Military history

FIRST FORAYS TO THE WEST INDIES AND CARIBBEAN

Of the twenty-six German U-boats that sailed to the Americas in January, none generated more interest than the five Type IXCs directed to areas in the Caribbean Sea. Designated group Neuland (New Land), their specific mission was to interdict the flow of oil and bauxite from South America to North America. Neuland was backstopped by a group of five big Italian boats, which patrolled from Bordeaux to western Atlantic waters just east of the Windward Islands chain.

Most South American oil originated in two places: the rich fields under the shallow Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela, and the British West Indies island of Trinidad. The Maracaibo crude was shipped in small, shallow-draft tankers through the Gulf of Venezuela to huge refineries on the Dutch islands of Aruba and Curaçao, which lay a few miles off the north coast of Venezuela and which, upon the fall of the Netherlands, had been occupied by British troops, who were in the process of being replaced by American troops. Large seagoing tankers carried the gasoline and petroleum derivatives onward. Most of the Trinidad oil was refined on that island. Strategically located close off the northeast coast of Venezuela, Trinidad was also a port of call for ships southbound to Latin American and African ports and for a fleet of shallow-draft ships that carried bauxite (the base mineral for aluminum) north from British Guiana and Dutch Guiana (Surinam) to Trinidad, where the bauxite was transferred to larger ships.

Group Neuland was composed of three veteran boats and two new boats that had made brief transit patrols from Germany to Lorient in December, but had seen no noteworthy action. Three boats sailed on January 20 to the Aruba-Curaçao area, 4,000 miles distant: Günther Müller-Stöckheim in U-67, Jürgen von Rosenstiel in U-502, and Werner Hartenstein in the new U-156. The other two sailed on January 25 for the Trinidad area, 3,600 miles distant: Nikolaus Clausen in U-129 and Al-brecht Achilles in the new U-161. All traveled southwest across the Atlantic at one-engine speed, an agonizingly slow voyage of three weeks or more. As in Drumbeat, the five boats were to launch attacks on the same day—February 16, when the moon was new.

While the boats were creeping toward the Caribbean, Dönitz and Berlin fell into sharp dispute over how to launch à key part of this operation. Berlin—Admiral Raeder himself—ordered that the three Aruba-Curaçao boats were to open the campaign with a surprise shelling of the huge refineries and tank farms on those islands, which were easily accessible from the sea. Although it was known that the islands were occupied by British and American forces and that Aruba had three big (7.5”) coast-defense guns, Raeder thought a sudden night attack would catch the Allied forces by surprise, set the refineries and tank farms afire, and put them out of action for months. Believing that a surprise attack on the unarmed tankers would be more profitable—and certainly less risky and more satisfying to his submariners—Dönitz vigorously opposed the order on the grounds that the shelling might fail and would alert enemy shipping to the presence of U-boats and perhaps lead to a temporary halt in tanker traffic, resulting in failure for group Neuland. Admiral Raeder refused to rescind his order; nonetheless, Dönitz defied Raeder and directed the boats to open the campaign by attacking tankers, after which, if conditions permitted, they were to shell the refineries and tank farms.

In the early hours of February 16, thirty-two-year-old Werner Hartenstein in U-156, the newest but most senior skipper (crew of 1928) of the Neuland group, opened the German Caribbean campaign. He eased into the mouth of San Nicholas, the harbor of Aruba, and shot a salvo of torpedoes at three moored tankers. All hit, sinking one (the 2,400-ton British Oranjestad) and severely damaging the other two, including one American vessel. In due course, the two damaged tankers were repaired and returned to service.

