THE FIRST INSTALLMENT of this article described the strange set of circumstances which brought the giant French submarine SURCOUF in 1940 to England and then to America before taking part in the liberation of the North American French colony at St. Pierre and Miquelon. Almost the entire experienced crew had left her immediately after arriving in Britain, and from late 1940 onward she had been operated by a crew recruited from available French Navy men who had escaped from France just before the surrender to the Germans. This experiment in on-the-job training had not gone well.
SURCOUF left St. Pierre for Halifax on 11 January 1942. The North Atlantic again lived up to its winter reputation. She took one very large wave aboard, dislodging part of her superstructure and jamming the gun turret. The Halifax dockyard attempted to repair the superstructure damage and to make permanent repairs to the ballast tanks damaged in New London.
While she was under repair, U.S. naval intelligence reported that there were now U-boats in the Caribbean:
“On January 26, 1942, a naval Intelligence report reached Caribbean Defense Command headquarters al Quarry Heights in the Panama Canal Zone, that a large number of German submarines had entered the Caribbean Sea, destination unknown. The radioed report did warn that “attacks on tankers from Venezuela, Curacao and [the] vicinity [of] Trinidad [are] possible.
-Source: U.S. Army, Caribbean Defense Comma11d, Historical Section, Special Study, “Occupation and Use of Bases ;,, the Netherlands Colonies-Aruba and Curacao” p.13
On 3 February, the dockyard reported “Defects SURCOUF completed” and she departed for Bermuda immediately. While she was at sea, Admiral Kennedy-Purvis reported to Admiral Horton that he believed “The two main problems (aboard SURCOUF) are lack of interest and incompetency. Discipline is bad and tire officers have little control. I have no suggestions to offer which are likely to assist in eliminating these defects which I am afraid are inherent. SURCOUF is a large, complicated and indifferently designed submarine which could only be of operational value if manned by an exceptionally well-qualified crew. At present she is of no operational value and is little short of a menace. For political reasons it may be desirable to keep her in commission but my view is that sire should proceed to UK and pay off.” He also recommended that the BNLO and his two Royal Navy assistants should be taken off, since SURCOUF would no longer be under his control when she entered the Pacific.
On 7 February, SURCOUF arrived in Bermuda with a serious defect in one main motor. Each shaft had two separate 850 h.p. direct current propulsion motors on it, and this short-circuited stator had required shutting down one of her two propulsion shafts, forcing her to complete the voyage using only one propeller. Captain Blaison recommended that repairs to the damaged motor be undertaken as soon as possible. The Ireland Point dockyard estimated that repairs would take three months.
Meanwhile, Admiral Kennedy-Purvis had his intelligence officer, Commander Ridgeway, personally interview and interrogate crew members to determine their reliability and trustworthiness to support the Allied cause. The Commander reported that more than half the crew were pro-Vichy and could not be trusted.
While in Bermuda, BNLO Burney filed what would be his last report to Admiral Horton. He said that SURCOUF had only dived once since leaving PNSY, and that the entire trip from Halifax had been on the surface. He also noted that only seven of her sixteen underwater listening hydrophones were working.
Admiral Horton responded that his orders were to be carried out as issued. There would be no three month delay for motor repairs. To Admiral Kennedy-Purvis, reading between the lines, his boss’s preference was clear without further explanation. He was to get rid of SURCOUF. She was a distraction and a liability, but she could not be simply put out of commission for political reasons.
