Military history

FIRST ACTIONS OFF CAPE HATTERAS

Having achieved the psychological impact desired by sinking the tankers Norness and Coimbra, Hardegen in U-123 cleared out of the shallow waters of New York. Southbound off New Jersey in the dark early hours of January 17, Hardegen claimed, he found and sank an unidentified 4,000-ton freighter with a single torpedo. Postwar German records credited him with the 2,000-ton American ship San José. But Gannon has established from official survivor reports that San José was not torpedoed. She collided with another ship, Santa Elisa, and sank. Gannon could not identify Hardegen’s claimed victim. No other vessel in his area went down that night. Perhaps Hardegen happened upon the collision scene and believed that his torpedo had fatally hit San José or Santa Elisa, which caught fire in the collision, burned for six hours, and finally limped into New York.

Hardegen in U-123 and Richard Zapp in U-66 reached the Cape Hatteras area almost simultaneously on January 18-19. Wading into a throng of lighted, unescorted ships, Zapp sank the loaded 6,600-ton American tanker Allan Jackson and the 8,000-ton Canadian passenger-cargo vessel Lady Hawkins. Of the forty-eight men on the Allan Jackson, thirty-five died in the flaming inferno. Of the 312 crew and passengers on Lady Hawkins, about 250 were killed or died after horrible ordeals in lifeboats.

Hardegen, who had only five torpedoes left, was astounded at the dense ship traffic off Cape Hatteras. He logged that at one point he had in sight “no fewer than twenty steamers, some with their lights on.” During the night of January 18-19, in a period of seven hours he claimed he sank four ships by torpedo and gun: another unidentified 4,000-ton freighter, the 5,300-ton American freighter City of Atlanta, the 3,800-ton Latvian freighter Ciltvaira, and the 8,200-ton American tanker Malay, southbound in ballast. Postwar records listed the unidentified freighter as the 4,500-ton Brazos, but again, Gannon’s research reveals that it was not so. Like San José, Brazos was sunk in a collision six days earlier.* The sinkings of the City of Atlanta and Ciltvaira were confirmed, but the tanker Malay was only damaged and limped into Norfolk.

To this point, Hardegen and Zapp had sunk three tankers and damaged another in U.S. waters. These four ships were a tiny segment of the huge and vital Allied tanker traffic on the United States East Coast. This traffic was composed of ships en route to and from the Caribbean (Aruba, Curaçao, Trinidad) and the Gulf of Mexico (Texas, Louisiana) to United States East Coast ports and to Halifax to join convoys to the British Isles. Inasmuch as attacks on this traffic were to become a prominent feature of the German U-boat campaign in American waters, further details about this traffic are appropriate.

In the early days of the American oil boom, the industry shipped oil from the rich fields in Texas and Louisiana to the East Coast refineries and consumers in railroad tank cars and to closer places by barges on the Mississippi, Ohio, and other rivers, by trucks, and by short pipelines. Experience with oil tankers in the Caribbean and elsewhere demonstrated that oil or petroleum “product” (such as gasoline) could be shipped much more economically by water than by railroad. By June 1941, 95 percent of all oil brought to the East Coast from Texas and Louisiana came by ship, 3 percent by truck, barge, or pipeline, and only 2 percent by railroad cars.

By that same time, June 1941, it had become obvious to the Roosevelt administration that the movement of oil and petroleum products was to be among the most vital of wartime enterprises. Roosevelt therefore named an “oil czar,” Harold I. Ickes, Secretary of the Interior, to head what became the Petroleum Administration for War (PAW). Cutting its teeth on the British oil “shuttle” of 1941, when fifty American tankers were diverted to that task, PAW, working closely with the oil industry, developed a complete picture of oil problems to be expected in wartime and an array of plans and programs to overcome them.

The plans included ways to greatly increase the efficiency of existing oil transport by seagoing tankers to the East Coast ports and also new or fallback plans should that tanker fleet prove to be insufficient. The most important programs were:

• The construction of about 14,000 miles of pipeline, the most economical and efficient system for moving oil. The most prominent of these was the Big Inch, a stupendous network of 24” seamless steel pipe for moving crude oil, which ran from Longview, Texas, to an existing pipeline hub, Norris City, Illinois, thence to the East Coast; in all, a distance of 1,475 miles. The pipe itself held 3.8 million barrels of oil, “a perpetual reservoir of oil moving constantly eastward,” as an oil historian put it, delivering about 300,000 barrels daily. Second was the only slightly less stupendous Little Big Inch, a network of 20” pipe to move finished product (100 octane aviation gasoline, etc.), which ran from Texas to the East Coast via Seymour, Indiana. The pipe itself held 2.9 million barrels of product and delivered about 235,000 barrels daily. Third was the Plantation pipeline, which ran from Baton Rouge via Bremen, Georgia, to Greensboro, North Carolina, and was later extended to Richmond and Norfolk. This pipeline (12” to Bremen, 10” to Greensboro) delivered about 50,000 barrels a day.*

• The rehabilitation of the railroad tank-car system. On the eve of war, there were about 145,000 oil-carrying railroad tank cars scattered around the United States, with an average capacity of 215 barrels each. About 105,000 of these were involved in transporting oil or petroleum products. When war came, most of these cars were assigned to haul crude oil or product from Texas to the East Coast in special mile-long express trains composed of up to 100 cars each, transporting an aggregate of about 22,000 barrels of oil or product. The shipment of oil by railroad cars climbed spectacularly from 141,000 barrels a day in October 1941 to 585,000 barrels a day in April 1942, to 828,000 barrels a day in September 1942, to one million barrels a day (about fifty one-hundred-car trains) in March 1943.

