Military history

ANOTHER HEAVY BLOW

Only thirteen of the eighteen U-boats which sailed to American waters in February actually got there. These included Ulrich Borcherdt in U-587, restricted by his low fuel situation to Canadian waters, and Ernst Bauer in the IXC U-126, assigned to the northeast coast of Cuba to attack ships entering and leaving the Caribbean via the Windward Passage, separating eastern Cuba and Haiti. The other eleven boats—five IXs and six VIIs—patrolled the United States East Coast.

Borcherdt in U-587 had a miserable time in Canadian waters. The weather was still frigid and Allied ASW forces, which sank U-656 and U-503 that month, were improving. Between those two U-boat sinkings, on March 8, Borcherdt complained to Kerneval that in a period of nine days he had encountered destroyers or patrol craft ten different times. He shot at some of these and at other vessels, but he managed to sink only one 900-ton coastal freighter. Homebound, he claimed to have sunk a severely damaged and abandoned (but unidentified) tanker.

Nearing the western edge of the Bay of Biscay on March 27, Borcherdt encountered and reported a “fast” southbound convoy. This was one of the prize targets of the war: the heavily escorted Winston Special 17, composed of thirty troop transports with 60,000 British soldiers embarked.*The luckless Borcherdt had only one air torpedo left and could not attack. He shadowed for the benefit of other boats, but one of the many escorts, the destroyer Keppel, accurately DFed him with its new Huff Duff, and four other escorts—Leamington, Grove, Aldenham, Volunteer—pounced on U-587 and sank her by depth charges with the loss of all hands. No other boats were able to respond to U-587’s contact report, so the tracking and loss were to no avail. She was the third of the February boats to be lost in combat and the second boat (after Rollmann’s U-82) to be sunk homebound from the Americas.

In contrast, the old hand Ernst Bauer in the Type IX U-126, patrolling the Old Bahama Channel north and northeast of Cuba, enjoyed beautiful weather, weak or no ASW forces, and dense shipping near the Windward Passage. In a mere twelve days—March 2 to March 13—Bauer sank by torpedo and gun seven confirmed ships for 33,000 tons and damaged three others of 23,000 tons. His victims included the 8,200-ton Panamanian tanker Hanseat sunk and two other tankers damaged. In view of his past overclaims and his role in the rescue of survivors of the German merchant raider Atlantis, Bauer was awarded the Ritterkreuz and got the usual buildup from Berlin propagandists.

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American ASW forces were still not much improved. As related, eleven different destroyers released from the North Atlantic run patrolled the Eastern Sea Frontier intermittently in February, but about half of them had been siphoned off to escort troop convoy AT 12. At the end of February, there were only five destroyers (including Roe) on ASW duty in the Eastern Sea Frontier.

During the month of March, Atlantic Fleet commander Ingersoll made available to Andrews on a temporary basis fourteen different destroyers.* Andrews later calculated that these warships spent a total of sixty-three days on ASW duty in his area during the month, an average of about two destroyers in service per day. The four-stack Herbert contributed the most: eighteen full days.

The demand for destroyers increased in all sectors. Apart from the diminishing number providing escort on the North Atlantic convoy run, among the important tasks performed in March were:

• Escort of Pacific-bound troopship convoy BT 201 from New York to Panama, March 4 to March 12, which merged with Task Force 18 (Pacific-bound carrier Hornet and cruisers Nashville and Vincennes). Nine American destroyers or destroyer transports or destroyer minesweepers escorted the formation: Dickerson, Ellyson, Grayson, Gwin, Manley, Meredith, Monssen, Stansbury, and Sturtevant. The Grayson, Gwin, Meredith, and Monssen accompanied Hornet into the Pacific for the “Doolittle raid” on Tokyo and remained in that theater, bringing the total number of destroyers transferred from the Atlantic to the Pacific to fifteen.

• Escort of two high-priority supply convoys, AS 1 and AS 2, to Ascension Island and Freetown, March 14 and March 19. The escorts consisted of the new British “jeep” carrier Archer (in transit), the British cruiser Devonshire, the American cruisers Cincinnati and Memphis, and eight American destroyers: Cole, Du Pont, Ellis, Greer, Jouett, Somers, Upshur, and Winslow.

• Escort of British troopship convoy NA 5 (two vessels) from Halifax to the British Isles, March 14 to March 22. Two new (1941) American destroyers, Nicholson and Swanson, carried out this task.

