Military history

“WE ARE AT WAR”

In the last week of October, U-boats in several areas of the North Atlantic intercepted convoys. The first report came from Eitel-Friedrich Kentrat’s veteran U-74, en route to Greenland waters. Shortly after leaving France, on the morning of October 27 Kentrat found and reported the fast Outbound North 28, about 550 miles west of Ireland. Since the convoy appeared to be headed toward the shrinking Reisswolf pack southeast of Greenland, Dönitz ordered Kentrat to withhold attack and to shadow, while he moved the five remaining Reisswolf boats into position. Dönitz, however, was not optimistic. The weather was foul and two of the five Reisswolf boats were very low on fuel.

The veteran Type IXB U-106, sailing fresh from France with plenty of fuel, joined in the chase. She had a new skipper, Hermann Rasch, age twenty-seven, replacing Ritterkreuz holder Jürgen Oesten, who had been promoted to command Combat Flotilla 9 at Brest. A weird and disturbing episode had occurred on U-106 shortly after sailing. A gale had suddenly struck the boat in a following sea; a giant wave from astern had “pooped” the bridge, washing all four men on topside watch into the sea. The U-106 had cruised blindly for nearly an hour before the mishap was discovered. Rasch had reversed course to mount a search, but had found no trace of the four men. One consequence of this mishap was that Rasch had to stand bridge watches in place of the lost watch officer, imposing a tremendous added strain on himself.

Kentrat in U-74 mounted a remarkable 1,000-mile chase of Outbound North 28 across the North Atlantic. Based on his continuing reports and beacons, Dönitz moved the Reisswolf group to intercept. Four Reisswolf boats, including Rasch’s newly joined U-106, made contact. However, when Dönitz finally authorized an attack, the strong escort of American destroyers drove off Kentrat and all other boats except Rasch in U-106.

Rasch launched his attack in the early, foggy hours of October 30, about 500 miles east of Newfoundland. He chose two big tankers in ballast and fired two bow torpedoes at each. He missed one tanker but hit the other with both torpedoes. The victim was the old (1921) 9,000-ton U.S. Navy fleet oiler Salinas. Rasch thought—and claimed—that she blew up and disintegrated, but that was not correct. Salinas was badly damaged, but her captain, Harley F. Cope, and his crew held Salinas together* and finally got her into Argentia, escorted by the four-stack destroyer Du Pont. Rasch logged that the American destroyers depth-charged U-106 for nine hours, inflicting considerable damage and flooding aft, and thwarted another attack on the convoy.

The arduous chase of Outbound North 28 brought an end to the operations of the Reisswolf group. Three boats (U-73, U-502, and U-568) that were low on fuel, turned about for France. Two others, U-77 and U-751, held in place southeast of Greenland to cadre a new pack, Stosstrupp. Kentrat in U-74 and Rasch in U-106 continued the chase of Outbound North 28 westward into Newfoundland waters, attempting to bring in the four boats of the Mordbrenner group, which had patrolled off the mouth of Belle Isle Strait, but the attempt failed. Total damage to Outbound North 28: the American tanker Salinas torpedoed but saved.

At about this time the nine boats of the Schlagetod group, which had diverted to chase the armed merchant cruisers and Sierra Leone 89, reached Canadian waters and formed a patrol line to the northeast of Newfoundland. Four of the nine were very low on fuel and could remain only a few days. One boat, Hardegen’s Type IXB U-123, was detached and sent to keep a watch for convoys off Belle Isle Strait, replacing the Mordbrenner group, which had gone south in a futile effort to find Outbound North 28 in the approaches to Newfoundland. Hardegen’s arrival brought the total number of boats in Newfoundland waters to seven, but three of the four boats of the Mordbrenner group were very low on fuel and the fourth, Ritterkreuz holder Bleichrodt’s U-109, was again beset with mechanical difficulties.

The new group Stosstrupp, which was to patrol southeast of Greenland replacing Reisswolf, was to consist initially of eight boats: three on maiden patrols from Germany; two left over from the Reisswolf group; and three boats newly sailed from France, all commanded by Ritterkreuz holders: Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock in U-96, Erich Topp in U-552, and the U-567, commanded by Engelbert Endrass, who had replaced the boat’s original skipper in France.

