In the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago is one of the most impressive museum displays I have ever seen. U-505 the only captured World War Two era German U-boat (Unterseeboot or submarine) in the USA is presented within a purpose-built wing of the museum in all its enormous glory. I was here 12 years ago and it used to be partially outside and you could never get a good look at the sub. The other big difference back then was you could go inside for free, now you have to get a tour ticket for the end of the day (I missed out this time as they were all sold out for the day). After all those years outdoors the sub was becoming worse for wear. In 2005 following restoration and the building of a new indoor display, U-505 was opened once again to the public.
U-505 is a type IX-C Unterseeboot (U-Boat) of the German Kriegsmarine. She was built in 1940, launched on May 25th, 1941 and commissioned for active service on August 26th, 1941. Training was completed by the end of January 1942 and U-505 then set out from her base in Lorient, France on 12 patrols from February 1st, 1942 to June 4th, 1944 sinking 8 Allied ships (47,000 tons of shipping) in her career (the first ships sunk by U-505 were on her second patrol during February 1942 – 4 ships in a month). U-505 roamed far and wide across the Atlantic Ocean from the coast of Africa to as far as the Panama Canal, the coast of South America and the Caribbean islands.
In November 1942 U-505 on her fourth patrol sunk a British ship off the coast of Venezuela. 3 days later near Trinidad a Royal Air Force Lockheed Hudson bomber sighted and attacked at low-level the sub while it was on the surface. A bomb directly struck the deck of U-505 killing two crew members and causing considerable damage to the sub. Unfortunately for the RAF crew shrapnel from the explosion hit their aircraft and brought it down into the sea killing all on board. This was a lucky break for U-505 which despite the heavy damage was made water tight again (this took 2 weeks) and was able to escape further attacks and make it back to base in France. U-505 became the most heavily damaged U-Boat to ever make it back home!
It took around 6 months to repair the sub and get it ready for patrol once again. The next few patrols were unsuccessful and the luck of U-505 to survive attack was tested again under extreme pressure in July 1943 when 3 Royal Navy destroyers hunted the sub for 30 hours. They managed to damage U-505 but the sub escaped once again and returned to France for repairs. Further patrols had to be aborted when sabotage was discovered onboard (the handy work of French dock workers helping out the resistance).
On the 10th patrol of U-505 during October 1943 the sub came under heavy depth charge attack from Royal Navy destroyers. The strain of this attack and previous failed patrols lead U-Boat Commander Peter Zschech to shoot himself in the head right in front of his crew during the attack (he is said to have been the first submariner to commit suicide underwater and the first commander of a warship to do so while under attack)! Despite this bizarre moment the crew survived and returned the sub to base with minimal damage. What a fascinating history this sub attained!
To get a take on the German side of things in regards to submarine warfare, I highly recommend the 1981 epic German movie Das Boot (1981). The claustrophobic scenes depicting being under attack whilst submerged are truly gripping. The movie was based on the 1973 book of the same name written by Lothar-Günther Buchheim. In late 1941 as a 23-year-old German war correspondent he accompanied U-Boat U-96 commanded by Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock on a North Atlantic and Mediterranean patrol. The book was a fictional account of that voyage based on the real activities of U-96.
On June 4th, 1944 U-505 under the command of Harald Lange was on her 12th patrol and hunting for Allied shipping off the coast of West Africa when she came under attack by depth charges and hedgehogs (an explosive weapon that detonates upon direct contact with a submarine) fired from the US Navy Destroyer USS Chatelain which was part of a anti-submarine task force in the Atlantic Ocean. They had located the sub with the help of communication intercepts. The blasts of the depth charges and hedgehogs brought the submarine to the surface just 7 minutes after the attack had begun. The luck of U-505 had finally run out.
USS Chatelain and another US Navy Destroyer USS Jenks collected the surviving crew of U-505 and a third Destroyer USS Pillsbury sent a boarding party of 9 men led by Lieutenant Albert L. David onto U-505. Despite not knowing if the sub had been rigged to explode or if some of the crew were awaiting them, the boarding party went down the hatch into the sub. Luckily for them it was empty (only one German crew member had died in the attack and his body was found on the deck of the sub. The other 58 went into captivity).
The boarding party then had an urgent job to do. They had to disable any timed explosive charges set to scuttle the sub along with closing all valves to prevent the sub from sinking. German U-Boat commanders were under strict orders to scuttle a sub in the advent of capture to avoid top-secret equipment and weaponry falling in Allied hands. In this case they had opened the valves to sink the sub but despite coming close to achieving this they were just a little too late to avoid that. The boarding party then had to grab any documentation, logs etc. that would be of intelligence use. U-505 became the first ship to be boarded and captured at sea by the US military since the War of 1812.
Given the sub had been prevented from sinking (albeit it was still full of a lot of water), orders came through from US Navy command to tow the stricken sub to Bermuda so they could study its secrets. This voyage covered 2,500 miles / 4,023 kilometres and was the longest naval tow during World War Two! Apart from the distance, the amount of water in the sub and damage to its rudder made it a very difficult journey and just avoiding the sub sinking was a major problem.
The US Navy also had to keep the capture of U-505 a secret to avoid Germany knowing they now could investigate the equipment on board including the Enigma encoding machine and codebooks (cracking the Enigma code earlier in the war had helped the Allies interpret German commands to U-Boats and allow convoys to avoid U-Boat locations in the Atlantic). The U-505 crew became Prisoners Of War but were not allowed to write to their families to avoid the secret being revealed. The last of the crew was repatriated to Germany in 1947.
Following the war the sub sat derelict and was going to be used for target practice. Luckily for the sake of history this did not happen and it was donated to the Museum of Science and Industry in 1954 and became a war memorial to all those lost on the Battle of the Atlantic. The citizens of Chicago helped raise the $250,000 required to tow the sub from the navy yard in Portsmouth, New Hampshire through the Great Lakes to Chicago. U-505 was pretty much stripped to the bone while it sat derelict in the navy yard for almost a decade. Amazingly companies in Germany that built the sub helped provide replacement parts to restore the sub to museum standards.
The museum offers a rare opportunity to see the scourge of the Atlantic that once roamed the ocean in a U-Boat “Wolf Pack” (only 4 surviving U-Boats are on display in museums). Allow plenty of time to explore this area of the museum which has displays around the submarine providing an excellent back story to the capture of U-505 and the Battle of the Atlantic which became the longest continuous running campaign of World War Two (the Atlantic campaign was intended to cut the flow of supply to Great Britain from the sea). German U-Boats were stalking Allied shipping out there from 1939 until Germany’s defeat in 1945. 3,500 merchant ships, 175 Allied military ships and 783 U-Boats were lost in the battle. Ultimately the U-Boats failed to cut off Great Britain from being resupplied with military equipment, food etc. and lost the campaign. This is a unique part of military history indeed.