The Story of the U-85

By Editorial Staff | Thursday, September 21, 2017

As you stand on Coquina Beach on Bodie Island, the sun bright overhead, look straight out to sea. If you could take your car and drive outward for 15 minutes, you’d be over one of the strangest yet least known attractions of the Outer Banks. Only 15 miles straight out, more than a hundred feet beneath the glittering sea, the first Nazi submarine destroyed by Americans in World War II lies motionless in the murky waters of Hatteras.

Almost undamaged, except for rust and the encroaching coral, it lies on its side, bow planes jammed forever on hard dive. Its hatches gape open to the dark interior where silt swirls slowly between dead guages and twisted air lines. Its cannon points upward, toward the dim glow that is all that remains of the sun at 18 fathoms. Its conning tower, flaked with corrosion, lies frozen in a roll to starboard that will last until its steel dissolves in the all-devouring sea.

Here, at 35 55' N, 75 18'W, it is still WorldWar II. Here, and all along the coasts of the Outer Banks, many wrecks lie half-buried in the seabed. It is from here, from the silent hull of a 750-ton Type VIIb U-boat, that we can begin a journey back to the months when the Outer Banks was a battleline, when the German Navy patrolled and ruled our shores.

To Spring of 1942.

Adolf Hitler declared war on the United States on December 11, 1941, four days after Pearl Harbor.

In Europe the war was two and half years old. Deep in the Soviet Union, Nazi and Red forces churned the mud in a precarious balance outside the city of Moscow. In the West the British, in from the first, had come close to strangling in the noose the U-boats had drawn around their island. German submarines had sunk more than a thousand ships, more than a million tons of material and food; but as 1941 ended, quickly built escorts, ASDIC, and a convoy system were loosening the knot. In his operations room at Kerneval, Occupied France, Admiral Karl Doenitz wondered: Where, now, would he find easy sinkings for his thinly stretched submarines?

On the eleventh of December, he knew.

Operation Paukenscblag (Drumroll) began on the 18th of January, when the Esso tanker Allen Jackson exploded a few miles off Diamond Shoals Light.

Within weeks, the entire East Coast was under siege, and it was almost defenseless. Most of our ships had been sent to the Pacific, or to the North Atlantic run, where two of them (Reuben James and Kearny) were torpedoed even before war officially began. Aircraft? Almost none. To defend the East Coast of the United States in spring 1942, there was a total of 10 World War I wooden subchasers, three converted yachts, four blimps and six Army bombers.

When the U-boats arrived, it was slaughter. They struck on the surface, at night, often not even bothering to dive. The stretch of coast off the Banks was their favorite hunting ground. Armed with both deck guns and torpedoes, they would lie in wait at night, silhouette the passing coasters against the glow of lights ashore and attack unseen by the men aboard. Ship after ship went down in January, February and March. Rochester, Ocean Venture, Noroana, Trepca, City of Atlanta, Oakmar, Tiger and scores of others. Oil and debris washed up on the beaches, and residents watched the night sky flame as tankers burned just over the horizon.

The "Arsenal of Democracy" was under blockade; and from the protected pens at Lorient and St. Nazaire more raiders, fresh from refit and training, sailed to attack a coast where in three months of war not one German submarine had yet been the target of an effective attack.

One of them was the U-85.

U-85 was a Type VIIb, specially modified for the Atlantic war. A little more than 700 tons displacement, 220 feet long, she was a little larger than a harbor tugboat, or the Calypso. She had been built in northern Germany in early 1941, the second year of the war. Her commander was Kapitan-leutnant Eberhard Greger, Class of 1935.

Greger and U-85 spent her first summer working up in the deep fjords of occupied Norway. On August 28 she left Trondheim for her first wartime cruise. On September 10, the wolf tasted blood for the first time. Greger latched on to a Britain-bound convoy. U-85's first five torpedoes ran wild. Throughout that day and the next he ran eastward, staying with the convoy on the surface, just over the horizon. The diesels hammered as U-85 slashed through heavy seas. The convoy's escorts, American destroyers, tried repeatedly to drive her off with gunfire and depth charges. Each time, she submerged and evaded then came back up and hammered ahead again, rolling viciously, but gradually drawing ahead to position for a new attack.