Group Stosstrupp, however, was stillborn. Upon arriving at his assigned grid square in the early hours of October 31, Erich Topp in U-552 sighted a fast, east-bound convoy. This was Halifax 156, composed of forty-four ships, escorted by five American destroyers. Topp simultaneously attacked one of the destroyers with two torpedoes and got off a contact report.

Topp’s target was the four-stack destroyer Reuben James, commanded by Heywood L. Edwards. One of the two torpedoes hit the “Rube” on the port side, splitting her in half. The bow blew up and sank instantly; the stern remained afloat about five minutes. The other four American destroyers, Benson, Hilary P. Jones, Niblack, and Tarbell, rescued forty-five of the 160-man crew from the oil-covered waters, leaving 115 men of Reuben James, including skipper Edwards and all of his officers, unaccounted for.

The Reuben James was the first U.S. Navy vessel to be sunk by enemy forces in World War II. The loss caused profound shock. The Chief of Naval Operations, Harold R. Stark, said: “Whether the country knows it or not, we are at war.” The folksinger Woody Guthrie memorialized the sinking in a ballad. President Roosevelt seized upon the loss to build further support for his intervention in the Atlantic and his request for repeal of the Neutrality Act. The Congress responded quickly but cautiously to the proposed legislation and after a lively debate, passed several amendments to the Neutrality Act that satisfied Roosevelt.*

Topp shadowed convoy Halifax 156, but there were only two other boats close by: Lehmann-Willenbrock in U-96 and Endrass in U-567. On the morning of November 1, Topp and Endrass mounted a second attack on the convoy but failed to hit their targets. That same morning a British escort group, which included the ex-American four-stack destroyer Buxton and the destroyer Wolverine, came up to take over from the Americans. Buxton reported that one or two U-boats fired torpedoes at her, but she evaded and launched a counterattack, dropping sixteen depth charges before losing sonar contact. Undamaged, Topp and Endrass continued to shadow and Dönitz sent out Condors, but British air and surface escorts thwarted further attacks on Halifax 156.

In the meantime, Lehmann-Willenbrock in U-96, responding to Topp’s contact, had run into another convoy, Outbound South 10, en route to Sierra Leone. He shadowed it southward, bringing up some boats of group Stosstrupp in that area. With Topp, Endrass, Lehmann-Willenbrock, and other Stosstrupp boats chasing convoys in opposite directions, Dönitz canceled plans to form Stosstrupp and sent the two holdover boats from Reisswolf, U-77 and U-751, to join group Schlagetod northeast of Newfoundland and—confusingly—renamed group Schlagetod group Raubritter.

By the end of October, the four-boat group Mordbrenner, the first pack to patrol “American waters,” had achieved nothing. Groping through fog, outwitted by British codebreakers, harassed by green Canadian aircraft crews, not one of the boats had sunk a ship. In response to orders from Kerneval, the pack had moved southeast in an attempt to intercept Outbound North 28. But no Mordbrenner boat found that convoy. Two Type VIIs of the pack, critically low on fuel, had to break off and head for France, and Ritterkreuz holder Heinrich Bleichrodt in U-109, bedeviled by mechanical problems, had to withdraw well to sea to make repairs. Homebound, Alfred Schlieper, age twenty-six, in the new VII U-208, sank a 3,900-ton British freighter. When he reported that he could not fully repair U-109, Bleichrodt was assigned to escort blockade runners.

Only one Mordbrenner boat was left in Newfoundland waters by October 31. She was the new VIIC U-374, commanded by Unno von Fischel, age twenty-five, son of a World War I U-boat commander who was an admiral in the Kriegsmarine. Thirty-three days out from Kiel on his maiden patrol, von Fischel was also critically low on fuel. The luckless hunt for Outbound North 28 had drawn him about fifty miles southeast of Cape Race, Newfoundland. There, while preparing to depart for France, he found and hit a lone 5,100-ton British freighter, King Malcolm, which sank in thirty seconds.

