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Piracy Warfare - U-85 ... The first U-boat sunk during World War II

Piracy Warfare :: U-85 :: U-85 Background Briefing :: DD-147 Roper Briefing :: The Battle Begins

The USS Roper Battle Begins

The Weather Conditions - The night of April 13 was exceptionally clear; the stars shone bright on a calm, placid sea. The USS Roper's twin propellers churned surface plankton into a bioluminescent wake. The light on Bodie Island offered a bearing point for the ship's navigation.

Urgent Mission Briefing...German U-boat U-85

Oberleutnant zur See Eberhard Greger was the U-boat's first and only captain. Greger and the U-85 made three war patrols in the North Atlantic with very little success. On September 9, 1941 he fired a spread of torpedoes into Convoy SC-42 but made no hits. Still dogging the convoy, the following day " the U-85 made two attacks. In the first, one hit was observed, and one detonation heard beyond. In the second attack, two detonations were heard, but these must have been depth charges dropped by HMCS Skeena." Greger reported three ships sunk and one probably damaged, but only the 4,748-ton Thistleglen went to the bottom.

After another attack, on January 21, 1942, "the U-85 heard two detonations and after 10 minutes observed the damaged ship in sinking condition with a heavy list." Greger tried to take credit for sinking a 9,000-ton vessel, but no allied ships were reported lost. On February 9, Greger made his second confirmed kill: the 5,408-ton Empire Fuselier.

March 21, 1942 found the U-85 on its way to the American shooting gallery. The crossing took only three weeks. Then the U-boat cruised offshore between New York and North Carolina, reaching as far south as Wimble Shoals. During this time it was credited with sinking the 4,904-ton Chr. Knudsen, which left New York on April 8, bound for Capetown, South Africa, and which disappeared without a trace.


  • Constructed between 1936-1940.
  • 218 feet long.
  • A type VIIB boat.
  • Maximum surface speed was 17.2-17.9 knots and their maximum submerged speed was 8 knots.
  • Carried 14 torpedoes (4 in forward tubes, 8 in forward torpedo compartment, 1 in aft torpedo tube and 1 aft torpedo compartment).
  • 88mm deck gun mounted forward of conning tower.
  • Designed to carry 48 men (4 officers and 44 enlisted men)
  • Two diesel engines/two electric motors

Lieutenant Commander Howe's decision was to investigate.

"Something's Out there"  The Roper plowed the sea at a steady 18 knots, on a heading of 162. At six minutes past midnight, she made a radar contact bearing 190 at a range of 2,700 yards.

 " Immediately afterwards the sound man, echo ranging from bow to bow, heard rapidly turning propellers at a range and bearing that coincided with those obtained by the Radar operator. Then almost dead ahead, the lookout picked up what appeared to be the wake of a small vessel running away at high speed. Range decreased very slowly."

Command Decision:    
Assume the target is no threat. Maintain current course and speed.
Investigate the target, come to bearing 192, increase speed to 20 knots.

"Could it be the enemy?"  Lieutenant Commander Howe's suspicions were aroused.  He decided to investigate the contact, proceeding at 20 knots to overtake.  But now he had another decision to make.  Should he alert his already over worked crew?

Command Decision:
Ring General Quarters.
Wait until a positive identification of the suspicious target is made before alerting his tired men.

"Hot Pursuit" All duty personnel raced to their combat stations.  "Orders were given to prepare the machine guns, the three inch battery, the torpedoes and the depth charges for action.  As the chase began the Executive Officer went to the flying bridge to keep the Conning Officer informed of the movements of the leading ship."

No recognition signals were sent by the unknown vessel.  Instead, it began a series of course changes that were obviously evasive.  Although no one aboard the Roper knew it yet, they had a U-boat on the run.  

The U-boat turned to port in increments, testing the Roper to determine if she had indeed spotted it.  

Command Decision:
Initiate hot pursuit to identify the target as quickly as possible.
Carefully maneuver to minimize an unknown threat.

Roper off Starboard Quarter of U-85"Torpedo" The Roper was not fooled, nor was Lieutenant Commander Howe taking chances. With the fate of the Jacob Jones so vividly on his mind, he kept his ship slightly off the fleeing U-boat’s starboard quarter.

The Roper gradually overtook the U-boat. As the range decreased to 700 yards and contact was imminent, the U-boat captain reacted predictably, like a cornered rabbit. He fired a torpedo from his stern tube and tried to hit the destroyer "down the throat." Howe’s prescience saved his ship. Sailors held their breath as they watched the deadly fish slide close past the port side and across the Roper’s wake.
Torpedo Line of Fire
The U-boat made a radical turn to starboard. Its turning radius was tighter than the destroyer’s, permitting it to turn inside the other’s circle. Ensign Kenneth MacLean Tebo held a steady helm throughout the battle, keeping a sharp eye on the dark ghostly image.