The next afternoon she reached it, and Greger sent U-85 dashing in on the surface. Boldness was rewarded: at 1642 he made a solid hit on a 6,000-ton steamer, and in the next half-hour struck at two more of the heavily laden merchantmen. Then the destroyers closed in for a close depth charge counterattack. At a little past midnight, September 11, Greger brought her up slowly and then crept toward home for repairs.

U-85's second war cruise was less dramatic. Battered by heavy weather off Newfoundland, shrouded by fog, she never made contact with her prey, and engine trouble eventually sent her back to St. Nazaire.

For her third war cruise, a new man came aboard. He sounds like a sailor Goebbels would have exulted over; young (26), tall (six feet), blond and well built; but this German must have been different from the Nazi stereotype. For one thing, he kept a diary; and it is thanks to Erich Degenkolb that we know as much as we do about his ship's last cruises.

According to Degenkolb – we can imagine him wedged into his ramped leather bunk, diary on his stomach, listening to the waves crash against the outside of the hull – U-85's third war cruise was her most rewarding, both to Doenitz and to her crew.

Operation Drumroll had begun, and U-85 was one of the first reliefs to be thrown into the battle. On the way across she sank a 10,000-ton steamer and took a near miss from a plane off Newfoundland. "Off New York," as Degenkolb wrote in his diary in February, she sank another steamer after a seven-hour surface chase. She chased convoys throughout the month, probably in the Western Atlantic approaches to New York, till her fuel tanks sloshed near-empty, and then set course for home, crossing the Bay of Biscay submerged and arriving in St. Nazaire again on the February 23.

A month's refit and leave, and it was time to sail again. At 1800 on March 21, 1942, with a brass band on the pier, with a blooded crew, a confident captain and a well-tried ship, U-85 set out once more for Amerika.

The drumbeat of the U-boats had grown louder through February and March. No censorship could conceal the fact that ships were being lost. The explosions on the horizon, the oil on the beaches, the boatloads of huddled men being debarked at every seaport told the story too plainly for anyone to deny.

The Navy and Coast Guard, along with civilian authorities, were struggling with this new meaning of the once-remote war. Vice-Admiral Adolphus Andrews, directing the East Coast antisubmarine effort, found that aside from the lack of ships and planes, he had inadequate operational plans and even less clout. He couldn't even get the use of the destroyers and planes already in Norfolk assigned to the Atlantic fleet.

One of the results of this unfortunate combination of censorship and unpreparedness was, typically, rumor. U-boats were refueling, people whispered, in isolated inlets along the coast, and they had been seen in Chesapeake Bay itself. Citizens reported odd lights along the shore at night . . . obvious signals to someone out at sea.

One of the most persistent rumors concerned landings along the Outer Banks. German sailors, it was said, had actually slipped ashore, were mingling with the locals and even seeing movies, as ticket stubs supposedly recovered from sunken U-boats proved. Alas, a good story, but probably untrue. The Germans did land specially trained spies later in the war in Quebec and at Narragansett, Long Island; but according to the Coast Guard, Navy and FBI, that was it in World War II. No U-boat captain must have had much desire to hazard his craft close inshore or risk losing a skilled obermachinist so that he could report on the latest Errol Flynn epic. All that can be proven is that where news does not exist, gossip and invention will swiftly take its place.

And in March and April 1942, reality was bad enough. Eight ships had gone down off North Carolina alone in January; two in February, as the first team of submarines headed back across the Atlantic; and then 14 in March as they were relieved. Once the pipeline of the 18-day cruise out of France was full, there would be eight boats on station all the time.

The Outer Banks were suddenly the focus of world war.

Cape Hatteras was dreaded by every merchant seaman on the East Coast. The Graveyard of the Atlantic was earning its name anew in the age of steam, and a new cognomen besides: Torpedo Junction. On March 18, for example, the U-boats met an un-escorted convoy of five tankers and torpedoed three plus a Greek freighter that stopped to rescue crewmen from a black sea filled with blazing oil.

This was how it was: In March 1942 three ships were going down every day, one every eight hours. But even worse was the closely guarded secret that the "exchange rate” – the magic number in antisubmarine warfare – was zero. Not one U-boat had yet been sunk off America.

