Military history


Notwithstanding the diversion of nearly fifty Type VII U-boats to duty in the Mediterranean and in the defense of Norway, as well as the delays caused by the worst ice of the century in the Baltic, Dönitz was able to send twenty-six boats to American waters in January of 1942: twelve Type IXs and fourteen Type VIIs.

The boats sailing to the Americas in January were to cover an enormous area reaching from Canada to the Caribbean. The twelve Type IXs were to patrol the more distant United States East Coast and the Caribbean. Notwithstanding the “heavy” ASW measures, “tremendous cold,” and poor returns of the December VIIs, the bulk of the January VIIs were to patrol Canadian waters, although three VIIs were to venture experimentally into United States waters.

Seven of the twelve Type IXs that put out in January were to attack shipping directly in United States coastal waters. Five of these were older, shorter-range model IXBs that had carried out the attack on Freetown the previous year. Outbound from France, one, Heinrich Schuch in U-105, ran into convoy Sierra Leone 98 and with two torpedoes sank one of the escorts, the former Coast Guard cutter Mendota, redesignated as the sloop Culver, which was fitted not only with Type 271 centimetric-wavelength radar but also one of the most advanced British shipboard HF/DF (Huff Duff) sets. Immediately thereafter Schuch was directed to search for Spreewald survivors and, as related, upon finding some, aborted to France. The other four IXBs patrolled from New York to Cape Hatteras. The other two boats of this group, both new longer-range Type IXCs, patrolled farther south in Florida waters.

When the first of these six Type IXs reached United States waters in late January and early February, they found that ASW measures had not improved very much. Apart from various defensive steps in the Eastern Sea Frontier, the most important new measure was the temporary employment of Catalinas on loan from the Atlantic Fleet for ASW patrols.

The new “straight through” King convoy plan for the North Atlantic run, effective February 4, yielded, as promised, ten destroyers to cadre a convoy network on the Eastern Seaboard. Seven of these,* all modern, were “made available” to Admiral Andrews of the Eastern Sea Frontier in the period February 6 to February 8. However, the proffered British component of this network (ten corvettes, twenty-four ASW trawlers) was nowhere to be seen. In fact, none of these British vessels was to arrive for weeks. Andrews mustered a total of twenty-eight other vessels in his frontier that were capable—but only just barely—of coastwise convoying but, as he told King, he needed a minimum of twice that number of ships merely to initiate convoying.

A further complication arose. Another big troopship convoy, AT 12, was scheduled to leave New York February 10. The fact that the Admiralty had provided only two four-stack destroyers at EASTOMP to escort the first such convoy, AT 10, had infuriated King. He therefore pointedly telexed the Admiralty to ask if it could provide AT 12 proper escort from EASTOMP. The Admiralty replied that owing to the need to escort its own troopship convoy, Winston Special 16, it could not provide substantial escort for AT 12 until the end of February. It therefore became necessary to postpone the departure of AT 12 by nine days, to February 19, at which time six of the seven destroyers (less Roe) on temporary duty with the Eastern Sea Frontier were assigned to reinforce the escort of AT 12. To replace them, Ingersoll released four four-stacks, which, of course, were less satisfactory both in number and quality. In all, Ingersoll was able to loan Andrews eleven different destroyers for ASW purposes in February.

Notwithstanding the obvious dearth of escorts, the British continued to pressure King to initiate convoying on the Eastern Seaboard. On February 12, King directed Andrews to submit a convoy plan. Andrews in turn queried the commanders of the naval districts within his frontier. All remained opposed to convoying until such time as sufficient escorts were available. Reminding King that each day sixty-six different northbound ships and a “like number” of southbound ships passed through his frontier (a total of 120 to 130 vessels daily), for which a minimum of sixty-eight escorts were required, Andrews recommended that “no attempt be made to protect coastwise shipping by a convoy system until an adequate number of suitable escort vessels is available.”

At about this same time, February 12, the German battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen left Brest on the “channel dash” to Germany. The sudden movement of these big German ships increased the threat of an Atlantic sortie by them or Tirpitz and Admiral Scheer or by all of them, possibly in conjunction with the Vichy naval forces at Martinique, to attack Allied cargo and troop convoys. Because the Allies could not read naval Enigma, this possibility froze Atlantic Fleet heavy units—and attendant destroyers—at Iceland, Bermuda, Argentia, and Casco Bay, Maine.