There was apparently some discussion of simply putting limpet charges aboard- a limpet charge is a delayed action explosive device magnetically attached to a steel hull- but I think he decided against that. I believe he decided to proceed in a way which would accomplish the desired objective with perhaps less loss of life and without intentionally causing the death of the British liaison party. If he routed her through the Caicos channel with only celestial navigation and possibly radio direction finding (but no radar) aboard, there was a real chance, considering the tricky currents in the area, of her stranding on a shoal. This might result in no loss of life. If she did get through to the Windward Passage, being on the surface day and night and passing close to the U.S. base at Guantanamo, she was almost certain to be detected by American patrol aircraft on the prowl for U-boats. Being of an unfamiliar configuration, it was very likely that she would be incorrectly identified and attacked. Under those circumstances rescue of survivors might be possible. She might also be attacked by U-boats seeking targets in the area. Along with the Mona Passage and the Yucatan Passage, the Windward Passage was heavily trafficked with oil tankers bringing crude to U.S. Gulf and east coast refineries. There were no pipelines from Texas in those days and tankers were the sole source of crude for the eastern half of the country. The Windward Passage was also an important link in bringing bauxite to the U.S. from mines in the Guianas to the aluminum smelters supplying American aircraft manufacturers. Germany’s Admiral Doenitz had directed his U-boat commanders to give top priority to interdicting shipping through the Windward and Mona Passages.
The U.S. maintained both surface and submarine patrols in the Windward Passage. The chances of SURCOUF successfully running this gauntlet were low, but if she did survive, U.S. Anny Air Corps planes based in Panama might attack her as she approached the Canal. This scheme must have seemed to Admiral Kennedy-Purvis likely to accomplish the elimination of SURCOUF without compromising the honor of Britain’s Senior Service. All he had to do was send SURCOUF down a path to destruction. The odds were very high that she would not even make it to the Panama Canal. The chances that she would safely complete her voyage to Tahiti were infinitesimal. But even if she did eventually arrive in Tahiti, she would no longer be the Royal Navy’s problem. For that his boss, Flag Officer (Submarines), would be very grateful.
This is probably the best place to explain why the conventional wisdom about the loss of SURCOUF is wrong. Many sources, official and otherwise, erroneously attribute her disappearance to a collision with the American freighter THOMPSON LYKES at 2230 on 18 February at position 10-40 N, 79-31 W. This fiction was obviously welcomed by the British authorities, since it removed any shadow of blame from the Royal Navy. The French government, anxious to downplay its collaboration with the Germans, also welcomed this handy cover-up. And the American government, which censored all mention of U-boats in the Caribbean at the time, was convinced that it had sunk the U-boat which torpedoed a U.S. destroyer and had no way of knowing the truth until the incident was long past. There is no doubt that LYKES collided with something that night, but the site of that collision, by the shortest possible route, is 1538 nautical miles from Bermuda. SURCOUF left Bermuda at 1500 on Feb. 12th, with only one propeller shaft in operation. She had arrived from Halifax in that same condition by direct route without diving and had averaged only 7.9 knots. (756 n.m. in 96 hrs.) That is the only indication we have of her speed in the open sea using only one propeller. With just one propeller operating, the idle one exerts a significant drag whether it is stationary or wind milling. With only half her normal shaft horsepower and added drag, she could not have reached the collision site by 2230 on the 18th.
To have done so, she would have to have averaged 10.15 knots continuously for 151.5 hours. I have not found any evidence that she ever made an ocean passage anywhere averaging 10 knots for any length of time, even with both shafts in operation. The fastest passage she ever made as far as I could discover was from Benrmuda to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, when her overhaul at the Naval Shipyard was approved. In ideal summertime weather, July 25-28, 1941, in peacetime conditions without diving, she averaged 9.76 knots, using both shafts. The next fastest passage, also in peacetime conditions with both shafts operating, was going from New London on 27 November, 1941, to Bermuda (667 n.m. in 72 hours), averaging 9.3 knots. Earlier, under wartime conditions after being dismissed from escorting convoy HX-118/ SC 27 on 10 April 1941 and ordered to return to Plymouth, ( 1136nm in 7 days) she averaged only 6.7 knots.
