mid-Atlantic gap” previously beyond the reach of patrol planes, closing a window vulnerability U-boats had ruthlessly exploited.
Wolf kept U-966 submerged for as long as possible to avoid detection. But after four hours, his remaining generator was running low on air, so he re-surfaced at 8:30 A.M. Taking up the watch, Wolf ominously ordered his crew to put on life jackets.
Barely a half hour later at 8:59 A.M., the PB4Y-1 flown by Lt. Leonard Harmon from Navy patrol bomber squadron VB-105 detected U-966 at 44°15 North, 10° West — around 85 miles northwest of Spain.
This time, helmsman Hein Maslock spotted the attacker approaching from 260 degrees. The U-boat’s flak cannons riddled the B-24’s port tail and stabilizer, jammed its open bomb bay doors and disabled the hydraulic release mechanism for the depth charges.
Unable to drop the charges, Harmon’s B-24 instead made two strafing runs, shooting 2,000 rounds of .50-caliber into the submarine before limping home trailing smoke.
U-966 was next picked up at 11:40 A.M. just 18 miles northwest of Spain by a Liberator from VB-103 piloted by Lt. Kenneth Wright. The Navy Reserve pilot had earlier dodged interception by two Junker 88Rs, radar-equipped fighter bombers used by the Luftwaffe to hunt the lumbering Allied patrol planes over the Atlantic.
Ten minutes later, Wright unleashed a pattern of five Mark 24 depth charges that injured three German sailors. Then he swiveled around and launched an acoustic homing torpedo. This missed, as it wasn’t designed to attack surfaced submarines. The U-boat was now trailing an oil slick behind it.
Wright harried U-966 for an entire hour until 1:05 P.M., when he was joined by the VB-110 Liberator flown by Lt. W. Parish, who unleashed all six charges 100 feet parallel to the submarine’s starboard side, nearly pitching it over on the port side.
At some point, one of the depth charges actually struck U-966 and got stuck in its hull vents without exploding.
Wolf aggressively maneuvered the submarine to frustrate the bomber’s aim. The flak gunners stitched the skies with more than 12,000 20- and 37-millimeter shells, until one of the twin 20-millimeter cannons overheated and exploded, mortally injuring a gunner.
Wright finally began flying home at 1:30 P.M. The badly-damaged submarine was now just 10 miles away from neutral Spain’s Galician coast. The German crew recalled seeing “the white houses and church tower of Cariño.”
U-966 had closed the distance to just a few hundred meters at 1:45 P.M. when a final Liberator fell upon it as it limped at 10 knots among Spanish fishing boats off the Ria Ortigueira estuary. First Sgt. Ottokar Žanta from 311 Squadron, the only Czech bomber unit in the RAF, decided not to use his six depth charges for fear of hitting the Spanish boats.
Luckily, he had a back-up armament — braces of four RP-3 armor-piercing 60-pound rockets under each wing.
While Parrish’s B-24 provided covering fire, Zanta’s Liberator made two rocket runs. Though three of his rockets misfired, four of the 3-inch diameter rockets struck the water and curved upward into the U-boat’s hull, rupturing several compartments and the ballast tanks. U-966’s speed fell to just two knots.
Zanta made several more strafing runs then headed for home at 3:10 P.M., completing a nearly 12-hour-patrol.
Evaluation of Parish’s performance by his unit commander. U.S. military document courtesy of Uboatarchive.net
Tragedy at Estaca de Bares
Wolf’s crippled U-boat was on its last legs after nine hours of constant air attack. Suddenly, its crew spotted what they believed was a British corvette in the distance. Wolf had had enough — he ordered that the top secret documents be burned, told the crew to assemble on the deck to abandon ship and instructed his engineer to set a scuttling charge on a five-minute timer.
In fact, Wolf had spotted the Spanish coast guard vessel Ardia, which had been monitoring the engagement from afar. The case of mistaken identity almost immediately proved irrelevant as the submarine was suddenly “thrown upwards as if by an invisible fist.” It had run aground on the craggy rocks of the Estaca de Bares peninsula near Punta Maeda.
Unfortunately, the turbulent waters swept away the inflatable life rafts before they could be secured. The submariners were forced to swim for their lives to the shore up to 300 meters away. Meanwhile, the engineer opened U-966’s flood valves and Wolf and three companions jumped overboard.
