The brilliant tropic moon shines peacefully over the warm waters by Bimini in the Bahamas, a Crown Colony of Great Britain in the year 1942. This Paradise of a thousand islands is a mere 45 miles to the east of Miami. A few men of the off-duty watch lounge at the rail of the tanker as she plods on through the Atlantic. She is loaded with high octane gasoline from the refineries at Aruba in the Dutch East Indies, destined for England and the fighter planes of the Royal Air Force. The winking lights of Bimini are faintly seen to the cast while the glow of Miami lights the horizon to the west. The war in Europe is so far away.
Other eyes are watching this tranquil scene through the periscope of a prowling German U-Boat! The periscope slides smoothly back down in its well, eager hands press the firing switch twice and two torpedoes slice through the inky water. The tanker erupts in a sheet of name! Her cargo will never send British pilots into the skies against the Luftwaffe.
The periscope again breaks the surface, the skipper smiles as the flaming remains of the tanker slip from sight beneath the burning water. The periscope slides back down again. The Skipper is reminded by the I.W .0.: that they are running dangerously low on fresh water. The Captain nods, then tells the I.W .0.: “Plot a course to our supply base in the Bahamas to take on fresh water and food.”
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was as big a surprise to the German High Command as it was to the American people that Sunday morning in December of 1941. Hitler quickly ordered a force of U-Boats to cross the Atlantic, enter the former Pa11-America11 Neutrality Zone and attack shipping. While pleased with the decision to let him send his U-Boats against America, Admiral Karl Donitz’s joy diminished some when he realized he had but 6 boats available to attack at this time. As it was, one was laid up in the shop, two got late starts, so only three U-Boats departed on schedule to attack the United States of America. Operation PAUKENSCHLAG had begun.
Operation PAUKENSCHLAG was named for the striking of the kettle drums in a Wagnerian march, descriptive of the Third Reich-and the Type IX U-Boats headed for their assigned patrol stations from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to Cape Hatteras. They were U-66 under Zapp, U-123 under Hardegen and U-130 under Kais. Soon they were joined by U-109 under Bleichrodt and U-103 under Winter.
The U-Boats arrived on station in time to begin their attacks on the pre-set date of January 13, 1942 timed to coincide with the darkness of the new moon. It was like shooting fish in a barrel! The entire east coast of the United States was still operating as if it were peacetime. Cities were fully lit up at night, ship’s radio operators used the normal frequencies without code, almost no United States Navy patrols were operating, and those that did were broadcasting their positions over the radio.
Kapitiinleutnant Reinhard Hardegen drew the most choice patrol area of all, and he watched the swimmers on Coney island through his binoculars while running on the surface. He wrote in his diary:
“It is a pity there weren’t a couple of mine laying boats with me on the night I was off New York, to plaster the place with mines! And if only there had been ten or twenty boats with me here tonight! They would all, I am sure, have had successes in plenty. I have sighted something like twenty ships, some blacked out, and a few tramps. They were all sticking very close to the shore.”
Other U-Boats quickly joined the original PAUKENSCHLAG group, and suffered no lack of targets. Nor did they have any interference from the US Navy. Kapitiinleutnant Jochen Mohr, skipper of U-124, entered the following poem in his war diary:
“The new moon night is black as ink, Off Hatteras the tankers sink. While sadly Roosevelt counts the score, Some fifty thousand tons -by Mohr!”
Mohr’s glee was short lived. Less than a year later, he ran afoul of HMS BLACK SWAN and HMS STONECROP to the west of Portugal. The pair of Royal Navy U-Boat hunters did their job-Jochen Mohr and his entire crew are permanently entombed in U-124 on the sea bottom at 41°02’N x I 5°39’W.
1942 was known as the American Shooting Grounds and U-Boat skippers competed fiercely at their French bases for an American patrol. They knew that they could sink the required 1 00,000 tons to earn the Knight’s Cross to the Iron Cross quickly and without danger. Not only did the returning U-Boat skippers boast to their counterparts in France of the Allied ships they sank, but they showed off their sunburned crews as proof that they thumbed their noses at the United States, daring to remain on the surface for hours in broad daylight.
Soon Admiral Donitz was able to send more and more U-Boats across the Atlantic, blanketing the American east coast from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to Miami with as many as 19 U-Boats at any one time. Other U-Boats cruised the American shores around the Gulf of Mexico, sinking freshly-built ships as they came from the shipyards at Galveston, New Orleans, Pascagula and Pensacola. Other U-Boats were plying the Bahamas and Caribbean, sinking ships at will.
