As in January, Dönitz sent twenty-six U-boats to the Americas in March: six Type IXs and twenty Type VIIs. It was a relatively experienced group. Two-thirds of the boats had made patrols to the Americas earlier in the year. Six boats (three IXs; three VIIs) were commanded by Ritterkreuz holders: Klaus Scholtz in U-108; Heinrich Bleichrodt in U-109; Reinhard Hardegen in U-123; Adalbert Schnee in U-201, returning from a long overhaul in Germany to make his first patrol to the Americas; Rolf Mützelburg in U-203; and Erich Topp in U-552.
The March boats were to be supported by two U-tankers. One, the U-A, commanded by Hans Cohausz and temporarily released from standby supply duty for the “defense of Norway,” was to refuel three Type VIIs, then return to Germany. The other, U-459, the first U-tanker designed as such,* was to sail directly from Germany to the western Atlantic, refuel fifteen boats, then return to France. The U-A was a temporary and less than satisfactory expedient, but U-459, commanded by “an old gentleman,” Georg von Wilamowitz-Möllendorf, age forty-eight, a veteran of the Imperial Navy, was a timely physical and psychological backup for the U-boat campaign in American waters.
All twenty-six March boats were assigned to patrol United States and Caribbean waters, none to Canadian waters. Three short-range Type IXBs and all twenty Type VIIs were to operate from New York to points southward. Three longrange Type IXCs were to carry out a second strike in the Caribbean. At the insistence of Admiral Raeder and the OKM, one of the Caribbean boats, Ernst Kals in U-130, was to shell the refineries and tank farms on Curaçao.
Wearing his newly won Ritterkreuz, Reinhard Hardegen in U-123 was the first of the six Type IXs to sail in March. He departed with sixteen torpedoes (fourteen internal, two in topside canisters) and another propagandist, Rudolf Meisinger. After weathering a four-day gale, in the three days following, March 22 to March 24, Hardegen came upon two big, loaded tankers in mid-Atlantic, sailing alone. He sank the first, the 7,000-ton American Muskogee, with a single air torpedo. The second, the 8,100-ton British Empire Steel, was more difficult. One torpedo misfired in the tube, a second was fired in error. The next two torpedoes hit solidly, and the ship, loaded with gasoline, exploded in flames. Hardegen manned his deck gun to polish off the flaming hulk, but the heat was so intense that he broke off the action after eight rounds. There were no survivors from either ship.
Approaching Hatteras on the afternoon of March 26, the bridge reported smoke puffs on the horizon. Upon closing this target, Hardegen was disappointed to find what appeared to be an ancient 3,000-ton tramp steamer sailing alone. Nonetheless, he tracked her and after dark fired one torpedo from close range. It hit with a solid thwack, but the detonation appeared to be weak. Hardegen again manned his deck gun to polish off his victim.
Unsuspected by Hardegen, his quarry was the Atik (ex-Carolyn), one of two old (1912) American “Q” ships engaged in a highly classified ASW patrol 250 miles off the East Coast. She was four days out from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on her shakedown cruise. Her sister ship Asterion (ex-Evelyn), also on her shakedown cruise, was close by, but not in direct communication. As part of her ruse, when the torpedo struck, Atik lowered away two lifeboats, as if the crew were abandoning ship.
When Hardegen closed to fire his deck gun, Atik suddenly came alive in a most startling and formidable fashion. Her bulwarks fell away, revealing a gun aimed directly at U-123. The gun blazed, but fortunately for Hardegen and his men, the shells fell wide. Then came a hail of machine-gun fire and a barrage of depth charges. Astonished and chagrined—feeling like a schoolboy, he said later—Hardegen ran off at flank speed, frantically evading the fire. Some shells and bullets hit the bridge, fatally wounding a midshipman, Rudolf Holzer.
After collecting his wits and ascertaining that the U-123 was not seriously damaged, Hardegen dived and reapproached Atik for a second torpedo attack. Carefully aiming at Atik’s engine room from very close range, Hardegen fired one electric, which hit and detonated satisfactorily. Atik went down slowly but surely. Hearing her final distress calls, her sister ship Asterion and other warships and aircraft searched for Atik survivors, but none were found.
By this time-the end of March—ASW forces in the Eastern Sea Frontier had increased substantially over those of January, when Hardegen pioneered Drumbeat. Andrews had almost 100 small surface ships of all kinds and about 100 Navy and Coast Guard planes and four blimps under his direct command, plus about 100 Army Air Forces planes and Atlantic Fleet Catalinas at his beck and call. In addition, King and Ingersoll were to make available twenty-three different destroyers in April,* which were to log a total of 140 ASW patrol days.
