Military history

TEN

THE SHIFTING CHARACTER OF THE U-BOAT WAR

The massive German offensive in the Ukraine dominated all else in the summer of 1942. German forces had reached Rostov and Stalingrad by mid-July and were driving south to the Caucasus Mountains. Allied war planners in Washington and London assumed—quite wrongly—that the military forces of the Soviet Union could not hold out much longer. To help relieve pressures on the Red armies, they rushed preparation for Torch, the invasion of French Northwest Africa, which had replaced Sledgehammer as the emergency “second front” in 1942.

Over continuing objections from London, the Americans pressed for more and bigger Murmansk convoys to clear out the logjam of merchant ships loaded with war matériel for the Soviet Union. Reluctantly, the Admiralty had sailed convoy PQ 16 and its reverse, opposite-sailing sister convoy QP 12, on May 21. Capitalizing on the increasing hours of daylight in the Arctic, German dive bombers and torpedo planes based in northern Norway had sunk six out of thirty-five merchant ships from PQ 16 but none from QP 12. Hampered by the increasing hours of daylight, the Arctic U-boats had sunk one freighter from PQ 16, the 6,200-ton American Syros.

Under heavy pressure from Washington, the Admiralty sailed PQ 17 and its reverse, QP 13, on June 27. PQ 17 was the largest Murmansk convoy yet. The grim saga of this convoy will be related in due course. Suffice to say for now that it was a disaster, the worst convoy debacle of the war, and that the British refused to sail PQ 18 until all conditions in the Arctic were more favorable for the Allies. Partly as a result of this decision, on July 14, the battleship Washington and four destroyers* left the Home Fleet and returned to the States.

On the other side of the globe, preparations for Watchtower, the invasion of Guadalcanal, proceeded apace but on a shoestring. Hampered by a shortage of everything, the amphibious forces suffered yet another setback when, on August 4, the modern (1935) American destroyer Tucker struck a mine and sank off the island of Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides.

Watchtower finally took place August 7. The carriers Enterprise, Saratoga, Wasp and the battleship North Carolina, recently transferred from the Atlantic Fleet to the Pacific Fleet, as well as numerous heavy and light cruisers backed up the landing forces. Thirty American destroyers, including seven recently transferred from the Atlantic Fleet to the Pacific Fleet, provided escorts and screens for the naval forces. America’s first “jeep” carrier, Long Island, also fresh from the Atlantic Fleet, ferried fighter aircraft to a position near the island and flew them off. Japanese aircraft badly mauled the American destroyer Mugford on D day, and the American destroyer Jarvis on the day following.

On the second night of this operation, August 8-9, a Japanese force of seven cruisers (five heavy, two light) and one destroyer rushed from Rabaul to attack the Allied invaders. This engagement, a tragedy of errors known as the Battle of Savo Island, resulted in a devastating setback to the Allied naval forces. The Japanese sank four heavy cruisers (Astoria, Canberra, Quincy, Vincennes), damaged the destroyer Jarvis, and badly wrecked the heavy cruiser Chicago, which limped back to California for months of repairs.

The loss of these warships endangered the Allied troops who had landed on Guadalcanal, established a foothold, and captured the Japanese landing strip, renamed Henderson Field. As a consequence, Admiral King directed Ingersoll to recall from the British Home Fleet all other American warships, including the heavy cruisers Wichita and Tuscaloosa and the remaining two American destroyers, Emmons and Rodman. King then sent the new battleships Washington and South Dakota to the Pacific with an escort of six recently commissioned destroyers.

