Military history

SHARPLY DIMINISHING RETURNS FROM THE TYPE IXS

Eleven Type IXs sailed for the Americas in June. One of the first was the veteran IXB U-105, commanded by Heinrich Schuch. On the morning of June 11, a radar-equipped Sunderland of Australian Squadron 10, piloted by Eric B. Martin, caught the boat on the surface about 150 miles west of Cape Finisterre. Martin dropped six shallow-set Torpex depth charges and two 250-pound ASW bombs. The attack severely damaged U-105, killing or wounding about ten men. Dönitz diverted four inbound and outbound boats to assist U-105, but none could find her. She limped unassisted into El Ferrol, Spain, and after makeshift repairs, the boat resailed on June 28 with a German aircraft escort and reached France. Repairs kept her out of action until late November. Pilot Martin and his copilot, Jaques Hazard, a Frenchman, as well as his navigator, A. Meaker, were killed in action during the next several weeks.

Of the ten Type IXs that reached American waters, six were new. The presence of the U-tankers enabled four of these to sail directly from Kiel to the Americas without stopping in France to replenish. The oldest and most experienced of the four veteran boats, U-66, had a new skipper, replacing the Ritterkreuz holder Richard Zapp. Two boats—the new U-166 and U-66—had to carry out hated mining missions.

Three IXs sailed during the first half of the month: Wilfried Reichmann’s new U-153, Walther Kölle’s U-154, and Axel-Olaf Loewe’s U-505. Kölle in U-154 had aborted one patrol to the Americas and completed another, sinking five confirmed ships. Loewe in U-505 had made one prior patrol, a long one to Freetown, sinking four ships. Kölle in U-154 was to patrol the Gulf of Mexico; Reichmann in U-153 and Loewe in U-505 were to patrol the western Caribbean near Panama.

While still in the Atlantic approaching the Caribbean, all three boats encountered heavy unescorted traffic northwest of Anegada. The green skipper, Wilfried Reichmann in U-153, came upon four freighters in four days. An engine failure foiled the attack on the first, but he sank the other three (two American, one British) for 16,200 tons from June 25 to June 29. Nearby, Walther Kölle in the sister ship U-154 claimed sinking a ship of 3,200 tons on June 28, but that claim could not be confirmed. Also nearby, Axel-Olaf Loewe in U-505 on June 28 and 29 sank two freighters for 12,600 tons, the first after an arduous seven-hour stern chase. The second was the 7,200-ton Liberty ship Thomas McKean, on her maiden voyage to the war zone. Loewe closed the lifeboats of McKeanto ask if the survivors needed provisions or water and gave them a course to the nearest land.

These three IXs entered the Caribbean via the Windward and Mona passages in early July. Leading the others by several days, Kölle in U-154 sailed south of Cuba, then north through the Yucatan Channel into the Gulf of Mexico. In the Yucatan Channel on July 6, he sank the 65-ton Panamanian trawler Lalita by gun. While patrolling off Alabama and the west coast of Florida, Kölle shot a two-torpedo fan at a freighter but missed and, during an emergency dive, lost a man overboard, a demoralizing episode. On July 19, he reported a leak in a fuel-oil ballast tank that left a telltale trace in the water and could not be fixed. Kerneval first refused and then approved Kölle’s request to abort. When Kölle arrived in France after an 81-day patrol, having sunk only the 65-ton trawler, he went to other duty and Dönitz gave command of the U-154 to Heinrich Schuch, whose IXB U-105 had been bombed and disabled.

Entering the Caribbean via the Mona Passage, Reichmann in U-153 and Loewe in U-505 sailed westerly to Panama, passing north of Aruba and Curaçao. On July 5 and 6, Army Air Forces crews of the 59th Bombardment Squadron, in three different radar-equipped B-18s, reported attacks on U-boats. Each dropped four shallow-set Mark XVII depth charges. Inasmuch as Loewe in U-505 did not log an air attack at this time, the three B-18s probably attacked Reichmann in U-153. The airmen reported “damage” but did not claim a sinking. The extent of “damage” to U-153, if any, is not known.

While sixty miles off Almirante, on the evening of July 11, a small seaport in northern Panama,. Reichmann in U-153 encountered the 560-ton American Navy net tender Mimosa (YN-21), which mounted a 3” gun. Mimosa excitedly reported to the Panama Sea Frontier that a U-boat had attacked her, firing three torpedoes, indicating that the green Reichmann mistook her for a larger warship. The first missed the bow; the other two ran under the shallow keel. Mimosa boldly shot two rounds from her 3” gun at the U-boat.