Lieutenant William Winfield Vanous, Executive Officer, directed the training of the 24-inch searchlight and brightly illuminated the enemy’s conning tower; already, German sailors were pouring out of the hatch and preparing the deck gun for action.
U-85 Tight Starboard Turn

Command Decision:
After turning on the search light, do you:
Ask them to surrender.
Start shooting.

Germans Running to Deck GunDeck Gun
 "The Battle is On!"

Spotting Battle TargetChief Boatswain’s Mate Jack Edwin Wright spotted his target, pulled the trigger of his 50-caliber machine gun, and with deadly accuracy poured a steady stream of tracers into the men on the deck of the U-boat. Several German gunners were picked up physically by the force of the bullets and hurled into the water. As more men scrambled to take their place they were cut down like stalks of wheat. The conning tower became a charnel house of the dead and dying. Moreover, at such close range the projectiles penetrated the ballast tanks; the U-boat’s outer skin was soon riddled with holes.
While the Germans were kept from loading and firing their deck gun, the Roper's 3-inch gun came on line. Coxswain Harry Hayman, "a gun captain who had never before been in charge of a gun during firing," spotted his shots with such precision that he soon landed an explosive shell at the water line below the conning tower, breaching the hull and making it impossible for the U-boat to dive.

Confusion on U-85Like rats deserting a sinking ship, German sailors poured out of the conning tower hatch and cowered behind the shearwater.

The U-boat began to lose headway. The Roper turned at her maximum rate and prepared to fire a torpedo. The Germans jumped from the U-boat's bulbous tank on the side away from the incoming shells. The U-boat slowly came to a stop and settled by the stern, as if scuttling ports had been opened aft. By the time the Roper's turn brought her up behind the U-boat, it had slipped beneath the sea.
U-85 Sinking FastU-85 Going Down Command Decision:
The Roper must make sure the submarine has been destroyed. Do you:
Move in over the spot she went down.
Hold your position to look for oil slicks and debris.

Photos taken from the USS Rope r of U-85 sinking.

Germans Overboard from the U-85"Another Tough Decision"  The Roper had to be sure of the kill. If the submarine was only slightly damaged, it could slip below the surface, turn to face the Roper and fire from its forward tubes and sink the Roper where she sat. Not sure whether the slow settling from the stern was a trick maneuver by the submarine, the Roper drove in on the spot where the U-boat had disappeared. This avoided the forward tubes of the U-boat if they were still functioning.
As she drove in, screams for help from thirty-five or forty German sailors were clearly audible (in both German and English) to the men aboard the Roper. Ignoring their cries would border on inhumanity. Stopping for rescue would border on insanity if the U-boat was preparing her forward tube torpedoes.
Command Decision:
This is a tough call. What is your decision? Do you:
Move on in to the spot she went down.
Rescue survivors.

Depth Charges U.S.S. Roper"The Battle is Finished"  The cries of the men in the water were difficult to ignore, but this was war and the Roper could not afford to risk stopping for rescue when the U-boat could still be turning under water to fire its forward torpedos and sink her. For the safety of her own crew, she had to first make sure that the U-boat was going to go to the bottom.
She drove in on the spot where the U-85 went down. The Roper's torpedos, which were ready to fire, were secured by the crew. A barrage of eleven depth charges was laid down "at a position determined upon by an eye estimate and an excellent sound contact." Each depth charge weighed three hundred pounds, and was set to go off at fifty feet below the surface. Racks, Y -guns, and K-guns delivered the attack. Large air bubbles and oil slicks resulted indicating the depth charges had done their job. Unavoidably, the depth charges likely also killed or injured many or all of the Germans in the water. But now she could rescue the survivors. Or could she?

Command Decision:
Continue hunting for other U-boats.
Rescue survivors.

"A Restless Night" U-boats were known to work together at times and Lt Commander Howe of the Roper wisely gave the order to continue sweeping the area for other sonar or radar contacts.
The crew of the Roper was, by now, exhausted. The U-boat was, hopefully, finished. But what about the Germans in the water?
Command Decision:
Could there still be survivors to be rescued? Could there be a partner U-boat lurking nearby? What do you do?:
Continue hunting through the night.
Begin rescue/recovery.
A Long Restless Night for the U.S.S. Roper"A Long Restless Night" The Roper held a straight, steady course away from the position of the sunken U-boat. Lt. Commander Howe knew very well that U-boats were known to work in consort, so there was the ever-present possibility that another pack wolf lurked nearby and was watching everything. This made the conduct of any rescue work before daylight far too dangerous to risk. With her antenna sweeping and sound gear pinging continuously, the Roper searched throughout the night for other signs of the enemy. No one got any sleep.