In subsequent days, Allied and Japanese warships clashed again and again in the Solomon Island chain, resulting in further heavy Allied losses. On August 22, Japanese surface forces sank the destroyer Blue. Two days later aircraft from Saratoga sank the Japanese “jeep” carrier Ryujo, but Japanese aircraft hit and badly mangled the fleet carrier Enterprise, which limped to Pearl Harbor for repairs. On August 31, a Japanese submarine, 1-123, hit and badly damaged the carrier Saratoga, her second unfortunate encounter with an enemy submarine in 1942. Two weeks later, on September 15, the Japanese submarine 1-19 hit and so badly damaged the carrier Wasp that she had to be sunk by the destroyer Lansdowne, leaving only one battle-ready Allied carrier in the Pacific, Hornet. That same day, the Japanese submarine 1-15 hit and badly damaged the battleship North Carolina and the modern destroyer O’Brien. North Carolina limped to Pearl Harbor for extended repairs, but while en route to San Francisco for repairs, O’Brien came apart and sank on October 19. The destroyer Lang, steaming in company, rescued the crew.

All the while, warships of the shrinking Atlantic Fleet faithfully escorted troop convoys (ATs and NAs) from New York and Halifax to the British Isles and vice versa (TAs). The old battleships Arkansas, New York, and Texas, the light cruisers Brooklyn and Philadelphia, and destroyers provided the surface escort. Allied aircraft on the Eastern Seaboard and in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Iceland, and the British Isles provided air escort. No U-boat attacked any of these troopship convoys and only two incidents marred an otherwise perfect record:

• In the evening of August 22 in heavy fog off Halifax, the modern (1940) destroyer Buck, the flagship of John B. Heffernan, commander of a group of thirteen destroyers escorting troop convoy AT 20 (ten merchant ships plus New York and Philadelphia), collided with the transport Awatea. Seven men on Buck perished. Ordered to assist these damaged vessels, the modern (1941) destroyer Ingraham collided with a Navy tanker, Chemung, and sank so swiftly that only eleven men were saved. The damaged tanker Chemung took the severely damaged destroyer Buck in tow until the Navy tug Cherokee arrived at the scene. The badly damaged transport Awatea, escorted by the destroyer Bristol, turned back and put into Boston, as did Chemung and Buck. As a consequence of these accidents, convoy AT 20, which proceeded to the British Isles, was reduced by five ships, Ingraham was the fifth destroyer of the Atlantic Fleet to be lost in less than a year.

• On September 3, while inbound to New York in convoy TA 18, the big American liner Manhattan, converted to troopship Wakefield, caught fire. The convoy escort (Arkansas, Brooklyn, and nine American destroyers) and numerous vessels that put out from Halifax removed about 1,500 passengers and crew from Wakefield and took them on to New York. Two tugboats towed Wakefield into Halifax, escorted by the Treasury-class, Coast Guard cutter Campbell. Rebuilt in the States, Wakefield returned to service in 1944.

While these operations were in progress during the summer of 1942, the U-boat campaign in the Atlantic gradually changed in tempo, emphasis, and character. Two important factors led to the change.

First was a significant growth in the number of attack boats in the Atlantic U-boat force. This occurred because of the unusually low combat loss rate over the summer months, the completion of the buildup of the Arctic-Norway U-boat force to Hitler’s mandated level, a decision to limit the buildup of the Mediterranean U-boat force, and the arrival of a flood of new boats that had been delayed in the Baltic by the heavy winter-ice conditions.*

The growth of the Atlantic U-boat force was significant, yet far less so than is usually depicted. Taking into account gains and losses, the force levels on the first of the month were as follows:

* Includes all attack boats of the Atlantic force undergoing battle-damage repairs, such as U-123, U-124, U-333, U-563, U-753.

The second factor was the sudden buildup of the Atlantic U-tanker force. In addition to the three aforementioned Type XIV tankers (U-459, U-460, U-461), the new U-462, U-463, and U-464 set sail for the Atlantic in the summer. One of these, U-464, was lost as she entered the Atlantic, but the other five Type XIVs survived. In addition, pending the correction of defects in the SMA mines, the big minelayer U-116 continued in service as a provisional U-tanker.

