Operation Battle of Point Judith

The 'Battle of Point Judith' is the unofficial name of a naval engagement fought between the USA and Germany off the coast of the USA (5/6 May 1945).

At this time Germany on the very verge of total defeat and surrender, and Adolf Hitler had already committed suicide. US warships, aided by two non-rigid airships, sank Oberleutnant Helmut Frömsdorf’s 'Typ IXC/40' U-boat U-583 off Point Judith, Rhode Island, in one of the last actions of the 'Battle of the Atlantic'. The 5,353-ton collier Black Point was also sunk at the start of the action.

U-853 was one of five U-boats despatched in February 1945 for operations off the North American coast. By May 1945, she was the only one of the February boats remaining active and also one of just six U-boats operating off the North American coast. On May 6, the U-boat was patrolling off the coast off Rhode Island.

Black Point had been built in 1918 by the New York Shipbuilding Corporation in Camden, New Jersey. In World War I, the collier had served in the US Navy as Fairmont, armed with one 6-in (152.4-mm) deck gun and one 6-pdr deck gun. After World War I’s end, she was returned to mercantile service and renamed Nebraskan by the C. H. Sprague & Son Corporation, but by the time of the USA’s entry into World War II had been renamed Black Point. On 6 May 1945 the vessel was en route to Boston, Massachusetts, with a US Navy armed guard detachment onboard to protect the ship.

Hitler’s successor as German leader, Grossadmiral Karl Dönitz, directed all U-boats to cease attacks on 4 May, ahead of Germany’s surrender. While most commanding officers obeyed this order, some either did not receive it or chose to ignore it. On 5 May, U-853 was lying in wait off Point Judith when she sighted Black Point and fired two torpedoes at her. Both weapons struck home, one blowing off the vessel’s stern. Within 15 minutes, the ship had capsized and sunk in 95 ft (29 m) of water. Black Point was the last US-flagged merchant ship to be sunk in World War II. Of those on board, 11 crewmen and one navy guard died; 34 others were rescued by nearby vessels.

A radioed report about the torpedoing from one of the rescue ships, Kamen, was picked up by US Navy’s Eastern Sea Frontier command in New York and by the 1st Naval District in Boston. The nearest warships, which were under the command of Commander F. C. McCune, were part of Task Force 60.7. The escort group comprised the destroyer Ericsson under Lieutenant Commander C. A Baldwin, the destroyer escorts Amick and Atherton, and the frigate Moberly. Task Force 60.7 was on passage through the Cape Cod Canal with McCune on board when the summons to intervene arrived, so the remaining four ships headed for Kamen's location, with Lieutenant Commander Tollaksen of Moberly in temporary command. The warships had been on their way to Boston after escorting the GUS.84 convoy to New York and, with news of the sinking, were immediately ordered to start a search for and sink the U-boat.

When the first ships arrived off Point Judith at 19.30, they began a sweep of the area with their late-war sonar equipment, and just after 00.00 discovered U-853 on the bottom at a depth of 108 ft (33 m). After the warships had made their first attack, oil was sighted on the surface, triggering the first of a number of claims that the U-boat had been destroyed. However, the ships continued to find contacts, so the attacks continued. McCune resumed overall command when Ericsson arrived in the early hours of the morning. Amick was detached to make a pre-arranged rendezvous, and later reinforcements comprised the destroyers Barney, Breckinridge and Blakeley, the frigate Newport, the corvettes Action and Restless, and the auxiliary destroyer Semmes. These last took position around the search site to guard against the U-boat slipping past the attackers.

Attacks continued through the night. At 05.30, oil, planking, life rafts, a chart tabletop, clothing and an officer’s cap were spotted on the surface. Nevertheless, destruction of U-853 was not accepted by the 1st Naval District in Boston so the hunt continued. By the break of day, the 'K' class airships K-16 and K-58 from Lakehurst, New Jersey, joined the attack, locating oil slicks and marking suspected locations with smoke and dye markers. K-16 also attacked with six 7.2-in (183-mm) rocket bombs. Finally, at 12.07, the Eastern Sea Frontier in New York accepted the destruction of the U-boat and the hunt was ended.

Later that day, US Navy divers from the submarine rescue ship Penguin located the wreck of U-853. the boat’s battle damage consisted of two hits to its pressure hull, resulting in the deaths of its entire 55-man crew. Evidence showed the U-853 had been destroyed at some point between 00.00 and 12.00 on 6 May. During the 17-hour hunt, the warships of TF60.7 had expended 264 Hedgehog bombs and 95 depth charges; at least one ship was damaged by the concussion from the ordnance exploding in shallow water.