Accidents to Atlantic Fleet destroyers continued to contribute to the shortage of that type of vessel. On February 18, the valuable 14,000-ton Navy supply ship Pollux, en route to Argentia, and two escorting destroyers, Truxtun and Wilkes, ran aground on the Avalon Peninsula in a wild storm. The Pollux and the four-stacker Truxtun were completely wrecked, with the loss of 212 out of 386 men in the two crews. Although damaged, Wilkes, a new destroyer, managed to back off and survive. She returned to service after extensive repairs.

The most successful of the six January Type IXs patrolling United States waters was Hermann Rasch in the veteran U-106, making his second patrol as skipper. Still under a cloud for having lost the entire bridge watch on his first patrol to Newfoundland, Rasch hunted off the coast of New York, Delaware, and Maryland. In two weeks, January 24 to February 6, he sank by torpedo and gun five ships for 42,000 tons, including the 6,800-ton American tanker Rochester and one of the largest and fastest passenger-cargo vessels in the world, the 15,400-ton Swede, Amerikaland. His patrol not only removed all doubts about his competence, but also earned a well-done from Dönitz and from Berlin propagandists.

The other three IXBs attacking from New York to Cape Hatteras had good success despite a large number of torpedo misses or failures.

• Between February 2 and February 5, Werner Winter in U-103 (four torpedo failures or misses) sank by gun and torpedo four confirmed ships for 26,500 tons, including three American tankers: the 6,200-ton W. L. Steed; the 8,300-ton India Arrow; the 8,400-ton China Arrow. Winter also claimed a “destroyer” but it was not so.

• In the eleven days from February 8 to February 18, Ritterkreuz holder Klaus Scholtz in U-108 (four torpedo failures or misses) sank five freighters for 20,000 tons, including Ocean Venture, one of the sixty Liberty ships built for Britain, embarked on her maiden voyage.

• In the period from January 31 to February 6, Harald Gelhaus in U-107 (three torpedo misses or failures) sank two ships for 10,800 tons, including the 7,400-ton British tanker San Arcadio, which was sailing well offshore.

The two new longer-range IXCs which patrolled Florida waters were Ulrich Heyse, age thirty-five, in U-128, who had been delayed for months repairing damage incurred in a grounding en route to Norway, and Fritz Poske, age thirty-seven, in the new U-504.Florida, like Cape Hatteras, where the continental shelf was very narrow, proved to be a rich and relatively safe hunting ground. The deep-water sanctuary began merely ten miles offshore at the edge of the north-flowing Gulf Stream, a natural and heavily traveled sea-lane.

Both boats operated in an overlapping coastal area between Daytona Beach and Palm Beach in good warm weather and moonlight conditions, with no interference from ASW forces, despite the heavy phosphorescence of the water. In the period from February 19 to March 5, Heyse in U-128 sank by torpedo two American tankers (Pan Massachusetts, 8,200 tons, and Cities Service Empire, 8,100 tons) and the 11,000-ton Norwegian tanker O. A. Knudsen by torpedo and gun east of the Bahamas. From February 22 to February 26, Poske in U-504 sank by torpedo two American tankers (Republic, 5,300 tons, and W. D. Anderson, 10,200 tons) and the 8,200-ton Dutch tanker Mamura, Only one crewman survived from the W. D. Anderson. Poske incurred “serious damage” to his superstructure from “heavy seas,” which forced him to abort. Homebound, he sank a 2,800-ton British freighter by torpedo. Both skippers took advantage of bright lights ashore to silhouette targets. In spite of the human carnage and the oil-soaked beaches, a few Florida resort owners resisted a blackout on the grounds that it would discourage winter tourism.*

These six Type IXs of the “second wave,” which sailed to the United States East Coast in January, thus sank twenty-three ships for about 157,000 gross tons, including eleven tankers, ten in the Eastern Sea Frontier and one, by U-128, just east of the Bahamas. This almost exactly replicated the bag of the five Type IXs of the “first wave,” which sailed to the Americas in December. The two “waves” comprising eleven Type IXs sank an aggregate of forty-six ships for about 307,000 tons. The claimed tonnage sunk was substantially greater.

