Significance: U-85 is significant to American military history, maritime history and historic archaeology as it was the first German U-boat sunk by United States Naval forces off the American East Coast during World War II's Battle of the Atlantic. The U-85 is a very rare Type VIIB U-boat, one of only 24 built, and was the only Type VIIB U-boat lost off the U.S. East Coast during the war.
Multibeam survey of U-85. Click here for a larger image. Image: ADUS/NOAA
The site now rests in approximately 100-110 feet of water about 14 miles east of Oregon Inlet. The visibility and water temperature vary greatly depending upon the dynamic, shifting currents. The wreck lies on its starboard side with approximately an 80° list. At the bow, the outer-hull is gone, exposing the pressure hull and the four forward torpedo tubes. Some of these tubes still have visible torpedoes inside. Aft of the conning tower there is visible battle damage from Roper's 3-inch deck gun.
U-85 was the third Type VII-B built at Flender Werke in Lübeck and was attached to the Third Flotilla from June 1941 until the time of loss on April 14, 1942. Command of the U-85 was given to Oberleutnent zur See Eberhard Greger. Greger's first war patrol as Captain began on August 28, 1941, and he was dispatched to patrol for convoys southwest of Iceland. This first patrol was unsuccessful with U-85 returning to St. Nazaire due to severe damage from depth charges dropped during an attack.
Following repairs, U-85 transferred from St. Nazaire to Lorient on October 11. After taking on fuel and fresh provisions, Greger was ready to take U-85 on a second war patrol, but this one too was a very frustrating and disappointing patrol. After having spent 43 days in the North Atlantic and being occasionally depth charged by planes, the U-85 found little and attacked nothing. Greger and his men again returned to Lorient unsuccessful.
U-85 embarked on its third war patrol on January 8, 1942. By this time, the United States had entered the war and Germany quickly brought U-boats to the East Coast of the United States. U-85 took a patrol station between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia and had no luck until January 21 when Greger fired four torpedoes at what was judged to be a 10,000 ton steamer. The crew of the U-85 claimed to have scored at least one hit, but the vessel evidently did not sink and there were no confirming allied records of the incident. On February 8, U-85 along with U-654 found and attacked the Southwest bound Convoy ONS 61. U-654 was able to sink one vessel in this convoy, while Greger fired at least three torpedoes with no hits. On the following day, Greger found a ship sailing alone, British freighter Empire Fusilier, which he fired upon and successfully sank.
Crew members on the deck of U-85. Click here for a larger left side image. Click here for a larger right side image. Photos: Courtesy of the National Archives
U-85 left for its fourth and final patrol on March 21, 1942. On this patrol, U-85 returned to American waters, specifically off the United States coast. On April 10, while off the New Jersey coast, U-85 found its first target, Swedish freighter Christina Knudsen. Greger sunk the ship and then proceeded directly to Cape Hatteras, N.C.
On April 13, 1942, U-85 was sitting in shallow water off Bodie Island lighthouse waiting for targets. Earlier that day the four-stack destroyer USS Roper set out from Norfolk on its way to Cape Hatteras for antisubmarine patrol. Just after midnight Roper was approaching the area of U-85 when they detected a weak radar contact. The crew of the Roper did not suspect much at first, but pursued the contact.
When Greger realized that U-85 was being tracked, he was in very shallow water; therefore, he evidently decided to try escaping on the surface. However, the Roper was closing in on U-85, and the crew now suspected that they were pursuing a submarine. Their suspicions were confirmed when the crew witnessed the track of a torpedo narrowly missing them. As the gap between the vessels closed, it became a surface engagement. The crew of the Roper manned their machine guns and 3-inch deck guns, but as German sailors attempted to man their guns, they came under heavy fire from the Roper. A well-aimed 3-inch shell breached the pressure hull just aft of the conning tower.
At some point, Greger must have made the decision to scuttle and abandon the U-85. The crew of the Roper observed the U-boat sinking at the stern and watched as the crew jumped into the water, begging for rescue. During this time, Roper believed it had another sonar contact, which was likely the U-85 as it sank. Believing that U-boats operated in packs, as they did in other regions, Roper did not want to take the chance of being sunk by an additional U-boat. As a result, rather than rescuing the crew of the U-85, Roper rode right through the mass of sailors in the water and dropped an additional 11 depth charges to ensure that it was sunk. The deployment of the depth charges killed the entire U-85 crew. Roper then quickly left for fear of another boat in the area, but returned after daylight and recovered the bodies of 29 sailors. The German sailors were later interred in Hampton Roads, Va.
USS Roper at sea. Click here for a larger image. Photo: Courtesy of the National Archives