Even Hitler’s newest U-boats with elite crews did not make open ocean transits at 10 knots. U-502 en route to attack Aruba on 16 February 1942 from Lorient averaged 6.3 knots for 3911 miles. U-123 travelled 2769 miles from Lorient to Cape Cod in 20 days, averaging 5.8 knots. And America’s newest submarine, USS MARLIN, hurrying from New London to St. Thomas to augment Admiral Hoover’s surveillance of the French Islands in January 1942, (1409 miles in seven days), averaged only 8.4 knots. This was the same speed as USS S-14 transiting from St. Thomas to Coco Solo in March, 1942. USS MACKEREL, leaving New London headed for St. Thomas on 31 January 1941, did manage to maintain 10.5 knots but only for 24 hours. After examining dozens of 1942 submarine deck logs these were the fastest ocean passages I found. And some of those were done by brand new boats in top condition, fresh from the shipyard. There are many reasons for a submarine’s slow speed of advance. Certainly in the North Atlantic in February one reason is sea state, i.e. wave height and direction. For SURCOUF with her extreme rolling tendency, sea state would be a great concern, particularly since she could not safely dive to give her crew time to eat and rest. Also most submarines of the day slowed for a trim dive daily to ensure their ability to submerge quickly to evade patrolling aircraft when necessary. Slowing might also be necessary to allow the navigator to take star sights at dawn and dusk and sun lines during the day. And in a war zone in 1942, every surface ship and submarine on the surface would zig-zag, hoping to foil a submarine attack. Having been warned about the dangerous submarine situation near Bermuda, SURCOUF should have zig-zagged continuously and especially upon approaching Windward Passage. Believing that SURCOUF, with only one propeller turning, could average 10.1 knots for six days is like believing that a three-legged horse could win the Kentucky Derby. And almost as unlikely is the idea that this uniquely fierce-looking warship could have proceeded on the surface without zig-zagging at over 10 knots for almost a week, day and night, in an active war zone where even U.S. warships routinely demanded air cover, through a narrow passage patrolled not only by U-boats but by U.S. submarines, destroyers and aircraft hunting U-boats and a steady stream of freighters and tankers, without being seen or attacked by anyone. Yet if she were to have reached the scene of the LYKES collision, that is exactly what would have had to happen. But there were no sightings after SURCOUF left Bermuda, even in the confined waters of the Windward Passage. If the reader is not yet convinced, consider this. We know SURCOUF’s speed on the surface en route to Bermuda from Halifax was 7.9 knots. Assume that she never slowed for any reason, (no zig-zag, no trim dive, no delays of any kind). In 151 .5 hours she would have travelled 1197 nautical miles. She would have been 341 n. m. away from the LYKES collision site when it occurred at 2230 on 18 February.
The LYKES may have collided with a small tanker smuggling gasoline to some Western Caribbean destination from Venezuela. Smuggling was rampant in the Caribbean during the war years, and shallow draft tankers operated on regular runs from Lake Maracaibo to refineries on Aruba, Curacao and Trinidad. Such a vessel diverting from legitimate routes for private gain might have been running without lights and be unreported even if it failed to arrive. And some of the colorful reports of the LYKES crew contained references to white sheets of flame and great explosions which are much more likely to have been gasoline than plain old submarine diesel oil. Needless to say, if SURCOUF could not have been at the site of the collision on the 18th, neither could she have been even further south at the site of the purported aircraft attack on the following day. I could find no documentation that such an attack actually occurred, nor any official claims of a submarine sunk by aircraft on the 19th.
In analyzing the plight of SURCOUF as it might have appeared through the eyes of her skipper the day before she left Bermuda on her final voyage, I have imagined him standing alone on the bridge looking across the aquamarine water toward Hinson Island and the narrow entrance to Hamilton harbor:
Capitaine De Fregate Georges Louis Nicolas Blaison had finally reached the limit of Iris ability to tolerate tire in tolerable. Most of his shipmates from tire gloriously carefree pre-war days aboard SURCOUF were dead. Yves Daniel had been killed in that ridiculous exhibition of grown men playing pirate back in Devonport when his boat forcibly came under British control. Captain Martin and the rest of tile crew /rad probably died on tire trip back to France. Tire few who had stayed aboard SURCOUF /rad witnessed the decline of this fighting submarine from being tire pride of tire French Navy to being a cripple, unable to dive safely, manned by a dangerously incompetent totally disillusioned crew, many of them quite open about their pro-Vichy feelings, and homesick. Of course there were a few good officers and men like Iris exec, Georges Rossignol and Jean-yves Leoquet, both able and loyal, but Ire was ashamed to be associated with the rest, many of whom really weren’t war fighters but Breton fishermen posing as submariners, uneasy with Navy discipline, quite ignorant about undersea warfare and annoyingly independent of spirit, sometimes simply ignoring orders from their officers. All three British Navy Liaison Officers who had been aboard told their Royal Navy superiors that because of poor maintenance and a poorly trained crew, tire ship was worthless to the Allied cause…. and the bitter truth was they were right. This motley crew had used up all its luck in submerging with the conning tower hatch open, flooding the batteries with sea water and diving so far out of trim they exceeded design depth and all of them had only survived because the hull was stronger than it was designed to be. Their much touted airplane was gone, their unique twin gun turret leaked, their torpedoes, so long aboard without shop maintenance, were unlikely to operate even if lie could manage to maneuver into firing position. They had not even fired a gun in months nor had they been even able to do a trim dive on tire trip down from Halifax. God knows what would happen if they submerged, but it certainly shouldn’t be done in deep water. And that’s all they had in Bermuda once you got outside the channel.
