Justice for the Sinking of the SS Dorchester on February 3 1943

Many articles have been written about the loss of the SS Dorchester on February 3, 1943.

Eighty years ago this week, the sinking resulted in the tragic loss of many American soldiers who had never stepped foot in a combat zone. Wolf packs consisting of multiple submarines was a powerful force of destruction on merchant shipping. But by 1943,  newly trained divisions of the army were being surged to England to prepare for the eventual invasion of France and liberation of Europe from the Nazis.

The Dorchester sinking is best described here:

No Greater Glory: The Four Chaplains and the Sinking of the USAT Dorchester

For her first patrol, U-223 departed Kiel on 12 January 1943. Keeping to the Norwegian side of the North Sea, she entered the Atlantic Ocean having negotiated the gap between Iceland and the Faroe Islands. She moved to the south of Greenland. There, she sank the troop transport SS Dorchester west of Cape Farewell on 3 February. The troop ship was sailing with a total of 904 people on board. 675 of them died. Four of the dead were chaplains of different faiths who had given up their lifebelts to soldiers among the incumbents. The clergymen were posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart; the US Congress declared 3 February ‘Chaplains Observance Day’ in 1961.

But what happened to the U-223?

The German submarine continued to operate for another year and a month. In the end, she met the fate of many of the German submarines.

The following is from a translated copy of the official war report recovered after the war was over.

Date: 30.03.1944

Last Commander: Peter Gerlach

Place: In the Mediterranean Sea, north of Palermo

Position: 38°48’N-14°10’E

Plan square: CJ 9454

Lowered by: By water bombs of the Brt. Destroyer “HMS Laforey”, “HMS Ulster”, “HMS Tumult”, “HMS Wilton”, “HMS Hambledon” and “HMS Blencathra” forced to surface and then sunk by the crew themselves

Dead: 23

Survivor: 27


U-223 was killed on 30.03.1944 in the Mediterranean Sea, north of Palermo after twenty hours Hunting by depth charges of the British destroyers “HMS Laforey”, “HMS Ulster”, HMS Tumult, HMS Wilton, Hambledon, and HMS Blencathra were forced to surface. On reaching U 223 was able to shoot a T-5 wren, which was the “HMS Laforey” hit and sunk. The remaining four warships, because the “HMS Ulster” was exhausted. After being ordered back to Palermo for treason of the depth charges, they immediately opened artillery fire on the submarine and circled it. On U 223 the self-sinking was immediately initiated and only a short time later U 223 sank over the rear.

Report of the I. watch officer Gerhard Buske on the sinking of U 223:

U 223 was arrested after about 20 hours of depth charge pursuit in the night of 30.03.1944 by four destroyers by shelling and on the command of the commander in the Mediterranean about twelve Sunk nautical miles east of the island of Ustica (Palermo-Naples). The boat was used by all Crew members. The crew was over a large area scattered in the water, because it was dark night and no overview of the crew to gain. I am therefore unable to give any details about the fate of the missing persons. The Commander Oberleutnant Peter Gerlach left together with the LI Ernst Scheid as the last the sinking boat and probably succumbed to a wound.

Two crew members died after lengthy resuscitation attempts by the British ship’s doctor on the destroyer, which the II watch officer Walter Fritz and me. They were wrapped in canvas and handed over the sea by the British chaplain. A total of 27 crew men were rescued.

Original German:


Datum: 30.03.1944

Letzter Kommandant: Oberleutnant Peter Gerlach

Ort: Im Mittelmeer, nördlich von Palermo

Position: 38°48’N-14°10’O

Planquadarat: CJ 9454

Versenkt durch: Durch Wasserbomben der brt. Zerstörer “HMS Laforey”, “HMS Ulster”, “HMS Tumult”, “HMS Wilton”, “HMS Hambledon” und “HMS Blencathra” zum Auftauchen gezwungen und dann von der Besatzung selbst versenkt

Tote: 23

Überlebende: 27


U 223 wurde am 30.03.1944 im Mittelmeer, nördlich von Palermo nach zwanzigstündiger Jagd durch Wasserbomben der britischen Zerstörer Zerstörer “HMS Laforey”, “HMS Ulster”, “HMS Tumult”, “HMS Wilton”, “HMS Hambledon” und “HMS Blencathra” zum Auftauchen gezwungen. Beim Erreichen der Wasseroberfläche konnte U 223 noch einen T-5 Zaunkönig schießen, der die “HMS Laforey” traf und versenkte. Die übrigen vier Kriegsschiffe, denn die “HMS Ulster” war nach Erschöpfung des Wasserbombenverrats nach Palermo zurückbefohlen worden, eröffneten sofort das Artilleriefeuer auf das U-Boot und kreisten es ein. Auf U 223 wurde sofort die Selbstversenkung eingeleitet und nur kurze Zeit später sank U 223 über das Heck.

