The Tragic Sinking Of The Ship Leopoldville In WW2

HMS Brilliant was the first ship that came alongside the sinking Léopoldville, where many soldiers tried to save their lives.
HMS Brilliant was the first ship that came alongside the sinking Léopoldville, where many soldiers tried to save their lives.


On Christmas Eve, the 66th Infantry Division was called up to join the Battle of the Bulge.

Thousands of soldiers wandered the docks in confusion before managing to board converted luxury liners, including the Leopoldville.

Private John Pordon, 19, from San Francisco, boarded the Leopoldville around 2:30 in the morning.  He went below on a makeshift wooden staircase to where hammocks were hung four high.

Advertising poster for cruises aboard the SS Leopoldville 5
Advertising poster for cruises aboard the SS Leopoldville

At 9 am on December 24th, they finally set sail.

Just before 6 pm, the ship was hit by a torpedo from a U-Boat. The vessel was rocked by a huge explosion on the starboard side near the stern. Many soldiers in that area were killed instantly while others were trapped below decks.

Pordon recalled that it felt like an earthquake. The soldiers thought that the ship had hit a mine.

Many soldiers had missed the lifeboat drill.  They did not know where to go or how to put on a life vest.  Pordon’s company had seen the drill, so he went to the lifeboat station as instructed but no one took charge of the lifeboats. At this point, the soldiers assumed that the ship was sinking.

Pordon does not recall feeling fear during this time, just a sense that he needed to figure a way out.

He moved to the other side of the ship where the HMS Brilliant, a British destroyer, had pulled alongside.  The sailors on the Brilliant were urging the soldiers to jump across.  But the rough seas and the height difference between the two ships’ decks made the jump tricky.  Missing the Brilliant’s decks meant getting crushed between the two ships’ hulls as they slammed together.

Pordon saw men attempt the jump and miss.  He decided to take his chances on the Leopoldville.

After the Brilliant had taken on as many men as it could, it headed for Cherbourg.  That’s when authorities finally learned what had happened. They sent boats out to retrieve survivors, but it had been two hours since the Leopoldville had been hit.

Pordon stayed on the ship as long as he could.  At 8:30 pm, it started to roll onto its side. Pordon climbed over the rail, walked down the side of the ship and stepped into the cold water.

Immediately, he was pulled under by his heavy ammunition belt.  “I let the belt go and popped up like a cork,” Pordon remembered.

He floated with dozens of men in life vests.  Some were panicking, and Pordon felt the urge to join them, but calmed himself down and started working out a way to get out of the situation.

He swam to a military tugboat and had to be pulled in by the crew because he was too weak to climb in himself, Omaha World-Herald reported.

Survivors were taken to a hospital.  The 66th Infantry Division lost one-third of its men in the disaster. They were too depleted to help in the Battle of the Bulge and were sent to the rear to root out German resistance.


Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE