The last battle of the Atlantic, just miles off the coast of Block Island
The longest battle of World War II lasted six years. While Hollywood, after the war, focused on other battles to dramatize the conflict, the Battle of the Atlantic was massive, involving a range of evolving tactics above, on, and under the Atlantic and the introduction of weapons systems in a battle that ranged from the balmy waters of the Gulf of Mexico to the blistering cold surf of the North Sea.
While it’s easy today to think of World War II as being waged in Europe and on isolated Pacific Islands, the war was much closer than most of us today realize. Territory just seven miles east of Block Island witnessed the end game of the war that was waged on the Atlantic. Today, just miles off Block Island, maritime maps warn divers of the area with the following words: “DANGER: Unexploded Depth Charges: May 1945”.
May 5, 1945
The eyes of the world were on what little territory was still held by Nazi Forces. Soviet Union soldiers by the millions were pouring into Germany from the east, while Canadian, British, and American forces pushed into Germany from the west. Adolf Hitler was already dead and Berlin had fallen on May 2. With Nazi surrender just hours away, most Americans looked forward to celebrating the end of the European conflict. However, on the evening of May 5, just off Block Island, a feared German U-Boat still lurked.
Between Block Island and Point Judith, the Merchant Marine vessel, S.S. Black Point, was nearing its final destination of Boston with a load of coal from Virginia. Within sight of the lighthouse of Point Judith and with the European war over within hours, the crew of the Black Point had no warning they were about to become the final victim of the deadly U-Boat war. U-853 fired four torpedoes at the merchant vessel; within a few seconds the crew in the U-Boat heard and felt three or four large explosions. S.S. Black Point was a total loss, sinking in a matter of minutes, taking with her one member of the U.S. Navy and 11 members of the Merchant Marines.
The U-Boat Captain cruised south away from the scene. However, forced to remain submerged in the long May evenings, the vessel could only make four to eight knots. The U.S. Navy destroyer escort, USS Atherton, DE-169, hours later located a sound contact, and to the east of Block Island started dropping a pattern of depth charges. Two other Navy vessels soon arrived and also tracked and dropped charges throughout the night. Some of these charges did not find their target and simply sank to the bottom, where they remain today. However, at least one found its target and in the morning debris was found on the surface of the Atlantic, including the hat of the captain of U-853. Fifty-five Germans, from the ages of 18-24, perished with the loss of the U-Boat in the early hours of May 6, the day before the official surrender of Nazi Germany and V-E Day on May 7.
Capt. Bill Palmer has recently published “The Last Battle of the Atlantic: The Sinking of the U-853.” Besides being a detailed study on the battle history of U-853, this engrossing work highlights the many dives he has led on the remains of the U-Boat 130 feet underwater. Color images bring to life the true horror of war, including the remains of young Germans serving their country on the boat and the loss of young Americans on the Black Point. Besides his dives on both Black Point and U-853, his detailed archival research, both in the U.S. and in Europe, demonstrates his passion for the story of the U-853.
Palmer’s work is a true demonstration that history does not reside with those who lecture on college campuses or political pundits who write popular history books that make the New York Times bestseller list. Every man truly is a historian, and Palmer highlights what passion for a historical event can result in over the decades: a published work that remembers the tragedy of war, and the final deaths in the Battle of the Atlantic on both sides of the war.
Signed copies of Palmer’s book are available in the new gallery of the Block Island Historical Society. The new gallery space also includes for purchase other history books, historic prints of the island, and reproduced historical maps. Located at Bridgegate Square and open everyday from 11-4 pm. (401) 446-2481