He was deeply troubled by several things that had happened. First, before leaving Halifax they had received a warming that several U-boats were headed for the Caribbean. That was new. In the last month, there had been many U-boat attacks along the U.S. east coast, but none that he knew of south of Florida. Secondly, he dad strongly recommended that the repairs to the main motor stator be completed before they went anywhere. with the technical manuals and drawings having been destroyed during the takeover by the British, and no propulsion motor spare parts available from Compagnie Générale d’Electricite, the Bermuda dockyard officials estimated the repairs would take three months. London had turned his proposal down flat. He was supposed to carry out his orders without delay. That was crazy. He could only make seven or eight knots with just 1700 h.p. on one shaft and tire useless prop dragging through the water. That is how they had made most of the trip down from Halifax, unable to dive because with only one shaft they might not have enough power to recover if SURCOUF went into another of her out-of-control depth excursions. Lord knows he had too many of those already. So now he was supposed to travel halfway around the world to Tahiti with one propeller on the surface through a war zone where he could expect U-boats plus U.S. submarines and destroyers and aircraft hunting those U-boats. He’d already heard of eager American pilots attacking their own submarines. What chance did he have? Especially since HMS MALABAR, tire Royal Navy command in Bermuda, had routed him through the Windward Passage, not to mention the navigator’s nightmare before they got there, the Caicos Passage. And they had told him to maintain ten knots en route. That would have been tough with both motors in commission, but at ten knots they couldn’t hear anything, especially with only seven of their 16 hydrophones working. And anyone with half a brain could see that the Windward and Mona passages were chokepoints, prime hunting grounds for U-boats. And the third thing – he had heard a disturbing rumor that somebody in Bermuda, probably some mental patient, was planning to put some sort of bomb aboard SURCOUF. Great! That’s all he needed. The Royal Navy was apparently willing to try anything to get rid of them. They didn’t need any help. And there was something even more disturbing. Sub-Lieutenant Burney, Warner and Gough, the British liaison team, were to be taken off either in Bermuda or in Panama. Admiral Horton was washing his hands of SURCOUF, there was no doubt about that. And Vice Admiral Kennedy-Purvis, Bermuda’s senior Navy official, had his own intelligence chief interview te crew to judge their reliability. The results were not good. Commander Ridgway judged them unreliable, pro-Vichy. Tire admiral recommended SURCOUF be sent back to England and “paid off.” She would end up rusting in some British backwater. No more help from London…. or America either. He had worn out his welcome in New Hampshire and in New London, and never had been welcome in Washington, D. C.
