Washington, D. C. January 11, 1942

On this date in 1942 the German Kriegsmarine launched Operation Drum­beat (Unter­nehmen Pauken­schlag, or “roll of the kettle­drums”), intending to destroy U.S. coastal shipping, particularly oil ship­ments from the Gulf of Mexico, and disrupt the stream of troops and key resources (e.g., agri­cul­tural pro­ducts, steel, and oil) crossing the Atlantic Ocean headed for Great Britain. Five German Type IX extended-range sub­marines—U‑66, U‑109, U‑123, U‑125, and U‑130, each cap­able of carrying 22 torpe­does—begin patrolling off the North Amer­ican coast. British code­breakers at the Royal Navy’s Oper­a­tion Intel­li­gence Center Sub­marine Tracking Room had learned of German Vice Admiral Karl Doenitz’s inten­tions through Enigma decrypts and passed them to the U.S. Navy, but the warnings were not heeded. (Enigma was the encryp­tion/­decryp­tion device used by the German armed forces for sending and receiving coded radio messages.) In less than a month Doenitz’s initial wolf pack sank over 26 Allied ships (156,393 tons of shipping) without suffering a loss.

Operation Drumbeat took full advantage of U.S. unprepared­ness and resis­tance to accepting advice and assis­tance from the British, who’d been dealing with the U‑boat menace since September 1939, in order to launch a devas­tating cam­paign against Allied and neutral shipping off the east coast of North America. Drum­beat’s destruc­tive impact far exceeded the human and material toll of the Japa­nese sur­prise attack on the U.S. Navy Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. During the six months Ger­man and Italian sub­marines were allowed to rampage virtually unchecked in North Amer­ican and Gulf of Mexico waters, 397 ships and almost 5,000 men and women were killed.

The U.S. Navy began convoy operations in May 1942, and by 1944 Amer­ican ship­yards were pro­ducing con­voy escorts in large numbers. In the mean­time Great Britain lent the U.S. Navy 24 Royal Navy anti­sub­marine trawlers and 10 cor­vettes in a sort of reverse Lend-Lease, plus trans­ferred a Royal Air Force mari­time squad­ron to Rhode Island to shield New York Harbor during July 1942. Only on March 1, 1942, did the U.S. Navy, using depth charges dropped from a Lock­heed Hudson light bomber and coastal recon­nais­sance air­craft, succeed in inflicting its first U‑boat casual­ty, U‑656, with the loss of all hands off the Cana­dian (New­found­land) coast. The first U‑boat sunk by a U.S. sur­face ship happened a month and a half later, on the night of April 13/14, 1942, when the destroyer USS Roper, a World War I vin­tage four-stacker on anti­sub­marine war­fare duty finished off U‑85 near Cape Hat­teras, North Caro­lina. The Amer­i­can destroyer, out­fitted with British Type 286 radar, had laid a spread of 11 depth charges to kill the German marau­der. Three days earlier, the doomed Type VII sub­marine had sunk the Norwe­gian freighter Christen Knud­sen, its third kill during a career that had begun on April 10, 1941—a year earlier almost to the day. Discovered in the flot­sam of the U‑85 the next morning were a few bodies wearing civil­ian clothes and carrying U.S. currency and identification.

By August 1942, the German and Italian U‑boat menace to shipping in U.S. coastal waters had been con­tained, due less to the Allies’ spo­ra­dic suc­cess in inter­cepting the Krieg­marine’s encrypted high-fre­quency radio com­mu­ni­ca­tions and acting on the intel­li­gence to their advan­tage than to the U.S. Navy imple­menting coastal anti­sub­marine improve­ments. The U‑boats’ “second happy time,” as men of the Kriegs­marine called this second phase of the Battle of the Atlan­tic (the first had been in 1940), had ended with the loss of nine U‑boats and a dramatic reduc­tion in Allied and neutral shipping losses. The same effect occurred when surface and air escorts were extended to the Caribbean.

Operation Drumbeat Wrecks Havoc on North American Shipping

U.S. Adm. Ernest J. King, 1878–1956German Adm. Karl Doenitz, 1891–1980

Left: At the start of U.S. involvement in World War II, black­outs on the U.S. eastern sea­board were not in effect, and com­mer­cial ships were not traveling in convoys. Critics of Adm. Ernest J. King (1878–1956), Chief of Naval Opera­tions during World War II shown here in this photo­graph, attri­bute the slown­ess in employing these mea­sures to his alleged Anglo­phobia, for the coastal escort-of-convoy opera­tions and sea­board black­outs were British pro­po­sals. Until March 1942 King also refused the loan of British con­voy escorts when the U.S. Navy had only a hand­ful of suit­able vessels. Pre­dict­ably, the U.S. Navy’s delay contri­buted to disas­trous Allied shipping losses (two million tons in Janu­ary and Febru­ary 1942 alone) and the loss of many sea­men and pas­senger lives. In King’s defense, the Navy had com­mitted itself to trans­atlantic escort ser­vice, defending troop trans­ports, and pre­venting the break­out of Ger­man war­ships from Euro­pean waters by forward-deployed U.S. naval forces. Further­more, black­outs were a politically sensi­tive issue and coastal cities resisted implementing them, citing the loss of tourism revenue.

