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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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