Military history

BEATS ON THE DRUM

By sunset on January 13, the three Type IXs of the first wave had reached their assigned positions off the East Coast of the United States. Hardegen in U-123 was near the eastern tip of Long Island; the new skipper Folkers in U-125 was off New Jersey; and Zapp in U-66 was east of Cape Hatteras. In the early, dark hours of January 14, Hardegen came upon the armed and loaded 9,600-ton Panamanian tanker Norness. In two surface attacks, he fired five electric torpedoes from close range. Three of the five hit and Norness sank in shallow water, with about 100 feet of her bow sticking out. A new American destroyer in workup, Ellyson, rescued twenty-four survivors the following day.

After lying on the bottom during the day to give his crew some rest and to save fuel, on the night of January 14 Hardegen approached the outer reaches of New York Harbor in very shallow water, close enough to see the glow of lights in lower Manhattan. Somewhat awestruck by this sight—and the realization that the men of U-123 were the first German warriors to see it—Hardegen invited others to the bridge, including a propagandist-photographer, Alwin Tölle. But it was too dark and the boat was too far away for photographs.*

When the sight-seeing was done, Hardegen reversed course and cruised easterly toward deeper water, keeping Long Island on his port hand. In the early hours of January 15, the watch spotted a lighted vessel coming up astern. She was the loaded 6,800-ton British tanker Coimbra, bound for Halifax. Hardegen closed to about 900 yards and fired two electrics. One or both hit and Coimbra exploded in a giant fireball. She, too, sank, bow up in shallow water. Thirty-six men died; six men, all injured, were rescued.

Had Admiral Raeder sent Tirpitz to attack the United States, Admiral King, from his headquarters in Washington, would have directed the Atlantic Fleet commander, Royal Ingersoll, to engage and sink her. But repelling a U-boat attack against merchant shipping close off the coast called into play entirely different naval commands, which were based ashore and charged with “local defense.”

Established before the war, these commands, called “Coastal Frontiers,” superseded the old Naval Districts administratively and otherwise. The Coastal Frontier commanders kept close track of naval and commercial ships sailing within their frontier. In event of hostilities the commanders were to defend the frontier, protect coastal shipping, and support the Atlantic Fleet and Army and other forces operating within the frontier.

The first, busiest, and most important of these commands was the North Atlantic Naval Coastal Frontier, soon renamed the Eastern Sea Frontier. Its area of responsibility extended north-south along the coast from the Canadian border to North Carolina and 200 miles out to sea. It was commanded by King’s Naval Academy classmate (1901) sixty-three-year-old Adolphus Andrews, an able, energetic admiral and friend of the President. He had established his headquarters in the Federal Building, 90 Church Street, in downtown Manhattan, complete with an operations center, where his staff plotted all shipping on huge wall maps.

Owing to the shortage of warships, Andrews had none permanently under his command. The plan was that should the Eastern Sea Frontier come under attack by surface raider or U-boat, Andrews would call upon the Atlantic Fleet for warships. In view of that fleet’s commitments to escort troop convoys and to other tasks, the prospects of help to combat U-boats were thin to nonexistent, at least until the new King convoy plan was approved. Accordingly, Andrews had mobilized and brought to war readiness what one official naval historian aptly labeled a “tatterdemalion fleet,” consisting of twenty small craft: seven Coast Guard cutters (the 165-foot Dione and six 125-footers), four prewar 110-foot SCs, three 200-foot, World War I Eagle-class subchasers, two ancient (1905) gunboats, and four large (170- to 245-foot) converted yachts. Of these vessels, only the Norfolk-based, 16-knot, Coast Guard cutter Dione, which had a single 3/50 caliber bow gun and stern depth-charge tracks, was anywhere near capable of engaging a U-boat. Moreover, only Dione and two other vessels were consistently reliable mechanically.