The commander of the Panama Sea Frontier, Clifford van Hook, issued orders to hunt this U-boat to destruction. A radar-equipped Catalina of Patrol Squadron 3 reached the scene shortly after midnight and the nearby PC-458 (also known as U.S.S. Evelyn R.), mounting sonar, a 3” gun, and twelve depth charges, joined in the hunt. At about 4:00 A.M., the Catalina got a radar contact at four miles and dropped two brilliant parachute flares. These illuminated a surfaced U-boat, which the Catalina attacked, dropping four Mark XVII depth charges, two set for 25 feet and two for 50 feet. The crew reported a perfect “straddle.” However, when daylight came, there was no sign of a disabled U-boat or debris. Nonetheless, van Hook directed PC-458 to work the area with sonar and saturated the skies with Army and Navy aircraft (B-18s, Catalinas, P-39 fighters, etc.).

The aircraft and the PC hunted the U-boat all-out for twenty-four hours. Finally, at about 10:00 A.M. on July 13, a Catalina reported “a moving oil slick” and directed PC-458 to the spot. After gaining sonar contact, the PC let go ten depth charges set for 150 to 300 feet. Meanwhile, the circling aircraft dropped eight bombs and twenty-four depth charges, a total of forty-two missiles. Other than the oil slick, no sign of a U-boat appeared. Toward evening, the new (1942) American destroyer Lansdowne, commanded by William R. Smedberg III, relieved the PC. Lansdowne promptly got sonar contact and dropped four 600-pound depth charges. Nothing further was ever heard from U-153. In a controversial decision, Washington gave equal credit for the kill to the Lansdowneand to the B-18s of Army Air Forces Squadron 59, which had supposedly bombed her off Aruba on July 5 and 6.

Not many miles away, Loewe in U-505 patrolled off Panama. A crewman wrote: “For sixteen days we moved slowly back and forth off Colon. Not a thing in sight; the sea was empty. Finally, in disgust, Loewe took the boat south [closer] to the coast…. Here on 21 July we underwent our first ordeal, a plane almost caught us on the surface and dropped two bombs before we had even fifty meters of water over us. U-505 suffered no damage, however, and no further attack came.” The next day, July 22, U-505 sank by gun the 110-ton Colombian sailing ship Roamar. After that, Loewe became “ill” and was relieved by his first watch officer, Herbert Nollau, who returned the boat to France. Loewe was sent to other duty.

These three Type IX patrols, mounted at such expense in resources, were unmitigated disasters. Within the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, the three boats, meeting strong air patrols and convoying, sank only two sailing ships for 175 tons. One green boat, U-153, had been lost; the other two appear to have been badly mismanaged.

Another new Type IX, U-166, commanded by Hans-Gunter Kuhlmann, age twenty-eight, former merchant marine officer and first watch officer to Werner Hartmann on U-37, was assigned to lay TMB (magnetic) mines at the mouth of the Mississippi River. The U-166 was Kuhlmann’s second command. His first, the new Type VII U-580, had been rammed and sunk by a target ship in Baltic exercises in November 1941. His crew was saved and assigned to U-166. Launched November 3,1941, the U-166 had been rushed to completion and commissioned on March 23. After merely two months and nine days of workup in the Baltic, U-166 sailed for France. She arrived June 10 and sailed on to the Americas one week later with six torpedoes in her bow and stern tubes, nine mines stowed on the deck plates in the bow compartment, and thirteen other torpedoes stowed internally and externally.

Approaching the Gulf of Mexico via the Old Bahama Channel and the Straits of Florida, Kuhlmann found plenty of action. On July 10, he attacked a small convoy (two freighters, two escorts) but all six torpedoes missed or malfunctioned, perhaps as a result of the rushed training in the Baltic. The next day, July 11, he sank by gun the 84-ton Dominican sailing vessel Carmen. Near the north end of the Windward Passage on July 13, he encountered a large, heavily escorted convoy of eleven ships, from which he torpedoed and sank a 2,300-ton American freighter. Passing through the Straits of Florida on July 16, he sank by gun the 16-ton American trawler Gertrude.

