Monday, August 23, 2010


In an official U.S. Navy recruiting poster, sailors prepare to launch anti-submarine depth charges.

For many WW II historians, Hitler’s decision to declare war on America the day after the Pearl Harbor attack by Japan has posed a big question mark: was it a colossal blunder, a huge miscalculation, or merely an act of unmitigated arrogance? While all three factors may have been present, a very pragmatic argument may well have been the clincher for a wartime leader who saw a quick victory in Europe slipping away thanks to the support the U.S. was already giving to England and her allies. Aviation fuel and petroleum products from the U.S. were the life blood of Britain’s ability to stay in the fight, and High Seas Admiral Karl Donitz had been chomping at the bit for Hitler’s approval to turn his U-boats loose against the “secret alliance” which had defied Germany’s retaliation. Now, on December 9, 1941 he had his “go ahead”.
In what was dubbed “Paukenschlag” – (“Operation Drumbeat”), an initial flotilla of five U-boats was dispatched to America’s eastern sea frontier, with orders to attack U.S. commerce commencing on January 13th, 1942. Actually U-123, commanded by Lieutenant Kapitan Reinhard Hardegen jumped the gun by one day sinking the freighter Cyclops just east of Cape Cod the night of January 12th, less than one month after the beginning of hostilities. The next night, the target would be the “Narness”, just off the Nantucket lightship. On January 15th, the British tanker “Caimbra” would go up in flames, less than 1000 yards off of Atlantic City, as another type IX boat, U-66 commanded by Frigate Kapitan Richard Zapp arrived on station. On the 19th U-123 sank “The City of Atlanta” as U-66 sent torpedoes into the “Allan Jackson”, breaking the tanker in half and sending 72,000 barrels of crude oil up in flames.
In coming days, U-109, U-130 and U-125 would join the pack, all outfitted for long sea patrols, with every available space crowded with food and crew supplies from their home ports in occupied France. Not only would they find no real resistance from somnolent U.S. Naval forces, but their work would be made easy for them thanks to the brilliant backdrop of lighted shorelines, and a civilian population as yet naïve to the exigencies of real wartime. Active lighthouses aided their navigation and highway traffic and advertising signs conveniently silhouetted the sitting ducks they sent to the bottom.
Passenger liners were fair game for the raiders as well, and on January 19th, two torpedoes ended the cruise of “Lady Hawkins”, a Canadian ship carrying 300, of whom only 96 survived. In the opening weeks of 1942, two dozen ships fell prey to a handful of Nazi U-boats, many of them within sight of our east coast. In February another 32 went down, and still Admiral Ernest King was seemingly helpless to get the Navy involved so focused was the War Department on a Pacific war half-a-world away. The New Jersey shore was littered with the bodies and charred debris of this largely “secret” coastal war, while the news media were kept silent. From communities like Ocean Grove, Asbury Park and even Atlantic City, burning ships could be seen most nights, and the head phones of my brothers’ short wave receiver sometimes allowed us to eavesdrop on frantic radio calls for help. Finally, the lights were dimmed by mandatory “blackouts”, and civilians donned white helmets and served as “air raid wardens”; my father was assigned duties on the George Washington Bridge, a mile from our home.
In March there were another 48 sinkings, and finally on April 14th, our side had its first victory with the sinking of U-85 by the destroyer U.S.S. Roper. By August, 1942, Germany’s U-boats had sunk 233 ships in Operation “Drumbeat”, and 22% of America’s tanker fleet lay on the bottom of the Atlantic shelf. And hardly a word of this unprecedented debacle had reached the U.S. public.
With the implementation of the “convoy” system perfected by the British, the use of patrol aircraft, and a reawakened anti-submarine effort on the part of the Navy and Coast Guard, most of Donitz’ wolf pack went home by the end of August. By then, far more damage had been done to the U.S. than at Pearl Harbor, and with a heavy loss of life. In fact sailors of the Merchant Marine (America’s oldest sea service) were among the real unsung heroes of WW II. The most dangerous place you could be in 1942 was aboard a British or American merchant vessel at sea. One seaman – Harold Harper – was torpedoed six times! Losses to enemy action eventually totaled 4,774 ships, with another 1,600 lost to collision or fire. On the infamous convoy to Murmansk, Russia in July, 1942, only 11 of 34 ships survived the deadly voyage.
Although Allied anti-submarine technology, and the loss of French ports ultimately brought an end to the run of successes by Hitler’s “Unterzeeboote” forces, their number would climb from 46 U-boats in 1939 to 863 by 1944. Americans would never know just how close they had come to defeat within months of war’s outbreak, and within sight of our own shores.

The tanker “Dixie Arrow” falls prey to a U-boat torpedo attack off the Outer Banks of North Carolina on March 26, 1942, where it was ambushed by Kapitan Walter Flaschenberg’s U-71. Able Seaman Oscar Chappel burned to death at the helm so that his shipmates could escape the flames.

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