That’s when he made a decision which would have been unthinkable just a few months ago when tire Americans were trying hard to help at Portsmouth Navy Yard. They had done their best, although there were many work items left undone for lack of repair parts for French-made pumps, motors and valves. The Navy Yard people had treated him well, and his crew had been happy with all the French-speakers in southerner Maine who treated them like honored warriors back from the front. That was a little bit of a hoax. They had never fired a shot, and if truth be known, they were not even certain whether to shoot the British or the Germans. Nobody was sure who was going to win the war, and it was pretty obvious most of the French Navy’s admirals were betting on the Germans. The British were increasingly unfriendly. HMS MALABAR had requested that they not come back to Bermuda but go straight to Panama, supposedly because of “the U-boat situation “. Well, now the Brits had apparently decided the best way to get rid of them was to send them right into the U-boat situation…. unaccompanied…..like one lone covered wagon going through Indian country with tribes on the warpath. Well, he wasn’t buying it.
He made up his mind. Tire British admirals could all go to hell. He was not taking his crew and his boat to die for no reason. If they could have made some great coup, struck some vital blow for the glory of France, they would have done it. But this Tahiti business was just insanity. They would go where they really belonged and where they would be welcomed – to join their French brothers-in-arms in Martinique. BEARN was there. EMILE BERTIN was there, and BARFLEUR, ESTEREL and QUERCY. Not far away in Guadeloupe was Iris old alma mater, the school cruiser JEANNE D’ARC. His old commander, Admiral Rouyer was there with dozens of old classmates and shipmates. There were plenty of spare parts for their inoperable equipment there, weapons experts to help put them back in fighting trim, and even electricians to restore their main propulsion motor. Yes, almost everyone aboard would be delighted to go to Martinique. There they would share whatever fate awaited their comrades. Maybe they would all become Free French eventually. Of course, if the three British Navy people were not removed before SURCOUF sailed they would have to be dealt with at sea. That was regrettable, hut c’est la guerre. None of them would be missed by anyone else aboard.”
And so I believe that is just what happened. In February, 1942, the American Navy, operating under arrangements negotiated between U.S. Admiral John W. Greenslade and the French High Commissioner for French Territories in the Western Hemisphere, Admiral Georges A.M.J. Robert, was carefully monitoring the French Navy ships in the islands, and had orders to capture or destroy any of them if they attempted to escape.
COMCARIBSEAFRON message 052103 OPERATION ORDERJ-42 “CAPTURE OR DESTROY FRENCH VESSELS IN MARTINIQUE OR GUADELOUPE WHICH ATTEMPT TO LEAVE PORT”
But the U.S. made no effort to interdict any other ship traffic to the islands, and there was lively commerce in food and other necessities, some legal and some not, and while darkened ships entering after sundown might be noted in a U.S. log book, they were not stopped or searched. SURCOUF may have arrived as early as February 19th (but probably later) and probably would have travelled in the open Atlantic on the windward (eastern) side of the island chain to avoid both the U-boats attacking ships daily on the Caribbean side as well as the U.S. submarine patrols which were focused on Fort de France and Guadeloupe’s Pointe a Pitre harbors. U.S. authorities were urging American and Allied shipping to take this longer but safer route. Upon reaching latitude 14-20N, with Martinique in sight and staying well clear of the shoals on the east side of the island, she could easily travel the last 35 miles at night using shore lights to enter the harbor at Fort de France, tying up alongside one of the other French Navy ships. (If the Cross of Lorraine had not been painted in white on the conning tower earlier, it would have been very handy that night to instantly establish her identity as friendly.) Even if her arrival had not been prearranged, her distinctive profile could have been quickly hidden with canvas tarps and barges alongside. In those pre-air conditioning days, every ship while in port in the tropics rigged large canvas sunshades from bow to stern.