Apparently this ship went down before it could radio an alarm, for only a few hours later a big eastbound convoy sailed directly into U-374’s path. This was Slow Convoy 52, comprised of thirty-six ships, which had sailed from Sydney, Nova Scotia, on October 29, with nine Canadian escorts. After it had cleared Cape Race—the most southeasterly point of Newfoundland—the Admiralty had diverted it due north, apparently in an effort to avoid the U-boats that had been stalking Outbound North 28. The diversion unwittingly pointed the convoy toward group Raubritter (ex-Schlagetod) and—by another happenstance—at von Fischel’s U-374.

Upon receiving von Fischel’s contact report on November 1, Dönitz directed him to shadow and withhold attack until the eight boats of group Raubritter and all other available boats in the Newfoundland waters could be brought up. The other boats included Kentrat’s U-74 and Rasch’s U-106, which had chased Outbound North 28, and Hardegen’s U-123, which had been detached from Raubritter to scout Belle Isle Strait. These orders put twelve boats on the trail of Slow Convoy 52, including the shadowing U-374. But four of the eight Raubritter boats and the U-374 were so low on fuel that they could not pursue for more than a day or two.

During November 2, von Fischel in U-374 shadowed the convoy through fog and attempted to attack. He was repulsed by the Canadian corvette Buctouche, which forced him off and down. Buctouche threw off six depth charges, which caused minor damage, but von Fischel’s biggest worry was his fuel shortage. To conserve oil, he bottomed at 305 feet and lay doggo. Later he surfaced and set a course for France.

Group Raubritter and Hardegen in U-123 raced south to intercept the Slow Convoy 52. Late on the afternoon of November 2, Hardegen made contact and radioed his position and shadowed for nine hours, but he did not attack, a curious and unexplained lapse for which he was later criticized. However, his reports and beacons brought several Raubritter boats into shooting position in the early hours of November 3. Hans-Heinz Linder in U-202 sank two ships for 6,600 tons and Hans-Peter Hinsch in U-569 sank one for 3,300 tons. Later that same day, Rolf Mützelburg in U-203 sank two other ships for 10,500 tons, but a depth-charging escort prevented him from making a second attack. Fleeing U-boats in the fog, two other ships of the convoy ran aground, but they were salvaged. Total damage to Slow Convoy 52 by U-boats: five confirmed ships sunk for 20,400 tons.

When the Admiralty realized that it had erred in rerouting Slow Convoy 52 northward, it made the unprecedented decision to abort the convoy. The remaining twenty-nine disorganized and confused ships groped through fogbound Belle Isle Strait into the Gulf of St. Lawrence and returned to Sydney, Nova Scotia, to sail later with Slow Convoys 53 and 54. The nine Canadian escorts proceeded eastward, per schedule, in order to meet a preassigned westbound convoy. This was the only instance in the war that an entire convoy on the North Atlantic run was aborted.

While racing up to join the battle on November 3, Kentrat in U-74 came upon an unidentified outbound convoy in foggy seas. This was probably a Halifax convoy eastbound at 10 knots. In response to Kentrat’s report, Dönitz directed a Raubritter boat, Horst Uphoff’s U-84, and the three newly arrived boats (originally assigned to the stillborn Stosstrupp group) to home on Kentrat’s beacon. But Uphoff in U-84 was too low on fuel to carry out these orders and the new boats could not find Kentrat in U-74. He, too, soon lost the convoy in the fog and having expended a great deal of fuel in his dogged chase of Outbound North 28, Kentrat set a course for France. On the way home he found and sank the 8,500-ton British steamer Nottingham, which was sailing alone.