Nor did Andrews command any land-based combatant aircraft with which to fight U-boats. This situation was akin to that of the Royal Navy in 1939 when the Admiralty did not yet exercise operational control of Coastal Command. This has not been understood, apparently, by many historians of the U-boat war and thus demands explanation and clarification. From the perspective of the 1990s, the story seems quaint, even a bit preposterous.

Between the World Wars, when it became obvious that aircraft had become an important instrument of warfare, American Army and Navy leaders fell into hot disputes over strategic control of military aviation. In this bureaucratic struggle, the Army won an important victory: All land-based aircraft—notably bombers of all types—were to be assigned to the Army Air Corps (from June 20, 1941, Army Air Forces), a semiautonomous branch of the Army. Under the agreement, which had the force of law, the U.S. Navy, like the Royal Navy, was restricted to capitalship- and carrier-based aircraft, big flying boats or seaplanes (such as Sunderlands, Catalinas, and Mariners), and rigid dirigibles and nonrigid blimps, plus a few non-combatant wheeled, executive, utility, and trainer aircraft based ashore.

On January 12, 1942, Admiral Ingersoll’s Atlantic Fleet had under its control 150 aircraft other than those based on ships: about 100 Catalinas and about 50 scout and utility planes. The Catalinas—known as patrol bombers—were based in Iceland (8), Argentia (8), Newport, Rhode Island (6), Norfolk (38), San Juan, Puerto Rico (12), Coco Solo, Panama (24), and Natal, Brazil (6). Like the Sunderland force of the Royal Navy in 1939, the primary mission of the Catalina force was to seek out and warn of enemy capital ships (such as Tirpitz) that posed a threat to the Atlantic Fleet or to the Panama Canal or other important coastal installations. In addition, the sixteen Catalinas at Argentia and Iceland provided limited convoy escort between those places.

Owing to the deliveries of Catalinas to the British* under Lend-Lease and to the loss of Catalinas in the attack on Pearl Harbor, in early 1942 the Navy was desperately short of Catalinas and the newer seaplane patrol-bomber, the Mariner. In order to help overcome this shortage, King had to suspend the deliveries of Catalinas to the Royal Navy from January through March 1942. Although the deliveries were to resume in April (climbing to fifty aircraft per month), the temporary suspension annoyed the Admiralty and provided yet another reason to berate King, who sent most of the Catalina production in those months to the Pacific to replace the Catalina losses at Pearl Harbor and elsewhere.

In view of the acute scarcity of American Catalinas in the Atlantic Ocean area, Admiral Ingersoll was unable to provide Admiral Andrews of the Eastern Sea Frontier with these aircraft for offshore hunter-killer ASW patrols, especially since no appreciable U-boat threat had yet developed in American waters. The few Catalinas that Ingersoll did bring into play in January 1942 were used principally to provide limited escort for troopship convoys. The upshot was that for inshore air patrols Andrews could mobilize only about 100 unarmed or lightly armed naval and Coast Guard aircraft and four Navy blimps, based at Lakehurst, New Jersey.

Of these craft, only the blimps were capable of sustained overwater ASW patrols and could carry enough bombs or depth charges to mount an attack on a U-boat. In June, 1940, President Roosevelt had authorized a force of forty-eight blimps for local convoy escort and ASW patrols, but only these four were combat-ready at Lakehurst on January 1, 1942, when the Navy commissioned the first combat Squadron 12.* These blimps flew forty-five ASW patrols and six convoy escort missions in January 1942.

Although it seems grossly illogical—even preposterous—from this distance, in the immediate prewar years the Army Air Forces, like the RAF, was assigned the principal aircraft ASW role in American waters. This was owing to a hazy strategic doctrine under which the Army had responsibility for defending the coastlines as well as the continental United States. Although the British had shown that the RAF Coastal Command became a superior ASW arm after the Admiralty was granted operational control, President Roosevelt and Secretary of War Stimson had firmly resisted all efforts by the U.S. Navy to duplicate that arrangement in the American military establishment. One big reason was that if it were done, the U.S. Navy would inevitably push for the acquisition of the superior four-engine land-based aircraft (B-17s, B-24s) that were controlled solely by the U.S. Army Air Forces. If the Navy were allowed to acquire such aircraft, it would undermine the Army’s absolute hold on strategic air power and aircraft.