Why did the US Navy allow this? Simply because our Navy had nothing to fight back with in 1942! There were practically no destroyers or aircraft on the eastern seaboard, a fact that was kept from the American public. So were reports of the havoc that the U-Boats were causing all through 1942, right in our own backyard. U-Boats mined American harbors at Boston, Jacksonville, Charleston, New York Harbor itself and at Norfolk, right in front of the US Navy base.
U-161 under Captain Ajax Achilles was running wild in the sou them Caribbean, first sinking a number of ships right in the Port of Spain on the island of Trinidad, then entering the harbor at Castries in the British West Indies. Not only did Achilles sink several ships in Castries Harbour, but he left the harbor on the surface, showing his running lights!
Captain Hartenstein was nicknamed Mad Dog by his fellow U-boaters for his fearlessness in battle. In February 1942, Hartenstein took his U-156 to Aruba. His mission was to destroy the gasoline storage tanks with shellfire from the I 0.5 cm deck gun. The anticipated fire and explosions would quickly engulf the entire Lago Refinery complex and destroy hundreds of thousands of gallons of this vitally needed fuel, stranding Montgomery’s troops in the African desert and leaving a struggling America without gasoline.
U-156 moved in on the surface to a point only 3/4 mile off the reef, directly opposite the tank farm on a bright Sunday morning. The gun crew manned the I 0.5, aiming it at the huge sides of the tanks just up the beach-they couldn’t miss. Leutnant Dietrich Alfred von dem Borne, the Gunnery Officer, spotted some people walking along the road in front of the tanks and he held fire, assuming they were going to church. They walked clear, and he gave the order to fire!
The deck gun erupted in a sheet of flame and flying bits of steel, splattering the deck of U-156 with deadly steel and wood splinters, and blood. They had forgotten to remove the water-tight plug from the end of the gun barrel and it exploded. One man was dying on the deck, and von dem Horne’s leg was a bloody mess.
The gun was ruined, one man was dying and another in terrible pain. Hartenstein broke off the attack, but instead of plotting a course back to his base at Lorient on the French coast (the famed 2″J U-Bootflouttille) to get aid for the wounded von dem Borne, he put in at Fort de France on the island of Martinique in the central Caribbean.
Fully a year earlier, a British agent had recommended to his Home Office that this island be blockaded, as it was a prime potential U-Boat refit base. This French island was under the control of the Vichy French, not De Gaulle’s Free French forces. The threat was thought to be so serious by the British that as far back as May I 6, 194 I Winston Churchill had sent the following message to General Ismay, his Chief of Staff and Defense Minister:
“What is the situation at Martinique? Arc the fifty million pounds of gold still there? What French forces are there? What French warships arc in harbour? I have it in mind that the United States might take over Martinique to safeguard it from being used as a base for U-Boats in view of Vichy collaboration.”
That message and its warning came a full year before Hartenstein took U-156 into Martinique with his wounded Gunnery Officer. He had no fear of the Allies, even right here in America’s backyard. One must wonder why.
It turned out to be fortunate for von dem Borne that he blew his foot off-he is alive today. But the war ended a year later for his shipmates on U-156. While lying on the surface off Barbardos in the Caribbean, some of the off-duty watch were sunbathing on deck. A lone US Navy PBY CATALINA dropped out of the clouds and dove straight on the U-Boat. From low level, two of the bombs directly straddled the deck of U-156, breaking the sub into three sections which sank instantly. Only the sunbathers and the bridge lookouts survived the bombing, and they were struggling in the water. The PBY dropped life-rafts and radioed for a sea search, but none of the survivors were found.
Oberleutnant zur See Kuhlmann was a very polite Skipper. His patrol area was off the Mississippi Passes, outside New Orleans and he spent his torpedoes sinking ships not far offshore just as they came from the builder’s yards on sea trials. When one such ship went down, he surfaced in broad daylight in sight of the American shore and cruised among the lifeboats. He yelled out to the American survivors, asking if they were in need of medical help. He apologized for having to sink their ship, but he reminded them that we were at war. Then he passed out cigarettes and fresh water, told them that he hoped they would make it safely ashore.
