The sinking of U-175

Spencer as it steams alongside the convoy which it was charged to protect. U.S. Coast Guard photo taken from Coast Guard Cutter Duane by Bob Gates.

Spencer as it steams alongside the convoy which it was charged to protect. U.S. Coast Guard photo taken from Coast Guard Cutter Duane by Bob Gates.

Written by Ensign Garrick Gillan.

This month marks the 70th anniversary of a decisive victory for the predecessor of Coast Guard Cutter Spencer. In the uncertain days of World War II, the Coast Guard-manned USS Spencer steamed alongside convoy ships maintaining long lines of food, men and war machines destined for the front lines of Europe. These ships faced a new, elusive enemy: U-boats. These submarines harassed the Allies’ supply lines, attacking at night and vanishing just as quickly. The crew of Spencer lived under constant threat of attack.

George Ellers was a 20mm-gun loader aboard Spencer during one such escort patrol in 1943. He recalls the gut-wrenching fear of those days. Often, the U-boats would travel in groups of up to ten, called “wolf packs.” These wolf packs would follow the convoy, too deep to detect, and then strike in the early hours of the morning. The booming torpedoes shook men out of their racks in alarm. Most men slept in their lifejackets because of the frequency at which general quarters was sounded.

Depth charges explode as the Spencer lays down a pattern of charges for a detected submarine. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Jack January.

Depth charges explode as the Spencer lays down a pattern of charges for a detected submarine. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Jack January.

On April 17, 1943, Spencer’s sonarmen detected signs of a U-boat lurking amid the convoy. All hands sprung into action as general quarters sounded. Boots thundered across steel decks, shouts echoed through the air and the men of Spencer readied the powerful TNT-laden depth charges that were the only hope against this new enemy. A call came down from the bridge and the men laid down a square pattern of depth charges. Spencer had to steam at full speed ahead to avoid collateral damage from the very charges she laid.

A thunderous boom snapped all eyes off the stern and the decks shuddered at the explosive force of the charge. Tension was high, though expectations were low, as this means of attack rarely yielded results. Minutes passed when, without warning, came a shout that a submarine was breaking the surface off the port quarter. In a split second, every eye turned toward the port quarter in disbelief as the U-boat, with its decks awash and its conning tower crumpled from the depth charges, emerged from the sea. The air erupted into shouts as ready crews manned their three-inch guns. Out of the confusion, order quickly took over and the gunners trained their shots into the dull, hard metal of the deck. Spencer came around and faced the U-boat that was now dead ahead. As Ellers put it, “once we knew the Spencer had defeated the German sub, we were mostly relieved…that it was them, and not us.”

U-175 foundering with its decks awash and about to sink.  U.S. Coast Guard photo by Jack January.

U-175 foundering with its decks awash and about to sink. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Jack January.

Firing ceased as the water came alive with struggling survivors. Ellers recalls that “when our crew saw German survivors floating in the water they did feel compassion for them…we picked up as many as we could.” Cargo nets were thrown over the side and white-knuckled sailors clutched onto them in desperation, ignoring their U-boat’s last moments. The U-boat creaked and groaned, then the bow, as though rendering a final farewell salute, slid beneath the sea.

The prisoners were taken aboard and afforded food and blankets. They were a pitiful bunch with their hair plastered across their faces and shivering from the cold. The prisoners were defeated, but remained jubilant they were still alive. This was the first time many of the Spencer crew had seen their enemy in the flesh and for many it was an uneasy feeling having these Nazis so close. Ellers remembers “the attitude of the Spencer crew towards the German survivors on board was tolerable. We treated them with basic human dignity…after all, they were young soldiers like us, fighting for their country. The German executive officer of the U-175 was a very stern man… he had to be sequestered from the crew and was interrogated by our interpreter.” The crew took comfort knowing the enemy had been robbed of taking any more lives.

The crew celebrated their victory over U-175 three days later when they transferred the prisoners to a base in Scotland, marking yet another convoy which they safely escorted across the Atlantic. Despite this triumphant moment Ellers recalls little fanfare. “I was not aware of the account of the Spencer sinking the U-175 in the newspapers. As far as being treated as ‘heroes’ when we arrived back home… it was 1943 and there were two wars going on… we were just doing our duty for our country.”

German prisoners being transferred in Gourock, Scotland.  Photographer unknown.

German prisoners being transferred in Gourock, Scotland. Photographer unknown.

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  • Anonymous

    So many people including thousands of military and ex-military never knew the CG has been involved in so many conflicts. It is actually sad. I hate when I see events on TV that display the other 4 branches. Why doesn’t the CG do something with public relations to waken the uneducated?

  • Joe Squid

    The merchant marine fares even worse with the public perception that they “had it easy!” during the war. They were paid a lot more money, true; but just imagine making the Murmansk run over and over again! :-(