Command Decision:

Should the Roper call for help? Or could she begin recovery on her own in the morning daylight? What do you do?:
Call for air support.
Handle it alone.


Roper Lifeboats"Help Arrives at Dawn" At dawn a Navy PBY plane flown by Lieutenant C. V. Horrigan swooped over the area to conduct a visual search. In the light of day oil slicks and a large field of debris could be seen. Horrigan dropped a depth charge on a particularly suspicious area. Two more planes appeared on the scene; they dropped smoke floats to draw attention to bodies on the surface. The Roper drove into the area just after 7 a.m., launched two lifeboats, "and commenced recovering bodies and floating articles."

First of the CasualtiesAt all times at least one plane circled the destroyer for protection against other U-boats. At one time as many as seven planes of various types flew cover for recovery operations. An observation blimp arrived at 7:30. The potential situation was too serious to leave anything to fate.
At 0750 the first boat returned with five bodies, and at 0834 hoisting of fifteen more bodies by means of a small davit was commenced. Suddenly, at 0850 the sound operator detected a sharp echo at a range of 2700 yards.

Command Decision:
Has she found another U-boat? Do you investigate the target?:
Continue recovery.
Investigate the new target.

"A New Contact" Was this another U-boat? The commander didn't hesitate. Leaving the two lifeboats to continue their grisly task, the Roper took off at high speed toward the target.

The contact was solid but didn't seem to be moving. Was it an old wreck? Or maybe a new German trick?

Command Decision:
Can you verify the contact with sonar? Or do you just depth charge it? What do you do?:
Fire depth charges.
Identify the target with sonar.

More Depth Charges from U-85" More Depth Charges" Seven minutes later she dropped four depth-charges in a straight line at seven second intervals, producing "one very large air bubble and one smaller one together with fresh oil. The airship and one plane dropped flares on the spot, and the airship reported the continuation of the air bubbles. The anti-submarine action report stated, "This is believed to be same submarine depth-charged after 0006 contact."

Command Decision:
Should you continue hunting? Or should you return to the recovery operations? What do you do?:
Return to recovery.
Continue hunting.

German Casulaties"The Battle is Finally Over" The Roper returned to the recovery operation. Altogether, "twenty-nine bodies were recovered.

Among other things six escape lungs were found. Two bodies had mouth-piece tubing in their mouths, indicating escape after the submarine sank. While picking up the bodies, a number of empty life jackets were noted. Two additional bodies were permitted to sink after their clothing was searched by an officer in the boat." No explanation was given for why two bodies were let go; it is likely they were so damaged by explosives that they were falling apart or that very little was left of them.

German Casulaties from the U-85"A Secret Burial"  The German bodies were transferred to the Naval tug VSS Sciota (AT-30), which later delivered them to the Naval Operating Base at Norfolk, Virginia. There they were photographed, examined, and placed in shrouds. All clothing and personal effects were saved. The next afternoon the bodies, each in a plain pine box, were trucked under escort to nearby Hampton National Cemetery.

Twenty-nine graves were dug by prisoners from Fort Monroe

As dusk approached, a select group of military personnel gathered at the gravesite. Not until after dark, and in relative secrecy, were services commenced. The coffins were lowered into the ground. Two Navy chaplains officiated: Lieutenant Wilbur Wheeler read Catholic services, Lieutenant U.G. Rainus Lundquist read the Protestant version. In strict military fashion the vanquished enemy was saluted by three volleys while a bugler sounded taps.
The German sailors received a finer peace than they had offered to their victims.
Oddly, no mention of this decisive victory was released to the press until three weeks after the event. Even then the published account was meager and garbled, not by newspaper reporters but in the original Navy communiqué. By that time so many false claims had been issued for the morale of the public that the authentic account paled by comparison. The story was spiced by the following falsity, "With the action over as suddenly as it had begun, the destroyer circled around and the crew, who minutes before had been manning the guns, went to the rails to help lift the surviving members of the submarine crew out of the water."
By coincidence, two days later part of a U-boat crew was captured off the North Carolina coast. No mention of that incident was ever released to the public because German spies had access to American newspapers.
Not until July 23, 1942, after the U-boats had been firmly trounced and forcibly beaten out of the Eastern Sea Frontier, did the Navy announce the truth of the secret burial. Still, no mention was made of the U-boat's number; no names of deceased were made known. Outside the highest Naval circles the fate of the U-85 was couched in anonymity.