Many merchant marine crewmen were killed or died in lifeboats, and many of the survivors suffered ghastly ordeals. In an account of the U-boat assault against the United States, author Gary Gentile reported that of 1,631 passengers and crewmen on board twenty-nine ships sunk in January and February 1942, 999 persons died and 632 survived. The heavy fatalities included the 250 passengers and crewmen who perished in the sinking of the Canadian liner Lady Hawkins. Discounting that ship, the death rate of merchant marine crewmen on the other ships sunk was, by his figures, about 50 percent.

The delayed big troopship convoy AT 12 sailed from New York on February 19. It consisted of fifteen transports carrying 14,688 soldiers for Iceland (Indigo) and Northern Ireland (Magnet). It was escorted by Task Force 32, comprised of the battleship New York, the light cruiser Philadelphia, and ten American destroyers. As related, six other American destroyers on temporary ASW duty on the Eastern Seaboard reinforced the convoy. Task Force 32 put into Iceland to serve as an anti-Tirpitz force and later to load troops for the return to the States. At EASTOMP, six British destroyers relieved Task Force 32 to shepherd the Northern Ireland section onward. Admiral King deemed the British escort to be inadequate. The inadequacy was responsible, in part, for a forthcoming proposal for American warships to escort eastbound troopship convoys all the way across the Atlantic.

• • •

Thirteen VIIs of the second wave—four captained by Ritterkreuz holders—operated in foul, frigid Canadian waters, harassed by ASW forces. Despite five torpedo failures or misses, the ranking U-boat ace, Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock in U-96, who wore newly minted Oak Leaves on his Ritterkreuz, bagged an impressive five ships for 25,500 tons off Halifax, Nova Scotia, including the 9,000-ton British tanker Kars. Upon his return to France, Lehmann-Willenbrock was promoted to command the 9th Combat Flotilla at Brest,* replacing Jürgen Oesten, who was sent to provide technical help for the U-boats basing in Norway. The second most successful skipper was Siegfried Rollmann in U-82, who sank two tankers (British Athelcrown, 12,000 tons; Norwegian Leiesten, 6,100 tons) and the 1,200-ton British destroyer Belmont, another of the fifty American four-stackers transferred to Britain, which was escorting return troopship convoy NA 2. There were no survivors of Belmont. Although he reported six torpedo failures or misses, Ritterkreuz holder Gerhard Bigalk in U-751 sank two ships for 11,500 tons and, in a running gun battle off Halifax, damaged an 8,100-ton Dutch tanker.

Six other VIIs of this group sank one ship each. Ludwig Forster, age twenty-six, in the new U-654, reported nine torpedo failures or misses (seven on a stopped target), but he hit and damaged the Free French corvette Alysee, which was escorting convoy Outbound North 60. The Canadian corvette Hepatica took Alysee in tow, but the latter foundered before reaching port. Ritterkreuz holder Robert Gysae in U-98 sank a 5,300-ton British freighter. Upon his return to France, he left the boat to commission a new and much larger boat. Two boats sank no ships: Günther Heydemann in U-575, much delayed on his outbound leg by the search for Spreewald survivors, and Wilhelm Zahn in U-69. Having made three barren patrols in U-69, upon his return to France Zahn went to other duty.

Homebound with only one “defective” torpedo in his stern room, Siegfried Rollmann in U-82 found another convoy 600 miles west of Lorient. Dönitz urged caution. If it proved to be a Gibraltar convoy, he told the staff, in view of the probable heavy escort, it should be avoided.’ However, when Rollmann reported the escort to consist of “only corvettes,” Kerneval assumed it to be an Outbound South convoy and attempted to vector in three VIIs that were en route to America. Unable to attack and low on fuel, Rollmann nonetheless shadowed dutifully, but the intercept failed. The convoy was indeed an Outbound South—Number 18—and the radar-equipped British escorts were alert and adept. On February 6, the sloop Rochester and the corvette Tamarisk trapped U-82 and sank her with depth charges, with the loss of all hands. The U-82 was the first of the boats sailing to American waters to be lost.