Bericht des I. Wachoffiziers Gerhard Buske über den Untergang von U 223:

U 223 wurde nach etwa 20 stündiger Wasserbombenverfolgung in der nacht vom 30.03.1944 von vier Zerstörern durch Beschuß und auf Kommando des Kommandanten im Mittelmeer etwa zwölf Seemeilen östlich der Insel Ustica (Palermo-Neapel) versenkt. Das Boot wurde von allen Besatzungsangehörigen verlassen. Die Besatzung war über eine große Fläche im Wasser verstreut, denn es war dunkle Nacht und kein Überblick über die Besatzung zu gewinnen. Ich vermag deshalb nichts Näheres über das Schicksal der Vermißten anzugeben. Der Kommandant Oberleutnant Peter Gerlach verließ zusammen mit dem LI Ernst Scheid als letzter das sinkende Boot und erlag wahrscheinlich einer Verwundung.

Zwei Besatzungsangrhörige starben nach längeren Wiederbelebungsversuchen des britischen Bordarztes auf dem Zerstörer, der den II. Wachoffizier Walter fritz und mich aufgenommen hatte. Sie wurden in Segeltuch eingewickelt und durch den britischen Bordpfarrer der See übergeben. Insgesamt wurden 27 Mann der Besatzung gerettet.

The fate of the commanding officer that sank the Dorchester

The Captain on board the U-223 was sunk was the second commanding officer.

So out of curiosity, I looked for the fate of the commander that was in charge when Dorchester was sunk.

His name was Kapitänleutnant Karl-Jürg Wächter. He would assume command of the submarine U-2503 on 12 Nov 1944. Official records show that the boat was listed as having no victories and no combat during its brief career.

On 3 May 1945, while on her way to Norway, U-2503 was in the Great Belt, near the Ömo Light Tower, when she was caught and attacked on the surface by Royal Air Force (RAF) Bristol Beaufighters of 236 Squadron and 254 Squadron, part of the Banff Strike Wing. U-2503 was struck in the area of the conning tower by at least one rocket, which caused severe damage and killed several crewmen and Kapitänleutnant Karl-Jürg Wächter. U-2503, burning badly, was beached off of Omø, with 13 dead and an unknown number of survivors. The remaining crew landed ashore and scuttled the boat with explosives the next day.

U-2503’s location when scuttled, 55°09′N 11°08′E Coordinates: 55°09′N 11°08′E.

Type XXI submarines were a class of German diesel–electric Elektroboot (German: “electric boat”) submarines designed during the Second World War. One hundred and eighteen were completed, with four being combat-ready. During the war only two were put into active service and went on patrols, but these were not used in combat.

They were the first submarines designed to operate primarily submerged, rather than spending most of their time as surface ships that could submerge for brief periods as a means of escaping detection. They incorporated many batteries to increase the time they could spend submerged, to as much as several days, and they only needed to surface to periscope depth for recharging via a snorkel. The design included many general improvements as well: much greater underwater speed by an improved hull design, greatly improved diving times, power-assisted torpedo reloading and greatly improved crew accommodations. However, the design was also flawed in many ways, with the submarines being mechanically unreliable and vulnerable to combat damage. The Type XXI submarines were also rushed into production before design work was complete, and the inexperienced facilities which constructed the boats were unable to meet necessary quality standards.

The German submarine impact on this and future wars was deep.

Methods of detecting and defeating this menace continued on into the post war era including the present times. German engineering and innovation impacted postwar navies on all sides of the world. Capture Type XXI’s were studied by both east and west and many of the modern submarines today have technology that was born in the shipyards of Germany.

But it is a form of justice that neither the submarine nor her commander of the boat that sank Dorchester survived the war.

Mister Mac

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