Even though he had given away his presence, after dark that same day, Hartenstein boldly directed his crew to man the 4.1” deck gun and smaller weapons and shoot up the refinery and tank farm. But disaster ensued. The gunners forgot to remove the tampion (or bung) from the muzzle of the gun, and the first round exploded inside the barrel. The blast killed a gunner, severely wounded the gunnery officer, Dietrich-Alfred von dem Borne, son of a high-ranking Kriegsmarine officer, and mangled the gun muzzle. Hartenstein’s medic attempted to repair von dem Borne’s shattered leg—a ghastly ordeal for both doctor and patient—but it was obvious that if he were to survive, he needed sophisticated medical care. Accordingly, Hartenstein resourcefully requested permission from Dönitz to put von dem Borne ashore on the Vichy island of Martinique. After clearing the request with Berlin, Dönitz authorized the landing, even though the Vichy French on Martinique, fearing American reprisals, were reluctant.

Martinique was still under surveillance by Allied aircraft, surface vessels, and submarines to prevent the possible “escape” of the old Vichy French aircraft carrier Béarn, the heavy cruisers Emile Bertin and Jeanne d’Arc, and other warships to European waters or to attack—and close—the Panama Canal and/or to destroy the refineries on Aruba and Curaçao. Hartenstein therefore approached the harbor at Fort-de-France with extreme caution. Vichy French naval officers overcame their reluctance to this plan and sent out a launch and brought von dem Borne ashore. The French doctors amputated his leg; he eventually recovered from his wounds and returned to Germany. American naval observers on Martinique soon learned of the transfer, which seemed to confirm rumors (all false) that the Vichy French on Martinique were actively assisting German U-boats. In reprisal, President Roosevelt insisted that the French “immobilize” (by removing certain machinery) the Martinique-based warships “within 36 hours” or face an American bombing attack. The French immobilized the warships.

Raeder was miffed that his shelling order had not been more aggressively carried out and he gave Dönitz a new, explicit order to hit the refinery on Aruba. In response, Dönitz shifted Müller-Stöckheim in U-67 from Curaçao to Aruba and brought in Rosenstiel in U-502. Aruba by that time was on full alert and blacked out. Its single Dutch motor launch cruised defensively off the harbor entrance; the three big coast-defense guns were manned and trained out. As a result, neither boat was able—or willing—to conduct an effective night gun action, and the refineries and tank farms remained untouched.*

Released from the shelling mission, the three boats concentrated on the shipping in the Aruba-Curaçao area. All had success. Returning from Martinique, Hartenstein in U-156 sank four more ships, the last two with the deck gun, which they had made operable by using a hacksaw to cut off the mangled muzzle. These vessels included two tankers, the American Oregon, 7,000 tons, and the British La Carriere, 5,700 tons. Rosenstiel in U-502 sank by torpedo five confirmed tankers: three small ones on the Maracaibo run, the Panamanian Thalia, 8,300 tons, and the Norwegian Kongsgaard, 9,500 tons, and claimed a sixth, plus damage to a 9,000-ton American tanker. Müller-Stöckheim in U-67 had a run of bad luck. He reported six torpedo failures or misses on two separate ships, then, later, a crack in his pressure hull that limited his diving depth to ninety-eight feet. Despite these failures and handicaps, he sank by torpedo two tankers (the American J. N. Pew, 9,000 tons; the Panamanian Penelope, 8,400 tons) and damaged a smaller one.

These attacks paralyzed temporarily the Maracaibo-Aruba-Curaçao shallow-draft tanker traffic. The tanker crews—mostly Chinese—mutinied and refused to sail without Allied escorts. No tankers entered Aruba or Curaçao; the huge refineries were forced to shut down operations temporarily. Dutch authorities jailed the Chinese mutineers, but the traffic was not restored to normal until Admiral John H. Hoover, commander of the Caribbean Sea Frontier, sent two destroyers and some Catalinas from Puerto Rico to escort the Lake Maracaibo tanker fleet, and an American admiral to organize, command, and coordinate all Allied forces in this vital strategic area.

Of the two U-boats at Trinidad, the new U-161, commanded by twenty-eight-year-old Albrecht Achilles making his first patrol as skipper, had the first successes. Cruising bravely into the shallow, confined Gulf of Paria, separating Trinidad from mainland Venezuela, Achilles approached Trinidad’s well-lighted principal city, Port of Spain, as though U-161 were a cruise ship. Lying on the surface off Port of Spain just before midnight on February 18 in thirty-six feet of water, Achilles fired a bow salvo at two ships. Two of the four torpedoes failed or missed, but the other two hit a 7,000-ton British tanker and a 7,500-ton American freighter. Both ships settled to the shallow bottom, but both were later salvaged and returned to service.