It could not continue this way. Either the U-boats would be driven under or all coastwise shipping would have to stop. America, the Allies, could not afford losses on this scale much longer.

It might not be too much to say, as Churchill later did, that it was the war itself that hung in the balance.

USS Roper, DD-147, was a fairly old ship in 1942 as warships go. At a little less than 1200 tons, she wasn't all that much larger than U-85.

She had been born in Philadelphia, at William Cramp & Sons, in 1918. Roper evacuated refugees from Constantinople in 1919 and then spent a few years in the Pacific before being laid up in San Diego in 1922. Recommissioned in 1930, she spent the slow years of the Depression on reserve maneuvers and patrol duty in Hawaii, Panama and the Caribbean. In 1937 she was transferred to the Atlantic Fleet.

When war began in Europe, the pace picked up. The old four-piper rolled from Key West to Yucatan and then north in 1940 to the coast of New England. In early 1942 she ran a convoy to Londonderry, passing the U-85, then on her third war patrol. They may have crossed each other’s paths for the first time then, somewhere in the empty spaces of the North Atlantic.

In March the rigorous glamour of convoy duty ended, and she was ordered back to the coast for more patrol. Patrol – steaming endlessly through fog, storm, calm, night. Her crew carried out innumerable late-night actions: radar contact, a breakneck steam to intercept, the depth-charging that was always futile.Whales? Escaping U-boats? Her crew never knew. Perhaps some day, in a war that everyone knew now would last a long time, they would have their chance to fight. But for now, it was more of the same, everlasting patrol.

Kapitan-leutnant Eberhard Greger sailed U-85 on her fourth sortie on March 21, beginning the long transit submerged. In a few days, though, he was able to bring her up and dieseled west through seas “as smooth as a table,” as Degankolb, relaxing belowdecks, jotted in his journal. They took some damage from a storm on March 30 but repaired it and continued the cruise.

At this stage of the war, Germany’s submariners were confident men, especially off America.

By early April she was on station, ranging the coast from New York to Washington. On the 10th, Greger took his boat below to sink a steamer with a spread of two torpedoes. But targets were scarce.

He decided to head south, toward the easy pickings off the Outer Banks.

On the night of April 13, as U-85 hammered through calm seas at 16 knots, Degenkolb made his last entry: “American beacons and searchlights visible at night.”

Lieutenant-commander Hamilton W. Howe, captain of the Roper, was tired. His crew was tired. The ship itself, 24 years old, was tired. But they were alert. The old four-piper did not yet have the new gear Allied scientists were racing to produce. But she had enough. A primitive radar and sonar. Depth charges. And plenty of guns . . . nice to have, if only a U-boat would play the game for once and surface instead of skulking away underwater while the horizon crackled with flames from dying ships.

At midnight on the 13th, Roper was running southward off Bodie Is­land. The lighthouse, still operating, was plainly visible to starboard. The night was clear and starry, and at 18 knots the knife bow of the old DD pared phosphorescence from the smooth water. Most of her crew was asleep below. 

On the bridge as Officer of the Deck, Ensign Ken Tebo was awake and alert. At six minutes past midnight, the radar suddenly showed a small pip a mile and a half ahead. The ship had been plagued with these small contacts all night. Another small boat, Tebo thought; probably a Coast Guard craft on the same mission as the destroyer – patrol. But he felt immediately that there was something strange, something different, about this one. 

He ordered an eight degree change of course, to close slowly, and to present the smallest possible target . . . just in case. In seconds – the captain always slept in full uniform at sea – Howe was on the bridge. 

Tebo explained the situation quickly. He still had that strange feel­ing. Roper was overhauling, but too slowly. At 2,100-yards range the two men saw the wake of whatever it was up ahead. White, narrow, it glowed in the starlit seas. Howe ordered an increase in speed to 20 knots. It still might be a Coast Guard boat. But Howe made his decision. At the clang of General Quarters, seamen rolled from their bunks and ran to man their guns, the torpedo batteries, the depth charge racks astern and the K-guns, weapons that threw the drums of explosive far out over the ship's side, widening the carpet of con­cussion that could crush the hull of any submerged enemy. 

