Military history


In most accounts of the opening U-boat campaign in the Americas, the patrols of the twelve U-boats (two IXs, ten VIIs) committed to Canadian waters in January are seldom fully described. In fact, they inflicted almost twice the damage as did the first three Type IXs in United States waters during the same period.

Those twelve boats confronted appalling weather. Blinding blizzards raked the bleak land and seascapes. Thick ice encrusted the exposed superstructures, adding tons of destabilizing weight to the boats. Before diving, the bridge watch had to chip ice from the flanges of the main air-induction inlet so the valve would seat properly. There was small comfort below; most of the VIIs had no cold-weather heating systems. One boat recorded inside temperatures of 33 degrees Fahrenheit day after day. Unheated periscopes fogged up to the point of uselessness.

Warned by the Admiralty of the oncoming U-boat assault, the Canadian Navy and American air and naval forces in the Newfoundland and Nova Scotia area were on full alert. They added an escort group of nine vessels to convoy Halifax 169 and diverted it to the northeast. In spite of the unfavorable flying conditions, they mounted maximum air patrols.

Ernst Kals in the new Type IXC U-130, embarked on his first full-length war patrol, took position in Cabot Strait, separating Newfoundland and Cape Breton Island. On January 12, a Canadian plane found Kals on the surface and attacked with 250-pound depth charges. Fortunately for Kals and his men, the air crew botched the attack and U-130 escaped undamaged. Remaining in the strait, in the early hours of January 13, Kals opened the U-boat campaign in Canada. In two separate attacks he fired five torpedoes, got four hits, and sank two ships: the 1,600-ton Norwegian freighter Frisco, and the 5,400-ton Panamanian freighter Friar Rock. Reporting these first successes to Dönitz, Kals complained of “heavy” air cover and “tremendous” cold.

Hounded by the stepped-up air patrols, Kals nonetheless closed on the seaport of Sydney, Cape Breton Island, where it was believed slow convoys assembled. He surfaced on the evening of January 16 twelve miles off the coast. He observed Sydney as Hardegen had observed New York City. Like New York, Sydney was brightly lighted. But no convoys emerged. Earlier, on January 9, after the departure of Slow Convoy 64, Sydney had “closed” for the winter and the assembly of all convoys had been shifted to Halifax.

Kals nearly came to grief the next day. Two “destroyers” found U-130 on the surface. When one turned to ram, Kals crash-dived just in time. However, the ice-caked main induction did not seat properly and eight tons of ice water flooded the engine room, dragging U-130 to the bottom at 157 feet. Perhaps because the “destroyer’s” depth-charge racks were iced up, no attack ensued. After pumping out the excess water, Kals surfaced and ran out to sea. In response to a message from Dönitz giving U-130 “freedom of action,” Kals, who had a good supply of fuel, immediately departed Canadian waters for the warmer and safer waters off Cape Hatteras. On the way there he sank the 8,200-ton Norwegian tanker Alexandra Höegh, which was sailing alone well offshore.

The other big boat in Newfoundland waters, the Type IXB U-109, commanded by Ritterkreuz holder Heinrich Bleichrodt, experienced similar difficulties from the brutal weather and maddening torpedo problems as well. Patrolling off the south coast of Nova Scotia, Bleichrodt found a 5,000-ton freighter hove to, apparently waiting for a pilot to guide her into Yarmouth. In five separate approaches on this sitting duck, Bleichrodt fired five torpedoes from about 600 yards. All torpedoes inexplicably failed or missed, a demoralizing experience for Bleichrodt, who had not sunk a ship on U-109 since taking command of her the previous May. In view of the “heavy” ASW measures and miserable weather in Canadian waters, and the size and clumsiness of U-109, doubtless Bleichrodt would have also welcomed a shift to Cape Hatteras, but the IXB U-109 lacked the fuel capacity of the IXC U-130 (165 tons versus 208 tons) and he had to stay put and endure the hardships. Before setting off for home, Bleichrodt sank one confirmed ship in Canadian waters, the 4,900-ton British freighter Thirlby.*

The ten Type VIIs assigned to Canadian waters patrolled a wide section of the Newfoundland and Nova Scotia coastlines, conserving fuel to the greatest extent possible. The Ritterkreuz holder Erich Topp in U-552, who also carried a propagandist-photographer, bagged the first ship on January 15, the 4,100-ton British freighter Dayrose, sailing alone off Cape Race on the Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland. But it took five torpedoes to sink her: three failed or missed, only two hit.

Cruising directly off St. John’s over the next several days—his periscopes damaged by ice—Topp had more torpedo difficulties. On January 17, he attacked a freighter escorted by two “destroyers.” Three more torpedoes failed or missed; a “destroyer” counterattacked and drove him off. The next day, off St. John’s, he intercepted the 2,600-ton American freighter Frances Salman. Again it took Topp five torpedoes to sink his victim; three missed or failed, only two hit. On the night following, Topp conducted a gun attack on what he described as a “10,000-ton Greek freighter,” firing 126 rounds. He claimed she went down, but the sinking could not be confirmed in Allied records. Having shot thirteen torpedoes to sink two (confirmed) ships for 6,722 tons, Topp set a course for home, furious at the nine torpedo failures or misses and the meager return for the time and risk invested and extreme discomfort endured.

