Exploring a Part of the Battle of the Atlantic

Researchers are using the latest technology in underwater archaeology to study the wrecks of a World War II naval battle off our state's coast.

ATLANTIC OCEAN — The crew aboard the research vessel was clustered on the bridge, waiting for the news. Suddenly the radio crackled to life. 

“We have found U-576, we have a visual,” the words were scratchy, but certain, blurting out of the speaker. 

One of the scientists leading the expedition grabbed the microphone. 

“Copy you have found U-576, that’s great,” he said. With that, everyone in the room burst into applause. 

The scene was equally happy, but not as loud—and much more cramped—750 feet beneath the cheering crew at the bottom of the Atlantic ocean: the scene of the discovery.

Inside a glass bubble of a mini sub, two scientists looked straight ahead out the window at the rusting and sea urchin-covered wreck of the German U-boat 576. They were the first human eyes to gaze upon the ship since it was sunk in 1942. 

“We’re cruising past the stern right now,” the researcher reported to the ship above them. “We’re coming along the portside and we’re going to try to look at the propellers and the dive planes.” 

They knew that the images they were seeing, photographing and video recording were extraordinary. But the journey to this point was more than just the study of a shipwreck. It was an effort to survey an entire World War II battlefield. 

“We are coming up on the stern right now and we can see the deck level,” said another in the sub to the research ship. “It’s incredible; it’s completely intact.” 

The location, just off North Carolina’s coast, is the only place in U.S. waters that contains the archaeologically preserved remains of a convoy battle where both sides are so close together. 

The slow, methodical exploration of the wreck of the giant sub continued. It lay on its side at a 45-degree angle. Suddenly, they came up on a giant rip. The researchers reported their discovery. Could it have been made by a depth charge dropped by allied ships? 

“So it looks like we see evidence of damage on the starboard side, just below the water line and slightly aft of the diving plane,” the report came in through the microphone. 

It took years for researchers from East Carolina University, The university of North Carolina’s Coastal Studies Institute, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management as well as several private firms, to find the wrecks. Historical records were studied. Countless searches of the ocean floor using several types of sonar were conducted. The site was finally found in 2014. 

Because the ships rest in water that is too deep for divers, mini subs are used to study the site. Researchers hope to learn more about the battle from the expedition, but also about the natural habitats surrounding the shipwrecks. The battle aspect is a uniquely interesting one, as this was a significant battle. 

“It really represented a shift in the war, from Hitler controlling those waters with his U-boats to the Allies fighting back,” explains John McCord, director of education and outreach with the University of North Carolina Coastal Studies Institute. “It was the first time there was a concerted effort to sink these ships in a convoy with military protection.” 

Until 1942, German U-boats had controlled the shipping lanes off North Carolina’s coast. But in July of that year, a convoy of merchant ships set sail with a military escort. The convoy was code named KS-520. 

U-576 attacked the convoy. In a short, chaotic battle, U-576 torpedoed three supply ships. However the German submarine was also attacked. In a matter of minutes, the submarine and the merchant ship “Bluefields” were sunk. The ships rest on the bottom, about 250 feet apart. The wreck of the Bluefields was also discovered during the expedition. 

“Part of the importance of this expedition is to gather baseline data on the wreck to look at as we come back over time,” explains McCord. “All of the types of data we are collecting—biological and archaeological—can be compared as we make repeat visits to the site in the future.” 

The shipwrecks rest on the sea floor about 35 miles offshore of Cape Hatteras. Forty-five sailors died aboard U-576. Four U.S. sailors were killed in the battle. Because the ships are now teaming with sea life, they have become, in effect, living memorials. Scientists will assess the condition of the wrecks to document the changes to the ships over time. Researchers will also study how the wrecks provide habitat for fish and marine mammals and map the battlefield. 

“We had a number of goals as we were documenting the shipwreck,” says McCord, watching video of U-576 that was shot during the dive. “One is what we are doing right now; we wanted to document the shipwreck using photography and videography, and bring back the first images since it was sunk in 1942. 

"Those images will be used to make a model of the ship using photogrammetry. That’s the science of making measurements of models that are generated from photos of the sub. We took hundreds of photos to then generate a 3D model that is accurate, measureable and scalable. 

"Researchers are also making a model using laser scanning. The wrecks were scanned from every angle to create a 3D laser scan of the sub that is geo-rectified in real space.” 

All of the findings will be available to the public.

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