Right: In October 1939 Adolf Hitler named former World War I sub­marine skipper Karl Doenitz Rear Admiral and “Com­mander of Sub­marines.” Less than a year later, Doenitz was made a Vice Admiral. Following Nazi Ger­many’s declara­tion of war on the United States, Doenitz planned and imple­mented Opera­tion Drum­beat, which targeted shipping along the North Amer­ican coast. Carried out with only nine U‑boats beginning in January 1942, Doenitz’s wolf packs inflicted huge shipping losses with little risk. When the first Drum­beat patrols returned to occupied France in Febru­ary 1942, Doenitz wrote that each com­mander “had such an abun­dance of oppor­tu­nities for attack that he could not by any means utilize them all: there were times when there were up to ten ships in sight, sailing with all lights burning on peace­time courses.” Two more U‑boat waves arrived in North American and Caribbean waters before Drumbeat played out in August 1942 for a loss of nine U‑boats.

USS &Dixie Queen" burning after U-boat attack, Operation Drumbeat, March 26, 1942Opera­tion Drum­beat: U-71 under attack on June 5, 1942

Left: The 8,046-ton oil tanker SS Dixie Arrow, torpedoed and sunk off Cape Hatteras, North Caro­lina, by U‑71 on March 26, 1942, with the loss of 11 of her 33 crew­men. The ship, en route from Texas City (near Gal­veston), Texas, to Balti­more, Mary­land, is shown crumbling amid­ships as she burns furiously when her cargo of 96,000 barrels of crude oil ignited. The Drum­beat raiders focused heavily on oil tankers, which brought 95 per­cent of America’s North­east oil from the Gulf of Mexico. (North­east com­muni­ties experi­enced oil short­ages until late 1943 due to the num­ber of tanker vessels sunk by U‑boats in early 1942.) U‑71 sank five ships during this patrol and returned to the safety of the huge U‑boat pens at La Pallice near La Rochelle, France, on April 20, 1942. Her skipper, Kapitaen­leutnant Walter Flachsenberg, was promoted to Korvettenkapitaen on July 1, 1942.

Right: Just prior to joining wolf pack Endrass (June 12–16, 1942), which attacked a 23‑ship convoy leaving Gibraltar for Great Britain, U‑71 herself came under attack from a Sunder­land flying boat patrol bomber with the Royal Austra­lian Air Force on June 5, 1942. The Sunder­land dropped eight shallow-set depth charges and then strafed the boat repeatedly, firing 2,000 rounds of ammu­ni­tion. The U‑71 managed to escape to La Pallice on the French Atlantic coast, where she was quickly repaired and sailed again on June 11 with the Endrass wolf pack. Unlike many other U‑boats, which during their service lost men due to accidents and various other causes, U‑71 apparently did not suffer any casual­ties. Days before the war in Europe ended she was scuttled in Wilhelmshaven, Germany, on May 2, 1945.

U-123 arriving in Lorient, occupied France, Operation Drumbeat, February 1942USS "Carolyn"/Q ship "Atik," casualty of Operation Drumbeat

Left: U-123, a Type IXB U‑boat, is seen arriving in Lorient’s harbor, on the French Atlantic coast, in Febru­ary 1942, following her seventh patrol. (She would make 12 patrols in all, sinking 44 ships and damaging 6.) The U‑123 had just com­pleted the first phase of Opera­tion Drum­beat. She began Drum­beat by sinking the British cargo ship Cyclops south­east of Cape Sable, Nova Scotia on Janu­ary 12, 1942. Moving down the North Amer­ican coast, she sank the Pana­manian-flagged tanker Nor­ness, the British-owned tanker Coimbra, two American-owned mer­chant vessels, Norvana and City of Atlanta, and the Latvian merchant­man Ciltvaira. U-123 only damaged the Amer­ican tanker Malay because its skipper, 28‑year-old Richard Har­degen, had under­esti­mated Malay’s size and chose to use his 4.1‑in deck gun rather than lose a valu­able torpedo. Alluding to U.S. war­time unpre­pared­ness, Harde­gen com­mented after sinking the Norvana: “These are some pretty buoys we are leaving for the Yankees in the harbor approaches as replace­ment for the light­ships [i.e., floating light­houses].” Surviving the war, U‑123 became the French sub­marine Blaison until she was decommissioned on August 18, 1959.

Right: U-123’s second Drumbeat mission was also success­ful—sinking Mus­kogee and Empire Steel on March 22 and 23, 1942, near Bermuda before moving closer to the U.S. East Coast. She then attacked the USS Atik, a Q‑ship. (Heavily armed Q‑ships masquer­aded as unarmed ves­sels, hoping to lure U‑boats into initi­ating an attack, then blasting the attacker.) The disguised tramp steamer Atik, formerly the 6,610-ton USS Carolyn, was hit on the port side; the crew started to abandon ship on the star­board side. The U‑boat moved closer, at which time the Atik revealed her conc­ealed wea­ponry (among them several 4‑in guns and .50 and .30 caliber machine guns) and opened fire on the enemy. U-123 was run off (one sub­mariner died in the action), but the U‑boat dived, returned, and sank her prey with a torpedo. There were no survivors from the Atik.

Operation Drumbeat: German U-Boat War Against Allied Shipping in the North Atlantic, 1942–1943

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