Two other Type VII boats, both on maiden patrols, departed Canadian waters at about the same time. The first was Joachim Berger in U-87, who had sunk a tanker en route to Canada. On January 17 Berger attacked another tanker, the 8,100-ton Norwegian Nyholt, with torpedoes and gun. The ship went down, but during the action U-87 was herself, in Berger’s words, badly “shot up,” forcing him to abort to France. The other boat was Friedrich-Hermann Praetorius’s U-135. He sank no ships in Canadian waters, but on his way home he got the impressive 9,600-ton Belgian freighter Gandia, a straggler from convoy Outbound North 54, which had been scattered by winter storms.

Of the remaining seven Type VIIs in Canadian waters, Karl Thurmann in U-553 was the most successful. In spite of seven torpedo “misses” (he reported), he sank two big tankers for 17,366 tons: the 9,106-ton British Diala and the 8,260-ton Norwegian Inneröy. Peter Cremer in the new U-333 ranked second in tonnage, sinking three freighters (with four torpedoes) for 14,045 tons. Third was another new skipper, Hans Oestermann in U-754, who sank four freighters (two British, two Greek) for 11,386 tons. Walter Schug in the new U-86, who also had a close call from a Canadian aircraft, sank a crippled 4,300-ton Greek freighter and severely damaged the 8,600-ton British tanker Toorak. On the way home he attacked another tanker, but the torpedoes failed or missed. The Ritterkreuz holder Rolf Mützelburg in U-203 sank two ships, including, awkwardly, a Portuguese neutral, but in aggregate, the two came to a mere 2,000 tons. Two other skippers, Horst Uphoff in U-84 and Horst Degen in U-701, who had sunk a ship en route to Canada, sank no ships in Canadian waters. When he got home, Dönitz harshly criticized Degen for his “awkward temerity,” for wasting torpedoes, and for not conducting a more thorough search for his first watch officer after he was washed overboard early in the patrol.

In addition to these sinkings in Cánadian waters, some of these VIIs caused American naval authorities gray hairs. The battleship Arkansas, the “jeep” carrier Long Island, the light cruiser Philadelphia, and the new, small seaplane tender Barnegat, with appropriate destroyer escort, were at Argentia, Newfoundland, preparing to sail to the States January 18. Upon learning of the sinking of the freighter Dayrose and trawler Catalina on January 15 off Cape Race, merely sixty miles from Argentia, American naval authorities sent an eight-ship hunter-killer group, consisting of four American destroyers (Badger, Ellis, Ericsson, Greer) and four Canadian corvettes to Cape Race to attack and drive off U-boats and assure a safe passage for the big ships. Owing to further sinkings by U-boats off Cape Race and to the inability of the Allied warships to find and to kill U-boats, the sailing of Arkansas, Long Island, et al., had to be postponed to January 22.

Because of fuel limitations, by January 22 all ten Type VIIs of the first wave in Canadian waters had commenced the long, slow, arduous voyage home, as had Bleichrodt in U-109, who was ordered to follow a southerly course and scout the island of Bermuda. The VIIs had caused shock and not a little chaos in Canadian waters, but the prolonged travel time, miserable weather, strong ASW measures, and exceptionally large number of torpedo failures had resulted in disappointing returns. Even so, counting sinkings en route to and from Canada, the ten VIIs had bagged a total of eighteen confirmed ships for 85,400 tons. The two confirmed victories by Kals in U-130 and one each by Bleichrodt in U-109 and Hardegen in U-123 brought the total sinkings in Canadian waters by all U-boats of the first wave to twenty-two.

Having come down to Cape Hatteras from Canada—and sunk a big tanker en route—Ernst Kals in the Type IXC U-130, was the fourth and last U-boat of the first wave to directly invade United States waters. He found good hunting. According to Allied records, on January 22 he sank the 5,300-ton Panamanian-registered tanker Olympic. Swinging north to the coast of New Jersey, on the night of January 25 he sank the loaded 9,300-ton Norwegian tanker Varanger. The explosion rattled windows ashore, thirty-five miles away. Returning to the Cape Hatteras area on January 27, he hit and blew up the 7,100-ton American tanker Francis E. Powell. Having exhausted all torpedoes, Kals attacked yet another 7,000-ton American tanker, Halo, with his deck gun, but she got away.

