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Action of 21 May 1918
Part of World War I
First Battle of the Atlantic
USS Christabel 1917.jpg
USS Christabel in 1917.
Date May 21, 1918
Location off Spain, Atlantic Ocean
Result United States victory, convoy protected, German submarine interned as result of battle damage.
US Naval Jack 48 stars.svg United States Navy German Empire German Navy
Lieutenant H. B. Riebe Kapitänleutnant Wilhelm Kisewetter
1 auxiliary cruiser,
1 steamer
1 submarine
Casualties and losses
none unknown human casualties,
1 submarine severely damaged

The Action of 21 May 1918 was a naval engagement of the First World War fought between an American armed yacht and a German submarine in waters off Spain, in the Atlantic Ocean.



In May of 1918, the Great War had been raging for four years and the Germans were making every attempt possible to sink enemy shipping, which fueled the war in Europe. On May 24, 1918, the fight was still at hand when USS Christabel, under Lieutenant H. B. Riebe, sighted a distinctive oil slick while escorting the slow British steamer Danse north from La Pallice to Quiberon Bay. Unknown at the time, a German submarine was nearby, commanded by Captain Lieutenant Wilhelm Kisewetter.

The Danse was about eight miles behind the main convoy of allied merchant ships, making about seven and a half knots with the Christabel off her port bow. The North Atlantic was smooth, weather was clear and there was no wind.


Once the allied convoy was within two miles of He de Yeu, the well-defined oil slick was sighted in between the American warship and the British steamer, off Danse's port bow. The Christabel cruised over to the slick for better observation but saw nothing to indicate a German submarine's presence. The convoy continued on for a little while when at 5 :20 pm a wake from SM UC-56 was suddenly spotted by the officer-of-the-deck and a lookout, about 600 yards distant off the port quarter.

The Christabel at this time being was about 300 yards from the port bow of the Danse. Christabel headed for it, making all possible speed, which was around ten and a half knots, whereupon the wake disappeared and a number of oil slicks were seen. The U-boat had apparently submerged. The American commanding officer ordered his ship to follow this oil as long as possible and at 5:24 pm, believing that his ship was just ahead of the submarine, Christabel's crew dropped a depth charge, but nothing resulted although the charge exploded.

Daniel Sullivan MOH.

The action was over for now and the allied vessels continued northward. At 7:00 pm the convoy changed course, following the contour of the Spanish coast and was making about nine knots for almost two hours when she encountered the German U-boat once again. This time at 8:52 pm, Christabel was astern, making about eleven knots to catch up with the convoy. The German submarine was sighted by lookouts who witnessed a periscope roughly 200 yards off the starboard beam.

Her commander was quickly notified and Christabel turned into the U-boat's direction when the periscope disappeared under the water. At 8:55 p. m. a depth charge was dropped which detonated ten seconds after fire. A second charge was dropped a few moments later. No secondary explosion was heard after the explosion of the first charge but after the sound of the second depth charge. A third, "very violent", explosion was heard which threw up a large water column between the stern of Christabel.

An "enormous" amount of debris from the damaged submarine was seen, mixed in with the water column of the third explosion. The Christabel was then ordered to turn and cruised in the vicinity of UC-56's position when she was engaged. There the United States Navy auxiliary cruiser noticed a quantity of thick, black oil and splintered pieces of wood. There were very large oil bubbles rising to the surface, no doubt belonging to SM UC-56.

Sometime during the dropping of the depth charges, a number of charges which were set and live aboard the Christabel, were shaken lose and Ensign Daniel Augustus Joseph Sullivan quickly reacted by jumping on top of them and securing the explosives before they could possibly detonate. Sullivan would later be decorated with a Medal of Honor for "extraordinary heroism" in this combat.


Christabel's white star.

Nothing further was heard of this submarine but it surfaced after the engagement and was not capable of submerging again due to battle damage. On May 24, 1918, when the German U-boat arrived at Santander, Spain in a severely damaged condition, after a dangerous three day voyage straight from the allied convoy to the nearest port. The German crew of UC-56' was interned by neutral Spain and the Germans reported to Spanish authorities that their submarine had been seriously damaged by USS Christabel and they had no choice but to take refuge in a neutral port.

Sources indicate that the Germans scuttled their U-boat off Santander to prevent her capture by the Spanish but this is disputed. It was originally thought that the American armed yacht sank the German submarine so a traditional white star was painted on Christabel's smoke stack which represented a U-boat kill. Though the American ship did not actually sink the German vessel, Christabel was still responsible for protecting her convoy, inflicting serious damage on an enemy submarine which resulted in internment and possible scuttling.

No allied vessels were damaged as the German submarine was spotted and attacked before it could line up for an attack. No German casualties have been confirmed.

See also




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