After Slow Convoy 52 aborted, Dönitz withdrew all U-boats from the far distant Newfoundland waters. Four boats of group Raubritter, including three that had sunk ships from that convoy—Linder in U-202, Mützelburg in U-203, and Hinsch in U-569—headed for France on one diesel to stretch fuel. Upon reaching Brest, Mützelburg was awarded a Ritterkreuz.*

Eight boats that still had fuel, including Rasch in the IXB U-106 and Hardegen in the IXB U-123, and the three new VIIs from Germany, reconstituted group Raubritter on a line south of Greenland. British intelligence pinpointed the location of the group and diverted convoys. Rasch in U-106 had fleeting contact with a convoy escort (described as a “destroyer”) but he was not able to capitalize on the encounter. While en route from France to join Raubritter, the U-561, commanded by Robert Bartels, sank two stragglers for 8,500 tons from Slow Convoy 53. However, no boat of the reconstituted Raubritter group found a convoy. Little by little the group fell away as the boats ran low on fuel. The famous old Type IX U-38, commanded by Heinrich Schuch, who had sunk only one 1,700-ton ship since taking over from Ritterkreuz holder Heinrich Liebe four months earlier, followed U-101 home to the Training Command.*

In the early days of November, Berlin issued orders that had the effect of shutting down the U-boat war on the North Atlantic run again. Twenty U-boats were to be diverted to special missions:

• Eight boats were to support a proposed sortie of the “pocket” battleship Admiral Scheer into the North Atlantic.

• Six boats were to escort incoming or outgoing prize ships, raiders, or blockade runners.

• Six more Type VIIs were to go to the western Mediterranean to thwart a rumored British amphibious landing in Algeria.

Dönitz was dismayed. The diversions to these special tasks, he logged in vast understatement, was “most injurious to our cause.” They meant that the U-boat war against North Atlantic and Gibraltar convoys would “practically have to cease.” He flew to Berlin to protest directly to Admiral Raeder, but he gained only a minor technical concession on the escort missions, which slightly reduced the commitment of U-boats for that purpose.

The eight boats assigned to the Admiral Scheer sortie consisted of four boats already on Arctic patrol, three boats newly sailed from Germany, and one boat from France. The four Arctic boats were to explore and report on the outer limits of the ice fields and broadcast weather reports. The other four boats were to patrol the Denmark Strait and the waters around Iceland to report—and attack—British and American ships of the Home Fleet attempting to intercept Admiral Scheer.

British codebreakers closely followed German preparations for the Scheer breakout. Suspecting that Bismarck’s sister ship, the super-battleship Tirpitz, might accompany Scheer, the Admiralty laid an intricate joint British-American trap to sink both ships, à la Bismarck. In early November, Home Fleet commander Admiral Tovey moved his most powerful ships

After the Scheer breakout was canceled, the OKM released the four boats on reserve near Iceland, but not the boats in the Arctic. Two of the four released boats provided Dönitz a cadre around which to build a small (six-boat) pack, Steuben, for a top-secret special operation of his own: a new—possibly sensational—assault on Allied shipping in Newfoundland waters. Two Ritterkreuz holders in Type IXs, Wolfgang Lüth in U-43 and Georg Schewe in U-105, were to go right into the convoy anchorage and iron-ore loading docks at St. John’s and Conception Bay, New-foundland, respectively, and attack shipping. Four other boats were to remain offshore to provide emergency assistance or rescue, if required, and to capitalize on the havoc and panic that seemed certain to ensue.

This last, feeble offensive U-boat thrust on the North Atlantic run in November also had to be canceled. A new order from Berlin directed Dönitz to prepare to send virtually every combat-ready Type VII of the Atlantic force to the Mediterranean to support the land warfare in North Africa. This new order was to shut down the U-boat offensive on the North Atlantic run for a considerable time.

During October, about 900 ships in twenty convoys crossed the North Atlantic east and west. The many U-boats on patrol were able to mount a telling attack on only one, Slow Convoy 48, from which they sank nine of the fifty merchant ships for 51,000 tons, caused the destruction of two British escorts (four-stack destroyer Broadwater; corvette Gladiolus), and severely damaged the new American destroyer Kearny. In addition, Eric Topp in U-552 sank the American four-stack destroyer Reuben James from convoy Halifax 156. Five other U-boats sank five singles, bringing the total sinkings in this month in the North Atlantic to seventeen ships.