Homebound to France, Kals reported his claims to Dönitz: six ships for about 48,000 tons, including four tankers plus damage to a fifth tanker. Postwar accounting credited him with six confirmed sinkings (four tankers) for 37,000 tons. Disallowing Hardegen’s two unidentified freighters, for which no official confirmation has yet been found, Kals—making his first full war patrol—sank more ships in North American waters than any other skipper. Counting the three ships for 15,000 tons he had sunk on his seventeen-day voyage from Kiel to Lorient in early December, his total score—nine confirmed ships for 52,000 tons—was one of the best starts by any skipper in the war. As with Hardegen and Zapp, Berlin propagandists gave Kals prominent play.

Per orders, Ritterkreuz holder Heinrich Bleichrodt in U-109 scouted Bermuda on his way home, but found no targets. The diversion used more fuel than anyone anticipated, so much, Bleichrodt reported, that U-109 could not make it back to France. In response, Kerneval directed Kals in U-130 to rendezvous with U-109 and transfer fuel. While waiting at the rendezvous point, Kals spotted the 8,000-ton British freighter Tacoma Star, but he had no torpedoes. He obligingly tracked the ship, homing in Bleichrodt in U-109. When Bleichrodt arrived on February 1, he sank the ship, then took on fuel from U-130. Thanks to Kals for tracking and for fuel, Bleichrodt was able to sink two more ships by torpedo and gun on his way back to France: the 11,300-ton Canadian tanker Montrolite and a 3,500-ton Panamanian freighter. With these victories, Bleichrodt claimed five ships for 33,700 tons. Postwar accounting gave him four confirmed ships for 27,700 tons on this patrol—his first sinkings in fifteen months.

• • •

Homebound to France from Canadian waters, Peter Cremer in the new Type VII U-333, who had sunk three ships for 14,000 tons, came upon a lone, zigzagging freighter on January 31. He submerged and closed to 400 yards to look her over. Concluding she was British, Cremer hit her with his last two torpedoes. After the first torpedo struck, the ship radioed an SOS in plain language, identifying herself as the British Brittany. She was actually the 5,100-ton German blockade runner Spreewald, homebound from the Far East with a cargo of 3,365 tons of rubber, 250 tons of tin, and eighty-six British prisoners of war she had received from the German merchant-ship raider Kormoran.*

From the open radio broadcasts, Dönitz and the OKM divined the error immediately. The OKM was furious. Given the “dire raw materials situation,” the OKM’s diarist fumed, the loss of Spreewald’s cargo “by an unforgivable error” was “extremely painful.” Dönitz, too, was angry; the incident had tarnished the glorious success of Drumbeat. When he learned from Cremer that U-333 was the shooter, Dönitz directed that upon his arrival, Cremer was to be court-martialed for “disobedience in action, manslaughter, and damage to military property.”

Meanwhile Dönitz set in motion a massive sea and air rescue. Cremer in U-333, Hardegen in U-123 (who was looking for Spreewald to transfer the wounded propagandist), and Günther Heydemann in U-575 (who was to escort Spreewald into France) were first on the scene. Three other Type VIIs, inbound from Canada, arrived next. Then came two boats outbound to North America, including the Type IXB U-105, commanded by a new skipper, Heinrich Schuch. Lastly, five Condors from France searched a large area around the reported position. Owing to fuel shortages, the inbound boats were unable to search extensively and Hardegen in U-123 soon proceeded onward to Lorient; the propagandist survived his injuries.

Forty-eight hours after the sinking, on the afternoon of February 2, Schuch in U-105 found survivors in three lifeboats and three rafts: twenty-five of sixty Germans and fifty-five of the eighty-six British POWs. Another lifeboat, containing Spreewald’s captain and twenty other German sailors, had separated and could not be found. Schuch put the eighty survivors below and headed for France at full speed. When he reported that one German survivor was gravely injured, Dönitz sent out a Dornier seaplane to pick him up. However, while landing in the rough sea, the seaplane broke off a wing and Schuch had to rescue the airmen as well. Other outbound boats searched for the missing Germans from Spreewald, but they were never found.

When Cremer in U-333 arrived in Lorient on February 9, he faced an instant court-martial. However, after all the technicalities had been entered and analyzed, Dönitz’s first staff officer, Günter Hessler, rose to Cremer’s defense. The sinking was indeed regrettable, but the simple fact was that the disguised Spreewald was not where she was supposed to be. Therefore Cremer was not at fault. That Cremer had conducted an outstanding maiden patrol and showed great promise weighed heavily in his favor. The court acquitted him; everyone involved was sworn to secrecy. The Spreewald affair remained hushed up for years.*

Notwithstanding the disappointing returns of the VIIs and IXs in Canadian waters and the Spreewald incident, Dönitz—and Berlin propagandists—pronounced the first foray of U-boats into North American waters a great success, as indeed it was. Counting ships sunk en route to and from North America, the five Type IXs had sunk twenty-three for about 150,000 tons. Combined with the eighteen sinkings for about 85,000 tons by the VIIs, the total was forty-one ships for about 236,000 tons, plus damage to several others. The sinkings included thirteen tankers, eight of them British or British-controlled.

In return, not a single U-boat had been lost; only one, Berger’s U-87, had incurred serious damage from Allied forces.

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