Kuhlmann reported that he planted his nine mines on the night of July 24-25 at the mouth of the Mississippi River, about 650 yards off the jetty heads. The mines had delayed-action fuses to enable Kuhlmann to clear the area. Something went wrong; none of the mines ever detonated. But on July 30, Kuhlmann sank by torpedo the armed and escorted 5,200-ton American cargo-passenger vessel Robert E. Lee, jammed with men, women, and children en route from Trinidad to New Orleans. Although this ship sank in fifteen minutes, only seventeen of the 407 persons on board perished. The escort PC-566, the SC 579, and a tugboat rescued the other 390 from twenty-two lifeboats and rafts.

Coast Guard seaplanes based in Houma, Louisiana, routinely patrolled the mouth of the Mississippi River. At 1:40 on the afternoon of August 1, pilot Henry C. White, flying at 1,500 feet, saw a U-boat on the surface. White dived immediately to attack, and at 250 feet he dropped his single Mark XVII depth charge, set to detonate at 25 feet. Craning out the window, his radioman, George H. Boggs, Jr., reported what appeared to be a direct hit on the starboard side. In due course, two Army observation aircraft and White’s relief arrived and he flew back to Houma. The Gulf Sea Frontier credited White with “probable damage” to a U-boat, but in fact White had sunk U-166 in about 120 feet of water with the loss of all hands. Since the kill was not recognized at the time, no effort to salvage the boat was made. It was the only U-boat sunk by Coast Guard aircraft in the war. For this feat, White was belatedly awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.*

The four new IXs that sailed from Kiel directly to the Americas in June all had miserable patrols.

The first to leave were U-171 and U-173. The U-171 was commanded by Günther Pfeffer, age twenty-seven, who had been first watch officer to Ritterkreuz holder Heinrich Bleichrodt in U-67 during that boat’s assignment to R&D. The U-173 was commanded by Heinz-Ehler Beucke, age thirty-eight, a senior officer from the crew of 1922. As planned, on July 6 both boats refueled from the new tanker U-460, commanded by Friedrich Schafer, which was positioned north of Bermuda. Kerneval then assigned the boats to patrol the western end of the Gulf of Mexico, going via the Windward Passage to the waters south of Cuba, thence north through the Yucatan Channel. Gaining a few days on U-173, Pfeffer in U-171 passed through the Yucatan Channel into the Gulf of Mexico on July 22. He continued northwest to the area near Galveston, Texas, where he sank a 4,400-ton Mexican freighter. He then cruised easterly to the mouth of the Mississippi River, where Kuhlmann in U-166, having laid his mines, was stalking ships with torpedoes. On July 29, Pfeffer reported a double miss on the tanker Esso Richmond. On July 31, he found an eleven-ship convoy hugging the shore, but a Coast Guard aircraft drove him off with a depth charge.

Pfeffer in U-171 patrolled the area from the Mississippi River west to the Mexican coastline for a full month, August 4 to September 4. Harassed by “strong” air patrols and frustrated by coast-hugging convoys, he was able to sink two tankers in that period: the 6,800-ton American R. M. Parker, Jr. on August 13, and the 6,500-ton Mexican Amatlán on September 4. He then set sail for France, going by way of the Yucatan Channel to the Caribbean and the Mona Passage to the Atlantic. On September 24 he refueled a second time from a tanker, the new U-461, commanded by Wolf Stiebler.

Approaching Lorient on the afternoon of October 9 at the end of this 115-day patrol, Pfeffer in U-171 was directed to rendezvous with an escort at 4:00 P.M. He arrived two hours early, strayed slightly off course, and struck a British mine. The U-171 sank like a stone. The escort arrived and rescued thirty men, including Pfeffer and all of his officers, but twenty-two of the crew were killed in the sinking.

• • •

Trailing U-171 by a few days, Beucke in U-173 went through the Windward Passage into the Caribbean on July 19. While passing westbound close to the Cayman Islands, Beucke was caught and bombed by an Allied aircraft. Reporting this mishap to Kerneval, he stated that both periscopes were out of commission and that “repairs were improbable.” He requested and gained permission to withdraw to open ocean—beyond range of Caribbean-based ASW aircraft—to attempt periscope repairs. However, the crew was unable to do the job.

