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HMS Brilliant and the Sinking of the Leopoldvilleicon for Recommended story


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21 October 2003

I served aboard the Destroyer HMS Brilliant (Penant H84) from the 13 November 1944 to the 15 June 1945 when the sinking of the troopship SS Leopoldville took place. The Leopoldville was transporting American soldiers across the channel to re-enforce the troops at the Battle of the Bulge, so we were told.

On 24 December 1944 the Leopoldville and SS Cheshire left Southampton to cross the Channel. HMS Brilliant, HMS Anthony (H40), HMS Hotham and the French frigate Croix de Lorraine were the escorts. HMS Brilliant then signalled the troopship Leopoldville and the other vessels to commence zagging, a command that had never before been given to the Leopoldville during a Channel crossing, but which seemed advisable due to recent increased submarine activity.

At 14.30hrs, the Brilliant hoisted the Black Flag to warn the escorts that a submarine contact had been made. We moved out to drop depth charges. At 14.45hrs the alert was cancelled, but another alert was called at 15-00hrs and cancelled again at 15.10hrs. The convoy resumed its diamond-shaped formation, with the Brilliant, Leopoldville, Cheshire and Croix de Lorraine in a line, the Anthony and Hotham taking wing positions, and recommenced zigzagging at 13 knots.

At 17.45hrs a torpedo fired by the U486 struck the Leopoldville on the starboard side aft and exploded in Number 4 Hold, approximately five miles off Cherbourg. The other escorts in the convoy were still hunting for the U-boat 486. HMS Brilliant went along the port side of the troopship. We had put our starboard fenders over the side as the sea swell was causing a rise and fall of between 12ft to 20ft.

The scrambling nets were hanging down the Leopoldville's port side and American soldiers were coming down on to our deck. I was detailed to help the men who had started to jump down on to our steel decks from a height of approximately 40 foot. Unfortunately, there were a number of casualties - bones were being broken when they landed on our deck and some men fell between the two vessels and were crushed as the vessels crashed into each other. To avoid any further injuries, if possible, all our hammocks from the mess-decks were brought up from below and laid on the starboard upper deck to cushion the soldiers' falls.

We told the servicemen to spread themselves as evenly as possible all over the ship, above and below decks, to avoid the possibility of capsizing. Having taken on about 500 men, we had to pull away from the Leopoldville as there was only a few inches of free board. I was very aware of this, as I had positioned myself on the stern port quarter. To use an old naval expression, we could easily have been 'pooped' as we headed for the port of Cherbourg.

The scene on entering Cherbourg harbour was one of chaos - most of the ships along the quay had suffered the fate of being scuttled by the Germans. There was one berth available on our port side as we entered the harbour, just enough space, lengthways, to get alongside, but the captain was unable to berth the ship just by using his two propellers. After about 15 minutes, an American soldier came to the rescue with his jeep. A line was thrown to him from our stern section, which he placed over his Jeep's tow hook and slowly pulled the stern along side of the quay then placed the line over a bollard. He repeated the same action at the bow.

The gangway was put out for the American servicemen to start disembarking. I saw them putting their English money into a GI's tin hat as they left the ship, which was handed to one of our officers in appreciation of their rescue.

It is on record that HMS Brilliant rescued approximately 500 men at that first attempt but on our return to rescue more men, the Leopoldville had sunk. I have read that the losses were 802 soldiers, 493 of whom were never found. This catastrophe was a great embarrassment to the British and American governments and was not disclosed for many, many years.

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Message 1 - Leopoldville

Posted on: 24 July 2004 by Basil Grose

I sailed back from the Middle East in the Leopoldville and often wondered what her fate was. It was about July 43 when we sailed from Alexandria leaving the harbour close to the masts of a casualty of the Luftwaffe, not a very encouraging augury to a voyage through the Med with the North shores in Axis occupation. We had an air escort all the way to Gibralter and a contact was made near Algiers which caught me with my pants down literally as I was in the heads at the time. Hearing the thunderous detonations I hastened to the deck but it was all over, just the destroyers racing about flying their black flags. I was disappointed not to see the vast columns of water that Jack Hawkins and John Mills were so often associated with in those marvellous British war films I enjoyed after the war.

Two things struck me about the Leopoldville, the casual attitude to danger by leaving the scuttles open, in fact water came in near me from a wave, and the other was weevily food.

I was sorry to hear of her tragic end, she took me safely to Glasgow.

Message 1 - Leopoldville

Posted on: 05 January 2005 by troopergeoff

I have only just come across the account describing the demise of the troopship Leopoldville. I have fond memories of the crossing I made in her from Nth Africa to Italy in Feb 1944. We left Nth Africa on our own, no escorts or any other vessel. We queried this, and the reply was that she was too fast for U boats.
We made Naples ok and anchored in the bay, there being no facilities at that time for large ships to berth. I was a member of our baggage party and had to wait until everybody dis-embarked before it was our turn. Our group along with half a dozen very young American GIs had to load the baggage into an already heavily laden barge. No sooner had we started work when we heard an air raid siren going on shore. Next minute what sounded like two German air-craft above us, the young GIs immediately started to panick and attempted to bury themselves in the cargo on board, until I pointed out they were wasting their time, as apart from our baggage, the cargo was made up of mostly ammuntion of all descriptions.
Having gone all through the Blitz in East London before joining the Army, I told them our biggest danger would be if Gerry dropped one in the Bay, the ensuing wave would swamp our barge, so to comfort them I said if they could swim we would be alright. This calmed them down a bit, and we eventually made a safe landing.
So that's my memories of the Leopoldville.


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