As the troopship SS Leopoldville steams towards France from England on Christmas Eve, 1944, with Allied soldiers on board, a torpedo rips into her side. After a fatal delay, the ship sinks within sight of the port of Cherbourg, leaving men to jump into the bitter winter seas. Nearly 800 soldiers do not live to see Christmas Day. Now, an international team of divers brave some of the English Channel’s most treacherous and dangerous waters in an attempt to reach the wreck. They aim to uncover clues to help answer the question: why did so many young men have to die?
The Leopoldville is a Belgian liner taking 2,235 American reinforcements to repel a massive German attack - the Battle of the Bulge. But just off the coast of France, a German torpedo strikes the crowded troop carrier amid ships, killing nearly 400 young soldiers instantly. The others make their way to the upper decks of the Leopoldville. They stand patiently waiting to be rescued.
In a daring rescue attempt, her escort, HMS Brilliant, manoeuvres alongside the larger liner. In rough seas, soldiers on the Leopoldville line up to jump down onto the smaller vessel. But the destroyer can only take a few hundred and has to head for the shore. There is no further rescue attempt. Some 1,200 soldiers are still left onboard. Two and a half hours after the torpedo hit, the Leopoldville slips beneath the waves.
Today divers braving some of the English Channel’s most treacherous and dangerous waters, 56 metres down, see evidence of the chaotic last moments of the ship. Can they find any evidence as to why the men were apparently abandoned and what, if anything, could have been done to save them?
Fairly or unfairly, American survivors are very critical of the Leopoldville’s crew, who they say left them to their fate. Although the official reports apportion blame to a breakdown in communications, none of this information is made available to the stricken relatives, and the incident is covered up. When the facts are eventually made public, survivors and members of the families of those who died have to live with a haunting conclusion. The bitter fact is that the botched rescue killed as many men as the initial torpedo.