Hardegen reached the Cape Hatteras area on March 30 in bright moonlight, having downloaded his two topside torpedoes. Although the area was teeming with air and surface patrols, over the next forty-eight hours he attacked three ships, firing one torpedo at each. All missed or malfunctioned. He mounted a second attack on the third target, the 7,100-ton American tanker Liebre, with his gun and set her on fire. A further attack was thwarted by a patrol boat, which drove Hardegen under in shallow water (100 feet), but failed to stalk U-123 with persistence and vigor. Hardegen claimed Liebre sank, but she was sailing in ballast and was only damaged. She returned to service four months later.
In view of the heavy ASW measures, Hardegen rightly concluded that the shallow waters of Hatteras were no place for a big, clumsy Type IX. Accordingly, he cruised south to the Georgia coast, off St. Simon’s Island. On the night of April 7-8, he found and attacked two big, loaded, northbound American tankers, the 9,300-ton Oklahoma and the 8,000-ton Esso Baton Rouge, firing four of his remaining seven torpedoes on the surface in water merely 43 feet deep. Both ships exploded in fireballs and Hardegen claimed they sank, but both were later salvaged and returned to service. Since no counter-attack developed, Hardegen lurked off Georgia for another day, and in the early hours of April 9 he sank the 3,400-ton American refrigerator ship Esparta with a single torpedo.
Hardegen then proceeded south to the Florida coast, where he noted the “intense” phosphorescence in the waters, which left a dangerous luminous trail astern of the boat. While cruising close off St. Augustine in forty-six feet of water, late on the evening of April 10, Hardegen found the loaded 8,100-ton American tanker Gulfamerica, northbound on her maiden voyage with an Armed Guard crew manning a 4/50 caliber gun. Although the ship was more than a mile away and moving fast, Hardegen fired one of his last two torpedoes at her. It hit and Gulfamerica blew up in a fireball within view of those ashore. She later drifted out to sea and sank, the only tanker to be destroyed beyond repair by the Type IX boats in the Eastern Sea Frontier in April.
Almost immediately, ASW forces converged on U-123. These included Army and Navy aircraft from nearby bases in Jacksonville, the four-stack destroyer Dahlgren, and Atik’s sister “Q” ship Asterion, still on her shakedown cruise. One of the aircraft dropped a brilliant flare directly over U-123. Hardegen crash-dived—and hit bottom at sixty-six feet—but Dahlgren saw the flare, got U-123 on sonar, and dropped six close depth charges. The boat “takes a terrible beating,” Hardegen logged. “The crew members fly about, and practically everything breaks down. Machinery hisses or roars everywhere.”
Trapped in shoal water and severely damaged, Hardegen was certain that U-123 was done for and ordered the crew to prepare to abandon ship. Since the boat could be salvaged easily in such shallow water, he distributed the Enigma rotors (to be disposed of randomly) among the officers and made certain that Enigma documents (printed on water-soluble paper) were out in the open. Others set the scuttling charges and handed out escape apparatus. But Dahlgren did not persist in her attack. Nor did she bring up Asterion or other ASW forces. Her skipper concluded wrongly that he had not actually made a U-boat contact and steamed off.
Scarcely believing his good luck, Hardegen later surfaced and limped to deep water. He lay on the bottom to rest the crew and make repairs. By late evening of April 12, the boat and crew were again ready for action. They found it off Cape Canaveral: the 2,600-ton American freighter Leslie, northbound from Havana with a load of sugar, and the 4,600-ton British freighter Korsholm, loaded with phosphate. He sank Leslie with his last torpedo and Korsholm with his deck gun, and then set a course for France.
Hardegen happily calculated his sinking report for Dönitz. By his reckoning, on this patrol he had sunk ten ships (seven tankers) for 75,837 tons, substantially exceeding the tonnage sunk on his first patrol to America and—as he logged exuberantly—making U-123 the second U-boat (after the retired U-48) “to pass 300,000 tons.” However, both these claims were inflated (as of course were those of U-48). On this patrol to then, Hardegen had sunk nine confirmed ships for about 54,300 tons and damaged the tanker Liebre. However, two of his tanker sinkings, Oklahoma and Esso Baton Rouge for 24,300 tons, were salvaged, reducing the net bag to seven ships of about 30,000 tons. Under command of Moehle and Hardegen, U-123 had sunk not “300,000” tons but about 172,000 tons.
