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Operation Drumbeat

U-boats targeted East Coast shipping in the first half of 1942 aboard U-123, was a showman who attacked ships in full view of American

U-boats targeted East Coast shipping in the first half of 1942

In the early hours of Jan. 12, 1942, wireless stations around the North Atlantic picked up a distress call from the British passenger freighter, SS Cyclops. The 9,076-ton vessel with 181 people aboard was 230 kilometres southeast of Cape Sable, N.S., and had just been struck by two torpedoes from U-123.

It was torpedoed by U-67 on June 29, 1942, during Operation Drumbeat. U-boats are displayed at Kiel, Germany.
Everett Collection/Alamy/BTJEBE
The Royal Canadian Navy dispatched the minesweepers Red Deer and Burlington to the scene, while the Royal Canadian Air Force sent off a Catalina. Red Deer eventually rescued 93 survivors. No trace of U-123 was found.

The sinking of Cyclops marked the start of U-boat attacks on Allied shipping in the Western Hemisphere. Attacks in Canadian and Newfoundland waters were deflected by rapid expansion of the system of escorted convoys. Farther south, however, the U-boats operated with impunity in the face of grossly inadequate American defences.

The U-boats sank more Allied ships in this period than they did in any previous year of the war. By the time it was finished, Operation Paukenschlag (drumbeat) constituted America’s greatest naval defeat. It should never have happened.

The primary task of the escort was destruction of the enemy.

Within days of Germany’s declaration of war on the United States on Dec. 11, 1941, Admiral Karl Dönitz, commander of the U-boat fleet, dispatched the first wave of attackers.  Five large Type IX U-boats of Group Paukenschlag were ordered westward: two to operate off Nova Scotia and three between Cape Cod, Mass., and Cape Hatteras, N.C. A dozen smaller Type VIIs of Group Zieten (named for a German cavalry officer of the 1700s) left a few weeks later to attack shipping along the great circle route south of Cape Race, Nfld. While Group Zieten fed on shipping dispersed on the Grand Banks from westbound transatlantic convoys, great drama unfolded farther south.

On Jan. 14-15, U-123 sank two ships off Rhode Island, then moved to Cape Hatteras where it sank three more and damaged one on Jan. 19. “It is a pity there were not 10 or 20 submarines [here] instead of just one,” wrote Reinhard Hardegen, U-123’s captain. “I am sure they would have found targets in plenty.” Hardegen also found the American coast utterly unprepared for war: navigation lights operated normally and there was no blackout—Atlantic City and Miami feared that blackouts would hurt tourism. To the Germans the American shoreline looked like a carnival: “It is unbelieveable,” Hardegen commented to one of his lookouts as they gazed in amazement.


Gunners aboard U-123 prepare to fire a deck gun at an Allied transport in the mid-Atlantic in early 1942. U-boat captain Reinhard Hardegen 

For U-66, it was the lights of the New Jersey shore that silhouetted the Canadian passenger steamer Lady Hawkins on the evening of Jan. 19. Despite steaming in blackout condition and zigzagging, the ship was easy to track and hit. Only 71 of Lady Hawkins’ 320 passenger and crew were rescued five days later. It would not be the last ship sunk against the glow of America’s cities before the coast finally went dark in April.

The arrival of the U-boats should have been no surprise. An assault on the American coast was expected and Allied intelligence tracked the westward movement of the U-boats. The British and Canadians had also shared their hard-won experience and their sophisticated organization for the defence of shipping with the U.S. Canada controlled the routing of all Allied merchant ships and convoys in the Western Hemisphere north of the equator. This included an organization for naval control of shipping throughout the United States using “consular shipping agents”—naval officers in civilian clothes—to provide routing information to Allied ships.

In 1941, this system was unmasked to the Americans. They were provided with all the relevant confidential books and special publications on control of shipping, and their local port directors were tasked with working alongside the British shipping agents.