• Dramatic improvement of oil-barge operations on rivers, lakes, and inter-coastal waterways and tanker-truck operations on highways and byways. In January 1942, United States companies had in operation 1,400 oil barges and 106,000 tanker trucks. As a result of more efficient routings and other measures, these vehicles delivered twice or more oil than theretofore. Moreover, by directing tanker trucks to take over almost all oil hauling under 200 miles on a twenty-four-hour-a-day basis in all weather, PAW freed up thousands of railroad tank cars for use in the special Texas-East Coast oil trains.

At the time of Drumbeat, when 95 percent of the oil arriving at East Coast ports came by ship, the American-registered fleet consisted of about 350 big, modern, seagoing tankers of about 3 million gross tons. About 260 of these were engaged in moving crude from Texas to the Eastern Seaboard. The sea-lanes were also crowded with British and British-controlled tankers en route from the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico to Halifax to join convoys.

Upon learning of the possible arrival of U-boats in United States East Coast waters in early January, Admiral Andrews had directed that these tankers and all other coastwise shipping should travel well offshore to avoid “bunching” targets for the Germans in the usual and well-known lanes. Western Approaches at first directed British-controlled shipping to put into or remain in American ports until the U-boat picture clarified, but quickly released these vessels and routed them “evasively” to Halifax or to Bermuda for onward voyages in Halifax convoys to the British Isles. As a result, U-boats sank only one more British-owned tanker in waters of the Eastern Sea Frontier in January and February.

Low on fuel and out of torpedoes, Hardegen set a course for France. When he was well clear of the American coast, he radioed Dönitz the results of his one-week foray in American waters, January 12 to January 19. It was a heavy beat on the drum: eight ships sunk for 53,060 tons, including three tankers. Counting past overclaims, Hardegen believed he had sunk “over 100,000” tons and therefore qualified for a Ritterkreuz. Well pleased with this drumbeat, Admiral Raeder and Dönitz replied with congratulations and the award.*

But Hardegen was not yet done. Homebound in mid-Atlantic, he found and aggressively attacked and sank two ships with his deck gun: the 3,000-ton British freighter Culebra on January 25, and the 9,200-ton Norwegian tanker Pan Norway in ballast on January 26. Fortunately for the fifty-one survivors of the Pan Norway, an Italian freighter under Swiss charter (hence a “neutral”) was close at hand and upon orders from Hardegen, she put about and rescued the Norwegians. Unfortunately for Hardegen, a bridge gun blew up during the attack on Culebra, severely wounding the propagandist Alwin Tölle. Unable to provide proper medical care, Hardegen resourcefully set up a plan with Kerneval to transfer Tölle to the inbound blockade runner Spreewald, which had a doctor on board.

After Hardegen had cleared out of the Cape Hatteras area, Richard Zapp in U-66 returned. On January 22 and 23, he sank two loaded American freighters, the 2,300-ton Norvana (sugar) and the 8,000-ton Venore (iron ore), and the loaded 8,100-ton British tanker Empire Gem. Low on fuel and torpedoes, Zapp also called it a day and headed for France. In his radio report, he also claimed a heavy beat on the drum: five ships for 50,000 tons sunk, all off Cape Hatteras. His confirmed score was five ships for 33,456 tons. Counting overclaims on prior patrols, Zapp’s total sinkings were about 75,000 tons, not enough for a Ritterkreuz, but his successes in American waters earned a “well done” from Dönitz and a propaganda broadcast from Berlin.

The last of the three boats to arrive in the Cape Hatteras area was the green skipper Erich Folkers in U-125. Having been assigned initially a patrol zone east of the New Jersey coast, he had seen no traffic and was hungry for kills. He found two victims on the afternoon and evening of January 25. The first was the American tanker Olney, which had grounded on a shoal. Folkers fired a total of seven torpedoes at this sitting duck, but inexplicably, he claimed, only one hit for damage. In fact, Olney reported (with relief) all seven torpedoes missed. Later that night, Folkers shot two torpedoes at the 5,700-ton American freighter West Ivis. This time the torpedoes worked and West Ivis sank in fourteen minutes.

Low on fuel—and frustrated—Folkers set a course for France. He stated in his report to Dönitz that he still had six torpedoes in his bow compartment, but that three of his four bow tubes were “out of order.” Kerneval instructed Folkers to down-load torpedoes to his stern room in case he should find a worthwhile ship on the way home. Folkers complied with this unusual order, but he did not find another target. His beat on the drum was faint.

The first three Type IXs of Drumbeat to enter waters of the Eastern Sea Frontier thus hit eleven ships and sank ten in that area, from January 14 through January 24. Hardegen in U-123 sank four positively confirmed ships (two tankers); Zapp in U-66 sank five positively confirmed ships (two tankers); Folkers in U-125 sank one positively confirmed freighter. Other claimed sinkings remain conjectural. This damage was only slightly greater than that inflicted by the Japanese submarine skippers off California in December: nine merchant ships (seven tankers) hit; two tankers sunk. The damage inflicted by Axis submarines on both coasts was cause for serious concern, but not for panic.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!