Fully alive to the strategic importance of Trinidad, both as a source of oil and as a way station for shipping, Admiral Hoover was in the process of creating a powerful ASW base on the island, comparable to that on Iceland. But the work had only just begun and Achilles caught the Allied forces by surprise. Thus he was able to make the long run through the shallow waters to open seas on the surface without countermeasures. Although the results were in no way comparable, his bold penetration of the Gulf of Paria was to be compared to Prien’s feat at Scapa Flow.

Thereafter Achilles cruised northward in the Windward Islands. Although the Allies temporarily shut down most shipping in those waters, over the next two weeks Achilles found and sank by gun and torpedo two tankers (British Circe Shell, 8,200 tons; Canadian Uniwaleco, 9,800 tons) and the 7,000-ton American freighter Lihue, which was armed and fought back spiritedly. An American submarine, S-17, patrolling Anegada Passage in the Windward Islands on March 4-5, reported a hairraising but luckless encounter with a U-boat that was doubtless U-161.

When Achilles examined the British island of St. Lucia submerged on March 9, he saw two big ships at dockside in the principal harbor, Port Castries. They were an 8,000-ton Canadian liner and an 8,200-ton British cargo-passenger ship, both of which had arrived that morning. Achilles surfaced after dark, crept silently into the harbor on electric motors, and torpedoed both ships. They sank to the shallow bottom, but were later salvaged and returned to service. As U-161 withdrew to open water, shorebased machine gunners fired and hit her, but the bullets caused little damage.

Cruising farther north in the Windward Islands, Achilles found and sank two more ships in the following days. The first he claimed as a 5,000-ton tanker, but she was probably a 2,000-ton Canadian freighter. The second was the 1,100-ton United States Coast Guard lighthouse tender Acacia. Achilles sank the lightly armed Acacia with his deck gun, bringing his confirmed score to five ships (two tankers) for 28,000 tons, plus four ships for 30,500 tons sitting on the bottom in the harbors at Trinidad and St. Lucia. The American four-stack destroyer Overton rescued thirty-five crewmen of Acacia.

The other boat at Trinidad, the veteran U-129, commanded by Nikolaus Clausen, patrolled southeast of the island in the open Atlantic to intercept the bauxite traffic. In four days, February 20 to 23, Clausen torpedoed and sank four freighters for 11,700 tons. He then cruised south along the coast to British and Dutch Guiana (Surinam) to interdict the bauxite traffic at the source, but he was defeated by the shallow waters of the wide (100 miles) continental shelf at those places and an emergency hold, or diversion, of shipping. Returning to his former hunting ground near Trinidad, in seven days, February 28 to March 6, Clausen sank three more freighters for 13,900 tons, bringing his confirmed score to seven ships—all freighters—for 25,600 tons.

Having delivered a jarring physical and psychological wallop in the Caribbean, the five boats of group Neuland commenced the prolonged journey home. The group had failed to knock out the refineries on Aruba and Curaçao, but it had sunk twenty-four ships (twelve tankers) for 119,000 tons, and probably damaged eight ships (five tankers) for about 50,000 tons. Had they not been hit in shallow harbors, six of the damaged ships (two by Hartenstein, four by Achilles) almost certainly would have been lost forever. Had Müller-Stöckheim in U-67 not had torpedo problems and a pressure-hull leak, the group’s score doubtless would have been even greater.

While Clausen in U-129 was homebound in the Bay of Biscay, a Coastal Command Whitley of Squadron 502, piloted by Victor D. Pope, bombed the boat in darkness. However, she survived and reached Lorient. Inasmuch as his claims exceeded 100,000 tons, Clausen was awarded a Ritterkreuz.*† Berlin propagandists crowed over his successes and also, deservedly so, those of Achilles. Detached from U-129, Clausen, like Gysae and Lüth, went back to Germany to commission one of the new IXD U-cruisers.