Kerneval canceled U-173’s assignment to the Gulf of Mexico and directed Beucke to patrol in the open ocean south to Dutch Guiana (Surinam). Beucke complied with these orders or with minor alterations to them for a full month. In that time he reported only two ships, one on August 8 and one on August 17. He shot two torpedoes at the first ship but missed. He could not gain shooting position for the second.

Then came a second calamity. On August 27, another ASW aircraft caught and bombed U-173. Beucke reported that the explosion knocked out five of his six torpedo tubes and smashed four topside canisters and the G7a air torpedoes they contained. Both periscopes were still out; the boat could not dive deep.

Upon receiving this message, Kerneval ordered Beucke to bring U-173 home to France. On the way, he chased a fast 20,000-ton ocean liner, but lost the race. He refueled for the second time from another tanker, the new U-462, commanded by Bruno Vowe, age thirty-eight. He arrived in France on September 20, completing a 98-day patrol, during which he had sunk no ships. He left the boat for other duty.

The second two DCs to sail from Kiel direct to the Americas were the longer-range Type DCCs, U-508, commanded by Georg Staats, age twenty-six, and U-509, commanded by Karl-Heinz Wolff, age thirty-two. The U-508 was Staats’s second command. His first, the Type VIIC U-80, had had a battery explosion in the Baltic and had been relegated to a school boat. The U-508 and U-509 refueled from Friedrich Schafer’s tanker U-460. They were then directed to patrol the Straits of Florida.

Wolff in U-509 headed for his patrol area in a roundabout way, via the Mona Passage and the Yucatan Channel. Upon reaching the channel on August 2, he was depth-charged by ASW aircraft and notified Kerneval that it was necessary for U-509 to withdraw for repairs. The next day he reported that it was “impossible to disperse oil trace.” Slowly retracing his steps, Wolff retired through the Yucatan Channel to the Caribbean, thence to open ocean east of Trinidad. Like U-173, U-509 was bombed a second time. On August 25 Wolff reported that he was “ill” and that he was returning to France. When he arrived on September 12, having sunk nothing whatsoever, he left the boat for other duty.

Inbound to the Straits of Florida via the old Bahama Channel, Staats in U-508 encountered a “battleship” escorted by three “destroyers” with a tanker and a fast freighter. The “destroyers” thwarted his attack on the “battleship.” He fired three torpedoes at the tanker and four at the freighter, but all seven missiles missed or malfunctioned. He then patrolled the Straits of Florida close to Havana and the north coast of Cuba.

In the two-week period from August 5 to 18, Staats scarcely slept. On August 5 and 6, he found separate convoys, heavily escorted by aircraft. He attacked the second of these, claiming one certain and one probable hit, but the hits could not be confirmed. Aircraft attacking with bombs and depth charges forced him off before he could mount a second attack. On August 12 he charged into another convoy, escorted by three “destroyers” and two Catalinas. Two of four torpedoes missed or malfunctioned, but the other two hit, sinking two small Cuban coasters for 2,700 tons. While evading the “destroyers,” Staats reported, he employed sonar-deceiving Bolde (bubble targets or noisemakers) with “good” results. On August 17, he expended his last torpedoes on yet another convoy, claiming two hits but these could not be confirmed either. Homebound to France, Staats met the outbound Type IXC U-163 from which he obtained fuel in exchange for drinking water.

These four new IXs sailing direct from Kiel turned in the worst Type IX performances of the war to then: five confirmed ships sunk for 20,300 tons. This was an average of about 1.25 ships for 4,000 tons per boat per patrol. Beucke in U-173 and Wolff in U-509 sank no ships whatsoever. Pfeffer in U-171 lost his boat and twenty-two men.*

The other two IXs of the June group, U-66 and U-160, patrolled near Trinidad.

Georg Lassen in U-160, who had made one prior patrol to the Cape Hatteras-Cape Lookout area, sinking five ships for about 37,000 tons, reached Trinidad about July 11. Patrolling the main shipping route in the narrow passage between the islands of Trinidad and Tobago, Lassen encountered “heavy” ASW air patrols. He got off to a wobbly start, missing two big freighters with a two-torpedo fan, but he soon compensated. In the period from July 16 to 21, he sank three ships: a 5,500-ton freighter and two tankers, the 7,000-ton Panamanian Beaconlight and the 8,100-ton British Donovania. Moving around to the east of Trinidad, in the ten days from July 25 to August 4, he sank three more freighters for 8,700 tons and savaged the 6,200-ton Norwegian tanker Havsten with torpedoes and gunfire. Total confirmed sinkings: six ships (two tankers) for about 29,000 tons. Claiming seven ships, including Havsten, sunk for 61,568 tons, Lassen qualified for a Ritterkreuz, which was awarded by radio while he was en route to France.