USS Roper"Commendations" Citations were in the offing for the alert and aggressive crew of the Roper. Admiral A.S. Carpender, Commander Destroyers, U.S. Atlantic Fleet, wrote, "The attack on an enemy submarine by the USS Roper was conducted with courage, skill, intelligence and determination, in the best traditions of the Naval Service. Its successful prosecution, which resulted in the destruction of the submarine, reflects great credit on the commanding officer, officers, and men of the Roper, and on the commander of Destroyer Division 54, who by his advice and guidance assisted, in the conduct of the engagement."

In addition to the key figures already named, six members of the gun crew received commendations; gun captain Harry Heyman was put in for the Navy Cross. The Roper's forward stack was emblazoned with a large star on both port and starboard sides, to "indicate the first attack made by the vessel which resulted in positive evidence of destruction of an enemy submarine." Furthermore, every crewman was authorized to wear a distinctive sleeve device in the form of a silver star.

"Intelligence Gathering" Diving operations on the U-85 began almost immediately. The U.S. Navy's Experimental Diving Unit was brought in to conduct a survey and learn what it could about German submarines. Several days were spent dragging for and grappeling the sunken U-boat, and establishing mooring buoys. A diver actually alighted upon the wooden deck on April 26; he reported that the "submarine appeared to be lying on its starboard side. Inspected submarine forward to bow and returned to the descending line. No apparent damage except to clearing lines noted."
The next day the USS Kewaydin (AT-25) fouled the marker buoys and descending line in an increasing wind and sea. The buoy was replaced by the end of the day, but the seas were too rough to continue operations.
April 28 dawned with bettering conditions. The USCGC Cuyahoga relieved the British armed trawler as guardship while the Kewaydin repeated the laborious task of dragging, grappling, and setting mooring lines. This time the first diver put down "made descending line fast to cleat on port side of submarine just forward of gun."
Six dives were made throughout the day, with the following conditions noted: "(a) Submarine listed to starboard practically on its side, angle of deck with bottom about 80°. (b) Forward on port side several stanchions torn away. Hull appeared intact. (c) No other damage noted except clearing lines torn loose. (d) Forward gun swung forward and to port slightly elevated with tompion in place. (e) 20 mm. AA gun aft of conning tower in place, lines and wires fouled with it. (f) Conning tower apparently undamaged. (g) Upper conning tower hatch open with lubricating oil coming up through hatch below." The Roper's shell damage could not be seen because the U-boat lay on the ruptured ballast tank.
Furthermore, the wood deck was intact, the conning tower showed no signs of damage by shell fire, vents to all tanks were open, salvage air lines were collapsed ("probably due to the effects of depth charges"), numerous openings in the hull were open or partially open, the lower conning tower hatch was closed but not dogged, and all compartments were flooded. The bow and stern planes and propellers were undamaged.
On April 29 the salvage tug USS Falcon arrived and took over diving operations. The Cuyahoga remained as guardship and quarters for observers. After the Roper fought so assiduously to send the U-85 to the bottom, divers spent the next week trying to bring it back up. They closed the conning tower hatch, traced salvage airlines, manufactured fittings, then connected surface-supplied hoses and pumped air into the hull. Most of the external piping was collapsed; air that did pass spurted out of the compartments "like sprinkling system."
The 20-mm anti-aircraft gun was removed and recovered for study. Also brought up were the gun sights for the 88-mm deck gun, and instruments from the bridge: the night firing device, the gyro pelorus repeater, and the gyro steering repeater. One diver noted that the forward torpedo tube doors were open and ready for action. On the other hand, the ready ammunition stowage locker near the deck gun was found empty. Disassembly of the deck gun was begun but not completed.
Of historic interest was a painted picture on the forward high part of the conning tower; it depicted a "wild boar with rose in mouth."

"History was Made" And so ends the story of the turning point in the US Navy's fight to neutralize the German U-boat menace of World War II. Since it was believed that stories and pictures of German military personnel on American soil (dead or alive) would result in a loss of public morale and confidence, the U.S. government chose to bury the bodies of the Germans in secret. Those German sailors lie buried in Hampton National Cemetary in numbered graves to this day.
And the U.S.S. Jesse Roper, DD-147, quietly slipped into the history books by bravely doing her job in killing a German U-boat ... the U-85 ... the first U-boat sunk by the Americans in World War II.

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