There was every expectation that the Americans would adopt a system of escorted convoys in early 1942. In fact, the infrastructure was in place—put there by the British and Canadians. In the fall of 1941, the U.S. navy had started escorting Allied convoys between Newfoundland and Iceland alongside the RCN. So, they knew how things worked.

But the simple British/Canadian solution of putting everything into escorted convoys and pushing them through ran counter to the U.S. navy’s earnest desire to fight.

Crowd aboard HMCS Arvida, a Flower-class corvette, as it enters St. John’s Harbour in Newfoundland on Sept. 15, 1942.
Their convoy escort doctrine in late 1941 specified that the primary task of a U.S. escort was destruction of the enemy. If the escort could not do that, it was better to have no convoy at all.

Only destroyers met the U.S. navy’s standard for effective convoy escorts in 1942, and most of those were soon on their way to the Pacific. In March 1942, the navy’s Board on the Organization of East Coast Convoys concluded that poorly escorted convoys were too dangerous: they simply assembled targets for the enemy. It was better to keep those targets dispersed. So they did, but with catastrophic results. In February 1942, U-boats sank 71 ships in the North Atlantic, most of them independently routed vessels in the western Atlantic. Group Zieten, operating south of the Grand Banks, took a fair share of these from dispersed westbound transatlantic convoys.

That problem was fixed by bringing westbound convoys right into Halifax in March: this became a Canadian task. That same month the RCN established the first escorted convoy route between Halifax and Boston. By then convoys between Saint John, N.B., and Halifax were running routinely. But nothing the British and Canadians did in the spring of 1942 convinced the Americans of the merits of convoys. Most of the 92 ships sunk by U-boats in March were independently routed south of New York. April was no better.

American defences con-sisted largely of designated shipping corridors which the merchant ships travelled at widely spaced intervals. These lanes were patrolled—with rigorous routine—by the few available U.S. navy destroyers and patrol ships and covered by military and civilian air patrols. The result, paradoxically, was a safe operating zone for U-boats, free of interference by other ships and—between the regu-lar patrols—free of enemy warships, too. To conserve torpedoes, the U-boats could often resort to sinking ships rather leisurely with gunfire.

As bad as the first four months of 1942 were along the U.S. coast, nothing compared to May and June. By May, the U-boat strength in American waters peaked at 19. They were kept on station longer by U-459, a U-tanker stationed northwest of Bermuda by late April. In two weeks, it transferred 600 tonnes of fuel (and a few tor-pedoes) to 14 subs, allowing the smaller Type VII U-boats to penetrate deeper into the Caribbean.


An anti-submarine net stretches between York Redoubt and McNabs Island in Halifax Harbour in May 1942
In May, U-boats finally arrived in the Gulf of Mexico in strength, where little had been done to protect shipping. In that month alone, U-boats sank 115 ships in the Atlantic—nearly half of these in the Gulf of Mexico.

The British sent help in May. Two mid-ocean escort groups redeployed to the Caribbean to defend British convoys and sev-eral trawlers went to the American east coast. This modest increment in escort strength may have been all the U.S. navy needed. In mid-May the first American convoys in the Eastern Sea Frontier began operating between Key West, Fla., and Hampton Roads, Va. It was a start, and it encouraged the Germans to move south in search of easier targets.Meanwhile, the RCN responded to the spread-ing attacks by developing its own convoy routes.

When U-553 penetrated the St. Lawrence River and torpedoed the steamers Leto and Nicoya off Cap-Chat, Que., on May 12, convoys between Sydney, N.S., and Quebec City started. And in late May the RCN began Canadian oil tanker convoys between Halifax and Aruba in the Caribbean. These convoys operated through the U.S. navy’s Eastern Sea Frontier without loss until the end of the summer, in stark contrast to the calamity unfolding nearby.