Even if surprised, Admiral Robert would have been delighted at her arrival, and the welcome from the rest of the French Navy would have been enthusiastic about putting something over on the arrogant Americans. Quelle bonne plaisanterie! (What a good joke!) U.S. Navy intelligence officers had received many reports of submarines alongside French ships in Martinique, but, of course everyone assumed they were U-boats. And there was at least one confirmed and acknowledged U-boat visit to Martinique on February 20, 1942, when U-156 dropped off its wounded gunnery officer for medical treatment after he was injured during the attack on Aruba on February 16th. The U.S. protested, but to no avail, and the U.S. Vice Admiral John H. Hoover’s negotiations with the pro-Vichy High Commissioner for the French Colonies became very contentious as time went on. The U.S. was ready to invade if necessary. By early May, with no substantial progress and, after repeated violations of neutrality and when pro-Vichy suppression of dissent in the islands reached unacceptable levels, the U.S. told the High Commissioner he had forty-eight hours to accept the conditions set forth in the U.S. proposal (which required him to disable all the French naval vessels in the French Antilles by removing fuel and spare parts and putting them in U.S. custody) and declaring that if these conditions were not met, the French ships would be destroyed. To back up this threat, a great fleet of ships including the cruisers CINCINNATI and JUNEAU was brought up within sight of the islands. Destroyers were brought in very close to the channel entrances to Fort de France and Point a Pitre at night to prevent any chance of a French ship escaping. The Commissioner was notified that in view of the visits by U-boats and their obvious proximity to the islands, U.S. ships and aircraft would no longer respect the three-mile limit and that we would be overflying their cities, harbors and coastline. This very tight and very visible blockade (with all ships and aircraft on high alert for the order to attack) finally broke the nerve of Admiral Robert and he agreed to accede to the U.S. demands if Hoover would drop the blockade. That was easily done. Admiral Hoover told our forces to stand down. And just in that moment, on the 25th of May, when it was obvious that JEANNE D’ARC, EMILE BERTIN, BEARN and all the other French ships were eventually going to come under the control of the Americans, the destroyer USS BLAKELEY (DD-150) was torpedoed by U-156 operating within French territorial waters.
U-156 was no stranger to these waters. She was one of the four U-boats of Operation NEVLAND which had launched a coordinated bombardment of oil refineries at Trinidad, Curacao and Aruba on February 16, 1942, just four days after SURCOUF left Bermuda. Before she left Fort de France on a previous visit, her skipper mentioned that she was returning to her Lorient base for more torpedoes but would return, adding “You will known when we get back.”
She limped into Fort de France, having had six men killed and 21 wounded. Needless to say, the search for the submarine responsible went into high gear, while U.S. seaplanes and USS TARBELL, a destroyer which had been patrolling nearby entered Fort de France harbor to assist her. The discovery of SURCOUF, if she remained in Martinique, was inevitable. But with the relaxation of the blockade, perhaps she could get away. Someone came up with an idea of how she could escape. They had been waiting for the right moment. Now they could wait no longer. It was time to save her for Vichy. If the Americans caught her in Fort de France they would not be kind. Not only had Blaison betrayed the trust of both the British and the Americans, he had dishonorably disobeyed Admiral Horton’s orders and defected from the Royal Navy. And he would be held responsible for the deaths of three British Navy men in the liaison party. Even worse, he had betrayed the Free French Navy, and Admiral Muselier and even de Gaulle himself. With increasing pressure from the U. S. authorities, Admiral Robert knew he was slowly losing control of the French Navy ships which were known to be in the French Antilles. But SURCOUF was not known to be there, at least by the Americans and the British. If she could slip away unnoticed, she could go back to France (U-boats like U-156 were making trips to and from Lorient without difficulty) and take her place as the pride of the real French Navy, the Vichy Navy. Her crew was certainly willing and eager to get home to their families, and it just might be possible.
U-69 was just 60 miles to the west of Martinique, and had made her presence known by sinking TORONDOC, a small Canadian freighter loaded with bauxite aluminum ore at 0753 on 21 May. She had been on her 9th patrol since 12 April with a new skipper, Oberleutnant Ulrich Graf, who had sunk three other ships since leaving St. Nazaire.