Two of the thirteen VIIs assigned to Canadian waters probed experimentally southward into United States waters, well to seaward, opposite New York. These were Reinhard Suhren in U-564, also wearing new Oak Leaves on his Ritterkreuz, and Gerhard Feiler in the new boat U-653. Suhren sank the 11,400-ton Canadian tanker Victolite by torpedo and gun and attacked a British tanker by gun, but she escaped, only slightly damaged. Near the same area (350 miles east of New York) Feiler in U-653 sank one ship, a 1,600-ton Norwegian freighter.

Suhren still had a good supply of torpedoes, but he was critically low on fuel. In response to his request for help, Kerneval directed Werner Winter; homebound in the IXB U-103, to refuel U-564. However, owing to bad weather and imprecise navigation, the rendezvous failed and Kerneval had to call upon Harald Gelhaus, homebound in the IXB U-107. During the rendezvous, on February 13, Gelhaus rammed Suhren, holing his starboard fuel tank and crushing all four of the bow tubes. The accident forced Suhren to abort and left Gelhaus so low on fuel he returned in company with Suhren, from whom, ironically, he might obtain fuel if necessary. Had the Allies been able to read naval Enigma, they might well have attacked this rendezvous and destroyed the two disabled U-boats.

While creeping east at one-engine speed, Suhren and Gelhaus ran into a group of six big westbound tankers dispersing from an Outbound North convoy. Owing to his smashed bow tubes, Suhren could not attack. Gelhaus hit the Norwegian tanker Egda with his last torpedo, but since she was in ballast the damage was slight. No other boats were close enough to reach this rich group of targets.

The brief probes of the Type VIIs U-564 and U-653 into United States waters produced small returns, but they convinced Dönitz that by following the Great Circle route and observing stringent fuel discipline, the VIIs could patrol for a week to ten days in United States waters. A February foray into these waters by another VII, the battle-tested U-432, commanded by Heinz-Otto Schultze, which arrived under unusual circumstances, demonstrated that if refueled at sea the VIIs could operate in those waters for even longer periods.

The voyage of U-432 to United States waters had its roots in yet another infuriating demand by the OKM for escort duty. This time it was for the outbound minelayer-raider Doggerbank, which had orders to plant fields in the approaches to Cape Town, South Africa. The OKM directed Kerneval to provide one or more Type IXs as the escort. However, upon objections from Dönitz, who did not want to divert any scarce IXs from the attack on the Americas for this prolonged task, the OKM agreed that a Type VII would suffice. Furthermore, it was also agreed that the VII was to refuel from Doggerbank and leave her when she reached a point closest to the United States.

The escort task fell to Schultze in U-432, who sailed on January 21. Schultze accompanied Doggerbank in heavy weather until January 31, when he refueled at sea—the first refueling of a Type VII in the Americas operations—and departed for the Cape Hatteras area. Although British intelligence had detected the sailing of Doggerbank and suspected her destination, she went on to achieve modest success.*

Well stocked with fuel, Heinz-Otto Schultze in U-432 reached the Cape Hatteras area February 14. Patrolling from Hatteras north to the Maryland coast and back, over the next twelve days he sank six confirmed ships for 27,900 tons, outperforming the reigning “ace,” Lehmann-Willenbrock in U-96, to register the best Type VII patrol in American waters to then. Awkwardly, his first two victims were Brazilian “neutrals”: the 5,200-ton Buarque and the 4,100-ton Olinda. The pro-American Brazilian dictator-president Getulio Vargas registered an immediate and vehement diplomatic—and public—protest. Berlin braced for “reprisal measures” against Axis assets in Brazil.

The fourteen VIIs of the second wave that sailed to the Americas in January thus sank twenty-four ships (three tankers) for about 125,000 tons. This was an average of 1.7 ships sunk per boat per patrol, the same as the averages of the ten December boats, which sank eighteen ships for about 85,000 tons, or, again, 1.7 ships per boat per patrol. Two skippers of Type VIIs of the February group, Lehmann-Willenbrock in U-96 and Schultze in U-432, accounted for almost half the total bag of the second wave: eleven ships (one tanker) for about 53,300 tons.

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