Sunken Remains of German U-boat U-166 In the Depths of the Gulf of Mexico

Photo Credit: US Government / NOAA's Maritime Heritage Program / Collection of LCDR Jeremy Weirich, NOAA Corps / NOAA Photo Library / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Photo Credit: US Government / NOAA's Maritime Heritage Program / Collection of LCDR Jeremy Weirich, NOAA Corps / NOAA Photo Library / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

A total of 23 U-boats were stationed in the Gulf of Mexico during World War II. Over the course of the conflict, they took out a number of Allied vessels, with only one meeting a similar fate. U-166 had only been stationed in the area for a short while when she was taken out by an American ship – however, US Navy officials didn’t believe it at the time.

The Type IXC U-166 was commissioned into service with the Kriegsmarine in March 1942, in the midst of the Second World War. After undergoing training with the 4th U-boat Flotilla, she was transferred to frontline service with the 10th U-boat Flotilla. The vessel first patroled the British Isles, before traveling to France and, later, crossing the Atlantic for the Gulf of Mexico.

Over the course of the U-boat‘s short military career, she sunk four vessels: the Dominican sailing ship Carmen, the SS Oneida, Gertrude FV and the SS Robert E. Lee (1924). The latter encounter ultimately led to U-166‘s demise.

On July 30, 1942, U-166 torpedoed Robert E. Lee just south of the Mississippi River Delta, causing the ship to sink beneath the water’s surface. Her escort, the submarine chaser PC-566, launched a counterattack, with skipper Lt. Cmdr. Herbert G. Claudius claiming to have sunk the U-boat with depth charges. Navy officials didn’t believe this, however, and removed Claudius from his command. He was then sent to anti-submarine warfare school.

That same day, a US Coast Guard Grumman J4F-1 Widgeon spotted a U-boat off the coast of Louisiana. According to its crew, an engagement ensued and the aircraft hit the vessel. That same day, U-166 and her 52-man crew were reported as missing, despite no U-boat having been found following the attack.

The location of U-166‘s wreck remained unknown until 2001, when the remains of Robert E. Lee were found less than two miles from where the ship had been attacked. Sonar led researchers to the U-boat, some 6,650 feet below water. While the vessel was covered in silt, her conning tower and deck gun were still visible.

Given the remains of her crew remain within, U-166 was subsequently declared a war grave.

In 2014, a survey of the U-boat showed that her bow had been destroyed, with historians theorizing that a depth charge had hit the forward deck. When the munition exploded, it triggered the detonation of U-166 torpedoes, causing the vessel to sink.

As a result of this new information, it was determined that PC-566 had actually been responsible for the U-boat’s loss. Claudius was posthumously awarded the Legion of Merit with Combat “V,” with then-Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus saying, “Seventy years later, we now know that [Claudius’s] report after the action was absolutely correct. [Claudius’s ship] did sink that U-boat, and it’s never too late to set the record straight.”

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U-166 holds the distinction of being the only U-boat to have ever been lost in the Gulf of Mexico.

Clare Fitzgerald

Clare Fitzgerald is a Writer and Editor with eight years of experience in the online content sphere. Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from King’s University College at Western University, her portfolio includes coverage of digital media, current affairs, history and true crime.

Among her accomplishments are being the Founder of the true crime blog, Stories of the Unsolved, which garners between 400,000 and 500,000 views annually, and a contributor for John Lordan’s Seriously Mysterious podcast. Prior to its hiatus, she also served as the Head of Content for UK YouTube publication, TenEighty Magazine.

In her spare time, Clare likes to play Pokemon GO and re-watch Heartland over and over (and over) again. She’ll also rave about her three Maltese dogs whenever she gets the chance.

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