Imitating Johann Mohr in U-124, Hardegen reported his sinkings in verse, rendered thus by historian Michael Gannon:
For seven tankers the hour has passed,
The Q-ship hull went down by the meter,
Two freighters, too, were sunk at last,
And all of them by the same Drumbeater!
Hardegen’s report electrified the U-boat staff in Paris and the OKM in Berlin. But, as on his first patrol to American waters, he was not yet done. Homebound on April 16, he sank the 4,834-ton American freighter Alcoa Guide by gun. Reporting this victory, Hardegen raised his total claims to eleven ships for 79,649 tons, a record-breaking patrol (without torpedo resupply), which drew unstinting praise from Admiral Raeder and Dönitz. Since his total claims had reached or exceeded 200,000 tons on April 23, a message from Hitler arrived, adding Oak Leaves to Hardegen’s Ritterkreuz.*
When U-123 reached Lorient, Admiral Raeder and Dönitz were standing on the pier to congratulate Hardegen and all hands for “a superbly executed operation.” Hardegen later flew to Wolfsschanze to receive his Oak Leaves—and a vegetarian dinner—from Hitler. Still later, he took U-123 to Germany for battle-damage repairs and an extended overhaul, which kept her in Germany until December. Having acquired fame rivaling that of the past U-boat heroes Prien and Kretschmer, Hardegen left U-123 for a job in the Training Command and did not return to combat.
The other five Type IXs of the March group turned in mixed performances, due in part to the shutdown of Allied tanker shipping in the last two weeks of April.
Richard Zapp in U-66, who reached Trinidad in mid-April with twenty-four torpedoes (ten in topside canisters), carried out a notable patrol. He sank six confirmed ships for about 44,000 tons—more confirmed tonnage sunk than Hardegen and Mohr—and damaged a 12,500-ton British tanker. Four of the six sinkings were tankers.† While still at sea on this sixty-eight-day patrol, Zapp was awarded a Ritterkreuz† and upon his return to France he left the boat to command Combat Flotilla 3.
Ernst Kals in U-130 attacked, per orders, the refinery and tank farms on the island of Curaçao in the early hours of April 19. But after firing only twelve rounds, which did no discernible damage, counterfire from the shore batteries on Curaçao drove him off. Frustrated by the temporary shutdown of tanker shipping in the Caribbean and by some torpedo failures, Kals sank only two confirmed ships, a 5,400-ton freighter and, while homebound, the 7,700-ton American tanker Esso Boston. His was a disappointing, exceedingly long and frustrating patrol of seventy-five days.
After refueling from the U-tanker U-459 on April 20—her first “customer”—the Ritterkreuz holder Klaus Scholtz in the IXB U-108 patrolled Bermuda, the Florida Straits, and the Windward Passage. While inbound and outbound, and in his assigned areas, Scholtz sank five confirmed ships for about 31,000 tons. His victims included two tankers: the 9,900-ton American Mobiloil and the 8,100-ton Norwegian Norland.
Walther Kölle in U-154, patrolling near Puerto Rïco, reported “no traffic” and “strong” aircraft ASW patrols. As a result, Dönitz shifted him northward to the promising waters of the Windward Passage, where he sank five ships for 28,700 tons and returned to France after sixty days. His victims included three tankers: two 5,000-ton Americans, Comol Rico and Catahoula, and the 8,000-ton British Empire Amethyst.
Ritterkreuz holder Heinrich Bleichrodt in U-109, patrolling Cape Hatteras and south to Florida waters, sank two freighters for 11,500 tons and a 555-ton Nicaraguan freighter, a disappointing patrol.
In aggregate, the six IXs that sailed to the Americas during March sank twentynine confirmed nonsalvaged ships (thirteen tankers) for 164,100 tons, with Zapp in U-66 and Hardegen in U-123 accounting for nearly half the total. These successes reversed the disquieting downward trend of the IX sinkings, raising the average returns per boat per patrol slightly above those of the December IXs: 4.8 ships for 27,351 tons. The refueling of the IXB U-108 by U-459 enabled Scholtz to extend his patrol to seventy-one days. However, by exercising stringent fuel discipline, Bleichrodt in the IXB U-109 patrolled for a like number of days without replenishing, although certainly not without constant concern about running out of fuel.