About this time Graf must have received some very strange orders from Admiral Doenitz. He was to go to a small port on the east side of Martinique called Le Vauclin, come ashore and meet with some local officials concerning a special mission. U-69 arrived there on 22 May and remained for three days, during which the plan took shape. He was to escort SURCOUF to St. Nazaire. She would get underway as soon as possible now that the blockade had been relaxed. U-69 was to take a position about 40 nautical miles west of Fort de France when the plan was executed and SURCOUF would rendezvous with him, recognizing that she would have to evade U.S. surface and air patrols en route. She would leave at night but would submerge during daylight hours until well clear of the island. Before venturing offshore she would have to conduct a trim dive in shallow water, which might take some extra time. He was to remain at the rendezvous point until she arrived, then travel in company with her to render any assistance necessary to ensure her safe arrival in France. Of course U-69 would also make sure that SURCOUF did not have a change of heart in mid-ocean and attempt to go somewhere other than St. Nazaire. Unaware of the plan, U-156 almost ruined it by torpedoing the BLAKELEY on the morning of May 25th. But it turned out to be a favorable diversion, and with all attention focused on the seriously damaged BLAKELEY in Fort de France harbor, no one noticed a large dark shape moving slowly toward the sea after dark.
As soon as the sun went down on the evening of the 25th, SURCOUF must have made preparations for getting underway. With all that needed to be done it might have been hours later that she slipped out. Knowing of frequent daylight air patrols by PBYs and her inability to travel very far before sunrise, she moved just outside the harbor entrance where there was a narrow shelf of shallow water for her first trim dive in many months. Knowing she would be detected if she surfaced, she probably decided to remain there for the day.
About 0915 on the morning of May 26, LTJG E.N. Chase, with his co-pilot AP Myles of Patrol Squadron 31 based at St. Lucia , flew over a submerged submarine about 3 miles from Point Negro (14-36N, 61-09W) and was astounded at what he saw. He estimated the gray-green shape was submerged between 30 and 50 feet and he later told the St. Lucia intelligence officer it was the biggest submarine he had ever seen- “It had to be over 300 feet long” (SURCOUF was 361 ft. long). He dropped 4 depth charges but all fell short. He said in the debriefing that he had never expected to be able to see a submerged submarine but the sea and sun combination was just right. At 1800 that evening, another VP31 PBY-5 piloted by Ensign E. G. Binning took off from St. Lucia to begin his patrol off the entrance to Ft. de France, this time within the 3-mile limit. Finding nothing, he expanded his search area to Cape Solomon-St. Pierre. His radar operator had a contact about 10 miles off St. Pierre at 2145 and he briefly spotted a conning tower and the foredeck of a submarine but then lost it. Neither the float lights nor the flares he dropped ignited. It was a bright moonlight night with 3 to 4 mile visibility and at 2357 about 17 miles off St. Pierre, (14-40N, 61-30W), another radar contact was confirmed and both Binning and his co-pilot Thomas Oelberg saw the submarine on the surface. Binning said it was barely moving. Oelberg estimated its speed at only 5 knots. Binning thought it looked like a U-boat of the 750-ton class but made particular mention of the large oval front of the conning tower. (SURCOUF had a large oval gun turret forward of her conning tower.) He also noted a plain white cross on the conning tower. (Crew member William Howell also said “there was something white on the conning tower. I thought it was a big cross but it might have been just an emblem.”)
There is no record of SURCOUF having replaced with a cross the large block 17P which appears on her conning tower in earlier pictures, although she had often flown a Cross of Lorraine flag. However, if she planned to cross the Atlantic in company with U69 and enter St. Nazaire, such a distinctively French marking might have proven very useful.
The PBY dropped its first depth charge from an altitude of about 100′, about 10 feet from the stem. (These were Mark 17 Depth Bombs with Mark 24 Fuzes containing 325 lbs. of explosive with a lethal range of about 50′.) He turned sharply (crew member Walter Smith said “It was the fastest I’ve ever seen a PBY come around in a turn”) and dropped two more straddling the conning tower (a dream shot, Binning called it). He said the sub seemed to have been totally surprised and “sat there like she was on parade.” Crew members reported the boat seemed to heave up a few feet with each explosion. On the third pass, they approached from the starboard quarter and the bomb was released from about 50-75 feet and landed within ten feet of the bow, raising it up in the air a few feet. Also on the third pass they fired forty rounds of 50-caliber armor-piercing machine gun ammunition at the conning tower. The sub lost way and sank vertically: Sea depth at that point is about 4650 feet.
