The Sinking of U-175

U-175 was a German submarine of the Type IXC class.  She claimed nine Allied merchant ships on her first war patrol, and a single ship on her second.  On her third patrol she was part of a wolfpack of eight submarines which attacked Convoy HX-233 consisting of fifty-eight merchant vessels and their escort.  In the convoy’s screen were two Treasury class Coast Guard cutters, USCGC Spencer (WPG-36) and USCGC Duane (WPG-33).  Both vessels carried photographers who were able to record the engagement as it unfolded.

On 17APR43 Kapitänleutnant Heinrich Bruns had positioned U-175 directly ahead of the convoy and set his sights on a large tanker, the G Harrison Smith. Fixated on his target, Bruns was about to fire his torpedoes when he suddenly discovered the Coast Guard cutter Spencer bearing down on him. U-175 aborted her attack and crash-dived while Spencer dropped a pattern of eleven depth charges. This photograph shows the depth charges churning up the water while the approaching convoy closes in.
The depth charges were on target and the U-175 was driven down out of control. Just as U-175 was able to stop her descent, Spencer’s second salvo caused further damage. Here Spencer’s K-guns launch depth charges off the beams, which increase the area covered by the depth charge pattern.
This photograph appears calm, but there is actually a lot going on here. As the convoy passes over the U-boat’s position, the cutters attempt to maintain sonar contact on the stricken U-boat. The middle of convoy would not be the ideal position to maneuver a ship!
Bruns realized his submarine was unseaworthy and in no condition to continue to fight, so he surfaced after the convoy had passed overhead. Seeing the submarine, the cutters opened fire joined by Navy gun crews on several merchant ships positioned at the rear of the convoy. Here is U-175 under fire as seen from Spencer.
Spencer closed in on U-175 and prepared to ram. The Cutter was hit by a stray shell from one of the merchants, and signaled a cease fire.
At the last minute, the Navy Escort Commander aboard Spencer ordered her Captain to abort his ramming attack as the U-175 was out of the fight. The photographer took this shot as Spencer passed close astern. Her conning tower is smoking and shows the effects of multiple shell impacts. A portion of her superstructure is visible on deck aft next to her 37mm deck gun. If you look closely, a crewman can be seen on deck clinging to the port side of her conning tower.
Although Kapitänleutnant Bruns and several members of his crew were killed by gunfire, most of the submariners made it into the water. Spencer sent a boat over to U-175 in an attempt to board, but by the time they arrived she was well down by the stern and sinking.
Both cutters then set about rescuing the crew of their victim from the cold Atlantic. 13 men from U-175 were killed, Spencer rescued 19 survivors and Duane 21.
Here Maschinengefreiter Otto Herzke is being helped down the deck aboard USCGC Duane, his face displaying the stress of a close escape and the effects of the cold water.
The survivors were stripped of their wet clothing and given blankets, cigarettes, and coffee by their captors. Then they were taken below and fed a hot meal, a change in diet from submarine food. Removing the men’s wet clothing would later be a problem, as there were no rank or rating insignia to help the Americans identify the submarine crew.
With more U-boats still in the area, Spencer and Duane returned to their escort duties. Pictured is Spencer in her Atlantic camouflage.
U-175’s surviving crew were put ashore in Scotland. After interrogation, they were shipped to America where most spent the rest of the war working as farm labor.

11 thoughts on “The Sinking of U-175

    1. There is a related book review coming Monday. Once I realized that both cutters carried photographers, it placed several iconic photos in context. I hadn’t realized the well-known photos were of the same action, and if they were viewed sequentially the story emerged. Also interesting that the cutters and U-175 were dueling as the convoy passed around them!

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  1. That there were any survivors of U-175 is remarkable as most subs were lost will all hands, never breaking surface. More remarkable seems to be that the escorts actually stopped to rescue them while there were other U boats in the area. Was it the case that the possibility of gathering intelligence took priority?

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    1. It is worth noting that the escorts (and by extension the entire convoy) were placed at risk by the decision to pick up the crew of U-175. By that time many convoys had designated rescue ships, but the escorts would also perform this function. The Spencer had taken the crew of the torpedoed merchantman Fort Rampart earlier that morning. Spencer’s boarding party had attempted to recover U-175’s codes and logs, but the survivors were not interrogated until they were passed to the British in Scotland. The Coast Guard crews treated the prisoners as mariners rescued from the sea, although they were placed under guard. Perhaps a reflection of CG culture.

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      1. It’s most likely -upon reflecting on the capture of U-505 – that the Kapitan or one of the surviving mates ordered the seacocks opened to scuttle the boat to prevent such a capture- it may have been a standing order. It’s quetionable that battle damage alone sank the sub.

        There is a history- Scapa Flow in 1919, the Battle of the River Plate, and some argue the Bismarck. Scuttling was a habit of the Kriegsmarine to prevent capture and/or mitigate defeat.

        There are harrowing stories of survivors being left behind so as not to endanger the rest of a convoy by tying up the escorts.

        Gun and aircraft crews never hesitated to strafe a surfacing sub to deny its gunners access to their deck and AA weapons. The U-175’s remaining crew were lucky the Coast Guarders ceased firing when they did.

        Also as an aside, i doubt a Japanese sub crew would have been afforded rescue, let alone blankets, cigarettes, and a hot meal (although Japanese sailors in the water often resisted rescue.)

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    1. Most of these photos are familiar, being used in several publications over the years. I never realized they were of the same engagement, and gave a history of how events played out when put in the proper order.

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