Aboard the speeding U-boat, most of the crew was asleep. Degenkolb had thrust his diary into his pocket and turned in. On the darkened conning tower, only a few feet above the sea, an of­ficer and two lookouts stared ahead. They anticipated no trouble. A U-boat had a tiny silhouette, almost impossible to see from a ship's deck at night. 

After a time, one of the lookouts turned around and tapped the of­ficer on the shoulder. There seemed to be something astern. A tar­get? The submarine's rudders swung, and she began to creep to the right. 

Below, her men slept on. 

Aboard the Roper, now only a few hundred yards astern, Lt. William Vanous, the executive officer, stood panting atop the flying bridge. Commander S.C. Norton was beside him. Below them the two men could hear the pounding of feet on metal as the bridge team manned up. The starlight showed more men on the forecastle, running toward the three-inch guns. Beside them, the searchlight operator was swinging his lamp around, and they heard the clang as BMC Jack Wright charged the No. 1. 50-caliber machine gun. 

Vanous strained his eyes ahead. At the end of a white ribbon of wake a black object was slowly drawing into view. Could it really be a sub­marine? It was awfully small. He noted happily that the men on the bridge below were keeping the ship a trifle to the side of the wake; most U-boats carried torpedo tubes in their pointed stems as well as in the bow. 

Yes, thought the German officer ahead of him, there is something back there. And it was very close. He reached for the alarm toggle, and below him, under the waterline, Degenkolb suddenly awoke. 

The two ships were turning. The submarine was slipping to star­board. In a few moments its stem tubes would point directly at its pursuer. Howe ordered the helm hard right and called into the voice tube, "Illuminate!" Above him, with a sputtering hiss, the searchlight ignited. Vanous coached it out into the darkness and caught his breath. The beam had swept across the conning tower of a submarine with five men running along the half-submerged deck toward her gun. 

Someone shouted to Wright, and with an ear-battering roar the chief began firing. The machine gun tracers swept forward, hung over the black boat then descended, dancing along the thin-skinned ballast tanks then reaching up the deck toward the frantically working gun crew. Forward, a second machine gun opened up. The glare of the searchlight wavered but held. In its weird light men began to fall. 

At almost the same moment, crewmen along the destroyer's side pointed and shouted at a sparkling trail in the water: a torpedo! 

Inside the hull of the U-85, other men heard the clang of machine gun bullets on metal. They ran for their stations, 40 men in a hull no wider than a railway car. The ship shuddered as a torpedo went out astern. Erich Degenkolb swung a locker open and pulled out his yellow escape lung. Could Kapitan Greger submerge and escape? He hoped so, desperately. But from the sounds that came through the steel around him into what the U-boat men called the "iron cof­fin," it seemed that U-85's luck had finally run out. 

On the Roper's bridge, Howe had no time for thoughts and no time for feelings. It was a U-boat, and it was surfaced. The ship was still shuddering around in her tum. "Open fire!" he shouted. 

On the exposed forecastle, in the mounts on deck aft, the three-in­chers began to fire. Their target was only 300 yards away now, al­most point-blank range. But it seemed smaller. It was submerging. In a moment it would be gone. 

The Roper's men thought they saw their last round hit just at the base of the conning tower, where it joined the U-boat's pressure hull. 

With the sound of a solid hit in their ears, the Unterseeboot-men knew their battle was lost. The ballast tanks were already filling, and the machine gun and shell fire must have holed them too. U-85 was on her last dive. There was only one way for her men to live now, and that was to get out of her narrow hull before it slipped forever under the icy sea. 

Degenkolb joined the crowd struggling under the ladder. 

Seconds later he found himself topside. The deck was familiar, but fire was still drumming on the sinking boat. A blinding shaft of light picked out every splinter, every weldment of the hull. He stumbled from the blaze of fire and sound over the side. The water was freez­ing cold. Gasping, he came up, stuck the mouthpiece of the lung be­tween his teeth and tried to inflate it. His heavy clothes were drag­ging him down. 

Suddenly the firing stopped. The light went out. He drifted, seem­ingly alone, for a few minutes, feeling the cold of the sea gnaw into his bare hands, into his face. 

