Terror in the Atlantic: Nazi U-boat Attacks on American Ships during World War II.

(Above image: An illustration of a U-boat attack. The steamer is sinking in the background, while the German crew on the U-boat watch. Painting by Willy Stöwer,1864–1931)

Most Americans do not realize just how close the Germans were to winning the war in Europe. In 1941, and just before the U.S. entered the fight, most of Europe had already surrendered to Hitler’s aggression, and England was hanging on by her fingernails. It was losing the battle in the Atlantic, suffering as many as 100 warships lost between June and September 1941. In addition to attacking British shipping, both military as well as non-military vessels, the U-boats even targeted ships containing innocent children, such as SS City of Benares, and the SS Voldendam, both passenger liners. The Voldenham was attacked 2 weeks prior to the Benares, and had carried 320 children; luckily it was close to shore and all survived. Both ships were torpedoed at night during a tumultuous storm. On September 18, 1940 the SS City of Benares went down with a loss of 260 people, including 77 children. It was hit by one torpedo directly in the stern and went down in less than 30 minutes.

Because of the heavy German air bombardment in England, the country had set up a program to transport children to safer places during the war. The children on The City of Benares had been on their way to Canada when attacked. Some families, such as the Grimmonds from Brixton, South London, faced an almost unimaginable loss: five of their children — Violet, Connie, Lennie, Eddie and Gussie — had perished. Despite the horrific losses the British refused to give up. The level of fear, however, continued to grow as Hitler’s own words began to resonate and haunt an entire nation, “since foreign seamen cannot be taken prisoner …the U-boats are to surface after torpedoing and shoot up the lifeboats.” The gruesome stories of German ruthlessness stirred the emotions of Americans. They anxiously read and carefully listened to the daily news reports of the war, and particularly the war in the Atlantic. An entire nation wondered what would happen next.

Children boarding a ship for a safe haven during the WW 2.

British children just before leaving Liverpool, England to a safe haven during WW 2.1940.Image: The National Archives UK @ Flickr Commons

England was all that stood in Hitler’s way of conquering Europe. Defeating her, however, required more than the German air bombardment of English cities. Adolph Hitler realized that England’s surrender would occur only when her resources to fight back were shut off. Stopping the flow of merchant ships carrying supplies, especially oil, and military equipment to English harbors was the only answer. The commander of Germany’s U-boat fleet proclaimed that if he had 300 more U-boats, “he could strangle England and win the war.” Many historians agree with that assessment. To defeat Germany, however, required the Allies to destroy their wolf pack, those submersibles which quietly operated in groups, surfaced at night and torpedoed unsuspecting ships, sometimes full of innocent passengers.

[caption id="attachment_1032" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] German U-boat 1942.

By early December 1941, Americans were acutely aware of the almost daily sinking of ships by Nazi U-boats. The war, however, was in Europe, and Americans could read and hear about the terrible atrocities from the comfort of their homes, far from the danger. That changed, however, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and the United States declared war against Japan. This triggered the Axis Treaty, which was between Japan and Germany, and in return, Germany then declared war on the United States. Within two weeks, Hitler’s high command had sent three U-boats to the shores of the United States.

Striking in the dark of night, and especially during stormy weather, U-boats had proven to be the nightmare of the Atlantic. The U.S. did not anticipate German U-boats coming into U.S. ports. It was also unimaginable that a German vessel would operate in daylight, above the surface, and, in clear view of an American coastline. It was felt that because of the design of the U-boat, it was unlikely that the vessel could even cross the ocean to the American coastlines. With a crew of 44 men, a U-boat was not a pure submarine, but it was considered a submersible watercraft. When surfaced, it was powered by large diesel engines, and when submerged, the engines would shut down, and the vessel would operate off 100 tons of lead-acid batteries. Operating the boat underwater required that the ship had to surface every few hours for air, and the recharging of the batteries off the diesel engines. If spotted, the hull of the ship was easily penetrated by Allied gunfire, and once punctured it would be nearly impossible for it to re-submerge. It would be a death sentence for a U-boat to be spotted on the surface by Allied forces. America was confident that her shores were safe. The Germans, however, were also confident that America was not prepared for a coastal invasion, and they were right.

Allied oil tanker torpedoed by U-boat.

In January 1942, the British Navy officially notified the U.S. Navy that German U-boats had indeed crossed the Atlantic towards the east coast of America. The United States ignored the warnings, and left the coastline unprotected. In England most seaside towns and cities had been shutting off all lights (blackout) at night, but on the east coast of America everything, including ships in port, New York skyscrapers, and street lights, all remained lit up, silhouetted and huge targets.

Within three months, U-boats had sunk so many ships in U.S. waters that Americans thought that the Germans had sent an entire fleet of submarines, instead of only a few. On the bottom of the ocean during the day and rising to the surface at night, by the end of March 1942 bodies began to wash up on the shores from the New York harbor to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

German U-boat operated underwater by batteries, which made the vessels very slow.