U-69 remained in position 14-33 N 61-45W for a week, waiting for SURCOUF. There was a steady 1-knot current carrying them to the west, but the water was shallow enough to anchor (about 120′) so she managed to stay on station, perhaps submerging during daylight hours and occasionally at night if an American PBY got too close. On June 1st Oberleutnant Graf apparently decided something had gone wrong with the plan and that he had best head for home. He arrived alone at St. Nazaire on June 25, 1942 after the longest patrol in his boat’s history.
No other submarines, German, British or American, were sunk on that date. LTJG Binning received the Navy Cross for his action that moonlight night. Later in the war he commanded a Patrol Squadron of his own and after the war remained active in the Naval Reserve. Rear Admiral Edward Garrison Binning U.S.N.R. (Ret.) was killed in a plane crash in China in 1961 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Apparently to deny the enemy any intelligence value, Admiral Hoover had directed that all reports of German submarine activity in his command be strictly censored. In a letter dated June 1, 1942, the Officer in Charge of the Intelligence Field Office in St. Lucia wrote “Information has reached this office that there are officers in the Tenth Naval District who are puzzled as to how the stories and accounts of the BLAKELEY torpedoing and the subsequent sinking of a submarine off Martinique were released.” He goes on to say that he knew that this lapse might jeopardize on-going negotiations with Admiral Robert, but that his censors had followed the rules they were given. Admiral Hoover exonerated him in his reply, commenting that in any event “our Ensign Binning” sank the sub in that same location on May 27th
There is a memorial to the SURCOUF crew on a pier in Cherbourg. The date on it is surely wrong although that is not really important. It is doubtful that Sub-lieutenant Burney and his men, Warner and Gough, were aboard when she sank. And although it is pure speculation, it would have made great sense to have taken aboard a German or two, perhaps whoever had served in Martinique as U-boat liaison since it was obvious his work was drawing to a close. It would have been very handy to have a German (and his encoding and decoding skills) to handle communications with the escorting U-69 during the trip to France. Also, it would not be surprising if some of the Bank of France gold which had arrived aboard EMILE BERTIN and been stored at Fort Desaix was put aboard SURCOUF for delivery to the Vichy government.
It should be obvious why the THOMPSON LYKES story was quickly adopted as the official explanation of what happened to SURCOUF. The U.S. did not want to admit to the world the deceit perpetrated at the highest level when President Roosevelt publicly denied the presence of German U-boats in the Caribbean when he knew otherwise. The fact of having sunk a French submarine by mistake would have been embarrassing to the U.S. Navy as well, when France was, or would later become, an ally. The British government, however correct it had been in deciding that SURCOUF was useless to the Allied cause, could have been seen as the indirect killers of its own liaison party. (The approval from London to remove the three British Navy men from SURCOUF had arrived in Bermuda two days after she had departed.) And the French government, eager to bury its sordid history of mass collaboration with the Nazis as deeply and quickly as possible, was happy to accept as true a story which accounted for the loss of this unique ship with all its crew while embarrassing no one. Only a few Germans would ever have known of the aborted scheme to take SURCOUF back to Vichy France, and most of them probably died when U-69 was sunk on her 11th patrol on 17 February 1943.
It is my hope that with the publication of this new set of conclusions, (based largely on now-declassified records unavailable to earlier researchers), new facts will emerge either from survivors, archives or perhaps even location of wreckage at the site of Ensign Binning’s attack to provide concrete proof of SURCOU F’s final resting place.
COMPARISON OF TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS FOR CONTEMPORARY SUBMARINES
|Max. Surf Speed
|USS BARRACUDA S-163
|2 x 1200 HP
|USS NARWHAL S- 167
|2 x 1270 HP
|British T -class
|2 x 1450 HP
|2 x 840 HP
|4 x 800 HP
|2 x 1700 HP
Source: NAVAL INSTITUTE PROCEEDINGS, Jon. 1930, p. 58
SOURCES: Hundreds, or perhaps thousands of documents were examined during many days at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. While I was able to copy some of the critical pages for later ref ere nee and retain them in my files, attributing sources, as in many historical narratives, can easily over whelm an author. I have tried to identify readily available online sources below for the convenience of readers. FHH