They made it-he didn’t. On August 1, 1942 his U-166 was sunk with the loss of all hands by a US Coast Guard plane in shallow waters off the mouth of the Mississippi River. The wreck ofU-166 has never been found.
In fact, it was April of 1942 before the US Navy even scored a single U-Boat sinking, even though the U-Boats were operating so close to our shores that Captain Hardegen saw the swimmers on Coney Island through his binoculars from the bridge of his U-123. Some operated on the surface with the shores of New Jersey in the distance. Strollers on Atlantic City’s Boardwalk often saw tankers close to shore suddenly erupt in huge fireballs-victims of U-Boats lying just offshore. The first U-boat casualty came too close to shore.
Oberleutnant zur See Eberhard Greger had his U-85 lying on the surface, charging his batteries in water far too shallow to allow him o dive to escape if caught on the surface. Was this arrogance? Was this stupidity? In either case, he was caught on a dark April night.
The old four-stacker USS ROPER came upon the sub, then still an unidentified silhouette in the darkness, and began pursuit. U -85 could not dive in the shallow water, so Greger attempted to outrun the destroyer on the surface until they could reach the deeper water. But with the top speed of the U-Boat at 17 knots and the destroyers approximately 22 knots, it was going to be a short race. In a frantic effort to shake the ever-closing tin can, Greger ordered a torpedo fired from the single stem tube, but the shot missed. The crew of ROPER now knew they were on the tail of a U-Boat.
The distance closed until ROPER’s spotlight pinpointed U-85 in the water, and the gun crews opened up with the forward deck gun. Several hits were made on the U-Boat and she began to sink. Greger ordered his men to abandon ship, and most of the 44 men made it into the water to await rescue.
After the U-Boat was abandoned and sunk, and the German crew were swimming in the water, ROPER did not pick them up. Instead she criss-crossed the area through the survivors and dropped 11 more depth charges among the swimming survivors! None lived out that night of April 14, 1942 -many still had the mouthpiece of their rebreather clenched tightly in their teeth.
What’s especially interesting about U-85 is that she was not the long range Type IX boat but a Type VII with more limited range. The Type VII boats were not designed to cross oceans and fight, but to carry on their battles within an area much closer to their home ports. They carried a crew of 44 officers and men, fuel for 8,000 miles at best, and not much fresh food. After the initial thrust of the U-Boats in the opening stages of the U-Boat war in the Western Hemisphere, so many of the U-Boats operating along the American east coast, in the Gulf of Mexico, throughout the Caribbean, along the coast of Central and South America … were Type VII boats.
How did these U-Boats expect to make a 5,000 mile crossing of the Atlantic from their French bases to the American east coast or into the Caribbean, then operate for four to six weeks (sometimes longer) in their patrol area then make the return crossing home, when they could carry fuel for a radius of action of only 6,500 mites?
The fresh food was used up by the time the Type VII boats got to the shores of the US, but their food and fresh water was restocked-how? In order to carry even more fuel, the crews of some Type VII boats volu11teered to have diesel fuel stored in the fresh water tanks. Even though there were primitive desalination devices on board, most of the fresh water made in the stills went to the boat’s batteries and only about one gallon per man per day was available for cooking, drinking etc. Yet they got fresh wa-ter-where?
During the War and for years thereafter, the FBI flatly stated that rumors of U-Boats receiving fuel and supplies in the Western Hemisphere were false. Many U-Boat Captains also state there was no supply help on this side of the Atlantic. But that simply was not the case-the U-Boats were getting supplied on this side of the Atlantic.
Much of the refueling in Western waters was done by milk cows or U-tankers. These were the Type XIV boats that had no arma-ment, but were submarine tankers stationed throughout the Atlantic to replenish fuel for the front boats. They could usually supply only fuel, they did not have space for extra food, fresh water or anything else. For that matter, the era of the milk cows was very short. As soon as more long-range land based bombers became available and they were able to extend their range well out to sea, the Type XIV boats were all quickly sunk.
An American pilot returning to Miami from Nassau, capital of the Bahamas, noticed a large three-masted schooner loafing along with only a small jib set. She was in the Gulf Stream, only about 35 miles off Miami. Since he was flying low, the pilot could see that the cargo hatches were open and the holds empty, as the schooner was floating high on her waterline. He circled the schooner once-then he saw the U-Boat surface less than a mile from the schooner. Upon landing in Miami, the pilot phoned W. W. Diamond of US Navy Intelligence and told what he saw. The men were arrested upon reaching port in Miami.