• Escort of troopship convoy TA 12, returning to the States, March 14 to March 25. This escort was Task Force 32, comprised of the battleship New York, the cruiser Philadelphia, and the ten destroyers that had escorted the eastbound troopship convoy AT 12.

• Escort of Task Force 39 (renamed 99) consisting of the carrier Wasp, the new battleship Washington, and the heavy cruisers Tuscaloosa and Wichita from Casco Bay, Maine, to Scapa Flow, March 25 to April 4. Six modern destroyers were assigned to the task: Lang, Madison, Plunkett, Sterett, Wainwright, and Wilson. Placed under British control, this American force reinforced the British Home Fleet, which had been diluted to supply ships for Force H at Gibraltar, engaged in the British conquest of Madagascar.

Accidents to destroyers continued. During workup just prior to the trip to Scapa Flow, the carrier Wasp and the destroyer Stack collided in fog on March 17 off the Delaware Capes. Badly damaged, flooded and heeled over, Stack barely survived this mishap and was in repair for months. One of her crew, Frank LeR. Knight, who alertly and bravely clawed his way aft to set all of Stack’s depth charges on “safe” after the collision, won the Medal of Honor.

The first of the eleven February boats to reach the United States coast was the Type VII U-578, commanded by Ernst-August Rehwinkel, who had earlier made a patrol in the Arctic. Shortly after midnight on February 27, while cruising thirty miles off the New Jersey coast in shallow water, Rehwinkel spotted a zigzagging blacked-out, northbound tanker. She was the 7,500-ton American R. P. Resor, loaded with 78,720 barrels of fuel oil and newly armed with a gun manned by a nine-man Navy Armed Guard crew. Rehwinkel fired a two-fan shot from close range. Caught unawares, Resor blew up in a thunderous fireball. Only three of the fifty men on board survived. She burned for two days in clear view of those ashore.

That afternoon, two of the four-stacks on ASW duty in the Eastern Sea Frontier, Dickerson and Jacob Jones, sailed from New York. Recently released from North Atlantic convoy duty, Jones was the namesake of another World War I four-stacker which had been sunk by a U-boat in European waters on December 6, 1917. Her orders were to patrol close inshore at night and out to the 100 fathom (600 foot) curve in daylight. Near dark, she and Dickerson paused briefly at the smoking hulk of tanker Resor, which Rehwinkel in U-578 had destroyed, to look for survivors. Finding none, the destroyers moved on to set up patrols.

At about five o’clock the following morning, February 28, while lying on the surface, Rehwinkel in U-578 saw the Jacob Jones coming directly toward him, apparently oblivious to the U-boat’s presence. Rehwinkel waited calmly for the range to close, then fired two bow torpedoes. Both hit and Jacob Jones blew apart and sank. As she went down, her armed depth charges exploded and the concussions killed many men in the water. Later in the morning, an Army aircraft spotted the wreckage and a small patrol boat rescued eleven out of her crew of about 200. No more were ever found. The loss of Jacob Jones—the second American destroyer after Reuben James to be sunk by a U-boat—underscored not only the futility but also the dangers of hunter-killer ASW destroyer patrols.*

Rehwinkel had fuel for about one week of patrolling in American waters. Heavy storms raked the East Coast during the first week of March, making it difficult for him and all other U-boat skippers to find and sink ships. On March 7, he reported, an aircraft bombed him off Cape Hatteras—the first German report of an attack on a U-boat in United States waters—but the bombs were “small” and the attack was ineffectual. Having found no other targets, he headed home. On the way back he sank a 3,100-ton freighter that was sailing alone.

The other ten February boats (five IXs, five VIIs) arrived almost literally in Rehwinkel’s wake. Piening and Rostin in the Type IXCs U-155 and U-158, who had expended torpedoes and fuel on Outbound North 67, bracketed Cape Hatteras. Operating in heavy weather, Piening in U-155 had a run of bad luck. His first watch officer was washed overboard and lost, the first German submariner to die in United States waters. Piening sank one 7,900-ton freighter, Arabutan, but, awkwardly, she was another “neutral” Brazilian. Rostin in U-158 had better luck. With small difficulty, he sank by torpedo and gun two American tankers in ballast, the 7,000-ton Ario and the 11,600-ton John D. Gill, plus an American freighter, and he damaged the 11,600-ton American tanker Olean, also sailing in ballast. Piening in U-155 returned to France after forty-nine days at sea and Rostin in U-158 after fifty-eight days. Both skippers were commended for aggressive first patrols.

