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2008 Battle of Atlantic Expedition

Exploring WWII in the Graveyard of the Atlantic

National Marine Sanctuaries Photo Gallery
Mission info 2007 Nancy Foster Cruise


Off the coast of North Carolina, in the turbulent waters where the Gulf Stream and Labrador Currents collide, a German submarine, U-701, sits on the bottom of the Atlantic. Even though U-701 had a rocky beginning and met an ill-timed fate, during her career, she was one of the most successful U-boats to patrol American waters during World War II.

u701 boat sketch
Detailed isometric and profile inking of U-701 drawn in 1991 by Jim Christley, a retired submariner and naval artist. These drawings will be helpful in determining the amount of degradation to the site since 1991. Click here for a larger view.
Under Captain Horst Degen, U-701 and her crew departed Dec. 27, 1941, for the frigid waters off Iceland. She spent her first two war patrols in those icy waters before making the 22-day trek across the Atlantic for her third and final war patrol on the east coast of the United States. As part of an eight U-boat assembly known as Hecht, U-701 was tasked with the mission of mining the Chesapeake Bay area, and set to work upon arrival on June 11, 1942. The stealth mining operation proved to be successful, as the vessels HMS Kingston Ceylonite and Santore were sunk as a result, with others suffering damage. However, Allied forces had not yet felt the last of U-701’s wrath. In a fierce gun battle with the German U-boat, a small cutter, YP-389, was sunk and the British Freedom was severely damaged after being hit with two U-701-fired torpedoes.

On July 9, 1942, a Navy Blimp spoted the U-701 survivors and dropped smoke to mark the spot for their rescue.
On July 9, 1942, a Navy Blimp spoted the U-701 survivors and dropped smoke to mark the spot for their rescue. (Photo: The National Archives)
One of the U-701’s greatest victories was the sinking of the SS William Rockefeller. Even though the Rockefeller was being escorted by Coast Guard aircraft and cutters, Degen defiantly fired upon the tanker. The response of an enemy attack was almost instantaneous, and U-701 immediately plunged deeper into the water, scarcely escaping her second air attack. While the single blow to the Rockefeller did not sink her, it did stop her dead in her tracks, but Degen was not satisfied. After nightfall, the U-701 boldly surfaced, and a persistent Degen ordered one last fatal shot to the Rockefeller, sending the 14,000-ton vessel — along with 136,000 barrels of oil — to the bottom of the Atlantic.

u701 boat sketch
U-701 survivors in lifeboat. (Photo: The National Archives)
On July 7, 1942, U-701 routinely surfaced to air out the musty interior of the vessel, and although lookouts were stationed, they failed to spot a U.S. Army aircraft in time to escape. The crew of the U-701 made a brave effort to crash dive, but could not flee the depth charges fired upon them. The deadly game of hide-and-seek between U-701 and the Allied forces proved fatal for U-701 and many of her crew. As she sank, she took seven sailors with her to a sandy grave. Others managed to escape and reach the surface, only to succumb to the elements over the next few days. Only seven men, Degen included, survived the incident and remained prisoners of war until the end of the war.

U-701 lay undisturbed on the bottom of the Western Atlantic, about 10 miles off the coast of Avon, N.C., for 47 years until she was discovered by scuba diver Uwe Lovas in 1989. After extensive research, and with the help of Captain Horst Degen himself, Lovas located the resting spot of the German U-boat. However, keeping a promise he made to Degen, Lovas kept U-701’s location a secret in order to protect the vessel and the sailors still within her.

The U-boat was rediscovered in 2004 and its location was leaked to the greater diving community. Unfortunately, this resulted in divers looting the U-boat and salvaging her artifacts. However, even though she is not in as pristine shape as she once was, U-701 is still believed to be in much better condition than other U-boats in the area.

The current Battle of the Atlantic expedition will explore and document the present state of U-701. It is hoped that this archeological survey will result in the U-701’s nomination to the National Register of Historic Places, and will help protect this historic resource for future generations as an educational tool to remind all Americans of the violent struggle that occurred just off our coast in World War II.

Click here for the full history and disposition of the U-701.

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