Some tankers of Standard Oil (now known as Exxon) were running from the Lago Refinery in Aruba, Dutch West Indies, to the Canary Islands where they supplied German tender ships. A few of these tankers were under command of German officers and one, the GDYNIA ESSO was captured by a British warship.
As for the food and water that could not be supplied by any of the TypeXIV U-tankers, that problem was solved as well. Some U-Boats were in the habit of stopping small coastal fishing boats in the Bahamas and along the Cuban coast and taking whatever food and water they could find on board. In these early stages of the war, best-selling author Ernest Hemingway, outfitted his private yacht, PILAR, with weapons garnered from the US Navy. Included in his armory were a couple of bazookas, several cases of hand grenades, a .50 cal machine gun and other assorted small arms. His crew was made up of a millionaire athlete, an out of work Spanish cook, a somewhat famous Jai-Ali player, and a US Marine gunny sergeant.
Hemingway’s plan, called Operation FRIENDLESS in honor of one of his favorite cats, was to laze about on deck with one of his buddies, pretending to fish and offering a potential prize to any U-Boat in the area. When the U-Boat would surface and open the hatches to send the prize crew to board PILAR, Hemingway planned to crank up the throttles and head straight for the U-Boat. The .50 cal. would rake the German crew from the deck of the U-Boat and the remaining Americans would rush, in true John Wayne fashion, from hiding below decks and lob grenades down the still-open hatches.
It looked great on paper, but although Hemingway’s Hooligan Navy patrolled the waters of the Bahamas and along the Old Bahamas Channel off the coast of Cuba for nearly six months, they never got a chance to try their hand at U-Boat killing. They constantly heard radio messages back and forth between U-Boats on their radio and even saw one in the far distance and gave chase. But by the time they arrived where they had seen the U-Boat, it was long gone. Hemingway soon disbanded his little Navy and went with the ground forces in Europe.
But the U-Boats that stopped the fishing boats were the rare exception rather than the rule. Were there supply bases set up in the Western Hemisphere specifically for the U-Boats to receive food and fresh water? It was reported by Ernest’s brother, Leister Hemingway, that the Com Islands off the coast of Nicaragua were being used as a U·Boat supply base. And a number of U-Boats lie sunk within a few hundred miles of the Com Islands. Leister Hemingway committed suicide some years after the war -at the time he was doing this research.
The Duke of Windsor (the abdicated King Edward VIII of England) was then in Nassau as Governor General of the Bahamas in a sort of exile. He cabled to London in February of 1942:
“Enemy submarines attacked shipping in Florida Straits about 130 miles NW of Grand Bahama. I Am informed that the United States Naval Air Base at Exuma will not be opened until May and am laking up with Commander-In-Chief, American and West Indies, possibility that enemy submarines are sheltered among unoccupied cays and that air patrol is necessary.
Owned by Englishman Guy Baxter and named for his native Derby, England, Darby Island was unique in that it contained 26 fresh water wells and supported a small plantation. Not only did he live in regal splendor in a huge mansion atop the highest hill on Darby, he set to work building the rest of his base. Quick to follow his castle were a barracks, a radio shack and a steel reinforced concrete dock for his two trading vessels named MASTER D and LEANDER.
By and large, none of the workers on Darby Island knew where the fresh water and vegetables were going. Nor did they know where the freshly slaughtered pigs and goats went, even though one worker told me that after days of killing,
“We’d come into the cold room of a morning, and there wouldn’t be a piece of meat on the entire island big enough to stick in your eye!”
The fresh water, the meat and the vegetables had all been taken by either MASTER D or LEANDER to a U-Boat waiting in the deeper waters of Exum a Sound during the night, so we are told by the old Bahamian caretaker of the island. He reported that the operation on Darby Island continued only a short time until the German supply people were shot, the dock dynamited and the U-Boats were having trouble staying alive in Western waters by May of 1943.
Approximately 80 German U-Boats lie sunk in waters of the Western Hemisphere and of those, two dozen are down in Ameri-an waters. While it was an extremely long trip for the Type VII boat to make it to the American coast with their limited range, it is even more difficult to believe they could travel to South America and return but they did … with the help of some friendly service stations right in our own backyard.
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