En route to America, young Otto Ites in the Type VIIC U-94—praised by Kerneval for his discovery of the leak in the torpedo balance chamber—sank a 7,000-ton British freighter and one of the twenty-four America-bound British ASW trawlers, Northern Princess. While patrolling off New York in heavy weather on March 7, he sank a 5,200-ton passenger-cargo ship that was blacked out and zigzagging. She turned out to be yet another Brazilian “neutral,” Caryu, the fourth Brazilian ship sunk by U-boats within three weeks. In angry reprisal, the Brazilian president, Vargas, froze German and Japanese assets in Brazilian banks, seized other German and Japanese properties, and whipped the public into an angry mood, setting the stage for a declaration of war.

Ites sank one other ship—for a total of four for 28,300 tons—before the shortage of fuel compelled him to head for France. En route he ran into a convoy, Outbound North 77, which he reported, then attacked, firing four torpedoes at an 8,000-ton British tanker, Imperial Transport, in ballast. He damaged that ship and attempted to shadow the convoy, but owing to a shortage of fuel he had to break off before any other boats came up. Upon his arrival in France, Dönitz awarded Ites a Ritterkreuz.*

Viktor Vogel in the new Type VII U-588 ran almost parallel with Ites in American waters, from New York southward. Inbound, he sank a 4,900-ton British freighter. Off New York on March 2, he hit a 4,800-ton British tanker in ballast with one torpedo, then doggedly attacked her with his deck gun, firing an astonishing 200 rounds over a period of four hours. Vogel claimed a sinking, but although heavily damaged, the ship survived and limped into New York. Off the New Jersey coast on March 10, after the storms had abated, Vogel torpedoed the 6,700-ton American tanker Gulftrade, which broke into halves before sinking. After ten days in American waters, Vogel commenced the long voyage to France. He arrived on March 27, having spent forty-four days at sea—thirty-four days going to and from North America.

The son of a senior Imperial Navy officer, Otto von Bülow in the new VII U-404 arrived next. Passing southbound near Halifax, he found a 5,100-ton American freighter stopped outside the port, apparently waiting for a pilot. Mistakenly believing she was a much larger ship underway at 10 knots, von Bülow fired “a lot” of torpedoes at her before he got a hit and sank her. He then proceeded to the New York area, where he sank two more ships in two days, a 7,600-ton American freighter and—awkwardly—the aged 1,900-ton Chilean neutral, Tolten. Berlin had assured the pro-German Chilean government that its ships (bringing copper to the United States) were to enjoy safe passage, provided they were not in convoy or blacked out. In compliance with American rules, Tolten was blacked out, so von Bülow was not held responsible. One crewman survived the sinking.

Cruising southward off the New Jersey coast, low on torpedoes and fuel, on the evening of March 16 von Bülow found the 8,100-ton British tanker San Demetrio. Earlier in the war the “pocket” battleship Admiral Scheer had severely damaged this ship with gunfire during Schee’s attack on convoy Halifax 84. By heroic efforts, the crew had saved her, an action which had been romanticized in a wartime propaganda film. Von Bülow hit her with a torpedo, just forward of the bridge. “Nothing happened,” he remembered. “No boat was lowered. Nothing at all. Then all at once flames engulfed the entire length of the ship. The heat from the fire was so great I had to draw back to 800 meters or more.” Nineteen of the fifty-three-man crew died in the inferno.

Having exhausted fuel and torpedoes to sink four confirmed ships for 22,700 tons on his maiden patrol—a noteworthy first outing—von Bülow commenced a slow, eighteen-day return to France. On the way, on March 22, he ran into an Allied force of “two cruisers, six destroyers, and five big ships” and shot his last two torpedoes. He heard two “thuds,” but no explosions, leading him to conclude both torpedo pistols had failed. No other U-boat was able to respond to this rich find.

Two veteran boats of the February group converged on Cape Hatteras.

Johannes Liebe in the Type VII U-332 got there first, very low on fuel. Kerneval hoped to give him some fuel from Heyse’s U-128, homebound from Florida waters, but Heyse, who was under orders to scout Bermuda, reported that owing to an acute shortage of food, he was unable to detour.* Restricted to merely six days, Liebe continued the slaughter off Cape Hatteras with the sinking of three ships: a four-masted 700-ton American sailing schooner, a 5,000-ton Yugoslavian freighter, and the 11,600-ton American tanker Australia.

Johann Mohr in the Type IXB U-124 arrived next. Inbound near Bermuda, he sank the 7,200-ton tanker British Resource, which blew up, spewing flames 600 feet into the sky. Approaching Cape Hatteras waters on the evening of March 16 in the darkness of the new moon, Mohr sank a 1,700-ton Honduran freighter.