Then, all at once, a string of deeper detonations brought his atten­tion up, into the night. 

The last thing he saw was the American ship. Immense, black, blaz­ing, it loomed over the sinking shell that had been his home, over the struggling men in the water who had been his friends. And from its sides, in brief bursts of reddish light, he saw the depth charges leap into the night and splash on either side, amid the waving, screaming men. 

When the black ship slid under, Howe doused the light. He was suddenly conscious of how conspicuous he was. Lights, shooting . . . the killers, it was common talk among destroyermen, often operated in pairs. 

A few minutes later, the sonar operator reported contact. The destroyer, darkened and silent now, wheeled and headed toward it. 

"Prepare for depth charge attack," said Howe. 

"Men in the water ahead, captain." 

"All stop." 

Her screws slowing, Roper coasted forward. From the bridge he could see them now. One of them was even shouting up at him . . . "Heil Hitler." But he was thinking. He held course. He knew they were there. But the contact was solid. It might be another sub. 

"Fire depth charges," said Howe. 

Astern, from the fantail, the launchers exploded. The charges arched out, hit and sank, and seconds later 3,300 pounds of TNT went off in the midst of 40 swimming men. 

Roper made no more attacks that night but lingered in the area of the sinking, echo-ranging and with every lookout alert. At about 6 the sun rose, lighting the scene of recent battle. Oil slicked the low waves; life jackets and motionless bodies drifted in slow eddies as the destroyer nosed back and forth, sniffing for the vanished enemy. At 0850, obtaining a ping on a bottomed object, she made a straight run and dropped four more depth charges. A great gush of air and a little oil came up when the foam subsided astern. At 0957, Howe dropped two more depth charges over the largest bubbles. At last he concluded that it was over. The U-boat was still down there, but she was dead. Coached from aircraft from shore, still watching for that constantly feared other sub, the Roper lowered a boat and began dragging bodies aboard. 

One of them, his face and body swollen and discolored from the depth charging that had killed him, was Erich Degenkolb. 

The first U-boat! The news was electrifying. At long last one of them had been destroyed, by an American ship, and in the very area where for four months now the wolves had hunted with impunity. The story was immediately released to the press. But this was not the end. Roper continued south on her patrol, but the remains of U-85 were far too valuable to be left undisturbed. 

Over the next weeks, divers explored the shattered boat. A hundred feet down, clumsily suited Navy men clambered over torn metal, pried open hatches, traced fuel and air lines and manifolds and tried unsuccessfully to raise the hull with compressed air. They were unable to get inside and it was impossible to raise the wreck without a major salvage effort – not an easy option off Cape Hatteras in April. 

In the end, they left her there, possibly with some of her crew still inside the now-silent hull, under the canted conning tower, with its painted device of a wild boar, rampant, with a rose in its mouth. The divers, the ships were needed elsewhere. There were valuable car­goes to be recovered. And from now on, there would be casualties from the other side as well – U-352, sunk off Morehead City in May, U-576, U-701, dozens of others. And, last of all, U-548, sent down a hundred miles east of the Chesapeake Bay entrances three years later in April of 1945. 

The U-boat threat was anything but over, but on the Atlantic horizon more light was dawning than that of burning tankers. In the months after April 1942, American strength increased steadily in our home waters. The threat was overcome, this time; the enemy was steadily shoved back, first to the center of the ocean, then to his home waters. Finally, with the loss of France in 1944, he could deploy only the few war-worn boats that could slip out from Germany itself past close blockade into the North Sea.

Lieutenant-commander Hamilton Howe retired as a rear admiral in 1956. He moved to Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Captain Kenneth Tebo retired in 1961, and lived in Falls Church, Virginia. Captain Wil­liam Tanous died the same year in a naval hospital in Annapolis. Erich Degenkolb, N 11662/41, lies in Hampton, Virginia, in plot #694 of the National Cemetery.

Kapitan-leutnant Eberhard Greger's body was not recovered.

U-85 lies rusting on a white, sandy bottom, 15 miles east of where Bodie Island light still glitters out over the troubled seas of Hatteras.

Photo: Divers surveying the wreck of the U-85. NOAA Photo