U-166

The German U-Boat U-166, under the command of Hans-Günther Kuhlmann, set sail from Lorient, France on June 17, 1942, for the Gulf of Mexico as part of Operation Drumbeat ((Admiral Karl Dönitz initiated this submarine operation, which was to target all United States shipping on the Atlantic seaboard from Maine to the Gulf of Mexico. It included 5 long-range submarines and, all told, cost the U.S. 397 ships and roughly 5000 lives.)). Now that Hitler had declared war on the U.S., their mission was to harass U.S. shipping, of oil and military supplies, in the Gulf.

After being under way for roughly a month, Kuhlmann and his crew scored their first kill when the intercepted the Dominican schooner Carmen off the coast of the Dominican Republic on July 11. Not wanting to waste his valuable (and finite) supply of torpedoes, he surfaced and destroyed the schooner with the sub’s deck mounted guns. Two days later he struck gold again, this time with the U.S. steam freighter Oneida, off the eastern tip of Cuba. From there he and his crew continued westerly along the Cuban coast.

He encountered the fishing vessel Gertrude on the evening of July 16 about 30 miles northeast of Havana. The trawler was too small to use a torpedo on, so he surfaced, commanding the crew into life boats before he destroyed it with the sub’s deck guns once again.

For the next 2 weeks Kuhlmann’s crew sailed northward into the Gulf of Mexico hunting for prey but finding none until he found the mouth of the Mississippi River, an excellent location to sit and wait for tankers steaming eastward. Patience paid off, when on the afternoon of July 30 he encountered the passenger steamer Robert E. Lee.

The Robert E. Lee had been pressed into service by the Navy, running cargo here, passengers there. On July 30 she was carrying passengers from Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, some of which were survivors of other attacks instigated by other German U-Boats. With the heat of summer pressing down upon the overcrowded Robert E. Lee, the captain was trying to find a safe harbor for his passengers. After trying and being unable to dock in Tampa, Florida, he headed for New Orleans, along with his U.S. Navy escort, the U.S. submarine chaser PC-566, where they met up with U-166.

After picking up radio transmissions coming from the PC-566, U-166 homed in on the location of the 2 boats. Firing a single torpedo into the freighter’s port side, the Robert E. Lee went down, taking 25 lives with it.

Once the Robert E. Lee began sinking, PC-566 jumped into the fight, dropping depth 10 charges over the fleeing U-166. After the dropping of the charges, an oil slick was seen rising from the water, but since the other usual evidence that a sub was sunk (a rush of air to the surface) it was assumed that the sub had escaped. In reality the U-166 had been sunk by PC-566.

In 2001 the wreckage of both the Robert E. Lee and U-166 were found by C&C Technologies while the firm was surveying a proposed pipeline route for BP Exploration and Shell international. The 2 ships rest over 5000 feet down on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. ((Large portions of this piece were researched from The Past Foundation and Wikipedia.))

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