These six U-tankers plus the net gain of twenty-six Type VIIs over the summer offered the possibility of renewing the U-boat wolf pack war against the important North Atlantic convoy run in the distant Greenland “air gap” on a much firmer basis. The fresh VIIs outbound from Germany or France could attack en masse Outbound North and Outbound North (Slow) convoys proceeding westward toward Canada into ever-decreasing ASW measures, refuel from a U-tanker, then, provided they still had torpedoes, attack the Halifax and Slow Convoys proceeding eastward to the British Isles while they were still in the “air gap.”

The biggest weakness in this scheme was that an extremely high percentage of the U-boats so assigned were to be new ones fresh from Germany. Since these green boats were to confront the most well-organized and experienced ASW air and surface forces in the Allied navies, U-boat losses were bound to rise sharply.

The possibility of renewing the convoy war on the North Atlantic run arose, coincidentally, with the increase in effectiveness of Allied ASW measures in the Americas, including convoying in the Eastern, Gulf, and Caribbean Sea Frontiers. The resulting decrease in successes by the Type VIIs in those waters strengthened the hands of those in Berlin who had objected to sending VIIs to the Americas in the first place. Although Dönitz had plans to mount some wolf pack, or group, attacks on Allied convoys in the Caribbean by some veteran VIIs supported by U-tankers, he fully recognized the difficulties this entailed, including the debilitating impact of the tropical climate on the VII crews, and was more than willing to curtail and cancel those plans in favor of a shift of those veteran VIIs to the North Atlantic run to renew the U-boat war in those latitudes.

The arrival of the new U-tankers was also a timely boon for the Type IXs. The U-tankers enabled the IXs assigned to the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean to extend patrols in the hunting areas and to reach the approaches to the Panama Canal and Brazil without being obsessively concerned about running out of fuel on the way home. In addition, the U-tankers enabled Donitz to again assign IXs to patrol the distant Freetown area and beyond to interdict ship traffic in West African waters, including tankers coming from Trinidad under the new and temporary routing arrangement.

The gradual shift of patrol areas by the VIIs and IXs in the summer of 1942 developed as follows:

* Sixteen sailed but the VIICs U-71 and U-552, which attacked a convoy en route, returned to France for replenishment and/or battle-damage repairs, and the VIID minelayer U-214 was damaged by a British aircraft in the Bay of Biscay and forced to abort.

 Eleven sailed; one, U-105, was damaged by a British aircraft in the Bay of Biscay and forced to abort.

 Originally bound for the Americas via the North Atlantic, U-43, U-174, and U-176 became involved in convoy chases and remained in that area.

Hitler very nearly upset all plans for deployment of U-boats over the summer. He suddenly proposed that Germany launch war against blatantly pro-American Brazil, which had provided the Americans with numerous air and naval bases, with a surprise attack by “ten or fifteen” boats operating against her major seaports. Donitz was intrigued, but in order to mount this surprise attack, it would have been necessary to cancel almost all other deployment plans, including the U-boat campaign in North American waters. He therefore urged that the attack on Brazil be delayed until he had more attack boats and a U-tanker to support them.

Berlin overrode Dönitz. On June 15, Hitler directed Admiral Raeder to execute the mission in early August, and five days later the OKM issued an order to Dönitz to proceed. Dönitz in turn reluctantly designated ten U-boats for the task, supported by the provisional tanker U-116, and issued the skippers secret orders. However, when Hitler’s foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, got wind of the plan, he objected to it vigorously on the grounds that it might alienate the pro-German governments in Argentina and Chile. On June 26, Hitler canceled the scheme.

At about this same time, Hitler became convinced that the Allies intended to seize the Portuguese Azores and Madeira islands. At a meeting with Admiral Raeder on June 15, according to the notes of the conference, Hitler proposed “that an operational group of submarines be held in readiness for the purpose of quick interference in case the enemy should suddenly strike….” Raeder demurred, stating that “we cannot afford to divert a considerable number of submarines for such a purpose alone.” However, Raeder went on, it might be possible to form such a group “within the framework of our present submarine warfare.” That is, to promptly assemble a pack from the streams of U-boats going to and from the Americas and West Africa. This solution satisfied Hitler.

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