On January 14, 1942, the U.S. Navy remounted its efforts to acquire and control land-based aircraft for the ASW role and for other purposes. This came in the form of a request from the chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics, John H. Towers, to the chief of the Army Air Forces, Henry “Hap” Arnold, for 400 long-range four-engine B-24 Liberators and 900 medium-range twin-engine B-25 Mitchells from the Army allotment. Arnold denied the request because, he wrote, he was “critically short by 1,190 planes of the barest needs to meet United States Army Air Forces requirements” and because the request raised “questions of far greater import than the possibility of diverting planes” to the Navy.

After assuming the post of Commander in Chief of the U.S. Fleet, King resubmitted this request with utmost vigor and persistence. His relentless campaign for land-based aircraft vastly irritated Secretary of War Stimson, a onetime National Guard officer, who much earlier (1911-1913) had served as Secretary of War in the Taft Administration and who fancied himself a skilled military strategist. He had developed an intense antipathy to the Navy, in particular to King, who could be a brusque and undiplomatic advocate, and to Frank Knox. Stimson’s testy views about the Navy and King colored the views of the entire Army establishment.* His acid criticisms in his lengthy personal diaries have provided critics of King—British critics in particular—with much ammunition for decades. These critics seldom if ever suggest that Stimson was anything but objective and simon-pure in motive.

In rejecting King’s campaign for land-based aircraft for ASW, Stimson, Marshall, and Arnold argued that the Army Air Forces were perfectly capable of carrying out the air ASW role. In fact, they held, the Army could do the job better than the Navy, which lacked the necessary infrastructure for and familiarity with land-based aircraft. President Roosevelt either believed this to be true or else chose to remain removed from this increasingly bitter inter-service debate. Whatever the reason, where a presidential ruling or guidance was obviously required, none was forthcoming. This was yet another failure by the President to appreciate the potential peril of the U-boat threat and provide firm leadership to meet it. On this issue as well, he has escaped all blame.

Hap Arnold delegated the air ASW mission on the American East Coast to Arnold N. Krogstad, chief of the 1st Bomber Command of the First Air Force. Like most air units of those frantic days, 1st Bomber Command was in a transitory stage, neither fully formed nor trained. Many of its most skilled pilots had been siphoned off to cadre the hugely expanding Army Air Forces or to more pressing combat assignments. What remained was a thin veneer of experienced men and a very large number of keen but green air crews that still required extensive training in air tactics, bombing, and navigation, manning about 100 multi-engine medium and large bombers at four airfields along the Eastern Seaboard. None of the planes was equipped with radar or depth charges. None of the airmen knew how to find and attack a U-boat or how difficult it was to sink one. As a result, there was not the slightest possibility that 1st Bomber Command could effectively carry out the air ASW role.

In compliance with his assigned mission to repel and destroy U-boats, the chief of 1st Bomber Command, Arnold Krogstad, established a headquarters in the Federal Building in Manhattan, down the corridor from Admiral Andrews’s operations center. Carefully observing the separation of military forces, Krogstad set up an independent operations center, unlinked electronically or otherwise to the Eastern Sea Frontier operations center. Working in loose “cooperation” with Andrews, Krogstad had commenced ASW patrols.

The sinking of two tankers in the waters of the Eastern Sea Frontier by Reinhard Hardegen in U-123 triggered a rapid and energetic response in the Federal Building. Andrews and Krogstad deployed all available aircraft, blimps, and small craft to hunt down and kill Hardegen and his cohorts. The Navy planes and blimps patrolled near the shore; the Army planes patrolled farther out to sea. Inasmuch as nobody knew how to find and kill a U-boat, this response was futile. Communications between the various shore-based commands and airfields and the forces at sea or in the air were primitive or ineffective.

