December 2, 2021

Tommy Guns, Fists and Coffee Cups: USS Buckley Repels Nazi Boarders


During World War II, the Battle of the Atlantic was fought from the first day of the war against Nazi Germany until the very last. The ongoing fight between the Allied merchant marine fleets and their combined escorts saw the development of many sophisticated technologies, the drama of code-breaking, and the incredible bravery of sailors on both sides.

USS Buckley DE-51 in June 1944
USS Buckley, DE-51, shown during June 1944, just a few weeks after her battle with U-66. Image: NARA

By the end of the war, Allied navies had 175 warships and 3,500 merchant vessels. More than 72,000 men were lost, combining the casualties of sailors and merchant seamen. In their effort to prevent supplies from reaching England, the German Kriegsmarine lost 783 submarines and nearly 30,000 U-Boat crewmen — a 75% casualty rate.

US Coast Guard crew with small arms during WWII
A USCG crew draws small arms from their weapons locker: M1903 rifles and M1928 Thompson SMGs. Image: NARA

Small arms rarely played a role in the Battle of the Atlantic; most of the time personal weapons remained in the ship’s, or sub’s lockers. But when the destroyer escort USS Buckley (DE-51) met up with the German submarine U-66, the fight started as a modern anti-submarine action and ended up as a gritty close-quarters brawl.

Damaged U-505 before boarding by US Navy personnel
The damaged U-505 before boarding by US Navy personnel. While not the same as the U-66, it is similar in design. Image: NARA

U-Boats normally did their deadly work with 24″ torpedoes. Earlier in the war, when the subs encountered unescorted merchant ships, the crew would often use the 10.5cm SK C/32 deck gun to save the precious torpedoes. By 1944, many U-Boats had their deck guns removed and replaced with additional 20mm or 37mm anti-aircraft guns.

German Luger
The classic German P08 Luger 9mm pistol was one of the primary sidearms of the Kriegsmarine. Image: NARA

Some small arms were carried, based on crew preference and the captain’s approval. A few 7.92mm Mauser 98k rifles, coupled with a small amount of 9mm MP-40 SMGs usually made up the supply. A wide variety of pistols could be found among the U-Boat’s officers.

Trapping a Wolf

In the modern era of naval combat, incidents of repelling boarders are quite rare. However, during the early morning of May 6, 1944, the USS Buckley encountered the German sub U-66 running on the surface in bright moonlight. The U-boat had been damaged a few days earlier by the submarine hunter-killer group led by the carrier USS Block Island. Buckley located her on the surface, opened fire, closed quickly and then rammed the sub. Damaged and unable to submerge, the U-Boat men made a desperate decision: board the American destroyer lodged close alongside.

US Navy sailor with 1911
A sailor shows off his trusty M1911 .45 caliber pistol. Several M1911’s were used during the fight with U-66. Image: Author’s collection

The Buckley’s captain describes the action as his crew became the first American sailors to repel boarders in more than a century:

“0329: BUCKLEY, alongside sub, gives hard right rudder, rides up on forecastle of sub and stays there. Men begin swarming out of submarine and onto BUCKLEY’s forecastle. Machine gun, Tommy gun, and rifle fire knocks off several. Ammunition expended at this time included several general mess coffee cups which were on hand at ready gun station. Two of the enemy were hit in the head with these. Empty shell cases were used by the crew of 3” gun #2 to repel boarders. 3” guns could not bear. BUCKLEY suffers only casualty of engagement when man bruises fist knocking one of the enemy over the side. Several men, apparently dead, could be seen hanging over the side of the sub’s bridge at this time. The boatswain’s mate in charge of the forward ammunition party kills a man attempting to board with .45 pistol. Man falls back over side. Midships repair party equipped with rifles, manning life lines and picks off several men on deck of submarine. Chief Fire Controlman uses Tommy Gun from bridge with excellent results.”

“0330: Buckley stops all engines and backs off, to avoid boarding by too many of the enemy, some of whom came aboard armed. Sub draws ahead rapidly, maintaining speed of about 18 knots. Five prisoners are disarmed and taken aft.”

“The Commanding Officer is proud of the fighting spirit, coolness in action, and through going teamwork shown by all hands. It was these characteristics, more than the individual brilliance or heroism of any one officer or man, which concluded the action successfully.”

“Sub, still making about 18 knots, intentionally or out of control, veers sharply to port toward Buckley, now alongside at a distance of 25 yards. Sub strikes Buckley a glancing blow and bow of sub rides under Buckley’s after engine room. Personnel on deck have a clear view into conning tower which is a flaming shambles. Man on deck of sub attempting to man gun disintegrates when hit by four 40mm shells. Torpedomen throw hand grenades, one of which drops through sub’s open conning tower hatch before exploding. 20mm guns continue raking fire. Sub slowly draws aft on starboard side with bow under Buckley, scraping along ship’s side.

Captain B.M. Abel

Over the course of the 16-minute engagement with the U-boat, the Buckley hammered the sub with 3”, 40mm, 20mm and .50 caliber fire. However, it was the small arms fire (including the coffee cup projectiles, 3” cannon shell casings and one coffee pot) that made the difference when the German submariners made their desperate effort to board. The Buckley’s crew expended 300 rounds of .45 caliber, 60 rounds of .30 caliber, 30 rounds of 00 buckshot, and two grenades.

At the end of the fight, the Buckley picked up 36 survivors. U-66 had been a scourge of the Atlantic, and her talented crew made the sub the seventh most successful U-Boat of the war (sinking 33 merchant ships, totaling 200,021 GRT). Regardless of their accomplishments, when locked in a close-quarter fight with the USS Buckley, American grit and gunfire proved stronger.

Sailor firing .50 caliber machine gun on US ship
The water-cooled version of the Browning M2 machine gun used by the Navy and Coast Guard for anti-aircraft work. It also worked on subs. Image: NARA

As for me, I’ve been in fights, but I’ve never been shot. I’ve been hit with fists and sticks, and even a beer bottle. But I’ve never been hit with a well-aimed coffee mug. In my view, the story of the USS Buckley is the tale of a brave group of Americans who would do anything to win the fight of their lives. And they did.

Survivors of the U-66 aboard the USS Buckley
Glad to be alive: Survivors of the U-66 aboard the USS Buckley. Image: NARA

A Note About the Photographs

As far as anyone knows, there were no photographs taken during the incredible close-quarter action between the USS Buckley and U-66. The crewmen were far too busy slugging and shooting U-Boatmen to take pictures. Even so, working with the photographic collections of the US Navy and the US Coast Guard, I was able to find some images that accurately represent the small arms used by the Buckley’s crew during that fateful fight.

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