In November the U-boat campaign in the North Atlantic sputtered out almost completely. About 850 merchant ships crossed east and west. Before the withdrawal of the U-boats, the Germans sank five ships from Slow Convoy 52 and forced it to abort, and later two stragglers from Slow Convoy 53, a total of seven ships for about 29,000 tons. In addition, two U-boats sank two singles for a total of 12,400 tons. There were no further losses to enemy action in the eastbound convoys, but in convoy Halifax 161, a Norwegian freighter rammed the American destroyer Du Pont. She survived, but repairs in a Boston shipyard required two months. There were no casualties in the ten Outbound North convoys, but violent gales battered and scattered ships in four of those convoys. Many westbound vessels, including the Canadian destroyer St. Laurent (of Outbound North 33), incurred heavy damage from the howling winds and mountainous seas. On November 25, Western Approaches reported there were twenty-six stragglers from Outbound North 37.

In addition to all other urgent tasks in November, Admiral King had to provide eighteen ships of his Atlantic Fleet for a prolonged special mission in behalf of the British. This was the transport of about 20,000 Commonwealth troops to Cape Town and beyond to the Far East. Designated WS 12X, this convoy of six U.S. Navy troopships sailed from Halifax on November 10. In keeping with King’s policy of providing massive escort for troop convoys whether American or foreign, WS 12X was guarded by eleven warships: the carrier Ranger, the heavy cruisers Quincy and Vincennes, and eight destroyers.* The big Navy tanker Cimarron was included to refuel the warships at sea.

In December, the story on the North Atlantic run was much the same as in November. About 815 ships crossed the North Atlantic east and west in appalling weather. Two new Type IXCs outbound from Germany sank four loaded ships: Ernst Kals, age thirty-five, in U-130, got three for 15,000 tons from Slow Convoy 57, which was nearing the British Isles under British escort; Arend Baumann, age thirty-seven, in U-131, sank a 4,000-ton straggler from convoy Halifax 166, also under British escort. No other U-boat sank a loner. For the third month in a row, there were no casualties in Outbound North convoys. But terrible gales scattered seven of these eleven westbound convoys, severely damaging many more cargo ships and escorts.

The U-boat campaign in the North Atlantic in the last third of 1941 was thus a flop, an unheralded victory for the British and a grim setback for the Germans. During this period about eighty convoys, comprising about 3,700 ships, crossed east and west. The U-boats mounted notable attacks on only four of the 80 convoys, all Slow (or Sydney) escorted by the new, green, ill-equipped Canadian groups: 42, 44, 48, and 52. The Germans sank forty-two merchant ships for about 173,800 tons from those four convoys, plus twelve independents and stragglers for about 60,000 tons, as well as four escorts: the corvettes Levis and Gladiolus, and the destroyers Broadwater and Reuben James. The first group foray into “American waters” forced Slow Convoy 52 into an unprecedented abort, but the majority of its ships promptly resailed.

For the effort expended, this was a shockingly low return for the U-boats—a far cry from the rich harvest of Allied shipping a year earlier during the same time period by half or fewer U-boats. Moreover, the damage to the American destroyer Kearny and tanker Salinas and the sinking of the American destroyer Reuben James had actually worked against the Germans, making it less difficult for Roosevelt to gain the important amendments to the Neutrality Act and drawing the United States ever closer to overt war with the U-boat force.

The lack of success in the North Atlantic led strategists at the OKM and not a few planners in Kerneval to wonder if the U-boat war was any longer worth the large expenditure of manpower and resources, especially in view of the enormous drain caused by the lagging campaign in the Soviet Union. In rebuttal, Dönitz again argued that the mere presence of U-boats in the North Atlantic forced the Allies to continue convoying, which by itself significantly reduced British imports and required a large counterforce of Allied manpower and resources that might otherwise be diverted to other theaters of war. Moreover, the North Atlantic patrolling provided combat experience at remarkably small cost (merely two new boats, U-501 and U-207, lost in the last third of 1941) for the new generations of German submariners who were to man the scores of new U-boats coming off the production lines in 1942 to deliver Great Britain the final crushing naval blow.

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