The new skipper of the veteran U-66 was Friedrich Markworth, age twenty-seven, who had been first watch officer on Werner Winter’s U-103 during two highly successful patrols to the Americas. One important task he had to carry out was to lay six TMB (magnetic) mines in the port of Castries, on the island of St. Lucia, where the Americans had established a naval base to keep watch on adjacent Vichy Martinique.

In addition to the six mines, U-66 carried nineteen torpedoes, thirteen internally and six in topside canisters. In case he should encounter shipping en route to the Caribbean, Markworth sailed with all six torpedo tubes loaded and the six mines stored above the floor plates in the bow compartment. As it happened, on July 9, during the voyage out, Markworth did encounter a ship, the 6,400-ton Yugoslavian freighter Triglav, which he sank with two torpedoes. He then loaded each of those empty tubes with three TMB mines.

Markworth stood off the port of Castries submerged at about noon on July 20. When the net boom opened to permit entry of a small craft, he boldly took U-66 inside. Cruising at periscope depth, he quickly laid the six mines. He then backed out as the net boom was closing. Equipped with delayed-action fuses, the mines activated later. Nine days after they were sown, on July 29, a small, fast-moving launch triggered one mine. No one was hurt, but local authorities immediately closed the port to shipping and sent for a minesweeper. On August 2, two fast British motor launches from Trinidad triggered three more mines, but neither boat was damaged. Minesweepers cleared the other two mines and Castries reopened to traffic on about August 9.

Markworth’s mines caused no harm—other than frayed nerves—but he went on to conduct a notable first patrol. He sank three more freighters near Trinidad between July 26 and August 6. Then came a frustrating lull of three weeks during which he saw nothing. Doggedly patrolling east of Trinidad in the open Atlantic, on August 28 he apparently discovered a new shipping lane between Trinidad and Cape Town, South Africa. In three days he sank four more ships: three freighters laden with war matériel for the British forces in Egypt, and the 8,600-ton British tanker Winamac. Homebound on September 9, he sank the 6,400-ton Swede Peiping, en route from Buenos Aires to New York, bringing his total for the patrol to nine ships sunk for about 49,000 tons. The celebration was muted by the death of a crewman, who was buried at sea on September 13.

Per plan, U-66 rendezvoused with Schafer’s tanker U-460. Markworth requested a routine refueling of 25 cubic meters, and Schafer obliged—or so both skippers believed. But Schafer’s crew made a mistake and delivered 16 cubic meters of oil and 9 cubic meters of seawater to U-66. When the mistake was later discovered, Markworth was forced to sneak into El Ferrol, Spain, and refuel a second time from the “interned” German tanker Max Albrecht, to which he transferred a sailor who was seriously ill. The boat finally arrived in France on September 29, after ninety-six days at sea. The sailor who was left in Spain recovered and returned to France in time for the boat’s next patrol.

The returns of the ten Type IXs that sailed to the Americas in June were disappointing: thirty-one ships for about 135,000 tons, including four trawlers or sailing ships. This was an average of 3.1 ships of 13,500 tons per boat per patrol, a drastic drop from the results of the IXs that sailed in May. Two boats, Markworth in U-66 and Lassen in U-160, sank well over half the total: fifteen ships for 78,200 tons. Two boats, Beucke’s U-173 and Wolff’s U-509, sank no ships at all. Three Type IXs were lost: Reichmann’s U-153 and Kuhlmann’s U-166 in American waters to American forces, and U-171 to a British mine off Lorient.

In view of the so-so returns of the VIIs, the combined results of the twenty-three boats that reached the Americas in June were likewise disappointing: fifty-eight ships (including all the trawlers and sailing vessels) sunk for about 259,000 tons. This was an average of about 2.5 ships for about 11,260 tons sunk per boat per patrol. Altogether, six boats (three VIIs and three IXs) of this group had been lost (five with all hands), a casualty rate of 26 percent. Clearly the U-boat campaign in American waters was returning less and less for greater and greater risk and losses, but Dönitz was not yet ready to give up that campaign.

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