On 30th July 1942, the passenger ship Robert E. Lee was sailing to New Orleans with survivors from the U-boat attacks. In the Gulf of Mexico she was attacked by torpedoes and sunk by the German submarine U-166.

Escorting the Robert E. Lee was PC 566 was a US navy patrol craft commanded by Lieutenant Commander Herbert Claudius. Claudius turned PC 566 toward the U-boats’ position. U-166 was contacted and depth charged with PC 566 making two runs. A large oil slick appeared after the second run which lead Claudius to report that his vessel had been attacked and either severely damaged or sunk the German submarine.

Unfortunately for the commander and crew of PC 566 another depth charge attack was made against a U-boat by a US Widgeon amphibious aircraft the next day. The crew of the aircraft also reported an oil slick from a hit. They were subsequently awarded medals and credited with sinking the U-166. After the war, German records revealed that another submarine, the U-171, reported being depth charged by an aircraft in the same area on the same day. U-171 had managed to escape.

Claudius and his crew were actually deemed to be inadequate to the task since they had not had anti-submarine training. Claudius was admonished for his handling of the attack and removed from his command to be sent to an anti-submarine warfare course.

Both Robert E. Lee and U-166 were found about one mile apart in 1986 when an underwater survey of the area was being carried out. At the time the U-166 was thought to be another ship lost in 1942, the Alcoa Puritan.

It wasn’t until 2001 when further exploration was carried out that the real story came to light. Several more surveys confirmed that the second vessel was definitely the U-166 and the damage to the bow was consistent with damage caused by a depth charge attack. Herbert Claudius died in 1981. The US Navy recently acknowledged he had commanded the attack which successfully sank the U-166 and posthumously awarded him the Legion of Merit with a Combat “V” device on 16th December 2014. The award was accepted by Herbert G Claudius Jr., the son of Lieutenant Commander Claudius 72 years after the event, the Navy Times reports.

The area where the Robert E. Lee and U-166 lay has been designated a war grave and will be left undisturbed.

Ian Harvey

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