The next day, March 17, Mohr closed submerged on Cape Hatteras in shallow water. Beginning late that afternoon, in the space of eight hours he found and attacked three ships. His torpedoes sank two—a 5,100-ton Greek freighter and the 9,600-ton American tanker E. M. Clark—and severely damaged the 6,900-ton American tanker Acme. During these attacks, the four-stack destroyer Dickerson and the 165-foot Coast Guard cutter Dione (armed with a 3” bow gun, depth-charge racks, and Y guns) were on ASW patrol near Cape Hatteras. Engrossed in rescuing survivors of the Greek and the E. M. Clark, neither warship conducted an attack on U-124, but a Navy seaplane dropped two close depth charges, which rattled the boat and convinced Mohr to head for deeper water for a day’s rest.

The following night, March 18-19, Mohr returned to shallow water in pitch darkness, navigating by the Cape Hatteras lighthouse and other helpful aids. The U-124 lay silently on the surface, waiting. Soon the bridge watch spotted two blacked-out American tankers: the southbound 6,000-ton Papoose in ballast, and the northbound 7,000-ton W. E. Hutton, loaded with 65,000 barrels of heating oil. Mohr coolly torpedoed both ships. Hutton exploded in a giant fireball. Fifteen of the total fifty-five crewmen on both ships perished. The survivors rowed to shore or were rescued.

The four-stack destroyer Dickerson raced south to the scene. En route, she came upon the northbound 7,700-ton American freighter Liberator, which had a 4” gun manned by a green Armed Guard crew. Mistaking Dickerson for a U-boat, the gun crew on Liberator opened fire. Remarkably, one or two rounds struck Dickerson’s bridge. The blast killed two sailors, fatally wounded the skipper, John K. Reybold, and wrecked the bridge. Dickerson returned to Norfolk for funerals and repairs, her fate, like that of Jacob Jones, underscoring the futility and dangers of ASW hunter-killer patrols.

Perhaps attracted by the muzzle blasts of the gun on Liberator, Liebe in U-332, who was nearby but very low on fuel, bore in to attack her. His torpedoes struck solidly and Liberator went down. Five crewmen died in the sinking, but a Navy tugboat rescued thirty-five survivors, including the Armed Guard, who came ashore bragging that before being themselves sunk, they had hit—and sunk—a “U-boat,” actually the destroyer Dickerson. After expending his last three torpedoes on a tanker—all misses—Liebe commenced a protracted voyage home. He claimed four ships sunk for 22,000 tons; the postwar accounting confirmed four ships sunk but raised his tonnage to 25,000.

Mohr in U-124 hauled out to deep water again to rest his crew and to download torpedoes from the topside canisters. He returned submerged to Cape Hatteras in the late afternoon of March 20. By then, another veteran Type VII, Walter Flachsenberg in U-71, who had sunk the 6,400-ton Norwegian tanker Ranja offshore, had entered the Cape Hatteras area. That night Flachsenberg sank a 5,800-ton American freighter, and Mohr in U-124 damaged by torpedo and gun two more blacked-out American tankers: the 8,000-ton Esso Nashville and the 11,400-ton Atlantic Sun. Mohr claimed both ships sank, but they survived. Esso Nashville broke in half; Atlantic Sun escaped with slight damage. The destroyer-transport McKean, which was passing by, and two Coast Guard cutters salvaged the stern section of Esso Nashville, which later returned to service with a new bow.

In his eight-day patrol off Cape Hatteras, Mohr had expended eighteen of his twenty torpedoes. On the last night, March 23, he shot the other two at the loaded northbound, 5,400-ton American tanker Naeco. She blew up in a fireball; twenty-four of her thirty-eight-man crew perished in the flames or water. The four-stack destroyer Roper, the Coast Guard cutter Dione, the minesweeper Osprey, and another naval vessel raced to the scene, but by that time Mohr was homebound in deep water. The ships could only collect Naeco’s living and dead.

When Mohr compiled his final score, he was ecstatic: ten ships (eight tankers) sunk for 64,000 tons. He submitted his sinking report to Dönitz in the form of a ditty, which the propagandist Wolfgang Frank later rendered into English, downgrading his tonnage:

The new-moon night is black as ink

Off Hatteras the tankers sink


While sadly Roosevelt counts the score—

Some 50,000 tons—by Mohr.

