Second World War

USS Roper’s Triumph: Sinking the U-85

The USS Roper engaged and sank the German submarine U-85 off the coast of North Carolina.

USS Roper's Triumph Sinking the U-85

When war broke out in September 1939, Germany’s Kriegsmarine had a limited U-boat force. Only 46 were operational, with the focus on short-range Type II coastal submarines. These remained close to Germany, later shifting to the North Sea as production of larger, more capable U-boats ramped up.

German engineers continued to refine U-boat designs. Lessons from World War I and tactical trials informed these developments. Improvements were made to existing models and broader designs.

Simultaneously, shipyards produced Type I and Type VII U-boats. Despite carrying fewer torpedoes, the Type VIIA outperformed the Type IA in underwater operations. This led Admiral Karl Dönitz, head of the U-boat fleet, to prioritize the Type VII and the long-range Type IX. These designs featured more torpedoes, faster surface speeds, and improved maneuverability. The Type VII became the most widely produced German U-boat of the war.

One shipyard building Type VII U-boats was Flender Werke AG in Lübeck. They produced 42 U-boats, including U-85, one of just five Type VIIB models made there.

Construction of U-85 began in December 1939, launching in April 1941 and officially commissioned in June 1941. It joined the Third Flotilla based out of Kiel and La Palice.

The Type VIIB U-85 embodied many of the improvements Dönitz demanded. A second rudder addressed handling issues, and the repositioned aft torpedo tube allowed increased storage. An engine superdrive boosted speed, while increased length and fuel tanks extended its range.

U-85’s commander, Eberhard Greger, was a seasoned officer. He’d served on the destroyer Wolfgang Zenker and as First Watch Officer on U-30 and U-110, both known for their successful campaigns.

After commissioning, U-85 spent the summer of 1941 undergoing extensive trials focusing on its hull, engines, and overall handling.

German sailors pose on the deck of U-75 as one of them tends to the 88mm deck gun
German sailors pose on the deck of U-75 as one of them tends to the 88mm deck gun. The U-75 was a Type VIIB submarine like U-85, and only 24 of the type were constructed with more powerful engines and greater speed than the preceding Type VIIA.

From August 11th to the 28th, U-85 conducted firing exercises in Trondheim Fjord, Norway. On August 13th, the U-boat was damaged in a collision with the German destroyer T-151. Following repairs, the crew adopted a wild boar logo in honor of their commander, Eberhard Greger.

U-85 began its first war patrol on August 28th, joining the Markgraf Wolfpack heading towards the waters off southwestern Iceland. Within 12 hours of departing, U-85 was twice spotted by Allied aircraft and forced into crash dives. The following day, U-85 sighted a freighter but could not coordinate an attack.

On August 31st, at 11:40 a.m., U-85 intercepted a steamer. It submerged for a potential attack but ultimately deemed the vessel too small.

U-85 was spotted by an aircraft on September 2nd and depth charges were dropped, causing no damage. Later that evening, U-85 exchanged recognition signals with U-105.

Reaching the Denmark Strait region on September 4th, U-85 was forced into three further crash dives over 24 hours due to surveillance planes.

On September 9th, U-85 and U-81 located convoy SC-42 southeast of Greenland. This large convoy of 65 ships was reported and the Markgraf Wolfpack was redirected. In the ensuing attack, U-81 successfully sank the British steamer Empire Springbuck.

U-85 was forced into a crash dive and fired five unsuccessful torpedoes at the convoy. Later that day, it sighted two vessels, withdrawing after suspecting a potential trap. U-85 continued to track the convoy, navigating through icebergs.

Spotted and fired upon by a destroyer the following morning, U-85 altered course and was later depth charged, sustaining no damage. The submarine remained submerged for 75 minutes.

the crew aboard the U-85
This photograph of the crew aboard the U-85 was recovered after the sinking of the submarine by the destroyer USS Roper off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, on April 14, 1942.

U-85, a German submarine, began its first war patrol with a successful encounter. It located a convoy and fired torpedoes, sinking the British steamer Thistleglen. Escaping a depth charge attack, U-85 was forced to surface multiple times, hindered by overhead aircraft.

After an attempted repair dive failed, U-85 returned to its base in St. Nazaire, France. Although the mission was cut short, the convoy sighting was valuable intelligence.

U-85’s second patrol lasted 43 days with limited success due to poor weather and visibility. It pursued two convoys but returned to Lorient without confirmed victories.

The third war patrol began with orders to operate near Gibraltar and the Mediterranean. A week later, these orders were revised, directing U-85 to American waters.

On January 21, U-85 engaged a lone steamer. It fired four torpedoes with crew claiming two detonations, followed by a sighting of a listing vessel. Despite a search, no wreckage or confirmation of sinking was found.

U-85 was attacked off Newfoundland by a Lockheed Hudson aircraft piloted by Donald Francis Mason. The submarine sustained minor damage and successfully evaded the attack, later surfacing unharmed.

On February 8, U-85 partnered with U-654 to pursue convoy ONS-61. While U-654 successfully torpedoed the French corvette FFL Alyssa, U-85 fired three torpedoes at the convoy, all of which missed their targets.

During a violent storm on her last war patrol, U-85 sustained damage on March 29, 1942, when gale force winds caused torpedoes to shift and later created problems with the operation of the electric motors.

Day after departing St. Nazaire, U-85 pursued the ONS-61 convoy. They sighted and attacked the British steamer Empire Fusilier. Though the steamer evaded initial contact, U-85 closed in after several hours and sank the vessel with one torpedo hit. Survivors were later recovered.