Navy brass and merchant marine officials gather (above) for a British convoy conference at the height of the U-boat threat in August 1942.
Pictorial Pres/Alamy/M60CCX

Monthly sinkings by U-boats peaked—for the war—at 128 in June. Only 14 of these ships had been sailing in a convoy, most of the rest were sunk in the Gulf of Mexico.

It encouraged the Germans to move south in search of easier targets.

Patrols and the dim-out along the U.S. coast did little to deter the Germans from operating close inshore, even in daylight. On June 15, two U.S. freighters were sunk off Virginia Beach, Va., while holidaymakers watched. Expansion of the interlocking coastal convoy system stopped the carnage, but not until July.

The British and Canadians had always understood that escorted convoys were not perfect but were essential to sharply reducing the rate of losses. U-boats operating inshore were invariably individual submarines operating in free-fire zones. The system of ‘safe lanes’ had presented these submariners with a steady stream of unprotected targets.

Convoys swamped the individual submariner with targets and did so in the presence of escort vessels and aircraft. Lone hunters usually had one chance at a coastal convoy and seldom hit more than one ship. The British and Canadians had long known and accepted that metric. 

So did Dönitz. He tracked his success using a formula of “tonnage sunk per U-boat day at sea.” As targets were harder to find or attack, Dönitz pushed his U-boats farther afield, down along the U.S. coast, into the Gulf of Mexico and finally south across the Caribbean.

Survivors of the torpedoed steamer Nicoya exit a boat in May 1942.
Getty Images: C. I an tate

The expansion of convoys along the U.S. coast soon pushed the most profitable operational zones beyond the range of Dönitz’s most numerous U-boats, the small Type VII. As attacks concentrated off the South American coast in the late summer, only Type XI U-boats were effective. By August, Dönitz was withdrawing the Type VIIs for a renewed pack campaign in mid-ocean. The carnage off America was largely over.

For a time one of the war’s most effective weapons, the U-boat provided a cloak of invisibility that offered its crew large measures of both risk and reward.
Universal Images/Pen and sword Books

The Americans handled this defeat by simply deeming it irrelevant. The U.S. Office of War Information told the media in the spring of 1942 to concentrate on America’s shipbuilding program: they would produce more new ships than the Germans could sink. And they did: new production outstripped losses in October 1942 and never fell behind again. But the assault on shipping off the U.S. coast was never just about America. Nearly 60 per cent of the ships lost in the American zone in early 1942 were British Commonwealth and Empire ships, or European vessels operating under British charter.

Lone hunters usually had one chance at a coastal convoy.

In theory, this too ought not to have mattered. A British-American allocation board was supposed to equitably assign new American-built merchant ships—many of them originally ordered to British account under the Lend-Lease policy. But the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff controlled merchant ship allocation and simply refused to give any to the British: they wanted the ships for military purposes.

British merchant ship losses spiked again in the fall, when they abandoned convoys in the South Atlantic to find escorts for Operation Torch, the North African landings. The looming import crisis in 1943 prompted the British to appeal directly to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt to release new construction to Britain. Roosevelt fought his military staff over the allocation of ships to Britain during the winter of 1942-43 without success.

Finally, in the spring of 1943, FDR bought 80 Liberty ships from Canada and transferred them to Britain under Lend-Lease, but they took time to arrive. Meanwhile, British imports reached their lowest point of the war that year.Between January and June 1942, some 360 ships were lost in American waters. It was a stunning defeat for the Americans—and for the Allies. It was also a disaster that was totally avoidable, as the Canadian example amply demonstrates. The American failure to adopt a system of coastal convoys from the outset remains one of the great errors of judgment in modern naval history. Perhaps, in the end, that defeat really did not matter to Americans because the real victim was Great Britain.

A convoy sets sail in 1942. Washington severely underestimated the threat U-boats posed to coastal shipping after the United States joined the war. Largely as a result, some 360 vessels were lost in American waters in the first six months of 1942.
Office of War Information/U.S. Library of Congress/2017877198


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