The Dallas Morning News offered a running account of U-boat activities along the coast of the United States:

  • January 14 and 15, 1942. In New York harbor two large tanker ship carrying crude oil were torpedoed. The engine room of the SS. Coimbra was quickly engulfed in flames and spread to the entire the ship, killing 36 crewmen. It was reported in the German papers, “ twas a fantastic sight for us, and no doubt a terrifying sight for the Yankees.” Also, and destined for an English harbor, the same U-boat sank the huge tanker SS Norness with three torpedoes, and luckily, with no loss of life. From the bridge, the captain of the U-boat, Reinhardt Hardegen could see the lights of skyscrapers in Manhattan saying, “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.”
  • January 29, 1942. The passenger liner Lady Hawkins was torpedoed and sank so quickly that the crew was not able to signal S0S for assistance. The first torpedo struck the number 2 hold on the port side, and forward of the bridge; the second one wrecked the engine room and the ship lights and power were knocked out. There were 250 killed and 71 survivors. The survivors remained on life boats for five days until rescued, 150 miles off Cape Hatteras. The ship had left the port in Boston.
  • February 2, 1942. The W.L. Steed, an American tanker, was torpedoed off the New Jersey coast in broad daylight leaving 34 dead. As the ship went down, men were getting in the lifeboats, but, the U-boat surfaced and began shelling the ship and the lifeboats.
  • February 6, 1942. The cargo ship Major Wheeler was torpedoed and sank off the coast of Cape Cod with the loss of its entire crew of 35.
  • May 10, 1942. “U-boat Crew Watches as Torpedo Victims Drown” Out of a crew of 35, one survivor was rescued after 14 days on a raft. The survivor stated that the U-boat cruised among the “bobbing heads of the sailors until they thought they were all dead.”
  • June 1, 1942. Off the coast of New Orleans four merchant ships, three of them American, were sunk by U-boats in four days with a loss of 9 sailors.
  • October 14, 1942. On the St. Lawrence River, near Canada, a U-boat sank the railroad passenger ferry SS Caribou. Upon surfacing the U-boat capsized a large life boat, killing 44 in the boat, including a woman who was holding on to her baby. The U-boat then just watched as people drowned. In total, 137 were lost with the sinking of the Caribou.

Many consider the sinking of the Gulf-America, an oil tanker, the most spectacular, as well as outrageous of all U-boat attacks  off the coast of the United States. On April 10, 1942 hundreds of visitors, including a number of military personnel, were enjoying the roller coasters and ferris wheels at an amusement park located in Jacksonville Beach, Florida.  A U-boat slipped in close to the beach and torpedoed the anchored oil tanker. As the ship exploded into massive flames, the U-boat surfaced,  and idled there in full view of the beach, taunting the captive audience of shocked onlookers. Many of the ones along the shore jumped into small watercraft hoping to save some of the ships crews.  Years later the the U-boat captain John Hardegen said in an interview about the attack at Jacksonville Beach, “there was no blackout. I could see the big wheel in the amusement park and all the lights an motorcars and the hotel in full light. It was easy for me, I could see the ship silhouetted against the lights.”

In less than a year, German U-boats had sunk nearly 25% of the commercial tanker fleet that provided supplies to the Allies. Additionally, over 5,000 seamen and passengers were killed in these attacks during early 1942. During January U-boats sank 35 Allied ships and a British destroyer killing 1219 crew and passengers. In March alone, 48 ships were attacked by U-boats, and nearly all were sunk. During the first half of the year German U-boats sank Allied merchant ships, tankers, passenger liners, and of course warships with relatively no challenge. They were easy prey since the forces of the United States generally offered no resistance to the attacks of the German U-boats. In fact, until spring 1942, American ships continued to lie anchored at night with full lights blazing on her decks, and coastal towns and cities made no attempt to dim their lights either. As the numbers of attacks mounted, and tension grew, Americans began voicing their concerns and the military began changing its strategy.

U.S. Navy officers searching for U-boats in the Atlantic.

Initially, U.S. authorities began by laying mine fields in harbors, and installing artillery in places that protected significant ports and waterways. Light planes and shore watercraft were ordered to be ready and prepared for battle when U-boats were spotted. The American Navy was highly criticized for not taking some defensive measures sooner. After a number of attempts the British were able to finally persuade the inept U. S. Navy that a new plan had to be developed. The English had been dealing with U-boat attacks for several years and had finally found a successful method to deal with the German Wolfpack. The English began using a system of convoys. Warships would escort groups of merchant ships, with the intentions of luring the submarines into a battle. The U-boats would be forced to surface every few hours, and were then vulnerable for attack from the warships. If the submarines did not surface they would use their radar technology to detect where they were and begin dropping depth charges in those areas.

U.S. convoy fleet of ships.
Operating on the surface was a death sentence for U-boats, as evidenced in this picture. As the war progressed sea planes equipped with radar were able to spot the vessels once the surfaced.

On April 14, 1942 the United States sank its first U-boat. Off the coast of North Carolina the destroyer USS Roper used its new radar system to find U-85. After shelling the vessel it began to submerge, but the Roper finished it off with depth chargers. Unfortunately, U-85 had sunk 3 Allied ships before it was stopped. Later that month the United States developed an anti-submarine warfare plan that included 65 anti-submarine vessels, all equipped with the latest in radar technology and loaded with depth chargers. Seaplanes were equipped with seaborne radar, as well as HF/DF (high frequency direction finding) which could enable the detection of U-boats operating on the surface. As more patrol planes became equipped with the technology, the tables were finally turned on the U-boats, and many were attacked at night while operating on the surface. Other measures included not allowing oil tankers to sail unless escorted by warships, and merchant ships traveled in escorted mini-convoys known as bucket brigades. These long overdue measures reduced the effectiveness of the U-boat, and their attacks began to reduce. The most significant and strongest blow to U-boat attacks occurred when commercial shipping ceased sailing at night, and put into protected harbors. The success of U-boat attacks on Allied shipping was due to their element of surprise, and that surprise was generally because they attacked at night, and were able to easily slip away into the darkness. In the end, the cost was great. U-boats sank over 3,500 merchant ships and 175 Allied warships before the Allied Powers destroyed the U-boat fleet, and ultimately the Third Reich.

If you would like additional information please see:

The Dallas Morning News (1942)

The Defeat of the German U-boats:The Battle of the Atlantic, by David Syrett

Wolf Pack:The Story of the U-Boat in World War II, by Gordon Williamson

Miracles on the Water: The Heroic Survivors of a World War II U-Boat Attack,by Tom Nagorski

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