On Jan. 13, 1942, German U-boat attacks officially started against merchant ships along the Eastern Seaboard of North America. From then until early August, German U-boats dominated the waters off the East Coast, sinking fuel tankers and cargo ships with impunity and often within sight of shore.
In less than seven months, U-boat attacks would destroy 22 percent of the tanker fleet and sink 233 ships in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. The U-boats killed 5,000 seamen and passengers, more than twice the number of people who perished at Pearl Harbor.
While thousands of New Englanders looked to the sky for enemy airplanes, few had any idea about the carnage wreaked in the waters nearby.
The U.S. Navy lied to the public about the terrifying U-boat attacks. The news media agreed to government censorship, which helped to hide the military’s incompetence in protecting shipping and the lives of merchant seamen.
New London, Conn., native Ralph Sturgis was one of the few who knew about the U-boat attacks. He ran an observation post on Fishers Island in Long Island Sound.
“I would watch boats go out, and probably an hour later get a radio message that the boat had been sunk,” Sturgis remembered. “The Germans use to operate right off of the coast here and they used to sink the ships, it was really something.”
Why U-boat Attacks
When the United States entered World War II, both sides understood the key to Allied victory would be the restoration of America’s industrial might. Germany believed it could win the war by preventing the U.S. from supplying Britain with war materiel and fuel.
Ed Offley, in The Burning Shore, described German reaction to a top-secret war plan that said the United States wouldn’t be able to launch a military offensive against Germany until July 1943.
“American planners also assumed that the Soviet Union would likely collapse militarily before then,” wrote Offley. “This left Germany with an eighteen-month window of opportunity.
“By shifting its military priority from the Soviet invasion to mounting a knockout punch against Great Britain before the United States became strong enough to intervene, Germany could forestall an Allied invasion of the continent and refocus its efforts on beating the Soviets.”
But after the sensational attacks from the air at Pearl Harbor and the German blitzkrieg against London, New Englanders had more concern about bombing raids from Europe than about U-boat attacks.
John R. Newell, assistant manager of Bath Iron Works Corp., believed the enemy would try to destroy the city of Bath, Maine, the way it had Coventry, England.
“If Bath is bombed – and it may come tonight or tomorrow night – there will not be just two or three bombs or two or three fires, for I believe it will be an effort to make Bath another Coventry,” Newell said five days after Pearl Harbor.
U.S. Navy officials knew something else was coming. British intelligence on Jan. 12 warned U.S. Navy headquarters that a group of U-boats was headed to Newfoundland and another to the American coast between Portland, Maine, and New York. The attacks would begin on Jan. 13, 1942.
Admiral Karl Donitz, the capable commander of Hitler’s U-boat fleet, began planning the U-boat attacks as soon as Germany declared war on the United States in December 1941. He called it Operation Paukenschlag, or Drumbeat.
Donitz thought the U.S. military was ill-prepared and unequipped to fight the well-trained U-boat fleet. He was right.
On the evening of Jan. 11, 1942, Reinhardt Hardegen, the audacious captain of U-boat 123, jumped the gun. He spotted the big British freighter Cyclops, carrying Chinese sailors and cargo to the British Isles, 300 miles east of Cape Cod in Canadian waters. U-123 sent a torpedo into the Cyclops that cut her in two.
The Cyclops lost 87 passengers and crew. The 95 survivors spent 20 hours enduring cold and wind in lifeboats before they were picked up. Two days later, the Navy made a cryptic announcement: An unidentified merchant ship had sunk off Canada.
Hardegen headed south, toward the Rhode Island Sound. He didn’t have good charts, but that didn’t matter. The Montauk Point lighthouse beamed a helpful navigational aid.
Shortly after midnight on Jan. 14, Hardegan’s lookout spotted the Norness silhouetted against the brightly lit coast. The huge tanker carried 12,200 tons of crude oil from New Jersey to Liverpool.
U-123 sunk the Norness with three torpedoes. Hours after the Norness sank, a blimp spotted the hull sticking out of the shallow water. Several hours later, 39 survivors in lifeboats were taken to Newport, R.I.
By the early morning of Jan. 15, U-123 approached New York Harbor. From the bridge, Hardegan could see the lights of Manhattan skyscrapers. “I cannot describe the feeling in words,” he said “but it was unbelievable and beautiful and great. . . We were the first to be here, and for the first time in this war a German soldier looked out on the coast of the USA.”
Later that night, U-123’s lookout saw the bright lights of the Coimbra bearing down on the submarine. The British tanker, like the Norness, transported oil to Britain. She made an easy target against the brightly lit coast. U-123 torpedoed the tanker, and within minutes the explosion sent a fireball 650 feet into the sky.
Thirty-six crewmen were killed; six survived. People in the Hamptons called to report the fire 27 miles away. The U.S. military did not respond. No airplane, no Coast Guard cutter, nothing. Hardegen didn’t even bother to submerge the U-boat.
Throughout Operation Drumbeat, the military said as little as possible about the U-boat attacks along the East Coast. Only if the enemy knew of sinkings, or if they were witnessed by people along the coast would the Navy disclose successful U-boat attacks.
