Naval Warfare Books

Book reviews

S.S. Leopoldville Disaster

December 24, 1944

Andrade, Allan

1999, Tern Book Company
ISBN 1890309540
Paperback, 268 pages, 37 photos, 7 paintings, 5 facsimiles

Type. General History book
Pros. Extensive use of original documents, complete list of dead and survivors
Cons. Sometimes difficult to follow

This book details the sinking of the S.S. Leopoldville, a Belgian liner turned troop transport. On Christmas Eve, 1944, she was carrying 2235 men of the 66th Infantry Division from Southampton to Cherbourg, reinforcements for the Battle of the Bulge. Five miles from shore, she was struck by a torpedo fired by U-486. Three hundred soldiers were killed in the initial explosion, but as the night wore on, 500 more died due to botched rescue operations.

Using old letters and interviews with survivors and relatives of the deceased, Andrade reconstructs the events surrounding the Channel crossing, the torpedo hit, and the attempts at rescue both during and after the relatively leisurely sinking of the vessel (it finally disappeared below the surface two hours after the torpedo struck). He also describes the attempts of United States officials to cover up the disaster.

This book represents years of investigation and research by the author, and provides a good overview and analysis of the events in question. In writing it, the author had the additional goals of creating a memorial to those who lost their lives, and of publicizing this little-known incident in order to gain official governmental recognition of the sinking. While these goals are laudable, his style is occasionally somewhat sensationalistic, and the sheer number of individual stories woven into the narrative sometimes create a feeling for the reader that it is difficult to see the forest for the trees - i.e., difficult to follow the main sequence of events due to the many individual points of view presented.

Another small problem is that, in his desire to illustrate the waste of human life and what seems from this distance in time to be the craven behavior of the official powers in covering up the affair, Andrade tends to emphasize what best supports his thesis and discard the rest. For example, he seems to concentrate on the "best and brightest" of the victims, perhaps feeling that the death of an 18-year-old college student contains more pathos than that of a 28-year-old factory worker. Also, he implies that "Missing in Action" telegrams were universally sent to relatives of the victims as a further means of covering up the incident. However, this is simply not true; due to whatever bureaucratic and security reasons, some telegrams were marked "Missing" while others were marked "Killed," some were sent out immediately while others trickled out over the next few months.

Andrade (or his publisher) also creates the impression that he is the first to discover this tragedy and show it the light of day. The back cover of the book states "It is a story that was kept quiet too long and must be told." However, the story was told in 1996 by Clive Cussler; in 1963 by Jacqin Sanders in A Night Before Christmas; and in several privately published accounts and veterans organizations' official histories.

Even so, it is undeniable that Andrade's book brought this wartime tragedy to mainstream public attention more effectively than any of the others. Andrade is also responsible for personally informing many family members about the fate of their loved ones, of which they had been unaware for more than fifty years. He has also been tireless in his attempts to persuade national newspapers to publish survivor interviews to coincide with key holidays (Memorial Day, Veterans Day, Christmas), and has successfully lobbied government officials to formally recognize the victims and survivors for their wartime service and sacrifice.

Review written by Tonya Allen.

Published on 24 Nov 1999.

This title is highly recommended.

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