Author`s name Michael Simpson

Demise of U-166 Submarine - 28 February, 2003

In 1942, a German submarine of the IX-C type, U-166, left for a voyage to the Western hemisphere and never got back. On August 1, 1942 two pilots of American coastguard aviation informed their command that they noticed and attacked an unknown submarine in the Mississippi Delta near New Orleans. Former pilot Boggs is still sure that he sank a hostile submarine that was over 80 meters long. However, when the place where the pilots had dropped a bomb was inspected later, no submarine was found in that area. 

In the spring of 2001 measuring works were done in the Gulf of Mexico for further laying of a deep-water oil pipeline. And quite accidentally workers found a framework of a huge steel “cigar” 200 kilometers from the place where Americans allegedly bombed a German submarine. Debris of a steamboat were found at the bottom right close to the submarine framework. Why were they lying so close to each other?

A group of German historians started investigating the case in order to find out the reason why U-166 submarine sank. When they searched for documents connected with the fate of the submarine and the crew, they were surprised to know that the archives of the submarine captain Kullmann were kept in the house of his relatives and nobody still took no interest in it. The archives contained not only letters and technical documents, there were also pictures and an amateur tape, the only film about the U-166 submarine. Personal letters written by Captain Hans-Guenter Kullmann, 25, several hours before his last voyage gave a hint that U-166 had a special task – it was ordered to mine the US shoaling water.

After the Japanese attack at the American base Pearl Harbor, Hitler declared a war on the USA and ordered to start “an underwater offensive” in the Atlantic Ocean. Admiral Karl Donitz sent his “gray wolves”, the submariners so ardently praised by the Nazi propaganda, across the ocean. The USA lost many vessels which seriously exceeded its capability for construction of new ones instead of the crashed. A critical situation arose near the North America shores: German submarines played the master and almost completely controlled the US territorial waters. However, the US Government didn’t think it was necessary to inform the community about that fact.

The Gulf of Mexico was turned into the most dangerous navigation region in 1942. Within the period of April – September, nineteen submarines almost openly chased after tankers, merchant vessels and military transport ships. Within that period they sank over 60 ships.  Old fishermen still remember the scary impressions of their youth: burning tankers and black smoke over the sea, people drowning and still hopelessly catching on debris of ships, numerous dead bodies that the sea cast ashore.

In the summer of 1942, U-166 patrolled the Gulf of Mexico in searches for a new victim. Steamer Robert E. Lee appeared 70 kilometers from the Mississippi mouth on July 30. The passenger carrier of 5184 tons displacement was going from Trinidad escorted with a PC-566 cruiser. There were over 400 passengers on board the vessel, mostly technical specialists and seamen rescued from sunk ships. The cruiser contacted with the coast station over the air and reported its coordinate position; it was a fatal mistake as the negotiations were intercepted by the German submarine.
The U-166 captain Kullmann ordered to immediately open fire against the ship. People on board the passenger carrier saw a white foamy trace on the sea surface and then a torpedo explosion followed. Marshal Charlton, who was a sailor on Robert E. Lee steamer tells: “We felt a quick bump, as if the ship ran against a stone wall. The torpedo got into the engine-room and smashed it to pieces.” The steamer got a serious breach and sank very quickly; passengers on Robert E. Lee were rather lucky – only 25 people sank.

German submariners were eager to find out whether the hunting was a success. They got so used to remain unpunished for their doings in the Gulf of Mexico that U-166 surfaced without any cautiousness. PC-566 seamen rescued passengers from the steamer, then they noticed the hostile submarine and showered it with depth-bombs. One of them hit the fore body. A catastrophe was inevitable, and the submarine broke into two pieces just in few minutes and sank. The debris went down at a depth of about 1.500 meters in Mississippi’s underwater canyon. Not far from the dilapidated submarine hull, was lying an awkward carcass of the steamer that it torpedoed. 

Germany waited for any information from U-166 in vain. No information about the submarine appeared after July 30, 1942, that is why U-166 and its crew of 52 seamen were considered missing.

In almost 60 years, at the beginning of 2001, researches were held at the sea bottom for further laying of oil pipelines there. By that time, the place where Robert E. Lee steamer sank was known, as its framework was found in 1986 already. However, when measurement was done, underwater robots detected strange anomalies of the sea bottom near the place where the steamer was lying. Maritime archeologists joined the researches and determined that wreckage of a submarine of the IX-C class were quite close to the steamer.

But what was the submarine that American pilots bombed not fat from the Mississippi delta? On July 24-25, 1942, U-166 executed a secret mission in the Gulf of Mexico near the Mississippi mouth and laid mined there. In that very place U-166 came across U-171, a giant submarine of the same class. In several days, an American plane noticed U-171.

The pilots decided to attack the submarine. Submarine specialist Krist says that the pilots had one depth-bomb weighing 120 kilograms. “It would have been an exceptional case if the pilots had managed to sink a submarine of the IX-C class. But no miracle happened.”

The American pilots remained above the place where they dropped the bomb for an hour. They even saw an oil spot spreading on the sea surface, that is the reason why they were sure that they managed to sank a submarine. But out of the whole number of German submarines that furrowed the Gulf of Mexico, only U-166 didn’t get back home from there. But it is unlikely that U-171 submarine seriously suffered from the dropped bomb, as the submarine moved away from the American shores. But the days of U-171 were also numbered: it was blown up when it approached  the base in Lorient, near the French shores. Some members of the U-171 crew were saved, but 22 men were killed.

U-166 suffered the same fate that majority of the Nazi Germany’s submarines did. Within ten years, 1935-1945, over a half of submarines out of the whole number of 1167 didn’t get back from their combat missions. German historians sum up losses of the enemy: 2900 vessels and 33 thousand seamen at the cost of the life of 30 thousand German submariners.

Underwater pictures of the U-166 framework and wreckage of the steamer that it sank lying side by side produce a painful impression: the hunter and the pray, the killer and the victim are lying together in one underwater grave, covered with sand and silt, almost forgotten. This is just another reminder of the war horrors.


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