Both Mohr and Frank got the figures wrong. In actuality Mohr had sunk seven ships (five tankers) for 42,048 tons and damaged three tankers for 26,167 tons. Even so, when the severe damage to Acme and Esso Nashville was figured in, Mohr’s was the most productive patrol in American waters to then. Counting his overclaims and those on two prior patrols, Mohr exceeded 100,000 tons and qualified for a Ritterkreuz. It was awarded promptly, and Mohr got the usual buildup from Berlin propagandists.*

Flachsenberg in U-71 remained in shallow Cape Hatteras waters. He reported that American air patrols had intensified and that the pilots “were now getting pretty slick with their bombs.” Nonetheless, in the days following, Flachsenberg sank a loaded tanker and a freighter. In the wake of his attack on the tanker, the 8,000-ton Dixie Arrow, which blew up in a fireball, a Navy seaplane and the four-stack destroyer Tarbell raced to the scene. The plane dropped two close bombs; Tarbell carried out an aggressive depth-charge attack, but she broke it off when it was realized her charges were injuring Allied survivors in the water. Tarbell then rescued twenty-two of Dixie Arrow’s thirty-three-man crew.

Homebound on March 31, Flachsenberg encountered several ships north of Bermuda. He sank the 12,900-ton British tanker San Gerardo. The next day he sank a 5,800-ton British freighter with his last torpedoes. Flachsenberg’s total of five ships (three tankers) for 39,000 tons was one of the two most productive patrols by the Type VIIs in American waters. He returned to France April 20 after fifty-six days at sea—another VII record in this campaign—logging that he had traveled 7,906 miles.

The last of the February boats to arrive in United States waters were two Type IXs: the new skipper Heinrich Schuch in the veteran IXB U-105 and Georg Lassen in the new IXC U-160. Having apparently failed to follow a Great Circle route, Schuch ran critically low on fuel. Inbound, he sank two tankers, the 10,400-ton British Narragansett and the 7,600-ton Norwegian Svenör, north of Bermuda, then proceeded to Cape Hatteras. His fuel shortage drastically restricted his action and he sank no other ships.

Lassen in U-160, who had been first watch officer on Schuhart’s U-28 when the latter sank the carrier Courageous, had had a devastating setback during Baltic workup: an internal fire had killed seven of his crew and seriously wounded one other. Notwithstanding this reverse, and an undertrained crew, Lassen sank five ships and damaged a tanker. One of the ships was the 8,300-ton American cargo-passenger vessel City of New York, with 124 persons on board. The four-stacker Roper rescued sixty-nine survivors, including a woman who had given birth to a baby in a lifeboat. Another victim was the 14,647-ton British cargo-passenger vessel Ulysses, the second largest vessel after the Amerikaland to be sunk in American waters. En route from Australia to Halifax—thence to Britain—Ulysses had a crew of 195 men and carried ninety-five passengers, including sixty-one women and children, and a cargo of 11,000 tons of pig iron, rubber, wool, and other goods. All 290 crew and passengers got away safely in ten lifeboats and were soon rescued by the destroyer-transport Manley.

Although the Allies might have found it difficult to credit, the foray of the February group was not altogether satisfactory in German eyes, owing mainly to the disappointing returns from the Type IXs. Nine Type IXs had sailed, but two had aborted, one had been lost, and one (U-105) had arrived with insufficient fuel for a fully effective patrol. As a consequence, the nine Type IXs that embarked for the Americas had sunk, in total, only twenty-eight ships (thirteen tankers) for 176,630 tons, half accounted for by two skippers, Mohr in U-124 and Bauer in U-126. This was a disappointing decline to an average of 3.1 confirmed ships sunk per Type IX per patrol.

In contrast, the returns from the VIIs were very good. Nine VIIs had sailed. As related, Krech in U-558 had returned to France after his successful attack on Outbound North 67, Borcherdt in U-587 had been held in Canadian waters, and Kröning in U-656 had been sunk inbound to the Americas. Thus only six of the nine VIIs intended for United States waters actually got there, but the six sank twenty-two ships, including the destroyer Jacob Jones. When added to the sinkings of Krech and Borcherdt, sinkings by the VIIs per boat were slightly greater than those of the IXs: twenty-nine ships (ten tankers) for 167,864 tons, an average of 3.2 confirmed ships sunk per boat per patrol.

Despite the disappointing returns of the IXs, in aggregate the eighteen boats of the February group struck another heavy blow at Allied shipping: fifty-seven confirmed ships (twenty-three tankers) sunk for 344,494 tons. In return, the Allies had sunk three U-boats with the loss of all hands: U-503, U-587, and U-656.

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