Only a handful made it to shore. Most of the rest, battling against the violent surf and struggling to support wounded comrades, clung on to the razor sharp rocks poking through the surf. Behind them they heard their submarine explode — though whether this was due to the scuttling charge or the pressure-sensitive depth charge lodged in the stern is uncertain.
There was a tragic final act to the day’s violent events. The struggling submariners spotted a portly white seaplane approaching them from above. This was a four-engine RAF Short Sunderland III piloted by Flight Officer Arthur Franklin of 228 Squadron. The Sunderland was also a capable sub-hunter. But when Franklin spotted the Wolf’s floundering crew, he tossed a life raft to them.
At that moment, a flight of three Ju-88R-2s from II/ZG.1 based in Bordeaux pounced upon the ungainly seaplane. Led by Lt. Albrecht Bellstedt, the twin-engine fighter-bombers raked the Sunderland with their three nose-mounted 20-millimeter cannons and machine guns.
Franklin sent out one final radio message before his flying boat’s port wing caught fire. The Sunderland split in two and smashed into the water, the wreck belching fire and smoke.
Finally, five local Spanish fishing boats — Virgen de Covadonga, San Francisco, La Concha, Espasante and San Pedro — braved the perilous reef to rescue the shipwrecked submariners and brought them safely to shore.
All were housed in local hotels, save for three heavily wounded sailors. Out of U-966’s 50 crew, three had perished on board the submarine and five drowned while swimming for shore. All 12 men aboard Franklin’s Sunderland were killed.
Many sources claim in error that a smaller American-built Catalina float plane was shot down on Oct. 10. In fact, prior to the Sunderland’s arrival, a Catalina IB from the Coastal Command’s 202 squadron was active in the area, photographing the recovery of the German sailors. However, it returned to base. Records do not attest to any Catalinas being shot down in the area.
The fishermen recovered the bodies of six of the Sunderland’s crew and all five of the drowned submariners. They were first interred locally, then re-buried in German and British military cemeteries in Cáceres and Bilbao, respectively.
The Spanish authorities were in an awkward position. Though General Franco leaned towards the Fascists who helped him seize power during the Spanish Civil War, it was clear the Allies were winning the war and it was important to maintain the appearance of neutrality.
Spanish judges determined that the crew counted as combatants, not castaways, leading to their internment at La Graña naval base with the crew of U-760, which had been interned at Vigo after fleeing Allied patrol planes.
That December, after a BBC radio broadcast mentioned just 30 of the 42 survivors, 10 of the unnamed men were secretly smuggled to France. Then in November 1944, Eckehard was hospitalized in Madrid, reportedly suffering from a lung condition that proved fatal.
In reality, he was smuggled back to Germany with false papers bearing the name “Erich Weber.” Eckehard was promoted to captain and assumed command of a company of marine infantry defending Hamburg.
Shipwrecking in Spain was probably the best thing that could have happened to U-966’s crew. Afforded both their regular pay and a 240 peseta monthly stipend form the German consulate, the internees were allowed unsupervised free time in the city of Ferrol, where wine was only two pesetas a bottle and fine cognac was six.
By contrast, at least four of the repatriated German submariners again saw action. Only one survived.
U-966’s conning tower could be seen protruding from the water at low tide for many years, though the wreck was scrapped in 1960s and eventually lost. Meanwhile, the crew of U-966 felt such a connection to the site of their ordeal that they began holding regular reunions there in the 1970s, and Eckehard’s son even married a local girl.
When the submarine commander passed away in 1978, his ashes were cast into the water of Punta Maeda near the grave of his only command.
Historian Juan Carlos Salgado documented an equally important aspect of this tale. The fate of the Allied pilots who hunted down U-966.
Fewer than two months after the battle on Dec. 28, 1943, Parish’s B-24 crashed into a hill while returning to base. The entire crew died.
Six weeks later on Feb. 14, 1944, Wright shot down a Ju-88 in a dogfight over the Bay of Biscay, but was then forced to ditch his Liberator due to battle damage. His gunner and radio operator didn’t make it out in time, and another crewman died from his wounds before the survivors were rescued by a RAF seaplane the next day.
A month later on the evening of March 12, Zanta departed on a mission in his Liberator with seven crew. They were never heard from again.
Harmon survived the war. His airplane passed to another crew, which disappeared over the Bay of Biscay late in February 1944. Wellington pilot Gunn also survived.