On Jan. 23, an unnamed Navy spokesman told the press the U.S. had sunk some of the U-boats. It was a lie.
In the first three weeks of January, U-123 would destroy eight ships and damage a ninth. During that time the nine German U-boats in the Atlantic destroyed 35 Allied merchant ships and a British destroyer and killed 1,219 crew and passengers.
In February, the killing continued. Sixteen U-boats destroyed 34 more Allied merchant ships and a warship between Nova Scotia and Venezuela and 15 more vessels, mostly oil tankers, in the Caribbean. The cargo ship Dixie Sword sank on Feb. 12, 1942 near Monomoy Island off Cape Cod.
The United States fired nary a shot in their defense.
But by then, the U.S. military began to take some defensive measures against the U-boat attacks. Mine fields were laid in the harbors and mobile artillery was positioned to protect the harbors. Shore craft and planes were ordered to be ready for combat. It was something, at least.
In March, the U-boats attacked 48 ships, and almost all sank. They were easy prey as the U-boats could spot them easily against the lighted cars, buildings, streetlights and billboards along the coast. Ships continued to operate with all their lights on.
The U-boat attacks were destroying ships faster than the British and Americans could replace them.
The British Royal Admiralty, exasperated with U.S. incompetence, sent a commander to Washington to plead with naval officials to start a system of convoys. The British had learned from experience that the most effective tactic against U-boat attacks was to escort groups of merchant ships with warships, luring the submarines into a battle they would probably lose.
Finally, on March 26, the U.S. Navy responded to a U-boat attack. U-71 torpedoed the tanker Dixie Arrow and stayed around to watch it burn. The USS Tarbell dropped depth charges, but the U-71 escaped and the Tarbell picked up the survivors.
It wasn’t until the night of April 13-14 that the first U-boat was sunk. The destroyer USS Roper used its new radar technology to detect U-85 off the North Carolina coast. The Roper sunk the submarine and then dropped depth charges for good measure.
Finally, A Plan
By April, the U.S. finally had a plan and a fleet of 65 antisubmarine vessels. At the end of the month, all tankers were ordered into port. No tankers hauled oil around the Atlantic Ocean until the they had escorts. From then on, most merchant ships traveled in escorted mini-convoys known as bucket brigades along the coast. At night, merchant ships put into sheltered harbors.
The Civil Air Patrol, one-fifth of which were women, began sorties. Pilots in small, privately owned aircraft patrolled the coast from bases stretching from Trenton, Maine, to Lantana, Fla.
Though they weren’t effective at sinking U-boats, the little planes prevented attacks. The U-boats were under orders to submerge at the sight of an aircraft. From March 5, 1942 to August 31, 1943, the Coastal Patrol flew 86,865 missions, sighted 173 U-boats, reported 91 ships in distress and 17 floating mines and rescued 363 survivors of U-boat attacks. Ninety planes were lost on those missions, and 26 people died.
Less effective than the ‘Flying Minutemen’ was the auxiliary patrol comprised of luxury yachts and small fishing boats known as the Hooligan Navy. Some, including Ernest Hemingway, volunteered. Some were requisitioned.
The Hooligan Navy didn’t sink any U-boats. The crew of one cabin cruiser was shocked to see a U-boat coming at them off the Florida coast. A German crewman yelled at them, “Get the hell out of here, you guys! Do you want to get hurt? Now scram.”
The Hooligan Navy, however, did rescue hundreds of survivors of vessels sunk by U-boat attacks.
By the second half of April, Allied shipping losses fell by half. On April 17, a Coast Guard cutter sank U-175 with depth charges while escorting a convoy south of Iceland. On May 9, another Coast Guard vessel sunk U-352 in the North Atlantic.
In May and June, there were only 87 U-boat attacks on U.S. shipping. By July and August, the government finally ordered the coast blacked out, and U-boat attacks fell to 26 on the East Coast.
Military air defenses were getting stronger, and on July 7 the first Army Air Corps bomber sank U-701 with two bombs.
On July 19, German Admiral Donitz ordered the U-boats redeployed. Operation Drumbeat was over.
U-boat Attacks: Epilogue
The U-boat attacks didn’t end completely. The submarines moved to the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, attacking fuel tankers and freighters.
On April 16, 1944, USS Joyce sunk U-550 off Nantucket.
The last U-boat was sunk in American waters during the Battle of Point Judith off the Rhode Island coast. U-853 sank a collier ship on May 5, days before Germany surrendered. The U-boat was sunk that evening by four warships, Coast Guard cutters, a destroyer, frigates and two blimps.
During the week of May 15, 1945, thousands witnessed the sensational surrender of four German U-boats at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. (Read the story here.)
Operation Drumbeat counted as a little-known victory for Germany. Not just in battle, but on the home front. The Northeast, which got 95 percent of its oil from the Gulf of Mexico, suffered fuel shortages through 1943 as a result of U-boat attacks in 1942. The fuel shortages slowed wartime production and forced gasoline rationing, one of the most unpopular restrictions of the war.
With thanks to The Burning Shore by Ed Offley. This story was updated in 2023.