U-85 left for its fourth cruise on March 21. After evading depth charges on the fourth day of the journey, they proceeded toward the U.S. East Coast. The submarine crossed the Atlantic with little recorded incident aside from a diary noting initial good weather, followed by several days of heavy storms that damaged the vessel.

On April 9, U-85 encountered a buoy. The following day, they located and sank the Norwegian freighter Christina Knudsen with two torpedoes.

U-85 reached the North Carolina coast on April 13. The submarine spent daylight hours submerged off Bodie Island Lighthouse due to the shallow waters.

On the same night, the destroyer USS Roper left Norfolk Naval Base on an anti-submarine mission. The Roper was a Wickes Class vessel armed with guns, machine guns, torpedoes, and depth charges.

At 11 p.m., the USS Roper’s captain and commander retired. The ship continued south under the command of the officer of the deck. Shortly after midnight on April 14, the Roper’s sonar detected a contact at 2,700 yards. As the Roper closed on the contact, they observed a wake and small silhouette at 2,100 yards. The object appeared to be turning away. The captain and commander were alerted and returned to the bridge.

the destroyer USS Roper made sonar contact with the German submarine U-85
Commanded by Lt. Com. Hamilton Wilcox Howe, the destroyer USS Roper made sonar contact with the German submarine U-85 just after midnight on April 14, 1942. The U-85 surfaced in an attempt to outrun USS Roper but failed and fired a torpedo at its pursuer, which missed.

Commander Greger surfaced U-85, hoping to flee the USS Roper and gain the safety of deeper water. The Roper’s crew tracked the submarine’s speed and distance, the destroyer increasing its pace to 20 knots and steadily closing the gap. Aware of a U-boat’s stern torpedo tube, the Roper’s captain maintained a slight starboard course, offset from the U-85’s wake. At 700 yards, the U-85 fired a torpedo, which passed harmlessly on the Roper’s port side.

As the distance narrowed to 300 yards, the U-85 executed a sharp starboard turn. Forced to fight in shallow water, Greger ordered his crew to man the deck gun. The Roper illuminated U-85 with its searchlight, providing its first clear visual of the enemy.

The searchlight again found the U-85 engaged in its turn. A .50-caliber machine gun, manned by Chief Boatswain’s Mate Jack Edwin Wright, targeted the German sailors scrambling for the 88mm deck gun.

From the American vessel, Coxswain Harry Heyman commanded the Roper’s No. 5 three-inch gun, striking U-85 below the waterline aft of the conning tower. Only two of Roper’s guns directly engaged the enemy, with others misfiring likely due to ammunition failures.

U-85 started to sink, stern first. It’s believed Greger ordered the vessel scuttled prior to the direct hit. As the submarine descended, the crew evacuated. Roper’s sound operator detected another likely submarine. Unwilling to risk further danger, the American officers declined to rescue the German sailors and instead dropped 11 depth charges. No survivors from U-85 were observed.

the wreck of the German submarine U-85
This photo mosaic shows the wreck of the German submarine U-85 off the coast of North Carolina, where it rests in 90 feet of water east of Oregon Inlet near Cape Hatteras. A Type VIIB submarine, U-85 was the first German submarine to be sunk by the U.S. Navy off the East Coast of the United States during World War II.

At daybreak, a U.S. Navy PBY Catalina patrol plane arrived on the scene. The plane, under the command of Lieutenant C.V. Horrigan, conducted a visual assessment of the area. Suspicious oil slicks and debris were observed. A depth charge was dropped.

Two more planes arrived at 7:06 a.m. and observed bodies floating in the water. To guide the USS Roper, smoke floats were dropped. Nine minutes later, the Roper deployed two lifeboats and began recovering bodies and debris.

An observation blimp arrived at 7:27 a.m., joining the scene and providing aerial surveillance. Throughout the morning, a total of seven planes assisted with the search operation. The first lifeboat returned to the Roper with five German bodies within approximately half an hour, and 15 more recovered shortly after.

Just before 9 a.m., the Roper’s sonar detected an echo at a range of 2,700 yards. Four depth charges were dropped seven minutes later. A report indicated the appearance of two air bubbles (one large, one small) and fresh oil. The blimp dropped flares to aid the Roper’s visual assessment and reported the bubbles continued.

The last of the 29 bodies was recovered at 9:32 a.m. After a search for items of potential Naval Intelligence value, two additional bodies were left in the water. Two of the recovered bodies were believed to be officers, though Greger’s body was not found. Two others had escape lungs and mouthpieces in place, suggesting they had escaped the U-85 after it sank. Fifteen empty life jackets and six escape lungs were observed on the water’s surface. Two diaries belonging to Seaman Eric Degenkolb and Stabsobermaschinist Eugen Ungethum were retrieved and taken aboard the Roper for Naval Intelligence.

Just before 10 a.m., the Roper dropped two additional depth charges on the largest air bubble. An orange buoy was placed approximately 250 yards from the air bubble to mark the location. The Roper returned to Lynnhaven Roads that afternoon and a report was filed with the Commandant of the Fifth Naval District.

The body of a dead German sailor recovered after the sinking of U-85
The body of a dead German sailor recovered after the sinking of U-85 is brought aboard the destroyer USS Roper. Bodies of the German dead were taken to the U.S. Navy base at Norfolk, Virginia, and later buried in Hampton National Cemetery.
History Affairs
Kim Luu is a writer specializing in Chinese history and civilization. Born and raised in Vietnam, a country with a shared cultural heritage with China, he developed an early fascination and conducted in-depth studies on the greatest civilization in East Asia.

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