SS Léopoldville (1929)

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For other ships of the same name, see SS Léopoldville.
Name: SS Léopoldville
Operator: Compagnie Belge Maritime du Congo
(Later Compagnie Maritime Belge (Lloyd Royal) SA), Antwerp
Builder: John Cockerill SA, Hoboken, Antwerp
Completed: 1929
Fate: Sunk on 24 December 1944
General characteristics
Tonnage: 11,439 GRT
7,154 DWT
Length: 501 ft 6 in (152.86 m) (registered)
Beam: 62 ft 2 in (18.95 m)
Draught: 25 ft 11 in (7.90 m)
Propulsion: Steam reciprocating engine with exhaust turbine
2 screws
Speed: 16-knot (30 km/h)
Capacity: 177 first class passengers
1,178 second class passengers

SS Léopoldville was an 11,500-long-ton (11,700 t) passenger liner of the Compagnie Belge Maritime du Congo. She was converted for use as a troopship in the Second World War, and while sailing between Southampton and Cherbourg, was torpedoed and sunk by the U-486. As a result, approximately 763 soldiers died, together with 56 of her crew.


She was built for the Compagnie Maritime Belge as the fifth to bear the name Léopoldville and initially served on the route between Belgium and its African colony, the Belgian Congo.[1]


Prior to the attack, the Léopoldville had made 24 cross-Channel crossings, transporting more than 120,000 troops. She sailed as part of convoy WEP-3, a cross-channel convoy from Southampton to Cherbourg. The Léopoldville was in a diamond formation with four escorts; the destroyers HMS Brilliant and HMS Anthony, the frigate HMS Hotham, and the French frigate Croix de Lorraine, and another troopship the SS Cheshire.[2]

On the day of the attack, the Léopoldville was carrying reinforcements from the 262nd and 264th Regiments, 66th Infantry Division of the United States Army towards the Battle of the Bulge. While in the English Channel on 24 December 1944, approximately five miles from the coast of Cherbourg, the convoy was attacked by U-486 and at 17.54 hours the Léopoldville was hit by one of two torpedoes fired from the U-boat. She finally sank by the stern at 20.40 hours.

Of the 2,235 American servicemen on board, approximately 515 are presumed to have gone down with the ship. Another 248 died from injuries, drowning, or hypothermia. Captain Charles Limbor, one Belgian and three Congolese crewmembers also went down with the ship. An unknown number of British soldiers died. Documents about the attack remained classified until 1996.

One of the escort destroyers, HMS Brilliant, came alongside the stricken vessel. Soldiers on the Léopoldville jumped down onto the smaller Brilliant. The destroyer could take only a few hundred of the men and headed for the shore. No further rescue attempt was made, and some 1,200 men were left aboard.[3] USS PC-1225 also rescued survivors.[4] The Léopoldville stayed afloat for two and a half hours after the torpedo hit before finally sinking, stern first.[3]

Discovery of the wreck[edit]

In July 1984, Clive Cussler of NUMA discovered the wreck. French maritime officials however claim the location of the shipwreck had always been marked on all maritime charts since its size and location present a potential hazard to navigation[citation needed]. French Navy UDT[clarification needed] teams in Cherbourg had also used the shipwreck as a practice dive location although the circumstances surrounding the sinking of the SS Léopoldville were not known to them until 1999. Since then all military practice dives have stopped[citation needed].

In 1997, the 66th Infantry Division Monument was dedicated in Ft. Benning, Georgia in memory of the soldiers who died aboard the Léopoldville and also to those who survived the attack on the Léopoldville but were later killed in action.

In 2005, a memorial was erected in Veterans Memorial Park in Titusville, Florida.

Clive Cussler dedicated his 1986 book Cyclops to the disaster. The dedication reads:

To the eight hundred American men who were lost with the Léopoldville, Christmas Eve 1944 near Cherbourg, France. Forgotten by many, remembered by few.

In 1998 the History Channel broadcast the documentary film "Cover Up: The Sinking of the SS Léopoldville" which included interviews with numerous survivors of the sinking of the ship from the 66th Infantry Division and sailors from the US Navy who attempted to save them by pulling them out of the water. The sailors claimed that they arrived after the sinking of the ship and that most of the men who they pulled out of the water had already frozen to death in the water by the time they arrived on the scene.

The soldiers of the 66th Infantry Division were ordered not to tell anyone about the sinking of the ship and their letters home were censored by the army during the rest of World War II. After the war, the soldiers were also ordered at discharge not to talk about the sinking of the SS Léopoldville to the press and told that their GI benefits as civilians would be canceled if they did so.

In 2009, the National Geographic Channel aired a special that recreated the events that led to the sinking and had divers investigating the wreck.[5]

Jack Dixon was a young seaman on board HMS Brilliant, the first destroyer to rescue American troops abandoning the ship on that Christmas Eve, 1944. At just 21 years old, he and others crew members battled against the conditions to try and rescue as many of the soldiers as possible. From his web site;

"H.M.S. Brilliant went along the port side of the troopship we had put our starboard fenders over the side; the sea swell was causing a rise and fall of between 8ft and 12ft. The scrambling nets were hanging down the Léopoldvilles's port side and the American soldiers were coming down on to our upper deck. Some men had started to jump down from a height of approximately 40ft. Unfortunately limbs were being broken when they landed on the torpedo tubes and other fixed equipment on the starboard side of the upperdeck; some men fell between the two vessels and were crushed as the two vessels crashed into each other. To avoid any further injuries, if possible, all our hammocks were brought up from our mess-decks below and laid on the starboard upper deck to cushion the fall of the soldiers as they landed. "


See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ "The Sinking of SS Léopoldville". Retrieved 17 January 2011. 
  3. ^ a b "Deep Wreck Mysteries on History". Retrieved 17 January 2011. 
  4. ^ "Waverly". Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. Navy Department, Naval History & Heritage Command. Retrieved 2 May 2012. 
  5. ^ "Sunk on Christmas Eve". National Geographic Channel. Retrieved 17 January 2011. 

External links[edit]


Coordinates: 49°45′57″N 01°36′20″W / 49.76583°N 1.60556°W / 49.76583; -1.60556