U-BOATS UNLEASHED ON EAST COAST SHIPPING

Berlin, Germany · December 13, 1941

On this date in 1941, two days after Germany and the U.S. had declared war on each other, U‑boat Adm. Karl Doenitz initi­ated the Kriegs­marine’s wolf pack cam­paign against ill-pre­pared mer­chant shipping along the Cana­dian and U.S. east­ern sea­boards. (Wolf packs con­sisted of a group of U‑boats sys­tem­atically attacking Allied shipping.) In the Atlantic, things had gotten dicey for Doenitz’s wolf packs. In mid-Decem­ber heavily armed Grumman Mart­lets from the Brit­ish escort carrier Auda­city suc­ceeded in keeping a dozen U‑boats and Ger­man air­craft away from a 32‑ship con­voy that had left Gibral­tar, at the western entrance of the Mediter­ra­nean Sea, for the Brit­ish Isles, only to have their carrier sunk from under them by three tor­pe­does on Decem­ber 21. The week­long drama prompted Doenitz to record in his war diary: “The risk of being sunk is greater than the pos­sible suc­cess. The pre­sence of aircraft make[s] ‘wolf pack’ tactics impossible.”

So it was that Doenitz assigned 12 out of 91 opera­tional U‑boats to North Amer­i­can waters, where picking off mer­chant­men became child’s play. On Janu­ary 11, 1942, Opera­tion Pauken­schlag (Opera­tion Drum­beat, known infor­mally among Ger­man sub­mariners as the “Amer­i­can shooting sea­son”) kicked off, and five Ger­man sub­marines began patrolling the east coast of North America. Among the first tar­gets to be tor­pedoed were the 9,076‑ton Brit­ish freighter Cyclops and the 9,577‑ton Norwegian petroleum tanker Norness bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Although U‑boats were not well suited to opera­tions so far from home, they scored suc­cess after suc­cess in their new play area. With­in the next month, the Drum­beat group sank over 26 Allied ships as they ter­rorized coastal shipping lanes. In just one night’s booty off the North Caro­lina coast, U‑123 bagged four ships, among them the 5,269‑ton City of Atlanta, the 3,779‑ton Ciltvaira, and the empty tanker Malay, sending 46 mer­chant sea­men to their deaths. Because of the aston­ishing negli­gence by top U.S. Navy brass—espe­cially by the iras­cible 63‑year‑old Fleet Adm. Ernest J. King, Chief of Naval Opera­tions—it wasn’t until May 1942 and the inter­ven­tion of Presi­dent Frank­lin D. Roos­evelt that coastal con­voys, destroyer escorts, and PBY Cata­lina flying boats were intro­duced on the East and Carib­bean coasts, along with coastal black­outs and a U‑boat tracking cen­ter. In the six months the wolf packs were allowed to ram­page along the North Amer­i­can coast, 397 ships were lost together with nearly 5,000 men and women.





Protecting the Transatlantic Pipeline Between the Americas and Europe

Hvalfjord Allied naval base, Iceland, late June 1942 British escort destroyer on antisubmarine duty, October 1941

Left: Escorts and merchant ships in late June 1942 at the British naval base at Hval­fjord (Hval­fjörður), Ice­land, 25 miles from Reykjavik, the island’s capital. During World War II nearly one third of the world’s mer­chant shipping was British. Out of 36,000 mer­chant sea­men who lost their lives between 1939 and 1945, over 30,000 were from the Brit­ish Mer­chant Navy. More than 2,400 British ships were sunk out of the total of 2,900 Allied ships lost, or a loss of 14.6 mil­lion gross tons. A little over 9,500 U.S. merchant marines died at sea, in Axis POW camps, or of their wounds out of the roughly 243,000 who served. (The U.S. govern­ment never kept accurate records for its merchant marine.) Most of the ships sunk during the Battle of the Atlantic were not in con­voys, but sailing alone, or had become separated from convoys.

Right: Officers on the bridge of an escorting British destroyer keep a sharp look­out for enemy submarines, October 1941.

U-boat shells merchant ship Torpedoed U.S. tanker "Dixie Arrow", March 26, 1942

Left: An unnamed U‑boat shells a merchant ship that had remained afloat after being torpedoed (no date). The focus on U‑boat suc­cesses—the “aces” and their scores, the num­ber of con­voys attacked, and the ships sunk—ob­scures the fact that during the Battle of the Atlantic only 10 per­cent of trans­atlantic con­voys were ever attacked, and of those attacked only 10 per­cent of the ships on average were lost. Overall, more than 99 per­cent of all ships sailing to and from Great Britain during World War II did so safely. That said, how­ever, the Battle of the Atlantic was the longest continuous and deadliest naval conflict in history.

Right: The 8,046-ton U.S. tanker Dixie Arrow was tor­pe­doed by U‑71 on March 26, 1942, off Cape Hat­teras, North Caro­lina. The ship is shown crumbling amid­ships under the heat of fire. Between June 1, 1941, and May 31, 1943, U‑71 with a crew of 29 carried out ten war patrols. Operating out of the huge U‑boat pens at St. Nazaire in occupied France, U‑71 on her fifth foray sank 38,894 tons of shipping between March and April 1942. She was scuttled on May 2, 1945, in Wilhelmshaven, Germany, several days before that country’s surrender.

"U-288" under attack, April 3, 1944 Operation Torch convoy, November 1942

Left: A Grumman TBF Avenger from the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm fires its machine gun at the con­ning tower of U‑288 during a con­voy run to the Soviet Union, April 3, 1944. The U‑boat was eventually finished off by rockets and depth charges. Forty-nine men died; there were no sur­vivors. The Kriegs­marine lost a total of 783 sub­ma­rines and 30,000 sai­lors during the war. Despite their best efforts Ger­man sub­ma­riners failed to stop the flow of stra­te­gic supplies to Bri­tain. Between existing Allied mer­chant ships, U.S.-built Liberty ships (war-cargo ves­sels totaling 38.5 million tons), and British-built Empire ships, the Allies launched mil­lions more ship tonnage than the 14 million tons of shipping lost to the U‑boat menace.

Right: At the height of the Atlantic campaign, U‑boats failed to hinder or even detect the U.S. inva­sion fleet headed to North Africa in Novem­ber 1942 (Opera­tion Torch), and they failed to prevent the build-up of troops and sup­plies needed for the D-Day landings in Normandy, France, in June 1944. As early as May 1943, when a fifth of his U‑boats were sunk in “Black May,” Grand Admiral Doenitz con­ceded that Germany had lost the Battle of the Atlantic.

German U-Boats and the Battle of the Atlantic