In terms of the desired impact on the oil traffic in the Caribbean, group Neuland was a remarkable success: twelve tankers sunk, five damaged, and a temporary shipping paralysis at Aruba-Curaçao. But it was also expensive. Like the earlier patrols to Freetown, those of group Neuland were long: an average of sixty-five days. Although the new boats of the group (U-156, U-161, U-502) resailed after about one month of rest and refit in France, the older boats (U-67, U-129) would require about two months of refit. Hence, in terms of time expended per boat per patrol, including refits, the average return on investment was not all that impressive—to say nothing of the wear and tear on the crew in tropical waters. Moreover, group Neuland had had the advantage of surprise in virgin territory. Succeeding patrols to the Caribbean, some staffers at Kerneval believed, were to confront intensified ASW measures—however green and inept—with the likelihood of decreasing returns on investment at much greater risk. Thus, those staffers regarded patrols to the Caribbean, like the patrols to Freetown, as uneconomical until a means of resupplying the boats with fuel and torpedoes in that area could be devised.

Based on past performance, Kerneval did not expect much help from the five Italian boats which patrolled just east of the Windward Islands during group Neuland’s foray. At best, it was believed, they might provide a diversion. But these Italian submariners—some trained by the Germans in the Baltic or on war patrols in the North Atlantic—delivered the greatest single coordinated blow of any group of Italian boats in the war.

• Carlo Fecia di Cossato in Tazzoli sank six ships for 29,200 tons, including the British tanker Athelqueen, 8,800 tons.

• Athos Fraternale in Morosini sank three ships for 22,000 tons, including the Dutch tanker Oscilla, 6,300 tons, and the British tanker Peder Bogen, 9,700 tons.

• Ugo Giudice in Finzi sank three ships for 21,500 tons, including the British tanker Melpomene, 7,000 tons, and the Norwegian tanker Charles Racine, 10,000 tons.

• Antonio de Giacomo in Torelli sank two ships for 16,500 tons, including the Panamanian tanker Esso Copenhagen, 9,200 tons.

• Luigi Longanesi-Cattani in Da Vinci sank one ship for 3,644 tons.

The total came to fifteen ships for about 93,000 tons, including six tankers. Although Torelli was caught on the surface and bombed by Allied aircraft, which killed two men, she and the other four boats returned safely to Bordeaux. When the results of group Neuland and those of the Italian group were combined, the total of these first nine Axis submarine attacks in the West Indies and the Caribbean were impressive indeed: thirty-nine ships (eighteen tankers) positively sunk for about 212,000 tons, plus probable severe damage to eight ships (five tankers) for about 50,000 tons.*

The twenty-five German boats of the January group that reached American waters delivered a severe blow to Allied shipping. The eleven Type IXs, including group Neuland, sank forty-seven confirmed ships for 276,000 tons (and damaged many others). The fourteen Type VIIs sank twenty-four confirmed ships for 125,000 tons (and damaged others). It was the most successful U-boat foray of the war: seventy-one confirmed ships sunk (twenty-three tankers) for about 401,000 tons. In return, Allied forces sank but one U-boat, U-82.

Doubtless this victory influenced Hitler’s decision to continue the campaign in the Americas and to jump-promote Dönitz to four-star admiral effective March 14. When he got news of the promotion, Dönitz notified all U-boat shore stations and the boats at sea, expressing his “thanks and gratitude to you, my U-boat men.”

Notwithstanding this astonishing success, Admiral Raeder and the OKM were annoyed to learn that Dönitz had not launched a second group of Type IXs to replace group Neuland in the Caribbean with no intervening gap. Declaring that the interdiction of Allied oil and bauxite traffic in the Caribbean was of greater importance than any other task, Admiral Raeder insisted that Dönitz patrol the Caribbean “to the fullest extent possible” and to make another attempt to shell the refineries and tank farms on Aruba and Curaçao.

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