King’s critics have excoriated him for failing to respond more promptly and aggressively to the Drumbeat U-boat threat. The most recent and vociferous critics have been Americans: Michael Gannon and Montgomery C. Meigs.* Gannon wrote that since there were twenty-five American destroyers in East Coast ports from Maine to Virginia on January 12, the Navy was derelict—or cowardly or worse—in not deploying destroyer hunter-killer groups to confront the U-123 and the other Drumbeat U-boats. When he later discovered that four of the twenty-five destroyers (Dallas, Kearny, Lea, MacLeish) were in drydock or to be used “only in an emergency,” Gannon reduced the available destroyers to twenty-one in the paperback edition of his book but did not tone down his criticism of King and the Navy.

The harsh criticism Gannon leveled at the Navy on this issue is not justified. The British and American navies had long since declared the type of hunter-killer operations he proposed to be futile, wasteful, and dangerous. Most all of the twenty-one destroyers he lists were already committed to other vital tasks:

• Thirteen of the twenty-one destroyers on the Gannon list were to join the battleship Texas, carrier Wasp, and heavy cruiser Quincy to escort (as Task Force 15) America’s first big troop convoy, AT 10, sailing from New York to Iceland and Northern Ireland on January 15. At the very last minute, that convoy was scaled back to three big troopships (Chateau Thierry, Munargo, Strathaird), and four of these thirteen destroyers (Charles F. Hughes, Hilary P. Jones, Ingraham, Lansdale) were reassigned to join the cruisers Vincennes and Nashville to escort (as Task Force 16) another troop convoy, BT 200, composed of seven troopships carrying 22,000 men, sailing from New York to the Pacific on January 22.

• Two other destroyers on the Gannon list (Mustin, O’Brien) were under orders to join three other destroyers (Anderson, Morris, Hammann) to escort the battleships Idaho, Mississippi, and New Mexico, which, as related, shifted from the Atlantic to the Pacific in January.

• Another destroyer on the list (Gleaves) sailed from Boston on January 15 to escort the valuable 7,000-ton destroyer tender Melville to Argentia for further transfer to Londonderry, where she was to establish an American destroyer base for the new “straight through” convoys. (The Treasury-class Coast Guard cutter Ingham also served in the escort.)

• Still another destroyer (Bristol), commissioned on October 22, 1941, was en route from New York to Casco Bay, Maine, for additional workup.

• Yet another destroyer (Ellyson), commissioned on November 28, 1941, and still in workup, sailed from Newport, Rhode Island, for more sea trials and, as related, on January 14, rescued survivors of the torpedoed tanker Norness.

Gannon wrote that there was “no pressing urgency” for the sailing of the big troop convoy AT 10 on January 15 and that it “could easily have been delayed,” so the original thirteen destroyers of its escort could hunt U-boats. This is not the way Washington saw it. Although they had been reduced in numbers at the last minute, the political and symbolic value of the troops bound for Iceland (Indigo) and Northern Ireland (Magnet) in AT 10 were very great. Those troops were to release other troops for combat, to deter a possible German invasion of the British Isles in the spring of 1942, and to prepare for Gymnast, partially satisfying Moscow’s demands for a “second front.” To have delayed the sailing of that troop convoy and the equally vital troop convoy BT 200 in order to hunt an unknown number of U-boats, which to then had sunk only two ships in waters of the Eastern Sea Frontier, would have not only vastly upset all convoy and warship schedules but also incurred the wrath of the American Army, which almost hourly pressed King to hurry troopship sailings. Besides that, the majority of the warships with convoy AT 10 were, in fact, sailing directly to Canadian waters, where there were by far the greatest number of Drumbeat U-boats.

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